Orientalism: You don’t have to say it to mean it
By Jondou Chase Chen
Confession: My mom still uses the word “Oriental” sometimes. My Taiwanese mom – all 5’2” (tallest among five sisters) and 97 pounds of her – grew up with parents forced to speak Japanese, siblings forced to speak Mandarin, and kids forced to speak English. She is a three-time cancer survivor and raised three kids who collectively outweigh her by 500 pounds. My mom’s not just tough, she’s a survivor. I remember once in my late twenties, my mom told me, “Look, I know we’re in America, and I was supposed to hug you and tell you how much I love you. That wasn’t how I was raised, though. I always told you what was wrong with you and what to improve so that I knew that you’d make it when I’m gone.” That’s my mom.
To thank her for such incredible love (because that is unquestionably what it is), I figured I’d help her out by letting her know we’re not supposed to say “Oriental” any more. Use “Asian” instead. My mom acted surprised the first time I told her, dismissive the second time, and finally the third time I chided her she was ready. “I know, I know, I know. You think your old momma is so ignorant. But why does it matter whether or not I say ‘Oriental’? It’s not going to change how people treat us.” Game. Set. Match. Old momma 1, Jondou 0.
Let me be clear here. This is NOT a blog post about it being okay to use the term “Oriental.” This is a blog post, however, about this truth that my mom gave me: you don’t have to say the word “Oriental” to do the work of the word. Yes, words matter. And the reason why words matter is because they have power. And power is power – including the power to oppress – whether or not you use particular words. The word “Oriental” has power not because it describes rugs instead of people. It has power because it has come to represent a millenium of Western eyes not just gazing at the continent of Asia, but exoticizing it, exploiting it, demonizing it, and erasing it. My mom’s point is whether we call ourselves Asian or Oriental, that history and ongoing politic remains. Here are five ways this happens.
- When you ask us where we’re from. This is basic, and I mean basic. Asking Asians where we’re from (as with other immigrants or read-as-immigrants of color) has a violent history. It has meant not being allowed entry into this country, the presumption we can’t possibly be from here or truly American citizens both in the past and the present. To be clear, asking Asians where we’re from hasn’t just been about a point of information, it’s been a precursor to violence, exclusion, and erasure.
- Not knowing where we’re from. Now I’ve probably confused some folks here. Good. If all you want are the magical words to know and say so you don’t sound racist, you’re not actually here for our justice. You’re here for you, and you want us to flawlessly fit your logic so you can feel good. That’s using us. Real justice would mean recognizing and amplifying our humanity which includes our complicated truths. That means allowing us to be our whole selves, wherever we are, with all that we are, with all that we bring, and with all that we seek to be. This means taking the time to build and be in good relationship with us. If you take the time to know me, there’s no way you won’t know where I’m from. You will know how much my family, our culture, our stories, our politics means to me. You will even know that when we really know each other – after we’ve demonstrated we’re committed to building a just relationship together – that it’s actually okay to ask where I’m from.
- Lumping “us” all together. By “us,” I mean all people of color, all Asians, or even all Taiwanese folks. I love spending time with my family where we joke with each other about the ways each of us is Taiwanese. We have different favorite dishes and have varying degrees of connection to different aspects of Taiwanese language, tradition, culture, and community. Yes, sometimes the joking goes too far. Yes, we have work to do. Yes, things are going to change. And guess what? That’s the way it’s always been. Cultures and ethnicities existed way-way before racism and will hopefully far outlast racism. We’ve adapted and creatively responded again and again. Our diversity is our evolutionary strength. To borrow from Skip Gates, for as many PoC/Asian/Taiwanese people there are, there are just as many ways to be PoC/Asian/Taiwanese. This is true within ethnicities, between our cultures and nationalities, and across our racial groups. And when we bring it all together, respecting our self-determination and differences and showing up in solidarity for one another, that’s when we are most powerful – not when we are all uniform cookie-cutter cut-outs.
- Modeling us as minorities. Back in the day, someone decided to draw a circle on the map around 40% of the world’s landmass and call it Asia. Today, 60% of the world’s population lives or diasporically came from there. Yet in the U.S. we’re seen as the new kids on the block and often as a single story. We weren’t here first. We’ve never been the biggest group. We were banned or incarcerated as entire ethnic groups for a while. And when the U.S. finally started letting more of us in, it was under strict selection and under even stricter PR. My folks were like many (but not all) Asian Americans, cherry-picked for their desirability as people likely to contribute here. Their story was then twisted to extract more value from us and other PoC. Because they were so “smart” they were expected to work more and receive less compensation. Other Asians here under different circumstances were expected to do the same and along with other PoC groups were shamed for not producing in the same way. And then this is how all PoC can be orientalized: if we’re not producing or complying as desired, we are forced to, told to, or treated as if we should leave.
- Assuming we all need the same justice all the time. Even though I was born here, I had minimal English speaking skills when I entered school. What I would have benefited from the most was dual language instruction to support my multilingual potential. Instead, I was treated like an English language learner. This made marginal sense in elementary school but became a gross stereotype when I was designated for ELL services in college and again after receiving my doctorate (Sound weird? Ask me about it some time.). What I needed for justice changed over time. My kids are going to need a different type of justice as multiracial Asian kids with English fluent parents. My neighbors and community members who are refugees that came over 30-years-ago from Vietnam versus 30-months-ago from Syria are going to need different forms of justice from us and from each other. And the justice we need as a pan-Asian community are different from what our Native, Black, and Latinx communities need. For folks seeking to be in just relationship with People of Color, don’t assume by addressing the needs of one community that you’ve addressed all of our needs. And please, please, please don’t tokenize us by trying to collect one friend from each of our groups. (And yes, representation matters, but representation without just relationship is just oriental tokenism.)
I used to feel ashamed that my mom still uses the word “Oriental.” I’ve come to understand, though, that she’s keeping it real in her own way, and she’s keeping it real with me. The burden shouldn’t be on us to end the use of this word when we neither created the word nor have ever benefited from its application. There cannot be justice from the prohibition of this word without an accompanying change in systemic power. Until then, we’ll make our own justice by speaking our truths, growing our community, and welcoming solidarity from those who seek to be in just relationship with us. And finally, our fight to end racism will only truly succeed when we recognize that Orientalism and the settler-colonizing of Indigenous people and lands are opposite sides of the same system along with all other forms of racism and intersecting oppressions.
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