ramen, rugs, and ramblings

October 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I love my Grandmother to death.  She’s an amazing, quirky, funny woman as well as patient care-taker and role model.  Except that she smokes, which is bad for you, and sometimes she still refers to Asian-Americans as “Orientals,” and then I’m not really sure how to react to that.  Especially because whenever I talk about something I’m doing related to my major–Japanese Studies– the term ‘Asian’ comes up a lot.

magic carpet ride

In fact, since my decision to study Japanese and Asian languages and cultures, my Grandma has taken huge pride in informing everyone she knows that I’m now an expert in anything even remotely connected to or related to Asia.  Such as my assumed familiarity and love of Paula Dean’s new Asian-inspired Chicken salad recipe that uses a block of uncooked ramen noodles, or my detailed knowledge and interest in Oriental carpets.

There was also that time when she couldn’t remember if I spoke Japanese or Chinese…and didn’t seem entirely convinced of the significant difference between the languages (or countries for that matter…).  I’m saddened because I know we are separated by a generational gap in both our ages and our perspectives on the world, but it’s difficult for me to try and understand such a prodigious difference in scope. 

Even when talking with other members of my extended family, besides my beloved Grandma, I’m acutely aware  of the general lack of distinction made between the many countries represented in the term ‘Asia.’  Why is it that such a broad, varying continent is so largely misrepresented here in America as a confluence of ‘Asian’ identities and cultures?

Instances of familial ignorance aside, the American-directed movie “Memoirs of a Geisha,” based on a fictional account of a Geisha written by American novelist Arthur Golden, displays a similar lack of distinction between different Asian identities.  The film, which is centered around a young Japanese girl growing up in a Geisha house, garnered criticism regarding the decision to cast Chinese actors in the three of the film’s most prominent roles of Japanese Geishas Sayuri, Hatsumoto, and Mameha.

Despite mixed reactions in the Asian community, it was the very lack of response in America to the movie’s convergence of Chinese and Japanese identities that concerned and worried me.  The lack of differentiation between such cultural, linguistic, and even ethnic identities is evidence of a larger trend of vague and unclear distinctions between different Asian country identities in America.  Take, for example, the website AllLookSame.com, which challenges readers in a visual quiz to identify a photo of an Asian-American as either Japanese, Korean, or Chinese.  And in addition to polls using images of people, the blog even has quizzes for Modern Art, Architecture, Food, and Urban Scenery to test the general population’s ability to tell the three nationalities apart.

The blog AllLookSame handles the serious issue of prejudice in a humorous manner, encouraging exploration and self-education through quizzes to open minds to the differences and similarities between not just three major Asian identities, but also between humans, saying, “We are all afraid of unfamiliar things, and we all have things we are unfamiliar with.”  In the same way, my Grandmother, who has never traveled to any part of Asia nor studied its many languages or aspects of culture, finds ways to connect my interests and knowledge in Japan with something she is familiar with–cooking and antique rugs.

We have, in this age of unparalleled technological advancement, a vast global network of communication available to us that enables instant worldliness and familiarity.  And in such a time, when our thoughts and our opinions neighbor a sea of information and knowledge, I hope we find little excuse to dismiss prejudice based on ignorance alone.


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