This year, I’ve become increasingly disconcerted careless language usage that can support anti-Asian sentiments. I don’t see these necessarily being included on lists and I also see and hear people, including people of color, using them inappropriately. The words are:
- Inscrutable Noh mask
- Nip, Nippy
Hippie and Moohaven and Swastikas
After watching the first season of “Moonhaven,” I read a few of the reviews and came to the conclusion we need to talk about Eurocentricism and we need to see more swastikas in the US and Europe.
I grew up in a family where my grandparents were probably all Buddhist or at least they had Buddhist/Shinto funeral services. That might mean nothing to most of you and if you’re from or living in California, then that’s more than a shame. Swastikas are directly linked to Buddhism. The first Buddhist temple in North America was built in 1853 in San Francisco by Chinese Americans. The first Japanese Buddhist temple was established in Hawaii in 1889.
The first Hindu temple in the West is, according to its own website, was built in San Francisco in 1905 and dedicated in 1906. The first Asian Indian to receive US citizenship was A.K. Mosumdar in 1911–that was over a decade before the US v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923). Thind, however, was not Hindu; he was Sikh.
More recently a summer camp in the Silicon Valley canceled its sessions when several employees, including the camp’s director, at Hidden Villa in Los Altos, resigned over an image on tiles on the side of a building. The tiles had swastikas on them, but the tiles were added to the building in 1929, before the rise of the Nazi party and its usage of the Nazi swastika. In 2016, Japan decided that tourist makes would no longer use the manji (卍）to denote Buddhist temples on tourist maps because foreigners found them confusing. The Japanese call the Nazi swastika “haakenkuroitsu” (ハーケンクロイツ), or “hakenkreuz,” the German word for swastika.
In the case of Hidden Villa, there were only three tiles. The tiles were purchased in 1913. The tiles are believed to be Buddhist swastikas.
- In Japan, a Debate About Swastikas Takes on New Urgency (2019)
I don’t think you’ll see a lot of swastikas in “Moonhaven,” but you should. My impression was that the moon colony was being portrayed as one that mixed Western cultures with Indian and Buddhist Asian cultures. And that it why I found it disconcerting to see that the streaming series was described as “hippie” and worse, “hippie-dippy.” I had pondered on this, but was almost going to let the issue go until I read a comment on TikTok about how this Asian Indian person and the person’s family was mocked because of how they dressed and practiced yoga.
I am E. Indian. I remember being laughed at because my mother wore a sari and did yoga. People learn about other cultures.
According to Merriam-Webster, “hippie-dippie” means “of, relating to, or reflecting the far-out styles and values of hippies” and hippie is defined as “: a usually young person who rejects the mores of established society (as by dressing unconventionally or favoring communal living) and advocates a nonviolent ethic; broadly : a long-haired unconventionally dressed young person.”
However, if you look at Britannica, the definition is more concise than Merriam-Webster. The hippies were predominately White and middle class.
The hippie movement, according to Britannica, looked for spiritual guidance from Buddhism and Hinduism. However, there were Buddhist and Hindu Americans before the hippies. The Buddhist and Hindu faced prejudice in the US and Europe.
I know less about Hindu history and racism, but do know that Buddha was specifically use for racist propaganda. Kaiser Wilhelm II used this 1895 Hermann Knackfuss lithograph “Peoples of Europe, Guard Your Most Sacred Possessions“ to elicit racist Yellow Peril hysteria, but also as geopolitical justification for European colonialism in China.
Mooner culture is not unlike that of a hippie commune with a barely concealed dark side. They have their own goofy way of speaking, full of arbitrary abbreviations and invented compound words, which makes the impassioned monologues more funny than stirring. Everyone on Moonhaven wears colorful burlap loungewear and communicates their emotions through modern dance. They’re also terribly smug, as if they solved humanity’s problems just for the bragging rights.
Once they arrive, however, they find a landscape and a vibe that’s bit of Garden of Eden crossed with “Midsommar” and one Maite Voss (Ayelet Zurer) who seems to be a full-on cult leader, complete with hippie-dippie banter and crazy eyes.
The Earth is killing itself; the air is unbreathable; the people are at war with each other. To save the human race, a (hippy like) colony is established on the moon run by a supercomputer artificial intelligence named IO, its purpose is to find the technological advancements to fix the world and to perfect the human culture to fix the inhabitants
From my perspective, “Moonhaven” drew influences from Buddhism and Hinduism. As someone whose family has Buddhists, I did not consider this to relate so obviously to hippies. So, I want writers and editors to consider that all of their readers might not be White or middle class. Some of them might come from Buddhist or Hindu backgrounds. The lead character of “Moonhaven” is played by Emma McDonald who is Black-Caribbean and African American according to Lite Celebrities, but British by birth. Amara Karan, who plays one of the colonies leaders–Indira Mare, is a London-born Brit of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. Just the name Indira, which is a Hindu/Sanskrit Indian name, should indicate something. Rounding out the cast are African American Kadeem Hardison, Israeli Eyelet Zurer, a man of truly mixed heritage (including Italian and African) American Joe Manganiello and lead actor, German-born Irish Dominic Monaghan. Monaghan has stated on Twitter that he is Catholic, and in England there is a strong current of anti-Catholic sentiment. Considering that one of the cast members is Jewish and that Israel is in Asia, shouldn’t we also be thinking about the kibbutzim in Israel instead of associating communal lifestyles with the hippie movement? With a character who has a Hindu name–one of a former prime minister (Indira Gandhi, 1917-1984), shouldn’t we be considering Ashrams–places where people in India go for spiritual or religious retreats?
By describing a show like “Moonhaven” in terms of a White North American movement, when the show has taken great pains to show diversity in casting and uses a name that reference Hinduism, one is doing a great disservice to the show and marginalizing people who are Buddhist or Hindu or from a non-European Judeo-Christian background.
In a world where everyone may be watching the same show, marginalizing Buddhists and Hindus isn’t just showing disrespect for a minority. Sure in the US, according to the Pew Research Center, Hindus and Buddhists are each only 0.7 percent of the population. Compare that to the Jewish population which is 1.9 percent. Together, however, the Buddhists and the Hindus are 1.4 percent of the US population and have a longer history in the world and make up a large portion of the world population.
According to Pew Research Center, Jews only represent 0.2 percent of the world population, but Hindus are 15 percent. Buddhists are 7.1 percent. Hindus are the third largest major religious group behind Christians (31.5 percent) and Muslims (23.2 percent). And swastikas are a religious symbol to not only the Buddhist and the Hindu people, but also to the Jainas and to some Native American cultures such as the Navajo and, in South and Central America, the Maya. So swastikas have religious significance to over 20 percent of the world population.
Buddhists and Hindus in the US have come forward to defend the swastika.
- New York State Assembly bills remove references calling Hindu religious symbol Swastika ‘anti-semitic’ and ‘fascist’: Here is what we know so far (29 April 2022)
According to the USA Today article:
This week, the California Senate passed AB 2822, which equalizes the penalties and enforceable locations for what the bill calls “three pervasive and extremely harmful symbols of hate – burning crosses, swastikas and nooses.” The bill is supported by the Anti-Defamation League, numerous interfaith groups and associations representing California’s sheriffs and school boards.
Others support the bill in spirit but say using the word “swastika” to describe the Nazi emblem is not only incorrect but potentially dangerous. They note that the symbol held sacred by an estimated 2 billion Hindus, Buddhists and Jains worldwide existed for at least 5,000 years before being misappropriated by Hitler’s Germany and, more recently, white supremacists.
Before you condemn swastikas, remember that 60 percent of the world population is in Asia and for over 20 percent of members of the world religious groups the swastika has a history much older and longer than the Nazi swastika. Condemning or being triggered by any swastika is a sign of intolerance and disrespect toward Asians and Asian Americans and Native Americans. Whether the swastika represents Buddha’s footsteps or whirling logs, these meanings predate World War II and Hitler. Moreover, if we are to stop Asian Hate, we need to be more judicious in our usage of the word “hippie” and the condemnation of swastikas.
Karen is the name of my sister (Karin), but also the name of an Asian tribe. This is the original meaning, used for almost two centuries (since 1833). I’m pretty sure if a sub-Saharan tribe name was being used in a derogatory manner, all the woke people in the US would have raised their voices and the current slang usage would have died quickly. Ignorance may be bliss, but anti-Asian hate is not bliss for those who are Asian.
What does Karen mean? Does it mean a woman, usually White, but not always? I have been called an “Asian Karen” by a troll and even by someone who then assaulted and battered me. Why? Not because I was yelling at someone. The troll was upset about a review and negative assessment of Surya Bonaly. The batterer was upset because I told her to leash her dog and pursued me a block over to yell at me as I waited on the parkway for her and her dog to pass.
“Karen” in the popular vernacular now just means a woman who one doesn’t like. Some people self-identify as Karens when they are being assertive. That positive usage is, I think, rarer. The negative pejorative usage does nothing to help raise awareness about or bolster the pride of the Karen. Imagine how Karen youth feel: Do you think they want to identify as Karen Americans? By attaching a negative association with the word “Karen,” one can only be adding to anti-Asian sentiment.
The Karen are among us. There is a Karen organization in San Diego as well as one in the Midwest. If you want to help dismantle anti-Asian sentiment, don’t use the word “Karen” as a pejorative and correct anyone who does. I know what it is like to have a derogatory term aimed at me and to grow up with it such as “Nip.” And yet, although I’ve heard that term, Merriam-Webster has declined to list it.
On TikTok, a British woman who was teaching British English posted a superficial response to people calling her racist when she used the word “nippy” related to weather. I am not British, but I did live in the UK and I do know something about British English. If she had done her research and responded with respect, she would have learned something about her own language.
The usage of “Nip” and “Nippy” as a derogatory term for the Japanese, and, by association, people of Japanese descent or people who are of East Asian descent occurs in the US, the UK and Australia. I detailed this in two blog entries, but just last week I watched the 1994 British series, “Pie in the Sky” and the term came up in “Once a Copper” (Season 1, Episode 4).
A good language teacher would have warned students of the potential for a word to be taken as an insult. Researching usage of the word “Nip,” did afford me the opportunity to note that my go-to online dictionary, Merriam-Webster, didn’t consider anti-Asian sentiments that resulted in a force relocation of thousands. Merriam-Webster does not include the derogatory meaning in its definitions. That was a major disappointment.
I stil have. hope for Merriam-Webster, but you can see my video on Nip and Nippy.
I’ve been watching the South Korean drama, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” and besides noting what I’m putting next on my meal list, I’ve been reminded about how much bowing takes place in everyday life in South Korea and Japan. I’ve been to both countries, but only lived in Japan and my Korean is almost non-existent. But as the second daughter of the eldest known living son of the second eldest son of the Monji clan, I returned to the ancestral homeland and did have people, including those much older than myself bow with their heads touching the ground.
If you got confused, the leader of my clan was the son of the eldest son. He was born in the same year as my father. When my father’s father, or my paternal grandfather, went to the US, he was seen as the head of all of the clan in the US upon the death of his father, my paternal grandfather.
Bowing has a different meaning in European culture. I saw this in the UK. One still is expected to bow in front of the Royal Family and especially Queen Elizabeth. But do people in Europe bow to others in everyday life like in Japan, South Korea and other parts of East Asia? Not really. I recently saw an episode in “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” where people are bowing (not to royalty) with their foreheads to the ground (Season 1, Episode 13: “The Blue Night of Jeju” Part I). The bowing in the series does not have any sense of obsequiousness. Rather, I thought it had a sense of discipline (especially since it takes place in a monastery) and humility.
Because the phrase came into English during a time of imperialism when a great sense of White superiority permeated national politics of European and North American countries, I feel the negative connotations of kowtow, is a relic of anti-Asian sentiment in English-speaking countries. When people were knocking their heads on the ground in front of me, even though I am not a Chinese or Japanese emperor, I was both startled and honored. As I mention above, I also did not feel the practice of bowing with foreheads to the ground as presented in the South Korean drama had anything to do with a fawning attitude. When English-speaking people use the phrase “kowtow” in English, I cringe and I am not alone.
Anti-Asian sentiment starts with attitudes toward the Orient and, what Edward Said called, “Orientalism.”
I once had a contentious discussion in my graduate class that using the word “Asian” wasn’t really that descriptive. What someone means when one says there’s an Asian-looking fellow differs from Kenya to the UK to California. Probably the stupidest description I’ve heard was on a search for an Oriental male driving a green car in Gardena. Currently, Gardena is 26 percent Asian. Knowing the location, I would guess the person was of Japanese or South Korean descent. However, in Kenya or the UK, when someone is talking about an Asian, they usually mean Asian Indian or Pakistani. Japanese, South Koreans, Indians and Pakistani are all Asian. Asia is a continent and has people of many cultures and races. If the word “Asian” is broad, then the word “Oriental” is even broader.
Merriam-Webster states is pertains to Asia, and usually East Asia. The Orient, however, at one time covered North Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands. The University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute, was renamed the Faculty of Oriental Studies but as of 1 August 2022, changed its name to the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. North American colleges and universities made the change earlier. The International Congress of Asian and North African Studies, changed over from its original 1873 name (International Congress of Orientalists or Congrès international des orientalistes) to International Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North Africa in 1976 and then to its current name in 1986.
Even some of the current terms we use come from this broad sweeping categorization: Near East versus Middle East.
The important part is that Westerners divided up the Orient into three parts: Near East, Middle East and Far East. This is what the Orient was and that is why referring to people as Oriental is not very descriptive physically or geographically.
Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) are from Turkey and Northern Iran. Oriental rugs were also from West Asia (Persia). Oriental medicine, usually refers to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The term Oriental horses refers to the Arabian, Akhal-Teke, Barb and the extinct Turkoman. The Orient and the Oriental was not really a specific area, but more of a mindset toward the people of a large area that included two continents and some Pacific Islands (e.g. Hawaii).
According to Britannica,
In the mid-20th century, Orientalists began to favour the term Asian studies to describe their work, in an effort to distance it from the colonial and neocolonial associations of Orientalism. More recently, mainly through the work of the Palestinian American scholar Edward Said, the term has been used disparagingly to refer to the allegedly simplistic, stereotyped, and demeaning conceptions of Arab and Asian cultures generally held by Western scholars.
It is still safe to use the term Oriental to describe poppies, rugs, medicine, horses and cats. However, consider what do you really mean when you use it to describe people or a language or a culture and if there isn’t a more exact phrase that better defines it.
Inscrutable Noh mask
I started as a theater critic and from my studies in Japan, I am familiar with Noh theater. While we all know that it is a bit of a no-no to call East Asians “inscrutable” as it plays into a stereotype, I find the usage of the phrase “inscrutable Noh mask” to be just as uninformed and I feel as if it is based on the “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype (in comparison with the rational Western person).
To read that phrase in a movie review, is disconcerting. To read that phrase in a theater review, just brazenly reveals ignorance. There are many Noh masks: the okina (old man masks), the Jō (elders mask), the onna-men (woman masks), otoko-men (man masks), the Kishin (demons) and the Onryō (ghosts and spirits). Each mask has meaning and are carved to show expressions depending upon how it is positioned in relation to the audience and the lighting. Tilting it upwards (terasu) makes it seem happy while tilting it downwards (kumorasu) can express sadness.
In most cases, I think the writers are referring to the wakaonna mask (young woman) and that does somewhat mesh with the stereotype that North American men do not understand North American women. But men are not really from Mars and women are not really from Venus. I doubt that the person using the phrase “inscrutable Noh mask” really knows that there are many masks in Noh and that to someone who actually knows theater, especially Noh theater, that phrase means almost nothing except ignorance.
On one hand, the ensemble delivers the appropriate body language and physique: compact young women with hunched shoulders and determined scowls. On the other, they’re not very expressive actors. So, while much of the tightly framed film is spent studying Budiashkina’s face, it’s an inscrutable Noh mask as to her true feelings.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
When the fallen Alice awakens in that famous room with the different-sized doors, she finds each of them guarded by someone wearing an inscrutable Noh mask, nicely underscoring the distinction between stylized persona and the teeming subconscious world that lies beyond.
Books also use this phrase:
The outcome is never in doubt. Yet it remains difficult to forget the image–one worthy of the gloomy Swede Ingmar Bergman–of Keaton sitting alone in a cavernous church, awaiting his fate. The clown is made up like a cadaver, his face, as ever, an inscrutable Nth-mask, void of any human expression. He could be a mourner at his own funeral.
In the morning she rolls away, the light sculpting her face into an inscrutable Noh mask.
Yet, there are, as I mentioned above, many Noh masks:
The manner in which these seven words and phrases are used (hippie, inscrutable Noh mask, Karen, kowtow, Oriental, Nip and swastika) can have racist implications. I think it is sad that Buddhist and Hindu temples in the US have removed or hidden their swastikas. Buddhists and Hindus in the US should be able to wear their religious symbols. Those symbols should be openly displayed on their temples in the US and elsewhere. While the Japanese were not allies of the US, China and India were during World War II.
More importantly, the internet has made the world smaller. TV, film and theater critics should respond to this with sensitivity toward diverse groups. Within each English-speaking countries there are likely people of Asian descent. Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people of Asian descent have not felt totally accepted in countries like the United States. That was made evident with the #ThisIs2016.
- #ThisIs2016: Asian Americans Respond
- #Thisis2016 rallies Asian Americans against racist encounters
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a rise in anti-Asian hate and careless word usage can contribute to this.