Sunday, May 31, 2009

"Asian American experience is American experience"

To close out APA Heritage/History Month, I want to give you the text of a speech by Jennifer Hyashida, which she made to City Hall in NYC. I know Jennifer--she is an AMAZING scholar-activist. Her words are truly inspiration and the perfect note to end APA Heritage Month:

2009 APA Heritage Month Celebration

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

City Council Chambers, City Hall, New York City

Jennifer Hayashida

I am here as an educator at Hunter College, where I have been the Program Coordinator and Acting Director of Asian American Studies for the past two years. So, here’s the good news: about 30% of Hunter’s student body self-identifies as Asian or Asian American. And, the entire CUNY system serves more than 40,000 Asian American students – taken together, that’s as many students as there are enrolled at most large state schools, like one of the larger Penn State campuses, or UCLA.

But, it’s not just about the numbers: Asian American Studies is about more than just serving percentages of Asian American students – it is about how Asian American history is American history, Asian American experience is American experience.

To list just a fraction of what we do in Asian American Studies classes at Hunter, we study the relationships between first generation parents and their second-generation daughters and sons – in other words, we study the lives of you many of you in this room. We look at novels and poetry by Asian American writers; we look at how what happens in Pakistan impacts Asian American communities right here in New York City.

To sum it up, we look at events and experiences from U.S. history that are frequently overlooked or given just one page in the high school history textbook. These big gaps in what students learn lead to gaps in how they experience themselves as Asian Americans – just that term, “Asian American,” means that we insist that we can be both Asian AND American, that we do not have to choose between being foreign and being the invisible model minority. We began this struggle 40 years ago at San Francisco State College, and we still have a lot of work ahead of us.

Right now, I frequently have students who enter my classes with no idea about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, WWII Internment of Japanese Americans, or hate crimes against Filipino men who wanted to marry white women in the 30s. Students don’t know that Chinese Exclusion is a precedent for the Patriot Act, that Japanese Internment predates post-9/11 detention and deportation of South Asians. Students don’t know that Depression-era anti-miscegenation legislation against Asian Americans is currently being examined as part of the legal debate around gay marriage.

Asian American history and experience – our “heritage” – is a cornerstone of American history and identity, but right now it is buried and inaccessible to most of the students, Asian American or not, of our city.

This knowledge is especially vital to our young people who are arriving as first- or 1.5- generation immigrants, who find themselves between cultures and identities, and who are struggling to find a place where they don’t have to pick between being foreigners or being invisible. Learning about their ancestors’ experiences gives them a foothold in America. And, just as importantly, learning about Asian American history can build bridges between Asian Americans and other communities of color.

It is our responsibility to advocate for the rights of our daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, cousins, and, for that matter, fathers and grandmothers, to be able to attend schools in this city and expect to learn about APA heritage, the heritage we are here today to celebrate. That way, we can celebrate the triumphs of people like Fred Korematsu, who ultimately received justice from the Supreme Court, fifty years after he was jailed for refusing to be interned. Or we can celebrate the 1965 Immigration Act, which eliminated the restrictions on immigration from Asia and made it possible for many of us to be here today. Most importantly, we can then truly celebrate the everyday accomplishments of the communities we live in today, because we will have a better understanding of where we come from, the obstacles we have triumphed over, and the work that is left before us.

[Tip of the hat to Angry Asian Man]

[REMEMBER: Today is the last day to post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Urban spaces

I'm currently in NYC (I've been here since Wednesday with sporadic email/internet access--in case anyone is wondering, Blogger allows you to write posts and set a timer on them so they'll pop up sometime in the future, which is how I've managed to keep the blog populated even while I'm out and about). I'm here for both pleasure and business, but really, just walking around the city (Manhattan in this case) is really pleasurable, for me, because I have missed being in urban spaces.

I think urban spaces get a bad rap a lot of time. And truth be told, as much as I love visiting NYC and other big cities, I don't think I am the kind of person who thrives in urban spaces. Maybe it's the sensory overload. Let me give you an example.

When I first arrived in midtown Manhattan, I dropped my stuff off with my cousin "C" and headed out to just walk the streets and absorb some atmosphere. And my jaunt took me in about a 20 block circle (or square--Manhattan is pretty much laid out on a grid), and I was struck by how different the experience is of walking in the city versus walking in my sleepy Southern college town. The size and density of the buildings is one obvious difference, as is the size and density of the people walking about on the sidewalks. In fact, I deliberately walked through Times Square to get a sense of being in the middle of a throng. And it was a throng--I've never known Times Square not to be humming with people, and this day was no exception. And being in the middle of Times Square is to be in the middle of sensory overload. There are so many sights to take in--the people, the buildings, the bill boards, the lights, the huge screens flashing scenes from ads and movie trailers. The scents: you can imagine that they run the gamut of food scents and human scents (I have to say that one of the things I've always noticed about NYC is that there is a persistent smell of urine, whether of dog, human, or horse, never quite clear, but it overlays everything). The sounds: cars honking, police whistles, human conversation, and just the low level buzz of electricity--because there is so much electricity being pumped into this one section of NYC.

It was exhilarating and exhausting. And it does make me wonder about whether I could ever see myself living in urban spaces like NYC. Because on the one hand, there is so much that is exciting about living in a city--so much to take in. And lets be frank--there's so much diversity. NYC is diversity central on many, MANY fronts. But there is also part of me that feels tired being here. And I wonder what kind of toll that would take on me to be here day in and day out.

Friday, May 29, 2009

When to confront someone

The other day I was remarking to Southern Man that most people were non-confrontational; most people do not like to tell someone, directly, that they are upset by something s/he said. How and why I arrived at this observation is too long and convoluted to share (and a bit boring) so I'll just skip to the second part, which is that I read this post last week in Anti-Racist Parent by the blogger of Snarky Momma titled "Tiny Acts of Activism." In this post, Tiffany describes the small acts of activism that she (and others) are capable of by simply chiming in with, in her words, "gentle statements in everyday conversation" (click here to read the entire post).

And it got me thinking about the small things that people who are non-confrontational or who profess to be non-confrontational can do to help speak truth to power or work towards anti-racist practices (as well as other forms of social justice). Confronting someone when they make a racist statement or when you think someone is being racially insensitive doesn't have to be uncomfortable and it certainly doesn't mean you tell the person you think they are a racist (I've already discussed how using the "R" word, for me, isn't the path I choose when talking about racism since I've seen how people shut down the minute the word is introduced). But I do think it's important for us to speak up when we can. And I think it's important for us--those of us who want to walk the walk and not just talk the talk--to push our comfort zones in terms of when we are willing to confront something we believe is offensive.

I am a fairly direct person, and I will, in social settings, tell someone if I think their point-of-view offends me (Want proof? Go to the previous paragraph and click on the link where I say I've already discussed using the "R" word--I describe a very direct confrontation with WIWL (well intentioned white liberal) that was so intense that the friends who were at this party STILL tease me about it to this day). But I didn't pop out of the womb this angry Asian woman pointing my finger at people's chests and getting righteous on them (and truth be told, I'm really not like that--my own pedagogical style in the classroom is pretty much the opposite of cornering someone). I am not sure when I realized that I COULD speak--that I could chime up and say something. I don't think it was a sudden "AHA!" moment but more a gradual realization that not saying something, for me, was worse than saying something. That having that pit in my stomach after walking away from a situation in which someone said something racist was just the worst feeling in the world--and I would play that tape in my head over and over--the one where you step back in time and get to say the zinger that you thought up an hour ago--the one you didn't say because you were either too shocked, too afraid, too worried of hurting the person's feelings or causing a scene, or because you just didn't know WHAT to say.

And here's the thing I learned from my friend "J" while in grad school--that it's never too late. It's never too late to go back to the person, esp. if it's someone you know (and like) and open up that topic of conversation. It's never too late to write a letter to the museum about the docent who kept referring to Asian peopple as "Oriental" and who made you feel targeted and uncomfortable during the tour.* And it's never too late to decide that you can be an activist in whatever way is comfortable for you, right now, with the hope that you will be able to really speak truth to power when it counts so that you don't have that awful pit in your stomach wishing you had said something.

It's also never too late to expand the circle of what you find offensive. In the comment section of Tiffany's post, I realized that I am more inclined to confront racist rather than sexist or homophobic behavior. The "why" is probably a great question and something I need to examine further (and probably will in a future post) but what is most helpful, for me, is knowing that I want to be someone who walks the walk and dosn't just talk the talk. I want to be a queer ally and to stand up for my own rights as a woman and a feminist. And so I need to be speaking out more not less, in ways that people will be able to hear me, hopefully--because I AM a confrontation person. And by that, I mean that I just can't live with that sickening feeling in my stomach any longer--and I'm so glad that I've figured out that I don't have to.

*This is a real incident that happened to me while in grad school; on the urging of my friend "J" I wrote a letter to the museum about how uncomfortable I was by the docent's language and treatment of me (every time she pointed out a work of "Asian" art she turned to me and asked me what it meant--WTF???). 3 days after I mailed the letter, I got a phone call from the director of the museum apologizing to me and telling me that the docent (whom they had had complaints about by others for different reasons) would be spoken to, again, and welcoming me back for another tour whenever I was free. It really made me feel glad I had said/written something.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Thursday, May 28, 2009

R.I.P.: Him Mark Lai and Ronald Takaki

Two giants in the field of Asian American studies...two men who helped to create Asian American studies, who researched, recorded, wrote, taught, lectured, and talked about the importance of understanding the history and significance of Asians in American life over the last two centuries, passed away in the last week.

Him Mark Lai, known as the "dean" of Asian American history, died on May 21, 2009. Ronald Takaki, a pioneer in the field of not only Asian American history, but multicultural history and just plain old American history, died on May 26, 2009.

I chose this photo of Him Mark Lai because it is emblematic of the work that he did for the field of Asian American studies--behind him is a small fraction of the works he collected over his lifetime--works in both Chinese and English that documented the Chinese in America. Over time his research interests would broaden to include other Asian ethnic groups as well as understanding the roots of racial prejudice against Asians in American and his work to combat this prejudice. There are those in the academy who scoff at "independent scholars"; Him Mark Lai was trained as an engineer but his passion was history and he will be known as an archivist par excellence.

Click here for a Hyphen Magazine piece celebrating his life and here for an article on him on the National Archives website.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ronald Takaki at a book signing in Harvard Square when I was in grad school. It was the only time I've been at a book signing when we had to stop because there was a disturbed person who kept interrupting the author. Throughout the whole strange altercation, Dr. Takaki kept his cool--he even wanted to hear what the guy had to say (when it was clear that the guy was hostile and probably mentally ill). I'll never forget that talk, not only because it was the only talk I attended in which the police had to come and escort someone out of the building but because through it all, Ronald Takaki kept his composure, was gracious, and even funny after the fact, in a self-deprecating way (I think he made a quip about hoping the guy wasn't a reviewer from one of the major newspapers).

I have read, cover to cover, Strangers from a Different Shore. It is a work of both depth and breath, which is a hard feat to manage, especially in a field like Asian American history. He will be sorely missed for his many academic contributions, but he will be remembered as a historian who pushed others to really comprehend the important place of Asian Americans and other people of color as being a crucial but underrepresented slice of American history. Click here on a piece by Asian Week honoring Dr. Takaki's life--they will be running a series of pieces on him throughout the week.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pictures speak louder than words

This photo speaks volumes. And it demonstrates the power of having an African American man in the Oval Office:

Taken from the Official White House photostream on Flickr, with the following caption:
President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a family visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009. The youngster wanted to see if the President's haircut felt like his own. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

[Tip of the hat to Anti-Racist Parent]

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kip Fulbeck: speaking his truth to power

Since this blog is called Mixed Race America and it's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, then it's appropriate to recognize a scholar-activist-artist who has spent his career talking about, writing about, teaching about mixed-race issues: Kip Fulbeck.

"My World" -- Kip Fulbeck

It's Kip Fulbeck's world: the rest of us are just passing through.

For more on Kip Fulbeck (mixed-race spoken word artist and kick-ass Asian American professor at my alma mater) click here.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Friday, May 22, 2009

T.G.I.F.: Helen Zia

I should begin this post by disclosing that I know the subject of today's T.G.I.F. (The Great Impossible Feat). But this is not why I've chosen to talk about Helen Zia today. Helen Zia is an Asian American activist par excellence. She most famously is tied to Vincent Chin--fighting for justice on his behalf. She was featured prominently in Christine Choy and Renee Tajima's excellent documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? (by the way, if you haven't seen this documentary, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT, although truth be told, it will be hard to find outside of indie video rental shops or college/university libraries).

The first time I met her was when she came up to me after I delivered a conference paper on R. Kelly and The Matrix called "From R. Kelly to Keanu Reeves: Asian influences in American Pop Culture" (to be honest, I'm not sure if this is the exact title, but I know that the title had both R. Kelly and Keanu Reeves in the title, which made people scratch their heads since this was an academic conference). I saw her walk into the room and was pleased that she stayed for our panel and then shocked when she came up to me afterwards and asked for my card because she liked my paper! You have to understand: I am a total academic geek. So Helen Zia coming up to me at the end of a conference panel and telling me she wanted my card would be the equivalent of having George Clooney or Helen Mirren coming up to you and asking you for your autograph--you'd be speechless (and I nearly was).

So why was I so thrilled? Because I want to be Helen Zia when I grow up. Seriously. This woman was a community organizer in Detroit back in the day when we had no idea what a community organizer was. She was on the front lines of fighting for social justice in the Vincent Chin case, but has also continued to fight for social justice for many causes, like women's rights (she was an executive editor at Ms. Magazine), queer rights, Asian Americans falsely accused of espionage, like scientist Wen Ho Lee (she helped co-author Lee's My Country Versus Me), civil rights (she has testified to Congress about racial impacts in news media) and the connection between race and gender (which came about from her research on women who join neo-Nazi organizations). She is also clearly in support of gay marriages since she was featured on the cover of the New York Times as one of the first couples to be married to her long-time partner Lia Shigemura in 2008 when California, for a brief and shining moment, allowed gay marriage in the state (she and Lia also married in 2004 when Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed marriages to occur in SF City Hall).

[Helen and Lia at their 2008 wedding at SF City Hall]

Plus, she is the author of an incredible book: Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. I had the privilege of introducing Helen at a book reading at the latest American Literature Association conference.

When Helen talked about writing this book and finding a publisher for the book, she talked candidly about wanting to tell a story, private yet public, personal yet global, about Asian American experiences that reflected the reality of Asian American life, which means talking about queer Asian Americans and her own experiences as a lesbian and coming-out. And her book talks about gender, class, racism, and a host of other topics in an organic and empowering way.

Helen Zia continues to be a scholar and activist and journalist and a woman who wants others to be involved--like most recently with this video she did on behalf of AAPI Momentum encouraging APA people to get involved and volunteer the week of May 24-31 as part of AAPI Week of Service:

[Tip of the hat to Angry Asian Man]

Helen Zia inspires me to want to work on behalf of social justice issues; her dedication and devotion to multiple causes is admirable. Like I said, I want to be Helen Zia when I grow up. Which is why she gets the T.G.I.F. award for not just talking the talk but walking the walk of social justice as a life-long activist.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Thursday, May 21, 2009

2050 here we come!

The Daily Show's Larry Wilmore on the upcoming white minority

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
White in America - The Children
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I'll be lost without LOST!

Today is Wednesday, which means that usually, starting around 8:45pm, Southern Man and I stop whatever we are doing and head to the living room, turning off our cell phones, shutting down laptop computers, and turning on the television in preparation for Lost. Except that our routine will be broken until January 2010 because the two-hour season finale was last Wednesday, and I can sense, already, that we'll be going into withdrawal when 9pm rolls around.

[This was the promo poster for Season 5--the most recent and penultimate season--and the only character "missing" who really did return was Jin, but that was part of the suspense--to see if he really died at the end of Season 4 (he didn't--he made a miraculous return on a piece of lumber in the ocean, ah the suspension of belief!)]

I've written about my addiction to this show before, and I only lightly touched upon it in that previous post, but really, I used to think that the show was stupid. Who wanted to watch something that was so convoluted that you had to go back and watch previous episodes to get a heads up and where you had this island that no one could get to and some folks running around in the jungle called "Others"--wasn't that some sort of veiled racism?

[Aside: It's not--I mean, the reference to the "Others" doesn't seem to be a racial one, although I suppose you could say that it's a commentary on the way that we, Americans like to turn anything different of foreign into an "other." And it's predominantly an American or Westernized show, filled with Americans and a smattering of Brits and Australians and then we've got Sun and Jin who are supposed to be Korean but are the actors are both Korean American and I just learned that whenever they speak Korean THEIR VOICES ARE DUBBED! This was confirmed in a podcast by one of the show's producers, Damon Lindelof. Which raises all sorts of questions about why they do this and why Jin and Sun need to be Korean and not just Korean American, although I would say that the attempt to add a non-Western, "global" element to the show is important, esp. since they've killed off the "African" character, Mr. Eko--a Nigerian former drug-lord turned holy man.]

OK, so now I've turned into one of those people who are going to be wandering around my living room at 9pm wondering what to do with myself because the show's two-hour finale was last week, and it's on hiatus until January 2010.


But I did want to comment, here, on one element of the show that I think has gone unremarked upon in the Lost forums I've read recently (and I admit, I only read 3, which in my world is probably 3 too many although for true Lost addicts, probably a drop in the bucket): the inter-racial marriage of Rose and Bernard.

As you can see from the above image, Rose is an African American woman and her husband, Bernard, is white. You get their back story in the episode, "S.O.S." (season 2, episode 19)--how they met, Rose's cancer, Bernard's attempt to find a cure for her, being separated when the plane crashed (literally not maritally) and, eventually, being reunited. They are two of the most popular characters on the series, even though they are fairly minor in the Lost universe. And very happily for a lot of viewers (including yours truly) they appeared in this season's finale, having survived all those weird time-shifts on the island, being thrown back into 1977, and miraculously avoiding detection by the Others as well as the Dharma Initiative (and yes, for anyone who isn't a regular viewer you don't know what I'm talking about but that's OK, you can get caught up this summer in preparation for the last season by going to the ABC website and watching all past episodes FOR FREE or just hang on and I'll get to the inter-racial commentary in just a second).

Where was I?

So the fact that Rose and Bernard are of different races doesn't seem to make anyone bat an eyelash--in fact it's almost completely unremarked upon, aside from one comment by Hurley (and you can forgive Hurley because he's got a heart of gold and is a bit of a doofus) who remarks casually to another character (I think it's Jack but I can't quite remember) "Dude, did you know Rose's husband is white?" Jack (or whoever it is) doesn't even react and just says, "So?" And that's about the end of that.

In fact, the interesting thing is that we are introduced to Rose in the pilot, who is seen being comforted by Jack over the loss of her husband, but she tells him that she KNOWS her husband is alive in the tail section and she is just waiting for him to come find her. I'm sure that most folks watching assumed that her husband is black. And it's not until Season 2 when we are introduced to the survivors of the tail section and we see Bernard frantically asking Mr. Eko whether any of the deceased he helped pull out of the water are black women--are his wife. That's when viewers learn that Rose was right--her husband IS alive and he's a white guy.

So the show really doesn't comment about the uniqueness of their inter-racial marriage. Which in some senses makes perfect sense on two levels. First, when you have survived an airplane crash on a deserted island and find that there are all these weird supernatural elements happening and a group of hostile people kidnapping and killing people, well, you've got other things to think about than whether or not people are in an inter-racial relationship. Secondly, it's just not a big deal.

And it's the second part I appreciate. That the show didn't talk about it. But that they did create an interesting back story and characters for these two people who are married--who act like a REAL married couple who squabble and roll their eyes at one another but who also laugh and love and act like people who really care about one another.

Rose and Bernard as a real married couple who love one another AND who happen to be of two different races (and who are also an older married couple, which is another thing I really liked about them--they didn't meet when they were teenagers or young adults, they met when they were middle-aged and they fell in love, which is not a storyline you hear about) makes a very loud commentary without saying a word about race and identity. And their reappearance in the Season finale was a breath of fresh air--and an interesting commentary on the nature of life and love. Because rather than be sucked into the drama of everyone else on the island, Rose and Bernard tell Kate and Sawyer and Juliette that they're done. That they are content to live out the rest of their lives on the island with one another (and with the dog, Vincent, who is also happily still alive) and they don't need to help them stop Jack from detonating a nuclear bomb or fight the Others or return to the present. They just want to be with each other because that's the most happy ending they can think of: to live the rest of their lives in the company of the one they love the most.

Which is, when you think about it, about the best any of us can ever hope for.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

APA Heritage Month: Recognizing Larry Itliong & the AWOC

In honor of APA heritage/history month, I will be doing some posts recognizing the contributions of some lesser-known APA citizens, and today I want to introduce you to Larry Itliong and his connection to a more well known activist, Cesar Chavez.

Itliong was president of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a mostly Filipino American organization. Through his work with labor organizing and protesting for better working conditions, across racial and ethnic lines, Itliong formed, along with Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the now famous United Farm Workers (UFW).

[Itliong is on the far left and Chavez is on the right]

For more on the history and connection between Itliong and Chavez, please read this article, "Cesar Chavez Day and the Forgotten Asian Americans" by John Delloro. (And special thanks to "D" for the link to the article). I think it's important to remember that Asian Americans have always been part of American history and society, and unlike the divisive "model minority myth," have also always worked alongside activists of various races (like Yuri Kochiyama) for social justice and a mixed race America for everyone.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hey people, can we talk? Obama wants YOU to dialogue

So last night I saw President Barack Obama's graduation speech to the 2009 graduates at Notre Dame (where unlike at Arizona State, he actually received an honorary law degree). Click here for the article at the New York Times.


And I have to say, I know he has really great speechwriters, but DAMN! Listening to him, the eloquence, elegance, intelligence, and thoughtfulness of this speech is just incredible. He addressed, head on, the controversy over choice/abortion that plagued his invitation to Notre Dame, and he called for people to work together rather than separately--to find common ground--to realize that we have many more important issues that face us than to be divided and polarized into warring divisions.


For the full text and video of Obama's speech to Notre Dame, go to the Huffington post here.

And finally, The Daily Show's take on ASU dissing Obama on an honorary degree:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Arizona State Snubs Obama
Daily Show
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[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Star Trek: To boldly gone where we've already gone before

So it's been over a week since the opening of Star Trek--the movie. This, for the uninitiated, should not be confused with the following:

*Star Trek: The original series (the one with Shatner and Nimoy)
*Star Trek: The Motion Picture
*Star Trek: The Next Generation (the one with Patrick Stewart as Picard)
*Star Trek off-shoot series like Deep Space 9, Voyager, or Enterprise
*The number of films made starring both the first generation cast (like the ones with the whales) OR the TNG cast (like the one with the Borg/invention of warp drive)

This, is the Star Trek that opened last weekend:

[It's minus Spock but otherwise it's the whole cast]

As I've written about before, I am a Trekkie (or Trekker) at least in the sense that I have a deep and abiding fondness for both the original and TNG series. I've seen every episode of both the show from the 1960s and the one from the late 80s/early 90s, and I've seen all the movies made with both casts too (Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan KICKS ASS!).

So of course I saw the film during opening weekend. And I've waited until today, deliberately, to talk about the film because I didn't want to give anything away to any die hard Star Trek fans. So yes, there are spoilers ahead, which means if you have not seen the film and don't want to know what happens (or what I think about the film), then STOP READING RIGHT NOW!

OK? Are you still there? I'm assuming if you are still reading you either have seen the film or don't really care about having the plot described and/or really aren't into Star Trek/Science Fiction and are just curious about what I'm going to write about. And what I'm going to write about is Star Trek and race.

[Found this image by doing a google search--thought it was pretty cool that it was in black and white since I'll be talking about race]

Let me first begin by saying that I really enjoyed the movie. I liked getting the back story on characters that were so familiar to me, and I thought the writers did a good job of integrating former Trek lore and storylines with a new Trek cast. In fact, one of the things I was most skeptical of, having the original Spock in the form of Leonard Nimoy actually be part of the plot of this film. But it was well done and handled the pesky question of inconsistencies that were bound to pop up in this film version. The alternate universe plotline works for me as a way to appreciate what this film is doing as different from the previous films/series but still see that it is within the Trek universe.

[Aside: I am a bit troubled about the whole destruction of Vulcan and genocide of their race. I mean, I know this is supposed to be an entire alternate universe and everything, but all I could think about is that it really throws off a lot of different storylines of the original cast and even TNG--like the return of Spock in the 3rd film. Also, if we are thinking of a time when the earth has worked through its issues of war and poverty and conflict, why are we still encountering so many other "aliens" who want to kill us or harm us or maim us based on our species difference from them? Seems like even in an inter-galactic way, we can't get away from trying to hierachize each other or, in the case of Spock's mixed "race/species" identity as half human, half Vulcan, that there's still a troubling language of "purity" that permeates the future.]

But in thinking about Star Trek as a franchise and with respect to this new film in particular, the question of race is something that I was aware of as I was watching it and also has popped up in other forums before--like in this Colorlines blog post "Race Wire Goes to the Movies: Star Trek edition" and in a recent comment thread on this blog by one of the commenters (thanks "I").

[Aside: It seems as if only 1-2 of the commenters are actually Trek fans; the majority of the commenters are, in their own words, "Trek virgins"--which I think may explain for the harsh criticism/scrutiny that they bring to bear on the film]

So here's what I think about race and Star Trek. As much as I want it to reflect a future reality in which race or perhaps white privilege/supremacy is a thing of the past, the reality is that this film, like the other films before it and the entire franchise as a whole, is part of a Hollywood/media system in which white men play lead roles as heroes and people of color are in secondary roles, with a white majority being cast as natural extras for the background shots. So this new film is no exception. Because Captain James T. Kirk was played by white actor William Shatner in the 1960s, he continues to be played by a white man in the first decade of the 21st century. Could the writers/producers/directors changed the race or even the gender of the central cast? Not on your life--the very loud and large Trek fan base would HOWL with RAGE at the changes.

I'm not quibbling with the racial makeup of the central cast. In fact, if we recall that the original series was made in the mid 1960s, then you have to recognize that the multiracial cast--and the introduction of a female central cast member--was progressive. But that doesn't mean that there aren't observations to be made about race and gender--that there aren't MORE women in leading roles within the leadership of Starfleet or this new Trek universe--after all, there were several "new" characters introduced that could have been cast as either people or color or women. Even the scenes on Vulcan with the other vulcan children--what we mainly see are little boys and not little girls (which doesn't seem logical does it?).

So the underlying message of this film is still the same as most motion pictures--white men are in charge, women are either absent or in supporting roles (and what is UP with Uhura and Spock being in a relationship? I mean, not to get all ethical, but really, you aren't supposed to be having an affair with your professor, which is what is happening between them--they began their relationship WHILE UHURA WAS HIS STUDENT), and mulitculturalism is a nice backdrop where you have a few token ethnic characters (Scottie, Sulu, Chekov).

But still...I loved the film! And that's the thing--I think you can critique something and realize that it isn't perfect and isn't even a vision of the future that you believe in but nevertheless find an affection and delight in suspending disbelief. I also think that unlike with just any other action film, because this is a science fiction film and because of the cultural import of both the social-historic role of Star Trek (it was one of the first shows to have a multiracial cast, it projected a future where there is no longer racism or poverty, and lets not forget the first inter-racial kiss projected on network tv between Kirk and Uhura).

[It's the original cast with the new cast side by side]

Star Trek--the movie, the original series, TNG, and all the other series (which, for the uninitiated are a bit better on the race and gender front--Deep Space 9 had an African American commander and Voyager had a female captain; granted, these series weren't nearly as good as TNG, but then nothing that followed was) have, at their core, this belief that in the future we are going to get beyond some of the social ills that currently plague us like hunger, war, racism, and sexism. And that's a message that I want to hear and believe in.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Saturday, May 16, 2009

APA Book Review: Secondhand World -- Katherine Min

In honor of APA Heritage/History Month I thought I'd kick it off with a book review of a novel I just finished by Katherine Min, Secondhand World.

Click here for a Ms. review by Helen Zia and here for Katherine Min's website.

This is Min's first novel, and it's an impressive first attempt because she juggles many themes both common and unique to the already large body of Asian American literature. There are the typical tropes of immigrant hardship and assimilation. There are the war wounds (this time it's the Korean war) that trickle down and through this Korean American family living in upstate New York in the early 1970s. In some ways, this family is the tragic corollary to Gish Jen's more comic (and comedic) coming-of-age novel, Mona in the Promised Land. Both novels feature immigrant parents with Americanized teenage daughters living in white enclaves during the 1970s in the height of the civil rights era, where they are "the only one"--the only Asian Americans, the only one who really "looks" racially different from their peers.

But whereas in Mona, the title heroine assimilates with her Jewish American peers and becomes part of the cultural and historic moment, for the protagonist of Secondhand World, Isa Myung Hee Sohn (named by her more free-spirited Korean mother after Isadora Duncan but given a traditional Korean name by her more tradition-bound father), history and the larger world seem farther away and her peers are not also "minorities" but are, instead, middle-class WASPs who taunt her on the schoolbus, using racial and racist epithets across the ethnic slur spectrum: gook, chink, jap. But more painful than these childhood torments are the various tragedies that propel the novel--for it opens with Isa in a burn ward, disclosing to readers that she has been orphaned after her home burned down. How these events came about forms the basis of the plot (and mood and characterization) of Min's novel.

I don't want to give too much away--as I said before, there are some themes typical to Asian American literature, like the struggle to assimilate, to reconcile the ethnic past, to negotiate generational differences between Americanized rebellious children and their more traditional (and often conservative) Asian-ethnic parents. But there are also some differences, key ones, in Min's text that made me think she was doing something a bit different then just the typical American immigrant tale gone awry. One detail that is definitely different is the introduction of Herold "Hero," Isa's boyfriend, who also happens to be an albino. Yet perhaps it's the overall sense of sadness--of tragedy--that overlays the novel that makes it feel different than other typical immigrant hardship tales. Or perhaps it is because this novel seems to embody the Korean word "han"--a word that has no exact translation in English but that expresses a deep and abiding melancholy and sadness--one that is rooted in the core of one's being, that informs one's worldview and actions but nevertheless keeps one moving forward, because it's not a despairing melancholy but a knowing melancholy.

At any rate, the voice rings true--and it's a very easy read. Although I do think that there were some places that needed either truncation/editing (the bus scenes, in particular, while probably true/authentic to many of us who were tormented by racist slurs is just a bit too cliche) and although the "difficult immigrant father" trope permeated the first 7/8 of the novel (with the last 1/8 revealing a past and a rationale for her father's stoicism) there were other things that Min captured so well about being a teenage daughter mis-understood by her parents, struggling to figure out how she can adapt to her world--which is what all teenage girls struggle with at some point. So Isa's story reads as both universal and unique at the same time.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dan Choi & Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

A Letter from Dan Choi distributed by The Courage Campaign, sent to my email inbox two days ago:

Dear Jennifer,

In March, I went on Rachel Maddow's show and spoke three truthful words: "I am gay."

As an infantry officer, an Iraq combat veteran and a West Point graduate with a degree in Arabic, I refuse to lie to my commanders. I refuse to lie to my peers. I refuse to lie to my subordinates.

As a result, the Army sent a letter discharging me on April 23. The letter is a slap in the face. It is a slap in the face to me and it is a slap in the face to the soldiers who I have commanded and served with over the last decade.

I have served for a decade under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- an immoral policy that forces American soldiers to lie about their sexual orientation. Worse, it forces others to tolerate deception. As I learned at West Point, deception and lies poison a unit and cripple a fighting force.

That's why the Courage Campaign and CREDO Mobile are getting behind me today. And I'm getting behind them along with Knights Out -- an organization I founded to bring attention to the ways "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" undermines our national security.

I need your support. Please ask President Obama not to fire me. Click here to watch my recent interview on Rachel Maddow's show and sign the Courage Campaign's petition asking the President to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy:

In the ten years since I first raised my right hand at the United States Military Academy at West Point and committed to fighting for my country, I have learned many lessons. Courage, integrity, honesty and selfless service are some of the most important.

That's why my discharge from the Army is so painful. I am not accustomed to begging, but I am begging President Obama today: Do not fire me.

My subordinates know I'm gay. They don't care. They are professionals. My soldiers are more than a unit or a fighting force -- we are a family and we support each other.

Will you support me as well? Please ask President Obama to keep his promise and tell Congress to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law and support equality in the military. Click here to watch the Rachel Maddow interview and sign this petition to the President ASAP:

Very Respectfully,

Daniel W. Choi
New York Army National Guard

Dan Choi's March interview with Rachel Maddow:

Rachel Maddoew's piece about Dan Choi's letter to President Obama:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Nearly 40 years ago, May was designated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. And on May 1, this is the proclamation released from the White House by President Barack Obama:
The vast diversity of languages, religions, and cultural traditions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continues to strengthen the fabric of American society. From the arrival of the first Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrants 150 years ago to those who arrive today, as well as those native to the Hawaiian Islands and to our Pacific Island territories, all possess the common purpose of the fulfilling the American dream and leading a life bound by the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we remember the challenges and celebrate the achievements that define our history.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have endured and overcome hardship and heartache. In the earliest years, tens of thousands of Gold Rush pioneers, coal miners, transcontinental railroad builders, as well as farm and orchard laborers, were subject to unjust working conditions, prejudice, and discrimination——yet they excelled. Even in the darkness of the Exclusion Act and Japanese internment, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have persevered, providing for their families and creating opportunities for their children.

Amidst these struggles, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have contributed in great and significant ways to all aspects of society. They have created works of literature and art, thrived as American athletes, and prospered in the world of academia. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have played a vital role in our Nation's economic and technological growth by establishing successful enterprises and pushing the limits of science. They are serving in positions of leadership within the government more now than ever before. And along with all of our great service men and women, they have defended the United States from threats at home and abroad, serving our Nation with valor.

From the beaches of the Pacific islands and the California coast, the grasslands of Central Asia and the bluegrass of Kentucky, and from the summits of the Himalayas and the Rocky Mountains, the Asian American and Pacific Islander community hails from near and far. This is the story of our more perfect union: that it is diversity itself that enriches, and is fundamental to, the American story.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 2009, as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. I call upon the people of the United States to learn more about the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and to observe this month with appropriate programs and activities.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this first day of May, in the year of our Lord two thousand nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-third.

[I know that Obama has people to write up these things, but I can't help but think that given his background from Hawaii, the man has some intimate knowledge about Asian Pacific Americans and their heritage and history. After all, his sister is Asian American, they both lived in Indonesia for a while, and his brother-in-law and niece/nephew are Asian American. In fact, one could consider Obama to be our first Asian American president]

Anyway, in honor of APA Heritage/History month, I'm going to offer five lucky commenters the chance to win one of the following books:

*Free Food for Millionaires -- Min Jin Lee
*Trail of Crumbs -- Kim Sunee
*The Fortune Cookie Chronicles -- Jennifer 8 Lee
*Transparency -- Frances Hwang
*Strangers from a Different Shore -- Ronald Takaki

All of these books were donated by the Hachette Book Group (if you click on the titles, you will get a description and it will take you to the Hachette Book website). Some of the above books I've read already, like Free Food for Millionaires. Takaki's book is required reading for anyone interested in a broader history of Asian Pacific Americans on this continent (or in the Pacific). Anyway, in honor of APA History month I'll be trying to write specific posts with tidbits of little-known Asian American factoids, especially those that emblemize a mixed-race America.

All you need to do for a chance to win one of the five books I've listed is to write a comment sometime during the month of May (all those who have already commented from May 1-13 are automatically entered to win). I'll draw five names, at random, on June 1 and then have Hachette Book group send you your winning book. How easy is that!

And on that note, let me end with a spoken-word clip by an artist I've written about in the past, Beau Sia, and his piece "Asian Invasion":

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Extreme Makeover Home Edition: Miracle or Manipulation?

[Warning: Long and rambling post ahead. Proceed with Caution!]

Last night I had dinner with some friends, who invited over visiting scholars from China (one of whom made an enormous and delicious 8 course meal for us). I am always a bit anxious around Chinese nationals, especially visiting scholars, because I know that I'm an object of wonder and scrutiny for them. The usual round of questions begin with whether or not I am, indeed, of Chinese heritage, where my parents are from (which, when I get to my mother's Jamaican background, leaves them baffled, and I often wonder if they think something has been lost in translation). Anyway, after we go through the fact that I speak neither Mandarin nor Cantonese and that I've only traveled to Hong Kong for a week (with a day trip to Guanzhou), I'm usually treated the way you treat a stray mutt--with a mix of curiosity, wariness, and pity. When I asked one of the scholars whether she'd ever met anyone like me before, she shook her head and smiled, saying, "You are the first Chinese American I have ever encountered," with a tone of reverence you'd use for discovering a rare and exotic bird species.

I know for these two visiting scholars, I am an anomaly. On the one hand, during dinner they often turned to me to act as a cultural translator between themselves and their white American hosts--this was especially true over issues of food and cooking and hospitality--where the rules for a Chinese dinner are very different than American norms often are. And yet, I couldn't help feeling like my cultural translations were far from perfect. In fact, I think my anxiety in being around Chinese nationals is always feeling like a fraud--and it's never clear wear the fraudulence lies--in my not being Chinese enough or not being American enough or a combination of the two.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not trying to say that I'm an anxiety riddled mess. I've worked out a lot of cultural and ethnic identity issues over the years. And yet, I share all of this with you to suggest that even as a woman in her late 30s who works in issues of race, these things are never easy or straightforward.

Which brings me to today's topic: Extreme Makeover Home Edition.

What is the connection between my feelings of fraudulence and ambivalence over my ethnic and national identity and this show? The airing of one particular episode that I caught after the Masters aired in mid-April--the one featuring the Kadzis family of Tallahassee, FL.

Now, I'd never seen an episode of Extreme Makeover. So I didn't understand that there was a formula or that families are picked because of their extreme need or that community members help out to raise money for the family and, most importantly, supply the labor and materials to build the home in a week.

However, even knowing all of this now, it seems to me that the episode (which is, to date, the only episode I've ever seen of this show) seemed to be the most EXTREME of Extreme Home Makeover cases.

Let me try to sketch out the background of the Kadzis family for you:

*Father, George, is a dentist who works for the Florida prison system
*Mother, Barbara, is a public school teacher, who had 3 adult sons from a previous marriage
*Bio-Son, Chris, a teenager, who is really into music
*Adopted-Son, Martin, around ten-years old, missing bones in his right arm, really into trains.
*Adopted Daughter, Aileen, teenager, abandoned by mother when she was eleven when father died of cancer, likes the ocean (or stars, I can't remember which)
*Adopted Daughter, Julia, teenager, deaf, likes the stars (or ocean--see above)
*Adopted Daughter Melody, teenager, blind, likes to read the Bible in braille
*Adopted Daughter Phoenix, nine-years old, first adopted child, has had numerous operations for cleft palate, wants to be a teacher.
*Adopted Daughter Celeste, six-years old, second adopted child, has had numerous operations for cleft palate, wants to be a teacher.

I should also mention three things at this point. All of the adopted children are from China; George, Barbara, and Chris are all white, so this is a mixed-race family. And most significantly for the pathos of this show: George was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. In fact, the day before EMHE arrived in their big bus to blow up the house and start to build their new dream home, George collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital. He had lost his vision, and the doctors said it would be a matter of weeks maybe even days (or hours) before he would go.

That was my introduction to this show. Actually, it was a home video of George and Barbara and their kids, with a very tearful George explaining that he knew he was going to die, and his last dying wish was to have his family feel secure in a good home. The current state of the house that the Kadzis were living in was deplorable--the home was literally falling apart, and nine people were sharing one bathroom (that alone blew my mind, let alone thinking about how Melody had to navigate through the minefield of the house as a blind person or the fact that Martin had to sleep in the living room and didn't have a proper bedroom).

The entire show lasted two hours. It was Easter weekend, and my best guess is that the producers of EMHE picked the most heart-wrenching, gut-twisting, tear-jerker of an episode to coincide with Easter Sunday. I had tears coming down my face in the first 5 minutes and kept having to dab at my eyes throughout the two hours (and I'm not overly sentimental). And the whole time I was riveted to my television set I just felt hugely ambivalent and conflicted over what I was watching. Because...

*I felt like I was being manipulated by ABC. I mean, yes, you'd have to be a monster not to feel for this family. Any diagnosis of cancer is heartbreaking for a family, but the fact that they were a family in SO MUCH NEED just tugged at your heartstrings. AND the fact that they seemed to be GOOD PEOPLE who really loved one another--but I'll get to that in a minute.

*I felt like a voyeur. I mean here is the suffering and grief of one family displayed on national mainstream television for everyone to see.

*I felt relieved and glad that this family had been selected and would gain assistance from ABC, their corporate, consumer sponsors, and the local community.

*I felt heartened by the overwhelming community support and the support of the EMHE team--many of whom were shown dabbing away at their eyes and/or openly crying.

*I felt absolutely cynical that ABC was doing this all for ratings and that, like in the first bullet point, I was being manipulated into FEELING for this family, and that my feelings would therefore translate into higher Nielsen ratings for ABC and potentially more consumer dollars being spent at Sears, Bed, Bath and Beyond, and the host of other corporate sponsors who helped to furnish the Kadzis's new home.

*I felt enormous empathy for what this family was going through--the impending loss of their father and the struggle to live their lives without him (and for Barbara to be a single Mom raising so many children).

*I felt angry at the language of "rescue" continually being evoked by the EMHE crew and volunteers about the adopted children.

It's this last point that I've especially been mulling over. Because I felt like SO MUCH EMPHASIS was put on the children's racial/ethnic difference from the rest of their community (which from the looks of the volunteers appeared to be a largely white and black community). There were also several white parents with adopted Chinese children who were friends with the Kadzis who were also featured quite prominently. And SO MUCH WAS MADE of the fact that Barbara and George adopted children who were older, who were "special needs," and who had been living in Chinese institutions/orphanages without the benefit of education or, in the case of the blind and deaf daughters, language/communication.

And THAT element--the racial element, the ethnic/cultural element (as you can imagine there was some bamboo flute playing and some Chinese/Asian aestheticiziation going on in the remade home that made me cringe) is one of the things I feel has gone unremarked upon as I've searched for commentary about the Kadzis family and EMHE.

Let me be clear and say, I'm not criticizing the Kadzis family. Certainly not Barbara nor George (who, dramatically, passed away 3 days after the house was completed. He never got to see nor set foot in his new home, but at least he died knowing his family had a safe and lovely home to live in), who appeared to genuinely love their children and especially Barbara, when one of her children thanked her for saving her from the life she had in China, told her "No, we didn't rescue you. You rescued us. We thank YOU for being part of our family" (I'm paraphrasing here). But I do think that the producers and the host and team of EMHE milked the ethnic/adopted/transnational/disabled angle for all it was worth.

In other words, I felt distinctly like what I was supposed to feel was PITY for these children, ADMIRATION for George and Barbara for saving them from a life in China of misery and neglect, and THANKFULNESS for ABC/EMHE/Tallahassee community for, in turn, rescuing the Kadzis family from the neglect that was about to befall them upon George's certain death.

And yet...I WAS glad. I mean, I DID feel enormous relief in knowing that this family would be getting a new home--that it was outfitted to support Melody and Julia in terms of their distinct accomodation/needs given their sight and sound challenges. That they were given money by ABC for the mortgage and that the children, as they went into their mourning over the loss of their father, were outfitted, literally, with new clothes from Sears and with computers and musical instruments--and most astounding of all, a surprise visit from Stevie Wonder--WHOM I LOVE AND ADORE. Yes, I love and adore Stevie Wonder, although musically speaking, I prefer the Wonder of "Sir Duke" rather than "I Just Called to Say I Love You"--one of the most treacly songs in the world.

[Aside: It is also my parents' favorite song--it's "their song" so to speak, so I have to respect it and give the man his props even for a song whose banality makes me want to weep]

I am rambling, I know. But I have been pondering what to say about Extreme Makeover Home Edition and how I feel about how I was manipulated by ABC and about the disturbing language and subtext about transnational/transracial adoption from China. AND YET how effective that manipulation was--how real the pain of this family is--how real their grief--how real their love.

So. For any of you in the blogosphere who has seen either this particular episode or who are (ir)regular viewers of Extreme Makeover, what do YOU think? Was it a miracle or manipulation on ABC's part (or, as I very well know, something much more complex than the false binary I am constructing).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Racial background vs. foreground: Seven Pounds

This weekend I saw the film Seven Pounds. It came out this past December starring Will Smith and with the same production company that produced Smith's Pursuit of Happyness.

And I was struck by the way that the film featured, in the background and the foreground, so many people of color.

[SPOILER ALERT: Although I will try NOT to give away too much of the film's plot/ending, there may be inadvertent spoilers that come up, so if you want to see the film without knowing any specific details, STOP READING NOW]

The star of the film, Smith, is African American. As is his past love interest (which we see in flashbacks). His current love interest in the film is played by Rosario Dawson (which means that her character can be interpreted as either Latino or mixed-race African American or just simply African American). Woody Harrelson (white American) plays the role of a blind man, Barry Pepper (white American) is Smith's best friend in the film--and his partner/wife is African American. And other characters whom Smith encounters in this film (which I should note here takes place in Los Angeles) include Spanish speaking/Latino (probably Chicano) characters, African Americans, and white Americans.

[Aside: Curiously enough, not a whole lot of Asians featured in this film--which always puzzles me, like in two other LA setting films, Hancock and Crash--this is a city chock full o'Asian Americans so how come they don't feature as prominently or when they do, they almost always appear as stock caricatures--and here I'm thinking of the Vietnmaese accented criminals who open Hancock and the Chinese immigrant couple (speaking Chinese and Chinese accented English) in Crash.]

In one scene in particular, Smith's character speaks in Spanish to a Latino woman, not because the woman can't speak English but seemingly to demonstrate that she can trust him -- that he quite literally speaks her language. And Smith, who it turns out speaks a smattering of Spanish, has a very good accent.

Unlike Crash, race, or perhaps its corollary, racism, isn't central to the film in the sense that this is a film ABOUT race. What I mean is, the characters don't talk about their racial identities. They don't talk about discrimination--and, in fact, quite pointedly I think, the one stark inter-racial couple, the white best friend of Smith's character and his black wife, are introduced to the audience while playing golf. I mean lets face it, if you were going to find a scene where you'd have a racial clash or comment, doing it on a golf course where you have an inter-racial black-white couple with a black man showing up in the middle of the fairway seems as good a place as any.

[Aside: I should also add that it struck me as odd--the golf scene. Not from a racial pov, but because when you play golf, you usually don't have random people in suits walking up to you on the fairway to have a conversation--and they were standing on the middle of the fairway, and I must admit that the golfer in me wondered what the other players were thinking about Pepper and Smith's character just chatting away on the course, and why the marshall didn't come out and tell them to keep play moving or ask Smith to leave, but then again there are A LOT of things about this film that causes you to pause and question the logic, which is another thing I suppose I should mention for anyone wanting to see it.]

One of the interesting things that I realized, as I saw these various characters unfold and get introduced and fleshed out through the course of the film is the use of race as a tonal element. Similar to Hancock, there are various characters of various races introduced. But what seems distinct from Hancock is the prominence of minor characters who are major to the film being people of color. In other words, the people of color in Seven Pounds are in some ways peripheral but also very important to the film to show that Smith's character lives in a world populated with people of different ethnic backgrounds who are part of his intimate inner circle as well as random strangers and acquaintances he encounters in his day to day life. Race, as a tonal element in this film, suggests what a mixed-race American looks like where people are just people and are defined by their function within the film (doctor, lawyer, best friend, golfer, aeronautic engineer, printer) but not by their racial or ethnic attributes/identity.

As I noted above, there are some logistical anomalies or problems at the heart of this film, so to speak. But it's also an incredibly philosophical film about the nature of life and death. And perhaps, given my recent melancholy mood, it was what I needed or wanted. The unexpectedly interesting introduction of so many different characters of color just living their lives in this film made it a bonus for me -- and made me realize that Hollywood really IS capable of doing this--of incorporating more characters of color in both the background and foreground--not to introduce the issue of race but to more accurately reflect the fact that for many of us, we live in mixed race worlds where people of different races just are.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sorrow and Sadness

I know that I've been in blog silence for a few days--and the last two posts were really a series of YouTube clips that I found, for your edification and enjoyment. It's a combination of things, really, keeping me from blogging about things I think are relevant to the theme of "Mixed Race America"--the end of the semester, final exams, a visit from a family member--but right now, what I want to share is that I'm incredibly sad because...

*A close family member has passed away recently from a long illness.

*A huge swatch of Santa Barbara is burning--and the fire started in the foothills, very near to where I used to live (on Cieneguitas, which is Spanish for "little swamp"). The devastation is incredible--hundred of homes burned and thousands of people evacuated, and the fire still isn't contained (click here for updates on

*A young woman about to graduate from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT was recently gunned down by her ex-boyfriend in a campus bookstore. Johanna Justin-Jinich would have graduated this year from Wesleyan. She had a summer internship lined up in Washington DC. She was passionate about women's issues and had volunteered at Planned Parenthood offices in both Colorado (where she was from) and Connecticut. When I read Tenured Radical's blog posts about her murder, especially this one, I literally had to hold back my tears (I am currently, as in right at this very moment, proctoring a final exam for my 20th C. American literature course. If students had looked up from their blue books about 15 minutes ago, they would have seen me with my hand over my mouth and tears in my eyes as I read about Johanna's murder).

All of which is to say, I feel very emotionally raw right now, and as much as I would like to comment on interesting topics, like whether Cinco de Mayo is a "real" holiday or simply a gringo's excuse to drink under the guise of a Mexican holiday, how I feel about that new Tiger Woods Gatorade commercial, where he is a cartoon boy version of himself, and Extreme Makeover Home Edition (so MUCH to say about that!). But for now, I think I'm just going to try to keep it together so I can collect the last of my student final exams, grade their papers, and hope that nothing tragic happens to them (or to me/my family/my loved ones) in the next few days.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Friday Fun

For something on the lighter side, a collection of clips, movie trailers, parodies, and commercials from around the blogosphere. They are a motley, weird, and random assortment--some you've already seen, I'm sure--particularly the last one (I can't WAIT for them to actually air this segment of Sesame Street in the fall!).

Both black and white people are welcome to shop at "The Red House" [and apparently "Hispanics" too, but what about us Asians???]

Trailer for the film Paper Heart

A "Gaythering" Storm [take THAT you NOM/man-lady group! The only thing I wish is that they had played "They're raining men" at the end of the clip]

Elmo & Ricky Gervais