February 19, 2019; The Walker Art Museum. A birthday party of sorts, celebrating the Museum’s 125th year. I was standing in a throng of people in the lobby, half-listening to a speech about the Museum’s opening. The speaker said, “I will now read a passage from the March 7, 1894 issue of the Orient,” and I, lost in a reverie of people-watching, flinched so hard that more than half a dozen people around me turned and stared.
I’ve been a Bowdoin student for over three and a half years now, and I’ve never experienced the privilege of forgetting what “Orient” means for people like me—that is, for Eastern bodies inhabiting Western spaces, never mind the fact that I was born in upstate New York. Even in the context of this college and this campus, I hear the word “Orient” and pause. I think not of newspapers, but of prejudice and exclusion, and for the split-second it takes for my brain to catch up with my body, I am frozen.
Though it was first used to describe countries immediately east of the Roman Empire, and later, the direction of the sunrise, “Orient” has long since been co-opted by the United States as a synonym for Asia, especially East Asia, as a way of emphasizing the apparent irreconcilability between East and West, Asia and America. This attitude extends not only to the geography, but to the people of these regions. Here, “Orient” and its derivative “Oriental” are not merely words, but instruments that perpetuate a systematic Othering of the Asian body and self. This doesn’t even begin to touch upon the fact that there’s an entire body of theory dedicated to the way the West stereotypes and generalizes the Orient, aptly named “Orientalism.”
In my early days at Bowdoin, those weeks and months following my first day on campus—the day I first laid my hands upon the 2017 Orientation issue of the Orient, I invented any number of explanations for why our student newspaper was named after the “Orient.” Most often, I told myself that Orient must refer to the verb—to the act of orienting oneself—and not the place. I could internalize my pain for as long as I could believe that Orient existed in terms defined by magnetic north, a state of change that seemed to align with the College’s promise that I could reorient myself towards a different understanding of the world and my place within it.
And then the Occident was released. For those unfamiliar, the Occident is a final, annual joke issue of the Orient, meant to complement a year of serious reporting. Likewise, “the Occident,” first taken to mean a West that centered itself around the Roman Empire, then later, the direction of the sunset, is now widely understood to mean “the Western World,” a perfect opposite to “the Orient.” It’s a joke that only makes sense if we take “Orient” to mean “the East,” at which point the joke isn’t funny.
There is a bitter irony to the fact that Bowdoin is where I learned to critique the racist dealings of Western culture, yet it’s also at Bowdoin that I walk past tables and racks stacked with copies of a student newspaper whose very name is antithetical to the lessons of inclusion and sensitivity that this campus purports to teach. I have to ask: what right do we—a majority white college situated in this so-called “Western World”—have to claim the word “Orient” as our own?
This question has become especially fraught as I navigate my final semester here and reflect upon my experiences with race, both at Bowdoin and beyond. The offenses I’ve faced are minor in comparison to others, but they’ve still left lasting impressions. I can vividly recall members of my first-year floor poking fun at the Asian Student Alliance’s #Thisis2016 photo series, a project designed to expose microaggressions and misconceptions associated with being Asian in America. In one photo, someone holds a sign saying, “I say Hello not Herro.” For weeks, I heard “Herro, it’s me,” crooned to the tune of Adele’s “Hello,” followed by raucous laughter. Another time, a girl giggled and told me, “Wow, I wouldn’t have guessed you’re Chinese because you’re so pretty! That’s normally how I tell Japanese people apart from everyone else.” Both of these incidents occurred within my first semester.
Off campus, COVID-19 anxieties have caused anti-Asian sentiment to skyrocket. On a grocery trip last April, my mother warned me as we drove to the store: “we can’t spend too much time there because it isn’t safe. People have been attacking Asians.” Indeed, on March 16, 2021, the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate released a report stating that it received 3795 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents within the past twelve months—a 2,302 percent increase from the FBI’s 2019 statistic of 158 anti-Asian hate incidents, if those numbers can be trusted. “If,” I say, because they’re too small to be believed, even by the most hopeful parts of myself. “If,” because in 2017 the US Bureau of Justice Services released the data of their National Crime Victimization Survey, which cites 250,000 as the average total number of hate crime victimizations in a year, compared to the FBI’s 2019 total of 8,812. How many stories remain untold? Poor records, no records and a failure of police agencies to acknowledge and report when acts constitute a hate crime all contribute to artificially low numbers. I have carried the weight of this knowledge with me for months; I shouldered it every time I left my apartment, refusing to ever speak aloud that I wondered, as I walked to the post office, as I shopped for groceries: how Asian do I look? Identifiably so? Enough to place a target on my back?
And then mere hours after Stop AAPI Hate published their report, a white gunman massacred eight people in Atlanta, Georgia, including six Asian women.
How do you describe that for which there are no words? How do you stop existing in the space between breaths and compel yourself to a point of after? After the tragedy? After the pain? I have been trying to quantify events to convince myself that there can be such a thing as “after.” It’s been seventeen days since the Atlanta shootings. Seventeen days since the Stop AAPI Hate report. Three-hundred and forty-four days since my mother told me it wasn’t safe to be out too long, her voice hushed but matter-of-fact. Three-hundred and eighty-nine days since former President Trump first publicly endorsed usage of the term “China Virus” by way of a Charlie Kirk retweet, heralding an entire body of rhetoric metastatic with anti-Asian hate and blame-assignation, as well as sentiment to match. Innumerable days since innumerable acts of hatred and violence.
This doesn’t even begin to touch on America’s centuries-long history of codified maltreatment and prejudice against Asian bodies, from the self-explanatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Japanese internment camps during World War II, when over 120,000 people were imprisoned in terrible conditions for four years, with untold financial and emotional consequences. Or consider the 1875 Page Act, an immigration act leveraged to ban the entry of East Asian women on the grounds that they were all assumedly sex workers—a sentiment that the 21-year-old Atlanta shooter echoed in his claim that “sex addiction” motivated his killing spree, reenacting America’s long-held tradition of sexualizing Asian women and punishing them for daring to be the object of others’ sexual desires. History does not vanish; it only finds new faces to wear.
Today marks 54,786 days since the publication of the first ever issue of the Orient, a number equaling 149 years, 11 months, and 30 days. We sit on the literal eve of the Orient’s 150th anniversary with too much changed within that timeframe to ignore, both in the span of the whole century-and-a-half and in this last year, month, week. What right does Bowdoin, a predominantly white institution, have to continue using language that perpetuates the Otherness of persons who are ostensibly American? Language evolves, and so, too, must we. “Orient” is not merely a word, but a concept. “Orient,” even the “Orient” that exists safely ensconced within the Bowdoin bubble, does not exist divorced from history. Rename the Orient.
We would not be the first. The University of Nevada Las Vegas changed their student paper from “Rebel Yell,” a term associated with the Confederate Union, to “Scarlet and Gray Free Press” in 2016. In 2018, the College of the Holy Cross renamed their student paper from “The Crusader” to “The Spire,” stating, “No matter how long ago the Crusades took place, this paper does not wish to be associated with the massacres… and conquest that took place therein.” There is precedent to change.
I am tired of carrying this with me. I am tired of flinching and feeling my mind stutter and go quiet as I process this word that has troubled me for so long. I have been exhausted by history and by recent events. Let me lay this down.
Rename the Orient.
Emily Ha is a member of the Class of 2021.