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I live in London and attended very diverse and sheltered schools. I was of course, aware of how different I looked. But it is my privilege that until puberty, otherness didn’t seem to be a ‘problem’. Lately, there has been no lack of race talk making headline news, previously with reports of hate crimes on Asian people fuelled by COVID-19 fears. And more recently, the powerful Black Lives Matter movement. This has finally gotten the most apathetic social media user to sit up and start buying books (and actually reading them).
It got me thinking about the language and perspective we use to talk about identity. As a Chinese person, I was interested in the word ‘oriental’. In 2016, an act was passed in the USA, removing the word in federal law. In this context, it makes sense. It was likened to the word an actual offensive word, negro, which was also banned. But while intentions here were no doubt good, the likes of Chrissy Teigen and Jayne Tsuchimaya, author of the LA Times article, The term ‘Oriental’ is outdated, but is it racist?, both argue that the use of this word is an unimportant issue that white people are making into a problem. Teigen’s message as a half-Asian woman with absolutely no filter was: “I’m not offended, don’t tell me I should be” and I concur. However, that’s from my experience living in the UK and Singapore where that word is slightly old-fashioned but harmless. In fact, there are vast cultural nuances even within the globalised, second generation Asian community.
In Singapore where I was born, ‘oriental’ refers to a specific appearance. Like, ‘elfish’ or ‘androgynous’. It’s a positive word to describe someone that has a slim, oval face and almond eyes that slant upwards. Kind of like, someone that could be the real life version of Disney’s Mulan. Yet answers from Hong Kong natives were slightly different and mostly in favour of discontinuing the word, mostly due to the colonialist connotations.
Google, “is the word oriental racist?” and you’ll find lots of intelligent reasoning as to why it is. Within the USA, the vocabulary signals xenophobia and excluded this ethnic group from being ‘American’. But for the rest of the world, Chinese people regularly patronise and even run establishments with that word in their branding: Mandarin Oriental, Oriental Express and a ton of restaurants and supermarkets. To me, it seems like a more poetic way to say ‘Asian’ and to discern South East Asians from the rest of the continent, which encompasses many ethnicities.
It’s also used as a negative term by Edward Said in Orientalism. Although interestingly, there it uses a wider reference to North Africa and the Middle East too, arguing on the binary basis of East versus West. In art, which is where the word may be most commonly used in a sentence, it brings to mind Eugène Delacroix’s Women of Algiers or Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres Grand Odalisque. In summary, orientalism and these paintings are a mirage of how ‘Westerners’ perceive everyone else.
There is a real danger in romanticising a part of a race or culture and subjugating it to a stereotype. There’s also the issue of catering to ‘Western’ demands, by making the ‘other’ palatable. An example of this might be a lookbook I once received, where the name of the collection and its props, backdrop and clothing had heavy Japanese and Chinese influences… but the model was white. That is a subtle example of making foreign cultures appealing to a white audience, without supporting a model of that background and actually showing appreciation. Or a beauty campaign I’ve seen where an ambiguously ‘oriental’ model was used alongside other skin tones, but the shape of her ‘Chinese’ eyes were greatly exaggerated. Why not just find one of the many South East Asian models that actually have slim, cat eyes?
On the other hand, owning a takeaway shop called Oriental Dynasty or anything to that effect, is not in itself racist. The name of a company is part of branding and in that, marketing. Marketing sells a dream. If the word oriental conjures the idea of 1920’s Shanghai and women in cheongsam dresses, then cool. I like that a beautiful part of Chinese history has been brought to the mainstream – like Wong Kar Wai’s film, In The Mood For Love. Especially when growing up in Europe, I mostly think of Chinese history as Mao or feet binding. Now that is far more problematic.
The viewpoint on the word is widely contested around the world, even from the groups of people to which it relates. As I put the question out to my audience on Instagram, I received interesting ideas. One, that the negativity surrounding the word is mainly a projection from those ashamed of colonialism. In an attempt to ‘erase’ the guilt, those that claim that its racist are effectively wiping it from the white board. Two, words that are not outright racist can be part of empowerment and ownership. Possess a term that may otherwise do you harm and you are in control.
I have very little business telling my Asian American friends how they should feel about being referred to as oriental. I don’t have the shared experience. Although from these conversations and reading, I have observed that government rules don’t necessarily reflect the communities that are affected. Activists, while well intentioned, don’t always represent the wider need. Another example of this is that the internet says that the word ‘Caucasian’ is ‘racist’. But actually, it’s just inaccurate because side bar and fun fact, it actually describes the people that come from Caucasas. And I’ve yet to find one white person that takes offence to it (yes, I have asked).
Should we continue as we are?
Here in the UK, ‘oriental’ is slightly old fashioned but just as malicious as collecting antiques at village fairs. If it doesn’t hold nefarious motives, should we revise our language? And if POCs and those actually living in ‘oriental’ and often, previously colonised countries use it to describe one another, do we have a place contesting it?
The answer is more than yes, no or ‘it depends’. It’s fluid and we shouldn’t be shy to navigate it pragmatically. Consider this: It is possible for me to refer to myself as an oriental person and for white people to do so, and we all go about our day in peace. But I am also allowed to find it inappropriate if someone else uses it, if they come from a culture where it is definitively a slur. Identity politics are complex structures. Before we give each other political correctness fatigue and the apathetic among us (the ones we really need to wake up) roll their eyes, dialogue and understanding is key.
We live in a time where people love to show how offended they are, sometimes even on behalf of a stranger. And a lot of the time, on Twitter. It’s essential to put intent first and foremost, even when feeling angry is totally justified. The true depth of systemic racism seems to be endless but not everyone comes from this dark place. To claim offence blindly, without context and dialogue, gives way to cancel culture. Cancelling someone means you’ll end up always preaching to the choir. Not useful at all. Plus, its only goal is to alienate and brand people incapable of change or education. And we know that this is untrue, don’t we?