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.


  1. It's a low blow when people make discriminatory remarks in jest. It just can't be done...Did you know I got one of or Poli Sci profs to say that Americans did a worse job of exterminating Blacks than Native Americans...when the class reacted, he said just're taking that the wrong way. That was the glorious moment I realized that provoking people to display their subtle racism, apathy to racial pain caused by the "just joking" attitude, gives me leverage. It's hard to prove discrimination legal w/o a pattern of documented cases. In the meantime people have to be hurt...props to the US media for picking up on the Spanish team's gestures.

  2. When Aston sees me smile or laugh, he squints his eyes. He's only two, and he sees mommy happy, and I think he just copies what I'm doing. I believe it starts like that. The kids see the difference and acknowledge it. Until I read the forth paragraph and then on, I was thinking, 'I don't think it's a big deal,' but it enlightened me that it might be just because I grew up in Korea. I don't know the seriousness of this problem in America. Now, my question is what can I do when something like that happens to Aston (or even me), what should I do? As a first grader, Jang, what do you wish that you or maybe your parents had done to react to such offense.

  3. I love the sensational title. That is a very Asian thing to do...

  4. You know it's been a while since anyone has "slanted their eyes" towards me. I guess my eyes have opened up through conversations and hand shakes. I'm not angry anymore.

  5., there's some language in this one but it hits on this post and a previous one. It's Richard Pryor reconsidering his use of the word "nigger" in comedy.

    I meant "it's hard to prove discrimination legally w/o a pattern of documented cases."


  6. just a few thoughts: 1. i can't believe i never heard about the ad until now. thank you, jang, for educating me; 2. i think the points you made about why the people of china weren't so upset are valid. as soon as you said that they were quick to forgive, i was thinking "they're so hell-bent on pleasing everyone" and was happy to see that you thought the same.

  7. That newspaper ad was just rude and insensitive. I'm glad that the U.S. media made such an outcry- and even more glad that the Spanish team made a fool of themselves trying to defend their actions. The sad thing is, nearly every ethnic group discriminates. In Peru, they trash-talked on the Bolivians and, yes, even the Chinese. I remember talking to Peruvians and when they mentioned the Chinese, they'd pull their eyes up too! Sadly, it seems the chinky-eye is universal.

  8. I don't agree with your reasoning here, Jang. You acknowledge that this gesture would be less offensive in China, but then project your childhood experiences in the Bronx onto the Spanish basketball team. Spain is also a different country with different racial and cultural complexities. Granted, they are not ethnically homogenous, but it's still not fair for you to hold them to your experiences in the Bronx. The Spanish national teams have long had a strong connection with China and are sponsored by the Li-Ning shoe company, which is the Nike of China. Regardless of their motives when they took the picture in question, it's not rational for you to hold them to your personal childhood experiences.

  9. jonas brothers' band:

    hannah montana:

    and these two are what the youth of today look up to and idolize... how sad is that?


  10. Jody, you hit on an important topic that will be raised in a future post: racial jokes made in jest. Briefly, I'll just say that while there are plenty of good-natured racial jokes (yes, I do believe some can be good natured and even funny), you just have to be careful where the line is when you are crossing into dangerous territory. Racial jokes are no different than other jokes; if it makes people feel bad then it probably isn't good. If it makes people feel bad about who they are then it probably isn't a good joke. I love richard pryor link you sent. I've seen it before.

    Saerom, great comment. A baby instinctively mimicking what their parents do is entirely different than a 7 year old who has become well aware of what teasing is; they do it to their siblings all day. And a 20 something year old is of course entirely different from a 7 year old because yeah, we know why... As for how you or your son should react to such gestures, I don't know what to tell you. Really, you should kind of act the same way as if someone gave you a middle finger, because essentially that is what is going on. As for me personally, I'm going to teach my kid to stand up for himself. That could mean calmly educating (which I don't think will work too well if you are 7), arguing, or even fighting. I really don't know... I'm not a parent yet. The important thing to remember is that your kid needs to be proud and comfortable with who he is, and that there is no deficiency about him just because he looks different.

    And Saerome, your initial feeling of "what's the big deal" is a perfect example of how people from ethnically homogeneous countries don't quite understand the racial impact of stuff like this, being that you were born and raised in Korea.

    Brostar, I'm hoping one of my sensational titles will catch the eye of someone at the Enquirer.

    Sunnygroov, I'm glad you're not angry anymore. I'm not angry either... with what happened in the past, only with what happens right now. Anger is probably not the right word (although I did say that "my blood boils"). I'm more like "concerned" and want ppl to understand why.

    Jihyei, glad you thought of that point as well. Great minds think alike.

    Jackie, the chinky-eye is the all-knowing eye. That's why it's universal.

  11. Grant Olsen, your comment is so good that I wanted to dedicate a separate comment for you. Thanks for bringing up the apparent flaw in my reasoning. And I was actually hoping that someone would catch it. But let me tell you why you are wrong and why I am right... haha.

    First, as you pointed out, Spain is not ethnically homogeneous. That is key. I'm going to make a wild stab at this but you'd be hard pressed to find a Spaniard who has never seen an Asian person. Spain has many immigrants from all over the world, in fact. Not being ethically homogeneous means you hear, read, and see social interactions with other kinds of people. That fact alone should make you aware that some people are different and they generally don't like it when you make fun of that difference.

    Also, this is not the first trouble Spain has gotten in when it comes to race and sports. You may recall how it was reported that the Spanish soccer players and fans were making monkey gestures and sounds at a black player on another team during a game. Will you not hold them accountable for this just because they don't understand what making fun of a black person is? Will you say that Spain's cultural experience is so different that they didn't understand that their gestures and sounds constituted mockery? If yes, then I cannot win this argument.

    Also, if there's any country that should understand racism, it should be Spain, given their history of colonizing nearly all of Latin America, parts of Africa, the Philippines, etc. They KNOW racism.

    As for China, you could live there your whole life and never see a non-Chinese person. In fact, that's probably the case for 90% of Chinese. That means they have never come across a person who calls them a chink or gives them the chinky-eye. And as you can see from Saerom's comment above, who grew up in homogeneous Korea, she initially didn't think the chinky-eye was a big deal. Why? because noone has ever done it to her! Asians who live in Asia have absolutely no concept of why having a smaller or "slanted" eye is even considered a bad thing. There's no problem seeing out of the eye and everyone around them has that kind of eye so why would it ever cross their mind that it's a negative thing to have an eye like that? Because obviously, it's NOT a negative thing, but some people, like the Spanish bball team would like to make light of it.

    And as a last point, you don't have to come from the same background as me to understand when you are mocking someone. Mockery and ridicule is a universal language. Now that doesn't mean everyone equally understands the social significance of a certain form of ridicule, but there is certainly more understanding from the person who is doing the mocking as opposed to the one receiving it.

    But then again, if your momma didn't teach you that teasing other kids is not right, then that is a whole other problem...

  12. Touche. But you'd better not bring my momma into this, or you'll make my blood boil!

  13. Marjorie, thanks for those links. I've actually seen them before but they are good for others to see.

    Grant Olsen, you're a good sport. But your momma is in trouble.

  14. Question--how do you feel about making fun of foreign accents? And is it worse if there is a difference in skin color (i.e. French and German accents okay for me to do but not Indian and Korean.) I joking around in different accents around home--but I wouldn't do it around people from that country. I guess if I wouldn't do it around someone in person I shouldn't do it at all--but it's so fun to say things in an Indian accent. What's a well-meaning white boy to do?

  15. When I was in China, the high school kids would do this face where they pull down on the lower eyelid to make their eyes kinda bloodshot and bigger, I assume like our eyes. Just thought that was interesting.

  16. “What’s the big deal. They weren’t intending to offend anyone. It was just a joke.” - I HATE when people say this when they use an offensive word