Abercrombie & Fitch got into trouble in 2002 with a line of t-shirts featuring various Asian caricatures. The company claimed it was just having fun, and that it was well-known for being equal opportunity when it came to insulting various ethnic groups. Uh-huh.
Abercrombie & Fitch didn’t get it in 2002, and apparently neither did the teachers at Force Elementary School 8 years later. A Denver Post photograph of 6 February, 2010, shows Force Elementary School kindergarteners learning all about the Lunar New Year: the kids, all looking very cute, are wearing vaguely Chinese-looking costumes and straw “coolie” hats. Can’t blame the kids — after all, they are only 5 years old … but the school claims to be a “safe, trusting, culturally sensitive community where you, the students, parents, and staff take ownership and accept responsibility for the students’ learning and behavior through valuable, active, inquiry-based activities.” Uh-huh.
Who are these teachers? Perhaps it is harmless — except the word “coolie,” so casually used for Chinese laborers, so casually used as an epithet, now so casually used for a hat, comes from the Mandarin ku li, which translates literally to mean bitter/hard/cruel labor.
When Denver Public School offered fried chicken, collard greens, and peach crisp in honor of Martin Luther King Day, people protested, and DPS apologized immediately for its “insensitivity.” No such awareness applies for the Chinese, because they learned a long time ago to meet life with quiet stoicism. In silence, they “eat bitterness,” they chi ku (yes, the same ku as in ku li). And as my mother likes to remind me, ku never ends.