Asian jokes, jokes about Asians, Asian English, eng-rish, prank calls on Asians, taking a piss at Asian English
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“Is war perhaps nothing else but a need to face death, to conquer and master it, to come out of it alive -- a peculiar form of denial of our mortality?”

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross


Myths about Asian pronunciation inabilities

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Asian Jokes: Jokes about Asians and Jokes on Asians

laughing about each other is great, but when does making fun of Asians cross the line?
© Zak Keith, 2009

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Try this on arrogant Swedes

If you want to have some fun with the average Swede's inability to distinguish sounds or pronounce English words properly, just make them read this:

Charismatic Charles shared his chair with shy Shane, who was ashamed of his chocolate stain on his yellow jacket and jumper. He made a joke about the spilled yoke and yucky juice on the gentle Yentl''s jumbo tie, and asked local yokel Will de Ville if there was any more wine from the vine for this very wonderful winter vacation.

Some people have the crazy notion that East Asians have a built-in genetic inability to pronounce R sounds. Yet others authoritatively and fallaciously declare that there are no L sounds in Japanese—take for example the Facebook application for the "japanezation" of one's name, which phoneticizes "Lucy" to become "Rucy."

For the record, both R and L sounds exist in pretty much all Asian languages, but they are often interchangeable, and East-Asians tend to mix them up in just the same way that Swedes cannot differentiate between Jello and Yellow, Chair and Share, Sip and Zip, and Wine and Vine.

Myths and misconceptions are part of human nature, a fact of life. But what had me piqued lately, was seeing how people I personally knew could find it in themselves to make fun of those with poor English skills. They would get their rocks off listening to mp3 snippets of prank calls made by comedians like Howard Stern, who baited an Asian woman to talk about "clocks" when they knew she would say "cocks" due to her poor English. (download/listen to "Howard Stern: Sal calls an Asian lady clock shop owner)In another instance, an Accenture colleague played back a prank-call recording for me, expecting me to join in with her laughter as we listened to a prankster who had put on an atrocious generic Asian accent while pretending to order some Thai food by phone. The prankster had taken a piss at several East-Asian stereotypes and thrown in for good measure, a paraphrase of the infamous line by the Vietnamese hooker in Full Metal Jacket: "Me so 'hongry!' Me so hooooongry!" (original: "Me so horny!") (download/listen to Thai restaurant prank call)

Asian difficulties with English pronunciation

All non-English speakers bring their own weak areas with them when acquiring English, and there will always be good "excuses" for why they might speak English poorly, in the particular way that they do. They are simply relating English to their own phonetic rules, grammar, etc. Here are some brief explanations reasons for the Asian R/L mix up:

  • Chinese words are mono-syllabic, and in their most complex state consist of consonant-vowel-consonant combinations, like fahn, ping, etc. It doesn't mean that Chinese pronunciation is simple (they have very advanced opening consonant sounds as well as tonal "melodies"), but just about anything outside of this format can be particularly challenging for native Chinese speakers. Words containing double consonants, with one of the being an R or L, like "clock," are very difficult for them.
  • Japanese R sounds are meant to sound a bit L-ish and sometimes roll with a slightly D-ish sound.

When it comes to Thai-style English however, there are far more complex reasons:

  • Whenever Thais see an R in Thai script (sanskrit), they are generally expected to convert them into L sounds. When a word ends with an L, they are expected to convert it to an N sound. The S sound at the end of words are never meant to be heard, but cut off and replaced with an almost-silent T-ish sound. There are no proper D sounds as in English, but nuances of D's bordering on becoming T sounds. D's at the end of words are almost silent. Thus, "Seafood Fried Rice" may be pronounced "sea-foot fly lite."

For years, chain-mail forwards about Asians making "fools" of themselves while writing or speaking "Eng-rish" have made their rounds on the Internet. They are indeed funny—from an Anglocentric viewpoint. I'll be perfectly honest that even I—a skin-deep Asian who has borne the brunt of such ill-witted and misappropriated humor—do have a good laugh checking out the site from time to time. Then again, I'm the non-discriminatory equal-opportunity type who finds it hilarious that some Swedish words can have entirely different implications in English. Take the word slut (pronounced "sloot," meaning "end") for example—did you know that every train in Sweden goes to a "slut station?" (terminal) Or take another favorite of mine, infart (meaning on-ramp, "way in" or entrance). Get the idea?

Some of my favorite comedians like Maz Jobrani and Jeff Dunham have entire sketches created around racial stereotypes, including the Chinese. And I love Rusell Peters' impression of a Hong Kong shopkeeper. So, I had to ask myself, if it's okay to laugh about Swedes, Iranians, Arabs, Chinese and what-have-you, what was it exactly that was so upsetting to me about the Asian joke clips?

Well it certainly wasn't because of any Asian self-image of mine, or offense towards any non-existent Asian sensibilities. I just happen to look like I do due to genetic factors, but was born in England, English is my mother tongue and for all intents and purposes, I do not identify with being Asian. While I understand that others see me as Asian, I don't see myself as "Asian." Call it dissonance if you want, but I'm color-blind enough to myself that I don't get a shock at seeing a Chinaman staring back at me when looking in the mirror. So for me it's really not a question of having an "Asian perspective." And even if the Asian shoe did fit—which it doesn't—I know we all have different perspectives and I'm all for laughing at each other, especially at ourselves.

So what, then, was my problem?

Although I'd never grown up thinking of myself as "Asian," if there was any Asian perspective to be had, it was certainly imposed on me. I've become increasingly aware of the caricatured way in which I am perceived, and the license in the general population to freely affront Asians without even a second thought.

Laughter is good for the soul, but...

Trust me to pick apart humor, but I had to have a closer look at my gut reactions, at what laughter is exactly, and get to the bottom of what was really bothering me about people laughing at Asians. The answers came easily enough:

What concerns me, because of what I have faced in my life due to how people see me, is the subtle-yet-real social marginalization, the various misunderstandings that can result from ignorance and racial stereotyping—all of which are reinforced by the callous application of racial "humor." Jokes along these lines perpetuate myths which in turn perpetuate ignorance, and boldfaced ignorance crosses over to become the foundation of xenophobia, intolerance and racism. I've seen it firsthand.

It's not technically racial jokes themselves. What really bothers me is the shameless application of such racial jokes—the context of their unabashed usage. It's the social license to freely affront Asians and treat them as inherently foreign and inassimilable aliens with lesser rights which bothers me.

There are probably a few good questions "we" Westerners could afford to ask ourselves in regard to the jokes we crack so freely about Asians in general:

  1. Why are Asians in particular targeted for cheap-shot humor when almost any non-native-English speaker has problem areas and could be prime candidates—take for example the French mix up of bitch and beach?
  2. Is the popularity of Asian-mispronunciation jokes symptomatic of the collective idea that Asians are sojourners in the West who cannot properly integrate and will never qualify as genuine citizens?
  3. Does such humor only work because of the (subconscious?) assumption that decent levels of English simply cannot be attained by pretenders, usurpers and supplanters, a.k.a. non-citizens a.k.a. Asians?
  4. Do we laugh so easily at, and not with, Asians because of an invisible social contract which declares that they have lesser rights and should not have the audacity to be offended?

Being on the butt end of racial jokes, I'd submit any day that the answers to questions 2, 3 and 4 are: yes, yes and double-YES!

The unwritten social contract

In my experience, there is most definitely some kind of unwritten social contract at play—why else would people think it's okay to make fun of Asians and openly denigrate them in ways they would never dare try on Blacks or Hispanics? Case in point: Miley Cyrus and her pals. (see Miley Cyrus' slant-eye pose slammed by Asian group and OCA's criticism of Miley Cyrus' slant-eye pose)

Miley Cyrus and friends make Asian squinty eyes
Disney girl Miley Cyrus (third from left) and her pals make squinty "Asian chink eyes" for the camera. Would it be acceptable if everyone had pulled out their lower lip to make "fat-lip nigger" faces and highlight a lone African-American in their midst?

Fools like Miley and gang can make all the excuses in the world for their squinty-eye faces being "goofy" and not racist, but looking at the context of the joke, it's clearly racially-motivated humor. And it's not funny when you're on the receiving end of such taunts.

I once very nearly bashed someone's head in, literally, with the heavy guitar amplifier in my hand, for spontaneously making slant eyes and laughing out loud at me upon seeing me. My reaction had been instant and instinctive, and thankfully someone standing close knew what was about to happen and pulled me away just in time. The unabashed mocker was a total stranger I'd never before met, who'd assumed like so many others, that I would be okay with such blatant disrespect. He was genuinely surprised at my reaction—not ooops-surprised, but what-is-your-f**king-problem-surpised. He was shocked at my audacity to even be upset at all.

Time and again, I've had total strangers cry "Heeeyah! Bruce Lee!" on seeing me. I've had the most patronizing remarks thrown my way. And even when I calmly tell the perpetrators why I find it offensive, they tend to get upset that I had the audacity to be offended at all. One thing has become really clear to me from numerous confrontations: ignorant as they are, these social buffoons genuinely expected me to be docile and longsuffering about it all, because of some idea that Asians are all subservient and disempowered, and obliged to accept taunting. While it is no longer politically correct to call an African-American "Boy!" it is still acceptable in the minds of many to treat Asians with colonial-era arrogance. Asians are openly "othered"—highlighted as being outsiders, just like with the Miley Cyrus joke.



PART II: a deeper look at anti-Asian jokes

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A rational look at jokes

One could easily come up with dime-a-dozen arguments why laughing at any ethnicity is tasteless and unacceptable, but I'll be the first to admit that humor is subjective: there is no deciding what is funny—what gets one person rolling on the floor laughing will offend another. We can't really have Joke Police going around deciding who may laugh at whom or what. Jokes and stereotypes go hand-in-hand, and jokes cannot always be politically correct. If the joke happens to be about someone, anyone, that fictitious "someone" is usually a stereotype that is being laughed at. Thus blonde jokes abound. As do drummer jokes, Irish jokes, three-men-in-a-bar jokes, a-Catholic-Protestant-and-a-Jew jokes, French surrender/coward jokes, Greek anal jokes, etc. and alas, Chinese squint-eye jokes and stupid-Asian-who-can't-even-speak-English jokes.

Our society has Holocaust jokes, Princess Diana jokes and Jesus jokes, and yet, when it came to Muhammad jokes, there was an uproar among Muslims worldwide, and calls for fatwah. It's not that Muslims have no sense of humor or that they have some culturally-dictated inability to laugh at themselves. There were very good reasons for their indignation—if only people cared to look. While I don't believe their rabid calls for death were justified, it was only natural they would be upset. (see Muhammad cartoons controversy)Some have actually occasioned the argument that there is something very wrong with Islam in general, if you can get killed for something you say against religion. I guess they haven't heard about Northern Ireland, or India, or Myanmar (Burma), or about the historical persecution of non-Christians by Christians, etc. If we are honest with ourselves, every single collection of people in the world has its own anathemas. What we understand to be civilized humanity is fragile as can be, and just about anyone will break down and de-civilize/de-humanize when pressed ever so slightly. (see The Milgram Experiment)

Since we can't regulate humor and aren't supposed to even try, some have argued that there is little point in caring about which jokes are offensive to whom. We certainly cannot please everybody all of the time, and all jokes are guaranteed to offend at least somebody somewhere. Still, one would have to be very socially-ungifted not to realize there is such a thing as an inappropriate joke. The socially-astute thing would be to care, at least some of the time, about what is appropriate and when. As any good comedian will tell you, it's not the joke itself, but it's delivery—it's all about timing and audience. A joke is only funny in the right context—right audience, right time and right place. Even good comedians know there are limits to how far to carry a joke, when the proverbial line is crossed, and when the joke just turns into something of bad taste.

If all comedians and audiences are different and there's a million ways to tell the same joke, it renders impossible, the establishment of benchmarks for determining which jokes are "good" or "bad." We are all too often left to the sole discretion and mercy of the jokesters themselves to decide what is "correct," when, where and for whom. Benchmarks aside however, there are ways to shed light on what is appropriate, or not, why, and for whom, by looking at our own sense of humor, the mechanics of laughter—what humor is exactly, what makes us tick and what we're really laughing at when we laugh.

If you're up for a psycho-analysis of laughter and humor, click to expand the box below! If not, the gist of it is: for humor to work, there has to be a play on a palpable absurdity, there has to be relief at the passing of danger.




What is "funny" and why we laugh

There are several accepted theories about why we laugh,[2-3] but all laughter in general, can be boiled down to a single cognate: relief at the passing of danger.[1] Our sense of humor is developed from infanthood and refined alongside the development of our intellect and culture.[4] At the heart of it, what we find "funny," is the relief that is felt when the threat of harm is proven false, when danger is rendered obscure. For there to be humor, there has to be detachment which enables a comparison between the present reality and a palpable absurdity. The more emotional attachment we feel to the object of humor, the less likely we will laugh at it. And we can only perceive something to be absurd if we have a concept of what is normal. This is roughly how our funny bone works:

  • Fight-or-flight (instinct) humor
    Example: You're a baby and surprises tend to startle and make you cry. Your parents go "peek-a-boo" at you and you laugh because their surprise at seeing you is only mock-serious, and you're not really startled or scared at all. You get high on the adrenaline rush. Peek-a-boo games are in effect basic training for reality vs. pretend.
  • Slapstick (physical) humor
    Example: You are four years old, your daddy plays Frankenstein and bonks you on the head. You laugh yourself silly because there is no real danger, even though he's acting like a monster who wants to hurt you.
  • Pariah (social) humor
    Example: Your mother hates when you fart and always tells you it's rude, but you goof around with your pals farting out loud for each other. You find it funny because nobody is really getting hurt, you don't really have to be embarrassed, and your mother isn't around to get mad at you.
  • Intellectual humor
    Example: Someone plays with words. You imagine the absurdity of the scenario that would be if the words were twisted to mean something else other than the more acceptable reality before you.
  • Self-assurance (ego) humor
    You laugh at someone who is stupid because of the absurd and painful situations they put themselves in. For it to be funny, you would have to see yourself there in his/her shoes. It is a relief because you aren't that stupid, it isn't you, and there is no danger of your harming yourself. People with deep-seated insecurities sometimes have a need to laugh at others and put them down in order to feel good about themselves.

We laugh to grease the social wheel. We laugh at the laughter of others. Studies show that we laugh 30 times more in the presence of others than when alone.[5] We also laugh more in the presence of important people to gain their approval, whereas dominant personalities laugh less to show they do not need approval. We laugh to lessen tension. We laugh to process collective grief. When it comes down to it, socially and psychologically speaking, we laugh to strengthen social bonds and celebrate the safety we feel in belonging to a group. So in a sense, social-based laughter is a phenomenon related to relief at the passing of danger—the danger of being outside the group.

Even when we appear to be laughing out of "genuine joy" at the cuteness of a baby, or at a playing kitten, it is because their behavior appeals to our lost sense of innocence. Their manner is so refreshing and disarming, that we find ourselves laughing out loud. While we are able to appreciate cuteness from an early age, we do not normally laugh at cuteness unless we are adults marveling at the innocence we no longer feel. This is still a form of relief from the not-so-pleasant realities of life and related to relief at the passing of danger.

Laughing at Asians vs. laughing with them

At the end of the day, when we're done being rational and playing the Devil's Advocate, there remains an important distinction to be made: there is caustic humor and compassionate humor:

"When humor is used in such a way that feelings of hostility, distress and general negativity are aroused, it is called caustic humor (e.g. putting someone down or excluding them using humor). Children and teenagers often use this judgmental, hurtful humor though it can also be seen in adults.

"In contrast to caustic humor, there is compassionate humor, which helps to bridge gaps between people, break tension, provide hope and increase positivity[sic] in a situation. It is this type of humor that is accepting, mature and healing, and beneficial to our health."

Laughing Out Loud to Good Health, ThinkQuest Library: Mental Health and Psychology

Thus, there are jokes about Asians and jokes against Asians—the latter being: making fun of Asians because they are Asians, who can't help being anyone else than Asians who are ethnically and culturally different; and therefore the joke's on them.

  • An example of a compassionate joke about Asians:
    Q: Why are the Chinese so bad at barbecuing?
    A: Because their rice falls through the grill
  • An example of a caustic joke on Asians—when being Asian is the joke itself:
    A person walks up to an Asian female and mocks Chinese-like words: "Hah! Chi-Na Doll! Mee lub yew loooooong time. No fook gookie guy kam fook mee!—what does that mean in Chinese?

The first scenario uses stereotypes, as all jokes do, and takes a piss at the Chinese, playing on a palpable absurdity—the audience understands that while the Chinese may like rice, they certainly do not try to put it directly onto grills. Most Asians would probably appreciate this joke.

In the second scenario, the palpable absurdity is the fact that the victim of the joke is in a minority assumed to have markedly different linguistic abilities and looks than the default, the majority. The victim may be an American-born Asian, but the absurdity that is being played at is that anyone could be so different at all. The joke is on the victim, for being in the minority; more than likely, she is expected to just take it and not dare to be upset. Plus, she is being harassed sexually, because socially in the perpetrator's eyes, she is as "worthless" as a prostitute. What is really going on in the mind of the joker is: Haha, Asian girls remind me of the Vietnamese whore in Full Metal Jacket! Haha, you people all talk so strange and funny, and you sound so stupid because you're Asian; Haha, you people can't really speak English properly and English cannot be your "own" language; Haha, you look so confused you have no clue that you're the butt of the joke! (Something close to this second scenario actually happened to someone I know.)

If you think the above interpretation of what is really going on is overplayed or far-fetched, then think again. Download & listen to Howard Stern & Co. disrupts Asian Woman's Craft Show and let the white folks spell it out for you in their own words. About 4:40 min. into the mp3 clip, Howard Stern & Co. come right out and say that the Asian Woman hosting the craft show was like a "fish out of water" and had no right to host a show in America due to her poor English: "How dare she come here and do a show?" And for her crossing the line and daring to do so, her entire live broadcast show was disrupted; she was rewarded with non-stop calls with taunts about "bukkake," doing laundry, giving "happy endings," "sucky sucky long time" and how "all Chinese/Korean/Japanese women give good hand jobs." Listen to the whole clip and the underlying message is clear: Asian women are only good for being subservient cheap laborers and whores.

Looking at the pranks in this context, most people would have no problem categorizing them as caustic jokes, if anything; probably less as jokes and more as anti-Asian taunts. But taunts just like these were recorded, broadcast on the radio, and then circulated on the Internet in the form of an mp3 clips; and people found them so amusing they sent it to all their friends. So what does that say about them? In the end, the humor we endorse (by passing along on the Internet and sharing with others), what we find funny and what stimuli trigger our laughter response, tells us a lot more about ourselves than the victims of the joke.

Howard Stern (Sal) turned the Asian women's bad English (and the resultant implied meanings of their mispronounced words) into the palpable absurdity, the central engine of the joke. But there was no possibility of the women disengaging from the absurdity—the absurdity was their "permanent" state, it was simply how they always talk due to being linguistically and culturally different. Who they were was the joke.

In contrast, here is an example of a prank, where the victim is tricked, but not trapped forever in being the palpable absurdity: see youtube: Al Kyder and Terra Wrist. Or this one, where the victims were tricked into saying words which sounded like something else, but the joke wasn't about them being trapped in the some permanently-laughable state they could not disengage from: Airport Announcements.

If the chief cognate of all humor is relief at the passing of danger, then a good question would be: what is the danger or threat exactly, that is being played at when it comes to anti-Asian jokes. If, for humor to work, there has to be emotional detachment and comparison of palpable absurdity with acceptable reality, then it would also be good to have a look at how those parameters are utilized in anti-Asian jokes.

You may likely form your own conclusions about it, but in accordance with the above social and neuropsychological analysis of laughter, this is how I see it, why anti-Asian jokes work for those who find them funny:

  • Detachment-comparison:
    Arises from the them/us assumption that "we," the audience, are not anything like "them," the Asians, who are in effect the palpable absurdity
  • Threat of danger & relief there is none:
    The presence of Asians in the West (danger) who invade "our space" but remain ultimately inassimilable (passing of danger); the permanence in which Asians will remain Asians culturally (palpable absurdity) and therefore be outside the western social norms (passing of danger). For them to find Asians inherently funny, there has to be a play at some kind of threat, and the relief that there is actually none. The only danger available to play at, is that "we" might be anything like "them"—as socially-unfitting, inferior and linguistically-incapable as "they" are. The relief is that "we" are not.

Some of the fun in listening to prank calls may be derived from the idea that the prankster was ballsy enough to make such a nasty call—something the listeners would never dare try. The palpable absurdity would then be the the prankster's derring-do. But I'd venture to say that mostly it is not the prankster whom they are laughing at. They are are laughing with the prankster at the hapless Asians, who are absurd in comparison to their sense of self, the acceptable reality.

Hollywood and media portrayal of Asians

The perceived danger and threat of Asians may stem from the way they are depicted in the media. In the West, much of our perception of Asians is derived from our Hollywood education. And Hollywood has only been carrying on the centuries-old literary and media tradition of playing up on the "yellow peril" and the menacing, unstoppable tide of the "yellow hordes."[6 - 8]

Up close, Asian individuals are depicted in reductionist themes: as caricatures of buck-toothed, squint-eyed, creatures scampering about in small steps, subservient to the white man; inscrutable and easily sinister. They are ideally longsuffering and stoic model citizens, but should they break this code to become the antagonist, they are impotent in their rage against white protagonists. They serve as assistants, comic relief, sidekicks and/or cannon fodder, and are never cast as the primary character unless it is one inseparable from their foreign or immigrant status.[9]

Asian females are depicted either as Dragon Lady Vixens or as submissive China Dolls, always sexually available to Caucasians or African-Americans. Asian males are cast as viscous triad types or as sages possessing ancient wisdom; yet always "cinematically castrated," effeminate according to western notions of sexuality, and never allowed to consummate a relationship with a Westerner.[10] It is also interesting to note that whereas the $100-billion-a-year Internet pornography industry has spawned entire fetish categories around Asian females, Asian males do not exist in pornography—not unless it is produced in Asia.[11]

We can always debate whether art imitates life or life imitates art. Hollywood and the media at large may responsible for creating perceptions about the desirability of Asians, or they may just be playing it safe and offering the mainstream majority the familiar—reflecting what we're comfortable with. The statistics for 2006 show that even in the U.S.—considered the biggest melting pot in the world—Asian males are far less desirable than Asian females; in fact Asian males are the least preferred partner for Caucasian women and practically all other races/ethnicities in the U.S. (see table below).[12]

The phenomenon is not isolable to cultural dissimilation. Even Asian male adoptees who were brought up in Caucasian households with completely Anglo-saxon environments still find a lack of acceptance by Caucasian females. Trapped in their Asian skin, Asian males are left with little choice but to partner with Asian women—the demographic more likely to accept them.[13]

Married couples in the United States, 2006

  White Wife Black Wife Asian Wife Other* Wife
White Husband 50,224,000 117,000 530,000 429,000
Black Husband 286,000 3,965,000 34,000 45,000
Asian Husband 174,000 6,000 2,493,000 13,000
Other* Husband 535,000 23,000 41,000 558,000

* No marginalization of any ethnicity is intended—the statistics presented in this table are for measuring the acceptance of Asian males vs. Asian females (representing 4.4% of the population) by the white & white-hispanic (80%) and black majorities (13.4%) in the U.S.

But now I digress... Here's more on the subject of Hollywood and Asian stereotypes and their real life consequences.


References and sources:

  1. How Stuff Works: Why Do We Laugh?
  2. Some other theories besides Freud's Relief Theory are the Incongruity Theory and Superiority Theory, but the conculsions of most neuropyschological studies agree with Robert Provine that ultimately, all laughter is related to "shared relief at the passing of danger."
  3. What is humor? — Caustic Humor vs. Compassionate Humor
  4. See Getting It: Age Influences and Culture and Community Influences
  5. Laughter: A Scientific Investigation —Robert R. Provine, ISBN 0-670-89375-7
  6. Asian America through the lens: history, representations, and identity —Jun Xing
  7. Deceit: The Silent Chinese Stereotype
  8. Racism: Ten Little Niggers, And Then There Were None, Ten Little Indians, Philadelphia Dollar
  9. A look at Hollywood's China syndrome
  10. With the exception of The Ballad of Little Jo which documented historical fact, there are no Hollywood movies where a consummated, legitimate relationship between a Caucasian female and an Asian male is depicted. And even in this case, the Asian male was depicted as effeminate and "cinematically castrated."
  11. Internet Pornography Statistics 2009
  12. Dating 101: Dealing with the Race Factor
  13. Adoption Institute: Survey of Adult Korean Adoptees

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