The other day an old man made a comment to me that my oriental children were well mannered. I said thank you and tried not to let the oriental comment bother me. After all, he is from a different generation where oriental was the correct term to use for Asians. But it got me to thinking about the word and why it bothered me and I started doing some research and stumbled upon a forum with over 10 pages of back and forth on why it was insulting or why it was ridiculous. And the one comment that really upset me was when someone said “Oriental offensive? Since when did we let foreigners dictate how to use our language?”
It is a telling comment. Its roots based in the notion that Asians are foreigners. The term “oriental” comes from the “orient” which refers to the east. A term that was based on the Eurocentric belief that the Orient was a barbaric and exotic place east of Europe. It is why the word itself is considered derogatory, for it casts “orientals” as different, as foreigners. And when you think of yourself as American, being reminded that you are “foreign” hurts.
When I first started having conversations about race with my children, they would ask me if they should tell people they are Korean. I said no, you say you are American. “But I can’t say that,” my then 6 year old said. “They say I don’t look American.” I think as a parent, there are moments that just break your heart because you want to protect your children from the harsh realities of life and you find that you just can’t.
The reality is that my kids, me, my sister, my husband - we are as far from being Korean as we are from being Egyptian or Russian. We might look like a Korean and pass for one on the streets of Seoul, but as soon as we open our mouths, our Americanism pours right out. Not just in what we say or how we say it. But in how we think, walk, laugh, carry ourselves, etc. For someone to say “You’re not American because you don’t look like one.” Well then, you might as well strip us of our complete identity. It’s like every time someone shouts out “Go back to your own country!” Something inside of us dies just a little bit.
This past spring, youngest came home from kindergarten deeply upset. When I asked her what was wrong, she explained that she was sitting at lunch with 2 of her friends H and M, who are both blond and blue-eyed. Two boys were sitting across from them and were commenting on how pretty H and M are, listing how pretty their eyes were and their long hair, etc. They then turned to youngest and began to comment on how ugly she was in comparison. Youngest was devastated. I was proud of her for standing up to them. Telling them to stop or she would move to another table. When they didn’t stop, she made good on her threat and moved away. I was proud of her for taking a stand, but my heart broke for her. She asked me if she really was ugly because she didn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes. “No,” I said, “you are beautiful inside and out but some people just are blind and can’t see a diamond shining so bright in front of them. But that’s ok. It’s their loss so don’t even waste your time thinking about them.”
Even in kindergarten, children learn to recognize differences and to comment on them. While I did call the school and had the teacher have the boys apologize to youngest, can we really blame children for deep rooted societal prejudices? They told youngest she was ugly because she was different. Her eyes were different, her cheeks were different, even the one asymmetric dimple she has was different. I told her different is good. I hope she remembers that and never lets this become insecurity.
Many people complain that we’ve become so PC that we can’t say anything for fear of someone getting offended. To some extent, I agree with that and I don’t ask for people to be so careful with their words. But ultimately it isn’t the words that hurt but the intent behind them and sometimes the words themselves become synonymous with the intent. Calling someone oriental or making chinky eyes might not have been made with a racist intent, but the word and the action have become synonymous with an intent to be racist. So why use them? Yes we are different and I truly believe different is good. But when these differences are used as a way to stereotype people negatively, it becomes racism.
So please, don’t call me oriental. I am no devious, slant-eyed, exotic foreigner that speaks cryptically of ancient Chinese secrets. That stereotype needs to die. Help me kill it once and for all.