Something is rotten at Whole Foods: Racial “ching-chong” slurs prompt cry for public apology to Asian American community

AsAm News (by Shirley N. Lew):

It is with great sadness that the work I’ve done with the assistance of Chris Kwok of the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY) on behalf of my friend, Kwok Ming Cheng, has come to an end.

Ever since an employee of Whole Foods Market in Lower Manhattan called Cheng a “ching-chong” last July, we have been collaborating with the guidance of Kwok to get the market on Bowery and Houston Streets to make a public apology to the Asian American community.

Cheng has decided to no longer pursue an apology from the market due to a very busy work schedule from a new job. I admit I am highly disappointed, not at him, but of the circumstances that is preventing him from continuing our battle with Whole Foods. However, I must respect his decision.

Our quest for an apology from Whole Foods was met with a lot of Asian American support last year. Some of you boycotted the market on your own and some wrote angry letters to them. All we wanted to do was first and foremost to have them apologize to the Asian American community, but their public relations manager felt it only involved an individual and not an entire community. They apologized to Cheng only. In addition to our first goal, we also wanted  to have Whole Foods employees receive some form of sensitivity training to prevent another incident with the help of Margaret Fung, the executive director of the Asian American Legal and Defense Education Fund (AALDEF). Whole Food refused that.

Cheng wanted Whole Foods to have a dialogue with us. It never occurred. Michael Sinatra, their public relations manager reached out to me one day to offer to meet, yet he would not agree to a single date we suggested.  After repeated failed attempts to agree on a meeting date, I sent him an email conveying my annoyance at such difficulty. He emailed back and suggested we were the ones being difficult. And with that, that was the last we heard from him. I still have emails showing him shooting down every date we suggested to him.

Kwok, Cheng and I continued to collaborate over months on developing a strategy. At times I admit it looked like an apology would happen if we made enough noise. Then came months of silence between Whole Foods and the three of us as things moved slowly for a variety of reasons; the holidays, Cheng getting married.  Another lawyer who was pulled in to consult added more hands into the mix.

Kwok told me we couldn’t continue with this without the victim involved. I wish we could somehow. I still desire to see a positive end result that we and the Asian American community have fought for. Since we can no longer continue, my only desire now is that hopefully our many attempts to resolve this issue with Whole Foods will inspire someone or group of people to not remain silent nor walk away from any social injustice they face.

During the height of the incident, I was hoping that we’d win, or even if we did not, I wanted to convey to society that Asian Americans are fighters and that we will always face our challenger. I wanted us to look strong, to prove to everyone we fight for our justice like any other ethnic group, but not being able to go on is a blow to me.

I felt the three of us somehow represented the Asian American community, especially for Lower Manhattan. I was contemplating on organizing a community event in Lower Manhattan after a resolution with Whole Foods. I thought of inviting community leaders, local business owners and other panelists to discuss why racial slurs are simply bad for merchants, the local economy and the community.

During those many months of collaboration, I was fueled to pursue some form of justice or at least ruffle Whole Foods feathers, which I strongly believed we did.  Now our battle has come to an abrupt end without an apology. I still do not want to walk away and let this go so easily. I don’t want to give up.

Racial slurs affect an entire ethnic group, hence the word “racial slur” not “individual slur.” “Chink,” and “ching-chong” mimic the sound of the Chinese language to unfamiliar ears, which also mocks our Chinese identity. These racial slurs are also used against the Japanese and Koreans too. The employee that called Cheng “ching-chong” is probably still employed. She should have known better than to repeat it from another employee, but she didn’t and that makes the incident so very sad.

People that poke fun at the sound of our language or slant their eyes at us give a hatred vibe and are not accepting of who we are.  I have bad news for them. Asian Americans are not going anywhere anytime soon, so they need to get to know us and get used to seeing us everywhere they go as we are the fastest growing minority group.

Recently I read a 2009 article, that is strangely circulating again on the internet, about a Texas lawmaker who suggested that those with Asian names should consider changing them so that it could be easily read at the election polls. Old story, but hot damn, reading that got me fired up. The article said the lawmaker didn’t think that the request was offensive, but merely trying to make the voting process easier.  She lost re-election later on.

It’s this ignorance, not innocence that touches a nerve in me and that’s why I feel so strongly to educate those poor ignorant souls. We can all just sit back and let racial slurs go on and brush it off because we don’t want to bother or have the time. We shouldn’t pretend it didn’t happen either.

Wouldn’t Asians be hypocrites to fight for diversity in the workplace, the entertainment industry and everywhere else, but not stop racial slurs? We all know the “n” word is bad, so why isn’t the “c” word just as sensitive when rolled out of someone’s lips? Why should Asians let the “c” word go? Racial slurs will never end if we don’t put in the effort to stop it.

I hope our experience and my still fired up attitude will inspire some of you to go further in your quest for justice than where we left off with ours. Although, we end here, that doesn’t mean we should stop discussing the Whole Foods incident. We have to take what happened there as reminder to not ever let this happen again. The next person to use a racial slur will get an earful from me. I promise you.

Thank you for the support you gave us and especially to Kwok of AABANY. I also want to wish my friend all the best at his new job and marriage, and may he never be called the “c” word again.

Now go out there and stomp out racial slurs.

shirley-aajany

Shirly N. Lew

The New Yorker: “Home Cooking- Funny families on ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and ‘Black-ish.’ ”

If “Fresh Off the Boat” emphasizes family warmth, it’s complicated by sharp details.

If “Fresh Off the Boat” emphasizes family warmth, it’s complicated by sharp details. (Illustration by David Saracino)

The New Yorker (by Emily Nussbaum): 

Like many pioneering TV series, ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” a sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family running a Western-themed chophouse in Orlando, Florida, débuted to impossibly high expectations, hand-wringing, and prickly waves of preëmptive backlash. In an unusual twist, this hazing came from the man whose life the show was based on.

In an essay in New York, Eddie Huang, the celebrity chef, Vice TV host, and author of the memoirFresh Off the Boat,” merrily trash-talked his own collaborators, including a Chinese-American producer, whom he called an “Uncle Chan,” and the showrunner, Nahnatchka Khan, an Iranian-American. “What did you buy my book for?” Huang yelled, frustrated that the show had bowdlerized his story, which included whippings by his father, an immigrant restaurant owner. “Just make A Chinks Life . . . With Free Wonton Soup or Soda.” Thousands of words in, Huang tossed out a few lines of praise, but the impression he left wasn’t great—if he saw his sitcom as a sellout, who were viewers to disagree?

At the heart of this rant was the question of what makes TV bold: Huang wanted something pungent, like an FX anti-hero dramedy, or like the nineties sitcom “Married with Children,” the type of show that would underline (and maybe glamorize) his violent youth, his charismatic dick of a dad, and the roots of Huang’s own flamboyant persona. That desire wasn’t sheerly egotistical: Huang was eager to push back at the cliché of Asian men as passive, genitally cheated nerds (“the eunuch who can count,” as he puts it in the book)—a Long Duk Dong stereotype still visible on shows like CBS’s “2 Broke Girls.” Huang wanted “Fresh Off the Boat” to “go hard,” like his nineties hip-hop heroes. In the process, he was claiming TV’s own bad-boy role, the provocateur who shoves authenticity down the throat of The Man. Think Roseanne; think Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle.

In reality, of course, the bad-boy provocateur very rarely gets final cut on a network family sitcom—it’s a genre more prone to compromise than a Senate bill. Even the edgiest shows have limits: Al Bundy never hit Peggy, after all. So it’s no surprise that, aesthetically, “Fresh Off the Boat” fits right into ABC’s sweet-tempered slate of comedies, which includes the subtly retrograde “Modern Family,” the wonderful “The Middle,” “The Goldbergs,” “Black-ish”—a smart new show that I’ll get to in a moment—and the unfortunately bland “Cristela.” Like all these shows, “Fresh Off the Boat” is brightly lit, with an A plot and a B plot. The jokes aren’t dirty and nobody gets his butt whipped. The parents—patriotic restaurant-manager dad, Louis (Randall Park), and proudly alienated mom, Jessica (the terrific Constance Wu)—love one another. There’s even a “Wonder Years”-esque voice-over, performed by Huang, and an ensemble of adorable children. It’s a comedy the whole family can watch together—which may be either an insult or a compliment, but is definitely a business plan.

Yet, even in its half-dozen early episodes, those burnt first pancakes of sitcoms, the show has a radical quality, simply because it arrives in a television landscape with few Asian characters, almost none of them protagonists. Khan, the showrunner (who wrote for Seth MacFarlane, and who produced the wicked ABC sitcom “Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23”), is her own sort of provocateur, an expert at slipping rude ideas into polite formats. She uses the Asian-American family to reset TV’s defaults. The characters aren’t the hero’s best friends; they’re not macho cartoons or eye candy, either, as on some cable dramas I could name. This can be an unpleasantly clinical way to talk: it places the critic in the camp of the bean counters, not the gonzo rapscallions. But simply watching people of color having a private conversation, one that’s not primarily about white people, is a huge deal. It changes who the joke is on. “Fresh Off the Boat” is part of a larger movement within television, on shows that include the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and Fox’s “Empire”—a trend that’s most influential when it creates a hit, not a niche phenomenon.

Reading the book, then watching the show, you get why Huang was frustrated: without a cruel bully for a father, Eddie’s taste for hip-hop feels more superficial—in the book, it’s an abused kid’s catharsis and an identification with black history. But, if the show emphasizes family warmth, that theme is complicated by sharp sociological details: the only black kid in the school calls Eddie a “Chink” and smirks at his hip-hop T-shirt; Jessica grabs every free sample at the supermarket, then gives the employee a hilariously dismissive wave; Louis hires a white host to attract customers (“A nice happy white face, like Bill Pullman,” he explains firmly). There’s no violence, but there are specific immigrant perspectives, shown through multiple lenses.

In one of Khan’s most effective gambits, we see Eddie through his mother’s eyes as often as we see her through his. In the book, Jessica is a brazen, mysterious goad to her son; on the show, she’s a full character, Eddie’s equal in cultural alienation, even if her escape is Stephen King, not the Notorious B.I.G. In one of the most interesting early episodes, mother and son are both drawn to Honey, a trophy wife who lives next door. Eddie sees a hot MILF he can show off to the boys; Jessica sees a kindred spirit who will eat her “stinky tofu” and bond over “Dolores Claiborne”—then pulls away when she realizes that Honey is the town home-wrecker. The show hits every awkward angle of this triangle, including a surreal fantasy sequence in which Eddie, inspired by his hero Ol’ Dirty Bastard, sprays Capri Sun on gyrating video vixens. (His mom intrudes, complaining that he’s wasting juice, while his father offers the women free samples from the restaurant: “Come on, Fly Girls. Try a rib! Tell a friend.”)

In the final scene, at a block party, everyone’s loneliness collides, as Eddie gropes Honey, and Jessica sees her neighbor’s humiliation. Opening her heart to a fellow-outsider, Jessica seizes the karaoke mike to serenade Honey with an awkward, earnest rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” The sequence doesn’t “go hard”; it goes soft, quite deliberately. But somehow it still manages to find strangeness within its sentimentality. “Fresh Off the Boat” is unlikely to dismantle the master’s house. But it opens a door.

ABC’s other new family sitcom, “Black-ish,” created by Kenya Barris and Larry Wilmore (who left to do “The Nightly Show,” on Comedy Central), has had fifteen episodes, giving it more of a chance to grow than “Fresh Off the Boat”—and in that time the series has transformed from hokey formula into one of the goofiest, most reliably enjoyable comedies around. Early on, the show kept aggressively re-stating its thesis: Andre (Dre), a successful adman, is worried that his four kids aren’t black enough. Growing up rich in a white suburb, they don’t remember a time before Obama; Andre Junior is a nerd, not a thug. Andre’s biracial wife, Rainbow, an anesthesiologist, is less concerned about race. Each week, Dre tries to toughen the kids up, terrified that if they don’t get “blacker” he’ll have failed as a father.

The problem with the show, initially, was that Andre himself felt so off-putting—childlike and abrasive, a man-baby in the Homer Simpson mode—that it was hard to buy his marriage or his success, let alone his lessons. Rainbow, played by the fantastic Tracee Ellis Ross, was trapped in the gruesome role of wife-as-mommy, the sighing goody-goody. It’s hard to even remember that version, though, because, once “Black-ish” settled in, it began, like so many smart sitcoms, a quiet reinvention. Andre got more insightful; Rainbow became a glamorous dork with a temper and her own loose-limbed charisma; the kids clicked, too; and Andre’s workplace became a reliably hilarious setting for him to brainstorm about his troubles. It helped that he began to acknowledge his own outsized personality, too, rather than presenting it as interchangeable with authentic urban blackness. “I’m a lot,” Andre says, about his parenting. “If they can get past me, they can get past anything.”

A funny Valentine’s Day episode featured a date night that went downhill—a sitcom chestnut that paid off, miraculously, owing to sharp dialogue and the couple’s great chemistry. Andre and Rainbow sniped over his mispronouncing the word as “Valentimes.” They revisited a childbirth scenario so awkward that the doctor asked her, “You mean he’s actually part of your life? Because plenty of women successfully raise children alone.” They argued over whether or not Andre saw Gene Hackman at a roller rink. (“You think everyone is Gene Hackman!” Rainbow fumes.) In the best tradition of the mainstream sitcom, the show felt both new and familiar, giving the show’s marriage emotional roots.

As these relationships became more organic, “Black-ish” also got looser with its ethnic humor, with plots about Andre competing to be a black Santa Claus (he loses out to a Mexican woman) and microaggressions on a baseball field. When Rainbow notices a gray pubic hair, Andre tells her, “You look distinguished, going all Frederick Douglass down there.” When their daughter dates a French boy, a co-worker of Andre’s says, “I cheated on my husband with a French-Canadian. His Frenchness was so powerful that I forgot he was Canadian.” Andre’s mother tells Rainbow, “You are too hard on the kids. If I didn’t know you were mixed, I’d swear you were Chinese.”

In the show’s most outrageous episode, a ski trip becomes an outlandish parody of Martin Luther King Day. Rainbow throws sardonic air quotes onto “Doctor,” because King had no medical degree; Andre Junior admits that he’s never fully absorbed King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, because “I always kind of zone out when people start to tell me about their dreams.” The jokes overlapped, turning flippant, wild, verging on misfire—an elbow in the ribs of boomer earnestness. In a safe sitcom structure, it was a different kind of risk: inside jokes in an outside voice.

Sorry we called you “Chink.” Sincerely, City of Pasadena.


Angry Asian Man/AsAm Asia: 

The city of Pasadena, California is issuing a formal apology to one of its residents after he received documentation for a parking ticket that changed his last name to a racial slur: chink.

Pasadena resident Sean Ching, who grew up in the area, received paperwork regarding a parking ticket that he was trying to fight in December 2013. The letter upheld the citation, but what upset Mr. Ching even more was that his name on the documentation had been changed to SEAN CHINKS.”

 

Ching contacted the city about the slur, and after waiting weeks and dealing with multiple representatives from the Department of Transportation, he was given the excuse that it was “just a mistake” and was promised an apology — an apology that never arrived in any form.

So Sean took to social media, where it picked up steam thanks to sites like AsAm News. And wouldn’t you know it? Over a year after the offending incident, the Pasadena Department of Transportation now says that it has sent an official letter to Ching apologizing for the “misspelling.” (They blame it on bad handwriting.)

The letter reads, in part:

At this time I would like to offer a formal apology for our mistake. It was never our intention to disparage you or cause you any harm or distress. On behalf of the Parking Division staff and myself, please accept my sincerest apologies for this unfortunate incident.

Whatever the excuse, it really should not have taken thirteen months, multiple conversations going nowhere with city officials, and some good old fashioned social media shaming for someone at the city to simply acknowledge that they sent Mr. Ching a letter containing a racial slur. Ridiculous.