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'Oriental': Rugs, Not People

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'Oriental': Rugs, Not People

'Oriental': Rugs, Not People

'Oriental': Rugs, Not People

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

It's an adjective that used to describe rugs, not people. That's the message New York Gov. David Paterson turned into law this week when he signed a bill that bans state documents from using the term "oriental" when referring to people of Asian or Pacific heritage. Jeff Yang, an Asian Pop columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, discusses the history of the loaded term and why so many Asian-Americans find it offensive.


Earlier this week, New York Governor David Paterson signed a series of bills that got New Yorkers talking, just not via text messages while driving. That was one of the main bills, which prohibits drivers from texting. But another bill that caught our attention strikes the term Oriental from all state documents, one referring to people of Asian or Pacific islander heritage. It might still be appropriate to describe a rug, but the term has long been considered offensive when talking about people from Asia.

To discuss a history of the term Oriental and the significance of the legislation, we welcome Jeff Yang, Asian Pop columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Welcome to our program.

Mr. JEFF YANG (San Francisco Chronicle): Hey, Linda. How's it going?

WERTHEIMER: So far so good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Why is Oriental such a loaded term? Why do Asian-Americans find it offensive?

Mr. YANG: Well, you know, I think history really does play a huge role in this. And when you think about it, the term Oriental itself kind of feels freighted with luggage. You know, it's a term which you can't think of without having that sort of the smell of incense and the sound of a gong kind of in your head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: And you know, beyond that it's - that's just sort of like the cultural baggage that comes with it. I mean obviously there are political issues. It's something which has been associated with racist campaigns, with stereotypical imagery. And you know, frankly, it's just not a very precise term. When you think about it, Orient...

WERTHEIMER: A kind of blanket aspect of it.

Mr. YANG: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: It's - Orient basically translates into East. And you know, here in New York, when you're thinking of East you could be, you know, saying Long Island or something, and certainly from the vantage point of people, you know, kind of contextually thinking about what, you know, the East means, that only really applies in a flat world. I mean, you know, you keep on going East, you end up West, so…

WERTHEIMER: Well, but really isn't this word already over? I mean hasn't there been a shift to simply Asian or Asian-American or more specific words that describe national or ethnic origin? I mean, do you think anyone still really says Oriental...

Mr. YANG: Well...

WERTHEIMER: describe anybody, like to describe you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: I've...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: I have actually, I've heard it before, in not in a very sort of attractive light, used towards me. But I think that, you know, that's actually part of the rationale around this act here. It's a term that feels old. It feels antiquated, and for it to even be kind of contemplated occasionally and in casual usage is something which Asian-Americans certainly feel uncomfortable with, and you know, for it to be stricken from the public record just kind of makes sense in some ways.

Mr. YANG: I think people probably feel a little, you know, kind of curious as to why it took so long.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah. So do you think this decision that Governor Patterson signed, do you think it's significant?

Mr. YANG: Well, I mean I don't think it's going to change the world per se. I mean I think it's more like sweeping up, so to speak. But you know, and they're certainly other things on our agenda. I mean there's no question that here in New York they are plenty of things that for both Asian-Americans and non-Asians, you know, Patterson can continue to be working on. But it's nice to provide a little coda.

I mean I remember actually, you know, back in my high school days still sort of, you know, experiencing media and so forth talking about Oriental flavor and, you know, Oriental this, Oriental that, and always, you know, wondering to what degree this terminology of objects was going to finally, you know, just kind of be taken out of the loop for talking about people, and it's nice that at least this step is being taken here in New York.

WERTHEIMER: Washington State passed similar legislation in 2002, so that was a while ago. Now New York State. Are there any other places where there are significant Asian communities where this is really still, as you said, there are plenty of things on the agenda, but is this still on the agenda anywhere else?

Mr. YANG: Well, you know, I think it's really quite interesting that the first state to do this was Washington State, and it's something that began under now commerce secretary and, you know, then Governor Gary Locke's...


Mr. YANG: ...administration. He was conscious of this.

WERTHEIMER: Who is Asian-American.

Mr. YANG: He is Asian-American, and in fact, the person who put the bill through, State Senator Paul Shinn, who himself is Asian-American as well. So there's something to be said for, you know, as Daniel Liu said earlier in this program, diversity and what it means for all of us. There's a sense of sensitivity, really, that comes out of being many cultures.

WERTHEIMER: Jeff Yang is the Asian Pop columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and he joined us from our bureau in New York City.

Thank you very much.

Mr. YANG: Thank you, Linda.

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