Friday, December 15, 2006

Asian vs. Oriental

So, I work in this clinic in the middle of some small isolated mountain town, which is totally different from the O.C. where I grew up. Everyone is pretty much white, and definitely has a different attitude towards life. I am getting Vicodin requests left and right, but am trying to do my best to fight it off!!! I am used to the high paced ambitious lifestyle that L.A. breeds, and working in this mellow largely retirement environment has definitely been eye opening.


Anyways, I saw this patient today in his 60's who seemed somewhat intelligent, who made the comment about "You Orientals are such nice people". Coming from UCLA, I initially had a gut reaction of wanting to come down on him and tell him that its Asian, not Oriental. However, I immediately calmed down and held back from saying anything. Was that wrong? I knew he did not mean to be insulting, but he was just plain ignorant. He was actually trying to make a complement.


It later then made me think about my future child and I started to wonder how I should teach him to react if anyone makes a racist remark to or around him. Should I teach him some Hapkido that I have trained in and tell him to kick the guys butt(I have a few grappling moves under my sleeve), or should I teach him to be peaceful and just turn the other cheek? Does the context in which it happens make a difference? This elderly guy was not trying to be mean or insulting. How sensitive should we be about words, or should we try to hear the words in the context of who said them? Tough questions and I guess only time will tell, but I dread the first day when my future son comes home angry or crying because some kids made fun of him for being Asian at school. I can only hope we raise him in an area where there is much racial diversity and that won't happen, but does that place really exist? That's why we are heading back to Orange County where he can join a Korean gang!!! Haha, just kidding. That would be terrible, unless it was the Happy Honors Club gang. I rolled with that crew in high school. We terrorized the academic decathalon, baby!!!

25 comments:

Henri said...

Holy Shit. Haven't you been here long enough to know better than to bring up Oriental? Do you have any idea what you have just started? All I'm gonna say on this subject is...

first! hahah comment #1 out of #245

Henri said...

Ok ok I guess I'll stir the pot. Is ignorance any excuse for using the term oriental? Does the user's intention play any role in one's response? Is Hapa a racist term? Oh sorry I threw in that last one because if you call someone's kid Hapa in my neighborhood, you get slapped.

Daddy Forever said...

I left a comment this morning, but I don't see it. So, here's my second attempt:

I've been wondering the same thing. What and when should I teach my kids about racist remarks. I don't want my kids to kowtow to people, but I also don't want them to make an issue out of everything. I guess I want them to pick their battles. Personally, I don't get upset when people say Oriental instead of Asian. Some people don't know the difference; they are not saying it as a racial slur. Kinda of like how people incorrectly use the word 'google' as a verb (to the objection of Google).

changguang said...

The guy was trying to be nice. I'd just leave it at that or say, "Yeah, we Koreans have our good points." To hell with this Oriental or Asian garbage.

Where did the term Asian come from? Why is it less offensive than Oriental? I'm supposed to be happy with a term that refers to a land mass that holds the majority of the world's people, several dozen ancient civilizations, thousands of languages and a huge variety of racial types? It has many of the same problems as Oriental. It is overly broad and lazy. I thought all this was supposed to be about defining ourselves. Isn't calling ourselves Asian instead of Korean, Chinese, Indian, Hmong, etc. letting someone else define us? There's supposed to be some kind of unity amongst us because we're originally from the bigger part of the Eurasian land mass? That's just silly. The only unity in our experiences is white people lumping us together. It's kind of like how the Turks keep saying they're European. Technically some of them are, but why can't they just leave it at Turkish?

Kristen said...

I guess I'm surprised that the only discussion is over the Asian/Oriental issue. What about his comment, while well-intentioned, being about lumping you into a group based on race in the first place? Does it really matter what label he put on it? Isn't the fact that he said it that way at all what makes it offensive? Couldn't/shouldn't he have said "You're so nice" -- why did he have to mention it in terms of race?

Anonymous said...

it does matter. read the kimchimamas on Rosie's ching chong crap. read Robert Lee's book, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture
Synopsis:
Sooner or later every Asian American must deal with the question, "Where do you come from?" It is probably the most familiar if least aggressive form of racism. It is a tip off to the persistent notion that people of Asian ancestry are not real Americans, that "Orientals" never really stop being loyal to a foreign homeland, no matter how long they or their family have been in this country. Confronting the cultural stereotypes that have been attached to Asian Americans over the last 150 years, Robert G. Lee seizes the label "Oriental" and asks where it came from.

eliaday said...

I think that not standing up and saying something is the first step in paving the road for the kind of behavior exhibited by Rosie O'Donnell. You know, "I didn't know it was offensive."

If Asian Americans never step up and say anything, of course people are going to feel this way.

Asian American IS a political identity. It's not like there's really any culture or experiences that we all share - EXCEPT that we all have to deal with racism and ignorance and ching-chongery here in the US. That in and of itself should be reason enough to create an identity, a way for us to band together and support each other through the racism that we continue to battle.

honglien123 said...

I agree with Eliaday, you should speak up because some people, especially older people do not understand that "oriental" can be offensive in the US. Although, I also agree with Changguang that Asian isn't much better.

When my son was a newborn, a white woman asked us what we were ethnically. While she asked the question well enough, when we said he's half Vietnamese, quarter Korean, quarter Japanese; she said, "Oh, Asian!"

People like that are just ignorant, but you should still say something. In terms of beating someone's ass...

My son at 18 months was accosted by a white man who called him a chink and told him to go back to China (all for babbling at a dog). What did we do? I yelled in unaccented English, "Hey asshole, they were born here!" And our little family continued on our way. While my husband was ready to go beat the guy down with the heavy glass bottle he had with him, we just walked away...and it's bugged me ever since if that was the right thing to do. However, better to walk way and fight a different way, then to be arrested for assault or do something you'd regret in front of your children.

Mrs. J said...

I'm African American and think that if an outdated term like "colored" was used in reference to my ethnicity, it would definitely give me pause. But if the person used it while saying something complimentary (such as in this case) and was "too old to know any better", I'd probably just leave it alone.

My own grandmother (great grandmother) continued to say "colored" until she died at 91 years old in 1991, when we were – by that time – African American.

And my husband's grandmother (who's white) called our sixteen-month-old son "a little Indian" because he was acting rambunctious one day. I know she meant it jokingly, she totally adores our kids. But did hubby and I exchange glances? Sure. Did he tell her off? Of course not (Some things just aren't worth it. Making your nana cry would fall under that category.)

I can't speak for another ethnic group, but personally I think it's a matter of choosing battles. Considering who said what, the context and the intent.

Susan said...

My 2nd generation Japanese-American parents call themselves Orientals. They thought it was amusing when one of their Nisei friends started insisting on "Asian" and saying, "Orientals are rugs, not people." They think it's all sort of silly.

I think the idea is that "Asian" means being from the continent of Asia, while "Oriental" means Eastern, but that the main reference point is the West.

joy said...

I am Japanese-American married to a southerner (Caucasian). My FIL, who is one of the nicest and fairest people in this world, often uses the word Oriental. There was a few times I thought to myself: Why is this college-educated person using this term because it sounds so ignorant? But I realized it has more to do with generational differences than ignorance. He grew up during a time when the word was the norm. Of course I think the worst was reading my dad's ethnicity on his military discharge papers (late 1940s) as "Mogoloid." I have never corrected my FIL and don't intend to. He does not do it to annoy me and for me to spend the time to correct someone for a word which is less offensive than many other ones is not worth the time. However, I will make sure my son knows the difference and will be proud to be an Asian-American.

thisislarry said...

Joy,

Thank you for putting your finger on it: its generational.

Just like someday, ricedaddies, your kids are going to roll you eyes at you for saying "what's up homies" and "cool" and "yo I'm down wit dat" and whatever, language changes and what's fashionable-to-say changes.

When your college-age progeny comes up and tells you (or more likely doesnt) that it isnt Asian American anymore, its Americans of Pacific Heritage or Descent, or some other essentially arbitrary linguistic politcal slang, are you going to be able to switch your language at will?

Like changguang said & mrs j echoes: Asian, APA, oriental, what does it matter? As long as its said in a respectful way, I can grok what's meant and leave it at that.

eliaday said...

I think there's a line though - I mean, what if Michael Richards had used the n-word in a respectful way. Would it have been ok then?

The problem with older generations is that they're the ones who teach younger generations. And if no one ever speaks up, the younger generations will never get it. I was in a MA level class in education, and a woman who was probably in her 30s made a comment about Orientals. I was shocked that someone with that much education still thought that it was ok to refer to Asian Americans as Orientals. But, when the professor confronted her on it, she responded that she had no idea... and this was a woman who was working on getting her teaching certificate.

The point is that if we never talk about it, people will never learn.

Superha said...

I would have probably said to your patient "Thank you. I've met many nice Asian Americans, too". It's not too confrontational, but it does gently amend his use of the term. I used to do that to my 90-year-old friend who used "orientals" because of the generational thing. Over time, she used "Asians" more.

Anonymous said...

What's in a name or rather how can you name what can not be defined? I am of the thought that people generaly are of the same race, i.e. human. We have great ethnic diversity but lousy terminolgy.
My multiethnic multicultural children are as of yet undefined. I left those spaces blank on the birth certificate application thinking that perhaps some cog in the system would breech that gap, but no. Lame of me I know. So where do the American Americans fit?

la dra said...

And on the topic of when to teach our children to be offended: I would rather give them pride in their mixed cultural heritage and a sense of identity so that they can recognize ignorance.

Maybe this incident doesn't seem like a big deal because we all know where we come from. The term Oriental doesn't make any of us feel foreign or less entitled to call ourselves American. So maybe our kids won't either.

Also, I think taking a chance and educating someone who is being ignorant is ok too. They won't know any better until someone tries to reach out and bring them into the 21st century. The last generation shouldn't just get written off and thought to be living in the past.

Anonymous said...

hope your son can let comments like that roll of his back and take it for what it is; a complement. you can't enforce political correctness or expect people who don't know better to be as worldly as you think they ought.

the best thing I've found is to smile and say something funny like, "you old people aren't bad either".

life is too short to go around waiting to be offended... b/c it will happen every day.

Jeremy C. said...

It depends on who it is. If it's an older white person in their 60's, I usually let it slide. Because that's what they grew up calling Asians. However, if it's somebody younger, I always say "you know calling an Asian an Oriental is equivalent of calling a Black person a Negro, right? And you do know what "equivalent" means, don't you?"

Anonymous said...

At what point do you ask whether a person (however old) should know better. I think it is a poor excuse for someone - in this day and age - to not know better. (Setting aside the argument that Asian is the appropriate term in the first place.) I really think it is up to you to politely correct them. There should not be a free pass for someone just because they are old or trying to pay you a complement.

Jason Lee said...

You should teach them to inform the people who make the statement that it is improper to call someone Oriental. No one in this day and age would go up to someone and call them a Negro. It because the Asian people don't voice them self about this matter that people think it's ok. So teach them to educate people instead of confronting them.

onyxlabdog said...

I don't think people should get offended by the term oriental when I think of oriental I think of a specific area like China, Japan Korea, Thailand, ect.. I find oriental women very atractive. But not all asian (India, Pakistan, ect..) women have the same look. I think if people are going to get upset over defining an area then we should call all people from the european continent european, or all people from the american continents american, not
French or Canadian or Mexican. Lets just quit being so sensitive about semantics and let people live in peace.

Anonymous said...

Many of those East Asians who find the term "Oriental" are actually ignorant themselves when they use the term "Asian" synonymously with "East Asian", as if "South Asians" are not part of the "Asian" category. When East Indians want to talk about Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and those with an epicanthic eye fold, they are not going to use the word "Asian" if it doesn't include them. Also, using "East Asian" might not be accurate enough because there are those with epicanthic eye folds in northeastern India, Bhutan, and some Nepali which is part of South Asia and East Asia. So if the academicians can't come up with an alternate to the word "Oriental" they should keep their mouth shut, because Asian includes both Indians and "Orientals" and it is very offensive when Orientals and non-Orientals use the word Asian when they are referring only to East Asians.

Anonymous said...

What an ass! Not the old man, but you. You said he meant it as a compliment. It's done, need to write about or call it racist, it wasn't. You could have kindly thanked him but let him know that the preferred term is asian. You know he wasn't being racist, you have the problem.
Plus in your opening statement you kind of made fun of the locals there, who as you said are white... racist much? Probably not, just like the old man.

Anonymous said...

I'm 51. When I was in school the term Oriental was used in our curriculum. I still use it out of habit, when I don't catch myself. I try to be aware but when we said "Oriental" back in the day it wasn't meant in a way any more condescending than if we said European or South American. (Are those also slurs now?)

I try to catch myself but honestly I don't understand why it is offensive. That doesn't really matter: if people find it offensive that's what's important.

But I am curious. A few commenters here have pointed out that Asian isn't any better, but others seem to think Asian is ok and Oriental isn't. I honestly don't understand the difference in terms of offense. Doesn't each term mark you as coming from a geographical area of the world rather than a specific country?

Anonymous said...

Really? You're insulted by the term Oriental but your blog is called Rice Daddies?

--Niro