At 8

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.

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.)

13 Responses to “At 8”

  1. Greg Morrow Says:

    Happy birthday, Opal!

    Given her apparent tastes, I would also consider exposing her to classic Disney comics, e.g. Fantagraphics’ recent release “Lost in the Andes” and upcoming “Only a Poor Man”. Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck stories are comedy-adventure, quite similar in style to Asterix (tangible differences: less punny wordplay, more sight gags).

    More advanced: Don Rosa’s Life and Times of Uncle Scrooge is dense adventure-comedy with a surprising amount of real-world history baked in — Teddy Roosevelt, gold rushes in Alaska and the Transvaal, the Wild West, etc.

  2. Paul Says:

    She’s also a big fan of “Girl Genius”

  3. Simon Tam Says:

    Hi there! Thanks for sharing about our story (I’m Simon from The Slants). Another interesting point is that unlike other racial descriptors and slurs, “slant” is widely – and primarily used – to describe things other than race (same could be said about “slope” as well). Guitarists, for instance, would recognize that “slant” is a type of guitar chord pattern as well as the most popular type of guitar cabinet.

    This would be a much different case if we weren’t Asian American ourselves, since there wouldn’t be that tie in. There have been over 60 applications to have some variation of “slant” trademarked and ours was flagged for being disparaging towards the Asian community (though that still remains our most enthusiastic supporting group).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I suppose you’ve thought of maintaining that the band’s name was derived from Emily Dickinson’s advice to “say it slant” — to hint at what could not be said directly. That probably wouldn’t fly for anyone who actually listened to your music, though.

  4. Greg Stump Says:

    A “small world” fact that Opal might appreciate: in the early 1980s, Jeff Smith (creator of “Bone”) attended Ohio State University, where he produced a comic strip for “The Lantern”, the OSU student newspaper; the comic, titled “Thorn”, introduced several of the characters familiar to readers of the later “Bone”.

  5. Robert Says:

    I’m delighted that at least one representative of the latest generation is growing up on Pogo.

    I suspect it’s not just the eyes, but also the hair, worn in a style that appears to be common among Chinese (and other East Asian) women; or at least that’s how it looks in these pictures, especially April.

  6. Sissy Says:

    I’ve made a game of finding math trivia about my age every year, and this year (32) was one of my favourites. The sum of the first 3 digits to their own power. A very powerful age, indeed! I won’t have another of those until even the Internet has forgotten me.

  7. Anne Winkler Says:

    Happy birthday, indeed!! And here my first thought was simply, ” Wow, what a beautiful kid.” and Opal is an unusual name nowadays. I had a great-aunt Opal. It is a lovely, elegant name.

    Looking at Opal, I thought Polynesian, not Asian. Mixed-race, definitely. My pet theory is that mixed-race folks tend to be more attractive than pure-breds. Just experience with my own mixed (half-Italian, half-Japanese) ex and my own oldest mixed son(half-black, half-white, some native American on both sides). Some sort of regression to the mean going on.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, great photo. Opal’s mother is quite a photographer, and the kid is a good subject.

      Opal’s dad is from Australia. Where the opals come from.

      But her ethnic heritage is quite solidly European. Mixed (English, Irish, Scots-Irish, Swiss, German), but all European for some generations back. Though I can’t vouch for every bit of it before, say, 1850.

      • Anne Winkler Says:

        Hmm. That’s interesting. I would say that Opal’s eye-shape crops up now and again though, in persons with no apparent Asian ancestor. Some blacks have somewhat slanted eyes, and some Europeans–maybe harking back to the steppes? The human genome is a wonderful thing.

        Thanks for your reply. I enjoy LL so much–and now, your personal blog.

  8. Anton Sherwood Says:

    In 1988 I noticed that for a few days my age and those of my parents, siblings and spouse were all prime powers: 49, 49, 32, 27, 25, 23.

  9. Kenneth L Simon Says:

    It can be summed up in a word…… The Slants …. ROCK !

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