Image: Spanish basketball controversy
Susana Vera  /  Reuters file
Despite it being an unfamiliar gesture in China, most natives understand why Spain's basketball promotional photo would offend people of Chinese descent, writes MSNBC contributor Sunny Wu.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/14/2008 6:12:53 AM ET 2008-08-14T10:12:53
THE OLYMPICS BUZZ

This is an ongoing series of Olympics cultural reports Sunny Wu is filing from Beijing. Check back twice a day for 'The Buzz' and 'Nightlife.'

Pau Gasol has apologized, saying the Spanish basketball team never meant to offend anyone. Point guard Jose Manuel Calderon wrote on his blog that the gesture, fingers pressed against their eyes, was meant as an "affectionate" message for the Chinese people. Spain's coach, Aito Garcia, who has refused to address the controversy, snapped at a reporter after the team's 72-59 victory over Germany on Thursday.

Spain has had to deal with the fallout from their role in a newspaper advertisement for a Spanish courier company. In the ad, the players are using their fingers to make their eyes more slanted, more Chinese. For many Asian Americans it's an offensive, racist gesture, something borne out of playground bullying and harassment.

“It is unfortunate that this type of imagery would rear it’s head at a time that is supposed to be about world unity,” George Wu, the deputy director of OCA, an organization representing Asian-Pacific Americans, told the Associated Press.

The international media has also criticized Spain, suggesting that the photo flap could affect Madrid's bid for the 2016 Olympics.

But what do the Chinese think? Were they offended by the gesture? Did the even know what it meant?

With the help of Yi Song, an NBC interpreter from Shanghai, I showed the photo to Chinese spectators who were walking around the Olympic Green. None had heard the news or seen the photo because the state media here have not reported on the controversy.

We showed the photo to people, asking for their initial reactions.

"They're thinking," said 21-year-old Xu Xiao Su.

"They're just happy, smiling and pointing to their eyes," said Xu Ke, 42. "Or maybe they're sending a message to the Chinese team because they will be competing against them."

"They must be saying the Chinese people are really thoughtful because they're pointing to their minds," said Ma Yan Xin, 19.

"Perhaps they're mimicking someone. Maybe it's supposed to be a funny thing." said Lui Han, 23, who was studying the picture with her boyfriend.

Out of 14 people — the youngest was Ma, the oldest was a 60-year-old college professor — we asked, only one person correctly understood that the Spanish team was pulling their eyes back to look Chinese.

Most Chinese people have never seen the gesture. For many Asian Americans it's an all-too-familiar source of torment.

When told what the Spanish team was doing, there was a mixed reaction. Some were offended, some were not. Most, however, could understand why the gesture would be offensive, especially to people of Chinese descent living abroad.

"I don't think it's funny," Han said. "They're making fun of the Asian face. I don't think it's appropriate."

"For the people who grow up in foreign counties, there might be a problem and it could be very insulting," Ke said.

But Ke added that she personally wasn't offended by the photo.

"It's not a big deal to me. It doesn't matter to me," she said.

One 29-year-old man, Xie Xiang Dung, echoed Ke's remarks.

"This kind of insult doesn't exist in mainland China. It's not a problem here," he said. "But if it's problem [in the U.S.] it's reasonable to have an apology for [Chinese Americans]."

His friend, however, had a different take. She was amused — even flattered — by the photo.

"They're all very big guys doing something silly and making a fool of themselves. They're trying to connect with the Chinese people" Li Xiu Xia said. "Slanted eyes are considered very beautiful in China. So I think it's a compliment, not an insult."

For one final perspective, we approached a family from Albuquerque, N.M., and asked what they thought of the photo. It was the first time they had seen it.

"It's not nice to put something like that in a newspaper or a magazine. It's disrespectful," said George Cook, who initially thought the players were pointing to their brains, not their eyes. Cook was attending the Games with his wife and five children.

Was he personally offended or upset?

"Actually, I think it's kind of funny."

Sunny Wu will be writing for msnbc.com throughout the Beijing Olympics. He can be reached at sunny.k.wu@gmail.com. You can follow more of his exploits at http://meiguoren.wordpress.com/.

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