Asians: Polite, Rude or Angry?

My friend recently told me an ethnic joke. In the original version, the butt of the joke is Jewish -- or, in a substitution that usually reflects anti-Semitism, a New Yorker; the internet suggests Israelis offer this as a sly self-portrait. But my friend changed the identity. He made the laughingstock Chinese.

Before I repeat his jest, a preface. My friend is himself Jewish; his partner is Chinese. His mentor as a historian was a leading scholar of humor -- yes, there are people who are serious about studying what is funny.

He and I also have a relationship such that he knew I, a Chinese-American, would take no offense at his anecdote. To the contrary, as he expected, I was very much interested in the quip.

A public opinion pollster is outside the United Nations headquarters. He is interviewing people: "Excuse me, what is your opinion of the meat shortage?"

A Saudi replies, "Excuse me? What is the meaning of 'a shortage'?"

A Russian replies, "Excuse me, but what is 'meat'?"

A North Korean replies, "Excuse me, but what is 'an opinion'?"

And a Jew (or New Yorker), or in the contemporary rendition, a Chinese, replies, "What is the meaning of 'excuse me'?"

The fascinating aspect is the change in the stereotype. I am old enough -- almost at the half-century mark -- to remember when Chinese, and Asians in general, were portrayed not as rude but as polite. They were regarded as excessively deferential, virtually submissive. As we are told, Asians all "look alike," and what is said of Chinese is said of Japanese, Koreans, and all East Asians.

At the 1987 Los Angeles convention of the Asian American Journalists Association, for example, I witnessed the conventional image casually being recited to an audience that turned out to be anything but courteous -- to their credit. I attended the convening, the first national event for the new professional organization, as a student who had won a scholarship. Consistent with the ethics of reporting, I swear the below story is true. (Perhaps someone else in attendance was there and will confirm my account.)

A senior editor who happened to be Caucasian was the featured speaker. He opened his remarks with an attempted pleasantry. He announced it was great to be talking to Asians, because they were always so polite. At that point, he was hissed -- loudly and at length. More than one person listening to him expressed their displeasure at an apparent compliment. He was surprised.

His error was to make an assumption about all Asians, a generalization that can be turned on its head. To be "polite" is to know one's place, to be docile, to obey. The reverance for etiquette is taken as a sign of weakness. To be called polite is to be reminded of exploitation: the coolie, the gardner, the geisha.

Polite constitutes the opposite of what ambitious Americans are told is needed for workplace advancement. You're supposed to show a take-charge attitude. "Man up."

I am quite delighted, not disappointed, that two icons of Asian American pop culture, which it turns out can attract a significant following, are the "Angry Little Asian Girl" and "Angry Asian Man." The former, with a comic strip and merchandise (she has many angry friends), has what would be called a potty mouth, as she reviles racism and sexism alike. The latter, a blog and podcast, is relatively more earnest. The creators of the two irate figures, true to their alter egos, have been at odds over who has priority to use the angry Asian persona. (Like many others, I cheer them both.)

Within my lifetime, Asians, Asian immigrants, and Asian Americans -- despite blurriness in the lines, these are distinct categories -- have come to be seen differently. They have proceeded from bowing and smiling to shoving their way to the front in disregard of lines. I am not sure why. It may be the rise of Chinese, greater awareness that Asians have always been capable of vulgarity and lack of manners, or contact with Chinese tourists arriving by the busload at upscale boutiques and national parks. Other people see nose-picking, spitting, children taught to pee in the subway or on the street, and even respectable people shouting and shoving one another.

Yet it also is possible that the contradictory sentiments have been there together all along, fraternal twins. The polite conceals the rude. It is a temporary disguise. The master of light verse, the all but forgotten Ogden Nash, wrote a poem about "The Japanese" in 1938. The ditty describe "how courteous is the Japanese" as he says "excuse it, please," and "I beg your pardon,"before he grins and takes over his neighbor's property -- "so sorry, this my garden now."

That is how Asian rituals have been interpreted. They are insincere. The people who practice them are inscrutable. Hence the treachery of Pearl Harbor three years after Nash's rhyme. Japanese diplomats were negotiating, with the utmost in genteel propriety, even as Japanese generals and admirals were plotting to launch a total war in the Pacific theatre.

The perception of Asians has alternated from ally to enemy. Our historical moment might be such a transition.