Asian stereotypes? Me too.

As an Asian woman living in the States in an era where race and gender are increasingly becoming the subject of much discussion, I often find myself navigating the unsettling currents of racism and sexism. These currents become even more treacherous when racism and sexism decide to join forces and haunt me in ways that I did not think would be possible. 

I do wonder if my inability to address confrontation, of any kind, is a result of my upbringing, my culture, or my DNA. I certainly remember my parents telling me to go to my room with my sister when 'grown-ups' came to visit, because children were not allowed in grown up conversations. Yet I also remember my mother telling me I could become anything I wanted without the help of a man; and that I should speak up if I wanted things. The constant and unconscious head bowing we Asians somehow manage to incorporate in the menial details of our everyday life definitely has an effect on how we think of ourselves vis-a-vis the other and how we choose to remain 'respectful' and not confrontational. What may have once started as a physical demonstration of a value (that of respect and reverence) has now the reverse effect, where the corporeal performance serves as a guide to learn and relearn, and show what we are told are our core values. So yes, most of us would smile and nod politely when a stranger tells us that one of their best friends is Korean (or Chinese/Vietnamese/Cambodian/Japanese, etc). However, to describe Asia as the land of the calm that would make Confucius proud is laughable in every way. Anyone that has stood on the busy Gangnam streets of Seoul at 10pm on a weekday would immediately notice the vomit, the haphazard drinking groups pouring out of bars to head to karaoke, the deafening shoutings, the unconscious drunken bodies sprawled here and there, and the occasional arguments; all of which has nothing to do with respectfulness. Or is it simply me? Just like my introverted character, maybe this is just a part of who I am. I would rather keep quiet and rant about it to a friend later than stand up and speak up my mind. 'Talk talk' used to be my parents' 'favorite' thing to tell me when I was learning English as a shy teenager. Maybe I'm simply shy by nature, and maybe it's OK that I do not correct every single 'micro aggression' that is addressed to me and my fellow Asian women. 

But somehow it doesn't seem OK. Or rather, it doesn't seem OK anymore. In this age of #Metoo and of Crazy Rich Asians, my silence has become complicit to the perpetuation of stereotypes and prejudices and funny 'Asian jokes'. Maybe, in a truly innocent and naive way, White People cannot understand what racism looks like when imposed on Asians, because they have been focusing too much of that energy on Black People. Maybe, by laughing along with the racist joke as told by White People, we have somehow given them the OK, that we are here to please, and please only. And if that means laughing at our expense, so be it. Maybe, in our deepest desire to be seen as the model immigrants and the easygoing friends, we completely forgot that there is a price to pay, and that price is racism. 

So yes, when somebody tells me 'Oh my best friend is Korean', I want to throw up the gallon of sarcasm I have been gulping all my life and shout back 'No way! Me too! What are the coincidences?'. When somebody imitates the well-known 'Asian girl wave and giggling', maybe I shouldn't show them 'how it is done the right way' and instead give them an eye roll that would make them go look for my eyeballs in the back of my head. Yes, maybe, I have a right to tell someone I have not met, that saying 'being complimented by an Asian that he has mad searching skills is like receiving the Nobel Peace Prize' is plainly racist, period (although there are other problems with that sentence). 

Is it unfair that I get to make Asian jokes, comment on the ridiculousness of Asian girl giggles and their mortal fear of the sun, and whine about how I don't see myself dating an Asian man? Maybe. But you don't spend the rest of the day wondering whether that joke was appropriate, whether by letting you get away with it, I have betrayed and let down my 'people'. You don't have to find another Asian friend to rant about the stupid stereotypes we had to face yet again today. You don't have to wonder whether this guy talked to me because he thought I was interesting, or simply because he thought I would be one of those submissive Asian girls with black hair and porcelain skin. You don't have to question your life choices and how your actions represent your race. You get to laugh at that stupid, racist joke; brush it off, and go on about your day. You get to see yourself as an individual and not as an unofficial spokesperson of your race and gender. 

So yeah, maybe it's not that unfair I have all these 'privileges'. And maybe it's time I claim them as mine, and mine only. 

Can I make this joke?

Is it ever OK for an academic to make jokes? I would like to think so, yes.

Is it ever OK for an academic to make jokes using phrases she tries to fight against in her work? I don't know the answer to that. I want to say yes, that everything should be taken in its context, but I'm not sure. As I am not sure whether it is ever OK, or when it's not OK, to make racist or sexist jokes.

I believe in the power of words and narratives. I don't think words come out of a vacuum, I do think history and power dynamics are embedded in most words we use. And I also think choosing certain words over some others influence how we perceive the exact same thing those two different terms are meant to designate. This is why we are continuously cultivating a Politically Correct culture, and trying to change our perception from 'less developed countries' to 'developing countries' or from 'queer' to 'gay' and back to 'queer'. Most of the time, there is a dominating group and an oppressed group represented in words we use, and almost all the time, we tend to follow the narrative of the dominating group. Unfortunately, we also focus so much on the PC culture that we forget about the bigger system that makes the PC culture necessary in the first place. But that's for another discussion.

Yet the world and our lives are riddled with subtle and not-so-subtle expressions that betray the inherently unequal system we are living in, and which, as a person and as an academic, I try to speak up against, one way or the other. What I want to believe is that a word has power only as much as we intend to give it. And that this power changes over time and place. There was a time when the word 'Oriental' was used in both academic and daily settings to designate the 'non-West', and the word was not just a jumble of alphabet letters but also a betrayal of the different and the exotic the 'non-West' represented. Today, rare are the instances when that word is used to describe what it intended (or at least by the people I personally know - whether or not these people have had that word thrown at them by others, I can't vouch for). Instead, I would be OK to use it to make fun of a system and time period that came up with that word and concept in the first place. Power was given. But I choose to take back that power and treat it as the nonsensical word it should have been. I think the same can be said for the word 'queer'. Although I'm not an expert in Gender Studies and Sexuality, the word 'queer' in its dictionary sense, means 'weird, strange, unusually different', and was used to designate the LGBTQ population. Today, the power given to the word 'queer' is different. Because change happens. We change ourselves, our norms, our values. There are no rules as to how these things change and who has the authority to change them. But I would like to believe I have the power and perception to be part of these changes. To take back the power that the oppressing group gave and turn it as a joke against them and why not, against me, since I also have privileges others don't. To make a joke without fearing the backlash from other 'intellectuals' and 'academics' who assume they have the monopoly on what is right or wrong, without realizing that by doing that, they are only giving back power to the word, power that I had taken away.

So yes, maybe, I'm allowed to make certain jokes using 'offensive' words. Or maybe not.

I would also like to think that as academics, we are first and foremost human beings. And as human beings, we live with other people. We learn how to be social. Do I, perhaps, feel a teeny tiny speck of discomfort when my friends make fun of Asians? Maybe. Sometimes. Do I stand up to them and tell them I'm offended and I'm the only one that is allowed to make these jokes? Certainly not. I love making 'That's what she said' jokes. No, I pride in making them when they're least expected. Does that make me less of a feminist because by making the joke, I do not question how it is based on a purely sexualized version of the woman? I don't think so. Life would just be too sad without 'that's what she said' jokes.

Academics are so engulfed in their perspective of what is right and wrong in the world that they often forget their complaint about 'not reaching out to the rest of the population' is on them. I mean, yes, our indignant cries about how climate change is real and how racism is real fall on deaf ears, and that may not be solely our fault - there are stupid and irrational people everywhere. But academics can take on the responsibility of 'educating the world' without necessarily being a jerk, using some humor here and there appropriately. There is a reason so many people love Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and the likes, and so few people read our boring articles filled with jargon and fixations on less important things.

I believe in making this world a better place and in changing people's minds, however little my contribution may be, all the while still managing to be somewhat 'human'. The other day, I was talking to this very nice European woman who shares my Airbnb about intercultural experiences. When she mentioned about the 'negative effects' of colonization - which revealed that she also assumed there were 'positive effects', I didn't express my indignation, although I firmly believe whatever so-called 'positiveness' there was through colonization, it all becomes meaningless in face of the destruction it left. Why? Because I knew her grandfather was in Africa and worked as a colonizer and I didn't want to tell her that her grandfather was a horrible human being for complying with what was happening at the time. Because we were having a nice conversation and I knew we would be seeing each other fairly often, for quite some time during my stay. Because I didn't think it was my place to stain her own experience and family history. I thought that I did enough by not reinforcing that, yes, there were indeed positive effects. Did that make me a bad academic? Maybe. But I would rather be a mediocre academic than a jerk of a human being.