The Ventriloquist

An online publication at and outside the boundary of evangelical Christianity.

Wednesday

26

October 2011

The Attack of the Giant Octopus

by Jihan Bok, on October 2011, Race

Orientalism. The knowledge or study of Oriental languages, literature, peoples, etc, from a Western perspective. Ask average Americans who have never been out of the country what the word means to them and more often than not they’ll respond with “That’s like, wanton soup and like, orange chicken right? Duh.” An exaggeration? Perhaps. And perhaps here at Cedarville University, exaggerations are an understatement concerning Orientalism.

First let me satisfy the rampant curiosities raging throughout America and reveal the trade secret that, no, there is no such thing as orange chicken – not in China, not in Hong Kong, not in Korea, and not in Singapore – my country. Also I have absolutely no idea who General Tso is: probably some American myth started by Americans trying to sell ‘authentic’ Chinese food. And Crab Rangoon sounds like a disease. But I digress. Speaking as someone described as “way too American” when in my own country and “way too Asian” when in America, I’d say life has given me extensive aptitude to navigate the tricky wanton soups of Orientalism.

To completely understand my point of view, it is necessary to provide readers with some personal background, so please bear with me momentarily. I am Asian in general, Singaporean in specific, Chinese and Indian by ethnicity. It’s all very complicated and I’ve had people adamantly insist that there is no possible way I can be all four categories at the same time. A very obvious comparison must be made. If I were to make the same categorization of an average American, it would go somewhat like this: White in general, American in specific, and perhaps Irish and German by ancestry. “No! It’s not the same,” some have exclaimed in outrage, “I am first and foremost American!” Well I’m first and foremost Singaporean, but then all the other stuff gets left out and when I say I’m Chinese, then people said they thought I was from Singapore, – yes, my citizenship is Singaporean, just like your citizenship is American – and then we all get into a very convoluted argument that usually ends with me yelling very loudly, all to no avail, of course.

Singapore is very much like America in that English is our native language, we’re an immigrant country and we have many different ethnicities present. Not only did I grow up speaking English, I also, very much like an American, am firmly monolingual. Never mind that I studied Chinese for ten years of my life – the most I can do is order food in a terrible accent. I should also point out that I speak English with a perfect American accent amassed from my one senior year of high school in Colorado and perhaps, looking further back, to when I lived in America for two years as a kid. If I, as an Asian from a country very similar to America, have been received with such ignorance at Cedarville University, how have the other Asians?

I could spend days waxing lachrymose concerning the number of times at Cedarville I’ve introduced myself as being from Singapore, only to have a quizzical eyebrow raised in response and then the dawning realization of “Oh, that’s in China, right?” Then the inevitable explanation of my citizenship, my ethnicity, my country, all expertly boiled down to a two-minute abstract which then begs the question, “But why is your English so good?” I refuse to give the breakdown of how I did my senior year of high school in Colorado and have lived in America before. Essentially, the rationale behind the question is: my English is good American and there can be no feasible way in which my English could have been good coming from any other country. This is my junior year at Cedarville, and still, new people I meet never fail to ask how I come to have such good English.

It is not the question itself but rather the connotations underlying it that beg offense. Travel most countries in Asia today – India, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka–and all but the most rural areas will have at least a cursory grasp on the English language. When someone poses the question, “Why is your English so good,” they are trapped in the throes of the past, dragging us Asians back down to when our countries did indeed speak nothing but the native tongues, when we were considered second rate to the rest of the world, colonized and conquered. In the 21st century, America is not the only country that has adopted English as a national language. When Americans assume otherwise, they affirm their Stonehenge ignorance. That we are subject to it here at Cedarville, a college that claims ethnic cohesion and acceptance of all, is borderline annoying.

The ignorance I’ve encountered at Cedarville has not been restricted to that of the students’. The liberal arts education here would appear to be doctored so that anyone coming into the school without an American background feels instant alienation. Perhaps I speak only for myself as an English major whereas more technical majors such as Engineering, Pharmacy and Nursing might not encounter open discussions concerning Orientalism. I remember a certain literature course and the professor leading into a discussion with the words “Now let us all put ourselves in the position of white Supremacists, which we very well could be thought of as in this modern age and try to replicate how they felt towards slaves in how we feel towards the outside world,” or something along those lines. I sat there battling the urge to leave the class so I could crawl into some dark corner and try to imagine myself as a white supremacist with superiority issues towards the rest of the world. That was the starkest instance in any of my literature courses that confronted me so vividly with my difference in race and nationality. Other literature classes have referenced famous American quotes, literature, and examples in history, expecting students to know and to be able to form parallels to the subject matter. My education classes, in preparation for sending us out into inner-city schools, covered extensively the prejudices associated with the white man and how to break those down, how to be ready for possible racial biases when in the environment of minorities. Again, I wanted very much to crawl into some nebulous sphere of the atmosphere and contemplate my identity as an international student, which, far from having been discriminated against at Cedarville, was, worse – overlooked.

No doubt application to Cedarville University comes with the understanding that many classes are taught from a Christian perspective, but classes also incorporate strong elements of American culture. Take the general education requirement, Politics and American Culture, for example. I took the pre-test for the class and within minutes, came to the quick and obvious conclusion that I did not know the first thing about American politics or culture. And really, why should I? Clearly the course is catered towards people who have had large exposure to American political culture and most certainly not towards international students who have never had a Constitution in their lives. It seemed unfathomable to my American roommate that I had so much trouble figuring out which Amendment had what freedoms in it or what the Pledge of Allegiance said. Do Americans go around memorizing other countries’ pledges or national anthems? Curious to find out if other liberal art colleges required the same general course of study, I asked four friends from Asia who had completed their undergraduates in America in University of Wisconsin, Madison, Bates College and University of Hawaii at Manoa, respectively. None had to take anything remotely similar to Politics and American Culture.

I do not claim to understand the rationale behind the general education classes we are required to take in order to graduate, no matter our major. Perhaps the board of Cedarville feels that it would benefit us to be able to graduate with a rudimentary understanding of American Politics and Culture. Yet subjecting international students to courses of study wherein a background in Americanism is essential leaves me scrambling around spending twice the amount of time on an assignment than an American student would who has had prior knowledge on the subject matter. Cedarville University has been rallying to increase the number of international students that populate it but only if it reanalyzes its classes from a global point of view will it begin to attract young adults in search of a true liberal arts education.

I would not term treatment like I have been exposed to as racism or even moderate discrimination. What I would call it, purely and simply, is ignorance, and that, Cedarville amasses in spades, cultivates it even. Perhaps some might argue that Asians encourage ignorance because they tend to surround themselves with others of their own kind. In response to that I say, perhaps, American Cedarvillians have reinforced Asians in their behavior, making them feel like outsiders and aliens and so they behave like outsiders and aliens, a veritable vicious cycle. There has been many a time when I wanted to surround myself by people who did not gasp and gawk at the fact that I speak good English, by people who attempt to understand me as a person, not just an Asian. What is Orientalism? Orientalism is the ability to look at an Asian and not immediately jump to the conclusion that he or she cannot speak English or is remarkably well versed in some sort of martial art.