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Oriental: Rugs or People?

Even the dictionary says that when used to describe a person, “Oriental” is “now often regarded as a term of disparagement.” When did the word become so loaded?

Email icon  ljl260@nyu.edu

The first time I felt the full force behind the word “Oriental,” I was 13. My music teacher was explaining the phrasing of a difficult passage to my string quartet, and we all nodded. Suddenly he turned to me, the only Asian in the group, and said, “Oh, stop being so Oriental and nodding.” I felt like I’d been slapped in the face.

Looking back a decade later, I wish I had either said something to him or walked out of the room, but I was too young to know what to do. I’ve been harassed and called names many times because of my ethnicity, but that incident, particularly the word “Oriental,” stuck with me. Before then, I never thought of “Oriental” as a derogatory term, or thought much about it at all. I always wondered what other Asian Americans thought. Did they feel the word was offensive or simply outdated? Even Merriam-Webster’s New World College Dictionary says that when used to describe a person, “Oriental” is “now often regarded as a term of disparagement.” When did the word become so loaded?

John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute at New York University, said the basic critique of the term developed in the 1970s. “With the anti-war movement in the ’60s and early ’70s, many Asian Americans identified the term ‘Oriental’ with a Western process of racializing Asians as forever opposite ‘others,’” said Tchen.

According to Edward Said’s book “Orientalism,” the word was used to indicate Asia at least as far back as the 1300s, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that the word sparked controversy in the United States.

In 1991, the University of Pennsylvania still had an Oriental Studies Department that included everything from East Asian Studies to North African Languages. The school’s Asian students asserted that the term “Oriental” was racist, and after a yearlong debate about what name would encompass all the fields of study in the department, it was renamed the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

Six years later, University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer apologized for using the term in the following comment about the school’s cafeteria food: “We have rice now because we have a significant group of Oriental students.” According to a May 9, 1997, Seattle Times article, Frohnmayer wrote an e-mail apology to the university’s Asian Pacific American Student Union saying he did not mean to insult in his “inadvertent use of an antiquated and, to many, demeaning term.”

Washington State Senator Paull Shin sponsored a bill in 2001 that would remove and prohibit the use of the word “Oriental” in all state and local legislation. The bill, passed in 2002, stated that the word Asian must be used to describe those of Asian descent. In a July 1, 2002, Seattle Times article, Shin, a Korean War orphan, explained that the word “Oriental” was offensive because it was first used to signify everything east of London and later to characterize people with flat noses, small eyes, black hair and mysterious ways.

“I do feel the word Oriental is offensive because it should be used towards objects and things, not people,” said Joseph Kang, 25, a Korean American legal assistant in Manhattan. “The term is now definitely outdated. I still hear it from time to time, and I make sure I clarify to the person who said it that ‘Asian’ is the right term.”

Others are not so sure that “Asian” is an easy replacement for “Oriental.”

“The problem is that when ‘Asian’ is used as a substitute for ‘Oriental,’ it leaves out the entire Indian subcontinent, which is a lot of very important people,” said Don Monroe, 46, a recent graduate of the Science and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU. Monroe, who is not Asian, also said that though “Oriental” might be an offensive term, he wasn’t sure if there was a better alternative.

Some feel indifferent. Ulysses De La Torre, 31, a NYU graduate student in the joint journalism and Latin American studies program, who is half Chinese, said he thought the word was outdated, but did not take issue with those who used it. “I think we can fairly say that non-Asians who use the term are probably unfamiliar with the nuances of its origins and aren’t intending to offend,” he said.

“I’m not offended at all. I didn’t grow up knowing that it’s actually a derogatory word,” said Julie Huang, 24, a Chinese American, who recently left her job with Trend Micro in Beijing. “It’s about the motivation behind why they use the word ‘Oriental’ or any other word. Some people simply don’t know it could be derogatory, and I’m not going to bite their heads off for it.”

Hally Chu, 24, a Chinese American graduate student in NYU’s joint journalism and Near Eastern studies program, observed that when she was called “Oriental,” it was either by someone in her grandparents’ generation or by someone in the lower end of the socio-economic system. She also pointed out that just because most people stopped using the word did not mean that any prejudices against non-Westerners had gone away. Chu said that frequently used terms such as F.O.B., also known as “fresh off the boat,” and “Twinkie” were simply new derogatory labels. “So while ‘Oriental’ begins to fade away … many new words are coming in to settle into the same niche that ‘Oriental’ left behind unattended,” she said.

I’ll never forget how badly that music teacher made me feel, but I can’t say I became militant about the word “Oriental.” I still order Oriental chicken salad at restaurants without a second thought, and I haven’t started any protests about both Oxford and Cambridge Universities still having Oriental studies departments. But last year, my boss at my old job asked me to translate some “Oriental writing” for an “Oriental client,” and it bothered me that she, a highly educated young lawyer, would use the term. So I corrected her and told her that Asian was probably a better word to use. It might not have been a huge gesture, but it felt good. It felt like progress.