A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 8/1/2013.
By Kim Young-jin
Last year, I received a concerned email from a high school friend who lives in the suburbs of Boston. His six-year-old son had been mocked again for being Asian.
At school, some classmates had pulled back their eyes while repeating the word “Chinese,” a form of teasing familiar to Asians in the United States. The boy, confused because the children were supposed to be his friends, told his teacher. But no phone call came home.
My friend, a Chinese-American, wanted to rant to someone who might understand his helpless sense of deja vu.
Having grown up in the U.S., for us it brought back memories of the “eye-pull,” the crude imitations of language and snickers we heard at the ballpark or shopping mall.
I was reminded of the exchange last month, when, in reporting the names of the Korean pilots involved in the crash of Asiana 214, Oakland, Calif.-based station KTVU read racially insensitive and factually wrong names that referenced the tragedy, such as “Sum Ting Wong.”
The July 12 gaffe continues to make headlines, from Asiana’s short-lived threat to take legal action, to news that three KTVU producers were fired.
Criticism has focused on how the “joke” got past people who should know better. But it is also worthwhile to examine the joke itself because it perpetuates damaging stereotypes of Asians.
Despite the outcry, it remained ambiguous to some whether to laugh or cringe. International news outlets and blogs recycled the joke, as in The Times’ headline, “Sum Ting Wong with TV station’s plane crash news.” The satirical Colbert Report roasted KTVU, but a screen-shot of the names prompted cackles from the audience.
For Asian-Americans, the names had echoes of a popular saying used to demean Asian languages: “Ching Chong.” The familiar schoolyard taunt has been repeated publically by the likes of Rosie O’ Donnell and Shaquille O’ Neal in recent years.
Scholars suggest that such sayings intensified during mid-1800s, when Chinese immigrants arrived to the United States to participate in the California Gold Rush and projects such as the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Some immigration officials greeted Asian migrants by assigning them new names such as “John Chinaman” or “China Mary.”
Popular rhymes and songs from the era — including the 1917 ragtime number “Ching Chong” — portray “Chinamen” as exotic and conniving. Anti-Chinese sentiment eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, one of the most significant restrictions on immigration in U.S. history.
In more recent times, mainstream media has perpetuated misperceptions of Asians as a “model minority” of hard-working, docile, and socially inept people or grossly misrepresent them with exaggerated accents. Television characters such as “Han Lee” on the CBS show “2 Broke Girls” are criticized for perpetuating these stereotypes.
Treatment of Asians as homogenous or foreign extends to Koreans — even widely celebrated ones. When Psy appeared in a skit on Saturday Night Live last year, cast members behaved as familiar Asian caricatures, acting bewildered, bowing profusely and muttering “Senk you, Senk you.” The moment went largely unnoticed.
For Asian Americans, insensitive treatment of language and culture manifests in annoyances such as constantly being greeted with “Ni hao!” or “Konichiwa!” regardless of one’s country of origin.
Or it can spin out of control.
Take the case of Army Pvt. Danny Chen, a Chinese-American man who killed himself after enduring racially-charged hazing while serving in Afghanistan. Family members said Chen had been called a “gook,” a “chink” and “dragon lady” and forced to shout orders in Chinese to a battalion with no other Chinese-American soldiers.
Experts say the mockery has significant effects.
“Names, Asian or otherwise, are important to a person’s identity,” said Gary Okihiro, founding director of the Center for Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. “Especially Asian family names, they connect the named person to his/her family, ancestors, and village.
“Those names, thus, are critical to who they are as a person. Making fun of those names seeks, accordingly, to erase and undermine that person’s identity.”
Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a social-personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said: “The effect is a feeling of alienation and of being reduced to a category rather than being viewed as a full person, which is a cornerstone characteristic of stigma.
“Incidents like the Asiana prank names…serve to polarize group dynamics, making positive attributions, forgiveness, or tolerance less likely.”
For Koreans, understanding the view of Asians as homogenous helps explain why Koreans are tied to sounds that appear more Chinese or why some jump to conclusions about the cause of the crash based on “Korean culture.”
It also sheds light on the negative effects of stereotyping. Korea, whose number of foreign nationals recently exceeded 1.5 million, is struggling to embrace multiculturalism. Groups including multiracial families, migrant workers, and single mothers, are harshly stigmatized.
As for my friend’s situation, we talked about creating a “teachable moment” by engaging the teacher, the school, his son. We discussed how, despite persisting cliches and stereotypes, there were good signs. The boy had Asian-Americans around that had matured into fantastic role models despite the choruses of “chings” and “chongs.”
Even media misrepresentations are slowly abating due to activism as well as the fact that Asian-Americans are the country’s fastest growing and highest-earning minority group.
This may be of little consolation to a young person who has received the “ching chong” treatment for the umpteenth time, or a parent trying to explain why “Sum Ting Wong” is not really funny at all.
For some, it’s deja vu all over again.