Sunday, April 05, 2009

Oriental is a Rug: Five Quick Thoughts on Race


Recently, the Peanut and I were at Whole Foods when an elderly woman approached her and said, "Oh my, aren't you an adorable little Oriental girl?"

Because the lady was so damn old and probably doesn't think she's offending anyone when calls African-Americans "colored people," I shrugged her off and walked away.

Naturally, the Peanut turned to me and said, "Daddy, what's Oriental?"

I have to admit that I kind of stutter-stepped. One thing I love about little kids is that they don't think in terms of race. They don't judge people based on the color of their skin. They judge them on their ability to relate to poop jokes, Dora the Explorer, and farts. As Dennis Leary once said, "Racism isn't born, folks, it's taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he fucking hates? Naps! End of list."

Now, for better or worse, I tend to answer the Peanut's endless questions openly and honesty. So I told her, "Oriental is a word used to describe objects from eastern Asia. Like rugs or teapots. Some people of earlier generations mistakenly use the term to describe all Asian people. However, that's generally considered politically incorrect. Does that answer your question, kiddo?"

"Yes, daddy. Can I have a cupcake?"

Proving once again that, in a perfect world, the only color that should ever matter is the icing on your cake.


Last year, we hired some workers to clean out my FIL's store in Dallas. Since we were getting rid of everything, we told the movers that they could take whatever they could salvage and sell it themselves. One woman turned to a mover and said, "Why don't you take it to your Indian friends and see if they'll buy it off you?"

To our shock, the mover replied, "Shit. Injuns ain't nothing but Jews. Those bastards will make $2.00 out of a nickel and rip me off. Hell, I can't even decide who I hate worse. Injuns or Jews."

Ten years ago, I probably would have gotten into the guy's face and baited him into a fight. Racial slights are my Achille's heel. Few other things make my blood boil.

However, I'm a father now. My daughter needs me in her life. Part of that social contract involves me making smarter decisions and recognizing that my life has greater importance than it did when I was a young man.

So I took a deep breath and looked at the mover a little more closely. He was missing two teeth, was carrying a knife in his belt, and literally had a "redneck" tattoo on his bicep. The tattoo looked like it was done at home after drinking a bottle of moonshine. He was a scary-looking dude. Even scarier was his 300 lb. son who looked like the illegitimate love child of Sasquatch and Australopithecus.

So what did I do?

I bit my tongue, said nothing, and cursed myself in silence. I think it's important for people to step up and say something when faced with racism, ignorance, and intolerance. That's a philosophy that I want to pass on to my daughter and my silence made me feel like a hypocrite. I hated myself for not beating the crap out of this ignorant redneck but, as it should be, my family's safety trumps everything.

So instead of confronting him, I shorted him on the cash, spit in his soda, and then slashed one of the tires on his pickup truck.

I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me feel better.


Last week, I was in a restaurant when I noticed a young woman staring at me. As I walked by her, she flirtatiously reached out for my arm and said, "I just wanted to say that, for an Asian guy, you're very good looking."

How the fuck did we reach a point in our culture where that's supposed to come off like some sort of damn compliment?

You know what that comment represents to me? That the stereotype of the emasculated Asian male is continuing unabated and the concept of Asian male masculinity is not being portrayed in America's media, pop culture, or society.

Look at the depiction of Asian males in movies today. For the most part, we're portrayed as nerds, computer geeks, or socially inept geeks. The sole exception seems to be the martial arts experts starring in blockbuster action movies. However, has anyone noticed that, even then, the Asian guy never gets the girl? They can kick ass but they can't get a kiss?

I've mentioned it a million times before but take a look around. There are plenty of masculine Asian role models around us: baseball players Ichiro Suzuki and Kaz Matsui, actors Daniel Dae Kim, Will Yung Lee, John Cho, and Sung Kang, and Survivor winner Yul Kwon.

Aside from being great-looking guys, these men are all interesting people doing interesting work. They're smart, outspoken, and charismatic. Whenever I see them, I'm proud that they're changing the perception of Asian men in America.

So why don't we see more of them?


I recently met two Asian-American women who told me that they don't date Asian guys.

One woman's rationale was that kissing an Asian-American man felt like kissing her brother. The other Asian-American woman said she simply wasn't attracted to Asian-American men.

Over the course of my lifetime, I've pretty much dated women of every color and ethnicity known to mankind. To me, an attractive woman is simply an attractive woman. Race was usually the last thing I looked for in a woman.

On the other hand, there's a certain comfort in having a shared cultural or ethnic background. When I dated Korean-American women, we could always joke about the pervasive smell of kimchi in the house, the extra homework from our fathers, the ubiquitous consumption of SPAM, and our mothers' steadfast belief that you could die from sleeping with the electric fan turned on all night.

Anyway, I don't disparage the two women who refuse to date members of their own race. However, I do find it interesting that their statements seem to be unique to Asian-American culture. I never hear black women say they won't date black guys because it would be like kissing their own brother. And I've never heard a Latina woman say that she simply wasn't attracted to Latino men.

Why is that?


Currently, I'm in discussions with several production companies to turn MetroDad into a network television sitcom. All three companies are major players in the entertainment industry and their interest has resulted in my getting agency representation and a potential book deal. Right now, it all looks very encouraging so I'm crossing my fingers and keeping my expectations in check.

Here's the dilemma...

How strong am I willing to push in order to keep the main character Asian-American? Am I willing to jeopardize any potential deal? Would I walk away from the opportunity on principle? How strongly do I even feel about all of this?

The reality is that no network is likely to pick up the sitcom if the lead character is Asian-American. That's a factor beyond my control. Let's face it. America probably isn't ready for a comedy centered around an Asian-American father raising his daughter in New York City.

On the other hand, someone's got to be the first to try, right? How do we know America won't accept an Asian-American lead character in a sitcom if nobody even tries? I'd like to think that if the material is funny enough, people won't even notice that the character is Asian-American. Is that realistic? I hope so, my friends. I hope so.

We'll see what happens as discussions proceed further. I'll keep you all posted.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on all of the above. Fire away!

(Cross posted at MetroDad)


Karen L said...

Re "Oriental is a rug."

I am kinda sympathetic to people who use oriental for people, assuming that they are simply uninformed. It often takes time for appropriate language to migrate to the general population and to various regions. FYI, I'm Canadian.

I think I'm sympathetic because I remember my friend coming home from a trip to Europe in the mid-90s, when some (white) Americans finally explained the offensiveness of his calling his girlfriend oriental. It was news to him. It was news to HER. It was news to the whole group of us, half of whom are Chinese, including my now-husband. I just recently told my husband's family (Chinese) that they sound terribly old-fashioned when they call themselves oriental.

Similarly, in just this past year, I learned (from reading the blog, the anti-racist parent) that biracial or multiracial are now preferred over mixed. This was news to all of my friends, some of whom continue to call themselves mixed.

I wonder if someday my son will ask me what "mixed" means.

Also, I don't think a mere substitution of Asian for oriental cuts it in this example. I would have also been bothered by the compliment if it had been "Aren't you a cute little Asian girl?" It's pretty much the same as "You're pretty good-looking, considering you're an Asian guy."

Yet another aside. "Asian" will cause some confusion in a conversation between an American and a Brit. In British usage, "Asian" means what Americans would call "South Asian", that is, people from such areas as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka.

Carol Doane #pearlofcarol said...

DEMAND the actor remain Asian. Change the world for cripes sake. I don't even watch TV, but dang-it, I'll buy that friggin' converter and watch YOUR show, heck I'll even buy your book. Why, why, why won't America's entertainment industry see Asians as real people? It's because Asians don't demand it. You couldn't even buy an Asian doll for your daughter until Caucasian's adopted Asian children and demanded it, and thirteen years ago you had to buy them out of a catalog, ask me I know. Okay, demand it up until losing the deal, you have to provide for your family. That I get. I feel better now, thanks for the space to vent.

SoulSnax said...

Think of the Peanut, bro. You would just be a part of the problem if you were to sell out and let them make it non-Asian. Then, when the Peanut grows up and tells you that she's just not into Asian guys, you'll know why.

If selling out is truly necessary, then PLEASE do the Hollywood equivalent of spitting in their drink and slashing their tires: encourage media piracy and vilify the producers by name on MetroDad and on RiceDaddies. If you need me to do your dirty work, you know where to find me.

Then again, we've got Obama in the White House, George Lopez on TV, and THE MOST bankable actor in Hollywood is Will Smith... So, you never know.

carosgram said...

So much content in your post that it is hard to know to which I want to respond. I think it is ok to not tell people what racist they are being if they won't understand what you are saying. I only offer constructive criticism to people I respect. They can make use of it. But having a fight just to have a fight is not worth my time. Being respectful to old people is a good skill to teach the Peanut so it is ok not to have corrected the old woman. But I would want to insist on the star of the tv show be Asian. After all many of the episodes you describe on Metrodad are unique and revolve around the fact that you are Asian. And it is important for white America to see Asians regularly on tv, acting like all families do. Good luck with getting it produced.

O.W. said...


First of all, congrats - that's really remarkable and a testament to the quality of your site and writing.

Your question is a challenging one and as you probably well know, a constant dilemma that has faced Asian Americas in TV and movies since time immemorial. As someone who has a working Asian American actress in the family and knows many more who are "in the business," I'm absolutely sympathetic to the realities of trying to balance making a living vs. standing by your ideals and it's a shame that those two things are often seen as mutually exclusive.

This all said...I think you should push...nay...INSIST on an Asian American lead. For one thing, as others have noted, I don't really see how a MetroDad show would work if not reflective of the writer behind it, including his ethnicity since race is a big (though hardly sole) part of the blog's stories.

I would also add: if you were Latino or African American, it would be far more certain that any potential production team would also be thinking of casting a Black lead. It's interesting how Asian Americans are "replaceable" by non-Asians, no?

But on the reality tip, also consider that there are a gazillion shows that are pitched, a smaller gazillion of shows from which pilots are approved and filmed, and all that get whittled down to, what? A dozen shows or so in any given fall season? And look at what the networks have typically churned out over the last 10 years?

Which is to say - your show might have merit on principle but realistically speaking, the odds of it ever getting produced are miniscule. And so, if that's the case, why not make astronomical odds just a bit more astronomical by insisting on an "unconventional" casting?

After all, if it's folks like us who don't push for this, when is change ever going to happen? And how proud would you feel about your "creation" if it didn't, in fact, reflect YOU and your experiences, specifically as an Asian American dad, rather than just a "dad"?

(Just for kicks and giggles though, you could always suggest that they cast a White guy to play you but have the wife/mother cast as Asian. I guarantee the producers would be far more amendable to that but you might have to hide yourself from all the angry Asian men...and I'm not talking about Phil Yu!)

thisislarry said...

you rock, for an oriental dude ;)

I give old people carte blanche. they;re not hip to the latest trends anyways, so I'd not expect them to be up on the proper modern terms for anything, including racial identities.

You also did good not getting yourself creamed by Mr. redneck-tattoo. Discretion is the better part of valor.

As for your impending TV stardom, just remember us little people fondly, OK?

daddy in a strange land said...

Hey dude, if ABC can even consider "Funny in Farsi" this pilot season, then you can push for your autobiographical sitcom not to get whitewashed. Good luck, man.

sarah said...

If you want to have less "dumb white chicks" emasculating dudes of color, and less little old ladies using words like *oriental,* then insist that metrodad be played by an asian guy. You are right- there are not enough asian men on tv. Why not use your power for good?

I'd like my sons to see asian men on tv portraying (cool? funny? smart? sexy? normal?) asian men.

(written by a white chick married to a filipino guy)

Elaine at Lipstickdaily said...

Definitely keep the Asian lead. Definitely.

Vincent said...

ORIENTAL - Unless it's being said maliciously I don't hold it against anyone. How many Asian businesses still use "oriental" in their names? Also, we won't learn how to live together if we're too scared to talk to each other (for fear of saying something inadvertently offensive).

REDNECKS - I think there are Archie Bunker types in every ethnicity. Plenty of bigoted Asians also just like there are plenty of bigoted Blacks, Hispanics,etc. Rednecks aren't a minority they're the majority.

WHITE CHICKS - I don't think it's just a White Chick thing. I've had Filipinas tell me I don't talk like "a Chinese" or that I don't look "Chinese." Even the use of White Chicks is sort of overgeneralizing. I mean "White" do you mean Russian, Irish, Italian, German, Scottish, etc.

BROTHERS - Plenty of Asian women make it a point not to date Asian men.Plenty of Asian women do. I'm not about to tell someone who they should be with or make them feel bad about it. I'm not into the "clean gene" thing. If I'm not appealing to an Asian woman, I might be appealing to a Russian woman or an Irish woman, etc. And vice versa, I am going to be into someone just because she is Asian.

MONEY - How badly do you need it? Maybe it is how you handle the rights? Not clear on what the project is but Good Luck! I would like to think people will watch as long as the show is entertaining to them. Look at what Yao Ming did to ticket sales for the Rockets. No one's going to watch is a TV Exec Marketing argument that should have died out in the 70s (Pre-Bruce Lee). The inclusion of Asian faces in TV commercials is a sign that Asians are a serious consumer market.

Good Luck with everything! Thank you for posting. I haven't thought about these topics in a while.

Vincent said...

CORRECTION regarding my comment. I meant to say that And vice versa, I am not going to be into someone just because she is Asian.

Mocha Dad said...

Wow! Interesting post. I'm intrigued by discussions of race from different people's perspectives.

Anonymous said...

What if an Asian person refers to themselves as Oriental, as many that live there do? Does that mean they are subconsciously racist against themselves?
Asia encompasses many countries last time I check a map. I don't want to be called North American.
You gotta chill out dude...4 - 20 tomorrow.

Formerly Gracie said...

You forgot one... being mistaken for the NANNY. I just wrote a post all about it on my blog.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I could exchange every "Chinese" with "Indian" and "dad" with "mom" in your blog and the result would be MY life. It's slightly frightening, but nevertheless, I LOVE YOUR BLOG! You're a great writer and make excellent, intelligent points. I hope you get your show; I'd watch it with much more happiness than watching all those Indian tv doctors/office whores that apparently exemplify MY race.

Anonymous said...

actually i've met plenty of black women and latina women who won't date within the race for similar reasons. either way, its all mind games. who we're attracted to is mostly mentally based and not physically. i find that girls who make those kind of statements have either 1) had a negative experience and 2) in true racist fashion, decide that those few negative experiences extend to everyone of that race.