They ALL eat worms in China: Orientalism in Kidlit

May 13, 2019

[Image description: Video still of me holding up a page from 'The Boy Who Spoke Chinese' featuring a white girl saying "Oh, don't worry about that. He just hasn't gotten used to American food yet. They ALL eat worms in China."


Benefit of the doubt

Nathan (my partner) walked into the room while I was typing up captions for this video. I thought he'd get a kick out of it, so I handed him this book with a *smugness. *

He doesn’t really follow what I do. But he's got a cursory understanding. I mean - I infodump on him every night about my tiny kidlit dramas. Even as an outsider, I figured this book is so positively over-the-top terrible even he’d be bowled over with how problematic it is. 

So he hands it back. With a chuckle and a nudge, I ask him what he thought. 

“It was uhh…good?” He says. 


Wait…what…I can’t…how… 

Oh honey. You beautiful, oblivious white dude.

:::commences 2-hour infodump:::

What I didn't mention in the video

So this was a check-yourself moment for me. I have the privilege of almost a decade of book-nerdery under my belt, plus the lived experience of being both a Chinese person and and intellectually disabled person, with all of the experiences and historical context I’ve been forced to learn to be a person in this world. 

I was taking it for granted that every one of you would come to this video with the same knowledge. Which is utterly silly! 

So here, for your perusal, a very tiny bit of cultural context about the world this book was written in, and how books like this perpetuate that culture decades after it became socially unacceptable to be (openly) bigoted against disabled folks and Asians. 

Cultural Context

This book was published in 1972. The Chinese Exclusion Act (a bunch of legislation that made it illegal for Chinese folks to become US citizens) was only struck down seven years prior to this.

The US was in the middle of the horrible mess that was the Vietnam war, in direct opposition to China. While US soldiers were no peaches, the Chinese government and the people working for it were being fucking awful and doing inhumane things against Vietnamese citizens. 

Simultaneously, the Chinese diaspora were fleeing to the US escaping the horribleness of Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution, with all the famines and oppression and such. My ancestors weren’t wild about being here, but where else was there to go? 

Being a Chinese person in the US was, obviously, a nightmare mess of being the foreigner, the latest wave of immigrant invaders, folks who were here to steal your jobs, take your spots in college, and also probably they’re all spies, prostitutes, and dragon ladies and whatever. This is still ten years before Vincent Chin. 

I want to say it was a peak of anti-Asian sentiment, but there were so many peaks and it never really dies down, it just gets quieter. 

You know, kind of like how the Chinese are perceived now by the Trump administration. Except it was totally okay to be open about orientalism back then, instead of subtle. Not like this administration is subtle about how much they hate Asians. 

At the same time, white folks in the US were just building the foundations of that mythic post-racial colorblind fallacy, fresh off desegregation and the supposed end of Jim Crow. Was it South Park who started this 7 years thing? Like, if a horrible tragedy happened, it’s okay to joke about so long as it’s been seven years? 

Chinese Americans were simultaneously the enemy, the invader, and for folks who believed the US was not a post-racial progressive heaven, totally game for jokes. Yellowface was hilarious, kung fu was the new fun thing to appropriate, and it had been like 7 years since we ended anti-Asian racism, get over it already! (/sarcasm) 


Nathan’s arguments for why it’s not a bad book weren’t new to me. I had THE SAME EXACT THOUGHTS the first time I read it. d

I never open a book thinking “this is going to be trash.” I’m looking for the good. I want these books to be tools, not more sources of rage. 

So I pick this book up off the preschooler shelf in our local library. I shit you not, it was in the preschooler section. I sat on a damp piece of carpet that smells of toddler pee as I read this. As usual for mid-day on a weekday, I was surrounded by a gaggle of tiny Chinese toddlers, accompanied by attentive little grandparents just like my own. 

The title, juxtaposed against that white author name, laid against a very yellow background, gave me some pause. But hey - I’m Asian with a traditionally Black name and I’m totally for reclaiming the symbolism of yellow, so let’s go for it. 

Like Nathan, I understood the intent of the book immediately. The sister is making her brother’s life harder because she doesn’t understand him. I get that. 

The blatant racism is a product of its time. Okay. 

The author is attempting to discuss the effects of ableism on folks with disabilities, while using the convenient anti-Chinese rhetoric she picked up from her parents to uhh...add some humor. 

My FIRST thought - in fact, the first thing I did, was take notes and then put it back on the shelf. 

The intent of the book kinda makes sense - even though it's out in the open where toddlers and preschoolers can pick up all sorts of awful messages from it. Even though there are other books that discuss the impact of ableism without being so fucking terribly racist.  

Censorship isn't my thing - I haven't even asked for my most hated books to be removed from a library shelf. I do wish books like this came with a warning though.

I had no right to ask for it to be withdrawn. As a Chinese person, arguably one of the most powerful Asian races in the US, did I have a right to complain about anti-Chinese sentiment? Didn’t we have it pretty good in this city, particularly in this library? We didn’t seem to be suffering here. 

I didn’t want to fan the flames and be ‘one of those’ kinds of bossy Tiger Moms insisting the library cater to my tastes and censor books that I find offensive. 

Again, context: 

Despite having a large Asian population in my city, anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise. Wealthy Chinese from overseas are purchasing plots of residential land, demolishing adorable little homes like mine, and building enormous, hideous mcmansions that disregard building codes and environmental concerns. 

White folks are angry about the way we’re clogging the schools, dwarfing neighbors homes, and basically ruining the neighborhood. 

Proportionately, wealthy white folks are doing this at a higher rate than Chinese from overseas, but just the fact that some of this over-development is coming from China sparks that yellow peril and invasion fear.  

And yeah, we’re bossy. There's a culture clash there. We are demanding on teachers, we're blunt, and the manners we perceive as respectful and admirable are what teachers, administrators, and neighbors perceive as rude. 

Oh the wonderful things your white friends and neighbors will say right in front of you when they mistake you for white! 

So within this context - not wanting to be that rude tiger mom - I put the book back on the shelf and just kind of stewed in it. 

And then I got up to leave. And looked around me, at all those toddlers who would one day be old enough to pick this book off the shelf and read it. At all the yeyes and nainais who had lived through the BS of immigrating here for the safety of their families, only to be met with suspicion and hate. I thought about how that would feel for them to find this book, still on the shelves of the library of their hometown.

I thought of all the white kids who would read it to their kids, and all of the oblivious white husbands like my own who wouldn't even blink at this, thinking it's a good book and reading it for a bedtime story. ::head explodes::

I thought about four and a half decades this book has lived on a shelf, where child after child has picked this book up, hoping to see a reflection of themselves, only to be smacked with a reminder that they are still depicted as disgusting, worm-eating, perpetual foreigners. 

Thinking about all the parents who, like me, have picked this book up off the shelf and instead of raising a ruckus, put it back on the shelf to spread more hate. 


At that point - the author’s intent won’t matter. What matters is the impact this has on kids toddling around me.

I thought about how quickly books denigrating African Americans like this would be yanked off the shelves. No one with any sense says anti-Black slurs out loud. Anti-Asian racism though - it's still a joke.

When cops kill Black folks, Good White Folks pay attention. When cops kill Asian folks, no one cares but other Asians.

If this had been a monkey joke, I would have yanked that book and raised a ruckus against this anti-Black bullshit. This would be socially acceptable and expected of me. But what do I do when I'm self-advocating? My gut instinct is to quietly placing it back on the shelf like a good quiet Asian girl. We don't have it that bad, after all.

And yet. These kids will face overt and subtle anti-Asian aggression every day, even in this city where we're supposed to be so progressive. They don’t need one more book to remind them that no one takes racism against them seriously. 

Back to Childism

We went over this last month - but the main flaw in this book (beyond the blatant orientalism) is that the author fails to understand and respect her audience. 

While both Nathan and I understood the intent behind the book - it’s never explicit. The sister’s asshatery is subtext.  

The book is series of demeaning micro and macro aggressions against a boy with disabilities. Repeatedly, the author centers the sister’s comfort, her feelings, her impressions, her words and her communication. 

One time - ONE TIME, the author mentions how the boy wishes he could stay, but has to follow his sister's whims and leave a party.

And it’s that SINGULAR reference to his wishes that Nathan hung on to. That was his argument for why the book centers the disabled brother - despite every other page centering his sister. 

Decades later this continues to be the norm - centering abled folks. If we're lucky, sometimes letting us chirp in a thought or two, some tiny sliver of insight that disabled folks have thoughts on what's happening around us and to us. Throwing us a bone feels like a feast when we’re used to being depicted as mysterious puzzles, trapped in a box of their own minds and bodies. 

A four-year-old doesn’t do subtext. If you want a small child not to bully someone, you don’t show them a bully picking on someone and mention, somewhere toward the end of the book, that the victim has a mild feeling about it.  

Kids don’t think like adults. They don’t get subtext. They don’t know the cultural context of what they’re experiencing, and we tend to forget that what with the privilege of being adults.

Kids don't get that complicated dance of social cause and the effects of chronic mental abuse. They don’t get that there is a disconnect between intentions, actions, and impact.  

The are new to being human! They need it to be spelled out for them!  

If we want to show kids what to do - SHOW THEM WHAT TO DO. Don't show them a person being a jerk and just *assume* they will see how that wad is being a jerk.

Help them understand what it feels like to be treated this way. We connect the humanity in our children with the humanity of folks they could hurt. We center the victims - we don’t make a big joke about them being bullied. 

This book is intentionally racist, ableist, and there is no lesson - not even at the end, nothing to spell out that this jerkoff sister is, in fact, a tremendous jerkoff. 


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