The many faces of “Orientalism”

crossposted from Mixed Race America (written in 2008)

Before I start writing about “Orientalism” and “Orientalizing” it seems like I should give a definition for people who haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this. Basically, it’s a form of exoticization and objectification of all things Asian (this includes “West Asian” aka: Middle-East).

I could give a longer academic example, but I think everyday instances drive the point home better. Madonna’s “Indian” phase is an example of Orientalism (I think it was during her “Ray of Light” album when she performed at the Grammys in a sari or something like that–am I remembering this wrong?). Or objects that depict Asian people or that use Asian people into this object way–I’ve seen lamps that either feature Asian people (usually in classical Chinese or Japanese clothing, and by classical I mean, ancient Chinese or ancient Japanese clothing) at its base. Or Buddha, depictions of which are on t-shirts and soap and action figures. All of these are examples of Orientalism. Orientalism, in large part, is about appropriation and the adoption of an “Asian” style/dress/fashion as a type of fetish object or as decoration–as rendering “Asian” into the “Orient” into an “object” rather than a SUBJECT (a person, a human).

So I’m starting here because two posts found on “Land of the Not-So-Calm” bring to mind different versions of Orientalism and the question of appropriation and (quite literally) adoption.

The first is the most recent post about a This American Life piece heard this past weekend about dolls sold at FAO Schwartz and the narrator’s disturbing experience of the only dolls left for “adoption” (these high end dolls are not sold they are adopted by little girls who have to be “interviewed” before they can purchase a doll and the doll comes with a birth certificate!). Anyway, after a flurry of sales, the only dolls left for adoption are the non-white dolls. You can imagine the rest. Anyway, for very insightful analysis of this story and the issues surrounding transracial adoption, please go to the post (click here), where you can also find a link to the full story on This American Life.

One of the things to note about the piece and the commentary on the blog is that the first of the non-white babies to go were the Asian babies. That’s right–if you can’t have a white baby, the one that most white families were willing to go to were Asian babies. Then the Latino babies went next. And thus, the store faced incubator upon incubator of black babies. So much to say about this…so little time. But I’d love to hear your take on this, especially if you get a chance to read the blog link and to hear the entire piece. It does strike me, the first part of it–the way in which the Asian babies were the ones to go first of the non-white babies, that this could be seen as a form of Orientalizing–that an Asian baby becomes yet another accessory, like having a feng shui crystal in your home or putting chop sticks in your hair. I think it also says a lot about the model minority myth and the racial hiearchy at work in this country, but since this post is on Orientalism, I’m going to stick with this theme for now.

The second type of Orientalism that I want to talk about is a more benign form–which is the kind that happens with food. As in, Chinese Chicken Salad. Again, “Land of the Not-So-Calm” has written a post called “Asian Salad vs. Salad in Asia” in which she discusses ordering the Chinese chicken salad at The Cheesecake Factory. In the comment section that follows, I had written in and described this as a form of “benign Orientalizing” to which Sang-Shil rightly asked whether there is such a thing.

So I am asking you, my dear blog readers: Is there such a thing as benign Orientalism, and if so, do we find it in food? Like mandarin oranges. I love them–I eat them in my yogurt and granola. But what the hell is a mandarin orange? And I’ve also ordered Asian slaw and Chinese chicken salad in places like The Cheesecake factory–am I participating in my own objectification? What about Teriyaki burgers? If they came decked out in a little kimono I’d be horrified, but if it’s just teriyaki sauce, is that just a descriptor or is it Orientalizing? Or what about those places like Kanki and Benihana with the grills and the chopping of the food–having never been to Japan (aside from a layover at Narita airport) I have no idea whether this is an American’s idea of a Japanese steak house or whether perhaps this is the kind of kitchen theater that happens in Japanese cuisine (I’m inclined to think the former).

So there are two forms of Orientalism up for discussion, one which may (or may not) be benign and one not so benign. And if you want to throw out your own examples or to ask our panel of readers whether wearing a yukata in the privacy of your own home is a form of Orientalism (and is this different than wearing a sari for your wedding when you aren’t SouthAsian?) then feel free to leave a comment, because I’d love to hear your own stories of encounters with “Orientalism.”

Image courtesy of alicesoup on Flickr

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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