When Oriental is the Right Kind of Asian

Mar 22 2013 Published by under Asian Americanism

I am unfamiliar with Anthony Jeselnik's’s comedy, so I watched this clip with completely naive eyes. It’s a segment from his show, The Jeselnik Offensive, setup as a gameshow called “Which Kind of Asian is this?” in which contestants are brought on stage and tasked with identifying what kind of Asian a person is based solely on their photo and “clues” given by the host. Of course, these clues are really just intellectually lazy Asian stereotypes of the dog-eating, bad-driving, and under-pressure-to-achieve variety. You know, the standard offensive, if not straight-up racist, fare. The gameshow plays on the all-Asians-look-alike trope, so it comes as no surprise that none of the contestants are able to accurately identify any of the Asians pictured.


As AngryAsianMan writes, “But yo, this is not even funny. Not even the yellowface switcheroo part at the end there. What was the point of that?” One might even wonder what exactly was the point of the whole segment. I guess a case could be made that Jeselnik’s turn as an ill-minded host of a racist gameshow is really irony in the strictest sense. Here he's taking being offensive to the extreme in order to illustrate the larger point that, yes, this shit is racist and offensive. But for me--and this is where AngryAsianMan and I diverge--the switcheroo is where the ship really turns around.

Toward the end of the segment, Jeselnik brings out the last contestant who is--surprise, surprise--Asian. After ribbing him a bit for being a movie critic and blogger, Jeselnik shows the Asian contestant this image:


What kind of Asian is this? The worst kind...

For the uninitiated and unfamiliar, this is Mickey Rooney’s egregious, yellow-faced portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, a buffoonish Japanese caricature from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s--comprete with buckteeth, grasses, and the crassic “L for R” mispronunciation:

Being a movie critic, the Asian contestant immediately recognizes this as Mickey Rooney and “correctly” identifies Yunioshi's character as being Japanese. That's when the incorrect-buzzer sounds and Jeselnik informs him that the correct answer they were looking for was “Oriental.” But the gag here isn’t simply, “Hey look! Not even the Asian guy with his innate Asian-dar can tell Asians apart.” For while the contestant is right--Yunioshi’s character IS Japanese--the portrayal of Yunioshi is by no means an accurate depiction of Japanese-ness, but rather a mixture of offensive stereotypes lumped into what qualifies as "Oriental" in the American consciousness. Therefore, to call Yunioshi anything other than Oriental--or the racist notion of Oriental--borders on being complicit in validating those very stereotypes. More than that, by evoking Yunioshi the skit taps into the long history of racism directed towards Asians in cinema that still finds its way into today’s films and which serves only to cement Asian stereotypes in the minds of Americans. It’s a type of racism that says to Asians, “we actually don’t care what kind of Asian you are” and so we’ll continue to carry on the traditions of yellowface, whitewashing, and the “interchangeable Asian.

Either that, or I’m giving Jeselnik WAY too much credit and he’s just being callously racist.

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