Wednesday, April 29, 2009

We all say really dumb things

In high school, I once followed my dad to work.  We visited a store where he sold some of his merchandise.  It looked as though my dad knew the storeowner, a Chinese man, fairly well.  As I watched my dad and the storeowner converse, I thought it was interesting to find two immigrants from different countries using their second language of English as their mode of communication.  I thought how there must be countless opportunities for things to get lost in translation.    

After they had some small talk and had a good chuckle about something, my dad patted the storeowner on the shoulder and looked at me and said, “He is an honest Chinese man.” My eyes widened, and I quickly glanced at the owner to see if he actually understood the subtle yet apparent hint of prejudice.  Fortunately, the storeowner did not flinch and he kept on smiling. Phew, Lost in translation!    

I spoke to my dad about his “compliment” when we left the store.  I explained to him the significance of his words.  At first he didn’t understand.  While my dad’s command of the English language may have been one reason for the Freudian slip, I believe that it was, indeed, a Freudian slip.  He was unintentionally manifesting a prejudice toward the Chinese.  There is the stereotype that the Chinese are shrewd businessmen, and apparently my dad thought so too. 

So, why was my dad’s statement not a genuine compliment?  The lingual significance is subtle enough to merit an explanation.  In my dad’s mind, he was paying a genuine compliment to the storeowner: “This man is honest.”  There is nothing wrong with saying that.  But what my dad was also subliminally saying was that most of the storeowner’s countrymen were not that honest.  A man’s ethnicity or race should not have any correlation to a man’s honesty, yet my dad thought it did.  And because the storeowner happened to be honest and Chinese, my dad wanted to point out that fact, as if it were something remarkable to take note of.     

To further illustrate my point, let’s take a few examples of where the stereotype may be more obvious.  Let’s say an employer sees one of his employees, who is black, working late hours in the office, and tells him, “You are a hard working black man.”  Hmmm, not so much a compliment, right?  Here’s another one: a police officer sees a Latino and tells him, “You are a law-abiding Mexican.”  Now is the prejudice becoming a little more clear?             

Most of us would like to think that we wouldn’t say such dumb things.  But here are some things that pretty much everyone is guilty of saying or agreeing to, at one point or another: “That white boy can dance”; “He plays basketball really well for an Asian”; “He’s white, but he can really jump”; “He’s a really tall Asian guy”; “He’s a really good white rapper.”  These are pretty common things I hear (or even say) but because dancing, basketball, height, and rapping skills are rather innocuous topics, there is very little social backlash, despite the obvious bias.  

It’s the more sensitive topics of intelligence, work-ethic, socio-economic status, or some apparent behavioral predisposition that people are more cautious about.  To spot prejudices of this sort, you have to have a keen sense of social interaction, language, and universally believed cultural biases.  While I have heard outright racist comments like, “He’s a really smart black guy,” people are usually good about staying away from such obvious prejudice.  So as an alternative, a more common scenario might look like this: if there is a group of people talking about some person, and it is agreed that person is black, someone in the group may feel the need to go to great lengths to point out that the guy is also very well-spoken and has a college degree.  In response, several people in the group may say, “Oh, really? Wow! That’s wonderful.”  I’ve heard conversations like this a million times.  Are they sincere compliments?  Yes.  But are they the kind of compliments you would give a white guy?  It depends.  Usually, the white guy needs to have done something a little more grand to warrant such commentary, like if he just won a national speech contest or graduated from medical school.  In other instances, such commentary may occur for a white guy if it was known that the guy grew up in a trailer park and had a broken home, but yet made it to college.  For a black guy, it is almost always assumed that the guy grew up in the hood and had a broken home, which is why we gasp when we hear of a black guy who made it.    

I know I’m entering the danger zone of being overly sensitive by saying all of this because I know many of you are thinking, “Uh, does that mean I can never compliment someone who happens to be a minority?”  No, that is not what I’m saying.  Compliment all you want.  Compliments are good things.  But what I am saying is that while it may not be so apparent, we all have prejudices that are manifested in our speech on a pretty regular basis ; just be aware of them and understand the "why" and "how" of what you are saying.  Because you may not be as lucky as my dad, and someone may think that what you are saying is really dumb. 

Monday, April 13, 2009

Asians all look the same (the sequel!)

For this second installment of “All look same” I will focus on the more common and therefore more annoying idea that all Asian people look the same. As I briefly explained in part I, this one deals with the sameness on an individual level and how it may be difficult to tell apart this Asian guy from that Asian guy.

First I would like to say that if you have had little exposure to Asian people, it is understandable and quite normal to have trouble distinguishing between Asians. It is a well-documented fact that every race has a tough time distinguishing people of other races. The law has even recognized this, and so whenever you have an eye-witness in court who testifies against someone of a different race, you can discredit that testimony with an expert witness who informs the jury about the inherent difficulty for one race to identify people of other races. Misidentification has notoriously been a major problem for minorities caught up in the justice system (Yes, I know white people are misidentified, too).

While I acknowledge the inherent difficulty, it still bothers me when people confuse me as someone else. To be honest, I couldn’t care less if you can’t tell a Korean from a Chinese, but if you can’t tell me apart from my Asian friend who is standing right next to me, that is just a tad annoying.

In my freshman year at college, there was a Chinese kid from Michigan who lived on my floor in the dormitory. His name was Naman (pronounced Nay Min, like the character in the Old Testament). Honestly, you really couldn’t find two Asian guys who looked more different. He was 5’5". I’m 5’10". He was buff. I was very skinny. His hair was straight and spiky. Mine was a straight afro. His wardrobe was stuff from Abercrombie. Mine was stuff from a hip hop video. These were some of the more notable differences, not to mention the minor detail that our faces looked totally different. Even with all these apparent differences, however, there was this one kid on our floor who would constantly call me by my Asian counter-part’s name. And my Asian counter-part would get my name. I would politely correct him every time he got it wrong, but as the semester wore on and he continued to do this, he could sense that I was getting a little perturbed. I think on one of the very last times he mixed us up, I was walking down the long hallway of the dormitory when I saw the kid walking towards me from the opposite end. As we neared each other, I could see a look of worry on his face. When we got to about 10 feet of each other, he blurted out, "Naman!" like a contestant on a game show. But as soon as he said it, he knew it was wrong, so he quickly corrected himself almost in a remorseful tone and said, "Jang." He had a pained look on his face as he rolled his eyes, knowing that he had done it again. I was just glad the semester was almost over.

More recently, in my first year of law school, I went to the Career Services Office to get acquainted with some of the people there. I had actually been in the office before and had remembered the girl’s name behind the counter. I entered the room and called the girl by her name, slightly proud that I had even remembered it. In response, she called me “Alma.” I gave her an inquisitive look. And then she corrected herself and said, “Oh, Nate!” I raised my eyebrow even further. And then she corrected herself again and exclaimed, “Oh, Jang!” The funny thing was that she did not appear to be even remotely embarrassed that she had just named off every Asian guy in the first-year class. In fact, she looked pretty excited that she had gotten my name at all. At least, she didn’t name the one Asian female. Check out the class photos of the three Asians, in the order that they were named (My hair was shaved for all three years of law school).




Besides the fact that the blue backgrounds make us look like the Brady Bunch goes to the Orient, these are fair representations of our faces. While some legally blind people may argue that Nate and I look like carbon copies, if you see us in person it is even more apparent that we look nothing alike. Plus, I think the girl in the office wasn't thinking in terms of how similar we actually looked, but more in terms of race ("Oh, they're all Asian!"), considering the fact that she named Alma first, and I think most people would agree that Alma does not look like me.

And of course, there's the “Hey, you look like my friend, Johnny Zhang [or insert some other Asian surname].” Now, I am not opposed to looking like other people, but if you say this to me, be prepared to show tangible proof. I want you to introduce me to this guy or at least show me a headshot, so I can determine for myself if he is really my spitting-image. If he is, then fine. I'll be glad that someone else has also been blessed with dashing good looks; it’ll just be awkward if I run into this twin at a party. If not, then I'm going to smack you across the face and tell you to go back to where you came from (that's a joke, people). I realize this is a completely subjective thing because I’ve often noted, in the face of great opposition, that some person looks strikingly like another person. I mean, did anyone else think that Jim Carey looked kind of like his co-star, Cary Elwes, in the movie Liar, Liar? See for yourself (I don’t think the picture is from the movie, however). I just thought it was a funny casting choice to have them both in the same movie.

I mean, there's a reason why we have celebrity look-alike contests in America. And surprise, none of the contestants are Asian. Well, that's because there are no Asian celebrities (I'll save that for a future post).

But it was particularly disturbing when on one occasion, a person who I had just met for a few hours told me that I looked like one of her friends. I asked whether he was Asian. She answered, “Yes... and she acts just like you, too.”

Oh, come on! She?! Now I'm a girl?! And this girl even acts like me? Oh, double come on!

Actually, the funny thing is that I've gotten the "and he acts like you, too" probably about a dozen times. But since acting is a behavior and not a physical trait, you would think I would sometimes be compared to a non-Asian. But no. Oddly enough, I have never been compared, behavior-wise, to another white guy, which is strange since I'm pretty sure most white people mostly have white friends, thereby increasing the pool of potential white people I could be compared to. Some people who I'm pretty sure only know like two Asian people, will somehow manage to find that I act exactly like one of their Asian acquaintances back from high school. Imagine that! I act exactly the same way as one of those two Asian people they know. And I look like him! Well, by golly gee, it's a miracle!

Oh, and get this. There was even one time on a date last summer where the girl told me that my voice sounded just like a couple of her Hawaiian friends, and she therefore concluded that Asians all sounded alike.

Maybe I should have entitled this post, "Asians all look, act, smell, think, sound, and pretty much do everything the freakin' same." But I digress...

So, what is the conclusion? Um... well... nothing! I just wanted to gripe about how people mix me up with other Asians. I can't do anything to help this phenomenon, besides tell people to go make an Asian friend today or watch more Asian movies. It's not racism to misidentify people. The only crime is that you don't get out much. You probably don't remember what the sun looks like either. And that's a shame. So, if you think all Asians look the same, it really doesn't say that much about Asians, but it does say a lot about you.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Asians all look the same (part I)

The idea that Asians all look the same has two parts. Both parts stem from the same idea, but they are characteristically different in the sense that one is on a micro-level while the other is macro. They go like this: it is difficult to distinguish from one individual Asian from another, and it is hard to distinguish one Asian ethnicity from the other. For this first installment, I will focus on the latter, the idea that Asians from different countries could all look like they come from the same country, particularly in regards to the East Asian countries of China, Korea, and Japan.

I cannot remember the number of times that I’ve been asked, “Can you tell the difference between a Chinese person and a Japanese person, or a Korean and a Chinese?” For the first 27 3/4 years of my life, I had no qualms about answering this question. It seemed to be a valid curiosity, posed without any agenda, bias, or ill. I usually responded by saying that it was difficult for me to tell the difference between the various ethnic groups but that I could usually get it right like 6 or 7 times out of 10. I’m usually met with faces of astonishment and sometimes statements of disbelief like, “No way! Really? I can’t tell the difference at all!” And for a moment, I feel proud of my God-given gift of discernment.

So for all the people who have wanted to ask this question to a real-life Asian, I will answer this mystery once and for all: Yes, I can tell the difference between the Asian ethnicities. But let me qualify this by saying that I get it wrong 3-4 times out of 10. But before you go off and conclude that I really can’t tell the difference, ask yourself this question: can you always tell the difference between a Frenchman and a German or a Greek and an Italian? Would you say you get it wrong maybe as much as half the time? The question could also be asked for the various black and Hispanic ethnicities. Does that Mexican look like that Guatemalan? Does that Ghanaian look like that Ugandan?  Sure, there are plenty of distinguishing characteristics you can look out for, but there are just as many exceptions that can throw you off.

Now, the question itself doesn't bother me. Because I agree, it can be fun to try to figure out who’s who. But the recent spate of such inquiries (three times in the last week), has led me to reevaluate the “all look same” idea and the motive behind it. One thing that gets me is why all the curiosity? I have been asked whether I can distinguish between my fellow Asians by nearly every one of my good friends and acquaintances. In fact, it seems as though the whole country is asking it. There is even a website dedicated to this conundrum ( Try out the test online and you’ll be even more convinced that there is no physical difference between East Asians (keep in mind that if you have little exposure to Asians, you will test very poorly. And for those who do know Asians, you will also do poorly because the test is trying to throw you off).

My only answer to this unusual degree of curiosity is that it goes to the whole notion that Asians look the same, no matter what country they are from, and it’s just so darn funny to make light of it. While I recognize that most people who pose this question to me are not being malicious in the slightest degree, I just have to wonder why hardly anyone asks if that Brit looks like that Swede, or if that Spaniard looks like that Italian; the idea that you cannot distinguish Europeans is never the punchline to any joke. Hidden beneath the "all look same" question is actually a statement that wants to get out but is politically incorrect: “I think all Asians look the same.” My take on why people are so enchanted with this question is that people love to think of Asians as this monolithic group of people who all have slanty eyes and dark hair. Or another way to interpret it is that they are not individuals; they are all the same. Do you know how many times I’ve watched a movie with a group of people and the Asian character in the movie (with an insignificant role, no doubt) appeared on the screen and the person next to me said, “Hey, it’s your dad!”? It's almost a guaranteed response by at least one person watching the movie. They think it’s the most hilarious thing. In fact, this just happened on a date a couple months ago. She thought it was funny; I ignored her.

But it doesn’t stop at physical features. This idea even extends to the culture: Asians all eat noodles, use chopsticks, and have mean karate kicks. Europeans, on the other hand, are seen as individuals, with each country offering a unique culture and experience. The ironic thing is that a very convincing argument can be made that each Asian country is a lot more culturally distinct from one another than the European countries are from one another. And that's kind of a given, considering the close proximity of countries in Europe and their centuries of very intertwined history. 

If you can't tell the difference between the various Asian countries, no one is blaming you. But just ask yourself if it's going to be annoying for the Asian guy who has to constantly be the butt of "all look same" jokes and who has to answer "all look same" questions three times a week.

So before you ask your next Asian friend whether he could guess if that Asian girl eating noodles is Korean, Chinese, or Japanese, just remember one thing—you have a whole continent of people who look just like you too… and they eat potatoes.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Korea: the land of a million grocery stores

My brother’s high school basketball coach once told him, “You’re a pretty good basketball player. Maybe you won’t grow up to own a grocery store.” Wow. What a compliment! Or was it advice?Talk about deflating your dreams of ever becoming a grocer.  

A friend in law school once asked me if Korea was a land full of grocery stores and drycleaners (proof that attorneys can be pretty dumb). I had to explain to him that there were many other services and products available and that not all 45 million people were spraying vegetables and pressing suits. His follow-up question was why then are there so many Koreans in that line of work in America. First, I replied by saying, “Well, my parents owned a luggage store! So there!” No, I didn’t say that. But I did explain to him that many immigrants get into the line of work that other immigrants before them have established themselves in. For Koreans, it’s grocery stores and drycleaners… oh, and nail salons. For the Chinese, it’s also drycleaners but they also open a lot of restaurants. For Indians, it’s convenience markets and motels. The list goes on and on for every ethnicity. Because newcomers to America will look to their already established family and friends for help, they will often enter the same industry as them and pretty soon an entire ethnic group will dominate a trade.

What you may not know is that many of these immigrants are well educated (many have master’s degrees) and could get better jobs in their home country, but American money, freedom, and what they think is a better life for their children lure them to pursue the American dream. But when they get to the country, language and cultural barriers often prevent them from doing anything other than what their relatives do.  

But the explanation goes even deeper for some specific industries. For example, historically, the Chinese have been running dry cleaners since the 1800’s. The main reason for that was because it was literally one of the only jobs that the Chinese were allowed to do at the time. Since Chinese men had little other skills and were viewed as effeminate, they were relegated to cleaning clothes. When large numbers of Koreans showed up in the 1960’s and 70’s, they looked around and saw that their fellow Asians were cleaning clothes, so then they eventually picked it up too.

So there you have it. That’s why certain ethnicities always seem to be doing the same kind of work. It’s not because they have some kind of knack for it, or even like doing it. Maybe my brother should go back to his high school and tell the coach that he took his advice… and became a doctor, instead. 

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Spanish basketball team strikes back!

An astute reader made the following comment to my last post on the Spanish basketball team (see post below, Derogatory expressions: the chinky-eye):

"I don't agree with your reasoning here, Jang. You acknowledge that this gesture [the chinky-eye] 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."

This was my response:

"Your comment is so good that I wanted to dedicate a separate comment [post] 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 into 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 b-ball 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..."