Rename the Orient
April 2, 2021
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.
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Thanks for a provocative article.
Orient and Occident come from the Latin “oriens” and “occidens,” meaning “rising” and “setting” in the context of the sun.
For example, Cicero wrote in “De Natura Deorum” (45 BC):
E quibus sol, cuius magnitudine multis partibus terra superatur, circum eam ipsam volvitur, isque ORIENS et OCCIDENS diem noctemque conficit (II.102)
“Of these the sun, which many times surpasses the earth in magnitude, revolves about her, and by his RISING and SETTING causes day and night”
Forgiving Cicero’s bad astronomy, we see that the rising sun (sol…oriens) and the setting sun (sol…occidens) have nothing to do with ancient Mediterranean political geography. The evolution from sunrise and sunset to Orient (east) and Occident (west) is fairly clear.
When Bowdoin was founded, it was the easternmost college in the United States and thus the first to see the sunrise, hence the sun iconography in the seal and the Daily Sun. The students who named the Orient in 1871 were likely paying homage to Bowdoin’s easterly stature.
I hope further discussion of the Orient’s name will reflect this context.
It is unfortunate that this caveat always has to be present: The orient has racist connotations BUT it was meant as to be related to the sun. The fact that you have to spend all that time explaining it in your comment is the point. Without that context, that employers, prospective students, and even current students are not always privy to, the name easy reads as something very different.
Language evolves despite the roots they have. It would be absurd to say that decimating means removing 1/10 of a thing in modern context despite that being what it literally means in Latin. Similarly, this word has new context now. I hope you re-read the article past the title this time and try and learn something new!
In response to a reply to Sam Lewis (who I thank for his informed and thorough comment): “The fact that you have to spend all that time explaining… is the point” is a weak argument that has a complete and total disregard for nuance. It is essentially saying ‘nuance bad, short good.’ I believe, as members of the Bowdoin Community, we all can do better – and have respect for the nuance and context in play.
I agree with the other reply to this comment. The notion that everyone passing by will be subjected to a complex explanation as to the origin of the name to explain why it isn’t problematic draws to mind other similar explanations. Why the flying of the Confederate flag is a symbol of camaraderie among rural America, for example. But the reality of the situation is, that if in 99% of all contexts the word or the symbol is offensive, then by god at least don’t put it as the title of the college newspaper. And it’s a college newspaper anyway. Not the name of the school itself
The meaning of words change. An understanding of words that is fixated on the past fundamentally misunderstands what words connote and denote today.
Arguing that “Orient” only refers to “east” would be like saying “r****d” is a verb that means “slow” – sure “r****d” did mean slow, but it’s accumulated a lot of meanings since then.
class of 2016:
As an alternative light to consider your analogy, perhaps some people view this as being more akin to trying to extinguish the use of the term “flame retardant” on the auspices of the word being offensive, even though it is not (yet). But if some fired-up trailblazer were to offer heated condemnation of the term, should chemists ash it? I worry we might burn ourselves out redefining words to avoid scorn from the most hypersensitive among us.
Why are people so pressed about changing the name of a mediocre college newspaper? We understand what Latin is, do you understand that the meaning of words can change? It’s a bad name, let’s just come up with a better one. I mean it’s a newspaper, I don’t think it cares.
A masthead should be clear. As an undergraduate (’78) I assumed without investigating that the name referred to Asia, and wondered how it had been chosen. Let’s change it.
As an Asian American I do not share the author’s negative feelings about the name of this newspaper.
Since arriving in Maine, Bowdoin has given me charming and accessible symbols to color my education: the pine tree, the polar bear, red brick buildings, and the Orient—the rising sun over the east coast.
Most of all, Bowdoin has given me an appreciation for subtlety and the college’s own history.
Do not rename the Orient.
Orient as a verb: 1 : to direct (something, such as a book or film) toward the interests of a particular group. 2a : to set right by adjusting to facts or principles. b : to acquaint with the existing situation or environment. 3a : to set or arrange in any determinate position especially in relation to the points of the compass.
The name “Orient” apparently evokes vivid imagery of the rising sun for many commenters who have felt the need to justify a 150-year-old name. As a white student with no prior connection to Bowdoin, it did not. Just as the author writes, the Orient conjured cringey images of “oriental” – further emphasized by the yearly “Occident” issue. The word “orient” has different connotations than it did 150 years ago. To those berating an Asian-American woman for bravely sharing her experiences in the wake of rising AAPI hate, shame on you. Pick up a copy of Orientalism by Edward Said and think about how much has changed in the last 150 years. Bravo, Emily! Rename the Orient.
Respectfully, Student ’21, please point to who is “berating” the author and deserves, in your mind, “shame.”
Are you referring to the Asian American student describing a different personal experience and disagreeing with the author’s conclusions?
Or the person politely taking the time to explain the etymology of the word Orient?
Or the person gently advocating for an appreciation of nuance?
Disagreement is not harassment. The author posits an argument and demands institutional action. We are invited, in a civil academic forum, to express our views on the merits of the argument and the appropriateness of the demands. Wagging your finger to “shame” individuals who merely disagree with her, or with you, only has moral force to those who already adhere to your idiosyncratic vision of virtuosity.
Thank you, Emily Ha. As someone who worked on Bowdoin’s newspaper during my time as an undegraduate (and loved every minute of it), my gut reaction was one I find reflected in some previous comments: “But no — that’s not what it meant, etc.” The thing is, it doesn’t matter what the name meant. What matters is how it resonates now.
Also, what could be more satisfying right now than a clearly defined, solvable problem? It’s every liberal arts major’s dream! I’ll go first:
The Bowdoin Sun
The North Star
or, for the latin fans:
Finis Terrae (the end of the world…)
C’mon y’all: what have you got?
(Hang in there, Class of 2021…)
“The North Star” or “The Dawn” are great ideas! Thank you for your productive and kind comment.
The fact that most of y’all are more focused on presenting an etymological argument than responding to the majority of the article which outlines the author’s experiences and the real history and present of American racism towards Asians is a clear indication of where priorities are.
To quote a reply on Facebook: “… To me the entire story seems contrived, attention seeking, an action aimed more toward some bizarre combination of virtue signalling and self pity. It certainly doesn’t present a grounded, reasonable argument for change, especially since she doesn’t seem to understand the clear meaning of the word as used.”
I contend that the word “orient” has Latin roots, and the context of Bowdoin’s usage is far-off from orientalism, but the point of this piece is to highlight anti-Asian racism in the US. This article is attention-seeking– but purposefully to bring up real experiences and ugly truths about America’s sordid history of racism– however many great accomplishments we may have achieved as a nation.
Clearly some of y’all don’t care enough to address this large portion of the article and would rather us not highlight these inconvenient truths. Strong “Lauren Ingraham telling Lebron to shut up and dribble” energy.
As another Asian-American woman, I do not share the author’s experience with the Orient. While at Bowdoin, it never once crossed my mind that the Bowdoin Orient could have referred to Asia, nor that I should feel offended by it. In fact, while reading this article, I was struck by my own reaction AGAINST changing the Orient’s name, and was fully ready to defend this position against more “woke” friends.
However, after reading comments both here and on Facebook, I have to say that I AM offended by the insensitive and even aggressive backlash against the author. Her experience is hers, and hers alone. Anyone else’s feelings about the Orient do not change the fact that she was hurt by its name. That some individuals are so ready to dismiss her arguments as “attention-seeking” and “contrived” illustrates to me the racism inherent to Bowdoin and, more broadly, to America. If a word might hurt a certain group of people, why would we ever want to continue using it? If you aren’t Asian, how could changing the name of a school newspaper possibly affect your daily life?
I agree with ’88 – the North Star is a perfectly lovely name.
I’ve been following this debate, on both the Orient website and Facebook, and I feel both shocked and disgusted by some of the knee-jerk paternalism, and in some instances outright disrespect, directed at Emily Ha. To me, the debate has gone beyond interpretation of language into a battle over institutional power. Language is dynamic and communal, and for that very reason, the word “orient” will read differently to different people. Some, like Emily, will cringe but question the validity of their own reactions for years before speaking up; others, like some of the commentators here, will also cringe but shrug it off and move on; still others, like her strongest critics here, won’t ever have considered her perspective but will insist solely on their own interpretations. None of this is unusual or contentious about communal language use. The problem here is one of power.
(Continued) Some of Emily’s critics seem to see themselves as possessing greater power and authority over language use and institutional identity than she does. They claim more knowledge of English and Latin, they claim more memory of institutional history, and implicitly, they claim to be “more Bowdoin” than she is, hence entitled to a bigger share of the conversation and decision-making over institutional practices. The fear runs deeper than just a name: it’s about who has the power to decide on that name. Bowdoin has historically been and remains a white-majority institution, with power over institutional practices concentrated in the white majority and decisions over institutional norms defined by that white majority. In this relatively minor debate over a newspaper’s name, it’s not so much that one side is right and the other side wrong—it’s that one side has tremendous historical privilege while the other side is a marginal newcomer. As Bowdoin diversifies, will it learn to allow minority and marginalized voices a place at the table, and when invited to join, will those voices be granted equal respect and dignity rather than shut down or dismissed out of hand? Is Bowdoin ready for power sharing?
To the author: Shame on you for trying to change history. Can’t you even tolerate a publication dating from the 1890s? Stop trying to censor everything.