Sunday was my grand-daughter Opal’s 8th birthday. Here’s a report on three things from the occasion: numerology; the comics; and perceptions of ethnicity.
Numerology. A bit before her birthday, I remarked to her that she was a prime (7) but was about to be a cube (8) and in a year would be a square (9). Then I astounded her by telling her that she wouldn’t be a cube again until she was 27, which seemed to her impossibly grown up (but not as old as 64 — or, of course, 125, which none of us is likely to see).
The comics. My gifts to Opal were two books of comics, one on her Amazon wish list, the other a surprise: first, Through the Wild Blue Wonder, the complete set of Walt Kelly’s Pogo comics through 1950; and then the complete set of Antonio Prohias’s Spy vs Spy strips from Mad magazine (mentioned on this blog here). The first intensely verbal and verbally playful, the second completely wordless. Opal fixed on the Prohias, which was mostly unfamiliar to her and quickly became immersed in the book.
(This was at the Siam Royal restaurant in Palo Alto — Opal’s choice for a grown-up birthday dinner with her parents and me. We had to pull her away from the book when the food came.)
Opal’s become a highly focused comics fan, working her way systematically through a few favorite strips (and going back to re-read and critique the material): Tintin, Asterix, Garfield so far, plus Bone (graphic novels aimed at kids, strongly influenced by Pogo). Apparently Archie and Jughead is likely to be next for the intensive treatment (along with Pogo and Spy vs Spy). No, I don’t think anything particularly unites these works, which differ in visual and verbal styles and in focus (Tintin and Asterix are action-adventure comics, most of the rest are what I think of as “relationship” comics; some are elaborately playful verbally, others not; Garfield and Spy vs Spy come in individual strips of only a few panels each, while the rest are longer-form narratives).
Perceptions of ethnicity. On Sunday I got a present of my own, my daughter’s annual collection of her photographs of Opal, one per month for the year just ended. From this set, two wonderful shots (April and September):
The first of these suggests why people so often identify Opal as Chinese (or hapa — see here): it’s the eyes, mostly. Seeing Opal with her mother, people assume Opal’s father is Chinese; seeing Opal with her father, they assume her mother is Chinese; seeing Opal with me, they get both ethnicities wrong and are puzzled about what an old Jewish guy is doing with a little Chinese kid.
The eye thing came up in my posting on the ethnic slur Chink (here) and is now the topic of exchanges on ADS-L, about the clouded history of the descriptors slant-eyed, slit-eyed, and slope-eyed; the corresponding count nouns (referring to people) slant-eye, slit-eye, and slope-eye; and the clipped versions of two of these, slant and slope (slit as a slur seems to be reserved for reference to women, by metonymy from anatomical slang slit — compare cunt and gash).
Slant and slope both have unsavory histories as derogatory terms for an East Asian person or more generally an Asian person — especially a Vietnamese, Japanese, or Korean (thus reflecting Western contacts with these people in 20th-century wars). Green’s Dictionary has these characteristic cites:
1970 Manchester Guardian Weekly 20 Dec. 6: Besides being called gooks, the Vietnamese are also known as slopes, slants, and dinks.
1978 T. O’Brien Going After Cacciato (1980) 9: A letter […] that described Japan as smoky and full of slopes.
But then (as Ron Butters reported on ADS-L) came the forces of ethnic reclamation, in this case in the “Chinatown Dance Rock” group The Slants, founded in 2006 in Portland OR by Simon Young. Their debut album was “Slanted Eyes, Slanted Hearts” (2007). On the Wikipedia page, bass player Young said about the band name:
We want to take on these stereotypes that people have about us, like the slanted eyes, and own them. We’re very proud of being Asian — we’re not going to hide that fact. The reaction from the Asian community has been overwhelmingly positive.
A Village Voice story last March 31st noted that the band
made news … when they attempted to trademark their name, but the U.S. Patent Office rejected their application, citing a section of the 1964 Trademark Act that they say shows “the slants” name “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage.”
(so they’ve had less success with the government than with the Asian community). In that piece, Young listed the band members:
I’m Chinese-American. [Drummer] Tyler [Chen] is half-Chinese, our singer Aron Moxley was born in Vietnam, our guitarist Johnny [Fontanilla] is Filipino and Hispanic, and we’re touring with a fifth member of the band who is full blooded Vietnamese, but born in Japan.
But … where are the Koreans?
(Music videos are of course available on YouTube.)