For lunch today I went out and ordered some Asian food. Asian is a slippery adjective and one I wasn’t raised to use. As a boy the term was Oriental, and it stood for everything: people, food, furniture, geography, and so on. But today, as far as I understand things (at least as far as I understand them here in America, which is important to note because in other parts of the world, say Europe, these words convey different meanings), Asian is, as they say, the preferred nomenclature.
If pressed, my understanding is that Oriental can be used only to refer to things, and never people, though even as I write that I’m aware that most anyone I know would cringe if they were invited out for an evening of “Oriental food.”
All this to say: I ordered some Asian food. The restaurant I went to bills its food as a hybrid of Hawaiian, Korean and Mexican: basically this means that you can order a taco filled with Spam and Kimchi. Whatever roots it wants to acknowledge it’s thoroughly American at this point, and, more importantly, it’s delicious.
I was sitting in the park eating my food (no Spam, because I don’t care how good it tastes it’s still pretty gross when you think about it), which came in a white take-out box with a design of a red dragon twirling around a peacock printed on its sides—what most of us think of as the classic Chinese food takeout box. Why it’s acceptable to call it a Chinese food takeout box and not an Asian food takeout box, or even an Oriental one, is beyond me, as well as beyond the point of this essay.
As I was eating I began to think about a dinner I once had at a Chinese restaurant when I was 15 or so. I’d gone with my mother, my step-father, my grandmother and my grandpa, and the restaurant was the classic family-style Chinese place, with the egg-drop soup and the lazy-susan in the middle of the table and the lights all swathed in hanging twists of red fabrics.
My grandfather loved Chinese food, and as a boy I did too. I think we enjoyed it because most of the food they served was fried in some way or another, my grandfather being in many ways the proto-American who wouldn’t eat a vegetable unless it was wrapped in wheat products and extensively deep-fried.
Somehow the conversation at dinner that evening turned to terms that are used, most often pejoratively, to disparage various racial groups. I don’t know why this was; it’s just what we were talking about. For example, my grandmother’s family comes from France and Belgium; French people are sometimes called Frogs, while Belgians have been referred to as Buffalos.
The French Frog is obvious as the typical Parisian speaks in a very nasal or froggy voice; the Buffalo thing is a little less clear, but the explanation I’ve most often heard has to do with Belgians’ reported thrift: it’s said they’re so cheap they could squeeze a nickel until the buffalo on its side squealed. (In the early-mid 20th century nickels were made with one side displaying the head of an American Indian [or Native American, or First Nations, but probably not an Eskimo and certainly not an Inuit] while the other displayed a buffalo.)
We were talking about these things over dinner—and please remember that our dinner was happening in a typical Chinese restaurant, with the egg-drop soup and the lazy-susan and the lights all sheathed in red—when my grandpa, in an effort to… I don’t know what? Who can say? It’s all conjecture from this distance of time, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he was likely hoping to further the conversation with a piece of relevant information, looked up from his plate of fried foods and said, in a very loud and simple voice,
Sometimes Chinese people are called chinks!
In the restaurant immediately following my grandfather’s proclamation there was, as the Bible explains of the times before God created the heavens and the earth, a darkness over all things, and a spirit of great awkwardness and discomfort moved across its surface.
I remembered that story this afternoon as I sat in the park eating my Asian-Mexican food from the Chinese takeout box, and as I did I started laughing out loud, which, given the great number of kooks who live in my neighborhood was not unusual and thankfully drew little unwarranted attention.
Now before I get people jumping down my throat, especially those of a Chinese heritage, please let me say: Yes, I think my grandfather was a racist, but, and this is important, I also think he was only as racist as the environment he was raised in. Meaning, and I hate to sound like a rose-tinted dope, but the man didn’t have a hateful bone in his body, and, to use a phrase that might sound like I’m white-washing things (no pun intended), I really don’t think he knew any better. That’s not offered as an excuse for his comment’s ignorance, but, that said, nothing occurs without a context.
There are terrible racists in my family: coarse, uneducated and stupid peoples who not only have preconceived biases and judgements based on other’s skin color (and let’s be honest, most of us do, to some degree or another; it’s like that lovely song from the musical Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a little bit racist… sometimes.”), but who will, and this is what to my mind separates the wheat from the chaff, not allow the other in question to be more-than that predetermined notion.
When he was alive my grandpa called black people any one of the following terms: blacks, coloreds or negroes, all of which were very common and normal terms for a white male who was born in the 1920’s to use, and some of which have actually come round into accepted parlance once again. Did he use such terms in a pejorative manner? I’m certain of it, but then most whites at the time spoke in such ways, which again isn’t an excuse, simply an acknowledgement of place and a hesitation against reading our present morals into earlier times.
I do remember my grandpa, when he was in his early 60’s, working with a black man (whose name, sadly, I can’t recall); eventually my grandpa got to know this man as a person, which I believe was the first time in his life he’d become friends with a non-white. In time this man was invited over for dinner and sat around the table with us. I’m not performing calculus here—one black friend does not outweigh or offset anything—rather I’m simply trying to show that my grandfather, even at that late age, was capable of change and growth, and such are typically not the hallmarks of truly racist folks.
For all my grandfather’s progresses it passed to his children in a mottled mess. One of my mother’s best friends is a black woman named Pam, who is a smiling good-natured trip of a woman whom I adore, while one of my uncles regularly calls black people niggers, because on this issue he’s an ignorant and back-assed person who’s an embarrassment to himself. For my part I still call most black people black, which upsets very few black people though it does bother some whites, who strongly recommend that I use the term African-American.
I’m not trying to be glib on this issue, and I would never knowingly speak in a manner that someone, for good reason, asked me not to. I understand well the power of words, both to limit and to set free, and those powers are rarely more noticeable than around issues of race and culture. Still though, it was a funny thing my grandfather said, and it’s also funny that I got to thinking of it all because of a Chinese takeout box. Or an Asian one. Or whatever you want to call it.