Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The many faces of "Orientalism"

Before I start writing about "Orientalism" and "Orientalizing" it seems like I should give a definition for people who haven't spent a lot of time thinking about this. Basically, it's a form of exoticization and objectification of all things Asian (this includes "West Asian" aka: Middle-East).

I could give a longer academic example, but I think everyday instances drive the point home better. Madonna's "Indian" phase is an example of Orientalism (I think it was during her "Ray of Light" album when she performed at the Grammys in a sari or something like that--am I remembering this wrong?). Or objects that depict Asian people or that use Asian people into this object way--I've seen lamps that either feature Asian people (usually in classical Chinese or Japanese clothing, and by classical I mean, ancient Chinese or ancient Japanese clothing) at its base. Or Buddha, depictions of which are on t-shirts and soap and action figures. All of these are examples of Orientalism. Orientalism, in large part, is about appropriation and the adoption of an "Asian" style/dress/fashion as a type of fetish object or as decoration--as rendering "Asian" into the "Orient" into an "object" rather than a SUBJECT (a person, a human).

So I'm starting here because two posts found on "Land of the Not-So-Calm" bring to mind different versions of Orientalism and the question of appropriation and (quite literally) adoption.

The first is the most recent post about a This American Life piece heard this past weekend about dolls sold at FAO Schwartz and the narrator's disturbing experience of the only dolls left for "adoption" (these high end dolls are not sold they are adopted by little girls who have to be "interviewed" before they can purchase a doll and the doll comes with a birth certificate!). Anyway, after a flurry of sales, the only dolls left for adoption are the non-white dolls. You can imagine the rest. Anyway, for very insightful analysis of this story and the issues surrounding transracial adoption, please go to the post (click here), where you can also find a link to the full story on This American Life.

One of the things to note about the piece and the commentary on the blog is that the first of the non-white babies to go were the Asian babies. That's right--if you can't have a white baby, the one that most white families were willing to go to were Asian babies. Then the Latino babies went next. And thus, the store faced incubator upon incubator of black babies. So much to say about this...so little time. But I'd love to hear your take on this, especially if you get a chance to read the blog link and to hear the entire piece. It does strike me, the first part of it--the way in which the Asian babies were the ones to go first of the non-white babies, that this could be seen as a form of Orientalizing--that an Asian baby becomes yet another accessory, like having a feng shui crystal in your home or putting chop sticks in your hair. I think it also says a lot about the model minority myth and the racial hiearchy at work in this country, but since this post is on Orientalism, I'm going to stick with this theme for now.

The second type of Orientalism that I want to talk about is a more benign form--which is the kind that happens with food. As in, Chinese Chicken Salad. Again, "Land of the Not-So-Calm" has written a post called "Asian Salad vs. Salad in Asia" in which she discusses ordering the Chinese chicken salad at The Cheesecake Factory. In the comment section that follows, I had written in and described this as a form of "benign Orientalizing" to which Sang-Shil rightly asked whether there is such a thing.

So I am asking you, my dear blog readers: Is there such a thing as benign Orientalism, and if so, do we find it in food? Like mandarin oranges. I love them--I eat them in my yogurt and granola. But what the hell is a mandarin orange? And I've also ordered Asian slaw and Chinese chicken salad in places like The Cheesecake factory--am I participating in my own objectification? What about Teriyaki burgers? If they came decked out in a little kimono I'd be horrified, but if it's just teriyaki sauce, is that just a descriptor or is it Orientalizing? Or what about those places like Kanki and Benihana with the grills and the chopping of the food--having never been to Japan (aside from a layover at Narita airport) I have no idea whether this is an American's idea of a Japanese steak house or whether perhaps this is the kind of kitchen theater that happens in Japanese cuisine (I'm inclined to think the former).

So there are two forms of Orientalism up for discussion, one which may (or may not) be benign and one not so benign. And if you want to throw out your own examples or to ask our panel of readers whether wearing a yukata in the privacy of your own home is a form of Orientalism (and is this different than wearing a sari for your wedding when you aren't SouthAsian?) then feel free to leave a comment, because I'd love to hear your own stories of encounters with "Orientalism."


CVT said...

Oooh. It's going to be hard for me to write a short comment on this one . . .

As a mixed-Chinese kid (white father, Chinese mother), I spend a HUGE chunk of my time thinking about this (I generally put it in terms of simple "cultural appropriation" - as it happens with a lot of other "ancient" cultures, as well).

For me, it goes something like this: my mother was born in China. I have Chinese blood. And yet, I do not feel that I have a right to claim many aspects of Chinese culture because that is not how I was raised. Spent a lot of time with my grandmother in Chinatown, but I still am very disconnected from that which makes a person CHINESE. My own grandmother more or less said the same. So when I see other people (usually white, but not necessarily) appropriating Chinese culture without batting their eyes, it makes me want to break things (bare minimum).

I often joke that everybody in Portland (Oregon) is a Buddhist - except for the Asian folks. Most "Chinese" restaurants are actually "Pan-Asian" (whatever that means). "Chinatown" here is a ridiculous, two-block farce. I went to a Tai-Chi school IN Chinatown (my grandmother taught Tai-Chi, and I felt a need to learn that part of her after she passed) and everybody else in the room (INCLUDING the instructor) was white. I've been to "Asian Fusion" restaurants where the white wait-staff wear Chinese-style silk shirts.

On the other side, my white Aunt and Uncle adopted a Korean girl in a town in conservative-white America, and the problems that caused for her ended up with her in more trouble than I care to mention publicly.

And then I also see in Portland numerous "Zimbabwean marimba" bands made up entirely of young white American guys. "Schools" of capoeira (a Brazilian martial art form created by oppressed people of color) filled with middle-class white kids.

It's not just Asia. It's ANY other culture that people feel free to pilfer from without any thought to what that really means.

What I try to tell folks about all this is simply: there's no problem with appreciating aspects of another culture. But when you only choose to appreciate SOME specific aspects without honoring and truly understanding the REST of the culture, it is cultural appropriation - and that is offensive and wrong. ESPECIALLY if you then end up TEACHING it to other people.

So - to summarize my (once again) long comments - "Orientalism" in all ways is offensive. It's an insult in that it breaks down so many myriad cultures (I still have kids who think "Asia" is a country) into a few ridiculous symbols that become the "face" of Asian-ness. It only happens because of stereotypes - and it doesn't matter if the stereotypes are "good" or "positive." I really like hamburgers, but I imagine people would be a bit surprised if I tried to sum up "white American-ness" in terms of hamburgers . . .

As for the adoption of Asian babies. I don't even think I should get started on that one. I had an argument with some folks a while back about how "trendy" that has become. My brother lives in LA, and it was no coincidence a few years back that all these rich housewives around town suddenly had these Chinese and Korean babies at the same time.

I realize some of that is based on availability (the fact that I'm even describing adoption in these terms kills me), but still. If anybody wants a real debate on this one, bring it, but I'll save the rest of you from my rant for now.

Last thing - I was reminded of this from a post on SaraSpeaking - but I had a white co-worker ask me once if I liked "exotic" women. So I asked him if he found ME "exotic" (it turns out he didn't). That kind of sums up "Orientalism" for me.

Anonymous said...

Without delving deeply into the many many incarnations of Orientalism, I thought I would post some of my knowledge from my experience as a Japanese American on a few factual details.

Commonly referred to as "mandarin oranges", they are called satsuma oranges by some and are referred to in japanese as "mikan". They are oranges from the Satsuma province in Japan.

Places like Benihana and even the phenomenon of monstrous sushi rolls are an entirely American phenomenon. High Japanese cuisine is composed of many small artistic dishes, and the common food is more along the lines of noodles, skewered meat and bento, not a fancy grill with a showy chef.

Jennifer said...


As always, I appreciate your long comments and strong opinions. And once again, I'm going to differ a bit from you, for I see "orientalism" along a spectrum more than a binary of it absolutely being wrong. Perhaps it also has to do with fatigue, for me, but I'm less likely to care about Chinese chicken salad or even the chopsticks in the hair (although they do annoy me--actually, sticks in the hair are fine, but anyone who uses actual chopsticks or sticks carved to resemble chopsticks annoys me) but generally speaking, I also just let it slide off my back for the truly grotesque stuff, like lawn jockeys that are now made to resemble "Asian" people (a sad sad step backwards, although you could also see it in an ironic tongue-in-cheek way as a step towards racist multiculturalism).

I did take tai chi from a white American guy where out of about two dozen of us there were about 5 non-white people. But I also feel like tai chi is an open form and as long as you know your stuff and do the training and don't try to Orientalize it (our instructor was really great--he didn't wax rhapsodic about Asian culture, he just taught us the tai chi and wore regular loose fitting clothes). I think that's where I would have drawn the distinction--if our white instructor had dressed in some Asian robes or had visible Asian tattoos and talked endlessly about the glories of China or Chinese culture, it would have been a huge turn-off and I would have felt like he was performing a type of "Orientalism" to give himself a type of credential to teach tai chi. But the instructor just taught the class and explained the moves and the history behind it (which did delve into ancient Chinese history) and that was that.

Kermit, thanks for clearing up the Mandarin origin and Benihana thing. I had assumed Benihana was about as fake as you could get but I once made the mistake of being in China and railing against fried rice, only to have my native-born Chinese Ameircan friend (she's 1.5) tell me that actually fried rice is served at banquets in China as a sign of respect. It was a good wake-up call to remember that things aren't always what they seem. Although it does just seem way to fake to have all that food flying in the air. A

And of course those drinks like Scorpion bowls or drinking a mai tai out of a glass shaped like a Buddha...I think that speaks for itself.

Upstatemamma said...

I am not Asian at all. I am Irish and I want to say that this type of thing happens with all cultures. For anyone who really believes that Irish people are nothing but drunk all the time I say "Ha." Irish pubs in America are nothing like the real pubs in Ireland. What is considered Irish cuisine tastes very different that food in Ireland. Also, while I am not Italian I have been to Italy and can tell you that they consider the Olive Garden American food. My only point is that when it comes to food - I think it is benign. It comes down to Americans cannot make food taste like it would in any other country. I suppose the same can be said when other countries try to make American food. It just isn't the same. It tastes good, so that's all that matters. I think so anyway.

Jennifer said...

It is funny how food becomes this site for stereotyping of all sorts of cultures. Although I think I'd argue that as offensive as steroetypes of drunken Irish and Italian mobsters are, there is a way in which they still get to register as American, whereas there has been this consistent emphasis of the "foreign" with respect to Asian-ethnic groups.

But who knows--perhaps if I identified as Irish American or Italian American I would see more instances that I found egregious and offensive than the ones I can think of.

Besides which, does anyone with tastebuds actually think The Olive Garden is real Italian food? I've never been to Italy, but I am an awful food snob so I guess I just assumed most people realized they were eating a highly commercialized and bastardized version of Italian cuisine. I have probably offended legions of Olive Garden devotees (including my own mother who loves the unlimited soup bowl and bread basket there) but I'm sticking to my guns on this one--I am a food snob, and I say Olive Garden sucks (although I do accompany my Mother and get the soup/bread thing with her when she wants to go there, after all, she's my Mom).

Matt said...

When you first wrote this, I had some pretty strong feelings that I wasn't really able to articulate. (Maybe I'm missing something, and maybe that has a lot to do with my background as a white Jew.) I've generally thought of Orientalism as extending far beyond the appropriations and exoticization you describe here (though those are certainly part of it). Having just written this, I thought back to this post of yours, and thought I'd ask for some constructive criticism, if you could.

Jennifer said...

Hi Matt,
I read your post, and I guess I"m a bit confused, because I wasn't sure what kind of feedback you were looking for. I certainly don't disagree with your definition of "Orientalism"--I think that the concept of Orientalism is a large one, and depending on your orientation, you will concentrate on one aspect over another. It sounds as if, from your blog post, that you are thinking of it in its political-historical manifestations. And I think in the blog post I wrote, I was thinking of it from its more contemporary-cultural meaning. I wouldn't say that one is more valid than the other--I would say that the way in which I was employing "Orientalism" has less connection to a historical-political discourse as in your own entry, than in a more contemporary-pop cultural/cultural studies perspective.

But if you want to share more what either disturbed or intrigued or fascinated you about the post or the way in which I was using Orientalism, I'm all ears (or eyes as the case may be).

Matt said...

Thanks, Jennifer. You're comment really is helpful. I guess I was confused by parts of your post like "So there are two forms of Orientalism up for discussion, one which may (or may not) be benign and one not so benign." It seemed to not leave much room for what I thought was central - changing how we (don't) listen to each other, so that people who know more about a culture are even more prone to shutting their ears.

I guess maybe I'm having trouble seeing a relationship between these ways of understanding Orientalism. The problem isn't appropriation in and of itself but the way it expresses an understanding of "the other," no? Is what you call benign Orientalism maybe just the beginnings of understanding, including all the misunderstandings that always entails? I'm going to a Zen Buddhist retreat this weekend in the middle of Manhattan, and I don't think of that as very Orientalist. Not just because I'm very serious about Zen or have been practicing for a while already, but because I have a reasonable attitude about what it is and isn't.

Jennifer said...

Matt--you raise very provocative questions. I guess I should also back up and say beyond the way in which I framed the way you were employing "Orientalism" and the way that I was using it in my own post, I think that I was also thinking of "Orientalism" in a very specific Asian American context. In other words, in the largely academic (but to some extent activist) literature that I"ve read, "Orientalism" is understood in a general "Said-ian" way, but more in a feminizing/objectifying way.

So I'm not exactly sure about the way you are situating it in terms of "appropriation" vs. "othering"--I think from an Asian American studies pov (which I realize, in hindsight, I was using), Orientalizing both appropriates AND others--it makes very little attempt to understand the person/subject/subjectivity of individuals, let along distinct cultures.

I don't know that benign orientalization (like mandarin oranges) is a step towards cultural understanding--I actually think that it may have had some connections to "Orientalism" in this appropriating/othering way, but those connections have been lost with time so now we just eat mandarin oranges, although I think the vestiges on certain brands/cans of mandarin oranges may point to a past in which "mandarin" was understood as an open signifier for all things "Oriental" and hence we have our "Orientalization."

Is your zen retreat an example or orientalization? I take you at your word that it's not. But are there times in which Orientalizing pops up even with the best of intentions? I think yes--but I also think that these are very grey areas--that it's not as easy as saying "All Orietnalizing is bad and racist," but rather that it is a conditioning that has been going on in a historic-colonial context and that we now see the effects of it in our daily lives through forms of food (which can be seen as benign) and other forms (which are sometimes not so benign).

Hope this makes sense!

Matt said...

Yeah, it makes some sense, and I think I have a better understanding now of where you're coming from. Thanks a lot.

Eastern Reflections said...

I find this topic quite interesting b/c of a particular incident not long ago.

First though...not long ago while I was in NYC with friends we randomly walked into a clothing store on the edge of Chinatown. In the shop, me and a couple girlfriends started trying on dresses....I fell absolutely in love with this long sheath dress, deep ruby red. It's called a certain style, I don't know what though...but it has that high collar that is associated so much with Asian influenced clothing. Mandarin collar? no idea....needless to say I fell in love with the dress and WANTED it so bad, but it was beyond my price tag. A friend then commented "You aren't Asian so you shouldn't be wearing that dress".......

I was perplexed and a little offended. I admired the dress and wanted it so badly b/c it was such a beautiful color and it made me look GOOD (at least in my mind and the mirror I was standing in front of :-p).....

I suddenly started asking myself, I can't wear this b/c I am not part of the ethnicity that this style is so associated with? And now another question that arises is....am I being a scathing Orientalist BECAUSE I so admire this dress and sub-consciously want it in order to have a "piece of that exoticism"? Are people viewing me that way?

Another more recent incident and which has made me extremely sensitive and exasperated about the whole issue with Orientalism is a recent debate about the Gaza issue.

I have a deep interest in Middle Eastern studies and politics and I am hoping to go to grad school for it. I was having a heated debate about the recent Gaza crisis with a friend who is from the Gulf. Upon me stating that I feel there is not only a bias from the American media (and its obvious support for Israel) that there is a double standard with the Arab media services who I believe have such an obvious bias too (but for the opposite side). I also criticized the fact that as much as Arab leaders decry the obvious inhumane conditions and situation Palestinians are in....they don't do much in treating the Palestinian refugees in their countries any better.

The person proceeded to chastise me and say I was an Orientalist and then claimed he was disappointed since I was "someone who has visited the region, but still has such bad views".

I couldn't believe it. I got so angry I immediately left. It made me feel like because I have a working opinion about the region that is the opposite of what is "supposed to be the real case" that I was a "scathing Orientalist"....which it seems has become a really great negative connotation to throw at someone who has an opposing opinion (whether right or wrong) ever since Edward Said said Orientalism is a horrible, horrible thing.

So I am trying to learn more about the whole issue with Orientalism and its connotations. But needless to say this post and the recent incidences sparked me to write.

Unknown said...

Hi Jennifer,

11/24/15 now has new relevance in light of U of Ottawa cancelling a yoga class because of "cultural appropriation."

Maisha Z. Johnson gave a good description of a deeper understanding of "cultural appropriation." (6/14/15 at everydayfeminism.com)

It refers to a power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture takes elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

Example: a white greeting a Native American with "How."
Whites have massacred Native Americans, tried to kill their languages and sent their children to boarding schools.

I'm an old white guy who's practiced taiji for decades. I have never seen any player:
1. trivalize the historic oppression of Chinese by Western powers,
2. shown prejudice against Chinese,
3. treated Chinese as too ethnic to practice taiji in the West,
4. profited from the effort of Chinese to advance the art of taiji,
5. taken credit for things the Chinese developed,
6. spread mass lies about Chinese,
7. perpetuate racist stereotypes,
8. punish Chinese for doing taiji,
9. prioritize white feelings about taiji over the feelings of Chinese

In short, doing taiji by anyone, at any level of skill, is not "cultural appropriation."

Things like the food one prefers, your skin color, your religion, the current state of social affairs are not relevant unless in a context of perpetuating oppression rather than eliminating oppression.

Bob Hughes
Post Falls, Idaho