oprah does "the asian language gibberish thing"

My good friend Kathy caught an obnoxious moment last week on The Oprah Winfrey Show and wrote a really excellent post about it on her blog. With her permission, I'm reposting it here:

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What in the World?!? - Oprah, Shame on You
Kathy Khang

I know that I need to lighten up and not take life so seriously. I know that I need to pick and choose my battles. I know that in the grand scheme of things this is really not a big deal.

But it is annoying. I couldn't believe Oprah was doing the Asian language gibberish thing on her show this morning.

I was watching Oprah this morning - a show on standards of beauty around the world. I was actually laughing at myself for watching the show while doing my 45 minutes of cardio on the elliptical at the gym. There was a moment of dissonance and irony for me. Anyway, the show was highlighting how women all over the world define beauty and about the things they do to beautify themselves.

The segment I'm referring to was on Japanese women and how they value smooth porcelain-like skin. Oprah held up a sample tube of a popular whitening cream, looked at the name and because Oprah doesn't read kana or kanji she made up what she thought was an "Asian" sounding series of sounds. NOOOOO! Argh. The audience laughed. The Japanese woman who was on live feed through Skype giggled and corrected Oprah and correctly pronounced the name of the product. Oprah then went on to say, "That's what I said."


There were good lessons to be learned because even as the audience (and I include myself in that generic label) could laugh or look in horror at what other women will do to achieve their culture's standard of beauty we all know our own dirty little secrets. The show was actually something I could see using as a springboard for cross-cultural conversations about beauty, race, ethnicity, gender and class. The reporter, Mara Schiavocampo, talks about how she was surprised to learn that Asian women straighten their hair (long, black, straight hair = Asian/Asian American woman stereotype). One segment touched on hair weaves - how much American women will pay to have real hair weaves, how some some of that hair comes from women who sacrifice their hair to temple gods, and how some of those women live in poverty.

Segment after segment there were women from around the world - Iran, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia - who would look right into the camera and SPEAK IN ENGLISH to tell Oprah and her audience about their beauty secrets. So why couldn't Oprah look in the camera and just say, "Thank you."?

Nope. Oprah ended that particular segment just making noise. I'll just end my morning by writing The Oprah Show a comment:
Dear Oprah, I watched your show this morning on beauty standards from around the world. For the most part, I enjoyed the show.

I was, however, disappointed at your attempt to read Japanese. I realize that in the grand scheme of things, one seemingly light-hearted moment as you made "Asian" sounds instead of correctly pronouncing the name of the beauty product you were holding is not a big deal.

However, many of the women interviewed for the show sincerely wanted to show your audience how other women from around the world define beauty and strive to achieve it. Many of those women spoke with great pride and in English, not once making fun of Americans and the crazy things we use or do in the name of beauty.

There were good lessons to be learned about stereotypes (your guest reporter mentioned how surprised she was to learn Asian women straighten their hair) and about class (women who can get plastic surgery with payment plans and Indian women getting $2 for their "dead hair" v. women who pay thousands to have "live hair" woven onto their heads).

But, I found that brief moment where you and then your audience laughed at your version of "Japanese" was disrespectful and disappointing.

Sincerely, Kathy Khang
OK, the endorphin rush is over.

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If anyone comes across a video clip of the moment in question, please send it my way. If you saw this episode too, and would like to express your reaction to this moment, check out the Oprah.com message board and leave a comment here. Or email The Oprah Winfrey Show here.

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