Big Noses, Blonde Hair, and “You are fatter!”

Did you see the ridiculous headlines this week about the disastrous ad campaign of a Japanese airline? In one of their ads, they had an Asian wearing a fake nose and a blonde wig, which apparently offended some very sensitive people. Here are some of the headlines which came out because of that travesty:

“Japan’s ANA pulls ‘Big Nose’ ad after online furor”

“Japanese Airline ANA apologises for ‘racist’ advert stereotyping”

“Japanese Airline pulls ‘racist’ advert after complaints”

“Japanese airline sparks outrage with ‘ad that is racist against westerners'”

Outrage? Furor? Really?

I remember the summer of 1995. I taught in Vietnam for one year and was returning to Haiphong after a summer holiday in America. I was met at the airport by one of our foreign affairs officials. The first thing out of his mouth when he saw me was, “Mark, you look fatter!”

I immediately accused him of being racist against westerners. I told him that I could not believe that he would pick a physical feature and use it against me in such a stereotypical way. It was as if he was saying that all westerners were fatter than Vietnamese. My 6’3″, 230 lb frame which had enjoyed two months of burgers, ice cream, and baked goods, towered over the 120 lb official. He apologized for his insensitivity, and we had a tense relationship for the next two years.

Except, I didn’t do that. I smiled, laughed, and said, “Your right. I had too much of my mother’s cooking.” We shook hands, laughed and went on our merry way. Believe it or not, he wasn’t being racist. And neither were the airline executives who decided to use the silly noses and wigs in a commercial.

The last time I looked in the mirror, I had a big nose. And you know what, my hair is not black.

When you have lived in Asia as long as I have, you begin to realize that the physical differences that may in fact be real between an average westerner and an average Asian do not actually matter at all! Period. But you shouldn’t be shocked when someone points out that people are actually different.

When I lived in Haiphong, I had the biggest nose in the city. Most likely. I was also the tallest person in the city. Or at least in the top five. I was also one of the heaviest persons in the city. And people weren’t afraid to point it out to me. I was fat – compared to them. I did have a big nose, I was tall. And you know what, no one ever hurt my feelings, even when they told me about how different I looked. I never felt threatened or attacked. I was never looked down upon. I was never picked on for being a westerner, because you know why, the average East or Southeast Asian would never do that. They are too gracious. Too friendly.

Some people in the west have become oversensitive, being offended in places where there is no offense.

We all need to learn to laugh at ourselves a little more. We need to be gracious in cultural misunderstandings. We need to understand that different ways of expressions may indeed mean something completely different across cultures.

It’s sad that too often we look for ways to divide and tear down. Let’s reach across the aisle in understanding. Let’s reach across the ocean in understanding. Let’s not be so serious about everything. Let’s enjoy life, sit down with those who are different from us and make a new friend – whether they have big noses, blonde hair, black hair, big stomachs, or any marvelous shade of skin which makes the world a diverse and wonderful place to live.





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