Monday, March 30, 2009

Derogatory expressions: the chinky-eye

The first day at a new school is a frightening experience. We moved to a new neighborhood in the middle of my first year in elementary school. This particular section of the Bronx had a lot more white people. When my dad introduced me to the new teacher, it was in front of the whole class. My new teacher, Ms. Tanlish, smiled at me and instructed the class to say hello to the new student. In unison, as elementary school students do, they greeted me with a half-sung “Hello, Jang.” I peered around the class looking for a friendly face. In the back of the class was this one kid who had a scowl on his face. My focus stayed on him. And then he made the face; the world famous Chinese chinky-eyed face.

For the people who don’t know what this is, I’ll explain the chinky-eye. It’s when you take your fingers and pull the outer corners of your eyes to make your eyes appear slanted and smaller, like Asian eyes. I have been the recipient of this middle-finger-gone-racial more times than I can count. That’s why whenever I see or hear of it now, my blood boils.

Never would I ever expect a childhood method of ridicule to become the center of international controversy, but it happened during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Briefly, this is what went down: the Spanish basketball team posed for a full-page newspaper ad that had all the players doing the chinky-eye. Of course, because of the internet, the picture was quickly disseminated, and the world got a quick introduction to the chinky-eye. And most of the world was pretty upset. The Spanish team, and actually most Spaniards, were taken aback and were not prepared for such criticism. Their defense was that they did not intend to offend anyone but wanted to “commemorate” or show “affection” the fact that the Olympics were being held in China and that the chinky-eye was the symbol for Chinese people in Spain (or some crap like that). The Chinese were actually pretty quick to forgive, issuing an official statement of “it’s all good.” But it was the international community, namely America, that protested the lack of forethought and sensitivity that went into such a public and, presumably, premeditated mockery. Spain was baffled by America’s reaction, especially since the intended target, China, seemed to be fine with it.

Now, I was very glad that there was any reaction at all. Because when something like this happens to Asians, no one could care less. In fact, I would have been satisfied if just one big publication like the NY Times reported on it. But for some reason, the media rode the story out for days. I was impressed.

So, here is my take on it. I heard many arguments that went like this, “But look, even the Chinese were alright with it.” Ok, do you remember who we’re dealing with here? It’s China. This is a country that is almost completely ethnically homogenous. Chinese are the overwhelming majority in China, so chances are, they’ve never been subjected to such racial gestures, let alone racial hate, and therefore don’t quite feel the full sting of the slap in the face. So yeah, why not forgive Spain for something that just seems childlike and petty?

Ok, and second of all, do you remember who we’re dealing with here? It’s China. This is a country that will stop at nothing to look good in front of the world. I think we saw evidence of that with the lip-syncing girl, the underage gymnasts, and the millions of dollars poured into the opening ceremonies. So, it’s no surprise that the Chinese government would brush this one off, not wanting to fuel unnecessary controversy and draw attention away from what we really came to see; this was China’s once in a lifetime chance to showcase its awesomeness.

But still, I heard other arguments that went like this, “What’s the big deal. They weren’t intending to offend anyone. It was just a joke.” Now, how can I put this plainly… ok, that is just plain stupid. Yes, they were intending to be offensive. What they didn’t intend for to happen was that newspaper ad to ever leave the country of Spain. C’mon, how do you expect me to believe that a group of twenty-something year old men didn’t understand the offensive nature of a racial gesture when I’ve been subjected to that same gesture from four-year olds who knew perfectly well that they were making fun of me? I have never had a kid give me the chinky eye because he wanted to be “affectionate” towards me. If you really want to claim that you are dumber than a four-year old then be my guest.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

White guy staring

I was at a party a few weeks back. It was a typical Utah house party: rock band, dancing, and no alcohol. After getting wasted on a few root beers, I decided to cut up a rug. As soon as I started doing my patented running man, this one kid looked at me. But it wasn’t just a look. It was a stare. And not just a regular stare. It was an “Oh, I know who you are” stare. I was sure I didn’t know the kid, so I just looked away for most of the time. He was also dancing, and it was apparent that he had memorized the words to the rap song that was blaring out of the speakers. As a few more songs went by, I noticed that he hadn’t lifted his gaze and that he continued to be the master of ceremonies, rapping away to what I thought were pretty inaudible lyrics.

When the stare went on for maybe 5 songs, I was pretty sure of what was going on: he figured I was that minority kid who was “down” (I was wearing a black fitted baseball cap, a sure sign of urban coolness). He wanted recognition for his own coolness—his beanie cap, two-step, and knowledge of hip hop lyrics.

I wanted to make sure that my assumption was correct. I approached him with a poker face, gave him an acknowledging head lift, and said, “What’s up?” He responded, “What’s up, dude?” I said, “You got some pretty good moves. Where are you from?” He responded, “I’m from Florida. Yeah, when I was a kid I had only like three white friends.” I wasn't exactly sure what he wanted me to say to that. Did he want me to compliment him?

Maybe he thought I'd be impressed somehow and would enthusiastically say something like, "Oh, word? So can we be homies?"

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Survey analysis: Lots of people who pee in Coke

So the question of the week was, “Before reading the post entitled Me Chinese. Me Tell Joke, had you heard of the Coke joke before?”

The results were: No-23 (61%); Yes-15 (39%)

So I’ve got to admit that the results were a little disappointing. I could have sworn that the Coke joke was more universal than this. I was imagining kids from LA to DC singing “Me Chinese, Me tell joke” in unison. My only consolation is that, at least, 15 of you would have played the joke on me, had you known me at that age (at least, that’s my interpretation).

Here’s something interesting. A good friend of mine who is from NY and is Asian, told me that he had never heard the joke. I was shocked. How could two Asian kids from the same city experience totally different things? Granted, I was in the Bronx and he was in Lower Manhattan/Queens, but still…

Another interesting note: two friends told me that they knew of the joke and would play it on fellow white kids. Now, that seems like a waste…

Monday, March 23, 2009

Minorities and Crime

When I was working in Korea as an intern in 2005, someone broke into my landlord’s apartment, located directly above my apartment. In a land that is almost completely ethnically homogenous (I’d say 99% Korean), it was pretty safe to assume that the perpetrator(s) of the crime was Korean. In a profound way, it was actually pretty refreshing to have race as a null point. When the landlord told me of the incident, there was no name calling or predictions of what the perpetrator looked like—he looked like us.
In America, the topic of crime has a shadow—race. You almost cannot separate the two. I cannot even count the number of times I’ve been in conversations where the person will say that his car was broken into and they will automatically assume “it was probably a black guy.” It has made me wonder if white people ever think that white people commit crimes.
As a criminal defense attorney in Utah County, I hear about a lot of crime. I have a lot of clients who have committed crimes. A friend asked me a few weeks ago, “So, are you defending all the Mexican gangsters?” I quickly responded that only a small percentage of my clients are Mexican. A few days ago when I went to go visit one of my clients in jail who had six criminal charges, each from separate incidents, another friend asked me if the guy was black. Confused that such a question would be asked, I replied, “Of course not! This is Utah County! There are no black people!” The assumptions that fly when you talk about crime are just astounding. You could be in lily white, middle of nowhere USA, (which I am) and people will still think that the criminal is a minority.
Having been born and raised in New York, I can tell you that all the crimes committed against me and my family were perpetrated by folks from all over the color spectrum—it really was a melting pot of crime. Without getting into too much detail: white women assaulted my mother and put her in the hospital, a black person stole my bike… while I was still riding it, Hispanic people shoplifted from my parent’s store more times than I have fingers and toes, and Asian people stole so much money from my parents’ business that they had to restart the business from scratch. So believe me, crime is not a race thing.
Yes, I know if we play the numbers game, I will lose. It’s statistics that will tell you that blacks and Hispanics disproportionately make up a lot of the crime; I can’t dispute that. But no matter what the statistics say, I’d rather not assume anything till I see the guy behind the ski mask.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Race Consciousness

For most children, race is not a conscious thought. You just play with the kids in your neighborhood without much thought as to why some kids had darker or lighter skin. In most cases, due to the racial homogeneity of the majority of neighborhoods in America, you usually played with kids who were the same color as you, so there'd really be no reason for the philosophical "Who am I?" question. For me, the self-realization of my race was one of my earliest thoughts. I was probably only four years old when my brother and I had a discussion of why everyone else in town looked different from us. We had this talk while walking down the street and seeing the dozens of fellow pedestrians with significantly darker skin than ours. My theory was that it was all by chance. I said that when a baby was born (brought by the stork) the color of the newborn was completely random. And by luck of the draw, our whole family came out the exact same color. My brother, Jung, didn't have his own explanation so I took his silence for agreement.

Usually the difference in skin color, alone, doesn't trigger race-consciousness in a four-year-old; there has to be something else. That something else for me and my brothers was the frequent name calling we received when we walked down our street. It was a pretty regular occurrence for complete strangers to see us and immediately say, "Yo, chink!" Well, I guess it wasn't always completely random. More often, it would be in an instance like when we passed by some kids playing baseball and if their ball happened to roll by us, they would yell something like, "Yo chink, get the ball!" Since these kids were always bigger than I, the most I could muster would be a, "Yo, shut up!" That quickly became my knee-jerk retort. After which, I would quickly put my head down and walk away, almost hoping they didn't hear me.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Survey results: lots of people who want racial harmony and to be in a comic book

The survey question of the week was: When it comes to race, which letters describe you best?

The results were: a. KKK-3 b. MLK-12 c. Malcolm X-3 d. X-Men-12

The purpose of this question was to get a sense of what kind of readership was attracted to the blog. Are they the type that strive for peace, love, and racial harmony like Martin Luther King or are they the type to want to kill me like the Ku Klux Klan? Obviously, if there were a bunch of KKK people on here, I may have to rethink my game plan (as in come up with a good exit strategy).

As expected, I got the most votes for Martin Luther King. No doubt, MLK was a great guy, although I have had people argue that he wasn’t. While there might be a few specific things that you don’t agree with regarding MLK, I hope that we can, at least, agree that his objective of reaching racial harmony and doing that through non-violent means was a noble thing to strive for.

X-Men was my joke answer, and I only threw it in there because it had a letter in the name. And as expected, this tied for most votes. I’m guessing that the people who chose this thought it would be funny. Although on second thought, it’s possible that some of those voters were thinking that since the X-Men are comprised of people of diverse backgrounds, that they represented some kind of racial harmony. Probably not, but possible.

Also, as expected, very few people picked Ku Klux Klan and Malcolm X. One of the three people who voted KKK later confessed to me that he was just trying to “spice things up.” As for the lack of votes on Malcolm X, I think this is an indicator of how little most people know about him. I actually hold him in high regard, because among other things, he showed the human capacity to change. He’s usually portrayed as very militant, but before he died he made a 180 degree turn and became a peace-loving person. This is quite remarkable considering that he and his family were targeted by white supremacists since he was still in his mother’s womb. Learn more about him here Or watch the Spike Lee movie, Malcolm X.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Asian girls are so scandalous

The other day, my friend Brian, told me that the Asian girls on his college campus dressed very “scandalous.” I asked him if he thought that they dressed more scandalously than white folks. He said yes. My other friend, Nate, was also there and he seemed to agree—or more like agree in an objective way by saying that the image of Asian girls is kind of risqué, at least portrayed as such by pseudo-celebrities like Tila Tequila. In my best psychology professor voice, I tried to tell them the concept of confirmation bias, which is the selective memory of things that confirm preconceived notions. I firmly believe that this psychological concept is manifested in us every single day. Confirmation bias can occur where it is unwarranted. For example, let’s take something that is obviously unfounded—like smokers drive red cars. If you believed this, every time a red car passed by with a driver that had a cigarette on his or her lips, you would subconsciously (or very consciously) store that in your memory because it confirmed your belief, no matter how irrational it was.

Not all biases are unfounded; many of them have some truth to them, which is why such biases were formed in the first place. This may be a bad example, but just the other day I saw a rather buff guy with a tight shirt, and it confirmed my bias that buff guys love showing off their muscles. I think this one has some truth to it, but then again, there may be just as many buff guys who don’t like to show people how many hours they spend in the gym.

And then there are biases that are outright wrong. The bias that Asian girls dress more scandalously is probably wrong. You see, 95% of the people on Brian’s campus are white, and so it makes it hard to make stereotypes about a population that is so predominant, whereas it is easier to make stereotypes of the minority. Let’s say that Brian saw a horde of 30 white girls walking to class in bikinis, everyday for a month, my guess is that he wouldn’t ever conclude, “Geez, white girls are so scandalous,” because there would always be 15,000 other white girls who didn’t dress like that. But ironically, if he saw a small group of five Asian girls wearing miniskirts, everyday for a week, he would conclude, as he has, “Geez, Asian girls are so scandalous.”

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe on Brian’s campus, Asian girls are scantily clad above the national average. But all I know is that a week after our conversation, Brian came back to me and said, “Hey, I’ve been looking around campus this week… and there are a lot of modestly dressed Asian girls.”