So I had two incidents in mind that I wanted to share here and had written up a blurb for, but was having a difficult tying them together. And then something happened at work that’s been bothering me a good deal, although it’s taken me some time — and a good deal of discussion with various fellow-Asian-American friends — to put form to why I’ve been feeling so bothered since last week.

The incident took place at the end of the day last Friday. Three white coworkers were chatting about 10 feet away from me, discussing the red lights shining at the Empire State Building (which we have a prime view of from my office). Incidentally, I was trying to join in on the conversation by asking for more details about the lights,  but they didn’t hear me, and then THIS gem happened instead:

Lady 1: It’s Chinese New Year-themed. They’re having some firework lighting at 6 to 7, I hear.
Man: You know, I don’t understand why Oriental is suddenly an offensive term.
(There is an awkward pause as ALL THREE GLANCE SIDEWAYS AT ME. I pretend not to listen, but am in fact listening quite intently.)
Lady 2: Yeah, I know…
Lady 1: It’s just one of those things.
Lady 2: I personally don’t think it’s such a bad term, but you have to be sensitive.
Man: No. This is one of those cases where people are just overreacting. You can’t be sensitive about everything.
Lady 2: (trying to be conciliatory) Well, I don’t mind not using the word.
Guy: I do. I like that word. It sounds very (emphatically gesturing) mysterious, and fantastical.
Lady 1: The Orient Express.

My first reaction was incredulity, which then made way to indignation and a great deal of frustration I wasn’t quite sure how to place. I decided to take this to Facebook, to see how my friends would react. More or less as I had expected, the reactions ranged from blind support, to personal anecdotes of similar situations, to questions of “why are you so upset?” and “you can’t get angry over every racist comment you hear, else you’re in for a rough time.” As I responded to each comment on my post, I slowly formulated my response to the matter.

In the process, I read a message from one of my friends, who is living in U.K., and who said, “You should come over here to the UK. It’s not even considered offensive by Asians and I get asked on a regular basis where I’m *really* or “originally” from….”

This brings me to one of the incidents I had originally wanted to post about, namely:

On a recent trip to Madrid with my childhood best friend, I arrived in the city a good half-day earlier than my companion and was tasked with checking us into the youth hostel we would be staying at. I was greeted at the door by a twentysomething Spanish guy with a rugged beard but twinkly, bemused eyes. He gave me an appraising once-over then led me over to the front desk where he began to regale me with slightly too-familiar hypocorisms like “darling” and “sweetie.”

I’ve just about finished filling out my personal contact form when he stops me momentarily. “You look so beautiful,” he says, smiling. “And your eyes are so… exotic.” As he says this, he reaches up, and with his index fingers pulls at the outer edges of his eyes.

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this, especially because I don’t have even remotely slanty eyes.

Now, at the time, I was fairly taken aback by the eye-tugging (although not entirely surprised), but I can’t say that I was particularly offended by the encounter (more bemused), being that I couldn’t be sure what the local Spanish attitudes are with regards to cultural sensitivity. Granted, I may have been far more lenient to the Spaniard simply based on this count, but let’s say that on the whole, I was inclined to categorize this as plain ignorance.

On the flipside, in this self-declared politically correct country that is the U.S. — where I’m familiar with the vast gap between ideals and actual practice — I’m far less willing to be so forgiving. That brings me to anecdote #2:

I very briefly dated a white Midwestern guy when I was living in Chicago. A few days after telling me he had dated a Korean girl once before — and that he most assuredly did not have yellow fever — he said I reminded him of her. Given the fact that she was adopted into a white Midwestern family as an infant — and I was raised from birth till now by my biological parents, spending 12 years of my life in the Motherland and 13 years in California — I was suddenly very curious to know why.

Without batting an eye, he replied, “You both smell like sesame oil.” Then, he added, “All Asian girls do.”

(I just remember thinking I hadn’t consumed any sesame oil in a good four months prior to this incident, and also that, given what I knew about this ex of his, I was fairly certain there was no reason for her to smell like sesame oil other than that she was “yellow.”)

So here’s my takeaway from all this:

First, I want to state that I believe it’s fine for people to question terminology and cultural sensitivity practices. I also believe, at the risk of sound “controversial” or whatever, that a certain degree of stereotyping is okay and maybe even necessary. After all, people need to make generalizations in some capacity or other to comprehend the worlds around them. Finally, this is a slight tangent, but I think it’s perfectly fine for a member of one race to appreciate the beauty of a member of the opposite sex in another race… to an extent. I’m not immediately inclined to accuse any and all white, black, Latino, whatever man who happens to think an Asian woman beautiful of “yellow fever.” (Plus, honestly, who am I to complain if Asian women can get a boost in the way their beauty is perceived? On that note, given the “good” stereotypes about Asians — works hard, studies hard, overachieves — I’m not overly inclined to fight against Asian stereotypes.) I mean, don’t we all have some sort of “fantasy” race or ethnicity when it comes to objects of desire? I feel like so-called “yellow fever” is just the nature of physical attraction, and not always an indication of some ego trip feeding superficial boosts to his lacking self-esteem by relying on antiquated, inaccurate perceptions of a foreign culture (although, yes, this also happens to be the case too often to be entirely dismissed either).

All that said. Regarding my opening story, I’m not necessarily offended that the word “Oriental” was brought up. However, especially given the office setting, I am hugely offended by the fact that these individuals clearly acknowledged the fact that the word had negative connotations (by whispering), and probably also realized that I was sitting well within earshot. The important point is that they (especially the gentleman) actively chose to go ahead and discuss a potentially contentious topic, at the office and in the presence of a so-called “Oriental,someone who for all intents and purposes may very well have been a lifelong victim of the negative connotations of that word. As I explained on my Facebook (hah), it was “just altogether very tactless, unprofessional, and disrespectful.”I think the additional irony comes from the fact that the gentleman proceeded to capture exactly why Asians don’t wish to be labeled “Oriental.” Historically, the whole point of the label was to denigrate Asian and Middle Eastern cultures as “exotic” and “strange” and belittle them as humans with rights — thus bequeathing the “Occidentals” with the right to invade and conquer and abuse quite advanced civilizations only perceived as inferior due to different cultural and religious practices. So like the word “Oriental” all you like, sir, but describe your own damn culture that way. I have enough trouble trying to come to terms with my cultural identity without your lot trying to tell me I’m strange and thus okay to look down on.

Of course, after I summed up my thoughts this way, I then started to ask more questions (always dicey territory). For instance, would the gentleman and his two conversation partners have brought up and/or continued the conversation had the terms in question been the “N-word” or “kike” or sand you-know-what? God forbid, what if the black lady who sits nearby had been around for that? Of what if the Chinese gentleman who sits across the aisle from me had been around at the time, would they still have discussed “Oriental”? Is who they bring such matters up around an indication for their respect for those individuals, those individuals’ races, or both? (Does this all mean I, personally, am at the bottom of the bottom of the racial and cultural sensitivity rung?!)

Watching the Super Bowl didn’t really help with my general discomfort on cultural sensitivity issues either. First there was that anti-Redskins ad by the National Congress of American Indians, and Mr. Roger Goodell’s (apparently, he’s the NFL commissioner) half-assed response to it (there was a huge undertone of, “Why’re you trying to make a big deal out of it now?”). And then there was that multicultural Coca-Cola commercial, to which I had an entirely different response, although admittedly stemming from a “Why the hell wasn’t I included?” standpoint (I mean, you know, thanks for the East Asian representation, Coke).

***That said, adverse reaction from me or not, the online shitshow  that’s been raging on the social media about how “Coca-Cola should be boycotted for this” (Coca-Cola should be boycotted for entirely different reasons, in my opinion, namely SODA IS BAD FOR YOU) and “Coca-Cola is terrorist because they portrayed the national ‘anthem’ in non-English. We speak English in America!” (America-the-Beautiful-is-not-the-national-anthem-point aside… are you fucking kidding? Half you “English or get out!” bigots can’t even put a proper sentence together, in English, the only language you know) makes me embarrassed for… I don’t know. Being in this country. Carrying a U.S. passport. Having to identify as an American, for lack of any other “appropriate” title. People need to stop and think before they go batshit on the nets, just, seriously.***

With all that in mind, I considered the different responses (including those suggested by my Facebook “audience”) I could have taken. I could have directly addressed these colleagues and expressed my disapproval — but 1) that could potentially stir up bad workplace juju, and 2) technically I was eavesdropping. I could have gone straight to HR, but 1) that could potentially stir up even more bad workplace juju, and 2) I could be very well be punishing these people for unintentional ignorance (but then, just because a sin is unintentional, does that mean it should be forgiven? Ex. manslaughter). I could start calling them “Occidental” and see where that leads. I could do what Boy suggested: grab some multicultural coworkers and start loudly discussing the ethics of terms like “hick,” “redneck” and “cracker,” and show by example. Or I could do what an old coworker suggested: play “Secret Oriental Santa” and gift each of these individuals a copy of Orientalism, by Edward Said.

And then, of course, I could take the very “Asian” route of saying nothing at all… But then realize it’s this very attitude that allows people to think they can say these kinds of things and get away with it.

I’m still not really sure what the right response is. With these matters, I feel like you always have to temper your impulses with reason, but without causing inaction where action must take place. There’s the easy tendency to become that person who hollers “FIE!” too soon and too regularly, and risk not being taken seriously that way; and then there’s the easy tendency to not do anything, and then when things are taken too far, not have the prior precedence to justify protest. Then there’s calling for sensitivity where it’s lacking, but then there’s (certainly) being too sensitive. Where do you draw the line? It’s something I haven’t quite hashed out for myself.


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