May 28, 2016

"Oriental" is not derogatory

On May 20th, Obama signed a bill that removes "Negro," "Oriental" and a few other terms from federal laws, specifically, "striking 'a Negro, Puerto Rican, American Indian, Eskimo, Oriental, or Aleut or is a Spanish speaking individual of Spanish descent' and inserting 'Asian American, Native Hawaiian, a Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Native American, or an Alaska Native'." The bill, sponsored by New York congresswoman Grace Meng, an Asian American born in 1975, focused on the word "Oriental" but included other derogatory terms such as "Negro".

No doubt "Negro" is offensive, derogatory, reminding us all of the dark history of slavery. But does "Oriental" have the same effect to arouse a mental image of Chinese exclusion, coolies, or other more subtle discriminations in later decades? As an Asian American myself who came to the United States in early 1990's, I say No to this specific question. Discrimination against Asian Americans has never been completely eliminated and takes different forms from those against, say, African Americans: secretly raising college entrance standard, racial slurs in public broadcast with impunity, and others. But it never occurred to me that the word "Oriental" would be offensive to me in any way. About twenty years ago, I worked at a lab, where we all shared one telephone. One day the phone rang. My coworker, a white technician, came to me saying, "It's for you. The guy has an Oriental accent". That sounded absolutely normal to me. Interestingly, now I just realize that the word "Oriental" was indeed rarely used in recent years. In fact, I don't recall hearing it again in daily conversation ever since. But that may be just due to a natural evolution of the English language in which some words gain and some words lose popularity, instead of people's realization of the newly acquired offensive sense.

I'm not the only Oriental, a.k.a Asian, that considers the word neutral. Two years ago, a reader commented on an article saying "the word 'Oriental' is still widely used here in Japan". I want to add that the word is also commonly used as part of English translations for thousands if not millions of hotels, restaurants, all kinds of businesses in China, including the famous 东方明珠, officially named Oriental Pearl Tower, the tallest structure in China from 1994–2007 and one of the most visited places in Shanghai. Right after Obama signed the bill, an Asian American wrote My 'Oriental' Father: On The Words We Use To Describe Ourselves on Her father emigrated from Hong Kong to the US in 1969 and has always insisted on using the term "Oriental" to refer to himself and the style of his Chinese restaurant, in spite of the author's repeated reminders that the term has picked up an offensive connotation over the years. Readers of the article generally consider "Oriental" to be neutral as well. I can't agree more with the following comment currently at the top:

As a dumpy old white guy, I have never thought of Oriental as a disrespectful term. Yet, regardless of my feelings on the matter, if someone feels marginalized by the term, it shouldn't be a problem for me to use a word or phrase that they find more appropriate.

That being said, there is indeed a distinction we can make between self-referral and referral-to-others, as one reader comments

This is a critical point that is very different from words used by others to describe each of us. Your wife [referring to another reader's comment] is comfortable referring to herself as "Oriental," like the author's father. But it may be different for her if someone else uses the same word in a different way, such as "it is hard to tell what Orientals are thinking" or "inscrutable Oriental."

That is because there is often a need to consider intent (versus ignorance) in the words used by others to describe each of us. A shift to geographically based terms like European, African, Asian reduces that need somewhat.

Very well said! However, whether a word becomes derogatory should follow a simple "democracy" rule, so to speak. If a large number of people speaking this language use the word in a derogatory sense, it is so. If not, it is not. There's no magic. It's a descriptive rule not, in this case, challenged by prescriptive linguists or scholars, but ironically, challenged by some young generation Asian Americans, up to Congresswoman Grace Meng, good intentions notwithstanding. Although eliminating one word from our vocabulary or limiting its use to specialized areas is harmless, if we continue to move words into the dictionary of tabooed language, our life will nevertheless become increasingly more inconvenient.

By the way, it would be interesting to find the origin of the new, allegedly derogatory, connotation of "Oriental", something no article I've read touched upon. It's not likely that one single incident or a fictional scene created such a dramatic effect. Certain young Asian Americans may have suffered from weak and implicit unfairness in whose context the word "Oriental" was used. If this wild guess is completely unfounded, another source of this connotation may be a continuation and re-surge of Orientalism most famously expounded by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in late 1970's. In a Foreign Policy article Chinese Is Not a Backward Language, the author uses the term "Orientalism 2.0" as a label for the re-emerging notion of western superiority and corresponding eastern inferiority. Is there a causal association with "Oriental" derogation? The Orientalist ideas are largely restricted to the academic circles. If the derogatory sense of "Oriental" has truly been felt by mostly scholars and "leaked" to some highly educated young Asian Americans, that may indeed be the origin of the new connotation we are looking for, and it's consistent with the fact that the general public is not aware of the semantic evolution.

Contact me by email or form
To my English for Chinese Page