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I suppose this works as a part 2 covering the ‘political correctness and tea’ theme, after my article last month. Make no mistake: The non-PC term “oriental” is almost certainly on the way out, and it’s only a matter of time until “Oriental Beauty” (Taiwanese oolong) is no longer an acceptable tea name. For many people that time was around 10 years ago.
Two opposing references brought up this subject since my last article. A vendor mentioned his take on how “OB” had to go, calling his related product “Eastern Beauty.” Oddly, Don Mei of Mei Leaf—not the vendor I’m referring to—was way ahead of the curve in proposing this change – at least 5 or 6 years ago. Another tea reference I was just reading used the term “Oriental Beauty” without even mentioning the controversy.
For me personally it’s a non-issue, but I want to delve into the two positions based on external summary before I get to why. These aren’t the most authoritative takes but Google search probably ranks them highly for a reason, and both are cited in other media references.
Lin Hua Tai Oriental Beauty
An NPR interview summary includes a statement by columnist Jeff Yang:
“…I have actually, I’ve heard it before, in not in a very sort of attractive light, used towards me. But I think that, you know, that’s actually part of the rationale around this act here. It’s a term that feels old. It feels antiquated, and for it to even be kind of contemplated occasionally and in casual usage is something which Asian-Americans certainly feel uncomfortable with, and you know, for it to be stricken from the public record just kind of makes sense in some ways.”
I think it makes perfect sense to anyone open to regulating use of language, officially and through convention, and it would be opposed by people who hate the idea of dictated use of speech (opposing political correctness in general). An opposing view is provided by Jayne Tsuchiyama, an Oriental medicine practitioner, originally in the LA Times:
“As an Oriental, I am bemused. Apparently Asians are supposed to feel demeaned if someone refers to us as Orientals. But good luck finding a single Asian American who has ever had the word spat at them in anger. Most Asian Americans have had racist epithets hurled at them at one time or another: Chink, slant eye, gook, Nip, zipperhead. But Oriental isn’t in the canon.
“And why should it be? Literally, it means of the Orient or of the East, as opposed to of the Occident or of the West. Last I checked, geographic origin is not a slur. If it were, it would be wrong to label people from Mississippi as Southerners.”
One might think that maybe the second opinion is just an earlier take or a less-developed position; but the first article came out in 2009 and the second in 2016. It’s interesting how a key point is that the first author felt “oriental” had been used as a racial slur against them personally and the second did not—and rejected that this is a common occurrence—probably mostly due to the obsolete status of the word. As in the case of this blog reference, a single negative use, cited in 2012 as occurring only once about a decade prior, could shift that impression. The academic background that started this controversy (especially this text, “Orientalism,” from 1978) is a bit complicated so I’ll have to set that part aside.
To me, another main interesting point is that in Asia this isn’t even common knowledge; political correctness is a “Western” phenomena. I just reviewed this in an online work meeting: A section for sharing personal thoughts, and none of my Thai coworkers had heard that “Oriental” is considered offensive. A lot of business names here in Bangkok imply otherwise. That second citation author had a personal interest in this, as an “Oriental medicine” practitioner:
“In my field, the word “Oriental” appears in the title of 17 of the 58 accredited graduate-level schools, 21 of the 33 state associations and eight of the 24 national associations. Though the new federal legislation does not require us to act, it has increased pressure to toe the politically correct line.”
Some of those school and agency names are surely different now, five years later. Compared to that, changing the name of a type of oolong seems simple enough. It will bring up a “before” and “after” validity of reference content which hasn’t been occurring in tea writing. Yet all vendors making that change in English language marketing descriptions would be simple enough.
The Peace Oriental Tea Shop
On to my take on this: I personally don’t see “oriental” as a problem. It’s somewhat obsolete for sure, but I never made the connection with it being offensive. Here in Thailand, in “the East / the Orient” they still haven’t even heard of that pejorative tone problem. In other Asian countries where English use is less developed—which is most of them—it would be even less so – if less than no awareness was possible. Asian-American experience is something else; I assume that “liberals” would completely reject the term and “conservatives” would completely reject the broader PC agenda.
I was active on an expat forum, “Orient Expat,” that had to change to Xpat.life (and then it folded; the forum owner lost the main ad sponsor and got tired of doing it). There was no real debate then; the writing was on the wall, and that was the Western reality to be addressed.
Even though I personally think there is no problem with an oolong being called Oriental Beauty, I don’t think that my own opinion carries significant weight. Unless the PC movement loses steam, which seems unlikely, the designation will have to go. It’s strange that it hasn’t already. I suppose one reason for that is the one that grounds my own opinion; it’s just not regarded as a real issue by many, certainly not in Asia.
To say that Taiwanese people are racist—against themselves—for continuing to use a relatively old tea designation makes no sense. They’re just not keeping up with shifting English use which doesn’t actually need to shift, according to everyone. It’s also possible that the other Chinese-language-based tea names for that type, Dongfang Meiren and Bai Hao, are more common there so it’s a non-issue for only being the Western facing designation.
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