Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Running in the Hood

This morning I went running in my old neighborhood. First of all, no one in the California suburbs walks, so as I was walking home during my cool-down phase plenty of morning commuters slowed down to stare at me. Second, it wasn't until I walked home that I realized I had seen a total of two white people. I can't exactly estimate how many people I saw while running this morning, but since I headed to my old high school and ran on the track, I'd say I passed a fair number of kids and parents, who were about evenly split in terms of ethnicity: Asian and Latino.

And it made me realize, in part, why I do get so uncomfortable in largely white settings--it's not what I'm used to. I mean, sure, the demographics have changed since I was in High School--it was about 50% white and 50% people of color. Apparently the lone white family on our block has the house up for sale and soon it will be a mix of people whose families originated in Puerto Rico, Mexico, China, Yemen, and Viet Nam among other Asian and Latin American countries.

Is there an opposite to being racially paranoid? Because I have to say I was completely comfortable running today in my old neighborhood.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Back in the land of all things Asian

I'm here in California--it's been about a year since I've been back. It occurs to me that writing that I'm here, there may be people I know in California who are going to say, "Hey, Jennifer, how come you didn't let me know?" The answer can be found a few blog entries back--my Uncle Frank's memorial service is this Friday, so this is a strictly family visit. Folks are coming from all over North America (and London) for the service. My Uncle is being cremated and wishes to have his ashes scattered back in Jamaica.

It's funny, the affiliations we have with certain lands. For example, I realize that I will more than likely spend more time outside of California than within it--and yet, California will always be home. And for my Uncle, I think even though he spent more of his life outside Jamaica than in it, Jamaica was where his heart was. I mean, it is telling that Jamaica is where he wants his remains placed, even while his wife and children continue to live in California.

And so I wonder, will I also want to return to California. It's not the land of my birth (I was born in Flushing, NY), but it is the place I grew up--and it continues to be a place that resonates with me. Is it because this is where my racial consciousness was born? Is it because there is a critical mass of Asian Americans--where Asian American studies as a discipline took off? Or, as I am often heard to recite, is it because if California were its own nation it would have the fifth largest GDP in the world??? Or is it really because of the people--my family and friends--that makes me forever drawn to this place?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Airport Anxiety

I'm leaving today for California and since I'll be flying I'm bound to experience a fair amount of anxiety. I'm not *exactly* afraid of flying, but I also don't like the sensation. And in a post-9/11 world, it becomes more cumbersome to negotiate the airport.

I also feel a certain amount of anxiety about race--a type of racial paranoia not based in anything "real" because I don't even think I get targeted at airports (unlike other friends, who I believe ARE singled out, because they are of Muslim/Middle Eastern descent and/or look like they are of Arab ancestry I really can't say I have been taken out of line too often--of course now that I write that, I'm sure to be on the list of suspicious characters on this trip).

No, I think my anxiety is just due to the reality that you don't see a lot of people of color at airports--perhaps this is in correct proportions to the US racial demographics, but I'm always struck by how few people of color, esp. Asian Americans I see at airports outside of the West Coast.

And really, I just don't like to fly.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Politically Correct Halloween Costume

Last night I had a party in which Halloween costumes were optional. You could either dress up, come as you are, or come as you are and wear a nametag with the costume/disguise you would have donned if you had been so inclined to dress up.

Among the abstract disguises were Fred Thompson, Spider Woman, and Regret (my personal favorite of the night). Among the actual costumes were people in crazy wigs, the 5th Bee Gee brother (who knew there were even 4???), Bloody Mary (the cocktail), and then me, a 50's Housewife.

It dawns on me that perhaps going as a 50's Housewife is not the most politically correct thing to do. After all, women in the 50's who stayed at home weren't, in many cases, given other options--and it isn't as if all of them were miserable robots who slaved away in a domestic arena without agency or access to pleasure, or the ability to have independent thoughts and actions. And yet, as I parodied a 50's housewife, those qualities were the ones I played up, acting as the consummate host to my guests.

I suppose you could say I'm overthinking it--it's not as if I went dressed as a Chinese coolie, a geisha, or a dragonlady--all actual costumes I had seen at one time or another at parties I've attended. And yet, it does strike me as judgmental to say that a 50's housewife can be a source of parody. Or is it that women have achieved to a degree unprecedented since that time that we can look back on that era and say thank goodness we have choices--that women who stay at home can choose to do so without social restrictions that tell them otherwise.

Of course, that's just my circle of friends, who really knows what is going on in the rest of America outside my ivory tower.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Repeating History

There is something, for me, about the stories of the Japanese American Internment that makes me get choked up. Or angry. Or both.

And I feel a similar sense of pain in hearing about stories that have emerged post-9/11 about the Arab and Muslim American community.

The convergence of these two issues, Japanese American Internment and Detention of Arab and Muslim Americans, esp. issues at Guantanamo Bay, converge in our contemporary political discourse, but perhaps one of the most moving examples is in this short film Day of Remembrance, which was produced by Cynthia Gates Fujikawa (who also has an excellent film called Old Man River)

Day of Remembrance is an 8 minute film clip--if you go to the website below and click on film #9, you can watch it:

Day of Remembrance (film #9)

Please, take 10 minutes to look at this clip. It's powerful. I've seen it at least half a dozen times, and I cry every time. And I get angry. And I want to act. What we need is organization and leadership for our actions, a place where we collectively can shout NO to the kinds of injustices happening around the world. Can someone please tell me where that place is...

Monday, October 22, 2007

My Uncle Frank

The first person to really talk to me seriously about race--about the way race really is--the trickiness and stickiness of race, the things that seem so difficult to talk about and explain, beyond a rhetoric of multicuturalism and "racism is bad"--is my Uncle Frank.

My Uncle Frank pushed me to think about race and racism, about what it means to be Asian American (and not just Chinese American). He encouraged me to take classes in chemistry and physics BECAUSE I was an English major and wasn't taking those classes--and he wanted me to stretch my mind in a different way--to have the feeling of discomfort and of being challenged in a discipline where I'd really have to work. My Uncle loved arguing--certainly he seemed to enjoy the times we would spar, verbally, about a variety of things: Frank Chin, inter-racial relationships, whether college was really important, politics, class, gender, race.

My Uncle pushed me to do better--he was the guy who pointed out the single B+ on a report card full of A's. He is the one who wrote me a humorous poem congratulating me from graduating from college as a magna cum laude but chiding me for not getting summa. And throughout graduate school he mailed me articles about all things Asian American--scraps from newspapers and magazines and postcards and newsletters. I don't know that he ever told me that he was proud of me, but I know he was, from the reports I got from others and from the things he did rather than said--the many kindnesses he showed me in his own way.

My Uncle died last night a little before midnight after struggling with cancer for four years. I offer the above words as a small memorial to what I owe my Uncle--what he gave to me--how he made my life richer--how he helped me become the person I am--how my interest in race and anti-racism developed, in large part, due to his influence. May you rest in peace, Uncle Frank. You were loved ... you will be missed.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

He's Here, He's Queer, He's a Wizard???

To a packed house at Carnegie Hall, JK Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series) announced to everyone that Albus Dumbledore, the revered headmaster of Hogwarts (and uber-wizard) is gay. The outing came in response to a question from the audience of whether Dumbledore ever finds "true love" to which Rowling replied "He's gay."

Now, this seems not to answer the question at all, because of course he can find true love AND be gay--it's not as if the two are mutually exclusive conditions.

What's interesting is that Rowling invented this whole "off-page" past romance for Dumbledore (stuff that never comes up in any of the books and isn't really hinted at, although you could analyze and deonstruct the language to believe that he's gay--apparently that's what has happened with the "fan fiction" that has sprung up around the series--that the lack of Rowling mentioning any female intimacies caused fans to speculate (and others to openly pen) their belief that Dumbledore is queer.) I won't go into the specifics in order not to ruin it or confuse those who have not read the books, but it is an intriguing backstory, and helps, in part, to explain Dumbledore's motivations for some of his actions.

Apparently her parting words at Carnegie were that she believed the Harry Potter series to have an ultimate message about tolerance--and that she wanted everyone to walk away with the inspiration to "question authority." I do think that is a strain that runs throughout the books--that the issue of purity and blood, between wizards and non-wizards, those who can do magic and those who cannot, is the major plot device on which the series pivots. So I wonder, will the Harry Potter readers of the world be able to transfer the message of tolerance for non-magic people into tolerance for any group in the real world who are oppressed and marginalized? Does reading Harry Potter make you more likely to take up an anti-racist agenda? To be queer friendly?

Thursday, October 18, 2007


One of my favorite pieces of music is Yo Yo Ma's recording of J.S. Bach's Prelude from Suite 1 in G Major. The opening strains make my heart sing--the resonant sound of the cello fills my soul--it is sublime.

That's it. After a series of very long and very philosophical musings about race, all I want to leave you with, today, is to go and listen to this recording. Or listen to your own favorite piece of music. Sometimes, we need to remember the sublime.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Asian American identity

I'm continuing the theme from the last post about Asian American identity because it's something I've been mulling over lately. In many ways, I feel like I'm back at Asian American Studies 101: What does it mean to be an Asian American? Who IS an Asian American? What is Asian American identity?

I'm actually looking for something beyond the basic answers of ethnic ancestry, phenotype, oppositional identity, social constructedness, political solidarity.

Or perhaps I'm looking for more nuanced discussions of these topics.

I remember having a very lively discussion with a friend in grad school--a woman who came to the U.S. from Hong Kong at the age of 7, who spoke fluent Cantonese and English and had lived a majority of her life in the U.S. and who felt the category of Asian American was odd and counterintuitive. Why should she share an identity with a Japanese American? These two countries, Japan and China, have been at war and in conflict over the course of several centuries. And what affiliation would a person with Pakistani ancestors have in common with a Filipino person? Interestingly enough, my friend actually developed an Asian American identity (or perhaps more specifically Chinese American identity) when she moved back to the West Coast from the East Coast.

I rebutted every one of her challenges, talking about Vincent Chin and civil rights and the Asian American studies movement and how Asian Americans get lumped as perpetual foreigners, regardless of their length of stay or perfect English--that there was a way we get perceived by others--that in fact, this threat to our individuality (ironically enough) is what pushed Asian Americans to band together into a political group, in solidarity with one another and with other minoritized groups of the 1960s (American Indians, Chicano, Gay and Lesbians, and of course African Americans) to fight for civil liberties and social justice.

So I guess my question is: Can you be an Asian American person without having an oppositional identity--without your identity being political--without any notion of essentialism? Can you be Asian American in any positive (as in affirming) way without devolving into cultural nationalism?

To put it another way, is the day when Asian American literature dissolves a good day because it will mean that Asian American literature is now American literature--is seen as being on par and indistinguishable from American literature and the expanded American canon, which includes John Steinbeck, Nella Larsen, Leslie Marmon Silko, Rudolfo Anaya and Sui Sin Far? (by the way, I don't think I'll see this day in my lifetime, but you can always project).

I guess what I'm wondering is what is the efficacy of an Asian American identity beyond political solidarity? And rather than saying just beyond political solidarity, perhaps this is more than enough...perhaps the fact that it is first and foremost a political identity because it is a racial identity is the key point and that I should stop being so concerned about the scope of Asian American collectivities beyond political concerns. That inherently Asian American as a category is political and its power lies in precisely this fact--that there are challenges and limitations, no doubt, but that a political identity that is centrally an oppositional identity--one that focuses on social justice, is perhaps the way to best understand what it means to be Asian American.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I'm Proud to be a Chinese American!

Back in the 1970s there were a series of public service announcements focused on educating people about bigotry and race/ethnicity. If you're a certain age, you know exactly what I'm talking about (or did these only come out in CA???)--the white grandpa and his grandson in a rowboat, the kid talking about his Jewish friend (I think it was a Jewish friend) and how he's not prejudiced against Jewish people and his grandpa calling him out and telling him that if he calls "Billy" his Jewish friend then he IS prejudiced because that's bigotry and that's wrong!

There was also one that featured a young Chinese American girl leading viewers around Chinatown (I think in SF) and talking about the wonderful contributions Chinese have made to American life (Damn it! We built the railroad!) and at the very end she smiles and says "I'm PROUD to be a Chinese American!"

So I've been thinking lately about ethnic nationalism and ethnic pride--and I guess the question is: if I can be proud of being Chinese American because of my fantastic ancient culture and the many contributions Chinese Americans have made to the U.S. (lets consider the bing cherry--named after Ah Bing, the Chinese immigrant who brought this fruit to fruition), should I also feel shame at the negative things Chinese Americans have done (Norman Hsu does not seem a source of pride right now) and should I feel ashamed at the past and current human rights atrocities of the Chinese nation? I mean, their treatment of the Dalai Lama, for one, doesn't seem like something to be proud of. What does ethnic pride look like exactly, in this day and age when ethnic essentialism seems to be something of the past.

And pushing this further, can I be proud to be Asian American? What does it mean to be Asian American? I've always maintained that this is a political category--a racial category that is socially constructed, as all racial categories are. It clearly has meaning and functions as a reality marker for many of us since we have been living with the reality of "race" throughout the last 3 centuries of the founding and solidification of the U.S. as a world empire. And yet, all leading researchers point to the fact that race is an invention--a social fabrication without a basis in genetics--without a basis in blood. And while we can't shrug off the social construction (I can't just tell people race is imaginary and therefore I'm not Asian American) the thing I'm struggling with currently is: beyond politics, beyond being a means for political and social enfranchisement and a place for righting wrongs and fighting against injustice, what does it mean to be Asian American?

Any thoughts?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Poor Man, Rich Man

I spent this past weekend in the mountains, and there are some brief observations I wanted to make:

*Because it has been so dry and so warm, the leaves hadn't really turned color yet.

*I saw very few people of color the entire 3 days I was in the mountains, but unlike my trip to West Virginia, I did not feel racially paranoid, at least it wasn't acute. I'm not exactly sure why, perhaps I am more comfortable in my own home state or perhaps people weren't staring at me the way they were in West Virginia (and I was once again with my white Southern boyfriend, so we again comprised an inter-racial couple but really, we noticed nary an askance glance)

*The class/economic polarization and disparity is very marked. We drove through the countryside and saw small farmsteads and trailer homes--indications of rural life and poverty. And about a half hour later we came upon a boutique town that sported views of one of the ugliest condominium sites on the top of a mountaintop (part of a ski resort), golf condos, and a private air strip complete with a few jets parked amidst the lush greenery of the mountainsides, with million+ dollar homes in the background. All of this struck me, somehow, as obscene.

*Aside from the natural landscape and beauty of the mountains, the towns, for the most part, resembled one another in terms of the similarity of shops and restaurants and things to do in the town, itself. Some towns catered more to tourists. Some catered more to wealthy out-of-towners, some to college students, some to hippies. But we basically went from one downtown to another, shopping at similar stores, until it struck me that aside from the detours to the natural surroundings, we were basically taking a shopping tour of the mountains--and that also felt obscene, so we stopped.

That's all my observations for now. The poverty and the wealth is what is going to stick with me the most--the class disparity. Because it just seemed wrong. I know that I should not begrudge people their private wealth, but the conspicuous consumption of it, against the backdrop of people really struggling to make a living, just seemed disturbing.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Womb for Hire

A friend of mine told me about an Oprah Winfrey show (air date: 10/9/07) about surrogacy, specifically a white American couple who hired an Indian woman to be the surrogate for their egg&sperm (unclear why woman can't carry the baby to term--and I didn't watch the show).

For a description of the Oprah show, click here:

My friend was very upset about the repercussions of all of this--the exploitation of women's bodies in developing nations (yet another instance of outsourcing to India?), the racial aspects of a relatively wealthy white American couple hiring an Indian woman living in poverty, the premium on biology and birth over adoption (and transracial adoption especially), and just the overall problematics of commercial surrogacy--especially when these Indian women, who all have children of their own (a condition of their being surrogates is they have to have a proven track record of successful fertility and birth) must leave behind their children and live in a "surrogacy center" in another part of India until they have the babies for their hired Moms. Apparently there were a few Indian women they brought to Oprah's show and they actually cried when they talked about being away from their children.

I did a little digging and commercial surrogacy is apparently against public policy in India but not technically illegal (here's the abstract written by an Indian law professor). And I also found a chatboard (for families adopting babies from Guatemala) and according to one poster, commercial surrogacy is illegal in many countries.

I hope someone is doing research on this. What is particularly disturbing to me are the comments on the Oprah discussion board about this topic. It just seems that NO ONE is really disturbed at the implications of hiring out another woman's womb--and doing it for commercial profit. And more specifically than just the issue of surrogacy (which, I have to say I have less of a problem with, within an American context--perhaps because of the choices we, as Americans, have) is that it seems like it's predominantly white European and American couples hiring Indian women--the first world imposing on the third, a colonizing of the womb. The lack of examination of privilege--white privilege, American privilege, and the privileging of biological children--whether birthed by you or not--the privilege of one's genes,the possessiveness this implies...Isn't anyone else disturbed??? Why do we, as Americans, feel so entitled???

And is it just me, or is anyone else reminded of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Black Atlantic

Last night as part of a reading group I discussed Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic with a group of grad students and faculty, from various disciplines. And it was a really rich conversation--I mean it was academic (read egghead and chock full of jargon) but it was also provocative and interesting and we challenged each other on our interpretations of the book and about black culture and life in the U.S. and outside of it and the notion of blackness and race and identity and diaspora and comparative work. And about the tension in the particular versus the universal--in wanting to dispel any notions of an essential identity and yet still finding value in collectivities around racial categories. About talking about these issues in the abstract world of letters and the ivory tower and yet also understanding the historical and contextual reality of the dearth of actual black bodies in the academy (and for that matter, Latino, American Indian, and Asian American bodies--and I do mean Asian American and not Asian, and especially in the humanities and social sciences).

And I mention all of this because this morning I woke up and read a news piece about a noose that was found outside the office of an African American faculty member at Columbia University's teacher's college. For more on this piece, see the following links:

WNBC news article

Racialicious's blog post on the incident

What do an elite academic black cultural studies professor's book and a noose at Columbia University have in common? Well, I suppose in the most simplistic way, it means that despite neo-conservatives assertions, we have still not come to grips with the legacy of the middle passage and the transatlantic slave trade. That race does still matter--and that especially the darker your skin, oftentimes the worse you are treated. I'm not trying to rank oppression by that statement, but I will be the first to acknowledge that my experiences as an Asian American woman in the South are significantly different from an African American woman's experiences in the South (or in the nation at large for that matter). Just saying we are over race or beyond race or that we can transcend race does not account for a reality that race, FOR ALL OF US, is a reality we still haven't fully woken up to.

I don't have the space to really do justice to Gilroy's book--it's not perfect, but it is an important work and although it's pitched towards a college crowd, it has important things to say--and important things because they are pitched towards his peers--towards people in the academy who have not thought about the central importance of black studies to modernity and Enlightenment thought. But it doesn't matter if you read Gilroy or you listen to more organic intellectuals--people who don't necessarily have ivy league degrees but whose lived experiences make them more than qualified to talk about the experiences of race and history in the world. Gilroy is actually great about saying this--that jazz and hip hop musicians are also intellectuals and activists and have a message that may reach much farther and be more powerful than any academic work.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Little Buddha or Why Keanu Reeves should not be in this film

I finally got around to seeing the Bernardo Bertolucci film Little Buddha. Bertolucci's big American claim to fame was The Last Emperor, which won an academy award for best film in the late 1980s. Continuing his fascination with all things Asian, Bertolucci made an early 1990s film about an American couple in Seattle who are visited by a group of exiled Tibetan monks who believe that their son, Jesse, is the reincarnation of Lama Dogen, who is also the reincarnation of Sidhartha aka: Buddha.

The film features Bridget Fonda as the troubled white Mom. Rocker-singer Chris Isak as the troubled white Dad. Some Asian (perhaps American) actors as the beatific and wise Buddhist monks. And most inexplicably, Keanu Reeves, who plays Sidhartha through his pre-enlightenment days through his moment when he understands that he is "one" with the universe (ahhh...and how was Keanu to know that he really would be chosen to play "The One" one day).

I watched the film almost solely for the scenes with Keanu, which were all flashback scenes to Sidhartha's life in ancient Nepal. All other actors in these flashback scenes appear to be either South Asian or at the very least Southeast or even East Asian. Except for Keanu, whose skin is darkened and who speaks in this strange Indian accented English--sort've like a softened version of "Apu" on The Simpsons--but I mention Apu because it's almost that stereotypically bad an accent--as in, it's painfully bad.

So I suppose the question is this: Is Keanu in yellowface? Or maybe more accurately, brownface? When he was cast as the Buddha, and was interviewed about the appropriateness of a white man playing the enlightened one, Keanu busted out his Asian credentials and claimed a hapa identity for himself as half Hawaiian-Chinese and therefore uniquely qualified to play an Asian. And yet...watching him, there's something really wrong with his portrayal, and I'm not just talking about the bad acting.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Self Silencing

I've been thinking alot about silence and in particular self silencing and all the various ways that we self-silence: holding your tongue, being afraid to speak truth to power, feeling intimidated into silence, choosing silence in order to let other voices be heard, silence as a goal in itself, and other variants of this nature.

I've been thinking of self-silence because there are sometimes things I choose not to write about in this blog because I know it's public, and especially now that I don't require people to be invited to view this blog, I have no idea who is reading my words and the conclusions they are drawing about me and my work/research and how what I write in this space may or may not have ramifications for the people who comment on this blog, my academic reputation, or the professional and personal affiliations I have.

I have been thinking of self-silence because I have had thoughts about the Duke lacrosse case in Durham and the fall-out of that case and the reaction of the communities in the South and around the nation to this case, and the way it links up to other contemporary racial issues like Jena 6, Clarence Thomas's new book, and even Jimmy Carter's trip (along with other humanitarian representatives) to Sudan. And I know that I am not writing about the Duke Lacrosse case because of the negative experience I had 2 months ago, and it makes me feel like a coward--that I am not speaking truth to power, that I am censoring myself, that I am letting the mass group of (I believe largely) men who sent me hate mail or wrote scathing comments win.

And yet, I also feel like what would be accomplished by inviting another feeding frenzy into this blog space? It's not dialogue that many of what I'll call "the rabble" want--it's blood. Or at least it feels that way to me. And it also takes up so much energy to respond or to even choose not to respond. And it does raise the question of whether the blogosphere is the appropriate medium/venue/forum to have difficult, challenging, and respectful discussions about race from people who don't agree with one another.

Yet, how are we to reach any sort of understanding if we don't try? And why does civil discourse seem so hard to come by, especially surrounding issues of race?

Any thoughts?

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Hung on Top

Last night in its third season, Top Chef named Hung (don't know last name--they usually only refer to one another by their first names) the winner of the cooking reality tv show. Hung is a Vietnamese immigrant--his story came out in the penultimate show, when he finally got personal and discussed his motivations for being in the show--as a tribute to his parents: his father escaped from Viet Nam in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon, came to the U.S., and eventually brought the rest of the family over, while his mother is credited for teaching Hung how to cook, infusing him with the skills and passion for a life of the kitchen.

Although one would guess that I would be rooting for Hung, I actually was turned off by his personality during the show--he was highly competitive, independent minded, confident to the point of being cocky and arrogant, disdainful of his competitors, often scoffing at how easy a challenge was, and admitted that his strategy was to look out for himself only--that in a regular kitchen he was a team player but that during Top Chef he was in it to win and wasn't interested in helping other contestants.

Yet I wonder how much of my own distaste for him was based on the internalized stereotypes I've imbibed about the way Asian Americans should behave: deferential, communally oriented, humble, self-effacing, and quiet. Hung is none of these things, and I am glad that he IS so confident and sure of himself, as well as being skilled. Although, interestingly enough, one stereotype that was perpetuated on the show was that Hung had technical mastery but no soul or heart (a charge often leveled against Asian and Asian American artists/musicians). I think Hung does have heart and soul and I'm glad that he, along with Yul Kwon, are changing the face of media television, even if briefly, to demonstrate that Asian American men can be strong and confident winners.