Sunday, October 30, 2011


Moving to a new city is fun on so many levels; one of the more exciting things to do is find an array of new doctors and dentists.  Sometimes you can hit a home run; other times, not so much. Meeting my new family doctor, I hit an out of the park grand-slam.  She is a Filipina, and we spent half of my appointment talking about the Philippines.  She even made me sing the national anthem (sitting on the examination table in my paper gown!)  Back in the martial law era of Ferdinand Marcos, we were required to stand and hear the anthem played in movie theaters.  I have no idea what it means, but boy can I belt it out.

Recounting this little tidbit to my high school chums, I started a thread about how fun it is to connect with Filipinos today.  I can spot a Filipino accent from just about anywhere, be it US Airways' call center, or on a bus, and I always make a jackass out of myself (according to my kids) talking to the owner of the accent about how I lived in Manila.  I almost always get a smile (yes I can hear a smile over the phone).  On a recent Alaskan cruise most of the crew was Filipino and I was a celebrity in their midst, of sorts. I always got a "Magandang umaga!" (Good Morning!) or "Anong pangalan mo?" (What's your name?) when I ran into them, accompanied by giggles.  It's a connection ... an acknowledgement.  Most Westerners don't even give them a second thought; they're just the "staff".  By knowing something about where they come from, I hope I give them a sense of importance, that I validate their identity, and communicate how much I appreciate and love their country, that they are human beings to me, not just waiters and busboys.  In a way, they do the same for me.  I feel a connection too, something that we TCKs latch on to like a life boat. Our lives are filled with such continual disconnection, that finding a common ground is like manna, its juice a medicine for our souls.

So when I recently heard someone refer to Filipinos as "Orientals," my defenses shot up.  Way back in the early days of this blog I wrote this post about the word "oriental".  By osmosis, I suppose, I developed an aversion to the word not for any particular reason other than it just felt wrong to me.  I know there are is a wide swing among people as to whether or not the word is offensive.  It strikes me in the same way as the generational "colored" or, of course, the dreaded "N" word.  The State of Washington enacted a bill in 2002 claiming that the word "oriental" in regards to its citizens was "outdated and pejorative" and that "All state and local government statues, codes, rules, regulations and other official documents enacted after July 1, 2002, are required to use the term 'Asian' when referring to people of Asian descent.  The use of the term 'Oriental' is prohibited."

Why do we have to label people?  Why do we talk about the "(fill in the blank)" lady who waited on us but not the "white" lady?  To me, these labels set others apart.  The label emphasizes their difference, as if we (the westerners) are the "norm" and the "orientals" or "blacks" are the deviation.  The word "oriental" itself is ethnocentric, to differentiate between the geographic West and the exotic East.  Do we refer to ourselves as "occidental" (western)?  No.  Why not?  Labeling others and not ourselves creates an "us" versus "them" way of thinking.  I'm reminded of my college history classes where I learned about Theodore Roosevelt's attitude towards the Philippines.  He had a paternalistic view, asserting that the United States had an obligation towards its "little brown brothers".  I remember how this was a kick to the stomach for me.  As if they weren't capable of taking care or governing themselves.  "The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley is an intriguing, if not shocking, look at American imperialism of the time, and how, the author posits, this was an underlying cause of early 20th century Japanese expansion, and therefore, World War II.  What is really sad is that there are still undercurrents of this today, if not overtly, at the very least subconsciously.

Surely I'm spreading controversy here, but I welcome input from all sides.  Maybe it's a little close to home because my daughters are Asian.  I am ashamed to admit that I have been more than a little rankled by people who referred to them as "oriental" and have replied in less than polite terms. I know there is a way to politely inform without hurting feelings.  Am I being hypocritical here?  Aren't I being just as paternalistic and protective of my "Asian" brothers and sisters by speaking out on their behalf?  I know they can speak for themselves.  In that regard, I am reposting a poem that I heard years ago.

is not
head bowed, submissive, industrious
model minority
hard working, studious

is not being
Lotus blossom, exotic passion flower

in no talking
ahh so, ching chong chinaman
no tickee, no washee

is a white man's word
Oriental is jap, flip, chink, gook
it's "how 'bout a back rub mama-san"
it's "you people could teach them niggers
and mexicans a thing or two
you're good people
none of that hollerin' and protesting"

is slanty eyes, glasses, and buck teeth
Charlie Chan, Tokyo Rose, Madam Butterfly
it's "a half hour after eating chinese food
you're hungry again"
it's houseboys, gardeners, and laundrymen
Oriental is a fad: yin-yang, kung fu
"say one of them funny words for me"
Oriental is downcast eyes, china doll
"they all look alike"
Oriental is sneaky
Oriental is a white man's word

ARE NOT Oriental.
We have learned the word all our lives
we have learned to be Oriental
we have learned to live it, speak it,
play the role
The time has come
to look at who gave the name.

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