THE BLOG

`Sum Ting Wong'? Yes, There Is

07/22/2013 05:12 pm 17:12:33 | Updated Sep 21, 2013

The names were supposed to be a joke.

Only this joke wasn't funny. It was offensive, insensitive to the victims of Asiana's plane crash, and indicative of a major problem in a government and journalism institution.

The only joke was how it got on the air at KTVU in San Francisco. On July 12, the news station rushed a report on air with what it thought were the names of the four pilots of Asiana flight 214.

KTVU, a local news organization, did not realize until after the segment that it had been punked. It had reported made-up, Asian-sounding names -- broken English exclamations about a crash landing at San Francisco International Airport that killed three and seriously injured many.

"Captain Sum Ting Wong" was one the names. "Wi Tu Lo" was another. Another incorporated an obscenity. To make the hoax even worst, an summer intern at the National Transportation Safety Board erroneously, and without apparent authorization, confirmed the fake names before KTVU's broadcast.

The names were so grossly offensive that it was difficult for me to fathom how they made it on the broadcast. The Asian American Journalists Association condemned the gaffe.

To its credit, KTVU and NTSB understood the gravity of its errors and immediately apologized.

But the apology did not illuminate why so many people found the fake names deeply painful. AAJA received a couple of emails from readers saying we should lighten up. Several reporters who are covering the story reached out to AAJA and asked why those names are so offensive.

It forced me to think through why my immediate gut reaction was a howl of anger. After all, who hasn't laughed about someone's name? Former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner comes to mind. The comedy in the Pink Panther movies is all about Inspector Clouseau's French accent.

What was so egregious about Captain Sum Ting Wong?

For starters, people died. The joke was just insensitive to families who are in mourning and passengers who faced pain, trauma and injuries that may never heal.

Parents and kids now openly speak out against bullying. This joke was the act of a bully. I immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong when I was eight. I grew up hearing people make jokes out of my last name and my accent and speak to me in pretend Chinese. Would you find it funny if someone spoke gibberish and pretended it was the native tongue of your Irish, Polish or Italian great-grandmother?

I viewed myself as an American and I worked as a journalist for some of the most respected newsrooms in this country. Still, these jokes make me question my American-ness.

The unbroken thread in the U.S. history of discrimination against Asian Americans is the presumption that they are not, and don't deserve to be American. The earliest Asian American immigrants, which the U.S. railroad industry needed for labor, were met with resistance and violence. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was enacted to prevent Asian immigrants from entering the country. During World War II, the U.S. government questioned the loyalty of 110,000 Japanese Americans, forced them to abandon their homes and businesses, and incarcerated them in remote internment camps.

A debate about immigration reform is rocking Congress at this moment. International immigration is projected to become the primary driver of U.S. population growth from 2012 to 2060, according to the U.S. Census. Asian Americans are the largest group of immigrants arriving since 2009, Pew Social Trends reported. By 2043, the U.S. census projects that the majority of the U.S. population will be made up of people of color. They won't answer to the names Smith, Johnson or Williams.

It's no joke.

Paul Cheung is national president of the Asian American Journalists Association, a nonprofit that seeks to ensure fair and accurate coverage of Asians and Asian Americans. He is also the Global Interactive Editor at The Associated Press.