The light opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, “the Mikado”, has been making the news since the Seattle Times editorial columnist Sharon Chan had taken the show to task for its comedic portrait of Japanese people. Since then, Dave Ross, the radio show host of KIRO Radio, who also starts in Mikado has interviewed Chan to figure out what the offensive elements are. l think both sides have much to commend them and both sides could also do better in certain areas. For the sake of fairness, I will try to pick on both sides to get to the bottom of what offends.
To Ross’ credit, he has done so much more than evangelical leaders who repeatedly offend Asian-Americans (henceforth AA) in their own public (either through speech or writing) engagements. Ross at least tries to engage the offended to see what the problem is. Thus, I would give Ross credit for not being racist. To Chan’s credit, she is right to speak out from what she perceived to be the sentiments of many AA’s. As she pointed out somewhere in the interview, AA’s have protested in the past, even as far back as the 90s. This was not the first time. Here’re some of the issues I’ve gathered in listening to his response and his interview and in reading some of the defenders of the opera.
1) Ross focuses on the color of the label “yellow face” when Chan clearly tells him that it is not the color of the face but the act of white people portraying Asians (e.g. Halloween Geisha girl etc.). Ross continues his discussion by talking about a black face flash mob in which he participated, dressing up as Michael Jackson. Ross’ framing of the argument centers ONLY on his own obsession about skin color. Yet, I think both Ross and Chan miss the point. The problem though is this. The Michael Jackson flash mob does not offend people because the intent was to honor and not to mock Jackson (or African-American in general). Besides obsessing with skin color, Ross moves on to using examples such as wearing martial arts clothing by westerners in Asian martial arts. I’m unsure whether Ross has any experience with practicing martial arts in a multicultural dojo. I’ve had plenty of experience. The point is, whenever we participate in, let’s say, a Japanese art, we’re learning all we can about the culture in a respectful and non-joking way. WE DON’T MAKE A KARATE LIGHT OPERA TO MAKE FUN OF WESTERN SOCIETY! Ross’ examples just do not parallel the present production of the Mikado. Chan however freely gets led by her nose in this discussion as she puzzles over whether a white man playing a black role is OK or whether wearing karate gi is OK. She’s clearly missing the point. I share Chan’s concern but not her logic because the point is genre and context! Other arguments I’ve seen in favor of keeping the Mikado as it is comes from drawing simplistic parallels with Turandot and Huckleberry Finn or the Catcher on the Rye. The fact is, none of these is a comedy specifically to either make fun of a race or using the mockery of a race against one’s own society, even if racial stereotype exists in all of them.
Both Ross and Chan have not realize is that the problem is not the dress, skin color or white people playing Asians. The problem is the entire means by which the opera communicates mockery. Asians are the comedic means by which Gilbert and Sullivan use to mock their British society. We like to use this saying in our AA circles to those who use us as a joke. We aren’t your punchline. That principle still holds true. It has nothing to do with having thin skin. No people group likes to see the culture which they treasure being used as a means for mocking some other culture. In other words, Ross seems to miss the point that the Mikado mocks the Japanese in order to mock the British society. The means is as important as the end here. For the 21st century audience, the play “as is” is a failure in rhetoric as the means has overrun the message. Perhaps, the Mikado has both artistic and social value, but its offense can overtake its value. In the light of the present situation, I wonder if modern producers can find other ways to produce the Mikado to accomplish the same end as Gilbert and Sullivan intended. Indeed, some are doing just that with the youth version in Seattle. Maybe a needlessly offensive means is not the best or only way to stay true to the intent of its original authors. Maybe there’re some other ways to stay close to the content and intent in a creative way for the 21st century political climate.
2) Ross also brings into the discussion of subjective perception in response to Chan’s sentence about just because the Mikado has been done in a racist way for 100 years, it doesn’t make it not racist. Ross retorted by saying that just because Chan sees it as racist, it doesn’t mean that racism is there, and that Chan doesn’t speak for ALL Asians. This is the classical argument about intent without considering impact perfectly illustrated by the statistical joke of “how many Asians does it have to offend before it’s racist?” or “I’m not racist because some of my friends are Asian.” The problem has never been statistics. Anyone talking in statistical terms doesn’t understand the dynamic of this offense. Ross’ argument is about reducing the AA experience into statistics (more or less Asians offended and more or less Asian friends) in order to allow something to keep going. Ross fails to realize that the problem is not the NUMBER of the offended but the NATURE of the offense. No matter how many are offended or not offended, we ought to look at the content at its very essence and see if the essential offense violates the very principles that bind us as Americans. In order to understand the HOW, he has to, first of all, abandon “HOW MUCH” to get down to the narrative level of the AA’s. At the narrative level, he will be able to see if the offense is legitimate or otherwise. People aren’t numbers. People are storytellers. Some of our narratives intersect with some of the offensive elements not just in the Mikado but in other cultural heritage.
What kind of narratives do AA’s have? I can’t speak for all AA’s. I can only share my narrative. My narrative is typical of many 1.5 generation AA’s (those born overseas, immigrated and become bicultural/bilingual). I came here at 10 years old with hardly any English. Being the only Asian in my school didn’t help. Kids would make fun of me and my gym teacher would call me Hop Sing (surely, he wasn’t racist. He was just having fun, and he was very nice to me.) after the servile character in the western TV show Bonanza. That’s almost as bad Pastor Mark Driscoll calling Pastor Francis Chan the “international man of Fu Manchu mystery” in his interview. In no time flat, I was able to speak fluent English because, as you know, English is cakewalk compared to Chinese. Once I started speaking like a native speaker, I experienced a different set of problems. Kids would ask me, “How do you speak such good English?” (My sons also experience this as native speakers born in the English-speaking world) I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t ask me that if I were European descent. When I couldn’t speak English, they made fun of me because I sounded funny. When I began speaking English too well, they asked me how I did it because I looked funny. My own narrative of sounding and looking funny contains just about all that is offensive in Ross’ framing of the Mikado. I was the punchline. The means has overtaken the message until all I receive is the means.
How does all the above discussion relate to the Bible? I write all this to point to the important biblical truth of using the right means for the right message. The Bible does talk about using the right means. Ross’ controversy with the Mikado acts as a parable to how one kind of text impacts its listeners in real time.
This instance in the Mikado reminds us that we live in a time where certain traditional assumptions are no longer held to true. The cultural paradigm is shifting. I think it is important for Christians to understand the cultural paradigm shift especially in regard to how we deal with the issue of race and diversity. The church has been notoriously divisive when it comes to race. Such conversation about the Mikado informs us that when we speak in public, we have to reexamine the paradigm by which we view “the other” or society in general. Quite often, whatever we consider unoffensive and “biblical” is neither.
At the end, Ross has proven himself not to be racist, but at the same time, has viewed the situation through racist cultural lenses. His miscalculated contextualization of the opera does not bode well for him. If Christians fail to see things through the lenses of others, they will surely meet the same rejection. The means can often speak louder than the medium. I hope no one who speaks about the gospel will ever forget the Mikado.