The Sympathizer: What Does Occidental Mean?

The Sympathizer What Does Occidental Mean Meaning
(Image Credit: Max)

Viewers of The Sympathizer may be wondering what “occidental” means in episode 2. Professor Hammer (Robert Downey Jr.), the Orientalist grad school professor, calls the unnamed Captain (Hoa Xuande) the “perfect symbiosis of Oriental and Occidental.” Later in the scene, Hammer then suggests that the half-French, half-Vietnamese protagonist make a list of all his so-called Oriental qualities and Occidental qualities as a therapeutic exercise that will help him bridge the gap between the two. Here’s what the meaning of Occidental is in the context of the Max series adaptation.

What does the word “Occidental” mean in The Sympathizer?

The word “Occidental” is an adjective that describes the West, particularly areas of Europe and America. It is meant to be a direct contrast to the adjectival word “Oriental.”

By modern standards, “Occidental” is a fairly outdated term that has been largely replaced by the word “Western” instead. As the term “Oriental” has been gradually removed in formal usage in favor of the term “Asian American,” so has the usage of “Occidental” as well.

Since the show takes place in the early 1970s, the term “Oriental” is still being phased out. Much to Professor Hammer’s chagrin, the Oriental Studies Department is being folded into Asian-American studies instead.

While the professor is enamored with the Captain’s mixed ethnicities, he is not as convinced, replying that he isn’t sure that sees himself as the “perfect symbiosis of Oriental and Occidental.” This internal conflict is a core theme of the show and the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that it’s based on.

As a spy for the Communist Party for North Vietnam, the Captain needs to be able to play multiple roles, which extends to his performance as a patriot for his country, despite being reminded that he’s only half-Vietnamese. He also isn’t fully accepted by Americans either, as many look at him suspiciously while he travels throughout Oklahoma earlier in the episode.

In the book, the protagonist does list some of his Oriental qualities as “respectful of authority” and “self-sacrificial” while his Occidental side is more carefree. However, as well-intentioned as the professor may be, the exercise itself of separating characteristics between Oriental and Occidental leans into stereotypes ascribed to both sides.

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