You’re Cordially Invited: The Masquerade of “Aspiring” American Values

IMG_9014

Poisoned Aviary

One day, a customer walked in, feeling self entitled and brash, and pointed to the food she wanted.  “Two of these,” Dumplings.  “One of whatever these are,” Spring rolls.  She gestured to the plate of our popular dish, pow wok style beef (传统炒锅煮的牛肉).

“Oh, yeah, and the Mongolian beef.”

Cautiously, I offered, “Oh, this is the Signature pow wok Beef, but I can order Mongolian beef for you.”

She stared at me bluntly, then, grunted, “It’s the Mongolian beef.  But what’s the difference anyway?”

I later found out that she was a regular customer.  And the really sad thing is, when I returned home, detailing how work went today, my mother, who juggled extracurriculars, schoolwork and supporting her parents as first generation Americans in a little Asian restaurant, said, “啊呀,不用关系。老外就是不懂(Oh, don’t worry about it.  Foreigners just don’t get it).

I guess, as an Asian American, I was taught to be appreciative, to be quiet when orders are given, and to work hard to achieve.  Ignore the mock imitations of “Chinese”, even though “ching chong” – whatever pseudo-characters people come up with – ring in my ears.  I was taught to ignore the stares behind my back when I spoke in Chinese, and then endure the uncomfortable feeling when someone says, “we’re in America, speak English”.   It is now that I realize: In the thirty years since my mother’s adolescence, how far have we really come to true racial harmony and understanding of cultures in an increasingly globalizing world?

Recently, universities such as Yale, MSU, and Princeton have fallen under a spotlight of racial controversy; as a prospective college student, I am alarmed when people within the universities are not aware of the demeaning nature of marginalized and misappropriated wear.  Yale describes its school as a bastion for cultural growth, and states how it strives to “expand and share knowledge, and preserve cultural information for future generations” (Yale mission statement).  However, I find it hard to fathom how members of the Yale community can be so hardheaded supporting very culturally insensitive values such as the recent controversy surrounding students wearing racist and marginalizing costumes.

On the other hand, Harvard law students are attempting to change the Harvard Law School seal due to its ties to slavery, bearing the coat of arms of Isaac Royall Jr, a 19th century slaveholder. Protesters at Princeton University are calling for the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs to be renamed due to the late president’s racist views.  By challenging how these icons are perceived by removing their ties from a shining beacon on a hill, not only do we make the world a more harmonious and welcoming place, we also make ourselves mindful members of community by actively evaluating our perception of the values we display.  Yale professor Erika Christakis, who sent an email arguing against the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s viewpoint, wrote how “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”  She reminisces about an America that harbored “certain regressive, or even transgressive, experiences”.  I believe Mrs. Christakis fails to realize that challenging outdated American hegemony is the transgressive wall we should be breaking down, and the type of provocation for which we should be advocating.  I don’t believe that regression in any sense, be it civil rights, the movement for equality, or breaking cultural stereotypes and promoting awareness, should be encouraged when cultural misappropriation is very much a big issue in the world. Certain presidential candidates have turned to mudslinging whole races of people in a conglomerate of demeaning terminology, reinforcing rhetoric and tropes of Mexican murderers and North Korean dog-eaters.  

People who defend their viewpoints use freedom of speech and political correctness to support their cultural misappropriations; the plethora of interpretations for “freedom of speech” could support any argument, every viewpoint.  There is no doubt that to encroach on this right is to denounce the first amendment in our Constitution.  Self expression and individualism are key aspects of American culture that I support, and challenging those rights is not the aim of those who are worried about the insensitivity harbored in some college communities, even though supporters of marginalizing costumes incessantly claim that an imploration for mindfulness threatens freedom of speech.  

There is a Chinese proverb that tells about a frog in a shallow well, 井底之蛙.  Growing up in this well, all the frog ever knew was the world inside his small domain.  One day, a turtle comes along and tells the frog about a huge ocean that exists, a body of water that stretched for miles.  The frog, instead of rejecting the turtle’s description, becomes intrigued, and realizes that he has been living in such a small, sheltered world.  If college is an institution for learning, then why promote, or encourage racist and marginalizing costumes?  If we want to promote racial understanding and bridge cultures, showing that there are real cultures and real people from every corner of our increasingly globalizing world, without a doubt, we must become more mindful of the impact we make by taking ostentatious and brash actions.  Of course, you can continue wearing what you choose, but don’t expect to meet the gaze of Muslims who frown upon your portrayal of Mohammed, Chinese who cringe at the sight of queues and squinted eyes, African Americans who turn away at the sight of blackface.  We have to hold ourselves accountable and stop being content with gilded surfaces when under the fine layer, very real tensions continue to simmer and bubble.  

Bibliography:

  • “About Yale.” Yale University. 31 July 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
  • “Bay Area Census — Marin County.” Bay Area Census — Marin County. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
  • “Email From Erika Christakis: “Dressing Yourselves,” Email to Silliman College (Yale) Students on Halloween Costumes – FIRE.” FIRE. 30 Oct. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
  • Stack, Liam. “Yale’s Halloween Advice Stokes a Racially Charged Debate.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 8 Nov. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
  • “Student Group Looks to Change Harvard Law School Seal over Its Slave Ties.” Fox News. FOX News Network, 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.