March 11, 2011

Fun with Asian Names

Barbara O’Brien wrote something the other day that really got under my skin. In her post about a few of the issues facing mae chi in Thailand, she threw out one flippant line singling out the name of a Buddhist university:

Ooo, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University. How awesome is that?

Anyway…

A commenter responded with a joke, noting a university basketball tradition where cheerleaders spell out a school’s name (‘Gimme an M! Gimme an A…’)—to which O’Brien extended the ridicule that the “game would have to go into overtime to let them finish.” Just retyping these words is quite painful.

This lighthearted banter summoned up memories of all the times that white Americans made fun of my Asian name, mocked my ancestral language with ching-chong routines and done the good ol’ chink-eye to my face. In case you’re unaware, it can really suck to grow up Thai in America—because you might just have to live your entire life with people like Barbara O’Brien making fun of your family’s long name, only to then hide behind, “Relax! It was only a joke!”

Most painful is that O’Brien’s mockery is completely inessential. Her post argues a more noble topic, where she decries the marginalization of women in Thai Buddhist institutions. She even tentatively wades into the complex relationships of Thai Buddhism to the Thai State. But in making light of a Thai university’s long name, she perpetuated the unfortunate tradition to which so many Thai Americans with long names are subjected to, and so ridiculed the very culture of the mae chi she sought to champion.

These long names stem from a specific quality of Thai culture: that spaces are not so ubiquitous as in English. It wouldn’t be difficult for O’Brien to uncover that the university’s name roughly translates to “King Chulalongkorn Royal Academy”—Chulalongkorn being the university’s eponymous founder, not to mention also namesake to Thailand’s most prestigious university. Now you have the translation, it doesn’t sound so amazing—or ridiculous—does it?

This cruel little joke on a Thai name encapsulates a recurring dilemma for Western Buddhists of Asian heritage. We are embraced by white Buddhists, even while we are culturally denigrated. Without a doubt, Barbara O’Brien deserves credit and commendation for her advocacy of the rights of Buddhist women of all colors, but that does not excuse her casual mockery of Asian culture.

8 comments :

  1. Doubly ironic since Chulalongkorn prioritized women's education, abolished slavery, and continued his father's major reforms of the Thai sangha, making him an important figure for women's rights and Buddhism in modern Thailand.

    I agree that this sort of thing is thoughtlessly hurtful. But I'm sure many people will say you're over-reacting, and thus just compound the insult. *Sigh*

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  2. Dear, your skin is too thin. It so happens I have family living near Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales, which is also awesome. I'd brag about it more but I can't pronounce it.

    Yes, you are over-reacting. Lighten up.

    -- Barbara O'Brien

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  3. The original line maybe wasn't such an issue, but jokes that followed clearly pushed the whole thing over the edge. Really disappointing.

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  4. Barbara, I wonder what your family members' reactions would be if an English person made fun of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I imagine it would feel like one more twist of the knife. Having relatives in a place does not give you insight into the experiences of someone who has experienced systematic oppression.

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  5. what a pathetic response from barbara o'brien.

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  6. The person who caused the offense does not get to tell the person who was offended that they should not be offended. Or hurt. Or to "lighten up" - which is really insulting, demeaning, and trivializes the offense.

    Instead, the person who meant to be funny (in this case) should listen to why it was not funny, rather than become defensive. If it was funny, then the person hearing or reading the joke would have laughed instead.

    Simple, no?

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  7. I love talking with people whose cultural experiences are different from mine. It's hard sometimes not to find humor in the ways one culture differs from another. I'll sometimes make a joke something like, "From your culture's point of view, what my culture finds perfectly normal seems utterly absurd! And vice versa!"

    More than once I've crossed the line and said something that a friend found mildly offensive. I've always found that the most appropriate response is, "Pardon my insensitivity. I didn't realize what I was saying was offensive, and I apologize." An apology is often a very wise thing.

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  8. The graceful thing to do would be to own up to it, recognize that it's not right-speech & apologize instead of farther belittling others to amuse oneself.

    The problem with many blog writers is that we don't know when to shut up, overestimating how 'humorous' we are, just dragging on and on shamefully, making a fool of ourselves.

    Making fun of another culture so superficially is never excusable. Period. Get that into your brain, Barb.

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