Please don’t call me Oriental – I am not a rug!

The word Oriental doesn’t seem to create any problems when it’s applied to food ingredients, hotels or carpets. But when it’s used to describe people, some people find it derogatory. In this week’s guest blog for Japan Story, Tomoko Parry explains how she handles encounters in an Occidental environment.

Over the years I’ve lived here in the US, I have experienced my share of awkward moments related to being Japanese/Asian. Even though most of such encounters did not involve malicious intent, they have occasionally left a somewhat bitter aftertaste. 

For example, back in March this year, as the lockdown came into force, I had an unfortunate encounter at a local supermarket. I approached a store clerk to ask where I might find the hand sanitizer.  She physically jumped backward, stared at me, and said nothing.  That was when I realized my Asian appearance “scared” her.  Well, at least, she didn’t say “go back to China” – although she may have been thinking it.

Another time, about a year ago, I overheard a server at a restaurant in a hotel referring to us (I was with other Japanese people) using the word “Oriental”.  I had to gently break it to her that we are not rugs and we preferred to be called “Asian” if for some reason she had to mention our ethnicity.  

On the other side of the spectrum, there are many overenthusiastic people who want to ask anything and everything about Japan to me, starting with “Which Japanese restaurant do you like the best in town?” or “Which Studio Ghibli animated film did you like better Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away?” to “Why are Japanese people so polite?” (Just FYI, my answers would be “I’m still looking,” “Spirited Away,” and “You still have a lot to learn, Grasshopper.”)

We’re both Japanese but we’re not natural friends

Something else that happens from time to time is people want to introduce me to other Japanese people they know, just because we are both Japanese.  This sometimes ends up being awkward for everyone, if I have nothing much in common with the other person other than being originally from the same country.

I do not mean to complain, so please accept my apologies if it sounds that way.  Wait, something is off here – Japanese women are submissive, quiet and polite.  They would never complain in public, let alone in writing, right?  Hmm… that might be a good question to ask your Japanese friends the next time you see them.