Orange Is the New Black has never gone all in on a theme the way it did in “Ching Chong Chang,” focusing every character’s story around a central question: How do society’s beauty standards affect every woman on this show differently? It did it by bringing Chang, one of the show’s most underused characters (and one of the show’s only Asian characters), to the forefront and exploring her invisibility; and by passing around a Victoria’s Secret catalog and examining different characters’ relationships to a hundred-dollar pair of panties.
The episode centers on Chang’s story, about being invisible and the violence of that oppression. Gloria and Sophia have a conversation about what a “real” woman looks like — bags under her eyes, grown-in roots vs. flawless hair and M.A.C. counter makeup skills — and why, as a trans woman who fought so hard for what she has, Sophia aspires to the ideal. Morello explores different ways to make herself up to appeal to different kinds of men. Black Cindy, Janae, and Flaca pursue a Panty Shoppe catalog looking for representation. And, of course, Piper talks about how overpriced panties are empowering, the way Thor would say his hammer is empowering (yeah, I’m sure it is, for you, God of Thunder; it was made specifically for you and for literally for no one else).
This recap is going to be a departure from our usual format, because I am a cis white lesbian and it’d be fully Piper Chapman of me to to center the commentary around my own very limited perspective. So, I’m going to give you a traditional recap of the episode, and then I’ll be joined by Laura Mandanas, KaeLyn, Fikri and Yao Xiao to talk about how their personal experiences line up with the ones we saw on our teevees.
Bell and O’Neil are at a bakery worrying about what they’re going to do when Caputo inevitably fucks up saving their jobs, when O’Neil is accosted by a red velvet donut. Let me tell you something, he is more upset about this artisanal hooplah than he ever has been about anything in his entire life, and he is surrounded practically every day by women who are suffering the consequences of being denied agency for their whole lives. Also, red velvet donuts are delicious, O’Neil, so welcome to Wrongville. Population: You.
Pennsatucky rolls out the welcome wagon for some new inmates, including Lori Petty, whom we last saw getting the hell kicked out of her in a Chicago prison because of Piper. She’s pretty psyched on Litchfield, though. Like the floors are swept and the lights are on and nobody’s wailing and clanging a tin mug against their cell bars like so many jails you see in the Wild West. Pennsatucky tells them their families can come visit if they want to, but try not to get too sad if they never do; these women are still bright shining stars. When Chang walks by, Pennsatucky introduces her with a racial slur, and Chang gives it right back.
Chang wanders into the bathroom to brush her teeth with salt and also so we can juxtapose her with Alex and Piper. On the one hand, it’s like: This is what Alex and Piper’s life would be if they were living together on the outside, standing together in front of the mirror flossing their teeth and plucking their eyebrows and bitching about their jobs and being assholes about people who aren’t them. But on the other, it’s juxtaposing Chang to the two women you’d copy out of this show and paste onto a Rolling Stone cover. Laura Prepon and Taylor Schilling are the conventional beauty standard.
They mock her because they suck, right there in front of her face, and she finally she goes, “Hey, lesbians, my eyes are squinty, but my ears work just fine.” They leave, but they giggle the whole way out like a couple of elementary school Mean Girls.
Flashback! Chang came to the U.S. so her brother could sell her off to a suitor in an arranged marriage/mail-order bride situation, but the woman who ran the arranged marriage business was unimpressed with Chang’s looks and her shyness, and so was the asshole who agreed to marry her. Chang’s brother and the asshole intended husband yelled at each other about how ugly and awful Chang was, and then her brother told her she owed him a thousand bucks for the plane ticket, which she could work off at three cents per hour in the family store and by doing his laundry and by cooking his dinner and whatever other sexist garbage.
Back in real-time, Red is watching Chef Judy King get arraigned on tax evasion charges on TV (something Red thinks she deserves because of how she puts cream in her carbonara) and Gina is writing a story for drama workshop that ends with her running over her mom with a lawnmower and Suzanne is patiently waiting for her turn to watch Adventure Time, when Gloria arrives asking for a favor. She needs Red’s husband to pick up her son in Queens and bring him up to visit so she can do his homework with him, but Red explains that she’s done with men who are mushrooms. They consider being gay for each other; they already have the haircuts. And then they just laugh and laugh.
Why are y’all laughing? You should totally be gay together. You would be the most powerful lesbian couple in history. You’d be the Frank and Claire Underwood of Litchfield! No one could stop you! Anyway, the music goes, “Something so sweet is about to happen!” Red raises her hand to wave. Healey walks by and frowns at her. Gloria vomits.
Later, Red follows Healey into his office where he whines his Men’s Rights Activism drivel about how unfair it is that every woman on earth doesn’t just shut their damn mouths like the Bible says and have sex with him. Like so unfair. The most unfair. To a woman who is in prison taking the fall for an entire incompetent crime ring run by men, Healey talks about how unfair it is to be a man in this world. Red says when you rob women of their agency, it robs them of their currency, which leaves them with one coin to spend. How dare you judge them for spending it?
The jig is up for Taystee. Poussey has caught that squirrel she thought was thieving her hooch, and Suzanne spots it when she comes to share the news about Judy King getting arrested. “The one who has that plantation vibe, but in a fun way” is how Poussey describes her before falling to her knees and begging the Lord to send her to Litchfield. Probably she would not be as good a prison cook as Chang is, but she’d probably challenge Red and Gloria for managing the kitchen (…unless Red and Gloria were MARRIED). Taystee sits Poussey down and tells her she’s the one who was stealing her jail juice.
In the Panty Shoppe, Flaca and Piper have a giggle about how they’d trade places with the catalog models in a second, even though their lives are probably just pills and cutting. Ruby Rose looks over and smiles coyly. Piper pretends to not know why, like she’s never seen an alternative lifestyle haircut or something.
At a different Panty Shoppe station, Black Cindy is also flipping through a Panty Shoppe catalog.
Black Cindy: White bitches, white bitches. How many pages do you think it’s gotta be before they put in the token black person, and how dark is she, on a scale from one to Grace Jones?
Janae: All right. 14 and four.
Black Cindy: Oh, so close! Here she is, page 11. But she’s like a two. The bitch’s got blue eyes.
Janae: Yeah. Look at her abs, though.
Morello is working a new angle with a prison pen pal program. The first dude she meets, she weaves a yarn about how she was behind the greatest jewel heist in Arizona’s history. He’s a gun enthusiast, so he’s hella impressed. He talks to her about weapons for an hour. Later, she talks to an anime nut, and tells him Daya is her favorite artists. He’s hardcore into her too. She studies to meet a bird watcher, but mixes up the days and ends up telling a karate guy about the mating habits of mallard ducks, and he flips out because he doesn’t care about birds! Maybe that’s because he’s never met Litchfield’s magical chicken. Or maybe it’s because he belongs to the same MRA subreddit as Healey and thinks women are made to fuck him and only talk about his very specific set of interests.
Morello breaks down and admits she’s bored and lonely because Nicky is gone. I feel you, girl. I feel you.
At lunch, Lolly asks for a kosher meal, and everyone reacts like she asked to order in pizza or something. They finally come up with one for her, a frozen thing from waaaaay back in the freezer. Chang, meanwhile, wants two milks and peas and that’s all. She dumps the milk, stashes the peas, and takes them to her dorm where she mixes them together with crunched up Fritos and hot sauce and bakes them in the microwave. No one even notices.
Well, Soso notices. She laments the fact that Asian people don’t commit enough low value crimes to end up in Litchfield, so she’s never going to have a “big Asian prison family.” Chang tells Soso she’s Scottish, but she says her white friends all think a single drop of ethnic blood makes her as Chinese as her toothbrush.
Chang takes her Frito/pea cakes outside and eats them while watching everyone else hang out with their prison families. And then she heads on over to the shed to watch her stories on her Samsung Galaxy S6 and treat herself to a single orange from her stash. Where did she get that thing? The phone, I mean. More importantly, though, how does she charge it? How did Blanca charge her phone, come to think of it? That’s going to drive me crazy.
Flashback! Chang’s brother’s shop is in bad shape, so he decides to get into the business of contraband. He doesn’t want to make a drop, though, and neither do his buddies, so he recruits Chang to do it because he says she’s invisible and no one’s going to notice what illegal shenanigans she gets up to.
In real-time in the Panty Shoppe, Black Cindy and Janae wrestle with their sewing while Flaca continues to read the catalog. She’s says she’s like The Flash with sewing, so she’s saving it all up to hammer out at the end of the day.
Janae: What page do you have to get to before you see a Spanish girl?
Flaca: If you’re talking about Latinas, there’s like 20 different countries that all look different. See this blonde chick here? She could be Latina. You don’t know.
Janae: [disbelieving look]
Black Cindy: Let me see. Eh, she probably ain’t, though.
Flaca: Yeah, probably not. Man, I gotta start running or something.
Janae: I ran all the time and boys just thought I was weird.
Flaca: It’s all Photoshopped anyway. Special lighting, tape and shit. We’re chasing an unachievable standard.
Black Cindy: I ain’t chasing nothing. I’m a strong black woman. We’ve got a different standard of beauty in our community.
Flaca: Not true.
Black Cindy: EXCUSE ME.
Flaca: Beyonce. She’s playing the white girl game.
Janae: And she’s winning!
Black Cindy: WINNING! And you’re proving my point, exactly, Morticia: There are hella ways for black women to be beautiful. [Whispers] A white girl, though? She’s gotta be skinny.
To wit, Piper and Stella are talking about how hard Piper’s life is, what with looking the way she does and being able to afford hundred-dollar underwear when she’s not in jail for being a drug mule. Stella’s mouth invites Piper to check her privilege for a second, but Piper declines that invitation. Stella’s body language invites Piper to her pants party, and Piper sticks that one in her back pocket.
She also sticks some extra Panty Shoppe fabric in her back pocket and a photo of one of the models from the catalog for Alex.
Gloria dips into Sophia’s shop for a late afternoon haircut. She says she doesn’t want any birdcages or sass or anything like that. Just a trim to keep her from being noticed. Sophia says she feels that, but Gloria doesn’t think she does.
Gloria: Really? ‘Cause you’re doing the opposite. You’ve got this whole thing going on. The hair, the makeup. I mean, who has the energy to go full M.A.C. counter every day?
Sophia: Listen, after everything I went through to be me, I ain’t gonna let shit slide.
Gloria: Yeah, but you all up in our face with it, like blown out and shit. Look, if you wanted to look like a real woman, you would let your roots grow out and get some bags under your eyes.
Sophia: You know, historically? Mean and reality: not friends.
Okay, for starters, the idea that Sophia is all up in anyone’s face is hilarious since she seems to exist only inside this salon. Maybe she’s on a whole other show inside here and we don’t even know about it. Maybe she hangs out with Stella in here and they eat contraband cookies and talk shit about Piper. Maybe she keeps Stella’s buzz fresh and Stella teaches her Australian swear words. I would watch that show.
Sophia agrees to let Gloria’s kid ride with her wife and son to visit sometimes.
Flashback! At the drop-off, Chang and Fu chat happily about the wonders of ’80s pop culture until Fu harshes Chang’s buzz by bringing up his super tall, super thin, super blonde American girlfriend. The Korean rare goods dealers further harsh Chang’s buzz by trying to pass off ping pong balls as turtle eggs. A full-on martial arts battle breaks out because this episode didn’t meet an Asian stereotype it didn’t go all in on, and Chang ends up saving Fu’s life by walloping one of the Korean guys in the head with a tire iron. Fu pledges to pay Chang back by giving her literally anything she wants.
What Chang wants is for Fu & Co. to drag the asshole who agreed to buy her as a bride but then backed out to their warehouse and beat the smugness out of him. They do beat him, but they do not succeed at eradicating the smugness. He keeps hurling insults out Chang out of his bloody mouth.
In real-time, it’s drama class and Sister Ingalls is acting out Chang’s script. She bludgeons the Fu in the story and while the rest of the class is freaked out, Suzanne is ecstatic. She loves it! Chang shrugs about how that’s Hollywood, and bounces.
At dinner, Black Cindy enjoys a delicious kosher meal, courtesy of Lolly’s hot tip, while Poussey and Taystee work out their feelings about the squirrel. Taystee wants Poussey to cut way back on the hooch and maybe even come to AA with her, even though Poussey says Taystee only goes to AA so she can have a platform to tell crazy stories that aren’t true. Taystee loves Poussey, and Poussey knows it, but she needs a different kind of love, a love-love kind of a love; Poussey needs a real girlfriend. Taystee smiles sadly. She agrees. She’s known it all along.
UGH, TOO REAL.
Piper tries on her new underoos and Chang clowns on her, so Piper apologizes for being a jerk earlier that morning and Chang accepts. She says, “Thank you, lesbian.”
Flashback! The guy who ridiculed Chang is now lying bloody on the warehouse floor. He yells at her some more about how she’s ugly, so Chang tells Fu to cut out his gall bladder, and then she swaggers her bad ass right out the door while that motherfucker screams and screams.
Speaking of motherfuckers, Healey does Red a solid and gets Caputo to sign her back into service in the kitchen. She walks up in there to the sound of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and everyone nearly faints dead away. Everyone except for Norma. She grabs Red’s apron and wraps it around her like a cloak on a queen.
Next page: The roundtable!
What was the realest thing about this episode’s story lines to you?
There’s this quick little conversation that takes place between Flaca and Piper as they’re flipping through the lingerie catalog in Whispers.
Flaca: Man. Somehow my khakis be feeling extra khaki right now.
Piper: Oh come on, Gonzales. Looks are superficial. Everybody knows it’s about talent, originality, a sense of humor.
[Flaca catches Piper’s eye and they both crack up.]
Piper: What do you think it’s like to be her in real life? [Holds up another blonde in lingerie]
Flaca: Mmm. She eats pills and ice cream and cries at night, and she cuts herself, but on her scalp so no one can see.
Piper: So it’s still better than our lives!
Flaca: I would be her in a second.
I mean, I get that they’re bonding over being in prison. But also, I’ve had similar exchanges with female friends? Especially when I was younger and didn’t know anything about feminism. I remember being in high school and feeling so much pressure to be this certain kind of sexy — this white, skinny, unattainable, super consumable thing. I would have given anything to be that! I’d have traded my health and my happiness in a heartbeat, if I thought it would make me beautiful. At different times and in different ways, I have done that. I think a lot of us have.
When I saw the episode title flash on the screen, I immediately had two thoughts: 1) Finally, we are going to hear Chang say more than two words and 2) Is this going to be the worst? (Flashback to being bullied by kids in elementary school who would pull their eyes into slits and yell, “ching chang” at me.) Until this episode, Chang was a character that I couldn’t identify much with simply because she is barely ever written into the show. It’s annoying to me that in a show with so much diversity, the only season one Asian character is basically silent and written for comic relief.
On the other hand, being the only Asian girl in my mostly white neighborhood and life for most of my life, there was something annoyingly familiar about the dismissal of Chang’s existence. She doesn’t have a group of peers or even a friend in Litchfield. In the scene where she sits atop a picnic table to enjoy her Fritos/pea cake (good cook and thrifty, indeed), she looks across the yard at the different social groups thoughtfully. Some may have read this as loneliness, but I don’t get the sense that she wants to join them.
It is symbolically the moment Chang killed the male gaze in her life, decided not to give a fuck about her brother or being attractive to any man, and started investing in her own survival.
She has carved out this place on the margins that is comfortable, where she has learned to be alone and even cultivated some small perks (her cushy commissary job, her secret tablet to watch her shows). In fact, when Soso approaches her to attempt a connection, she pushes her away (by invalidating Soso’s ethnicity and saying she is Scottish, which was really hurtful, Chang!). I honestly relate more to Soso than to Chang, but I generally relate to the way that white people erase the identities of Asian women, either through outdated “mystical Chinese stereotypes” (Chang) or putting them in a white-washed model minority box (Soso, and also me).
How does this tie into beauty standards and Chang? It goes back to the matchmaking scene (ugh), where it is made quite clear to young Chang that she will not be able to rely on her looks because she is not conventionally beautiful. I related to the feeling that conventional beauty was a thing I’d never be able to reach, a way to access power that felt blocked off to me growing up. No matter how smart or hardworking I was, I could never be pretty enough.
In the end, it is Chang’s intellect and courage that saves her and continues to save her. Her one act of visibility, of standing front and center and looking the embodiment of that rejection in the eyes, could have been a moment of forgiveness. But young Chang chooses the knife. The pain of her invisibility is literally violent and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t cheering for her. In the rewriting of that moment, the script Chang wrote for acting class, she reclaims that moment, literally eating her victim’s gall bladder/heart/dick/liver (I guess we’ll never know). It is symbolically the moment Chang killed the male gaze in her life, decided not to give a fuck about her brother or being attractive to any man, and started investing in her own survival.
Like KaeLyn, I was ready to hate this episode. (Spoiler alert: I kinda did.) You see the title “Ching Chong Chang” appear on your screen, after all, but then Chang says “Fuck you, cracker” to Pennsatucky and I feel like okay, maybe some balance has been restored in this world.
I know Heather’s summed up this episode as being about “the effects of cis white beauty ideals on all women” but what was most valuable to me about Chang’s storyline was that it wasn’t about that. Chang was subject to Chinese beauty standards, not white ones; while reconizing that they intersect and interact with each other in some ways, it’s important to recognize the differences in the standards of “beauty” that we’re held up to. Just as you can’t understand the Korean beauty industry through a white USAmerican lens, you can’t make sense of the experiences of an Asian migrant woman through Piper Chapman’s eyes. (But also maybe just never look at things in life through a Piper-tinted lens, ever.) Black Cindy and Flaca get at this in their conversation about black vs white standards of beauty.
Just as you can’t understand the Korean beauty industry through a white USAmerican lens, you can’t make sense of the experiences of an Asian migrant woman through Piper Chapman’s eyes.
If there’s anything to be salvaged from the mail-order bride/arranged marriage situation (I feel like neither of these terms 100% accurately describe what happened here, but I’m unsure what else to call it), it’s the brute honesty about the transactional nature of beauty and marriage, echoed in Red’s speech to Healey about stripping away a woman’s power and leaving her with only her sexuality. There’s plenty to be explored here from a feminist perspective by those with more patience than me, but honestly, the way this episode was written, Chang’s storyline was set up to be more mocking the assumed cultural backwardness of a specific racial community than truly interrogating the gendered dynamics of “beauty.” If we can dismiss Chang’s treatment as part of her “culture,” then we don’t have to think about the commodification of women’s looks and bodies in our own lives.
Still, the “girl power” ending to the in-prison dramatic reenactment was great.
Were there any parts of the conversations/stories that didn’t ring true?
That scene in the parking lot with Chang — was it really necessary to have the martial arts come out? Because doing that with like, the mail order bride, the organized Asian crime, the broken English: it was a bit much. I found the heavy reliance on stereotypes throughout this story to be lazy.
There are just so many pieces of the Chang story that felt awfully stereotypical. The martial arts in the fight scene. The very stereotypical Chinese matchmaker scene. The Chinese gang who traffics illegal medicinal items from the Koreans. I mean, come on. It was one step away from going into “kung fu parody movie” mode. Chang has been a walking Chinese stereotype up to this point, for the audience and for other characters to ridicule. She barely speaks at all. Unlike Soso, who has at least had some story development, Chang just shuffles around in the background. She is the “sneaky Asian” and the “weird Chinese lady” and that is lazy writing. We are finally getting a chance to see where she comes from and why she is in Litchfield and I just wanted so much more for her. I wanted the nuance that other characters get that keep them from being only stereotypes, even if their storylines can also be stereotypical. I wanted something that felt real.
But I still loved parts of Chang’s story, especially seeing what she does at Litchfield every day. I want to see more of Chang and I’d really like to see more of Chang and So So talking to each other.
Echoing everything that’s been said before: I hated the heavy use of stereotypes in this episode. I was hoping Chang would get a backstory similar to, say, Rosa’s past as a kickass bank robber, but nope, of course she was involved in smuggling turtle eggs. Of course! It’s also a bit of a stretch for smugglers to unhesitatingly turn into cold-blooded killers but why let that get in the way of convenient plot/character development, eh?
I was really glad that there was actually a back story for Chang (because I wouldn’t be surprised given past experience with American TV if the older Asian lady remained invisible). It was refreshing to see that Soso’s story isn’t the stereotypical drug smuggling/mail order bride/sex trafficking, but I see that they filled that in for Chang.
I love the part about Chang’s story where she talks back at the women who called her names; it felt very close to home when I was one of the few Asian faces in an American high school. People just talked and snickered through me. And as part of reality, it was my first year in the US so I indeed did not understand most of the English, and didn’t speak it very fluently either.
What’s tricky is to appreciate the episode on my own terms without endorsing the lazy use of stereotypes and deem it authentic.
Which brings me back to the stereotypical story line. Stereotypes stick around because there’s reality stuck to it. Illegal trades and mail order brides are not entirely made up, while the martial arts seems entirely superficial and sort of random. If there’s any benefits of that, I’d say it gave Asian actors more camera time.
I don’t hate the episode so much because I identify with the kind of solidarity that Chang shows. Her character didn’t get as much involvement in the show, just like Chang didn’t participate so much in American society/prison politics, and it unfortunately more or less accurately reflects reality. What’s tricky is to appreciate the episode on my own terms without endorsing the lazy use of stereotypes and deem it authentic.
Final Thoughts & Feelings
Soso’s thing about white people seeing her as Chinese and Asian people seeing her as Scottish was really real. I’m happy they included that.
The bathroom scenes between Piper and Chang in this episode were some of my favorite. In the first scene, Piper and Alex are making fun of Chang, whispering like she can’t see or hear them even though she is right there, when she confronts them, “Hey, lesbians. My eyes squinty, but ears work fine.” Later, when Piper is caught by Chang looking at herself in the mirror, they have this moment in reverse:
Piper: [admiring her pink panties in the mirror, doesn’t see Chang come into the bathroom]
Chang: You like Bo Derrick, Tarzan, 1981.
Piper: [mortified] Please pretend that you didn’t just see this.
Chang: I don’t see nothing. [turns back to mirror]
Piper: I just wanted to feel pretty.
Chang: [glances at Piper, nods]
Piper: Chang…I’m sorry about the other day.
Chang: Thank you, lesbian.
Chang doesn’t laugh at Piper. She understands. When Piper says Chang’s name and pauses and for a moment they just look at each other, there is this sincere expression on Chang’s face. It is one of the few times—maybe the only time—we see Chang make direct eye contact with another person in Litchfield. Her guard is down for just a second because maybe, maybe Piper is actually going to see her.
At the end of the day, Chang is still not much more than a sidenote, and this episode did little to undo the othering of her — setting her up as an isolated walking stereotype — that has been consistent throughout the show.
My friend/Autostraddle member/A-Camp veteran Carmen C would like to add:
I wish the chinese in OITNB wasn’t so obviously translated from English. You cannot follow English grammatical rules for Chinese (as was yelled at me loudly and often by my Chinese teachers). For example “你说你要我们把他怎么办？” makes very little sense.
One last thing that bugs me about this episode (I’m sorry! I told you I hated it!) was that Chang’s backstory is probably not going to be worked into the rest of the prison’s story in any meaningful way, just as how Chang is going to be relegated back to the sidelines after this. (Compare this to, for example, the focus on Norma in the next episode. While previously a minor character too, Norma gets her own episode and it’s one that is of consequence to the main plotline and her character development.) At the end of the day, Chang is still not much more than a sidenote, and this episode did little to undo the othering of her — setting her up as an isolated walking stereotype — that has been consistent throughout the show.
At the end of the day I’m glad Chang’s story is in there, but it feels a bit like doing the bare minimum. I enjoyed the plot and hearing Chinese on American TV and seeing two Asian characters making a conversation in English (Because guess what? It happens IRL!!) but I cringe a little when people with little or no knowledge to Asian American history or the social context say ‘Chang’s story is so powerful and amazing’ because I don’t think it’s THERE.
Next episode: The origin of Norma’s misandry and her ascension to deity.