Friday, March 16, 2007

Quoi!? (les yeux bridés)

I have really not been motivated to add much to this blog for a while. I have kind of plateaued out with my cultural and language immersion. I'm getting by in French and starting to understand Quebec enough to the point where it seems to be exactly like everywhere else in the world: full of human beings! So I just had nothing really interesting to discuss. On top of that, I find politics, particularly provincial politics, profoundly boring. One of those things I hate talking and thinking about and yet often find myself doing just that and then feeling annoyed. I had sort of thought that provincial politics in Quebec would have a little more depth and substance than the media machines I was used to in B.C. I had hoped that the idea and history of sovereignity and Quebec's culture uniqueness would result in a more informed populace and candidates who would respect that.

Well I was wrong about that. This election is fully up-to-date, with every single move geared towards the party's relation with the media and how the spin will affect their ratings. The current analysis is that it is a three-way race because none of the candidates has come up with the single dominant videobyte that will define them and give them the lead. So that is what they are struggling for, the perfect television moment. One issue that seriously came up earlier in the week was whether or not Boisclair dressed in too fine of a style, alienating the working class base and perhaps reminding them of his homosexuality. Whoo, deep issues!

But I am motivated to post today in reaction to Boisclair's latest gaff, where he referred to students of Asian descent as "les yeux bridés" (the slanted eyes). I'm not kidding. I repeat, I am not joking. And you think that's bad, he said that in french it's okay to use that term. Um, mister havard-intellectual, it's not the person who is saying it who decides if it's okay or not. It's the one labeled who decides. Absolutely shocking. I thought I was dreaming when I heard this on the radio today.

Now Boisclair is a fumbling politician, that's obvious. To even think of saying something like that, even if it isn't offensive in french (that I'll get to later), shows an incredible lack of judgement. Was it a speech? Did nobody vet it? He's done.

But far more disturbing to me is that I think he is not making it up when he says it is okay to say "les yeux bridés" in french. I think that is probably true. I'm going to ask my friends about this one. And maybe there is a linguistic argument for why it doesn't sound as harsh in french as in english. But the fact of it is that you are labelling an ethnic group by a physical stereotype, one that has been used throughout history to caricature and ridicule (and make look evil) asians as a vast group, lumping Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. in one vast group. That kind of language should be recognized as racist and people should be taught that it is offensive at best. That that has not happened in Quebec is extremely disturbing to me.

But it seems clear from Boisclair's reaction, that he expects the Quebec people to agree with him. The language he used was "we Quebeckers see nothing wrong with this language" and said it was a question for linguists, not politicians. In effect, he is belittling the people offended, saying their concerns don't count among "his" people. It could be a really sneaky strategy to try to appeal to the more xenophobic Quebeckers that populist Mario Dumont has been winning over. It could also be another example of Boisclair's misapplied pride (which almost always comes off as arrogance). But I think ultimately, he really believes his response is acceptable and there will be a lot of people in Quebec who will agree with him.

Since the big argument that went on here over Jan Wong's article, I have seen more and more small, but significant, examples of this kind of racism in Quebec, geared especially towards people of asian descent. It's rarely antagonistic, like you see in B.C., but it is alienating and weird. I can't figure out what is the Quebec weirdness with asian people, maybe some distant cultural strain inherited from the french and their colonial history in Southeast Asia? I'm grabbing at straws here, so if someone has some anthropological explanations, I would appreciate it. So I guess what I'm saying is that P.Lee, who seemed so virulent about racism here, may have a point.


Anonymous said...

Wow, wow, on se calme le pompon!

En français, "yeux bridés" n'a aucune, AUCUNE connotation raciste. Tu vois ça avec le point de vue d'un anglophone, mais je t'assure, ça n'a RIEN à voir avec dire "slanted eyes people". Gee, there's even a restaurant in Montreal called "les Bridés" and no one finds it offensive. Ask any French-speaking Asian (like myself), you'll see that no one finds this offensive.

Olman Feelyus said...

Ça c'est exactement ma pointe. Dans la langue française il n'y aurait aucune connotation raciste, mais ça ne veut pas dire que c'est pas néanmoins une terme raciste et offensive. C'est toujours acceptable à référer à une groupe ethnique par leurs characteristiques physiques? Ce serait acceptable d'appeler les Juifs "les nef crochés" ou les Africans "Les peaux noirs"? Il aurait été acceptable si Boisclair a fait référence aux étudiants jaunes?

Aux années 60s aux EU, il y avait des restos s'appallaient "Nigger Charlies" Croyez-vous que les Africains-Americains trouvait ça correct?

Il existe toujours dans la culture Québécoise les idées peut-être héritées de la France Coloniale. C'est ben temps qu'elle s'en débarasse.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting that it is not considered offensive in French. Is this true even for Asians whose eyes in no way could be described as slanted (some Indians or others)? I think of Asians as a pretty diverse group, what with East and West and South Asia, and don't think all their eyes look similar. Do all French speaking Asians identify with the term yeux brides, even if their eyes are much rounder than Boisclair's?

The point I found more offensive in Boisclair's speech was the assumption that those with yeux brides were foreigners. How do Canadians with Asian heritage feel about that? Presumably many in the Harvard class were Americans even if Boisclair thought their eyes looked non-American.

Olman Feelyus said...

Bridé seems to be a word that is only used in the phrase "yeux bridés". The definition in the Larousse is "yeux aux paupières étirées latéralement" which means "eyes whose lids stretch laterally". So it doesn't really mean slanted, more like pulled tight.

Brider, the verb that it comes from means to rein in (for horses), or to restrain the power of an engine, or clothes that fit too tightly.

I would love to see the etymology of the word bridé. I would be very surprised if it didn't come from France's colonial past.

Anonymous said...

Here and elsewhere, French-speaking Asians have made it clear they see nothing offensive in the term. Obviously, it loses something in its literal translation, and no doubt that, as well as translations of surrounding parts of the speech, have led to perhaps an unjustified criticism in English. I still think the implication that one can distinquish a Canadian or American from a foreigner by how they look is a worrisome one. Just look at how Canadians with Japanese heritage (even those born in Canada) were treated compared to those with German heritage (even those born in Germany) during WWII, and one can see what can happen when one jumps to conclusions based on people looking "different". If Boisclair doesn't understand this, he should try to learn about it.

beemused said...

And Olman raised an interesting point in his post:
"it's not the person who is saying it who decides if it's okay or not. It's the one labeled who decides."

So are all franco-asians really ok with being labeled 'les yeux brides'?

As an anglo-asian, I was extremely surprised to learn that the majority of francophones consider this term inoffensive, even harmless. A bit ironic considering that the french are generally so language-sensitve.

Likewise, my francophone coworkers were, in turn, surprised to learn that the english equivalent 'the slanted eyes' was considered derogatory. For francophones, 'les yeux brides' is like calling a person 'black' or 'white', like in english. Or like calling the Irish 'red-haired'. Is there a french term 'les cheveux rouge' for the Irish? I'd like to know.

My theory is that the problem is in the french language itself. In its adherence to traditional form and its stubborn refusal for spontaneity, french lacks the dynamism of the english language and its ability to keep up with the times. I'm sorry, but it does. Just look at the lasting power of L'Academie Francaise.

Here's another example. Why in Montreal is it still so common to say 'les orientales' and 'les asiatiques' to describe persons of east asian descent? I get this all the time. In english, the terms 'oriental' and 'asiatic' are remnants of an euro-colonial past, and are considered long out-of-date (and out of fashion).

So Boisclair was definitely onto something when he said that whether or not this is considered derogatory should be left to the linguists to decide, because I do believe this boils down to a language-cultural issue.

There lies the bigger question of who shapes what? Does language shape how a society regards 'the other'? Or does the evolution of language depend on what is considered acceptable in society?

Can a society be open-minded and contemporary if their language is still steeped in rigidity and old-world views?

Catherine said...

I'm surprised to hear they would still say 'les orientales' in Montreal. In the US, 'oriental' is considered more than old-fashioned, it is considered pejorative. I firmly believe in referring to groups of people by the terms they prefer. For years, gays had to put up with people insisting 'gay' already meant something and it didn't mean homosexual. Finally, such people seem much more than old-fashioned. Personally, I like the term 'Asian' just because it is so ambiguous and means different things in different countries or even to different people. Technically, it could include Australians and Israelis. I figure if one doesn't know enough to say whether the person is from China or Korea or wherever, 'Asian' should be good enough until you find out more. Most of the people referred to this way are Canadians or Americans anyway. That was no doubt the case for Boisclair.

Leaf said...

The slur is far more revealing when you look at it in context. Maybe "slanty eyes" isn't offensive in French, but the comment in the context of Boisclair's strange nativist world view is far more disturbing.

"The reality is these countries are not just working to create jobs in sweatshops. When I was in Boston, where I spent a year, I was surprised to see that on campus about one-third of the students doing their bachelor's degrees had slanting eyes.
"These are not people going to work in sweatshops. They are people who will later become engineers and managers who create richness. There is a ferocious competition happening in the world today. What I would like to do is equip you and equip Quebec to face (the challenge)."

Philippe Laurichesse said...

No one says 'Orientaux' (not 'orientales') in French. 'Oriental' as an adjective in French and simply means 'east' (like 'east coast' for ex). Strange ? This is because English and French are two different languages. That might seem obvious, but English-speakers (like you) obviously do not get it still, cf. your comment quoted above. We say 'Asiatique' in French because it's the equivalent of 'Asian' in English. Your 'gripe' with the use of 'Asiatique' in French comes from a simple ignorance of the French language.

As for 'yeux bridés,' regardless of whether Asian Francophones find it offensive or not, you have to realize, once again, that French and English are two different language with different rules (what a concept !), and French is, on the whole, much less PC than English. Like it or not, that's how it is, and I'm not saying it's "all right" (or not). That said, this discussion would be less futile and more productive if English-speakers with little to no knowledge of French would refrain from offering half-baked opinions like why Asians are "still" called 'Asiatiques' in French. All it does, in the end, is make you sound like an idiot to a French-speaker such as myself.

Philippe Laurichesse

boul3t said...

In France "asiatique" isn't connoted pejoratively, it just means related to Far East. "Oriental" just means related to East. OTOH "un bridé" is a racist expression to call someone of Asian descent.

I wish Anglo-Saxon and French people would be more aware of the hundreds of "faux amis" and seemingly equivalent words in both language. It's especially important for words that have been imported in recent history, where more often than not, words are imported not just to fill a vocabulary gap but to provide a nuance that wasn't available before. "Réaliser" (from English to French) and "déjà vu" (from French to English) are examples of this process. Assuming that the connotation of one word in one language is going to map exactly the same in another language is dumb, duh.

Oh by the way, l'academie francaise is quite a big joke. It pretends to govern language rules and help solve confusion in French language, but all it does is take note of cultural/linguistic changes that it doesn't control. French speakers will continue to make French a living language and Academie will go on pretending they keep it civilized... Is anyone using "courriel" in real life ?

Philippe Laurichesse said...

Yeah. That is what I just said.