Self-orientalism or why we don’t do ourselves favours

A conversation during a meeting I had yesterday sparked off a couple of thoughts about how we see ourselves as Asians (or orientals) and how we have certain traditions and behaviour that sets us apart from others. The very word ‘oriental’ reminded me of what a certain academic Said about the old ideas of the ‘orient’ and how this perception of the eastern world by the west led to a whole set of ideas and actions that exist till today. Bad pun fully intended.

The idea of orientalism is premised on the colonialism of yesteryear – the orient was seen as exotic and a place where people lived very differently from the west. The projection of these differences enhanced the otherness of the people living there, leading to the view that Rudyard Kipling mentioned in one of his poems that ‘East is East, and West is West, and never the two shall meet’. More than just differences, Said used orientalism to explain the attitudes of the West towards the East (or orient) and how these attitudes created an entire way of thinking and viewing the latter.

Orientalism goes beyond the portrayals of Chinese as slitty-eyed cheats and most orientals as inherently subservient. What were originally just a set of views that the colonials had about the people they ruled slowly became ingrained in their culture and behaviour, leading to an almost unconscious way of thinking and behaving with the people who were essentially different from them. What started out as a mere set of behaviours evolved into a systematic political doctrine that permeated all relations between the east and west. Said even goes so far as to suggest that the entire idea of the orient was not just managed but produced by the west as a form of control and to distance the people who might later rise up against their colonial powers.

We all know what happened to the colonial powers in the second-half of last century but sadly, the attitudes and ideas related to orientalism remains. I once tried to make a case for ‘internal orientalism’ where the orientalist political discourse continues in the post-colonial era with a western educated elite stepping into the shoes of the ex-colonial sahibs. Not the best of arguments but every once in a while, something happens to remind me of this.

Back to the incident – it was a fairly innocuous comment about us orientals being fairly helpful and community minded. It was a good response to a question about how we would teach a particular subject and share information about it but the mention of ‘orientals’ and a generalisation based on that caused alarm bells to ring in my head. Perhaps I’m a little over-sensitive to words that ring bells about theories I’ve read in the past or I’m just a little paranoid about generalisations made but the mention did trigger something.

What I think disturbed me is not orientalism as I described it but more of the generalisations about Asians made by us as Asians. There are generalisations and there are generalisations. While it’s fine to be introspective and reflective about our behaviour and what makes us tick, it’s another thing to bring with this colonial biases that have been hanging around for ages. The sahibs have already done this to us – why are we doing it to ourselves? Sometimes we might even use the same lenses that the colonials used to view us to look at ourselves – that the West is superior in many things and that we have much to learn from them while the East is a comfortable and traditional place where communities thrive. Simplistic as this characterisation may seem, the pessimist in me sees a slippery slope towards that dichotomy that begins with simple generalisations.

We have to see ourselves for what we are and not what others tell us that we are. Minor as the comment may be and even though one might be making veritable mountains out of molehills, I do believe that looking at ourselves with lenses that we make does beat using any others that we can find around. It’s a little about pride and more about having a proper self-image that’s at stake here. If we have that, then all the problems about looking for western leaders and consultants to help us do our work would slow down. After all – who’s better at getting our work done than us no?

Note: Apologies for the decidedly unacademic nature of this post. I offer two excuses – firstly my copy of Orientalism languishes on my shelf back home so am relying on wiki-retellings and web articles to remind myself about his ideas. The second one is even lamer – I figured I didn’t quite want to be too academic with a blog post. Woolly roundabout arguments are that much more fun to write.

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about the brushhead

had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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