Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A community of one's own

So I just got back this past weekend from the American Literature Association Conference in my old stomping grounds of Boston. As the plane was landing at Logan Airport, I experienced a rush of nostalgia and affection as I scanned the surrounding Boston area, trying to find familiar places, like Mugar library at Boston University, Fenway Park, the Prudential tower, and of course the Charles River. And in the 3 days I spent walking around downtown Boston (and for anyone who lives in the area who knows me, I apologize in advance for not contacting you--I was in conference mode and barely left the Westin at Copley Center, except to eat good sushi and Vietnamese food), I reminisced about my grad student days and enjoyed my time with my fellow American literature colleagues--my academic community.

And 2 weeks ago, I found myself in New Orleans experiencing a different community at yet another conference, the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS). This is my go-to conference--the one that I rarely miss (in fact, I've only missed 2 conferences in the last 11 years). This is the conference I feel most at home--the kind of friendly conference where you can usually just strike up a conversation with someone and grab a bite together or strike up a conversation with others at the hotel bar that you barely know and make friends. I feel like I get my batteries re-charged at AAAS because not only am I in a space (roughly 600+ attendees this year) where folks are interested in Asian American issues/scholarship, it's also a place where most folks ARE Asian American.

[Note: But not all--and I certainly don't want to make it sound like the only people who do Asian American studies or who are interested in Asian American issues are Asian American--or that the conference and association isn't welcoming to non-Asian Americans, because that couldn't be further from the truth!]

Anyway, now that I'm back from these back-to-back conferences, I've been thinking about community and what we mean when we talk about community. I think sometimes in academic settings, especially when one is dealing with ethnic studies and/or racial issues, "community" signals non-academic folk who are "real" people with "real" issues and who are often dealing with issues of power/oppression. For example, in many urban places, like Boston, there are Chinatowns that are no longer just havens for Chinese in America but places where other recent Asian immigrants (Vietnamese, Hmong, Cambodian) also live/work and who are oftentimes disenfranchised in terms of language (for those who are not fluent in English), legal resources (for those who may be extralegal or just aren't familiar with their legal rights), and culture/education (for those who may not have graduated with higher degrees or whose lack of English makes their degrees not as useful--there are many cases of recent immigrants who were doctors and lawyers in their home countries who come to the U.S. and work as janitors and cab drivers because of the lack of English language skills and/or because their degrees don't translate, so to speak, in the U.S.).

But is this the only way to talk about "community"? I often wonder if it's a bit condescending--especially in academic settings--to speak of "the community" as if people aren't speaking for themselves. Now, it might be that people aren't listening to them because of issues of access to power/a microphone/soapbox in which people can vent the issues that they are most concerned about. But I have been thinking, lately, about what people mean when they talk about "community" especially with respect to ethnic and racial communities since they are often so diverse in terms of class and religion, and if we're talking about a racial group like Asian Americans, then "community" almost seems non-existent, except in the context of political activists or academics since the issues that face most ethnic enclaves are specific to that group (Koreans in Koreatown, Los Angeles, Vietnamese in East New Orleans, Burmese in Chapel Hill).

At AAAS I attended the Mixed Race Section meeting, and I was acutely aware that I was the only person (at least I believe I was the only person) who was not multiracial. I teach on this subject and research this subject and my blog is called "Mixed Race America"--but I am not mixed race myself and I do not consider myself a part of the mixed race community because I do not identify as multiracial (although I might consider myself multiethnic, but that's another discussion). And I think that's an important distinction because while I am very interested and invested in multiracial issues and my research and teaching encompasses many aspects of mixed race studies, it is not a personal identification and I don't wish to inappropriately appropriate a community identification.

And does make me wonder about people who have cross-cultural and ethnic and racial interests. The African American woman who loves manga and K-Pop. The Asian American guy who loves salsa dancing and playing in a Cuban band. The White American woman who cooks Indian food and watches Bollywood movies. In that last instance, I wonder if folks would see the white woman as appropriating or being involved in exoticizing a culture not her own--whereas in the previous two examples, would we cry inauthenticity or appropriation or exoticization at the African American woman who learns Korean to enjoy her favorite K-Pop tunes? Or the Asian American guy whose passion is Latin music?

I don't really have answers for any of these, but I think that thinking of what we mean when we talk about "community," especially for the communities we belong to is important, both to un-fetishize "the community" as real (or the place where people "keep it real") as well as to figure out what communities we exist in or want to exist in but may not have access to (and if it's a community we don't have access to, then it can't really be our community, right?)

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