Comedian James Roque responds to the exhortations online that we should just lighten up and learn to take a joke over that Christchurch restaurant menu.
Last week I read a tweet about an Asian fusion restaurant in Christchurch named Bamboozle, which had a menu that consisted of offensive made-up food names such as “Ho Lee Kok”, “Eja Ku Rait” and the absolute banger “Chirri Garrick An Prawn Dumpring”. Now, like any millennial worthy of the title, my initial thoughts were “surely this is just a really offensive meme” and “there’s no way this is a real menu”. But, after doing some Googling I was absolutely … bamboozled (sorry) to discover the screenshot I was staring at was the actual menu for a real-life restaurant that existed on planet earth in the year 2018.
So I retweeted the tweet and shared it with a bunch of other Asian friends on Facebook in the hope that a follower who lived locally and had more power to do something about it would see it and take action.
Later in the week I woke up to find that the Herald had picked up the outrage as a story and collected some sweet, sweet clicks from it. And for some reason I thought it would be a great way to start my day by reading the comments.
I could not be more wrong. The comments section was swimming with white people saying that the menu “wasn’t offensive” or that “it was just a joke” or that it was “hilarious”. One even went as far as to say that “they loved it” and that it actually made them want to eat there even more. It was like being in a racist episode of Black Mirror (or in this case, Yellow Mirror. I’m so sorry for this I promise I am a professional comedian.)
Now, before I smash my head into my keyboard out of sheer frustration and exhaustion at having to deal with stuff like this, let’s get one thing clear. This menu is racist. It is. There’s no other way around it. It’s a menu made up of items that are named using generic Asian gibberish that has been used to degrade, discriminate against and dehumanise Asians in western culture since way back – that is literally the dictionary definition of racism. Think it’s just a joke? That’s fine. But it’s a racist joke. A racist joke born out of wilful ignorance with an end goal of having people laugh at Asian people’s inability to pronounce words correctly.
“But racism in New Zealand was supposed to be fixed, James? What gives?” Well, apparently not, as there are fans of a restaurant in Christchurch (come on Christchurch, it’s like you’re just trolling us at this point) who are determined to hold New Zealand back from entering the 21st century.
Which brings me to the thing that makes reading comments about race-related issues feel like grating my face into a white-painted metal fence: white people explaining to people of colour what they should or shouldn’t be offended by.
Now, if you’re a white person reading this, here are two points I’d like to share with you.
First, I understand that you may not be a racist person. I get that you mean it when you say you genuinely don’t have a problem with anyone, no matter what race they are. But know it’s possible to not harbour genuine hate for another ethnicity in your heart, yet still support behaviour that perpetuates that hate. For example, encouraging and supporting this restaurant while they have this menu that openly mocks Asian people.
Secondly, as a result of the first point, it isn’t your job to tell the group of people affected by the behaviour what they should and shouldn’t be offended by. Put simply, if people laugh at Asians for speaking funny, it’s not going to affect your life, so of course it’s much easier for you to dismiss it. No one has ever come up to you and mocked you with Asian gibberish when you weren’t even bothering them, so you don’t know what that feels like, and so of course you’re not going to find it offensive. That doesn’t make you a bad person, that just makes you unaware of the situation. What you do after learning how said actions affect others is a whole other thing.
About five months ago, I remember one particular night where I was subjected to “jokes” similar to this menu (by the way, this happens regularly, but this one in particular really stands out). I had just finished a set at The Classic Comedy Club on Queen Street, and I was on my way out of the bar at the end of the show. I remember my set had gone well that night, so I was riding a bit of a high from it, as most comedians do.
As I was leaving, I was approached by one of the patrons who was in the crowd – a tall, well built white guy in a nice checked shirt, complete with that slicked back haircut that every dude has (you know, the one like Phil from Rugrats). Behind him were about nine or ten of his friends, a mixture of professional looking men and women, mostly white. I recognised him and his friends from the crowd as the table who were overly vocal and disrupted the show, but he looked friendly enough up close so I let my guard down. As he approached me I greeted him with “hey, hope you enjoyed the show” and expected a response to that statement or maybe a thank you, or even complaint.
Instead what I got was a grown adult repeatedly saying “hello” to me in a vague Asian accent, complete with Rs where the Ls should be. He grabbed my hand and shook it and I just stood there frozen, unable to pull away even if I desperately wanted to. The high I was just on was gone, and instead replaced with confusion and embarrassment. He started bowing to me, still saying hello, each “hello” hitting me like a shrink ray, making me smaller and smaller. Eventually I mustered up a fake laugh, a “have a good night” and I moved away from him. I saw him rejoin his friends and as I walked away, heard them burst out laughing. I’m sure the whole thing only really lasted two seconds but it felt like a lifetime. It was degrading. Like we all had somehow time travelled back to high school and the entire school was pointing and laughing at me – not in the way that I wanted them to as a comedian, but instead as a way to tell me I’m different.
I got into my car and messaged one of my best friends, fellow comedian Pax Assadi. He was the first person I thought of reaching out to because the day before he told me how he recently went to McDonald’s in Lincoln Rd and a group of white kids told him to go back to India (he’s not even from India). His text to me said that it was these people’s own insecurities that made them feel like they had to bring others down, but in the moment his effort to cheer me up didn’t really work. I went home, went to bed, and forgot about the whole thing. Until I read about this awful menu.
Since then I’ve asked friends and family about their own stories like this and I’ve been bombarded with examples ranging from people they work with to strangers at music festivals. My own little sister told me about an encounter she had at Bay Dreams in Tauranga.
She was standing next to a Port-a-loo waiting for her boyfriend and minding her own business when a group of white kids came up to her and started whispering “ching chong ching chong” at her.
What did she do, I asked. She just looked away because she didn’t know how to respond, but they kept doing it anyway. When I pressed her to describe how it made her feel in three words, she replied in a way that not only perfectly encapsulates her frustrations with it all but also made me laugh out loud. The message said “fucking shit af”.
Do you want to know the craziest part about both of these stories? My sister and I aren’t even Chinese! We’re Filipino! Do you know how next level ignorant it is to come up to us and mock us with offensive Chinese-sounding gibberish? If you’re going to be racist, at least be accurate with your racism.
Look white people, I get it. You may not find this menu offensive. And that’s fine! You are entitled to your own opinion. But just know that your opinion can be actively supporting something that is genuinely making other people’s lives just that much shittier. It’s a matter of empathy and having the ability to recognise when other people are hurting even if it doesn’t hurt you. Also, I understand you may not have realised how awful it can actually be for Asian people before, but now you have no excuse. You can either be part of the change for good or actively ignore the group of people telling you to please stop doing a certain thing. We’re all tired of it.
Oh, and one last thing. If you’re thinking that this whole thing has been great advertising for Bamboozle, I’ve heard the food is quite average anyway. I reckon you should save your money and go to a good restaurant where they don’t have to make people feel “fucking shit af” to sell their food.
This section is made possible by Simplicity, the online nonprofit Kiwisaver plan that only charges members what it costs, nothing more. Simplicity is New Zealand’s fastest growing KiwiSaver scheme, saving its 10,500 plus investors more than $3.5 million annually. Simplicity donates 15% of management revenue to charity and has no investments in tobacco, nuclear weapons or landmines. It takes two minutes to join.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.