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From various newspapers around the country:

If there has been one chink in the Lakers’ armor this year…

Twitter’s rise, however, exposed a chink in Facebook’s armor…

“It was a chink in the armor,” says Billboard senior editor Ann Donahue.

She knows the chink in Princeton Plainsboro’s armor: House.

Notice a pattern here?

For non-Asian folks, “chink” probably doesn’t strike the same uncomfortable chord, but for me, every time I see or hear it, I wish I hadn’t. Of course in this case, it means a cleft or an opening, but more often than not, it is a racial epithet hurled towards Asians. Look up the word on Merriam-Webster Online, and you’ll find the first listed (and therefore the most common) definition is the offensive variant.

Out of curiosity, I searched for the phrase “chink in the armor” on Google and came up with a whopping 1.47 million hits. I’m certain this isn’t a vast East-wing conspiracy, but there are apparently a lot of holes in the Kevlar of the Internet.

Do white folks feel the same way when they walk through the supermarket aisle and pick up a box of Saltine Crackers? Or how about Latinos who stop for a bottle of Windex and see Spic and Span on the shelf below? I have no idea.

Now I’m not some kind of a politically correct nut who wants to eradicate all vestiges of anything sounding possibly hateful. Instead, what I ask is for people to choose not to use this particular phrase. Because it is a choice, you know?

Let me give you another example. The other day I was walking my dog, and a man came up to me and asked, “What a beautiful dog. It’s a bitch, right?” Yes, I suppose she is, in both sense of the word (sorry, Ginny, but it’s true), but that’s not the point. Words often carry more than one meaning, and it’s okay, even preferred, if you were to refer to my gorgeous German shepherd as a girl.

At the same time, I don’t want to encroach upon our First Amendment in any way. So if you consider my request as a form of self-censorship, how about doing it for the sake of originality? Just say no to clichés! Put on your best Don Draper thinking cap and create that next great catch phrase. Before you take the lazy route and declare that so-and-so has a few chinks in its armor, maybe you can say there’s “a gap in the fence.” Or “a rent in the fabric.” Perhaps even “a leak in the pipes.” You can also go fancy and be topical: “There are at least a couple of cocktail waitresses hiding in that team’s supposedly solid marriage.” Or show off your literary chops: “Boy, you just know there’s a Titus Andronicus in that corporation’s Shakespearean portfolio.”

And just for the record, “Asian in the armor” isn’t an option.

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

40 responses to “The Last Chink in the Armor”

  1. Paul Clayton says:

    Pretty funny, Sung. I married into the asian culture long ago. I remember telling an in-law on the Asian side that his kid was a ‘lucky dog.’ Never thought twice about that till just after I said it, and thought that, well, maybe he wasn’t familiar with the expression, being as he was born in Hong Kong.

    I work with lots of Chinese Americans, some not born here, Vietnamese, Fillipino, and there are so many potential pitfalls due to cultural differences and old, not well thougth out, habits. But, I think we’ll work it all out in the long run.

    Best!

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      Hey Paul — this reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld, where Elaine is being called a dog by the Korean women who run the nail salon. And Kramer tells her something to the effect of, “Hey, maybe in their culture, being called a dog is a compliment. Like they see a pretty woman walk by, and they’re like, ‘Wow, what a dog!'”

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Please never ever again use the word “black” except in an unequivocally positive sense. Even “black humor” is out, if you please. Thank you for your cooperation.

    Thanks much, also, for the inspiration to finally bring over my “taboo words” piece from the TNB archive.

    http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/uogbuji/2009/06/tongue-of-warcraft-part-one%E2%80%94taboo-words/

  3. I remember an episode of Scrubs having a reference to “chink in the armor” when an Asian doctor was nearby. It scared me into never using phrases from before the Facebook Age…

    To be honest, though, I’m going to need some serious lessons in social etiquete when I go back to the West. I was always so careful about stuff like that before coming to Korea. But here those rules don’t really exist. People come up to me on the street and pull their eyes back, and ask me why I don’t have eyes like them… Or say “You have big nose.” These alarmingly brazen comments aren’t considered (especially) rude here.

    I wonder how well I’ll cope going to a place where it’s not ok to insult someone because of their race, and where even doing it by accident is a huge faux pas. Dodging these little social nightmares is going to take some effort.

    Example: I had a couple of friends who’d come to Korea and started referring to everything as “gay” or “retarded” whereas they’d never dreamed of saying these things (as adults) in America. When they returned their friends were appalled.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      Ha! David, I believe I was one of the kids who would’ve said, “You have big nose!” In fact, I have a chapter in my novel that is titled, “Person Who Has Large Nose.”

  4. Michelle says:

    Hi Sung

    I’m half Korean, so I get what you’re saying here. I don’t really experience a negative feeling with this expression though; it seems like I don’t see or hear it very often, maybe it is being used less? Boy but does it bring back the memories, that word might as well have been my first name in grades 3 through 6. Sometimes people (ignorant kids) are horrible.

    I had an irritating debate a while back with someone who kept saying “orientals” and I tried to explain the rule- oriental describes a thing/object, Asian describes a person. He refused to even consider for a moment that it is simply courteous and respectful to use the more appropriate term. Well of course, he was trying to be insulting so there you go.

    Oh I’m also a dog person. That’s really weird that someone would come up to you and ask if your dog is a bitch. Like, I don’t think it is very commonly used to refer to a female dog except maybe in mating terms. Ha, yeah, “girl” is just fine.

    lol @ Asian in the armor.

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      Hi Michelle,

      The folks who refer to female dogs as bitches are usually the ones who work with dogs or are breeders. At least that’s been my experience. To them, it’s almost like a professional term!

      Not too long ago, somebody got into a whole heap o’ trouble for saying the word “niggardly.” That word is close to the slur but isn’t exactly the slur. “Chink” is exactly the word, just a different meaning of it. It’s funny, though, that there isn’t such a stigma associated with it as “niggardly”?

      – Sung

  5. Richard Cox says:

    Uche’s similar piece discussed the intent of the word being more powerful, a point with which I mainly agree. For instance, being raised completely oblivious to most racial and cultural distinctions, I nevertheless picked up certain words and phrases that turned out to have negative connotations. Until college I never understood the phrase “jew someone down” with regards to price negotiations was pejorative. My good friend Larry, who was Jewish, pulled me aside one day and kindly explained why I shouldn’t use the phrase anymore. I was mortified that I had never known. Same thing with the term “he gypped me.” Also, Irene mentioned in a comment on Uche’s post about the word “Oriental,” which I also never knew was offensive until I began dating a girl who was half Japanese.

    I would never intentionally use a word that has negative racial or cultural connotations. However, the English language is a minefield of them. Some are more widely understood than others. I suppose we need a special dictionary to know them all. Or at least a sense of humor.

    That being said, I hope you find the following clip amusing. I was appalled at the child’s lack of understanding, but it also made me chuckle, because it demonstrates just how arbitrary and unintentional these these ethnic slurs can be. Is the child’s fault? The parents’? Society’s?

    Game show fail

    • Oh god, I didn’t realise the meaning of the phrase “to gyp someone” until I was about twenty years old, and even though it was never the sort of thing I used (it never sounded right to me) I was embarrassed. It didn’t sound like something I’d say, but it didn’t sound offensive…

      And the Oriental thing. I never knew it was offensive, I just never knew what it meant, exactly. Oriental has been used throughout the years to describe Northern Africa, the Middle East and East Asia.

      Incidentally, it’s a very popular word here. Whenever I see an English translation for “Asia” in Korean, people use “Oriental.”

      • Richard Cox says:

        I feel like such an idiot sometimes, these pejorative terms I don’t know. But then again, in a way isn’t a good thing we didn’t know them?

        • Personally, I prefer to know the stuff I shouldn’t say. At least then I live in fear of my own stupidity, rather than my own stupidity… wait, oh shit.

          Anyway, I’ve pretty much stopped using obscure words and phrases and long words. Working with children and living around people from different cultures and languages means I have to speak slowly, clearly and only use words and phrases found in popular sitcoms, to avoid being misunderstood.

          This means my language is hopefully free of any sneaky Scottish words or phrases that contain messages of which I’m ignorant.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          racial slur database: http://www.rsdb.org/

      • Irene Zion says:

        Okay, this is really embarrassing, but I never realized that “to gyp someone” was pejorative, until it was just pointed out.
        I also never would have realized the “chink in the armor” connotations, until you told me.
        God only knows how many people I’m insulting when I don’t even know it.
        When I grew up, Oriental was not pejorative, or at least we didn’t mean it to be.
        I grew up so long ago, I think I may have mentioned this way long ago in another comment, you were never supposed to say a person was “black.” That was rude. You said “colored,” which was polite.
        I don’t know if the rules keep changing or I was always an idiot.
        (But it’s one of the two.)

        • They should have etiquette guides for white people distributed every year with updated lists of what words can and can’t be said.

          Having said that, people would probably just start inventing new offensive words and the next year there would be something else we couldn’t say…

  6. Marni Grossman says:

    I always have a moment with JAP. Of course, no matter which way you use that, it’s a slur.

    My mother used to tell a funny story about living in St. Louis when she was first married. She worked in a lab at WashU and, at the beginning, she used to hear people saying “Jewish” all the time. She’d begun to get really paranoid when she finally realized that they were referring to a hospital: Barnes-Jewish.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    In reference to the Saltine Crackers: most white Australians wouldn’t even know what it meant. They would honestly think nothing more than the biscuit. Maybe that’s what we need to do – educate a couple of generations out of ethnic slurs so that even if one was to find its way through, I don’t know, a vortex, or something, no one would understand it.

    • Alright, I’m going to go all history-nerd on you guys…

      But only briefly, because I’m drunk.

      The phrase “cracker” (which I find very amusing, unless it’s shouted at me on the street (thanks, San Francisco)) comes from the Scots and Irish immigrants to the United States. There is a phrase (that’s only really used in Irish these days) that goes: “What’s the craic?”

      It’s means: “What’s up?” and “craic” is pronounced “crack.”

      This phrase is old, and stems back to the immigrants that first worked their way across the Atlantic. The people who ended up in the Southern United States kept their old world speech and customs for a long time, and these days you can actually see a great deal of it in what would be now referred to as “redneck culture.”

      The term “cracker” came about to describe white people from that part of the world because of their heritage. It basically means, “loves the craic.” With “craic” alone meaning “fun” or “banter.”

      For more info, see a book called “Cracker Culture.”

    • Irene Zion says:

      Wait.
      I finally get the Saltines’ reference.

  8. Becky says:

    As long as that phrase continues to be useful, I (and everyone) probably won’t stop using it. Not because I’m stubborn but because that’s the way language tends to work. Not just for me, but for everyone.

    I mean, language doesn’t determine thought. That’s the misconception that’s at the heart of a lot of PC rhetoric. That if the word goes away, the sentiment will. Not so. I mean, that goes for both the speaker and the hearer. Generally speaking, if one word becomes disallowed and the sentiment remains (whether it’s a sentiment of giving or taking offense), a new symbol for it will be devised. The sentiment won’t magically disappear just because there is no word for it. That’s not how language functions.

    This, in part, would explain why, no matter how many words we “disallow” from polite discourse, they all continue to be used and why, no matter how many words we disallow from polite discourse, people keep finding new ones at which to take offense.

    Really kind of a fruitless pursuit, in my opinion. As a white person, I am generally not allowed, in academic discourse, to have an opinion on the matter when it comes to racial epithets, but luckily I have a gender card to pull. At the end of the day, a “bitch” is an unaltered female dog. That’s a technical term. It’s no use to take offense when it is used as such. Used metaphorically, that changes, but no matter what word a person chose to express their feelings or assertions that I might be mean or impolite or low class or whatever they’re trying to say, those implications would be signified, and likely cause offense.

    When you make a word taboo, you single it out as uniquely specific and powerful. If you want a word to fall out of use, you want it to be less specific and useful. Not more so.

    • Michelle says:

      I see your point here, about the sentiment behind the word(s). As a kid growing up, even being called Chinese was hurtful (stupidly) because of the black-hearted cruelty behind it and directed at me…

      I still have it ingrained in me though, to acknowledge the basic courtesies of not saying the “general” racial slurs- the N word, etc. Guess I strive for a balance between being polite and respectful, and not being a PC zealot.

      And I have to admit, yesterday at work a guy I was waiting on called me a bitch under his breath as I walked away and it did offend me. Frankly, I really, really wanted to kick his ass.

      • Becky says:

        Well, yeah. And that’s a separate issue entirely.

        There’s “I’m going to avoid X word around so-and-so because I know it will upset him/her,” which is a matter of courtesy and respect (and that goes for any word, or even topic of conversation, for that matter, not just PC agreed-upon no-no words), and then there’s the notion of “We can ‘disallow’ or ‘outlaw’ this word for everybody and/or engineer its eradication as a means to eradicate the sentiment underlying it.

        I mean, in part (theoretically speaking, of course–don’t anyone run with this and go crazy about how I’m equating gay people with racists), “disallowing” language is like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It’s no way to stop a behavior, it just means that people whisper about it rather than shout.

        To me, the whispering is more insidious, in a lot of ways, than talking about it out loud. But again, I am white. I’m really not allowed to opine.

        • Michelle says:

          I don’t think being white disallows you from expressing your opinion; everyone can have a point of view.
          And true, the whispering is definitely more insidious. (hate the dang whispering!)

  9. Anon says:

    “Just say no to clichés.” I quite agree with this statement. I don’t take “ethnic offense” easily – it’s more the pure unimaginative laziness of the epithets that irks me. If you must insult me for nothing more qualitative than my skin tone, stop being so niggardly, buy a damned thesaurus and use a slur that isn’t so white bread! I would rather be insulted cleverly – even if it means keeping a strong finger in the dyke of my temper – than watch someone pussyfoot around, worrying about the slippery slope of political correctness. Now, if you’ll excuse me, commenting before my morning espresso has me feeling a bit queer.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Stop already with the whitewashing. It’s yellow journalism! I’ll get out a red alert and have you blacklisted, if you’re not careful. What a gay old time it would be to light some faggots under you. To make it last longer, I could retard the airflow, which would cripple the flamers.

      • Anon says:

        Don, I’m not even going to try (: – I’m too damned feeble this morning, too damned booked with meetings and too damned impressed (if you didn’t come up with that entirely off the cuff, don’t ever tell me). The field is yours, sir. Bravo.

      • Sung J. Woo says:

        Don, I think you just “offended” six different groups in three lines. That’s pretty impressive. Totally, absolutely awesome!

        • Don Mitchell says:

          The racial/ethnic “color terms” I used are so silly, for all that they’re probably not going away anytime soon. I used to ask my intro students to describe their skin color.

          An arm would go up. “White!”

          I’d hold up a piece of white paper and say, “That’s not white. This is white.” And then we’d go from there, and it was usually productive.

          When I was on Bougainville I was almost always addressed as “whitebody,” or just plain “white,” as if it were my name. Then of course I tanned and was very brown, but everybody continued to address me as White anyway, which isn’t surprising. To them, “white” had a large range of meanings and connotations, only one of which was skin color.

          One time I walked into a village where I wasn’t known, and the kids started yelling, “A brown-skin is coming!” The adults said, “No, it’s a white man.” I loved it.

  10. angela says:

    haha, anon’s comment made me laugh!

    i know intellectually that “chink in the armor” shouldn’t bother me, but i can’t help but wince whenever i see or hear it. back in junior high, i was in some drama group and we were performing shakespeare. the term was used, and knowing the shakespeare was not calling me a deragatory term, i ignored it, but then some girl (who wasn’t asian but white) started laughing in an embarrassed way and looking at me like i should be offended. thanks for reminding me!

    of course words are just words, in and of themselves. we have to remind ourselves of the context. my friend jokingly calling me, “you crazy bitch” is very different than some random guy on the street calling me the same.

    i like the idea of taking back terms once thought derogatory, like the gay community’s use of queer and the feminist magazine “bitch.” “a chink in your armor” would actually be a great name for an AsAm activist blog!

    • Sung J. Woo says:

      Hi Angela,

      I don’t know if I buy the “taking back terms” theory, to tell you the truth. Have any of the derogatory terms become less offensive because the groups have “embraced” them? I would still never call a gay person “queer” or a feminist a “bitch,” no matter how those terms are used by the folks representing them.

      You’re absolutely right — they are all just words. Neither sticks nor stones — but sometimes I think they do more damage…

  11. Joe Daly says:

    Man, I laughed out loud as soon as I read your excerpt. Funny, well-written, and thought-provoking.

    And for the record, anytime anyone uses the word “Paddy Wagon” around me and my Irish ass, I sternly correct them- “Prisoner Detention Vehicle.”

  12. Irene Zion says:

    Hey, thanks, Joe!
    I knew that one!

  13. Zara Potts says:

    I didn’t even occur to me about ‘chink in the armour’ ..thanks for making me think.
    I feel the same way about the word ‘barren’ – even though it isn’t a perjorative term, because I am sensitive to it, it makes me shudder.
    Great piece…

  14. Michelle says:

    Agreed

  15. Kyoufu says:

    Things like this really bug me. I despise PC, as it is so silly that people cannot take words in context.

    Please no longer speak mandarin because “nega” sounds too similar to “nigger”. Please no longer speak french, or at least don’t talk about seals. Please no longer use the word “niggardly” because its a false cognate which might get you fired. (http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=110&dat=19990128&id=IfMoAAAAIBAJ&sjid=zVUDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4892,2238151)

    Please do not make reference to the colors black or white or yellow or brown in any way. We will henceforth pretend they don’t exist, despite the the confusion that may result. All things of this color shall now be referred to as simply “coloured”. Oh wait, that doesn’t work either. Okay, we will say “not uncolored”. As in look at this beautiful not-uncoloured apple. Or this beautiful not-uncoloured banana.
    Or can you please grab that not-uncolored ball? “Which one?” “That one.. no the other not uncolored.. no no, the brighter not uncolored one”.

    Please do not use the expression “To call a spade a spade” either. Instead we will simply call “a thing a thing”.

    I could probably right a book of these simple examples, but I hope my point has been driven home. It’s true that many of these words have been used in a way which gave them negative connotations. Gender and racial connotations are especially tricky because people like to make a big deal about things that are visual. But many everyday words have negative connotations. “Stump”, “Block”, “Doorknob”, “Air”. Everything has connotations, it is CONTEXT we must focus on. At least with these examples the negativity comes from some aspect we consider to be a “bad” aspect, where as the word “chink” used as a racial slur is pretty much the most uncreative and least offensive slur ever, or second perhaps to “Jap”. Chink is a reference to the shape/characteristics of an east asian’s eyes. If you break it down it is in effect the same as, say, “almond-eye”. Now I know people do not like to be defined by a single characteristic, but really? Are these terms themselves so offensive we must reinvent our language? Especially when the words predate the racial epithets?

    If you are honest with yourself, you will answer no. What IS offensive is the context and intention with which a term is and has been used. It is the intent behind the way it is hurled, the derision or hatred the term is used to convey. The term itself is but a tool and if we destroy these tools new ones will be invented or the power of them enhanced. It’s like outlawing knives because people get stabbed – thats well and good, but how am I gonna eat my freaking steak?

    Look at language in the context it was meant, and call a spade a spade. Enjoy.

    Cheers.

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