“exotic,” or why editors should be careful with words

I just returned from participating in the annual Children’s Literature Association conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and while I will definitely be posting my thoughts on the conference, first, this:

One of the great things about my job (assistant professor teaching classes on children’s and young adult literature) is that publishers send me free books. This introduces me to an awful lot of great literature that I might not otherwise encounter, as well as saves me potentially hundreds of dollars per year. I’m incredibly grateful to all the publishers who have me on their lists, especially Lee & Low, Children’s Book Press, and Scholastic, and all the others who have sent me books because I’m on 2 awards committees (Jane Addams and Asian Pacific American), or just because.

Today I received a book that I think was not “just because” because there was no mention that it wanted to be considered for either award. The letter from the editor began thusly:

As a child armchair traveler, I passionately followed the exotic adventures related in books such as The Story about Ping… Exotic to me as a child (and still today), as I always have been captivated by reading about cultures and times different from my own, and places far from home.

This tells me that right off the bat that the author of this letter is white. While many of us can claim to love stories that depict cultures “different from my own,” labeling them as “exotic” immediately calls up Orientalist and fetishist sentiments. This was my first gut reaction.

As well, the fact that he cited The Story About Ping, which was illustrated by The Five Chinese Brothers illustrator Kurt Weise (see Schwartz, Albert V. “the Five Chinese Brothers: Time to Retire.” Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 8, no. 3 (1977): 3-7 and the response to it Lanes, Selma G. “A Case for the Five Chinese Brothers.” School Library Journal no. October 1977 (1977): 90-91) makes his Orientalist orientation a little more clear. The Story About Ping has been criticized for depictions of both animal cruelty and its Orientalist illustrations (slanted eyes, etc.), so a person who enjoyed that book’s “exotic” story probably does not examine illustrations or perspectives very critically. This situation reminds me of recent conversations sparked by Laura Atkins (“What’s the Story? Reflections on White Privilege in the Publications of Children’s Books“) and Zetta Elliott (“Something Like an Open Letter to the Children’s Publishing Industry“) as another clear example of the white-ness of children’s literature publishing; if there were more Asian Americans walking the halls of children’s publishing houses, this kind of language would not be used with such flagrant Othering.

My point in writing about this is to emphasize, in addition to how I read the white gaze through the editor’s word choice, but more so the importance of the editor’s introductory letter. I am an Asian American, and I am sensitive and react quite viscerally to the use of the word “exotic” because it is loaded with fetishistic, Orientalist fantasies of the white gaze on Asian Others; as a female, to me it signifies white males colonizing and hypersexualizing the bodies of Asian females (and yes, the editor is male). Others who are less sensitized to these words may not react the same to an introductory letter that describes an Asian culture as “exotic,” but I find it repugnant. As allies and advocates for healthy and non-fetishistic perspectives on underrepresented cultures, I hope you will not be okay with words such as “exotic.”

I have not read the enclosed book, and am not sure I will. I say that because the point here is not the book, but the editor’s letter and the impact it had on me as a potential reader, reviewer and promoter (since in my professional capacity I do review and promote books), so I don’t want you to criticize my criticisms based on not having read the book; it’s about the letter. I don’t have to read everything that comes across my desk, and a letter like that gives me a reason not to.

Linguistic Imperialism?

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry…

From today’s Korea Herald:

High Schools May Teach in English from 2010

Elite high schools are expected to begin teaching various subjects in English in 2010, according to the presidential transition committee yesterday

It is part of President-elect Lee Myung-bak’s plans to enhance English education, which will be announce early next month.

The new policy, designed to offer students greater exposure to English, will be implemented first in elite schools including autonomous private high schools, and be expanded later to ordinary schools, officials said. The two kinds of schools targeted for the first implementation are among the 300 kinds of schools which the incoming government plans to introduce, as part of its efforts to give schools more leeway in creating and managing their curricula.

Amid concerns that a quick implementation of such a program in all subjects could have negative effects, such as a decrease in students’ understanding of the subjects, the committee is considering applying the teaching program only to relatively easy-to-understand subjects such as math and science first, and to others gradually.

The committee said it plans to implement the English immersion policy as soon as possible, in order to ease the financial burden on parents which stems from the high costs of their children’s private English classes — estimated at 15 trillion won ($15.8 billion) a year.

Meanwhile, concerns are rising about the practicality of such a policy of “immersing” students in classes where they can learn other subjects in English.

“To create the right environment where teachers are capable enough to smoothly lead a class in English, and students can understand the lesson, is of paramount importance. Rather than discussing whether the policy is good or not, we should create the conditions first, which is fairly difficult, at present,” said Cha Kyung-whan, a professor in the English education department at ChungAng University.

“It would be very difficult in the actual subjects, although the policy itself looks really ideal. Even in a highly advanced class, only one third of the students understand my English lecturing. Teaching other subjects in English would increase the anxiety of the students and make them shy away from the subjects, while those who are good at English enjoy the classes. This could, in turn, exacerbate the social gap,” said Kang Dong-heun, an English teacher in Incheon.

By Song Sang-ho



Really??? Not that I’m advocating hypernationalism via monolingualism, but I think Korea is in perpetual danger of being drawn further and further into the sphere of American (neo)imperialism. The Korean language is beautiful in its own right; what will happen to the students at those “elite” schools? Will they be able to function in Korean society as well as their non-“elite” peers? How will they view their national culture if their language use is different? How has this worked out (or not) in other countries (Philippines, Singapore, etc)?

sigh… And here I am, trying like mad to learn Korean.

Words Matter

Today I was once again amazed and convicted at how much words matter in communication. My pastor is going through the Book of Luke and today’s sermon was Luke 9: 10-17 Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand:

10 When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, 11 but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing. 

12 Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.” 

13 He replied, “You give them something to eat.”

They answered, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish – unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” 14 (About five thousand men were there.)

But he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of fifty each.” 15 The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. 16 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. 17 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.

Have you ever wondered when was the exact moment that the food multiplied? I can’t tell by reading the text in English. My lazy interpretation would be that the baskets were bottomless; where else would the extra food come from? Now, I can’t read Greek, but I trust my pastor when he says he looks up words. So he studied this text in Greek, and in “16 … then he gave them to the disciples…” the word “gave” is translated “έδωσε” which means to give and to give and to give… in other words, to keep giving. Therefore, as recorded in the original text, the bread and fish multiplied in the Lord’s hands, and he kept providing bread and fish for the disciples to share with the crowd.

abercrombie and fitch


a bread crumb and fish

amazing words

Amazing God!

Reader’s Response

My friend Crystal posed some interesting questions on my blog, so I’ll answer them in the form of another blog here. Crystal, I apologize for the delay… it’s been a hectic week. (note: Crystal is an international graduate student from China, hence her first question about growing up reading all Chinese books.)

1. I grew up reading all-Chinese (characters and figures) books but haven’t learned that I (Chinese) am the kingfish. Do most Korean children in Korea grow up reading all-Korean books? Do they all think of themself as the kingfish?
Good question. My IPRH Youth Literature Interest Group is devoting several reading sessions to international youth literature, so we’re learning about the state of children’s literature in other countries, which unfortunately has not yet developed to the status of that in the United States or England. In most cases, each country’s children’s literature represents the majority culture – Chinese children will read about Chinese society, Korean children will read about Korean society and so on. There are a few cases, such as in the Caribbean, where there might not yet be a substantial body of works (my friend Sujin Huggins does research in this area) so a lot of what comprises “children’s literature” is literature from other nations – the US and UK.

Furthermore, the trend is that books published in the United States are translated into other languages and republished in Korea, in China, in Japan, in France, etc. The United States translates very few books from other countries. Thus, the U.S. exports its ideas of whiteness, values, cultures, etc. into other countries, whereas other countries seldom have opportunities to import their ideas, cultures, values, etc., into the United States. In other words, the flow is almost entirely one way.

It is healthy for children to see themselves reflected in the books they read. However, in the United States the majority culture is white and we have a history of discrimination and prejudice (slavery, Jim Crow laws, anti-immigration laws of 1882, 1824, etc., Japanese Internment, race riots, institutional racism, hate crimes, etc.) I’m not saying that other countries don’t have their share of social ills, whether they be racial or class-based or sexist or what have you. But in the U.S., there’s been a history of bias and prejudice, and unfortunately it often gets perpetuated in children’s books. Thus, white middle-class children in the U.S. see mirrors of their white middle-class lives reflected in children’s books, and minorities see windows of white middle-class children’s lives. Minorities rarely see mirrors, and white children rarely see windows. This reinforces the notion that what is normal in the United States is white middle-class. Think of the Dick and Jane books, or Nancy Drew series, or Hardy Boys. They portray “All American” characters, and people of color who are written into Nancy Drew, for example, are stereotyped, passive characters instead of multifaceted characters with personality, humanity and dignity.

2. If there is such evil White privilage, why do so many Korean families immigrate to US with “providing good education for their children” as a reason? If they all did it out of ignorance of the problem, why don’t they go back to Korean after they find out the problem?
After World War II and the Korean War, the United States posited itself as a kind of “saving” nation. That image is still popular today, with the rhetoric that the U.S. is saving Iraq and third world countries (supposedly saving them from themselves). Many Koreans came here to pursue the “American dream” because opportunities for education and upward social mobility might not have been available to them in Korea. The Horatio Alger myth, perpetuated in more than 60 books about Ragged Dick and other characters, tells us that we can make anything of ourselves in the U.S. if we just apply ourselves. These types of messages permeate our society. Okay, so once we get here, we realize that the U.S. does have massive social problems and they’re not going to go away just because we can make more money or get into a better school. Well, why should immigrants, or descendents of immigrants, have to “go back to Korea”? That is not a solution; rather it is a defeatist attitude and doesn’t do anything to promote social justice or equality. We have just as much a right to be here as anyone else, and we can, and we have, and we will continue to promote social justice so that all people – whether they’re white lower income or black middle class or Korean upper class – can enjoy the same freedoms that the United States offers.

It’s easy to see the phrase “white privilege” and feel uncomfortable. We don’t say “white privilege” to point blame and make white people the enemy; we say “white privilege” with the understanding that whiteness is also a social construction of a group that historically has been privileged over other socially constructed groups in this nation. Looking at the legal history of this country makes that immediately apparent. For example, in California white laborers were so scared of Chinese immigrants that they passed laws such as “it is illegal for men to have long hair” (thus forcing Chinese immigrants to cut their queue) and “it is illegal for men to carry water across a stick on their back” (thus Chinese immigrants would have a tougher time transporting water for their laundry businesses) and “it is illegal for a Chinese person to marry a white person.” Clearly, white folks in California in the 1850s had issues with the new Chinese immigrants and passed laws to keep them economically and socially inferior.

3. If you look at the percentage of Korean Americans among all US citizens, and then the percentage of Korean American college students among all US college students (especially in the good college), do you see a “Korean privilage” or a “White privilage”?
This is frequently the argument of those opposed to affirmative action, and I welcome opportunities to discuss this topic. About 4% of the U.S. population is comprised of Americans of Asian descent. More than that are represented in many top tier universities across the nation. Is this an overrepresentation? Is it unfair to white students? No, because college is not the end point. When we look at numbers in the workforce, at the percentage of Asian Americans who are politicians or managers or CEOs or what have you, the percentage is far less than 4%. Asian Americans may be overrepresented in college, but their degrees are clearly not garnering them the jobs – and the salaries – to match. At the end of the day, the white male still makes more money and has the higher position.

That’s it for now. You don’t mind these questions, right?

Of course not. You ask interesting and important questions, and it helps both us think through these topics.

Also, in my post about Harriet the Spy’s intense hatred for math, Crystal asked “Yeah, I have to agree that it’s a very rich and rhetorical description. But if it is from a literature or movie for children, is it educational? Does it do more harm or good to the kids who already (or may potentially) hate math?”

Children’s literature began as an educational tool (primers, books on religionm etc). It still teaches something, but not in the blunt, didactic manner that it used to. Is Harriet the Spy teaching or encouraging children to hate math? I doubt it. Children who love math will continue to love math, and they’ll probably think Harriet’s a little odd for not liking it. Children who hate math will continue to hate math, but they’ll absolutely love Harriet (as I did!) because they can identify with her. The children who hate math in this world need to be able to see themselves reflected in children’s books so they know it’s not weird for them to hate math. Furthermore, it’s important to look at the story as a whole. Harriet the Spy is a fabulous story.

A counter argument to this may be: “Okay, so what if there’s a fabulous book but it contains stereotypical images of Asians? Then would you still say ‘It’s important to look at the book as a whole?'” This argument is like comparing apples with oranges. Math is not a human who is going to be offended that Harriet hates it. An Asian American such as myself finds serious offense in books that portray Asians with orientalist images.

A story cannot be fabulous if it contains stereotypical images of any culture out of context. It loses its right to be fabulous.