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The C-word and beyond

SO LA

By Jannelle So

Here’s a little quiz for you. Fill in the blank: N-word is to African Americans while _______ is to Asian Americans. Apparently, the words “chink” or “chinky” is so horrendously offensive to most Asian Americans and I found that out only recently, and in quite the hard way.

See, I grew up in the Philippines where people were named “Chinkee” or “Chinky” for their beautiful Asian eyes. And because we Filipinos have this habit of shortening names, those named such would even be referred to as “Chinks.” I myself am half Filipino and half Chinese so I also grew up being called “tsinita” (Tagalog word that refers to Filipino-Chinese. “Tsinito” for males.) So I never really thought of it as offensive. I never even imagined that using the word in the context of an interview would upset people … until I did, one fateful afternoon on “Kababayan LA”.

I was interviewing a kababayan pride, Mylah Morales, makeup artist to Hollywood celebrities like Rihanna, Taraji P. Henson and other A-listers. She was talking about enhancing our features through the use of makeup. Then I innocently (and perhaps ignorantly) asked: “So how do we make our chinky eyes bigger?”

The next week I got a letter from a concerned viewer about my choice of word. And the week after, I got a letter from Media Action Network for Asian Americans, a non-profit, all-volunteer group that monitors the media and ensures proper portrayal of Asian Americans on television, film, print and other forms. Both letter-senders asked for my public apology.

And since I’m being candid (as I always have been in these columns), I would admit that I was hesitant at first. Why would I apologize for something that I meant no harm with? If you go back to the clip, and try to understand the context of what I said and why I said it and how I said it, it’s obvious that there was no malice intended. But I guess the point goes deeper than an apology from my end.

These were the more important issues I saw: 1) What’s in a word? Do we allow words to box and limit us? Give it power to hurt us? Or do we embrace it and turn it around into a positive? 2) Who are we as Asian-Americans? And if we, amongst ourselves aren’t sure of our identity as Asians, how do we educate the mainstream about who we are? 3) Do Filipinos consider themselves part of the Asian or Malay race? 4) Are we Asians only because of geography?

I attended the Banana 2 Asian American Bloggers’ Conference in Studio City not too long ago and got to talk to Banana co-founder Steve Nguyen, also Channel APA co-creator and here’s what he had to say about words: “Nowadays, people are more liberal. There are some off-colored remarks (like banana, coconut, fresh off the boat FOB, hapa) that were used to put people down; but are now being turned into poetry.”

At the same event, I met Emil Guillermo, a journalist and blogger at www.amok.com. He was one of the less than 10 Filipinos at the conference which to me begged the question: Why are there not more Filipinos in this Asian American event? His reply: “I think it’s because Filipinos identify more with being Filipino. Most of the population still comes from the Philippines and there’s great pride in being Filipino, more than being Asian.”

And of course, I did not stop my research there. I tweeted about this question of Filipinos being Asians only by geography. And here are some of the interesting replies:

@joanneisafoodie tweeted “Why even label ourselves? We get our looks from Asia, Polynesia, and Europe. We’re Global.”

@NardyM’s tweet said: “geographically we are Asian culturally and religiously we are more like Latinos but we act American! But in Beauty a Filipina is a class of its own!”

@faedwolf replied: “How do you define ‘Asian’? Do you mean Chinese, Hmong, Indian, Pakistani?”

@arnoldpamplona, a lawyer, tweeted that by strict definition, Filipinos are Malayans, classified as Asians.

Did any of this answer the questions? I’m guessing it’s only leading to more confusion. Are any of these definitions satisfactory? I’m noting that not one is absolutely perfect in defining Filipinos as Asians. But that’s the way of the world. In the end, I had a very enlightening conversation with Jeffery Mio, President of MANAA and also a professor of psychology at Cal Poly Pomona. Please check out our interview at www.youtube.com/kababayanla18.

And I think he said it best with: “We are like all other people, we are like some other people, and we are like no other person. Meaning, we are like all other people in the universal human sense.  We are like some other people in that members of the same group (women, ethnic minorities, religious group, political party) have similar shared experiences when interacting with people in other groups.  We are like no other person because we all have our own unique experiences, so even identical twins are different from one another because they will not experience exactly the same things in the world.”

Appropriate. Profound. Enlightening.

As for the C-word, what do you think should my friends do with their name should they decide to move to the United States where the emphasis is on being politically-correct? I have yet to ask them, too. And for those of you like me who didn’t know any better, to avoid offending others in the future – the proper alternative to the C-word is “almond-shaped eyes.”

Jannelle So is Host/Producer of “Kababayan LA” that airs daily at 4:30pm on KSCITV-LA18. Catch previous programs at www.youtube.com/kababayanla18. Email her at kababayan@la18.tv.

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