The “O” Word

It wasn’t that long ago, in a conversation with our millennial familials, that I used the term “Oriental” in describing someone. Oi! One would think I’d uttered the actual name of God and that the Earth was about to be rent asunder. Apparently, unbeknownst to my wife and I, the term had entered the realm of forbidden, woke epithets. It was a change that had gotten right by both of us. And it’s where the whole “woke” thing comes to a screeching halt for me.

I’m OK with not saying Jap, Gook or Chink. While once in common parlance among my generation, they have always been guttural, near-onomatopoeic slurs. But, “Oriental”? Give me a break! Having spent three years living in the Orient, I feel a certain amount of experiential high ground in that conversation. To me the word Orient, and the adjective Oriental, represent a kind of all-encompassing respect for the mysteries and elegance of that region’s cultures–the temples, Buddhism itself, the marvels of art, the sophisticated learning, medicine and civil organization which flourished beyond the ken of Dark Ages Europeans still living on dirt floors and bathing irregularly. And now, the rapid modernization of Japan and Korea and the emergence of China as a great power continues the awe.

As such, bestowing the descriptor “Oriental” on a person who lives in, or is late of, that area is a compliment, not demeaning. I find the term “Asian,” to be closer in emotional texture to the aforementioned slurs. And my guess is this particular shift is simply a solution in search of a non-existent problem fostered by a bunch of wokey-white namby-pambies.

Meantime, and in defense of my position, I direct you to a 2016, self-absorbed whine by an “Asian” man decrying his immigrant father’s insistence on continuing to term himself “Oriental.” What a weak argument: The term “Oriental” is divisive and tends to put people like him in a box. As if the term “Asian” doesn’t do the same thing.

Sorry, but, after considering this, if you don’t agree with my position, then we’ll just have to agree to disagree. While I’d rather all us citizens, Asians and Orientals included, just refer to each other as Americans, I will joyfully and respectfully continue to use the “O” word until such time as I consult with an “Oriental” acquaintance on the topic and experience the sound of one hand clapping.

©2022, David B Bucher

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