A familiar restaurant menu item has just been blasted for its ‘casual racism’
Bonnie Tsui — author of “American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods” — penned a recent op-ed for The New York Times that blasts the “casual racism” of a popular item that can be found on many restaurant menus.
She goes on to note that the “persistence of these names — let’s at least call them ‘questionable’ — on the American restaurant menu underscores how non-Asian-Americans have been making up their own version of Asianness for a long time now.”
Tsui’s issue is with the terminology surrounding the dish:
So what’s my problem with Asian salad? It’s not the salad itself, though it’s not my favorite. It’s the words — which, I think, matter. In many ways, the broad, generic terminology used to refer to an entire continent is the heart of it. Applebee’s menu features an “Oriental chicken salad” with the following description: “fresh Asian greens tossed in a tasty Oriental vinaigrette.” The “Asian greens” and “Oriental vinaigrette” are so laughably vague as to have no meaning at all. When I asked Applebee’s for more specifics on what made its Asian greens Asian and its Oriental vinaigrette Oriental, a spokesman told me the company was unable to “provide a thorough response.” No kidding.
“When I see an Oriental Chop Chop or a Secret Asian Man, I feel … weary,” she adds. “Because the language of the Asian salad is revealing of the dangers of bland, disembodied generalization: When you fail to see countries and cultures as discrete entities, what kind of consideration could you be expected to give to individual people?”
In that vein, Tsui argues that the “casual racism of the Asian salad stems from the idea of the exotic — who is and isn’t American is caught up wholesale in its creation. This use of ‘Oriental’ and ‘Asian’ is rooted in the wide-ranging, ‘all look same’ stereotypes of Asian culture that most people don’t really perceive as being racist. It creates a kind of blind spot.”
Interestingly, “Asian” seems to have become an accepted, politically correct term over the years — in many ways displacing the word “Oriental.” The Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed last year discussing that very issue, noting how then-President Obama signed a bill outlawing the use of “Oriental” in all federal documents.
But the author of the L.A. Times piece, Jayne Tsuchiyama — a “doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine” — not only uses the term “Asian” frequently in her op-ed, she questions the negative connotations associated with the term “Oriental.”
“Literally, it means of the Orient or of the East, as opposed to of the Occident or of the West. Last I checked, geographic origin is not a slur,” Tsuchiyama writes. “If it were, it would be wrong to label people from Mississippi as Southerners.”
While she acknowledged fellow Asian Americans’ discomfort with the term “Oriental” — noting one who said it “perpetuates inequality, disrespect, discrimination and stereotypes toward Asian Americans” — Tsuchiyama has a different take.
“I don’t see it that way; I see self-righteous, fragile egos eager to find offense where none is intended. A wave of anti-Oriental discrimination is not sweeping the country. Besides, the term has been steadily falling out of circulation since the 1950s, and it’s mainly used today by older Asians and the proprietors of hundreds if not thousands of restaurants, hotels, shops and organizations with Oriental in their name,” she wrote. “The well-intention meddlers will create trouble for exactly the population they want to defend.”
One might say that could answer a question Tsui posed in her NY Times op-ed: “Am I taking this too seriously?”