Friday, August 22, 2008

I wonder if my race radar is tuned too high

I've been watching a fair amount of the summer Olympics over the last two weeks. And NBC, which is the official and seemingly sole network covering the Olympics (well, their affiliates also show coverage--so that includes MSNBC, the Oxygen network, and the USA network) has had their talking heads doing not only stories about athletes (predominantly American but also others, like top ranked gymnasts and swimmers from other nations) but "cultural" pieces.

In particular, The Today Show has been doing these, ranging from the serious (they featured some teenagers from the Earthquake ravaged Szechuan province coming to Beijing to see the Olympics for a week) to the silly (Meredith Viera getting a ping pong lesson from a member of the U.S. team--so it's sort've both "Chinese" and "American").

But occasionally as I watch their hijinks I can't help but cringe and wonder: are they mocking Chinese culture? Making fun of Chinese people? Laughing at the Chinese language?

In this morning's episode, one of their correspondents does this whole report on "chops." A chop, in case you don't know, is a Chinese seal.

[Here's some examples]

I have two--they both are of my Chinese name, and I have used them to stamp my books (along with my name in English). The seals are used on everything--as a way to sign your name, to declare a document official, to be the imprint of a company, organization, group, or individual. They are also an art form--people carefully carve the characters for each person into a soft stone that is then pressed into red ink and onto a document. It's really quite beautiful.

And in the piece, this came through, but what also came through is this sense of how needless the beauracracy of China is with their insistence that a document is only official once it has the seal imprinted on the piece of paper. And then the correspondent made the usual series of bad jokes by punning on the word "chop"--including using the phrase "chop, chop!" which I definitely felt was in bad taste.

Because while perhaps people don't know the origins of this phrase, it was one commonly used to instruct Asian servants, typically Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino house boys to hurry up. As in "Ling Ling, chop, chop! Missy wants her tea now!"

And once again, I wonder if my racial radar is tuned too high. In particular, because they have been in China, because I was raised in a Chinese American family, am I being oversensitive when it comes to all things Chinese?

[I know I've already written on the topic of being over-sensitive and in-sensitive about race--but I return to this because I think it's hard to figure out what the small stuff is and not to sweat it and what the bigger stuff (even if seemingly smaller) means in terms of trying to live the anti-racist praxis.]


mama d said...

My vote is: No. NBC and their all-white (nearly all-white?) Olympics reporting crew seem to be consistently at a loss for tact. Whether it's the repeated shots of the Chinese divers bowing to the crowd after each dive (in slow-mo, sometimes faintly fuzzy) to the Primetime reporters' mock horror over eating deep-fried scorpion, I'm consistently astounded at their cultural missteps masquerading as cultural awareness.

They're trying, but they're missing, IMO.

Genepool said...

You're radar is certainly tuned a lot higher than mine, but thats part of your job as an educator on the subject. Its fuel for the books you write and of greater personal interest besides.

I wouldn't get too worked up about anything a bunch of stuffed shirts on Network Television have to say about much of anything. They offend ME with their watered down sense of humor, fake laughter and condescending network mentality. I just turn the channel. They can overlook all the good in the world while focusing on detailed descriptions of a rape that took place the night before, or replaying repeatedly in slow motion an accident that caused multiple fatalities, but lose their minds when a celebrity guest says "fuck".

I can't even take the media seriously any more. Except Fox news, they would NEVER lie to me.

I think we are all sensitive to issues of race that relate to us personally. Some of us just have more to notice than others.

Allison M. said...

I agree with Genepool, there are some things that worth being much more disturbed and angry about than something on the corporate news. I had a conversation with a co-worker about Michael Richards. She's Black and said that she could care less hat he said Nigger than the fact that Black men are being gunned down by cops every day without any real legal discourse or hope. I definitely took what she said into account for a few days... By the way, I recently started my own blog, on mixed race and ethnic/LA history/pride stuff. Check it out, comment, let's link up! My name's Allison, by the way...

Jennifer said...

Mama d & Manush/Alison,
Thanks for leaving a comment--I think this may be your first time to the blog or at least to leaving a comment (perhaps you are both long time lurkers?) At any rate, I love the conversation and appreciate your two cents.

I do think that NBC, as Genepool noted, misses the boat a lot in general with the inane antics. I mean, they're sort've funny, but they do rely, in many cases, on broad humor. And broad humor makes certain assumptions that are culturally embedded and culturally insensitive in some cases. So I suppose I should take prime time with a grain of salt.

And as Manush notes, there are certainly other things to get worked up about--real acts of discrimination and racism. Of course, NBC was probably prohibited from investigating the true nature of ethnic minorities in China (the horribly oppressed Weiger (sp?) population in Western China, the jailing of dissidents, the repression in Tibet) and so we get shown images that are "safe" and/or are meant to provide humor for audiences in the U.S.

Finally Genepool, I appreciate you saying that yes, my radar is tuned higher than yours but it is there for a reason--or rather I've developed it as such because in some ways, that's my job--to think about race and to figure out what the underlying meanings are behind these issues.

I think that there are sometimes that I am fatigued. Because sometimes I just want to watch something and not have that part of my brain kick in. But I haven't figured out a way to turn it off (like in an earlier post when I wrote about SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS 2)--I mean, trust me, the last thing I thought would happen when I walked into the theater is that I'd be thinking about race and writing a blog post. I literally wanted t mindless, mindnumbing afternoon because I'd had a particularly hard week and wanted to shut down. But NOOOOOO...I have to go and start thinking about inter-racial relationships (sigh).

Maybe I should try Sci Fi?

CVT said...

It's unavoidable, if you ask me. The fact of the matter is - anywhere you go in the world - EVERYBODY is culturally insensitive. That's what we do, as humans - we mock or show contempt for what "they" do, even if we mean well.

It's just more annoying here in the U.S. because - with such a great mix of cultures - we should be less likely to do it. Right?


And I know what you feel about wishing you could turn it off. Hell - I brought race and racism into my viewing of the new Batman movie AND Hellboy II. There's just no avoiding it . . .

The Constructivist said...

Here's one from the LPGA that's hitting everyone's radar: should international players be required to learn enough English to hold a casual conversation in a pro-am, post-round interviews, and victory speeches without the aid of a translator? Wondering what you all think....

Jennifer said...

Funny--someone just sent me an article about this very subject asking me what I think.

And I think it's wrong. Or rather, I'm not a fan of the sentiment that when in the U.S. one MUST ALWAYS SPEAK ENGLISH AT ALL TIMES.

The PGA doesn't have such a rule, which begs the question of WHY, exactly, the LPGA needs to have such a rule.

And the coincidence of so many Korean players dominant in the field seems awfully suspicious with this particular ruling that says that players in the LPGA must be fluent in English (or in the language of the ruling "proficient"--whatever that means).

This ruling seems purely punitive--a way of getting rid of some players who aren't fluent in English.

In a word, I think the policy has racist foundations, whether the powers that be recognize the inherent racism embedded in this linguistic requirement or not, it's a requirement that would ensure an American-English centric pov.

The Constructivist said...

And, even if the implementation is "softer" than it could be, ultimately counterproductive. I attempt a slightly-more-serious analysis here. Would love to be able to link to a blog post of yours on this, Jennifer. (hint, hint, nudge, nudge)