Who You Calling Oriental?

May 19, 2005

"While watching the news conference given by the family today there was a gentleman at the end of the tent on the right that went out of his way to keep his face off camera. This was an Oriental looking gentleman. I was scanning the crowd knowing that sometimes people who commit crimes like to be in the limelight or on the fringes of an investigation."

First off, it's disconcerting to know that there are still people who will describe a person as being "Oriental" and thinking that's kosher, the status quo. Even in liberal California, I've faced more than a few uneducated comments regarding my ancestry as "Oriental" rather than "Asian" or "Chinese." Besides the fact that the word "Oriental" comes from Western academia, categorizing regions of the world with colonization in mind, the history of the word has been ugly in the United States. "Oriental" is an ethnic slur, akin to "nigger" and I have had experience with that word being used with that purpose. So when "Oriental" is being used in polite company, knowing what I know about the term, why would I not try to speak up on how that makes me feel as a person who is proud of being Asian American and not "Oriental?"

More troubling about the email is how the "concerned citizen" addresses the "Oriental looking gentleman." The tone smacks of an old American stereotype of the Chinese: "Orientals are sneaky and can't be trusted." Bellsouth.net has at least one customer who thinks it's the dirty chink who did something to the innocent white girl. No need to even veil it with the "Oriental looking gentleman" moniker. I hear you loud and clear Mr. Bellsouth.net. You still think race is a divider and that sneaky Oriental looking men should be suspect whenever you see one. I don't even want to know what you think of Oriental looking women. Chancing upon this kind of prevalent attitude on one of my rare moments of levity made me realize why it is important I continue to work on Hyphen.

Besides the uninformed racial term in the email, if the police were to take it seriously, an innocent Asian man would have had to endure a judgment call purely on the way he looks. And sadly, that's a reality a lot of minorities continue to face today.

I think we need to send more copies of Hyphen to the South... I would welcome any comments you have about terms you've come across in our media that made you feel like the outsider when you thought you were just a part of it all.


Melissa Hung

Founding Editor

Melissa Hung is the founding editor of Hyphen. She was the editor in chief for the magazine's first five years and went on to serve in many other leadership roles on the staff and board for more than a decade. She is a writer and freelance journalist. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in NPR, Vogue, Pacific Standard, Longreads, and Catapult, among others. She grew up in Texas, the eldest child of immigrants. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.



I've lived in the west, the south, and spent extensive time elsewhere. And you tend to find that in the south, people treat being politically correct as if it's the eboli virus. Of course, there is an extent to which p.c. can be going overboard, but the indignant resistance to a simple change of verbiage and education is quite telling.I mean how hard is it to avoid using the words nigger, chink, spic, kike, etc. when you are educated about the fact that these words were and are used to supress and belittle ethnicities. Would one crack a "gimp" or "retard" joke to a person whose parent/sibling has suffered throughout his/her life for being disabled?Not that there isn't any incidence of racism elsewhere, but the south has a tendency to want to preserve ethnic lines and a pecking order. It's the often neglected caviat to southern hospitality.
From Paul Harvey's noon newscast today, a story about North Koreamoving ahead on stem cell research as President Bush threatens a vetoon it here:"If Korean scientists race on ahead of us in delicate stem cellresearch it may be that the future is in better hands. What I mean is,maybe their progress reflects the fact that Orientals have handstrained in delicate dexterity by generations of using chopsticks."Available for your disbelieving ears at www.paulharvey.com (the mondaynoon newscast, 2:45 in).
Thanks for the heads up on the newscast craziness, Roy. I can't believe within the same statement as "stem cell research," such an archaic and racist attitude can be spewing from the same source. This is the 21st century for God's sake.Does it mean then that "Americans" will someday race ahead of every other nation in consumption and be the only ones left on Earth because we've had generations of practice of eating like pigs? It looks like this uppity way of thinking is already dooming us. I can't wait for the next attack from a more open-minded country wanting to take us off our high horse. Thanks Bush! When I'm dying from chemical warfare, I'll know who to blame.LC
This statement is about the most idiotic statement I have ever read."Oriental" is an ethnic slur, akin to "nigger" ...
Most retarded article ever.