Here’s a vexing question: How can we avoid inoffensiveness in this highly charged, politically correct era in which we live? What is it to be “political correct” anyway?As a physician, I personally interact with a wide diversity of people--patients and colleagues alike--in a not-too-serious and frequently humorous manner. I find this is the best way to engage with people no matter what the circumstance may be, whether medical, business or some other professional or nonprofessional capacity. In other words, I try to be myself. Though I try my best not to offend people, I sometimes wonder whether I do this unintentionally at times. Every one of us has a certain strangeness that distinguishes us from our fellow human being. To quarantine this strangeness for fear of “political correctness” only makes us less diversified, robs us of individuality, while creating a sterilized 1984ish nightmare of our own design. As an illustration, let me tell you a story. Warning: To some of you, this strangeness might be offensive, though unintentionally so.
In my senior year of high school, I got a job at JC Penny’s department store. After an interview I was literally hired on the spot to my delight, but one minute later they assigned me to the Men’s Underwear Department. What? I hadn’t known there was an entire department devoted just to men’s underwear. I turned deathly white upon hearing this. I pleaded with management to assign me anywhere else, anywhere but Men’s Underwear. Working in Men’s Underwear would only set me up for a world of hurt, where the jokes would never end, from family and friends alike.
Let me make some clarifications here. My family was really not the lovey-dovey, “hey let’s support one another” type of family. We were not encouraged to share emotions nor were we generous in our praise for one another. On the contrary, we were rather ruthless in making mockery and merriment of each other’s foibles. This was our version of “sharing”. Such were the times, I suppose, but nowadays—and I say this for fear of reprisal from Mom and siblings alike—we are a highly supportive family unit.
Anyway, at that time back in the 1970s, we were far from the more civil and agreeable families portrayed on T.V. shows such as The Brady Bunch. On the contrary, we weren’t much different from All in the Family. For those of you who have absolutely no clue to what I’m talking about, The Brady Bunch was an idyllic, too-good-to-be-true happy family, while All in the Family was a comedy about an argumentative family in perpetual turmoil, where the daughter and her college-educated, unemployed, liberal-minded husband lived with her parents. The girl’s father, Archie Bunker, was a working-class, bigoted and less-educated man who espoused outrageously narrow-minded opinions, often using hilarious malapropisms from the comfort of his reclining chair, brilliantly portrayed by the late Carroll O’Connor. Dad loved Archie Bunker. In essence, Archie Bunker was a white version of my dad. Dad had a dislike for Democrats, liberals, gays, and any racial group not Asian or white and he freely shared this with anyone within ear-shot. Dad loved Archie Bunker since Dad literally agreed with everything Archie Bunker represented. Ironically, I don’t believe Dad realized there was a huge difference between the character and the real man, for Carroll O’Connor was actually far more liberal and educated than Archie Bunker. Yet Dad believed he and Archie were two likeminded peas-in-a-pod—though one was white and the other Chinese. I warned you about the strangeness.
Now it’s apparent there’s bound to be a bit of political incorrectness here. But political incorrectness is merely a by-product of human nature. We were created as flawed, unique and interesting individuals with differences. It’s impossible to see eye-to-eye with every single issue. Being too politically correct can be sterilizing, robbing a person’s identity and a person’s story of much of its character and meaning. I was raised in a family that was not really in-tune with different cultures since both my parents were bred in California, even though their respective families were Chinese (Dad’s side) and Japanese (Mom’s side) but neither parent had a great knowledge of their respective heritages. We were just a regular American family in our eyes—regular though not necessarily normal. As a family, we often made jokes--raunchy and horridly racial--about other minority groups which seemed harmless at the time even though we were also minorities, though we didn’t see ourselves as such. In this respect, you may say we were over-the-top politically incorrect. But the concept of political correctness was completely unfamiliar to us; I’m not certain the term even existed then. We seriously did not appreciate the fact we were minorities too. I suppose making fun of other people—ourselves included—was cathartic; it happened to be a natural occurrence in our household. It hadn’t dawned on me until later in middle school that I was considered a “minority” and I never heard the term “Asian” until I hit high school. We also thought, as a family, we were a funny bunch of people.
Anyway, my pleas to management at J.C. Penny’s went unheard and I returned home to tell my family I got a job. I tried to keep the Men’s Underwear Department subject under wraps, but my prying family wouldn’t relent. Of course, all of this occurs at the dinner table, and once I finally succumbed to the pressure and told them where I worked, the onslaught of jokes and laughter relentlessly poured forth from Dad down to my brother and my two little sisters. Only Mom didn’t chime in with any negative comments. But the rest of my loving family fought amongst themselves for air-time to share their clever jokes at the expense of Randy the Butt of Jokes. Rolling my fork into the uneaten mass of food on my plate, I accepted my martyrdom for the good of the family, keeping them amused and enhancing their lives a bit more. I was just that kind of guy.
After that debacle, I started my job in Men’s Underwear. Surprising, I found myself the only guy working with a bunch of females. As a teenager, I had a terrible shyness with the opposite sex. But as time went on, the girls in Underwear and I talked and joked very casually and my shyness resolved. I actually got along better with those girls than many of my male friends and became more confident relating to women. I also met other females in other departments of different ages, different ethnicities, different backgrounds. And many of us joked freely of our differences. This surprising turn of events expanded my world and my confidence in other matters improved as well. I no longer dreaded working in Men’s Underwear. I proudly declared, “I work in Men’s Underwear!” for I always stressed I was the lone guy working in a population of girls! This did wonders for my ego as other guys responded with looks of awe and envy. Thus the job had perks far greater than the minimum wage it paid.
So what’s the point of this story? Answer: Everything happens for a reason; it’s all in how you look at things, how you shape your attitude, and how you can create something meaningful from your circumstances rather than becoming a victim of them. And in retrospect, my family story is rich and relevant and vibrant and more amusing when I tell it many years later, despite all the political incorrectness it might contain.
©Randall S. Fong, M.D.
©Randall S. Fong, M.D.