May 16, 2008

Orientalism in the media

Thanks to John from 8 Asians for blogging about this story. I have a slightly different take on the article.

We've all read this kind of nonsense before, plus we've all seen this kind of thing before. An Asian woman marries a white guy, has a half Asian child, then goes around China, making her voice really loud, and speaking down to the natives. I used to read this stuff in A Magazine, and now we read it in the NYTimes and Asiance. I've seen it during my travels to Asia. Seriously, if you're in Asia and you hear a female voice start complaining loudly, turn around, and most likely you'll see one of these Toy-Langston/Hong-Kingston types, raising her voice and using her white man's status as a crutch. No one ever mentions the internalized racism behind the though processes of these nouveau orientalists, nor does anyone ever mention how they use the mainstream media to spread their views. Nor does anyone ever mention how much they look down on Asian people.

Here's my favorite quote from the author, Ms. Vivian Toy:
By then, it had become clear why my children were attracting so much attention. They look Chinese, but not exactly. They look Western, but not quite. What they really look like is what they are: a blend of me, a Chinese-American, and my husband, a blond 6-footer of English and Irish descent.

This, to me, basically confirmed that I was reading the words of a real live white-chaser. Why does she mention her blond husband's height? The answer should be obvious--she needs to draw a difference between the short, tiny heathen Chinee' and her tall white husband. If we were reading the words of anyone other than an Asian person, we wouldn't hear mention of the height unless it were relevant to the discussion on a non-racial level (i.e. "my tall husband who loves basketball but married a shrimpy little midget").

It's getting ridiculous. A good number of the younger Asian men I know (including some on this board) are much taller than the average American, yet these Toy Langstonist Kingstonians just love to ignore them. Not that height should make a difference in one's value as a human being--but why is it that people feel free to denigrate Asian people based on physical stereotypes?

Toy's internalized racism comes out a paragraph later:
The gawkers reminded me of my own painful experiences of being different: grade school classmates who would pull their eyes into squints and launch into a mocking sing-song; a college adviser who suggested I switch my major to biology since Chinese are better suited for the sciences; colleagues who have mistaken me for some other Asian-American woman.

Translation: "But I'm not like all those other Asian American women! I'm different! I married a white man!"
I didn’t have the benefit of experts to consult while I was in China, but I felt it was important to tell my children and their cousins, who are also mixed race, to expect more staring and touching. Some Chinese had never seen anyone who was multiracial and they were simply curious, I told them. I suggested that they should stare back and make a silly face at anyone who made them feel uncomfortable — an idea that made them laugh. They tried it a couple of times, too. A few Chinese on the receiving end made their own funny faces in return; a few others turned tail and left us alone.

Well, Ms. Toy, that's a real great way of encouraging multi-racial understanding. It's a real great way to raise your kids. Toy's hypocrisy comes out once again. Despite whatever fancy New York Times words she uses, she's not trying to encourage any kind of understanding whatsoever--she's just trying to get attention for her and her children. I don't know why people like her do this kind of nonsense.

We Asian Americans need to talk about this phenomenon because quite honestly, it's a form of racism that affects us much more than any of the other common topics that come up on common Asian American boards and discussions. It seems so innocuous, but only because anti-Asian racism is so common. Imagine if Toy were a black woman writing about how her multiracial son was a combination of her, a black woman, and a cultured and non-thuggish white man in order to draw a contrast. The Times would be fielding complaints left and right. Yet somehow, it's culturally acceptable to denigrate Asians.

I think Cathy Bao Bean, another militant Kingstonian, demonstrated best the thinking that goes behind these new orientalists. From her own website:
In 1959, when I was a Junior in Teaneck High School, I learned about Hybrid Vigor in Biology class. The idea was that when two different strains of corn were crossed, the result was greater than was normal for either parent type. In 1974, when I was a new mother in the maternity ward, I wondered if the same principle couldn't be deliberately applied to cultures - in our case, the Chinese and American.
• Physically we had the makings for such an experiment. Our newly born son was half Asian, half Caucasian.
• Intellectually, I formulated his prospects from the wealth of his dual heritage, translating his ancestors' stories into a future neither side could have imagined, yet both had anticipated to some degree.
• Practically, I worried just how much difference it would make that he wasn't an ear of corn.”

There's some serious manifest-destiny kind of thinking going on here.

I think we need to complain about this phenomenon, and I think we need to complain loudly. There's no reason for us to continuing taking these "benevolent" racial attacks parading as searches for self-identity.


Cathy Bao Bean said...

I talk and write about our cultural journeys. Mine started in 1946 as an immigrant from China to the U.S., then as an emigrant from "bananahood" having grown up as the only Asian in town at a time when there were about 280000 Chinese in the whole country (about the same as are now in NJ alone). These journeys are a process that can take a lifetime - shorter if one has a "map" - information, mentors, etc. "Hybrid vigor" was a startling thought to me at a time when a college student couldn't access biology/sex texts at the public library without special permission . When I had a son in 1974, I decided to actually plan his cultural journeys, considering even what agenda was embedded in the St. Nick and the Woman with the Dental Fixation childhood rituals. Hence the name of my book, The Chopsticks-Fork Principle, A Memoir and Manual. That is, looking at ordinary circumstances to see the different cultural and human situations, much like looking at those background-foreground pictures that look like a rabbit, then a duck. The human brain can see the same drawing in different ways but not two at the same time. Some of the "facts" you cite are only the introduction of a journey that I am still taking. I preface these with two ideas: (1) the facts may be hard but the brain doesn't have to be and (2) one can't understand a culture without understanding its humor so, if you don't have a sense of humor - PRETEND! In other words, if I was "militant," it was as a feminist first (when the head of the philosophy dept asked me to make curtains for the office) since "Chinese-American" was hardly a category at schools with less than a handful allowed in. The "racism" occurred in retrospect since, initially, it never occurred to our family that anyone with an ounce of sense could look down a civilization that has endured for thousands of years. I recently wrote an article in a new text on "Undoing Whiteness." Part of the point being that we all start out with stereotypical views because our (grand)parents said things like "Chinese do it this way, not that" or "Irish never do that, only this." Hopefully, we then add the ifs, ands and buts we learn from our experience...even to broaden our experience so we can seek those qualifications. Although there is no "normal" if one takes multicultural relativism seriously, yet there still are generalizations. When Kingston's book first came out, I was appalled...but then slowly realized that "agreement" was not the issue but the revelation that her "Chinese" norms were so unlike mine. I wrote a lot of this in my book which is itself out of date since it ends with our son marrying an ABC, their move to China and now having grandchildren. Presently my main focus in life is to meet with hundreds of people - at colleges and prisons - to talk about all the varieties of being at least bicultural, to describe them before (or even) prescribing, to encourage people to realize that we don't have to choose or be "one," that, short of multiple personality disorder, we have several selves and we can be pleased with the multiplicity. It is only in the modern/North American kind of world where all the major institutions - theological, corporate and constitutional - have room for only one at the top so the habit is to have a "favorite" or "best" color, issue, friend, etc. Now that kind of thinking is the real enemy of being well as taking a few lines or days out of the context of a lifetime of evolving, especially when starting from scratch, with no books (Kingston or otherwise), articles, courses, let alone people as models to emulate or avoid. Obviously, not all is worth reading but, happily, the variety is finally available. Cheers, Cathy Bao Bean

B said...


We're from different generations, and so I'll begin by acknowledging that fact--things were different in your generation.

However, that doesn't change the fact that the "hybrid" argument is insulting and quite honestly, racist. It may have been new at the time when you first went to college, but it's insulting in the modern age. Jimmy the Greek made a comment about racial breeding among black people, and he lost his job. Whether you're on your journey or not doesn't excuse the sheer prejudice behind the insinuation that a "mix" is better than a "pure."

It's hard for people like me to get a "sense of humor" about the racial hierarchy in America today. Asian Americans still struggle to make their voices heard in the mainstream culture and media. And we're not helped by the fact that so many Asian Americans value whiteness over Asianness.


Cathy Bao Bean said...

Hello Byron - I introduce my talks with the admonition "describe before you prescribe." This idea is that, like the duck-rabbit metaphor, a single set of circumstances can yield many human situations. The words "Hybrid Vigor" in the context of raising crops or the kind of cultural blending like "the best from East and West" approach that is/was simplistically advocated is not automatically insulting. What is, of course, is the presumption that any cultural tradition is, in all respects, better than another. This works in several directions - those like my mother who never doubted that the Confucian is superior to the Aristotelian, those who are insulted when I talk about "undoing Whiteness," and those who presume that, automatically, anyone who does not use words in the same way or who has married someone of another ethnic heritage is indicating a cultural preference (for the White), et al. Quoting myself, "While I was a child, being of 'two minds' was not usually traumatic so that putting my selves 'back together' was not always because I had been 'torn apart.' I accepted my multiplicity as normal. However, as I got older and spent more time, energy, and thought in the world of school and church, and then community and nation, the contrast with the world of home sharpened and deepened. The former was in English and about activity, discussion, power, testing, deduction, belief, laws—all in a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant mode (even in a town that was 38% Jewish!). Meanwhile, home was about eating, sleeping, changing, bathing, chores, and television, and these activities often happened in silence or in Chinese. We avoided the unpleasant so as not to provoke the gods’ interest [because we behaved as if they existed, not necessarily because we 'believed' or 'worshipped' them] and left unsaid that which my parents presumed we knew by absorption, by being 'Chinese.'
Similarly, everyone outside my home culture had their presumptions that were so obviously true or right that not discussing them was 'normal'—like 'a mother’s love.' [which is, like most other human situations, not the same 'underneath it all'] Their unexamined status made them inviolate and impenetrable. This was the 'whiteness' that was the foundation and backdrop for my public life. Nondominant cultural norms were indeed 'Other.' Today we often describe and explain them with special 'months —black history month, women month, Asian Pacific American month, and the like. These get special attention because they are Other than the norm." On the other hand, without these "months," the children whose teachers would otherwise have no clue are forced to learn and convey, in public, unfamiliar perspectives and plain ol' facts that were totally omitted from textbooks when I was a child. Given this silence, on the several occasions when (white) people cut off about 4 feet of my hair without permission, indeed while I was sleeping, I was 26 before it occurred to me that these were racist acts and not just my bad luck to meet so many people who were "mad" about hair. After all, from my mother's viewpoint, how could anybody look down on a civilization so much older and wiser than the Chinese?! However, the "lesson" I gleaned and which I emphasize is that the realization led me to resolve neither to adopt a "victim" stance nor to consider that any person or institution dictate my style/mode. At a time when the only public images of Asian females in North America was the prostitute "Suzie Wong," the meek "Flower Drum Song," or the nearly invisible daughter of "Charlie Chan," arriving at any stance besides these 3 would have happened more surely and quickly had there been an APA Heritage month. In other words, let people describe their experiences before they are silenced by those who prescribe either that they shut up or that they have uttered the "unacceptable." As for the sense of humor, I believe it is the only reason that there is not more damage done by racism and that it is a powerful means to convey why and how to enjoy being at least bicultural. I've just started reading Eddie Glaudie'
s book, In A Shade of Blue, in which he frames issues of black struggle within the framework of Prgamatism...this resonates with me as the 20th c philosopher, Hu Hsi, was an admirer of Dewey whose approach to "truth" could not be separated from "what works." And being full of cheer and enlightened is a lot better than being full of misery and enlightened! Cheers, Cathy

B said...


Let me quote you:

"• Physically we had the makings for such an experiment. Our newly born son was half Asian, half Caucasian."

Caucasian is not a culture. Technically, Asian isn't either. You were talking about genes, or at least your words were. That is the same reason why Asian Americans are offended by the original Times article in the blog post. It's not just my site; you can see that here or here.

I also agree with your humor part, but I think that it's a mistake for one to use humor as a means of distraction when their is important work to be done. Kingstonism--and you say you were appalled when it first came out--has damaged us. It has attacked our humanity and set people up in fear. No one challenges it anymore, and those "Suzy Wong" stereotypes are now unstoppable with the deconstructionist destruction that her mode of inquiry has helped to create. It needs to stop.

Cathy Bao Bean said...

Yes, now we know that, genetically, there is little to differentiate us "physically" but, at the time (and still), physically "Caucasian" and "Asian" were and are terms used to describe those features that make it more likely that I am racially profiled differently than my husband. I did not write that "Caucasian" is a culture...though, later the fairly recent term "whiteness" is. I wrote a "memoir" as well as a "manual" In my case one that is both chronological and much an accounting of what I thought at that age as what I understood then and retrospectively (e.g., as a child that, if I was "good," I would look like the girls in the storybooks) because, in hindsight, that was what was normal visual input for "little girls." In other words, the purpose was not to "persuade" someone to believe what I once believed, but to portray how, historically and personally, it was possible to think thoughts that would take years, if not a lifetime, to unravel intellectually, scientifically, emotionally, etc. There are always unintended consequences of/for what we do, some harmful, others beneficial. It is not, however, predictable, what will necessarily cause which. It is because I expressed what I did that many in my audience realize that it isn't "abnormal" to have gone through or thought similar thoughts. Without sharing both the "acceptable" and "not acceptable," we can have no way to compare, contrast, and, eventually or maybe, choose. Philosophically, it has been "proven" that there is no one system that is rich enough to contain all truths" hence a kind of relativity that would urge us to take great care when we try to proceed as if there's only one "dictionary." E.g., a colleague and I are about to publish a bilingual version of my stories (about personal development in being at least bicultural). I wrote the English, she interpreted (not just "translated") into Chinese...almost impossible, linguistically and culturally, when there is no Chinese word for "I" in the singular, nonrelational sense! E.g., when I make a "joke" in English, we punctuate with 3 exclamation marks so the ESL readers will know that, if they don't understand why it's not funny, they should find out. On the other hand, it is understandably not funny because, if Chinese is the language in which they laugh in, it isn't funny in Chinese. Just responding to your comments necessitates the use of "words" from several "dictionaries" - cultural, personal, linguistic, political, and generational. In view of this, I cannot and would not say that, your critical (meaning both as analysis and argument)remarks can be deconstructed into or reduced to one underlying, universal meaning. If I did, I would be implying that there is a universal language or culture that we would all share "if only" we were sufficiently objective, authentic, honest, etc. In this way, I am not sure what "our humanity" means given what humans are capable of doing - from torture to the self-sacrifical. As I (humorously!!!) wrote: one of the few "universals" is that all babies will, around the age of 4-5 weeks, attempt extortion, that is, cry for no reason other than to make you appear. After describing how my husband and I wished never to encourage our son to use his tears to leverage compliance, we first made sure he was ok and then let him cry. And now to quote myself, "Positive and negative reinforcement—worked on the dog, why not the baby? From then on, if he cried for no acceptable reason, we simply explained our preference that he do so by himself and put him in another room. As soon as he stopped crying, we picked him up. Our American friends approved of the fact that we explained the reason for his exile and then let him cry until he chose to stop. Americans fear repression, reduction of individuality, restriction of freedom and self-expression. They believe that the person who can stand above the maddening crowd must draw strength and conviction from within, independent of others. Until recently, Kipling’s poem was taught to every school child [in North America, England], 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…you’ll be a Man, my son!' Our Chinese relatives praised William’s general good behavior and sociability. Chinese fear isolation, being set apart. The Confucian social ideal defines individuals not as separate entities but, rather, as persons only in orderly relationship to others, bound together by duty. If William wanted company and enjoy its full benefit, he shouldn’t be a detraction or too different from those around him. Thus if Kipling had been Asian, his poem might have been, 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…then there is probably something very wrong with you, your family, your village, your ruler, and your ancestors!'
Cheers, Cathy

B said...

Hi Cathy,

It is interesting talking to you, but with a young child and my admin/blogging duties at the Fighting 44's and my own civil group, as you can see I'm not always timely in my responses.

If you have time, check out the original post of the article on 8 Asians. Check out the comments by the blogger who calls herself "Bo." I think this is the kind of thinking that affects Asian Americans today. It's dangerous stuff when you mix Darwinism and race.