The Bamboo Ceiling

How "Orientals" Became "Asians"

Tizon family photo, circa 1965 (l. to r.): the author; father, Francisco; mother, Leticia; older brother, Arthur, with younger brother, Albert, on his lap; Eudocia Tomas Pulido, with the author's younger sister Leticia Jr. on her lap.

I knew the word, of course. Years earlier in Seattle, registering me for elementary school, my parents stood at a counter filling out forms. My mother asked my father, “What are we, Papa—Oriental or Pacific Islander?” My father, impatience in his voice, asked the woman behind the counter if it was okay to check both boxes, because, you see, we come from islands in the Pacific Ocean in the part of the world known as the Orient. The woman looked at him blankly. “Go ahead and check Oriental,” she said.

I remember the incident more for my father's annoyance. I was seven and thought nothing of the word. It was obviously an acceptable word, official and all that. Proper people used it, people in charge.

 

Apparently, the Orient produced people with a singular way of thinking. There was no way, wrote Jack London, for a Westerner to plumb the Oriental mind—it was cut from different cloth, functioned in an alien way.

Sometime after Lisa and Rosemary, I started a file--one of my first--labeled simply “Orientals.” Inside went notes and newspaper or magazine clips, anything that made reference to the word. After a while I had to create sub-files, so large was the universe of things called Oriental: roots, rugs, religions, noodles, hairstyles, hordes, healing arts, herbs and spices, fabrics, medicines, modes of war, types of astronomy, spheres of the globe, schools of philosophical thought, and salads. It applied to men, women, gum, dances, eyes, body types, chicken dishes, societies, civilizations, styles of diplomacy, codes of behavior, fighting arts, sexual proclivities, and a particular kind of mind. Apparently, the Orient produced people with a singular way of thinking. There was no way, wrote Jack London, for a Westerner to plumb the Oriental mind—it was cut from different cloth, functioned in an alien way.

 

There was a grocery store on East Burnside we called “the Oriental store” where we bought rice. A place near Fordham Road offered “Oriental massage,” a few blocks from a shop that sold “Oriental furniture” A travel agency near where my mother worked in Harlem put up posters of the Orient on its walls and windows. My mother and I wandered in there a few times. The posters and pamphlets showed images of geishas and monks and fog-shrouded temples. Of elephants in gold jewelry. Of strange-looking boats in dark waters, and open markets teeming with ant-like hordes in strange dress, women with baskets on their heads, children in paddy hats sitting on the backs of hulking black water buffaloes. Of farmers in pointy hats turned down toward the earth like rows of bent nails, and rice terraces wrapped around the foothills of green volcanoes still steaming from their last eruption.

What a mysterious place, the Orient. Menacing but also immensely alluring. So otherworldly. So alien, as London said. No wonder it spawned people with such unfathomable minds. I had read White Fang and Call of the Wild; Jack London was one of my favorite writers.

***

 

Europeans popularized the concept of the Orient at a time when they were usurping much of it.

To know why the word “Oriental” chafes so many of us today, it helps to know its history. The word came from the Latin word oriens, meaning east or “the direction of the rising sun.” The Romans named the eastern part of their empire Praefectura Praetorio Orientis, which included the eastern Balkans and what is now Syria. The Western understanding of the Orient expanded as Western explorers went deeper into Asia until such time as Europeans used the word to describe the vast stretch of the planet east of themselves all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Orient came to encompass a quarter of the globe, including Egypt, Nepal, and Korea; Turkey, Mongolia, and Indonesia; Lebanon, India, and Japan.

 

Europeans popularized the concept of the Orient at a time when they were usurping much of it. Colonizers used scholarly studies on the Oriental mind, Oriental character, and Oriental society as guides to subduing and managing their subjects. Concept and conquest went hand in hand.

The underlying assumption of Orientalism was that the Orient represented the inferior opposite of Europe: the East was feminine and passive, the West masculine and dominating. The East was spiritual and inward-looking, the West rational and outward-seeing. The East was bound in tradition, the West impelled by progress. The East was primitive, vulgar, and defenseless; the West was the beacon of civilization, the standard of refinement, and the wielder of unstoppable military power. The Orient needed to be civilized for its own good.

Aside from being backward, we Orientals were also cravenly submissive, incurably exotic (from the Greek exotikos, meaning “from the outside”), inscrutable, cunning, silently treacherous, and highly penetrable. In fact, begging to be penetrated. We Orientals lived to be acted upon by virile, dynamic, rational Westerners.

Eventually, the Orient came to refer most commonly to what's now East and Southeast Asia—China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Brunei. The people here—in contrast to those from West, Central, or South Asia—were the most easterly of Easterners, the yellowest of the yellow race.

• • •

Yellow was the perfect color for Orientals. It was only superficially descriptive of skin tone. The cultural associations with the color resonated with the Western view of the Orient. Caucasoids, or Europeans, were white, the color of purity and power. Negroids, or Africans, were black, for their dark and animalistic character. Mongoloids, or Orientals, were yellow, the color of infirmity and cowardice.

 

Yellow was a contemptible color in the Western imagination, and it fit snugly with the Western idea of the Oriental human being

Orientals, without knowing the Western associations, did not object to their assigned color. Yellow had an altogether different history in the East, a regal history in fact. The ancient Chinese divided the spectrum into five “pure” colors, with yellow representing soil or “of the Earth.” This interpretation may have been born in northern China, where sediment deposits from the Gobi Desert every year turned the rolling plains a deep golden color. Depending on the context, yellow covered a spectrum of hues from light beige to gold to orange to reddish-brown. The 3,400-mile waterway said to be the cradle of Chinese civilization is called the Yellow River. Yellow became the color of royalty. And its favored rank spread to other countries. The color came to symbolize bravery in Japan after the 1357 War of Dynasties, during which warriors wore yellow chrysanthemums as pledges of courage. Hindus in India wore yellow to celebrate the Festival of Spring. The primary symbol of the Philippine flag is a golden yellow sun, signifying a new beginning. Today, yellow is the color of unity among Filipinos.

 

In the West, yellow's unsavory status went back centuries. Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, came to be associated with yellow (although there's no link in the Bible), and the color grew to represent envy, jealousy, and duplicity. In France, the homes of traitors were painted with yellow shellac. The color also came to be associated with illness. In the Middle Ages, the body was thought to contain four distinct fluids—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Yellow bile supposedly made one “peevish, choleric and irascible” Yellow fever caused jaundice, a liver condition characterized by a yellowish discoloration of the skin and eyes. Illness brought frailty in body and spirit. In nineteenth-century America, to be called yellow meant you were cowardly.

Yellow was a contemptible color in the Western imagination, and it fit snugly with the Western idea of the Oriental human being, especially as he became a threat first to the American workingman, then to the chaste American woman, and finally to Western civilization itself. Alarmists called for the white race to brace for the onslaught: all of Christendom would be overrun by the Orient's yellow swarms! They would conquer not by might but by sheer number, a human tidal wave. Pulp-fiction authors fed the hysteria with descriptions of slant-eyed immigrants practicing heathen religions, raping white women, and dancing on the ruins of white civilization.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a determined effort by whites to prevent yellows already here from multiplying—blocking entry of yellow women and banning marriage with whites. In the western territories came a furious drive by whites to get rid of yellows altogether. An uncounted number of Chinese were lynched, villages were purged, entire settlements wiped out. The hatred fueled an anti-Oriental fever that swept up yellows of all nationalities. The vision of “the menace from the East was always more racial than national,” writes historian John Dower in War Without Mercy. “It derived not from concern with any one country or people in particular, but from a vague and ominous sense of the vast, faceless, nameless yellow horde.”

The “Yellow Peril” became a persistent theme in American politics and culture through World War II, when the term was applied to Japanese, those treacherous simians who snuck up on Pearl Harbor, and who made it necessary to round up and lock up the Japanese in America. Something like 110,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry were forced from their peaceful lives and herded into internment camps. By this time, white Americans had passed a series of laws preventing more yellows from coming over, and those restrictions stayed in place until the civil rights movement forced lawmakers to rethink the country's immigration policies[.] Orientals in large numbers (equivalent to the numbers coming from Europe) could not legally immigrate to the United States until the 1960s, the decade when my family arrived.

***

I was ten when the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam became news. I remember coming upon the Life magazine pictorial of the killings, so many golden-brown women and children and old men, as many as five hundred, shot up and contorted in bloody piles along dirt paths. Bullet holes like giant sores on legs and arms and necks. Bodies that had come apart. And the faces: openmouthed, sometimes with eyes still frozen in terror, brains spilled into black hair. The faces looked like those of my family. My aunts and uncles, my sisters. Oriental faces. I looked at the photographs a long time, could not stop thinking about them.

The only American soldier convicted in the massacre, Lieutenant William Calley, served three months under house arrest. What this massacre and all of these wars drove home to me was that Oriental life was not worth much. You could extinguish hundreds of Orientals—unarmed villagers, farmers, women, infants—and the penalty would be watching television in your apartment for twelve weeks. I still have that Life pictorial in my files and run across it once in a while. The same emotions well up each time.

***

 

We arrived in the United States as Japanese or Korean or Filipino, but over time we became Orientals.

Having met other immigrants like myself in America, I can say that a great number of us came to our same “Oriental” identity in a similar fashion. We arrived in the United States as Japanese or Korean or Filipino, but over time we became Orientals. It wouldn't be until the 1970s, after Edward Said's book Orientalism shook up the academy and garnered an influential following, that “Oriental” began its descent into scholarly opprobrium, along the same path as “Negro” and “Indian.”

 

Nevertheless, many older Americans still use the word, often innocently. In the Midwest and South, I'm frequently referred to as Oriental by kind and well-meaning people. I can walk a few blocks from my house in the Pacific Northwest and order an Oriental salad and an Oriental chicken sandwich. (I've been tempted to ask for an Occidental beverage to go with them.) The word is still used by some who know its associations and accept them. A Filipino colleague of my father's, in a mock-Japanese accent, told me, “If you eyes rike dis,” using his fingers to narrow his eyes, “you Oriental. If you eyes rike dis,” pulling them wide open, “you da boss.”

But in academic and government circles, “Asian” became the correct designation, and I became one in college. All of us former Orientals were now officially and properly Asians.

I took on the new designation at a time when immigrants from Asia were arriving in the United States in unprecedented numbers. When my family arrived, fewer than a million Asians lived in America. In the 1960s, the U.S. government finally acknowledged its racist policies and opened the gates. Over the next couple of decades, 3.5 million Asians moved to the United States, constituting the second great wave of immigration from the Big Continent. The second-wavers were more diverse. Among them were Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong, and Mien. Many came from war-ravaged countries. Very many came with nothing.

As a journalist in my twenties and thirties, I wrote extensively about these communities. No surprise, I found each group exuberantly complex and distinct, and perceiving themselves as separate from—and often antipathetic to—other Asian ethnicities. The parents and grandparents clove to their countrymen, the Vietnamese with other Vietnamese, Koreans with Koreans, Cambodians with Cambodians.

It was the children and grandchildren, the ones growing up in America, who would find—or be coerced onto—common ground. Years of checking “Asian” on countless forms, of being subjected to the same epithets and compliments, of living in the same neighborhoods and housing projects, and sharing similar challenges and similar aspirations—the most important to become Americanized—all of these would compel young Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Filipinos to accept their belonging to the category known as Asians.

 

Young people who would have had no natural ties in Asia found themselves bound together in America, and more so with succeeding generations.

Perhaps the most unifying force was the perception that everyday Americans saw them as the same, and what made them the same was their “racial uniform” to use a term coined by sociologist Robert Park. The uniform was thought to consist of a certain eye and nose shape, hair and skin color, and body type, usually shorter and skinnier—identifiers of the Yellow or Mongoloid or Oriental and finally now the Asian race.

 

Young people who would have had no natural ties in Asia found themselves bound together in America, and more so with succeeding generations. The farther out in time from the point of arrival, the more Asian they became. It mirrored what happened to Africans brought to America as slaves. “We may have all come on different ships,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “but we're in the same boat now.” We Asians were now in the same vessel. Our uniform did not lie. Like Lisa said on the Grand Concourse: Japanese, Chinese, Filipino-same thing!

***

A news item out of Detroit in the summer of 1982—the murder of Vincent Chin—made an impact on many of us. Chin was the adopted son of a Chinese laundry owner. He was twenty-seven, a Motor City native, and about to get married. He and some friends celebrated his bachelor's party at the Fancy Pants strip club in Highland Park, not far from where he grew up. As they cavorted with the dancers, two white men at a nearby table—Ronald Ebens and stepson Michael Nitz—began making racial remarks. Among other things, the two repeatedly called Chin a “nip” (a derogatory name for Japanese), and one declared loudly, “It's because of little motherfuckers like you that we're out of work.”

Ebens was a plant superintendent for Chrysler, Nitz an unemployed auto worker. Massive layoffs in the auto industry were being blamed on the phenomenal success of Japanese imports. Ebens's boss, Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, quipped that the solution might be to nuke Japan again. Michigan congressman John Dingell decried “those little yellow men” taking jobs from hardworking Americans. The Yellow Peril resurrected. …

At the Fancy Pants, Ebens and Nitz took their frustration out on Chin. They provoked a fight, and the club threw out both groups. The father and stepson retrieved a Louisville Slugger baseball bat from their car and tracked down Chin at a nearby McDonald's. They knocked him to the ground and Nitz pinned his arms while Ebens swung the bat again and again, caving in Chin's skull. The groom-to-be died four days later. A local boy who held two jobs, Chin was as hardworking as any American. But to his attackers, he fit the bill. Anger at the Japanese spilled over onto anyone who looked Japanese.

 

Some scholars consider Chin's murder a watershed moment, the event that gave rise to Asian America as a social entity. Behind it all was a keen awareness that it could have been anyone of us at the McDonald's that night.

The story became a thread that joined Asian American groups with no previous contact. Help was offered, partnerships were formed, and compacts made among Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans, and Filipinos. These formal ties mirrored the informal ties taking shape in streets and schoolyards. A new pan-Asian awareness seemed to come into being. Some scholars consider Chin's murder a watershed moment, the event that gave rise to Asian America as a social entity. Behind it all was a keen awareness that it could have been anyone of us at the McDonald's that night.

 

Chin's murder signaled something else, a shift in the perception of Asians and Asian Americans as a threat from above rather than below, and this shift in status seemed to correlate with the adoption of “Asian” to replace “Oriental.” The colonial use of “Oriental” assumed an inherent inferiority in the people of the East. If Orientals posed a threat to Westerners, it was because they could take away low-skill, low-level jobs from white laborers, or they could contaminate white racial purity by intermarrying. The threat came from below because Orientals were seen as lower in the hierarchy.

But in the 1980s a new fear arose: perhaps these Asians were actually superior. Not in their biology (although some posited that), but in their culture. Japan had risen in a few short decades from cataclysmic defeat to become the second-largest national economy in the world. Its cars were taking over America's roads. China had begun its spectacular economic ascent, and Taiwan and South Korea were on the move. Commentators observed that Asians might in fact be collectively smarter, or in any case they appeared to be more industrious, more disciplined, and more willing to sacrifice for a greater good. Gore Vidal, in The Nation, predicted the emergence of a new global order with “yellows” at the top. If whites failed to meet the challenge, Vidal warned, “we are going to end up as farmers—or worse, mere Entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatic.”

 

Asian immigrants were seen to be more studious, more entrepreneurial, more civic-minded, and more apt to create cohesive communities. The success fomented a new kind of resentment.

In the United States, Asians were called “the model minority,” a label that has persisted into the twenty-first century. Asian immigrants were seen to be more studious, more entrepreneurial, more civic-minded, and more apt to create cohesive communities. The success fomented a new kind of resentment. Like Chin, Asians were sometimes viewed as still somehow connected to a vast foreign empire that increasingly stole jobs from “real Americans,” and not just manual jobs anymore but positions in engineering, health care, skilled manufacturing, and communication. Or they were seen as taking over enrollment at elite universities or dominating entire job sectors such as computer programming and technology—to the point where many observers suspected the existence of invisible “caps” to limit the number of Asians. The “bamboo ceiling.”

 

“Asian” came with a new set of stereotypes attached, many of them reflecting Vidal's fear of a grim and otherworldly efficiency. Asians today are often categorized as “tech geeks,” “math wizards,” “book nerds”—small, shy, studious moles who could potentially and ever so inconspicuously come to dominate the world.

Excerpt from Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self by Alex Tizon. Copyright © 2014 by Alex Tizon. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

 

Note: In Big Little Man, Alex Tizon referred to Eudicia Tomas Pulido, who appears in the family photo above, as his aunt. Shortly after his death, in 2017, The Atlantic published a story by Tizon, "My Family's Slave," revealing Pulido was in fact not a relative but had been enslaved by his family for fifty-six years.

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