Orientalism and the Coronavirus

When we first started getting news of a disease in China, the detail many American kids were captivated with was its supposed origin: a wet market.

A wet market is, simply put, an outside butcher, where vendors sell raw meat, fish and produce. Rumor has it that Covid-19 came from the consumption of a bat from a wet market in Wuhan. When I heard that news I was devastated, not because I’m a vegetarian or because I really like bats, but because of the racist backlash I knew would follow.

Every year my Chinese class goes to Brooks middle school to talk about the Chinese program. This year, in addition to the usual comments about eating dog, we got many insensitive questions and comments about cooking bats and the coronavirus. The whole experience made me really mad

I’m not mad with the Chinese person who ate the bat, or the market that sold it, or the culture that deemed it okay, because its not my culture and it is out of my zone of control. I was mad at the inability for Western people to think from a different perspective because the Cultural norm, that is of course not shared by all Chinese people, to leave nothing to waste deserves so much more respect.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I suggest you read the book, Sichuan Pepper and Shark Fin Soup by Fuchsia Dunlop. In this book, Dunlop tells the story of her travel to China and her discovery of the province of Sichuan through its food. Most notably, Dunlop describes the practice by many Chinese people, to eat the whole animal and to leave nothing to waste. The parts that we Americans tend to leave aside, like intestines, eyes, and fins, are incorporated into some Chinese dishes.

Along with this norm comes the rare consumption of unconventional-seeming animals like turtles, dogs, and bats. I don’t think it’s wrong, not that my opinion really matters, to consume animals such as these. What’s normal is different in different places. For example, the rampant consumption of beef in America may be appalling for many Hindus who believe the cow is sacred and our normalcy of Cheese Wiz may, and probably does, make everyone else want to puke.

Now, what does this have to do with Orientalism? Well, Orientalism is the tendency to warp and exaggerate the differences in the West compared to the East. I believe that the difference in food consumption is one of the many things that has been exaggerated. Yes, the average American eats differently from the average Chinese, but the difference is not as stark as we make it seem and the American horror surrounding these differences really stems from ignorance.

Blogging God of Small Things …

Since we are all getting back into the groove, I thought I would re-articulate the blogging expectations during our reading of God of Small Things. I am imagining our unit spilling over a bit into next week, so the deadlines might bend a bit as the week progresses.

The blogging assignment is to complete at least TWO of your own blog posts and at least THREE substantial comments on other classmates’ posts. See “Blogging Responsibilities” for general guidance to the assignment. Since we reading God of Small Things this week, though, here are some specific recommendations:

  • Posts: At least one of your posts needs to reflect a close reading of God of Small Things (most likely, quoting — and citing page #’s — for multiple passages). The second blog post should probably be an evaluation and/or application of the theory of Orientialism (see the separate resources on Orientalism that will be part of a separate assignment this week) — but it could be another close reading of the novel, if you are inspired.
  • Comments: The main idea here is quality over quantity. I’d rather see ONE lengthy engagement with another classmates’ ideas than 3-4 quick comments that just affirm what is already being said, although quick affirmations are great too.
  • Extra Credit/Makeup: If you are inspired to add more than two posts and are extra-active in the comments, you will be rewarded. The week after Spring Break, besides the start of the 4th Quarter and the rest of the year, is also the time our administration has given us to shore up any incomplete 3rd Quarter assignments. So one of my first thought will be to find a way to go back and give at least partial points back on missed assignments.

Important: The blog is our space in which we will try to recreate a version of class discussion that both allows us to share our ideas, listen to the ideas of others, and advance all of our knowledge. We can certainly be passionate and have fun with it, but it should be approached with seriousness and a sense of community.

The Mask That We Call Comedy.

What more could Elle Woods want? Life has been nothing but easy for her, challenges are foreign to the young spunky blonde. The missing key to her perfect life is boyfriend Warner Huntington III, he just won’t propose. Woods lack of substance when it comes to her personality is the reason for this. In hopes of changing her mind she finds herself enrolled in one of the top ranked law schools, Harvard University. The experience helps her to defy the stereotype of a sorority-sister valley girl while staying true to herself although, does the film really capture the right message?

Director Robert Luketic builds off of the early 2000s stereotype of the “dumb blonde” as it fails to enhance reality to its fullest. It acts as a mask to underlying issues like gender inequality, sexual harassment and even abusive relationships. As main character Elle Woods defys the most typical form of this stereotype she doesn’t completely break through it. As much as her intelligence is presented it is also undermined just as often. For example, she won one of her court case by having intense knowledge of last year’s shoe trends, along with being an expert in post-perm hair care. Yes, she won the case but not in the traditional way which doesn’t really grasp the full effect.

Starting as early as the opening scenes gender rolls are put to use as seen in most current American films as we see arbitrary body shots of Woods. These shots also include stereotypical feminine actions such as brushing her hair, shaving her already perfect legs, engaging in Cosmopolitan, applying makeup, and (most alarming) getting catcalled by a bunch of men in a car, and smiling in their direction. What does this teach the younger generation? Elles intelligence is addressed throughout the film but that’s the only thing that separates her from the stereotype which is problematic. Not only this but unrealistic expectations makes this never ending cycle really hard to break since Woods social and economic status also played a major role in what she had to overcome.

Breaking down the comedy aspect of why women have become targets of such classification can be tied to various reasons. One perception is that humor is a tool used to facilitate work by lightening the mood, making difficult problems seem less extreme while also encouraging positive attitudes and healthy interactions. A second perception is that humor is disruptive — a distraction from the seriousness of work while demonstrating less commitment to work. Jokes including those about dumb blondes project the greater anxiety of men afraid of a threat to their social position. These fears are nothing new as losing masculine power could be traced all along the history of gender relations and numerous prejudices. Stereotypes of women include not only lower levels of achievement, but also the expectation of increased family responsibilities. Because it is so difficult to dedicate time to both work and family responsibilities, this has led to the perception that women are less dedicated to work causing society to view them in a humorous way.

In conclusion as much as we want to believe Woods represents that step in the right direction for image of women it really just masks it, like the rest of the world. Although its a step in the right direction there is still more that can be done to ensure and protect women so they are no longer the laughing stock of society.

GOST Helped Me Rediscover My Love of Writing

I used to love to write fiction. When I was little, writing scary stories or a silly poem could captivate me for hours. However, I learned to hate writing as soon as it became an assignment and teachers gave me a strict template to follow.

I found that the writing of The God of Small Things is different. Roy writes with no constraints on her sentence structure, her timeline, and the point of views she uses, and yet she is praised for her amazing writing. This boundless writing is exemplified in the passage below,

“Steelshrill police whistles pierced holes in the Noise Umbrella. Through the jagged umbrella holes Rahel could see pieces of red sky. And in the red sky, hot red kites wheeled, looking for rats. In their hooded yellow eyes there was a road and redflags marching. And a white shirt over a black boy with a birthmark. Marching (76). “

In this passage, two of the sentences are incomplete, two begin with “and”, and one is in passive voice. These structural issues would be something I would get points off for, that I would be deemed a sloppy writer for, but Roy is celebrated for it. It works.

The passage above also shows Roy’s tendency to over-describe, to ramble on sentences, adding extra clauses, to shove in extra details. I liked this style of writing, so I began to write my own story without bounds, just like Roy did. I experimented with perspective, detail, and incomplete sentences, and I found joy in doing so.

Thank you Roy for helping me make this quarantine a little less boring.

A Lesson in Harmony

As an educator, one of the questions I get asked most frequently is “How can I play this without people thinking I’m bad?” Today I’m going to show you how to fix simple music so that you may play it without being embarrassed of yourself.

Let’s start with the classic method book melody “Ode to Joy”

Gross. Hal Leonard needs to fire whoever wrote this garbage.

But don’t worry, we’re going to fix it. Here it is again with some spice

Wait actually,

That’s better. A good rule of thumb is that any time you can do something, you should do it.  Otherwise, how will people know that you can?

Now I know what everyone is probably thinking: “The common practice period is over, wake up and smell the jazz chords”, well you’re right. So was I actually. Just because triads were good enough for Bach doesn’t mean they’re good.  Duke Ellington said it best: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got those jazz chords.”

Oh yeah, also you have to end on the sharp eleven. Every time. Now we’re getting somewhere. But anyone can modulate to the subdominant. Big deal. Sure it sounds good, but if we’re going to impress people outside the nursing home gig, we need to do something a little more hip.

That’s more like it. However, it’s not art until we break the confines of functional western harmony. And it’s not intellectual until the harmony can’t fit on the page. Let’s try something a little more nonfunctional.

Ah yes. Now were getting somewhere. But in order to truly express ourselves with total harmonic freedom (the only aspect of music that matters) we simply need more notes. We need more clusters. We need more syncopation. We need a half-swung quintupletey drum track.

We have transcended. Now this is music. The general public will be so impressed they won’t even know what to say. But their silence speaks volumes. The less people enjoy it, the more sophisticated it is.

Another classic fixed. No need to thank me. Tune in next time to hear me improve our national anthem.

Ryan Michaud (PhD) has been educating the masses online for 45 years. A brilliant author, teacher, and scholar, he is a such an intellectual that he still has less than 1,000 listens on all of his music.

Orientalism and Asianness

If it’s not already abundantly clear from my name and appearance, I’m not actually Midwestern.

I’m actually … Southern!

Well, in name only anyways, I moved out of Arkansas when I still had all of my baby teeth, and I’ve lived in Oak Park ever since. But, this answer isn’t satisfactory right? To cut to the chase, I’m also Chinese, my parents were Chinese immigrants, and on the weekends (and if I’m lucky the weekdays too) we eat store-bought dumplings and pickled vegetables. However, I’ve always resisted being “Asian”.

After reading and watching about Said and Orientalism, the point I took home was the pervasiveness and strength of the Orient. While now, I doubt anyone regularly uses such antiquated terms, I feel like it’s undeniable that the idea persists even to this day. And, consequently, I believe we can most clearly see its effects in the nebulous concepts of Asia and Asianness.

Ah yes, Aisa, constituting ~60% of the world’s population and culturally distinct nations from Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan, Taiwan, India and Myanmar.

I don’t like Asia, but that’s mostly because I feel like the term is ever specific enough to warrant its use. However, for most people, I don’t think that this Asia, the geographical Asia, is the Asia that people refer to. Just in daily dialogue, people would likely never talk about Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. as though they were Asian nations but rather Middle Eastern. This example only serves to illustrate how Asia is rarely a useful descriptor for regular use. That being said, Asia still exists a continent and an idea that still exists, despite the fact that Asian nations hold little similarities besides their being colonized by Europeans (specifically mostly the English and French) and different than Europe.

As Said stated, the Orient and Occident are constructs created by Europe to, among many things, define themselves in contrast to the Other. I hope that I’m not taking too many liberties when I say that Asia is just the modern version of this construct. And following the doctrine of Orientalism, it still lives not as just a stereotype or myth but in academia. Although I’m sure there are other examples, the most poignant one to me is the race questions on the SAT. On the SAT, race (ethnicity is also used, but only to distinguish Latino, Spanish, or Hispanic origin) is separated into:

  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian (including Indian subcontinent and Philippines origin)*
  • Black or African American
  • White (including Middle Eastern origin)
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

Although I can understand the desire to limit categorization to a meaningful few options, I still don’t feel like label of Asian is specific enough to hold any worth. They may also be using the Asian category also due to the similarity in test score range in order to give their scores some context for colleges (e.g. those in the Asian test category tend to test higher than those in another); however, the fact the Asian label is still being used illustrates the commonality of Asia and Asianness.

For all these observations, I feel like I should summarize why the label of Asia and Asianness matters.

For one, in daily life, Asia and Asian just doesn’t really work that well as labels. Although Europe and European are also labels, I don’t think I’m going too far when if I say that Europe is much more homogenous than Asia. I’m not trying to ignore the nuances between nations, it’s only that I find that regions like the Middle East and East Asia are just as distinct with each other as they are with Europe.

Second, Asian is too vague of label to be useful for people. No disrespect to you Mr. Heidkamp if you’re reading this, but when I heard that his “Asian-American” friends had faced discrimination due to the coronavirus, I couldn’t help but wonder if he meant Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, etc. His friends are most likely East-Asian, probably Chinese, considering the origin of the coronavirus, but I only understood that from context and the connotation that Asian has with East-Asian. But why should I rely on the connotation? Why not just say East-Asian?

Third, and probably most importantly, the Asia and Asian carry a lot of baggage with them. To say someone is Asian likely brings to mind the usual stereotypes: having immigrant tiger parents, focusing heavily on school (the STEM and medical fields specifically), and being an overachieving model-minority. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that all stereotypes hold a little bit of truth, in fact, I myself have immigrant parents, care probably too much about school (and STEM), and have relatively well-off parents. However, it should be obvious that stereotypes, even positive ones, are limiting. The Asian-American stereotype in particular is harmful because it, to some extent, takes hard-work for granted. I’m sure everyone’s heard at some point that all Asians are good at math. But what this phrase ignores is the passion and work that’s needed for such aptitude. This effect unfortunately leaks into academics and specifically college admissions.

Some supporters of the lawsuit

The lawsuit against Harvard, to put reductively, was focused on how Harvard consciously discriminated against Asian-Americans in their admissions process. Harvard won, but the case demonstrated an undeniable implicit bias against Asian-Americans who were generally given much worse personality scores.

There are many things to take away from the lawsuit, but the easiest one for me to talk about is how the model of the Asian-American not only over-generalizes a sizeable chunk of people, it adversely affects those unfortunate enough to be saddled with the Asian-American label. In turn, anyone stuck with the label is also isolated from other minorities who seem to benefit from such race-conscious decisions. Whether this distinction is a good thing or a bad thing is for debate; however it should be noted that while this lawsuit finished the admissions scandals came out, demonstrating a more serious issue of wealth and legacy in college admissions.

In short, from small annoyances to life-changing decisions, the baggage of Asia and Asian is simply unacceptable.

While I bring up all my issues with Asia and Asian, I only hope to demonstrate an issue that I felt Orientalism fit in perfectly. As such, any solution to the problem of Asia(n) should stem from Orientalist theory. The take-away from Orientalism is that Asia, as a label, stems too greatly from colonist-colonized and us-them to be an accurate, nuanced descriptor. So, I propose that instead of Asia and Asian, we should just use Eurasia and Eurasian! That way, continents make sense and the label is now complete in its uselessness. More seriously, we should strive to find new borders and terms that better convey the distinctive cultures and experiences of the people known now only as Asian. I think that Middle-East, East-Asian, and Indian-subcontinent work alright now, but really, I just hope that in the future there’s no need to make a distinction. I just dream of a world in which people are just a name, and if it’s helpful, and a first language.

Thanks for reading, and hope you’re doing well during this quarantine. 再见!

Aladdin & Orientalism

Like many people, I don’t always respond in the best way when my favorite childhood stories are called out as problematic. So, even though I’d heard the Disney film Aladdin described as “Orientalist” many times, until learning about the concept of Orientalism in a more in-depth manner, I refused to believe it. “So what if Aladdin over-romanticizes the medieval Middle East?” I thought. “Disney movies romanticize whatever place they’re set in, that’s kind of the point. It’s fantasy. Plenty of their films romanticize medieval Europe.” However, after watching Edward Said’s talk and reading the summary and excerpts of his writing, I now realize how wrong I was. Orientalism is about so much more than just romanticizing a region of the world (although that is part of it), and Aladdin is guilty of many of its worst aspects. 

*By the way, I’m talking about the 1992 animated version of Aladdin in this post, not the 2019 live-action version. I’ve never seen the live-action version, though I have heard it’s problematic in plenty of the same as well as in new ways.*

According to “An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies” by Professor Amardeep Singh, “The stereotypes assigned to Oriental cultures and ‘Orientals’ as individuals are pretty specific: Orientals are despotic and clannish. They are despotic when placed in positions of power, and sly and obsequious when in subservient positions. Orientals, so the stereotype goes, are impossible to trust. They are capable of sophisticated abstractions, but not of concrete, practical organization or rigorous, detail-oriented analysis. Their men are sexually incontinent, while their women are locked up behind bars.” Unfortunately, many of the characters of Aladdin fit these stereotypes to a tee.

Take the movie’s villain, Jafar. Jafar is certainly “despotic” and power-obsessed in his position of power as the vizier. However, he also is “sly and obsequious” when he tries to win the favor of the king, the only person in the kingdom with more power than him, and is “sexually incontinent” when he tries to force Princess Jasmine to marry him and makes some really gross advances on her. 

Speaking of Princess Jasmine, if Aladdin was believed to be an accurate depiction of the Arab world, it would be true that “their women are locked up behind bars.” Jasmine, the only female character in the film, is imprisoned in the gilded cage of her palace by her father, who is also trying to force her into an arranged marriage (supposedly, her bedroom was actually designed to evoke the look of a birdcage). Showing that Middle Eastern cultures oppress women is another flavor of orientalism, another way to paint them as “backwards” compared to a “progressive” West that values women’s rights. Jasmine’s father himself is childlike in disposition and an incompetent ruler, infantilizing him in a way often done to people of color (especially those who live in places that White people want to colonize) to show how they cannot take care of themselves without White rulers. As Said said, Orientalism and imperialism rest on the idea that, “you’re not just robbing the people of their ivory and slaves and so on. You are improving them in some way.” Jasmine’s father, the sultan (as well as the psychopathic Jafar for that matter), is meant to depict how badly “Orientals” rule themselves when left to their own devices and why they therefore need to be colonized. 

Central to Orientalism is its purpose–to justify the subjugation and exploitation of African and Asian peoples for Western profit. As Said wrote, “Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment.” Aladdin, as a piece of Orientalist media, is no exception to this goal. I found a couple very interesting articles suggesting that Aladdin vilifies Middle Eastern culture by making the goals that the “good guys” strive for (for example, marriage for love rather than royal duty in Jasmine’s case) correspond with what Western culture values as well as giving them a more White/Western-associated appearance and manner of speaking than the “bad guys” have (for example, the Genie makes jokes about American pop culture). By doing these things, especially the former, it sets up Western ideals as superior and therefore provides a justification for why the United States should try to enforce these ideals in the Middle East and on Arab and Muslim people in general. This served as fuel for the fire of American Islamophobia that had its roots in the early 20th century and was not becoming any less vicious in the years leading up to and following Aladdin’s 1992 release. The effects of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in the United States are very real, and have shaped everything from foreign policy to immigration policy to the daily lives of Arabs and Muslims living in the United States. Whether intentionally or not, media such as Aladdin continues to perpetuate Orientalism and therefore shapes how the West sees itself as superior to the East.