Big Trouble in Little China’s Complicated Relationship With Orientalism

On the surface level, Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is just another American martial arts movie. It stars a white protagonist who enters a mysterious oriental world, and is chalk full of Fu Manchu caricatures and other stereotypes evoking the East-Asian mysticism trope that plagues Hollywood. However, what sets Big Trouble apart – and elevates it to the status of cult classic – is the unique way its protagonist operates in the story.

The film’s IMDb summary would have you believe that Big Trouble stars Kurt Russel as the lead and a Chinese-American actor named Dennis Dunn as his sidekick. Upon watching the movie, you’ll find that it’s the other way around. While Russel’s Jack Burton may begin the film as the focal character, it quickly becomes clear that he isn’t meant to be the typical white savior character who inexplicably masters the ancient ways of a foreign culture immediately upon entering it. No, Burton is a buffoon who bumbles his way through the movie and [mild spoilers] even spends most of the climax unconscious after accidentally dropping a rock on his own head. Meanwhile, Dunn’s Wang Chi and the other Asian-American members of the cast take on the threat they, as residents of “Little China” (a fictionalized version of San Francisco’s Chinatown), are actually equipped to handle. So instead of being a story about a white man saving a foreign culture, it’s a story about people saving their own culture.

All that being said, the movie does use an excessive amount of oriental tropes. While you could argue that it does so in a tongue in cheek manner, it’s still perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Whether the positive elements outweigh those negatives is up to the viewer. Personally (and obviously I am in no way an authority when it comes to Asian-American representation), I find Big Trouble to be a refreshing subversion of the white savior narrative, and altogether a pretty fun movie.

Orientalism Through the Lens of Lunana

There are a number of instances in Lunana that exhibit orientalism, both directly and indirectly. One major example is the teacher, Ugyen, bringing more modern, new teachings and materials to the classrooms of the remote village. Not only does he bring his phone and headphones, but he has new notebooks, pencils, and other teaching materials shipped. The children of this town have never seen any of there thing before, and this sort of embodies the relationship between the educated city man and the uneducated people from the village. In addition, Orientalism can be seen in the scene where Ugyen is teaching the children the ABCs. He says “C is for Car,” and the children tell him they do not know what a car is, as they have never seen one. This demonstrates an orientalist lens that the movie has, because it portrays the village as unaccustomed to modern practices like driving a car. This makes Ugyen almost a colonist who goes into an uneducated, remote area and has to teach the “natives” common practices.

Although Orientalism is present in this movie, I would argue that it is not an overarching theme, but a mild undertone in the film. Ugyen also learns from the people of the village, and about their practices, which seem foreign to him at first, but he eventually becomes accustomed to. These include collecting yak dung, singing the songs to nature, and even using an outhouse. In traditional orientalism, the colonist teaches the “natives” or the uneducated. In this film however, both parties teach each other, resulting in enlightenment for both the “colonist”(Ugyen) and the “natives” (villagers). I greatly enjoyed this film, and the message that it gave on orientalism, that everyone has something new to learn, and it’s important to keep an open mind in life.

Orientalism in Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean, a well known franchise adored by a large audience, is a fun, thrilling tale of the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow and his companions. I grew up watching the films as a child and immediately fell in love with the series as soon as jack stepped off his sinking ship onto the dock of Port Royal. The first film follows Captain Jack and Will Turner as they attempt to catch the infamous ship, The Black Pearl, captained by Jack’s mutinous first mate Barbossa. The second film, Dead Man’s Chest, picks up right where the first left off and the viewer can jump right back into the fun. Although an enjoyable movie as a whole, the Caribbean native people in the film are portrayed as beast like cannibals who, are meant to be viewed as merely animals.

When we arrive on the island we follow will turner as he is brought before Captain Jack, who the native people believe to be a god. Immediately, the orientalist tones of the film are clear. Within the first few minutes, the white “civilized” characters are placed on a pedestal above the native people who are portrayed as uncivilized and unintelligent. The film depicts them as static, undeveloped savages who are outsmarted by their white overlord. As the story progresses, the native people, who believe Jack to be a god, decide to eat him in order to “Do him the honor of releasing him from his fleshy prison” In the end, Jack and his crew manage to escape the island on The Black Pearl and continue on their journey.

The portrayal of the Caribbean native people in this film is highly problematic. To the western viewer, who may be being exposed to them for the first time through the film, will not see them as people, rather as animals who act off of their instincts and primitive beliefs. The viewers may then internalize the sense of superiority presented to them about themselves and their culture to those that they view as the other. This belief only works to increase the divide and misunderstanding of people who have different cultures than what is commonly known in the west, increasing the prejudice and hate that we commonly see today.

Seeing Through the Fog of War

According to Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, the western perception of the Middle East is clouded systematically and structurally to the point that even actual experiences are casted in the same light of ‘mysticism’ and ‘strangeness’ of all past depictions, creating an oriental blind spot for many in the West. He specifically identifies this as being especially present for Europeans, for whom the Middle East has been the locale and source of much of their history, while Americans typically associate the Orient with the Far East.

However, I want to discuss specifically the impact of Orientalism upon the Western perception of Afghanistan and America’s 20-year war there which ended last year. The US first sent troops to Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11 upon the twin towers to seek out and kill Osama Bin Laden, eventually doing so in 2011. However, the rest of the years were spent on a nation-building project to move Afghanistan from a Taliban-led religious state to one organized around a democracy, something which has obviously not been effective in the long run, given that the Afghan government backed by the United States fell in mere weeks following the official withdrawal of US forces.

However, despite the continuous efforts (or perhaps more aptly described as ‘failings’) of the US to build up the Afghan nation in a ‘democratic’ image over the past 4 presidential administrations, what remains striking is how the perception of the Afghan people has changed and not changed. Even with the continued interaction between the US and Afghanistan, the overall image of Afghanistan has remained as a place where conservative Islamic values hold sway and a place to be bombed indiscriminately, no matter who is fighting or why. This image has only been reinforced as American attempts to ‘civilize’ the nation have failed drastically, making it seem as if the Afghan people could never hold to western values and ideals for fundamental social, political, and historical reasons. The problem with this image, however, is that it lacks a lot of nuance. The nation-building first commenced by the Bush administration, for all of its flaws, has made progress in emphasizing women’s rights and increasing the literacy rate, and the apparent exodus of Afghans following the Taliban victory also seems to indicate that there is not as much appetite for Taliban rule as might be perceived.

Afghanistan is now wracked by a series of humanitarian crises, several of which are triggered by the freezing of government assets (now Taliban assets) outside of the country. It seems that American perception of Afghanistan has taken on a new dimension, being that since Afghanistan has proven impervious to change, we should take no efforts to do so. It will be interesting to see how Orientalism will continue to affect our views of the Middle East, for better or worse, as the region continues to develop and change.

The Orientalist Nature of Western Media’s Coverage of Conflict

As I write this, it has been just over one week since Russia reinvaded Ukraine. Over the past eight days, Putin’s War has already resulted in hundreds of deaths, both civilian and military. Coverage of it has blanketed American news channels around the clock. Yet, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is far from the only ongoing conflict in the world, and the incredible amount of attention directed towards it is in large part due to orientalism and the direct impact that it has on Europe compared to the other conflicts.

Take, for instance, CBS reporter Charlie D’Agata. Last Sunday, D’Agata reported on this conflict from Kyiv, saying, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully too — city, one where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” Note the adjective “civilized” to describe Kyiv, as if to contrast with the “uncivilized” cities of the Orient. D’Agata even seems to recognize how his words could be (rightly) perceived as orientalist and white supremacist as he notes that he has to “choose those words carefully” — as if instead of by describing Kyiv as “European”, he really means to describe the city as “white”.

It’s not just that coverage of Putin’s War has been in many ways a thinly-veiled embodiment of orientalism and European supremacy — it’s also that its coverage has been at the expense of other conflicts that take place in other countries in Asia and Africa (i.e. the Orient). Wikipedia lists four ongoing conflicts in addition to the war in Ukraine as “major wars”: the Tigray War (a civil war in Ethiopia), the Taliban’s efforts to maintain control over Afghanistan, internal conflict in Myanmar, and the Yemeni Civil War, which have led to about 400, 500, 3,300, and up to 5,100 deaths so far this year, respectively. Apart from coverage of the Afghan conflict several months ago following the American withdrawal of troops — itself only covered due to western involvement — there is zero coverage of any of these conflicts. In fact, I would venture to guess that the majority of Americans had no idea the Ethiopian, Myanmar, or Yemini wars are even happening, or would even be able to identify the three countries on a map.

Now, I do agree that in many respects, this most recent conflict does necessitate more coverage than most others. Russia is, after all, a nuclear power, led by a reckless and dangerous dictator who just a few days ago threatened the use of nuclear weapons, and whose forces set fire to the largest nuclear power plant in Europe just hours ago, whereas none of these are true for the nations involved in other wars. The potential for global ramifications are absolutely greater here than with any other conflict in my lifetime. But that doesn’t mean other conflicts, in which thousands of people have been killed, can simply be ignored.

Orientalism. Ruining the People

Orientalism has become more and more relevant in people’s life through media and the east are losing what their real culture is like. A film that has Orientalism is “A Passage to India” a lot of critics were saying how this is the directors best film yet which means they are believing what they see in the film as how the east is actually like. People were falling into that trap of how the east was portrayed in cinema and the east was losing their real culture. This movie shows the east as these blood thirsty people who were always attacking the English people in the movie, even at one point a man was dressed as a monkey and jumped on the English woman’s carriage. People were believing that the east were all just fighters which made the east lose culture as people were becoming scared of them. The media is ruining the east and still is today in Disney films such as Aladdin that little kids are growing up watching and seeing how the people are portrayed and that is how they are going to grow up knowing the east as. Orientalism needs to be stopped and when people see how cinema or television is portraying the east they should read up on what the culture really is like so they can see how extracted the media is showing them as. It’s time for people to see the real culture not the media culture.

Orientalism and Western Feminism

There is a clear orientalist perspective in the way western culture views and others Asian and Middle Eastern women. For the most part, images of Asian and Middle Eastern women in western media and entertainment are within the context of sex or service. 

There are two main stereotypes of particularly eastern Asian women in western media, the China Doll/Geisha and the Dragon Lady. The China Doll or Geisha stereotypes are the view of eastern Asian women as sexual and “exotic” objects with the purpose of pleasuring men. This stereotype is based on male fantasy and has significantly contributed to the fetishization of Asian women in western culture. Popular examples of the China Doll or Geisha stereotype are Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Miss Saigon (1989), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). Also perpetuating the fetishization and hypersexualization of Asian women, the Dragon Lady stereotype is the view of eastern Asian women as domineering, deceitful, and villainous, often shown as using sex as a weapon to trick and harm men. Popular examples of the Dragon Lady stereotype are Rush Hour 2 (2001), You Only Live Twice (1967), and perhaps most famously Alex Munday (Lucy Liu’s character) in Charlie’s Angels (2000).

This hypersexualized view of Asian women by western culture leads to discrimination and violence against Asian women, particularly in the United States. For example, the Atlanta spa shootings in March of 2021 where 8 people, 6 of whom were Asian women, were fatally shot by a white man whose actions, in his words, were caused by “sexual addiction”. These shootings were motivated by both race and gender. The gunman specifically targeted three Asian-owned spas and stated he was attempting to remove the “temptation” of “these places”.

This doesn’t just apply to western culture as a whole, western feminists often overlook Asian and Middle Eastern women in their activism. Western feminists often don’t include Asian and Middle Eastern women in their efforts, fight against stereotypes directed towards them, or recognize the different and intersectional experiences of Asian and Middle Eastern women. Additionally, western feminists often look down on Middle Eastern women for conforming to cultural or religious values. They view Middle Eastern women as people who need to be saved from their culture, specifically in regards to things like hijabs, without considering how Middle Eastern women actually feel about the cultural or religious practices that western feminists have deemed oppressive. 

Overall, the orientalist depiction of Asian and Middle Eastern women in western culture is extremely harmful, othering, and leads to exclusion, discrimination, and violence.

Orientalism in Star Wars

While Star Wars is one of the most popular and (in my opinion) greatest movie franchises in cinematic history, it still has its flaws. Nearly all of those problems are in the storyline of the most recent trilogy, but on a more serious note there are crucial flaws in the original trilogy, and one is the portrayal of different groups of people throughout the movie.

The first movie starts with Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, a sandy, desert planet. The inhabitants of the planet vary, but one of the most obvious native groups to Tatooine are the Sand People. The sand people are portrayed as an uncivilized race that steals from others and wear ratty sand robes, and this is shown clearly in the first part of the movie when they rob Luke. The problem with this is that this aligns closely with the Western view of the Middle East. The vast deserts with no civilizations represent the terrain, and the torn-up robes covering their bodies and heads closely resemble hijabs and other traditional Middle Eastern clothing. The savagery of their lifestyle emphasizes the western idea that these countries are uncivilized and barbaric. This portrayal results in westerners seeing the Middle East as insignificant, and it continues the cycle of racism that already exists in America. While some may see this comparison between the Sand People and Middle Easterns a stretch, it also doesn’t help that these scenes were filmed in Tunisia, a Northern African country with many deserts.

Later in the trilogy, Yoda travels to Kashyyyk, a dense forest planet. This planet seems to have humid, warm weather, and closely represents a jungle climate such as a jungle in Southern Africa or Southern Asia. Of course, Star Wars continues their orientalist theme, and the inhabitants of this planet are Wookies, the same species as Chewbacca. The Wookies are large, gorilla like animals that are seen as rather dumb, and mainly used for their strength. They are rarely seen as dynamic characters, and are usually one sided and cannot help themselves without a leader. Throughout the series all Wookies seem to have a master, whether its Chewbacca with Han Solo, the Wookies on Kashyyyk being led by Yoda, or Krrsantan being led by the Hutts and then Boba Fett. While this may seem to be a coincidence, it still spreads the idea that in the real world, the people from these jungle regions are uncivilized animals, and are desperate for someone to come save them. This enforces the discriminatory views associated with eastern countries and encourages racism. Similar to the situation on Tatooine, the scenes for this part of the movie were shot in Thailand, increasing the idea that the people from these regions are similar to the Wookies in the movie and have animalistic tendencies.

Overall, the Orientalism in Star Wars may not be as obvious as in other movies because the characters portraying these groups of people aren’t human, but that also magnifies it because it emphasizes the animalistic and savage tendencies. The Sand People and the Wookies are obvious examples, but the further you dig, the more Orientalism you will find. It is important to recognize these portrayals and continue to resist the subtle racism incorporated into movies.

Orientalism in “The God of Small Things”

“The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy highlights the aftermath of colonization through characters that readers emphasize with. The idea of orientalism is shown in the novel through the character’s beliefs and way of life as well as their relationships with others. The negative impact of this belief is depicted through the perception of characters such as Baby Kochama, Ammu, Velutha, Estha, and Rahel. This results in social and political issues being at the core of the novel which informs readers on the long-lasting effect that orientalism has on the lives of people and their mindsets.

One example of this is Rahel’s relationship with Larry McCaslin. Larry is never able to understand the darkness that Rahel has experienced which results in him not being able to connect with her. This is evident when Larry does not understand a certain look of Rahel. “He was exasperated because he didn’t know what that look meant. He put it somewhere between indifference and despair. He didn’t know that in some places, like the country Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough” (20). This passage is extremely powerful in illustrating the long-lasting consequences of colonization and orientalism. Orientalism has controlled the way of life and the values of those around Rahel which has caused a lot of destruction. Larry as an American has never experienced the power of history and the repercussions of colonization. While Roy portrays the damage caused by an orientalist mindset, she also sheds light on the misinformation of the east that is portrayed in western media and the false beliefs that form as a result.

A Take On Orientalism

Before watching and reading about orientalism, I had no idea what it was. When watching movies and reading books, I had never once thought about the true accuracy of what I was taking in and the perspective in which it was written or observed. Looking back, I can see examples of orientalism in not only many pieces of literature, but even in my own view of things. Growing up, Im sure a lot of kids watched movies like Aladdin, Mulan, and even Doctor Strange. All three pieces portrayed the middle east and eastern cultures in a way that is not accurate. In these movies and other films and literature, these cultures and their people are portrayed as mysterious, magical, tropical, and many other words that make the cultures seem like some kind of show we are only a small part of or meant to view from a distance, for our entertainment. These places, the people, and their cultures are viewed as otherworldly and totally separate from us. The middle east and eastern cultures have been grouped into one bubble of mystery, fantasy, magic, and separate from us. The many cultures, religions, and practices are usually not distinctly grouped to one country or culture and there are blurry lines separating the practices/religions that belong to certain people and cultures. Movies follow a cliche view of the middle-east/eastern areas that causes many parts of those countries and their cultures to be overlooked and misunderstood. As I started to understand how much orientalism has even taken over my own views, I have realized how easy it is to be blinded by what is true and real due to what you are told and what you watch and read. It is so easy to fall into a certain type of thinking and it is so easy to look at other places through one lens instead of taking the opportunity to explore and research the world and the many cultures and people who inhabit it.

Orientalism in Action

Throughout modern media, tv, and cinema we see misrepresentations of many eastern cultures. Movie studios, such as Disney, pick and choose which pieces of what cultures they would like to include in their movies and exclude what they don’t like. This is especially prominent in modern American action movies and tv shows, in which cultures aren’t misrepresented, but completely changed to be a fitting other for the protagonist in the story. In these action movies and shows, we often see the entire Middle East depicted as extremely gruesome and violent. We often have an antagonist that is a Middle Eastern terrorist which perpetuates this false idea that people from the Middle East are violent, radical, and terrorists. This image being continuously pushed throughout American action movies creates prejudice towards people from the Middle East in many people who watch these movies. This prejudice prevents people from understanding the many different cultures that are in the Middle East. It also continues to make the problem of xenophobia throughout America and the west worse and worse.

A specific example of this idea is in Marvel’s Iron Man, which is centered around an extremely wealthy business man, Tony Stark, who is captured by an Afghanistan terrorist group called the 10 rings. He is put in a cave, tortured, and forced to develop a weapon for them so that they can start taking power globally. He ends up making the Iron Man suit, which he later uses to seek revenge on the 10 rings and bring justice to those they terrorize. This movie became extremely popular, becoming one of the biggest movies in 2008. This movies popularity gave Marvel the boost it needed to start making more and more movies and developing its franchise, but the popularity of this movie also exastrabates many of its negative impacts.

This movies popularity creates increased prejudice in those who have watched it because it again pushes the idea that people from the Middle East are violent, radical, and terrorists. We often see in action movies people from the Middle East portrayed as either the villains or regular citizens, but never as the hero of the story. Often the hero has to be a white guy saving the citizens from some sort of terrorist, just as we see in Iron Man. We also see an issue in the portrayal of Afghanistan in this movie aswell. Afghanistan is shown as a desolate area that is only desert, they fail to show cities, developed areas, and the foresty mountianis areas and opt to only show small run down towns and military camps. This again further perpetuates the idea that Middle Eastern countries are violent and underdeveloped.

The failure of modern action movies to properly represent the east in general, and especially those who live there and the cultures they practice, creates prejudice as well as an unwillingness to actually learn and involve yourself in those different cultures. It further extrabaltes the problem of xenophobia an America and the west in general and continues to push us farther and farther away from the rest of the world.

Russian Orientalism during the Era of Putin/Invasion of Ukraine

The first geographic areas that generally come to mind when a person is asked about Orientalism are the Middle East and northern Africa. However, I believe that some type of Orientalism exists in any place that is truly unknown to the West, yet plays a large role in Western media. One of these places is Russia, which has similar eastern geography in relation to the West. Westerners stereotypically view Russia as exotic and chaotic, as a tundra of mystery. Negative opinions of Russian in American culture regardless of political party began during the later stages of the Cold War, and were amplified when Putin came to power. Americans were already incredibly distrustful of Russia because of the combinations of the stereotypes and negative political views they had caused, and when Ukraine was invaded, most Americans were pushed over the edge.

But maybe this action was to be expected. I am by no means defending Putin; he has been destroying the Russian political system for the past 20 years. But certain actions by the United States may have forced him into a corner.

There have been a series of NATO expansions ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. At the 2008 summit, two countries that border Russia, Ukraine and Georgia, were welcomed into NATO. Russia most likely felt threatened because the US has been putting military assets in these countries ever since they became part of NATO. These expansions had little strategic value for Americans, and instead agitated Russia. For Putin, invading Ukraine is not a personal but an existential issue of protecting the national security of Russia. The West uniting against him has only confirmed his fears. The only way out of global conflict is to get rid of him now.

Maybe these tonedeaf actions by the western world/America could have been avoided. I wonder if the actions of Americans in power were prompted by disregard of Russian agency. I believe that these actions might have been challenged by the American people if Russian orientalism wasn’t so prominent in American culture.

Indiana Jones: The Tones of Orientalism

Orientalism is a common theme that overshadows one’s culture with an imperialistic lens, adopting the culture. Orientalism is present in cinema, food, and pop culture. One specific place I want to focus on the presence of orientalism is Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones is a very popular family movie series that demonstrates the common ideology of orientalism and the westerner’s perspective on other’s cultures.

In the first installment of the series; Indiana Jones: Raiders of the lost arc, while Jones is in Cairo Egypt he encounters a talented swordsman. We see townspeople gather while Jones and the swordsman duel. This short scene is super popular as the fight choreography is incredibly impressive, however, this scene is meant to shock the viewers at how violent the people in Egypt are. This very short scene holds a lot of weight for the perception of Egypt since many of the series’ viewers are kids and this may be their first impression of Egypt.

In the second movie; Temple of Doom, there were many events that were intended to shock viewers or almost disgust them. In one scene they are attending a cultural dinner someplace where Indiana Jones is venturing off too. One element at the feast that was supposed to shock the audience was a mass amount of food. There wasn’t an obscene amount, but the clear intention was to signal that Jones was in a new place with “not normal” customs.

I grew up watching the Indiana Jones series and was surprised to see while looking back at the poor taste and judgment they had while conveying the simple story of finding some treasure. I can see how this orientalism can hurt cultures as they perpetuate untrue stereotypes to others, even at such a young age. The Indiana Jones movies are marketed as family movies, meaning kids are watching these movies and unintentionally forming these biases on these cultures based on untrue tellings of them. I do think that in the future filmmakers can do a better job at this, but for now, it’s very evident that orientalism can be seen in the media almost everywhere.

When Will We Stop Stereotyping People?

“Orientalism” is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Eastern peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing their culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous.

One of Edward Said’s central ideas in Orientalism is that knowledge about the East is generated not through actual facts, but through imagined constructs. These constructs imagined “Eastern” societies as fundamentally similar and sharing the characteristics that are not possessed by “Western” societies. Said argued that such knowledge was and is built through literary texts and historical records which are often limited in terms of their understanding of the authenticity of life in the Middle East. He further said that a long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture has served as an implicit justification for Europe and America’s colonial and imperial ambitions. 

How did this happen?

Said outlined a theory where Orientalism arose out of a need for the West to define itself as the opposite of a counterbalancing entity. Europe found this counterbalancing entity in the crusades to be the East. The West found itself in positions of political and military power over what it saw as the East and subsequently used this power to subjugate it. Once a tradition of superior values of the West and a static view of the East developed, the tradition solidified. And it was and is difficult to break free of these constructs. However, we have the ability to make our own history and help remove these stereotypes from society. 

Therefore, it is necessary for groups of people to speak for themselves and create discourses of their own history. They must share and dialogue with other people groups with the goal of true knowledge of the other and not merely political and “scholarly” knowledge.

Orientalism provides a critical theoretical framework through which people can explore numerous issues including: participating in systems of inequality, affirming commitments to social justice, and supporting those harmed by stereotypes and oppression, particularly those viewed as coming from the East. Conceptually, it also helps people make sense of certain types of knowledge construction associated with cultural competence, negative perceptions of Arab and Muslim women, aspects of international social work, Islamophobia, anti-Arab sentiments, speech, and practices, and more. 

So, how can we overcome this issue?

I think as a society we must realize and accept that people everywhere are just as good or bad, just as varied, and have the same fundamental needs and concerns, as people everywhere else. We all live and breathe on the same planet, Middle Easterners are not aliens from far away, they are human beings, just like “us” Westerners. That is the biggest, and first, step to overcoming Orientalism . Additionally, educating yourself and encouraging those around you to do the same about this lens will help grow awareness to avoid the consequences and move past it. 

Orientalism and the Kpop/Kdrama Fandom

So I’ve been thinking about Orientalism a lot lately trying to come up with a good idea for this blog post. Then a few nights ago as I was watching a Kdrama it hit me, the Kpop and Kdrama fandom. In few places will you find as much unabashed Orientalism as you will in those fandoms. As someone who loves Kdramas I am all too familiar with it.

Now, before I write anything else I would like to say that I am not bashing on everyone who likes Kpop or Kdramas. The orientalist mindset that I take issue with is not shared by all fans of Kpop or Kdramas, however, it is an issue within these fandoms.

It all comes down to the fact that they seem to see Koreans as completely homogeneous. Logically, one can assume that Koreans are individuals and as individuals are not all going to act like characters in a tv show or a celebrity who has been coached in how to respond to an interview Koreans will not all act that way. Well, according to some Kpop/Kdrama fans you would be wrong.

The problem with seeing an ethnic group that way is that it dehumanizes the members of that group. When you treat people as though they are nothing more than their culture, when you forget the variability of individuals, and when you objectify them, you are not fully recognizing them. That is what I think the core of Orientalism is, the refusal to look at another group with nuance, to other them. Whether the resulting distortion idealizes or demonizes them it is still wrong because it works against mutual recognition.

Orientalism in Our Lives …

When I was first reading about orientalism I had never heard about it specifically. I knew about the idea but I was still very confused about why and how it comes across. It is in a way stereotypes mixed with racism mixed with a Eurocentric attitude.

When I was thinking back to my own life and how it influenced me at young age. Orientalism has been present in the media that surrounds me since a young age. Even Disney movies pushing this view. When you see costumes or superheros who are written by Westerners especially recently with the push for more diversity. They attempt to be inclusive and sometimes succeed, but still end up falling short. Even halloween costumes that portray a belly dancer or a general asian costume with no attention to the difference in cultures.

Orientalism is all around us and affect us all even on a daily basis, and the media is a large part of that. When everything was happening with ISIS or the affect effect of 9/11. The media was inadvertently (or on purpose) trying to make Americans believe that everyone that came from that region was bad. Even with the coronavirus we have a president crossing out corona and calling it the chinese virus. Which messes with people’s heads to make them think anyone of Asian origin has it.

Orientalism runs deep in our society and everyone has either seen it in action or been subjected to it. While I was learning about it the implications and the history it has is enormous and crazy how much of an impact it has had on our society.

Is Crazy Rich Asians Enough?

I have now seen the movie Crazy Rich Asians 3 times. What can I say — it’s a great movie. Awkwafina is hilarious, Constance Wu is brilliant, and Henry Golding is attractive. But something I hadn’t taken into account until recently is that maybe it’s a little too simplistic. I’m not here to bash the movie because at the end of the day, it was a HUGE win for Asian Americans. But it was exactly that: a win for Asian Americans. What never crossed my mind, though, was how it portrayed Singaporeans. Once again, I still believe this was a landmark film in increasing representation in Hollywood. As director Jon Chu said a while back, it’s a movement. While the movie has enjoyed massive success and shed light on a non-white cast, some people still think it could’ve gone even further.

Take this quotation from a profound article on Vox, “While it’s definitely significant that Hollywood is finally producing an all-Asian film, the anticipation for this film demonstrates that representation can mean different things to different groups of people, and that there is a divergence between the needs and priorities of Asian Americans and Asians in Asia.” I couldn’t agree more. Here, as a Singaporean of Chinese descent, author Kirsten Han touches on how she felt the film was flawed in more ways than one. What she wrote next made me come to another realization. In western films, we really only see Asia depicted in 1 of 2 ways: as “rising Asia” with modern architecture, servants, and next-level wealth, or as an extremely impoverished place with a lack of social mobility. When I think about the films I’ve seen with an Asian cast in the past year, it totally fits the description. In one of my personal favorites, Parasite, we see this deeply-entrenched divide between the rich and the poor. In Raise The Red Lantern, we see extreme generational wealth and tradition. While I loved both of these films and I actually think they did a great job with representation, it makes me wonder. Is Orientalism at play here? Is this really an accurate depiction, or are these over simplistic?

In other western movies, what we see of Asian countries is very little. And what we do see motivates these 2 narrow stereotypes. We see overwhelming markets with foods that seem foreign to us, tech-savvy people, expensive homes, and action movie backdrops. We see a place with more than 4.4 billion people through one, white-washed lens. I think it’s interesting because something perceived so incredibly progressive in the U.S was actually perceived as not diverse enough to people from Singapore.


Nicki Minaj: Superbass or Super-culturally-inapropriate?

Orientalism is the depiction of aspects of Asian cultures through Western imitation or expression. It was derived from a prejudice interpretation of Asian culture, as European people saw their culture as exotic and unusual. Orientalism can be strongly abused and broadcasted on a large scale by people that have heavy influence in society.

Nicki Minaj, an unusual suspect of enacting orientalism (in my opinion), insults the Asian culture in her song, “Your Love”. In the music video for the song, Nicki alters her usual appearance to exhibit Asian influence. She dresses in silk clothing (also wears a Japanese geisha), slants her eyes using makeup, and puts chopsticks in her hair in addition to several other Asian “imitations”. Her attempt at embodying the Asian culture is extremely limited and false, and she takes away from the true diversity and complexity of this culture.

One of the lines of her song states, “Anyway I think I met him in the sky / When I was a geisha he was a samurai / Somehow I understood him when he spoke Thai / Never spoke lies and he never broke fly”. My interpreation of these lyrics are that the relationship between a geisha and a samurai is glamorized and falsified. She is using the idea of an “exotic” relationship to add to her song, and through that idealizing the concept of having a “foreign lover”. She also states that the Samurai spoke Thai, yet Samurai’s are a part of the Japanese culture.

In my eyes, she is mushing multiple Asian cultures together throughout the song, failing to give recognition to the beauty of each individual culture.