My 'Oriental' Father: On The Words We Use To Describe Ourselves : Code Switch President Obama recently signed a bill striking the term "Oriental" from federal law. It was a reminder for NPR's Kat Chow of the fact that her father still uses the word — to describe himself.
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My 'Oriental' Father: On The Words We Use To Describe Ourselves

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My 'Oriental' Father: On The Words We Use To Describe Ourselves

My 'Oriental' Father: On The Words We Use To Describe Ourselves

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

President Obama has signed a bill the replaces the term Oriental with Asian-American in federal laws. Changing words is one thing. Changing minds is another thing. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team has this story about her dad and how he chooses to describe himself.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: My dad came to the U.S. in 1969 from Hong Kong. He speaks English lilted with Taishanese, and he still uses the word Oriental. It's his go-to term for anything Asian. This place used to be an Oriental restaurant, he'll say, as we drive by a boarded-up takeout joint. We use Asian or Asian-American now, I'll tell him. The term's been outdated for a long time. He just shrugs. I'm Oriental, he'll say.

My dad used to own one of those so-called Oriental restaurants in a tiny Connecticut suburb. It was his version of the American dream. He named it Lotus Garden. He wanted it to pull in a Chinese crowd, but it never did. It was a place where white people would go for egg drop soup. It looked like every other Asian restaurant catering to non-Asians - red faux leather booths, paintings of fish in ponds. And it would eventually go bankrupt.

In a way, my dad's oriental restaurant mirrored the word itself. It became something white people experienced as foreign, even if that's not what he intended. The restaurant is long gone, and my dad still calls himself Oriental. I have to remind myself he doesn't see the word how I do - cringe inducing. It makes me think of caricatures of grinning Asian men with ponytails and buck teeth. I worry that's kind of how my dad's neighbors see him. And here's why.

When I was 9 or 10, I was playing with a white girl my age. Out of nowhere, she hissed, shut up, you chink. It only occurred to me a couple of years ago that she may have heard her parents use it to describe my family. The word chink was always meant to cut, but there was a time - my dad's - when Oriental wasn't. When he learned English, Oriental was OK. By the time I was born, scholars and activists used words like Asian or Asian-American instead. There was a change in attitude, but not everybody got the memo.

When I was 16, I worked in a Chinese restaurant owned by a Cantonese couple. Every night, the staff would retreat to the back for family meal, one of my favorite parts of working there. It was the most Chinese people I'd ever been around not counting family, and that's why one memory stands out.

I was greeting customers at the front when a woman - white and middle-aged - said to be me, oh, your English is so good. And I said, I'd hope so; I was born here. She hadn't said your English is so good for an Oriental, but she might as well have. I felt Oriental - foreign, other. All the relief I'd had of being around people who looked like me evaporated. I did want to be seen as part of this group but on my own terms, not in the box this woman was trying to tuck me into.

That's one reason why I wanted my dad to stop using oriental. It was my worry that as long as he used it, it would be OK for others to feel that way about him. But even if my dad never says that word again and my generation of Asian-Americans don't use it, we can't dislodge it from everyone else's minds. We can think that by using this word and not that or dressing differently or having different tastes, our parents can make things better for themselves and, by extension, us. But all that wishing won't matter if the rest of the world won't bend.

MCEVERS: That's Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team.

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