Apple Inc. has been under the spotlight in China, not for its new phone but for a controversy surrounding a customer service image that some claim is “disrespectful” to the country.
The image on its official website, featuring a female staffer with a prominent pigtail, has raised questions about the company’s cultural sensitivity.
The pigtail, a feature of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), is often associated with historical stereotypes of backwardness. Braids have sometimes been used in the past to ridicule and belittle Chinese people, leading to derogatory caricatures and negative stereotypes.
“This braided hairstyle has been cut off for 100 years, and they still use it to mock us,” said one online post. “What’s the intention here?”
Another wrote: “This braid really makes me feel a lot of malice.”
Countering that view is the argument that the image, used on Apple’s official websites globally, actually portrays an indigenous Native American.
Apple issued a statement saying the customer service representative in question is an American employee of the company in California. However, Apple did not comment on the ethnicity of the employee.
The company added that it has received the public feedback and is taking it seriously.
One online survey about the controversy in China drew over 60,000 responses, with many respondents selecting options such as “indeed inappropriate,” “an apology is necessary” or “overly insensitive.”
“A pigtail, flat nose, freckles – every aspect challenges modern Chinese aesthetics and makes Chinese people feel uncomfortable,” one netizen commented.
Many believe that Apple did not intend to mock any specific group or display any insulting intent. As a global tech giant, Apple would no doubt be sensitive to political and ethnic issues.
It all matters because China has surpassed the United States to become the largest global market for iPhones, with Apple shipments accounting for about a quarter of the company’s total in the second quarter of this year.
In a recent interview, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook rebutted remarks by US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo that “China has become an unreliable place for investment.”
Cook said Apple has been conducting business in China for over 30 years and pointed to numerous areas of cooperation between the company and China.
It all suggests that the company has no reason to insult the Chinese. The picture of the American customer service representative might be Apple’s way of highlighting its commitment to ethnic diversity or of showing its respect for relatively disadvantaged group in American history.
However, it’s often easy to breach cultural sensitivities unwittingly. What might be a culturally neutral image in one country could take on different connotations in another.
Fu Manchu, for instance, a fictional supervillain with a braid and hanging pencil moustache, who was created by British author Sax Rohmer and appeared in movies, television and comic books, has become taboo on some Asian movie screens due to its negative portrayal of regional people.
In today’s world of delicate international relations and tensions between China and the United States, the image of an “Asian-looking” person with a braid can trigger sensitive associations.
The Apple incident highlights the complexities of cross-cultural understanding. Businesses and consumers alike must be ever mindful of cultural sensitivities to avoid misinterpretation.
Chinese citizens should both defend national dignity and exercise restraint. When faced with ambiguous situations, rationality should prevail. Resorting to extreme positions or stereotypes can only worsen cultural perceptions.