Offensive Asian term in law targeted
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 25, 2007

Matthew Benson

Valley woman wants statute changed

The "O word."

That's how some Asian Americans refer to "Oriental," which is generally viewed as a term of derision and relic from the days when the Western world viewed Asians with suspicion.

But there it is in state statute - four times.

It won't be that way for long, if Madeline Ong-Sakata can help it. She's helping drive a measure, Senate Bill 1295, to replace each reference in statute to "Oriental" with the more acceptable "Asian."

The measure, a strike-everything amendment, has cleared the Senate and awaits consideration by the House Rules Committee.

For Ong-Sakata, editor and publisher of the Asian Sun-News in Phoenix, the proposal is about more than chasing some outdated terminology from state law. She wants people to understand why it's offensive and sees this latest effort as another counterweight to the negative stereotypes her father overcame six decades ago.

That's when, in 1946, Wing F. Ong of Phoenix became the first Chinese-American in the country elected to the Legislature. An attorney and businessman, he was elected to the state Senate 20 years later.

In those days, in the wake of World War II, discrimination against Asian-Americans was widespread. Ong tried to hide his accent. He never taught his daughter, who was born in Phoenix, their family's native Chinese.

Ong passed away in 1977. But the term "Oriental" lives on in state statute, a vestige of the past.

Ong-Sakata, now 69, decided to seek a change after talking to students with the Asian/Asian Pacific American Students' Coalition at Arizona State University.

"I said, 'How do you like being called Oriental?' " she said. "They just looked at me like, 'What a question!'

"It's really hard for people to understand," Ong-Sakata continued. "It brings up a negative image of Asians. Whenever you say it, you feel this thing inside."

The negative image is especially strong for Asians such as Sophia Swangaroon, who practices therapeutic massage.

"People automatically think of Oriental massage," said the ASU senior, referencing the seedy late-night parlors that have become the stuff of ethnic stereotype.

Swangaroon, who is of Thai and Vietnamese descent, said she'd like to see the O-word pushed from peoples' vocabularies. Removing it from state statute is a start.