Thursday, 31 October 2013
Or: Political correctness as viewed through the eyes of someone it was meant to protect
**Warning: this post contains politically sensitive words and phrases that Caucasians have told me I should be offended by**
I’m perfectly happy to be called a “Chinese man”. I’ll even accept “Asian”, because it’s not completely obvious to the untrained eye how to distinguish someone of my outward appearance from Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and so on.
To me, these words are accurate and factually descriptive. To pretend I’m anything else would be intellectually misleading.
And yet, in a large corporation like Bauer Media, I’d get in trouble with HR for it. I remember, during my first few days, hearing startled gasps of horror from everyone in my surrounding area the first time I referred to myself as Chinese – you’d think I’d just strangled a puppy. I heard through the grapevine that hushed debates were actually had in the hallways about whether to report me to HR. Apparently they had difficulty rationalising that I would simultaneously be the “victim” in this complaint.
They would probably be surprised to know that, among my closest Asian friends, we refer to each other as “Chongers”. We’re often out eating “Chonger food” for lunch. Taking in a “Chonger movie”. It’s a term of endearment that we’ve appropriated to identify our shared cultural experience.
It’s a word I say quite openly in front of my other non-Caucasian friends, because they get it. It’s ‘our’ word, just as they have appropriated certain words for themselves to describe their Greek, Philippino, Jewish, Iraqi, Indian, African (and so on) backgrounds.
Context is everything. These words are never meant as a negative. For me, it’s often to identify a specific cultural style that I’m closely associated with. For instance, if you asked me to cook you a bowl of spaghetti, I’ll deliver it to you “al dente” because that’s the authentic Italian way. But if you want it the Chonger way, I’ll boil it to within an inch of its life so that it’s soft and almost tofu-like in texture. Because many Chongers like it that way.
I choose, personally, not to use the words favoured in other cultures because they don’t reflect my experiences. But that’s just me. Otherwise, the ‘Chonger way’ is an alternative world I’m always happy to share when it’s in the spirit of broadening one’s horizons and trying something different.
What would I take offence to? I won’t accept “Oriental” because of its connection with the UK’s colonialist history and the disgusting war it waged on China, twice, for the right to freely trade in opium.
Aside from that, I’d follow the simple rule of avoiding anything that makes my Chinese heritage a negative. In other words, if you’re going to say, imply or assume I’m a bad driver because I’m Chinese, or that I have a tiny penis because I’m Chinese, then you and your family can take a leap off the nearest cliff as far as I’m concerned.
These are things we sometimes joke about between ourselves as a way of mocking the stereotypes we’ve been subjected to, but it does not amount to an acceptance or encouragement of them. I realise this only complicates things, but if you want to understand the two worlds that people like me inhabit, then you need to understand this. We need to be able to talk, joke, and reappropriate these things if we’re to get over them.
As for that HR complaint, it did go ahead. The ensuing meeting went something along these lines:
“We heard you’ve been using some racially provocative language in the office.”
“Oh really? What did I allegedly say?”
“Without pointing fingers at anyone, it’s been reported that you called yourself Chinese.”
“I see. Well. Aren’t I?”
“Well it’s not something you can say in the office. You need to modify your behaviour towards them.”
“I really have to question who ‘they’ are, considering I’m the only Asian on the floor. Did I say something derogatory about being Chinese?”
“No, that wasn’t part of the complaint.”
“So, to be clear, the complaint is purely that I used the word ‘Chinese’ to describe myself?”
“Not to be flippant, but I’m about to publish a story about a Chinese movie called Red Cliff. How do you propose I approach that?”
“It’s not the same thing. You’re making people uncomfortable.”
“Well, I have two things to say in response to that. First, I’d suggest they are the same thing: they’re both statements of fact. Secondly, I haven’t discriminated against anyone by describing myself as Chinese. There is no negative connotation, nor any disadvantage being placed on anyone. If people are uncomfortable with it, the problem is with them.”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“Work like what? Are you going to stand here and tell me I’m not Chinese?”
“Look, I understand you’re upset…”
“I’m not upset. I just realised I’m taking a little too much joy in poking holes through the logic of this complaint.”
“Well, look. Let’s just park it here for now. I’ve said what I needed to say and you’ve said yours, so let’s see if any more comes of it.”
And nothing ever did. My esprit de l’escalier comeback would’ve been:
“Park this” *unzipping sound*
Addendum: It wasn’t hard for me to figure out who raised the complaint, but I gave her the respect of not mentioning it to her. Weeks later, she asked, “Why do you say you’re Chinese, instead of Australian?”
“I’m both”, I explain.
“But you’re an Australian”, she insisted .
My heart broke for her – she didn’t understand what a can of worms she’d just opened; that the ideals she lives by don’t match the reality I live with.
“I’m glad to hear you say it”, I said.
You might be wondering why she chose to tempt fate by initiating this conversation with me. And answer is simple: she is a sociopath. But that is a story for another time.