Tonight I studied at one of my favorite bookstores in Champaign. A couple years ago I found the highly offensive My Family is Forever (2004) on prominent display in the children’s section. I get it; it’s a warm and fuzzy “adopting from Asia is wonderful” picture book that makes colorblind adoptive parents feel good. But it’s also a picture book with chinky, orientalist illustrations and a story line that completely dismisses the unresolved and ongoing politics of transracial, transnational adoption. However, despite my repugnance for this book and the store’s decision to prop up the awfully caricatured, nameless protagonist’s face on a bookshelf, I still patronize the bookstore because it’s a local store, the salespeople are wonderful, they have the absolute best chocolate malt freeze ever, and they offer free wi-fi.
But tonight my friend and I saw a copy of The Five Chinese Brothers (1938) on display and I wonder just how much I’m willing to sacrifice my values for a really good chocolate malt freeze. I mean really, who doesn’t know that The Five Chinese Brothers is a real folk tale that Claire Hutchet Bishop basically stole and doesn’t give proper credit for? That the chinky illustrations represent some of the worst stereotyping in American society? That the “butter yellow” color used to illustrate the Chinese brothers’ skin is as offensive as the slanted black lines used for their eyes? That the idea that five Chinese men look exactly the same as each other and as the hundreds of other men in their town is another gross stereotyping of Asian males?
Whether it’s 1938, 2004 or 2008, Orientalism is still for sale in this country.