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The Day I Found Out That You Couldn’t Call Them Orientals Anymore


Johnny Yune as “Bruce” in They Call Me Bruce

1,861 words

On May 8, former coal mining executive Don Blankenship lost the primary to be West Virginia’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. This comes less than a year after Blankenship got out of prison for cutting corners on safety regulations in the lead up to the notorious Upper Big Branch Mine disaster [2] which resulted in the deaths of 38 miners (he was released May 10, 2017). While Blankenship may have spent only one year inside the big house, judging from his now-infamous “Chinapeople” campaign ad, you would think that he had been inside since at least 1957.

The ad in question [3] is indeed a sight to behold. Blankenship, stone-faced and monotone with arms hanging lifelessly at his sides, opens with the line “Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for Chinapeople.” To me, it sounded like Blankenship was trying to say “Chinamen” in a politically correct way but just ends up sounding even more politically incorrect.

I can imagine the following scene having taken place during the filming of the ad:

Director: OK, we’re rolling. Aaaaaaaaand ACTION.
Blankenship: “Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for Chinamen.”
Director: CUT!!! Don, baby, you can’t say “Chinamen.”
Blankenship: Why not?
Director: Because it’s politically incorrect. You’re gonna have to think of another term, baby. Something more politically correct.

Then Blankenship, knowing nothing more about this newfangled political correctness stuff other than that a “Chinaman” is now called a “Chinaperson,” edits the line to “Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for Chinapeople.”

I’m not sure why the term “Chinaman” ever went out of fashion. Is it really THAT offensive? If he’s from China and a man, what’s the big deal? We call them Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Irishmen, don’t we? Maybe Chineseman would be more appropriate but that just sounds funny. So “Chinaman” it is.

Of course the obvious objection is that Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese probably got tired of being called “Chinamen” all the time. But that’s why we had another perfectly good term that encompassed all ethnicities of the Far East: Orientals.

Now, the peculiar thing about the word “Oriental” is that it seemed to become taboo almost overnight.

For the first 20+ years of my life, I only ever heard people of East Asian descent referred to as “Orientals.” It wasn’t a slur or anything. It was just what they were called. It’s what the TV called them. It’s what the newspapers called them. The government called them “Orientals.” Universities had “Oriental Studies” programs. It was just what they were called and I never heard them called anything else. Until one day, that is…

It was in the Spring of 2000, on a date with a girl. Everything was going fine until she mentioned a friend of hers, a Vietnamese fellow that I was vaguely aware of. I said “oh, that Oriental guy. Yeah, I know him.”

My date was horrified by what I had just said. “You don’t call them ‘Oriental.’ That’s like calling a black person the n-word.”

“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is!”
“Well, then what are you supposed to call them?”
“Asians! You call them Asians! An inanimate object is Oriental. Like, you can have an Oriental rug. But a PERSON is Asian.”
“Since when?” I protested. “I have never heard this before in my life!”

An argument ensued with me insisting on my God-given right as an American to call them Orientals and her insisting that doing so is an abomination.

You see, this upset me for two reasons.

First, one of my favorite movies as a child was the low budget 80’s comedy They Call Me Bruce. [4] If you had HBO in the 1980s, you know that they had a woefully small movie library. So when HBO got a new movie, they would play it to death. Every day. Over and over. For me, the summer of 1984 was the summer of They Call Me Bruce.

They Call Me Bruce is objectively a stupid movie but if you are seven, it’s high art. It’s about a Korean chef who everyone calls “Bruce” due to his striking resemblance to legendary kung fu master Bruce Lee. The acting is pitiful and the plot is paper thin, making it really just an excuse for the crass humor and lowbrow jokes (which, again, sound like Oscar Wilde if you’re seven) but damn it, I loved that movie. Hell, I still like it.

But more importantly, They Call Me Bruce was when I first learned that Orientals existed. I had never seen one in real life. And the word that was used for these people was “Oriental.”

One of the running gags of They Call Me Bruce is that while “Bruce” looks like the famed kung fu badass, he does not actually know how to fight. So when threatened with violence, Bruce tries to psyche people out by playing to the ethnic stereotype that all Orientals know martial arts. In one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, Bruce is confronted by a mugger [5] who pulls a knife on him. Scared to death, Bruce gives the following speech:

With my right foot, I can knock out that knife. With my left, I can kick your nose. With this hand, I can poke out your eyes. With this [holding up his other hand], I can break your neck. Take a good look at my face. I’m an Oriental.

The ruse works and the intimidated mugger backs down. Bruce unsuccessfully tries the same trick a second time [6] when confronted by a group of tough guys in a bar. On top of this, the song that played over the opening credits of They Call Me Bruce was an upbeat disco track called “Oriental Boy.” [7]

So why am I talking about They Call Me Bruce? Well, in the spring of 2000, I was aware that there were things that my dad liked as a kid which are now considered irredeemably racist (Amos and Andy, old cowboys and Indians movies). But this was the first time I learned that something from my own childhood was now considered irredeemably racist. If “Oriental” was now racist, then that meant They Call Me Bruce, which I watched approximately a billion times as a child, was now the equivalent of Birth of a Nation. And don’t get me started on my favorite comic book when I was in middle school: Oriental Heroes. [8]

The second reason the prohibition on “Oriental” bothered me was that it seemed like a terribly petty thing for Orientals to get upset about.

I can understand why blacks don’t want to be called “niggers.” It is frequently used as an insult, and there’s a lot of unlovely history to the word. I get it. But “Oriental” was never a slur. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times [9], Oriental-American Jayne Tsuchiyama defended the term, saying “Most Asian Americans have had racist epithets hurled at them at one time or another: Chink, slant eye, gook, Nip, zipperhead. But Oriental isn’t in the canon.”

Nor did the term “Oriental” have some dark origin: it simply means “Eastern.” These people chose to move to a country where they knew people like themselves were called “Orientals.” In the UK, where “Asian” refers to Muslims and Indians, people from East Asia are STILL called “Orientals.”

Personally, I’ve always thought “Oriental” is a much more elegant sounding word than “Asian.” Oriental is sexy, certainly a lot sexier than “Asian.” It’s like if I were to say “I don’t wanna be called ‘American’ anymore. I prefer Yank.” It’s a downgrade. If I were an Oriental, I would be more offended if you DIDN’T call me Oriental.

So when did “Oriental” start to become offensive? And why?

The Wikipedia entry says that it began in the 60’s and 70’s as an outgrowth of the anti-war movement. I find this hard to believe. The ultra-liberal New York Times [10] gave They Call Me Bruce a positive review at the time of its release in 1982 despite the fact that it dropped the O-word every 30 seconds. If there were anyone you would expect to be ahead of the PC curve, it would be the New York Times.

The Wikipedia article goes on to quote one John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American (for the love of God, just say Oriental) Studies Program at NYU. Tchen says “many Asian Americans identified the term ‘Oriental’ with a Western process of racializing Asians as forever opposite ‘others’.” Well if the goal was to make Orientals sound less foreign, I don’t see how “Asian” fixes that, seeing that the United States is not in Asia.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jeff Yang gave a more likely explanation in a 2009 interview [11] with NPR:

Well, you know, I think history really does play a huge role in this. And when you think about it, the term Oriental itself kind of feels freighted with luggage. You know, it’s a term which you can’t think of without having that sort of the smell of incense and the sound of a gong kind of in your head.

So there it is. It’s not that there was anything intrinsically malevolent about the word “Oriental” itself. It was the mental image that it conjured up in people’s minds by the word. Well, I think it is a bit presumptuous to for anyone to assume to know what I am thinking or what mental image springs up in my mind. I mean, sure, when you say “Oriental,” I do imagine a guy with buck teeth and coke-bottle glasses walking around in a karate gi. But I deeply resent people assuming that about me. And if we are being perfectly honest here, I get the same mental picture when you say “Asian.” After all, what’s in a name? Tokyo Rose by another name would smell as sweet.

So it would appear that the reason for the name change was that Orientals simply wanted to rebrand. Like the New Soviet man, these ain’t your daddy’s Orientals. These ones are new, hip, and modern. They’re ASIANS!

Races rebranding is not new. Blacks, for example, have attempted to re-brand several times. They’ve been negroes, coloreds, blacks, African-Americans, “people of color,” and those are just the terms that caught on. However, the behavior of The Eternal Black never changes. So no matter how many times blacks attempt to rebrand, people just re-learn the same negative associations with the new term. You could call blacks “fuzzy-wuzzies” and I would still lock my car doors when driving through their neighborhoods.

Could white people do the same trick? Could we say “You know what, guys? I think the term ‘white’ has a little too much baggage. People associate it with slavery, Jim Crow, and colonialism. So we’re just going to start calling ourselves something else and the rest of you guys have to start calling us that as well. Or else.”

It’s something to think about. If nothing else, it would make people think twice about calling me a “white supremacist.” Because I could just say “Hey, buddy! Who are you calling ‘white’? What do you think this is? The 00’s?”