Blur's Alex James thinks that Orientalism is 'chicken fried rice' – in a way, he's completely right

By making such an ignorant remark, James has summed up everything that's so infuriating about Western attitudes towards Asia

Sandra Song
Thursday 30 April 2015 14:35
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"When the perception of our heritage, personal experiences and identity is shaped by some band whose knowledge of Asian culture extends to chicken fried rice, it's hard not to feel angry."
"When the perception of our heritage, personal experiences and identity is shaped by some band whose knowledge of Asian culture extends to chicken fried rice, it's hard not to feel angry."

In an interview with The Quietus published this week, the band Blur was asked about an article I had recently written on their latest album's foray into cultural appropriation. The Magic Whip, which was released on Monday is partly “Asian-inspired”, and based on a mish-mash of gimmicky tropes. It smacks of Orientalism. Although Blur don't mind – in fact, certain members seem to embrace it. “What's Orientalism?" the bassist Alex James responded when my argument was put to him. "Chicken fried rice?”

As a Korean-American woman, I’m used to being dismissed by men with similar attitudes towards Asian culture. But to be patronised with something as ignorant as “chicken fried rice” is almost comical in how absurd it is.

Equating the idea of “Orientalism” to something like “chicken fried rice” is precisely where the problem lies: a problem defined by cultural theorist Edward Said as “patronising perceptions and fictional depictions of an imagined ‘East’.” In that sense, James' comment is far more meaningful than he probably intended. "What's Orientalism? Let me unwittingly give you the perfect example," is what he essentially said. Damon Albarn – who says he has read Said – denied the accusation, saying that it was "a load of old bollocks to say this record has element of [Orientalism] in it. It's just about my experience in Hong Kong."

The cover art for Blur's new album The Magic Whip

Like any other minority, Asian people suffer from for lack of representation and visibility in mainstream media. This is an issue aggravated by groups like Blur when they lazily depict what it means to be Asian, and it's incredibly frustrating, as we rarely have a narrative of our own in the West. So when the perception of our heritage, personal experiences and identity is shaped by some British band whose knowledge of Asian culture extends to a vacation in Hong Kong and chicken fried rice, it's hard not to feel angry.

When it comes to damaging stereotypes, I've seen them time and time again here in the West. They allow external assumptions to become the norm. It's what makes people think they can constantly ask questions like “No, but where are you really from?” and call someone like me “Ching-chong slanty eyes”. It's also what encouraged my classmates to make “fry rice special” jokes in front of me, in an attempt to mock an "Asian" accent.

All of this was there to remind me that despite being born and raised in California, with a love of hamburgers, and an English-only vocabulary, I will never truly be American. I've been called “exotic” by men, despite the fact that I live just down the street from them. I've even had my English corrected, despite holding an honors degree from one of the best journalism schools in America. Trumping other people’s expectations of who am I, what I do, and how I should act is a constant and exhausting battle.

Cultural appropriation is reductive and offensive, and Blur's unapologetic ignorance toward the subject is disconcerting. Asians have been underrepresented and denied a voice for far too long. So I’ll be damned if the lasting impact of my heritage comes from a white man like Alex James who thinks that chicken fried rice is representative of Asian culture.

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