Disclaimer: I’m just an Asian American teenage girl who hasn’t studied anthropology or Asian American history or even Asian history. These are simply my thoughts and reflections on a personal experience that invoked questions about my Asian American identity.
Over the weekend, I attended a dance conference that was taking place at my old church. It was quite informal – most of the attendees were middle-aged or older and not trained dancers – so the classes were pretty much a breeze for me. But one thing that surprised me throughout the entire conference was the racial division that was occurring. The company that organized the conference and taught the dance classes was a dance studio from Oklahoma, while my church had a multicultural congregation with a primarily African American body. As a result, white teachers assisted by their white students from the Oklahoman studio taught classes chiefly comprised of black and latinx people. There were two Asian Americans in total at this conference: one middle-aged woman, and me.
I tried to ignore the fact that skinny white girls with identical, tightly-dutch-braided hair were present in every class, serving as the teachers’ demonstration models. To be fair, almost 75% of the population of Oklahoma is comprised of white people and clearly, this dance studio can’t be blamed for having mainly white students. I knew I was overreacting to race distinctions; this is a common tendency for me that I’m personally trying to work on.
By the time the penultimate class of the conference came about, I had managed to put all my anxieties to rest and simply live in the moment. We were learning a huge group dance that was supposed to channel the motif of unity and I was actually enjoying myself – only to be completely stunned when I heard my white, male teacher refer to the single other Asian American woman at this conference as “my Oriental friend”. My head started spinning, though I didn’t understand why – I had never thought of the term “Oriental” as racist or discriminatory before. My family often dined out at Chinese restaurants with titles containing the word and Oriental rice crackers were a favorite snack in our household. But in this specific context of white people teaching and being examples for black, latinx, and Asian people, that word felt like a smack in the face.
Why did it feel so wrong? I wondered this in the moment. No one else seemed miffed. I tried to make eye contact with the Asian woman the teacher had been referring to but she seemed unaware of the weight of what had been spoken. I told myself that it was totally fine, and my overly-sensitive ego was overreacting to an outdated term that must have a different meaning in the Midwest. But my mind couldn’t accept that as an answer. There had to be a reason for why I suddenly felt sick to my stomach with anonymity and worthlessness.
“My Oriental friend.” Why couldn’t she have been just his friend? Why couldn’t he have asked for her name? Why was the “Oriental” qualifier necessary? Why was there a need to distinguish that this “friend” was of Asian descent? I realized that this was why the word felt so putrid to me. It added an unnecessary distinction that this woman was Asian American, that she had black hair and brown eyes and yellowish-beige skin. It placed a wall between his culture and her culture, her culture that spans centuries and an immeasurable range of traditions, art, food, and aesthetics that are constantly growing and evolving, her glorious, radiant culture that this white man confined within the bounds of one distasteful word that reeks of Westernization, imperialism, and exoticism.
I tried to disallow this incident to get to me too much, but somehow, I found myself on the Internet later that night, Googling what people generally thought of the term “Oriental” and how acceptable it was, if it was acceptable at all. I read various forums and threads relating to the topic and found a wide variance in opinions. Some thought the word was totally harmless, just a bit old-fashioned. Some thought that the word was unacceptable due to its imperialistic connotations and its implications of exoticizing East Asian cultures and peoples. These opinions also varied among Asian persons who posted on these threads – some thought the word was fine, some thought it was offensive, some had no opinion and had never given much thought to the word as they hadn’t significantly encountered it.
It’s interesting to me how the discourse on this topic that I found seemed relatively chill, for the lack of a better word. I would guess that it’s because Asian Americans have pretty much grown resigned to letting American culture stomp all over them through racist caricatures and stereotypes. We’ve been the brunt of so many jokes from mispronounced names to being confused with other Asian Americans who look nothing like us to eye-pulling and “ching chang chong’s” to even Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes (which was revived on Broadway as recently as 2011!) that we’ve learned to laugh along, not because the poorly conceived jokes are funny, but because we’d rather keep our heads down and focus on our work, believing that it will eventually bring us stability, recognition, and/or success in our lives1. Perhaps this passive attitude towards racism that Asian Americans have had for the past few decades has organically resulted in a quiet but gradual decline of racism against Asians, though a few instances pop up every now and then2.
Perhaps the term “Oriental” as used to describe a person is one component of societal racism against Asian Americans that has gradually been phased out of American thought, quietly enough for many Asian Americans to not even be aware of it as a term to be vigilant about. Perhaps this word has just been slower to disappear from certain areas of the United States such as, say, Oklahoma.
To be clear, I do not think the word “Oriental” on its own is offensive. I wouldn’t mind calling myself Oriental if someone used the word while asking me about my ethnicity. I take issue with the use of the word when its usage invokes division and disparity between groups of people who don’t know each other, such as in a dance class full of strangers where one participant is singled out as different because of her race. We as human beings have a responsibility to actively call for and practice inclusivity and unity. Let’s break down walls and prevent more from being built, even if they’re small and invisible and hidden in a seemingly innocent word that starts with O.