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Bushido at the Bar

By Noah Oppenheim

It's been a rough two weeks for the Asian-American community. For one thing, they've found themselves locked in a mortal struggle with a cartoon character. Then, last Tuesday, a group of Asian-law students were forced to wait for a table at Temple Bar. Now they're fighting mad and there's talk of a boycott. It looks like the bushido spirit is alive and well.

(Bushido refers to the Japanese warrior ethic. Based on the recent public debate surrounding the portrayal of minorities in the media, it is not clear whether the use of the word is appropriate. Not all Asian-Americans are of Japanese descent. My use of the word in this context fails to appreciate the beautiful rainbow of ethnic diversity that exists under the Asian umbrella. On the other hand, bushido does invoke images of strength and combat, not math or science. Think samurai, not hairless. So, the Asian American Association (AAA) might actually be grateful.)

Enough has already been said on the topic of the now notorious Mister Chu. The comic strip's readership has spiked from five people (the artists, their mothers and the AAA censor) to approximately 12 people, according to a recent Crimson poll. And, apparently a compromise has been negotiated wherein Mister Chu will morph into a WASP. Thank God for WASPs. In this age of political correctness, where would the art of ethnic lampooning be without them?

As for the Temple Bar incident, this little brouhaha has slightly more serious implications. After all, when angry law students start throwing around the terms "discrimination" and "boycott" they must appreciate that someone's livelihood is at stake. First--because the details are pretty damn funny--some background:

At around 9 p.m on Tuesday, April 11, 15 members of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association (APALSA) gathered at Temple Bar to celebrate the election of their executive board. They subsequently suffered two horrific indignities. First, because the restaurant was still in the midst of its dinner rush and the hostess did not understand that APALSA group intended to order food, they were forced to wait 25 minutes to get a table. Second--and this was the straw that broke the camel's back--the group was asked to present I.D. at the door.

Based on this criteria, I'd like to report that every bar in the Harvard Square area is rather unfriendly to Jews, and Bertucci's, where I've occasionally had to wait close to an hour, must be a bastion of anti-Semitism. Where is the Anti-Defamation League when you need them?

After APALSA's own encounter with naked racial bigotry, the group's newly elected co-chair Shan M. Chang distributed an e-mail describing Temple Bar's disgraceful behavior. On behalf of her fellow victims she invited recipients of the e-mail to "join us in disavowing any patronage of an institution that treats a large group of Asian Pacific Americans with suspicion and distrust."

Temple Bar should take some solace in the fact that it is not the first area restaurant to be the target of reckless discrimination accusations. Several years ago the African-American community orchestrated a boycott of Grendel's Den after a waiter allegedly mistreated a black patron. The reality was that the patron was the victim of poor service, not racism, but this didn't discourage Harvard's ethnic organizations from rallying the troops and trying to put the place out of business.

The good news is that after the initial outcry, there is some evidence to suggest the Temple Bar conflict will soon peter out. At an APALSA meeting Wednesday night that left the organization's position unclear, it seemed as if cooler heads might prevail. Still, some marginal damage has been done to the Temple Bar's reputation and that is unfortunate.

In the meantime, concerned observers are left to wonder, "What lies behind the itchy trigger finger of groups like APALSA? Why are Harvard students apparently so quick to cry racism?" The obvious answer is that they have been trained to see too much of the world in terms of race. Episodes such as this most recent near-boycott are the direct outgrowth of that mindset which contends that ethnic studies is an academic discipline on par with History. They are the direct outgrowth of that mindset which obsessively counts the number of women and minorities on Faculty. And, they are the direct outgrowth of that mindset, which against all objective standards of quality, insists that Diversity and Distinction is a worthwhile read.

At some point the outraged members of APALSA will come to realize that thankfully, for most of the world, their racial identity is not their defining characteristic. If Temple Bar did mistreat them last week it was probably not because they were Asian. More likely, the hostess saw a group of pompous Harvard Law students and decided, perhaps with a touch of malice, to keep them waiting. Who can blame her?

Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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