This is an off-topic article, but it’s an important idea that has been in my mind for many years. I write this as an Asian American who likes comedy, but understands that comedy can sometimes be very foul and offensive. The line between what is offensive and chiding is gray, but there is definitely one important guideline, and you probably don’t know it, so read this.
Summary: saying terms like “ching chong” are very offensive to Asian people because it shows a lack of caring or interest in learning the language and reduces it to some vague and inaccurate sounds. As for comedy and racial jokes, if you are part of the community or have immersed yourself in that culture, then your joke will tend to be viewed as one of camaraderie and understanding instead of disregard and ignorance.
THIS IS A FACT.
My background as a minority in Hawaii
I had an unusual upbringing. My parents are from China, but I was born in America and grew up in the state of Hawaii. From the ages of 8 to about 14, I was one of the few or only Chinese kid(s) in my classroom. I was very fortunate to not have many negative statements about my race brought up. This is because part of the minority experience is that jokes about your race are bound to be made if you are not part of the majority (most of my classmates were Polynesian and Filipino during those years).
One day, my sister told me a joke she had heard from a classmate:
“How do Chinese parents name their children? By throwing silverware down the stairs — ching chong ting tong.”
She did not laugh when she recited the joke.
I felt her pain — I had heard many times before the use of the terms “ching chong” when classmates used to emulate Chinese speech or Chinese names in my vicinity, along with other insensitive or ridiculous questions and stereotypes. This was back in the 90s and even in this century, in America, the insults continue against Asian or Chinese people.
Modern “Ching Chong”
If you aren’t aware, the lazy verbal imitation of Chinese is still happening:
- Rosie O’ Donnell did it while on a talk show (link)
- comedian Shane Dillis was fired from SNL for doing it in 2019 (link)
- a Youtube rivalry between an Asian Youtuber called Ricegum and a girl named WhoaVicky led to a video called “Ching Chong, Bitch” (link to video)
- Rush Limbaugh imitated former Chinese president Hu Jintao (link)
And as it turns out, people have done it in the 1800s in America, when there was a wave of Chinese immigrant workers and xenophobia was occuring (link). The typical they’re taking our jobs, taking our women, and taking our land complaints and stereotyping ensued.
As someone that has traveled to many places, speaks multiple languages including Mandarin Chinese, and has a diverse group of friends and interests, it frustrates me to see people reduce Chinese to two or three inaccurate syllables. With the ability to learn about different cultures with the click of a mouse today, I am adamant about this: the people that perpetuate these reductive ideas have low intelligence, are uneducated, lack empathy, or are close-minded. This is especially true because plenty of people have made fun of Asian people while being applauded and endearing.
Comedians that are successful with Asian jokes
As mentioned earlier, there is an interesting dynamic to offensive racial/cultural jokes. It boils down to in-group and out-group:
When you’re the in-group, your offensive racial remarks are seen as camaraderie, from someone in the community who may have experienced similar marginalization. When you’re the out-group, your offensive racial remarks are seen as offensive, ignorant, and hateful.
Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this: why is the N word viewed more positively when Black Americans say it to each other than when a White American says it to a Black American? (Note I said “viewed more positively”, and not “fully accepted by everyone”).
Here is Russell Peters, one of the most successful comedians making fun of Chinese people AND the Chinese accent.
Did you see what happened here? Russell Peters, an ethnic Indian and Canadian national, showed the entire crowd how aware he was by simply stating a simple fact that many people won’t know: there are many dialects in China. He then speaks some Chinese gibberish, but the sounds are somewhat accurate, and not once did he use “ching chong.” Ching Chong literally does not exist in either of the Chinese dialects (I know, because I speak both of the major ones).
Well, maybe it’s because a lot of his audience isn’t Asian. So that’s why they’re so eager to laugh at his Asian jokes. WRONG.
Russell Peters has an amazingly diverse audience. In the above clip, there are East Asian and South Asian faces. It’s not that hard to learn about another culture, yet Russell Peters is more of an exception when it comes to Asian jokes than the norm.
And Russell Peters’ race jokes aren’t strictly Asian. Here he is again, at Def Jam, in front of mostly black people, saying the N word several times (skip to 6:13). Watch the whole clip though, because you will be able to see he is purposefully showing the black audience he is on their side, or he is in-group, by showing his understanding of Black American hardships and being on the end of racist remarks.
Ok, so maybe you think it’s because Russell Peters is Asian, or is dark skinned. Therefore he gets a pass at these jokes and can get away with making fun of Asians, right? WRONG.
This is Anjelah Johnson. This clip has 25 MILLION views. For a comedy clip from a lesser known comedian, that is ridiculous! She is not Asian, but talks about her experience going to a Vietnamese nail salon. She makes fun of the experience and imitates the Vietnamese nail salon attendants speaking English and talking about her behind her back. Her accent is great and again, not once does she use “ching chong.”
Russell and Anjelah are 2 comedians (and there are plenty more) that took the time to develop an accent or learn a little about these foreign Asians and their cultures. This is why they are funny to me, to a lot of Asians, and they are not getting fired or creating controversy by telling their jokes. This reflects well on their cultural sensitivity and this is the type of racial comedy we should expect. As for Rosie and Shane, I hope their careers in comedy continue to wane. They are using ignorant cultural statements as comedy (and probably have for their entire careers) and have done so because it has provided laughs for them in the past. As the political climate changes and these types of remarks are seen as offensive by the audience and growing Asian and Asian-sympathizing population in America, these racist comedians naturally will be in less demand. And they cannot blame political correctness or snowflakes — these comedians would fail because they simply could not open book or be bothered to learn just a little more about the world around them.