Are Asians in Iceland offended by Pétur Jóhann’s newest caricature? Not many, or at least not many are willing to admit to it. Nobody wants to run the risk of sounding like an onion-skinned Asian migrant with a pitchfork in hand ready to throw at the first person making an imagined racial slur. It is a hot debate in Icelandic Facebook circles and I would have just dismissed it had I not listened to an Icelandic radio show discussing the topic.
Then my heart fell.
Pétur Jóhann is considered a top comedian in Iceland. He has come up with several interesting caricatures on Icelandic T.V. and is generally well-loved. Recently, however, he debuted an ‘Asian’ character, Tong Monitor. A white man dressed in loud pastels with taped up eyes to simulate an Asian person. This caricature also speaks English with an Asian accent. Pétur Jóhann clarified that this was a reference to a game show scene in the American movie Lost In Translation.
What got my goat was this: on the radio show no one, not one person, understood WHY it could be offensive. In fact, complaints about the character were dismissed as those made by overly sensitive, obnoxiously politically correct and generally humorless people. Everyone found it absolutely hilarious.
All my life I have never subscribed to political correctness and because of constant travel, now immune to startlingly different reactions to what I would consider as normal. Before reacting to an “offensive” retort or action, I always ask myself if this is so because of the other person’s background, culture or education. This is why I was a little bit taken aback that Icelandic listeners of the radio show could not (for the life of me) see a corn of truth in all the hullabaloo.
I remember writing about not having experienced any form of racism from an Icelander in Iceland. Still true. In fact, many Icelanders bend over backwards to make you comfortable in their country. However, I do remember taking a short walk and passing by another foreigner clipping hedges and him looking me in the eye and saying “Ching Chong Long Bong....” I remember feeling sad and offended because I do speak a little Mandarin and love how lyrical it sounds. He was debasing the language. In fact, Ching Chong is a pejorative. A slur that started in gold rush Australia and eventually evolved into a hurtful rhyme:
Ching Chong, Chinaman. Sitting on a wall. Along came a white man, and chopped his tail off.
We might say that Pétur Jóhann was not doing a Ching Chong. However, are taped up eyelids of a white man speaking in his idea of Chinese English necessary to the message of the advertisement? Did we ask ourselves why we thought this funny? Was it because of Tong Monitor’s accent? Was it the way he dressed? Was humor used to desecrate people on who they are?
A couple of Asians I had spoken to admitted to a niggling anxiety on learning that a so-called Asian accent was funny to Icelanders. Foreigners living and working in Iceland are under tremendous pressure to learn the language. Job promotions, university admission and even just getting a job hinges on a foreigner learning the language. So, if Tong Monitor’s accent was funny, are Icelandic co-workers secretly laughing behind our backs?
Another thing, children are quick to pick up on what is shown on T.V. Will Tong Monitor be another weapon in the bullying arsenal directed at half-Asian, half-Icelandic children? Even now these children, though Icelandic by birth, will always be referred to as a foreigner for the rest of their lives.
Tong Monitor’s humor is funny because of the way he sounds, the way he looks, a collective assumption of how a group of people are perceived to be. It may not be racist, but it can be construed as prejudiced.
Prejudices matter to foreigners living in Iceland because the community is still small compared to the general population. Any one prejudice showing up in mainstream media is magnified tenfold.
No one is asking Icelanders to tiptoe or edit their sentences around an útlendingar (foreigner). Many of us did dismiss Tong Monitor as another character in Pétur Jóhann’s gag bag. Just please understand why it could be wrong.
Marvi Ablaza Gil – firstname.lastname@example.org
Marvi Ablaza Gil moved to Iceland in 2008. She works as a nurse at the Acute Psychiatry Unit of the Landspítali National University Hospital in Reykjavík. Back in the Philippines, Marvi worked as a feature writer (lifestyle and travel), editor for a broadsheet and operations director of a travel and tourism publication.