Since the publishing of the article “Rename the orient,” I have been closely following the comments, discourse and Letters to the Editor regarding Emily Ha’s opinion piece, both on the Orient website and on Facebook. As a Chinese-American with a degree in Asian Studies who is also finishing a masters in Chinese Language and Culture, I take enough personal interest to engage with members of the Bowdoin community on this topic. It seems a majority of the comments I’ve read strongly disagree with her argument, as many cite the Latin origins of “orient.” I get it, and I agree: the word “orient” here is far-removed from the context of Orientalism and anti-Asian racism.
Take the word “chink,” for example. I distinctly remember when, during a high school lacrosse game, I failed to make a save and immediately heard “a chink in the armor” shouted from the sidelines (from my own teammates!). Being in a predominantly white institution and playing a predominantly white sport (in a specialized position, no less), I had no doubt in my mind what the wordplay here meant and that my teammates knew exactly what they were doing. As clever as I found the pun, I called them out after the game. But, if “a chink in the armor” is used in the context of medieval knights, per se, I’m not going to fault anyone for such usage–here, there is no inherent racist connotation. Now, for those of you who have read up to this point and thought, “see, this guy is Asian, and he agrees with me!”–calm down. While I may agree with you, I’m not here to provide Asian affirmation.
Context matters–and this is exactly why I disagree with Ha. But more pressingly, this is why I fully support and understand where she is coming from, which many of you seemingly have failed to do, at least publicly. Given what she has encountered at Bowdoin, I can understand why she flinches at the word “orient,” even if the word isn’t racist in the situation. Maybe her argument is weak, but what is also weak is how individuals have mocked the validity of Ha’s experiences and met her arguments with a tone of condescension, as if she is not to be taken seriously. Who are we to deny her experiences at Bowdoin?
Some Asian-American alumni and students have asserted that their experiences at Bowdoin have been markedly different from Ha’s, but those anecdotes don’t debunk the existence of racism at Bowdoin, nor do they act as a direct counter to nullify her experiences. And I’m sure some people are reading this and bemoaning how I dare call out Bowdoin when I’ve had such an immense privilege to attend (which is just a shade of “if you don’t like it here in the U.S., go back to your country”). Yes, it was an immense privilege for which I am grateful, but not all of us entered Bowdoin with the same amount of privilege, nor have all of us left with the same amount of privilege.
But even beyond those who have expressed derisive incredulity, can we talk about how only a few people addressed the facts that Ha did present in her article? The rising anti-Asian sentiments as a fallout of COVID-19? The explicitly anti-Asian policies the U.S. government has sanctioned throughout history? The murder of six Asian women in Atlanta last month, and the increasing amount of anti-Asian attacks? I understand Ha front-loaded her article with this name-changing argument, which is why so many people have chosen to harp on this part of the article. But the relative lack of discourse on Asian-American experiences as it relates to Ha’s article, when she very clearly addresses this context, is disappointing.
The fact that more people are focused on presenting an etymological argument than responding to Ha’s real experiences at Bowdoin and the real history and presence of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. is a clear indication of where priorities are. Apparently, many of you would rather suggest Ha “go speak to the classics department about the origin of the word orient” than speak truth to power.
The perceived strength or weakness of Ha’s argument should not take away from the truth of her experiences at Bowdoin or anti-Asian racism in the U.S. Presenting these anecdotes and historical facts is not “contrived, attention seeking, an action aimed more toward some bizarre combination of virtue signalling and self pity,” as one commenter wrote. Well, maybe this information is attention-seeking, but for the very purpose of highlighting how much work needs to be done in battling anti-Asian racism.
If you’ve read up to this point thinking, “I can do more to fight against anti-Asian racism,” here is a suggestion: take Asian-American stories seriously when they are shared with you, even if they are paired with an argument you don’t agree with. Maybe a story isn’t strong evidence for a particular argument, but that doesn’t preclude its truthfulness. Yes, some stories may be shocking and completely antithetical to your own experiences, but that doesn’t prove that other experiences are false, nor does it prove that racist incidents don’t happen in the Bowdoin bubble and beyond.
You can also support people and their work. It’s Asian Heritage Month, after all. Take part in the wonderful programming Asian Student Alliance (proud of you all!) has organized. Solicit Asian-run businesses. Get to know Asian individuals as people, not just sources of information. Engage in meaningful discourse and actions rather than only reposting things on your Instagram stories. Be an active bystander. Look past your own perspectives and empathize with those who are different from you–this is how we can start understanding why certain battles are fought and how we can get behind them as authentic allies if we choose to do so.
Take us seriously.
Kevin Ma is a member of the Class of 2017.