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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag and lessons on Asian stereotyping

©Connie J. Sun
On Sunday evening a Twitter friend called my attention to the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick originated by freelance writer Suey Park. The tweets kickstarted an ongoing conversation on feminism, sexism, racism and stereotypes faced by the Asian-American community, and, according to AlJazeera, the hashtag was tweeted nearly 50,000 times in the space of one day.

Even the BBC picked up the trend and announced: #NotYourAsianSidekick  goes global. BuzzFeed also published a summary of tweets.

To me the discussion generated by the hashtag felt a little over-ambitious and too wide in scope to lead to any conclusive outcomes, but I guess the value of the debate was in raising awareness rather than providing immediate solutions.

Perhaps the most effective thing the hashtag did on Twitterverse was to simply highlight how much discontent lay buried underneath the seeming "quiet" façade of Asian Americans. But the discussion didn't stay contained within the US. Asians from all over the world enthusiastically jumped onto the hashtag bandwagon and aired their frustrations on Twitter.

The simmering anger within the community was palpable and really struck a chord with me.

Not every Asian is Chinese
It reminded me I recently ranted on Twitter and Facebook that I was not Chinese, that automatically calling an Asian person Chinese was racist, offensive and off-putting. Friends and colleagues found it hilarious and asked me what had happened for me to go so public with it.

Someone I had met on Twitter had sent me a patronising email about a blog post I'd written, and, to make matters worse, said they thought I was Chinese, which pushed me over the edge. On my Twitter profile I specifically state that I am Japanese Brazilian, but they still labelled me Chinese.

It wasn't the first time I was told that, nor will it be the last, but it grates with me every time.

The faux pas don't normally stop there. First dates with me are often like this:

Man: " speak Mandarin?"
Me: " I'm not Chinese. I speak Japanese. I was born and grew up in Brazil, but my parents are Japanese."
Man: "Oh wow, you must speak Spanish too then?"
Me: "No, Brazil is the only South American country where Spanish is not spoken."
Man: "Sorry, I meant Brazilian."
Me: "Erm...Brazilian is not a language... Did you mean Portuguese?"

Needless to say by this point I am so dismayed by my date's cultural ignorance, any chance of a second date has gone well down the drain. Guys, if you are ever taking an Asian woman out, do your friggin' homework first!

Sushi, kimonos and geisha fantasies
Even for those who luckily passed the first test of getting the languages right, soon comes the next pitfall question: "Can you cook sushi?"

When I was newly married, my husband also asked me if I could make sushi so he could invite and impress his friends. I asked him why they should be impressed, and he said, "Well, I now have a Japanese wife." In his head Japanese wives made sushi.

The first thing that came to my mind was this image of a geisha, clad in a kimono, delicately rolling sushi rice and serving her husband's guests, with white paint on her face, saying very little, shuffling her small feet, being quietly admired as some kind of a fetishist object of white male desire.

Please... It makes me want to puke. Are all Filipinas internet brides? If you want sushi, go to a sushi restaurant! I'll cook you a wicked Italian lasagne instead.

Stereotyping is often sexist, chauvinistic and insensitive, but, above all, it is a sign of gross cultural ignorance.

First of all, sushi is not the only dish in Japanese cuisine, and it is usually only made at home on special occasions. Secondly, if you are born Japanese you don't automatically know how to make sushi. You may not even necessarily speak the language (because sometimes Japanese people are born outside Japan), and you certainly don't wear kimonos all the time. In fact I have never worn one and wouldn't know how to wear one either.

Finally, Asian women are not all subservient geisha types. And geishas, by the way, are not prostitutes, in case you were thinking the two were interchangeable.

Ni hao my a*se!
One of the most irritating things that can happen when I'm outside, in the street, is someone passing by in their car, shouting "Ni Hao", which is hello in Chinese. I don't acknowledge nor respond, as I consider it a racist taunt, but I have to take a deep breath and count slowly to 10 to stop myself from shouting an expletive there and then.

Below are two tweets from Tracey (@txc84), which I endorse:

The other day a colleague asked me if a Thai publisher would translate a certain piece of text into "Thai-wanese". I did not correct them but my heart sank, as it was so representative of how little people actually know about Asian cultures and languages, which are widely different from each other.

Our joke is not your joke
Once, upon returning from a business trip to Korea, in a previous job, I was asked if I had eaten dog. A senior member of the sales team even joked at a Sales Conference about having dog for a meal in Korea, while I cringed in my seat. Had I been of Korean descent, I would have left the room.

I work in International Sales, and every single member of our team is non-British. We wind each other up with racist jokes all the time and laugh our heads off but no one takes offence. That is more or less the equivalent of a group of Muslim friends calling each other terrorists among themselves, for a laugh. Minority groups' jokes are only funny within that circle. As soon as an outsider says it, it becomes an offensive racist slur so watch out what you say and where.

Teaching acceptance
As a woman, I am often at the receiving end of unwanted attention from men who are "into Asian girls". Nine times out of 10 their illusions about Asian girlfriends/wives are completely distorted, unrealistic and, quite frankly, laughably naïve. I can smell them from miles away and avoid them like a plague.

They may think they are being non-discriminatory and non-racist, even somewhat "superior", by going to the other extreme and being obsessed with anyone and anything Asian. They are in love with a fantasy image of what they think Asians are like, often based on fiction, movies and stereotypes they grew up with.

Understanding other cultures, taking a genuine interest in their customs, their values, language and history is the only way stereotyping can be reduced, equality can be achieved and different races can freely interact without causing offence.

These changes should start, as the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick pointed out, with the media, but schools and playgrounds also need to strive for complete racial integration and a multi-cultural education for our children. If a child can be taught to be curious about and accepting of differences in others, as opposed to being judgemental, they will also learn to respect the fact that they too are unique and different from their peers and that being different is perfectly okay.

Colour blind
Living in multi-racial London opportunities abound for meeting people from every corner of the world. My own circle of friends is "borderless" and consists of people of virtually all nationalities and ethnicities. When I look at them I see one colour only, the colour of human souls, but I am painfully aware most people are not like that.

People have an instinctive need to stick labels on everyone they meet, pigeonholing them into this or that stereotype, as we tend to feel uncomfortable with what we do not know. I wonder if we are uncomfortable because we were brought up to think that it is shameful to ask questions, to say "please tell me about you and show me something about your culture as I want to learn".

If you are not sure, don't assume. Ask. We may not be your Asian sidekicks but we make very good, interesting friends, lovers and...why not..wives. And, if you ever did unwittingly cause offence, have the humbleness to apologise and ask to be corrected. I promise you it will open up a whole new world for you that will enrich your life.

Whatever you do, don't cowardly walk away, and don't unfollow/block people on social networking sites just because they made you realise there are gaps in your knowledge of the world. Ask questions, talk, debate, learn.

More, not less communication, is the first step towards dispelling myths and ignorance. I thank Suey Park for reminding us.

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