You might have read over at AngryAsianMan about Toronto City Councillor Rob Ford said about how ‘Orientals are taking over’. You can read the article here and his refusal for an apology here.
Toronto-based playwright and actress, Jean Yoon, circulated the following letter to Mr. Ford’s office. It’s so incredibly well written and articulate, after reading it out loud to my mom, I directly asked Jean if I could reprint her letter here.
Re: Oriental Humbly Requests Apology from Honorable Councillor Rob Ford
Friday March 7, 2008
Dear Councillor Rob Ford,
Can I call you Rob? Rob, I would very much like you to apologize for your bigoted statements made on the City Council floor during the March 5 discussion about extending working hours in Toronto. You remember, the little rant where you went on about “Oriental people” and how we “work like dogs and sleep next to our machines?” Remember? Perhaps you don’t understand why Asian people and people who actually hang out with Asian people and have friends who are Asian Canadians were so shocked and offended by your statement. Perhaps you are sitting in your office with your feet up on your desk, arms behind your head, going ‘What? I think we should all work harder like Oriental people do, I admire them!” Is that your argument?
Let me explain.
(1) Asian people in the civilized world have long ago argued against the word “Oriental.” This outdated term essentially underlines “otherness” without any real specificity. The Orient was historically Turkey and anything beyond that. The word has very specific literary and cultural associations and is usually used alongside words such as “exotic,” and “inscrutable” and has vague suggestions of amorality because you never really know what those damn foreigners are thinking and Lord knows they don’t go to Church or even know how to butter bread. The correct term now in civilized company is “Asian.” Please remember that. And if you’d like to be very specific, you can say “East Asian” to indicate people from China, Hong Kong, Taiwain, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia and, what the heck, let’s throw Mongolia and Nepal in too. The word “Oriental” immediately signals to everyone that you’re out of step, Rob. It’s kind of like calling an Inuit Canadian an “Eskimo” or calling a Black Canadian a “Negro.” The “O” word for us doesn’t mean “Oprah.”
(2) While we are pleased that you think we work so hard, and really we do work pretty hard, we are quite dismayed that you think it’s some sort of genetic predisposition. Believe me, it’s not. Asians, as much as the next person, would love to work a little less hard to get by. I, for one, would love to be paid more so I can work less. I’d love to be able afford a car, a vacation, my own home and piano lessons for my son. In Korea, Hong Kong, China, Japan and Taiwan, people work hard because they have to. Workers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and Korea work under pressures and conditions created by global inequities, pressures that have informed their job market, and their ability to say no to unfair wages or conditions. No parent wants to work 24/7, or to return from work for one day at home only to be too tired to spend it with their children. Not even us “Orientals”. Many first generation immigrants in Canada have come in order to escape ruthlessly unfair working conditions where their hard-work is not, in fact, rewarded. And here, most continue to work under ridiculous pressures, long hours, lower wages than their white peers, and advance more slowly than their skills or performance merit. And they do so, they make this sacrifice, in the hopes that we, their children, will prosper in a better nation, and enjoy fair working conditions and opportunities. And yet, it hasn’t really happened. Have you seen the most recent census? It sucks being a person of color in this country, and while we do work hard, we are not reaping the rewards. This country does not offer us opportunities or rewards on par with our peers. And no, we don’t want to fall asleep by our machines, we don’t want to live like dogs, and we don’t like to be reminded that less than sixty years ago there were places in this country barred to us. “No Dogs, No Chinese.” No thanks. Your “compliment” about our work ethic is so deeply steeped in ignorance about the lives, history and culture of Asians in Canada that it is not so much “offensive” as it is shocking. It is shocking that you are so out of step. Your “compliments” about our work ethic are the kind of “benign” racism that we usually choose to ignore. But Rob, you are a City Councillor, you are a public official charged to represent the people, and we the people, the Asian people of this city, need you to know that blanket statements about us or any other group are, well, let’s just say it’s not a good idea to make generalizations about people you don’t know.
(3) Now, here’s the kicker. You said, on the Council floor, with the whole city listening, “Oriental people are slowly taking over. There’s no excuses for it. They’re hard hard workers.” However you intended these words – as a warning that the Canadian economy needs to keep pace with growing Asian economies, or as a warning that Asian Canadians are surpassing your comfort level – you have in one breathtaking stroke invoked a powerful and age old Canadian sentiment – YELLOW PERIL! YELLOW PERIL!!! Orientals are taking over! They’ll take all the jobs, all the money, they’ll buy houses and change them! You know that railway we have? The one that goes from Shore to Mighty Shore? Yeah, that one. It was built, largely, with Chinese labour so cheap you might call it slavery. “The Orientals are taking over!” That was the refrain back then too. Actually, they often called us “Celestials” back then, though the word “Oriental” was around too. It was an ugly ugly time, Rob. We don’t want to go there again.
So, if you did not intend to invoke shameful eras of violent anti-Asian sentiment in Canada, if you did not intend to inflame anti-Asian racism, I would strongly advise you to reexamine your remarks, bite the bullet, and apologize. And know why you are apologizing. It’s all good and well to say sorry, but do not for a second expect us to believe you if you apologize only out of expediency. Saying the the words without meaning it, without truly understanding why Canadians of all persuasions and cultural backgrounds are shocked and offended, simply will not wash. Your attitudes and behavior have been completely inappropriate for a City Councillor, and elected representative of the people, all people. Even us “Orientals.”
Here’s Jean’s email back to me after I asked if I could reprint it.
Yes, please circulate it, post it to your blog, the only reward for the day of vitriol that that letter represents is the laughter and affirmation that follows after. The problem is that he is in office. My only request is that you make sure to include his email address so that others can write their own letters to Ford. His response email is an apology and request for one’s phone number so he can apologize in person. I have been wondering about this. The only advantage to talking with him is that it might be one way to confirm that he has and does in fact read one’s letter… Though I don’t much like the idea of someone like him having my number. Thanks for letting me know you liked it. I appreciate it.
Uh, personal apology is great … but if a man has seen the error of his ways, a public one, would actually do good, in fact … I would insist on it.
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