Saturday, June 11, 2011

All things Asian American

So I know that this blog skews Asian American -- which I suppose is a function of the fact that I study/research/teach Asian American studies, and I identify as Asian American myself. What this means is that folks send me lots o'links to all thing Asian American. Sometimes I sit on them for months, thinking that I'll write a whole blog post about them. And then months past and what we have is a situation where I realize that the relevancy of the moment has passed and now I have all these links.


Here's a few of the links I've been sent over the last few months. I'll include a little blurb by me, but for the most part I think you should check them out if you too are interested in things Asian American. And if you would like to see more diverse content on my blog, feel free to write to me (you can find my email address by looking at the sidebar and the "About me" link) and send me more links.

*Asian Americans & You Tube
This is not going to be a surprise for most folks--that Asian Americans have adopted YouTube as their own network--African Americans have BET and Asian Americans have YouTube (OK, that is an imperfect analogy for several reasons, but you get my gist). Anyway, this is an NPR piece about Wong Fu Production and Ryan Higa--Asian American young men who have created YouTube mini-movies that have reached millions--yes, MILLIONS. Check out Agents of Secret Stuff--it's a bit masculinist and sophomoric at times (I mean, these guys are straight out of college or in college) but it's also interesting for the way it handles issues of race and being Asian American, which is that it doesn't--it normalizes it--which is fascinating in itself. And Higa is pretty funny!

*What it means to be an Asian American man?
So Wesley Yang has written a piece in New York magazine about what it means, to him, to be Asian American and the stereotypes that cohere around Asian Americans and the fact that being a model minority is not all its cracked up to be, especially with that damn bamboo ceiling that no one can crack [insert Panda joke here]. The thing is, for all the hand-wringing that Yang does, there really isn't anything new that he's talking about (for 11 pages--it's a looooonnnnnggg essay) for folks who work in Asian American studies. In fact, I was formulating a response when a much smarter and cooler colleague, erin Khue Ninh wrote her own trenchant and insightful piece in The Huffington Post directly answering many of the points that Yang raised in his article. In particular, I was SO GLAD that erin dealt with the sexism inherent in this essay--because one of the things that bothered me A LOT was the idea that somehow Asian American men have made it in America only when they are able to have sex, at will, with white women--this is erin:
Learning to become an "alpha male" who can confidently paw strange women is a sexist way of dealing with the sexism directed against Asian men. Needing to bed white people as proof that you've made it is a racist way of dealing with the racism directed against Asians. Yang claims in interviews here and here that his article doesn't sanction either of those aims per se, but in that case he really should not have wrapped with this particular call to arms: "we will need more [Asians] ... willing ... to beat people up, to seduce women."

*More Asian-white inter-racial romance
The inspiration for my last post on inter-racial romance was actually this piece in The New York Times by Diane Farr (who apparently used to be on Num3ers, which I've never seen), a white woman who falls in love (gasp!) with a Korean American man (they're married with 3 children). The spin, if you will, is that it's not just her parents who object to her cross-racial dalliances, it's HIS Korean parents who are racist and who object to their son dating across the color line. She's apparently written a book about the whole experience of her inter-racial love. I'm sure Wesley Yang will feel very encouraged to know that at least one Asian American man has succeeded in America by bedding and wedding a white woman.

*2011 APIA Spoken Word and Poetry Summit--Twin Cities
If you are in the Twin Cities area August 4-7, please check out the APIA spoken word and poetry summit. They've got a great line up of folks--some very familiar and revered, like Lawson Inada and David Mura and newer/up-and-coming artists. If I weren't going to be on my honeymoon (yep, Southern Man and I are finally taking our delayed honeymoon in August!) I'd consider buying a ticket to the Twin Cities/Minneapolis and enjoying the festival.

That's it folks--by the way, tomorrow I'm heading to Columbus, Ohio for a 2-week narrative theory seminar. So I may be taking a bit of a blogging vacation--if you have any recommendations of eats in the Columbus area, please let me know in the comment section!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Politics of Inter-racial Romance

Yesterday I shared a story with a student, "H," about why I wasn't attending a wedding that my husband and his family were at that very same afternoon. My husband and his brother had been asked, a month ago, by their father (my father-in-law if you will) to help work at the wedding of a close family friend--to act as bartenders essentially. I was invited to attend as a guest. Now, I've been with Southern Man going on 4 1/2 years and I have come to know and love his family. So I felt that it might be time to start voicing some of my more honest opinions and concerns with my in-laws.

[Aside: For non-regular readers of this blog, you should know that Southern Man and his family are white--Scotch-Irish on his father's side and southern Italian on his mother's side, which for the South means that my in-laws, when they were married in the 1960s, were actually seen to be in an inter-racial relationship! My mother-in-law was seen as being "ethnic,"--because her parents were immigrants, because she was darker complexioned, because she cooked with garlic, and because she was not from the South (she grew up outside of Pittsburgh).]

So when my father-in-law invited me to attend this wedding, which would be an hour away from our liberal college town in a more suburban and conservative area of the state, I said:

"'C,' I feel comfortable with you and hope you won't judge me too harshly for what I'm about to ask and confess. Here's the thing: I get racially paranoid around groups of all-white people I don't know. Will there be mostly white people at this wedding?"

My father in law was pretty taken aback, I think, although to his credit, he tried to not to act too surprised.

[Aside: my sister in law "L," who is engaged to an African American man, completely cracked up at my question, which made me feel better because she understood where I was coming from]

"C" (my father-in-law) assured me that there would be "diverse" people at the wedding--which was his way of saying that I wouldn't be the only spot of color among the 300 guests.

However, later that night, Southern Man said that he thought his father was being overly optimistic, so I should just stay home, especially since I wouldn't know anyone outside of my in-laws and because I wouldn't even be able to hang out with Southern Man since he would be tending bar.

When I told this story to my student, "H," she and I began talking about the politics of inter-racial romance--especially what it means to be a politically progressive Asian American woman interested in issues of social justice and aware of how Asian American men have been viewed in larger society, romantically speaking, who dates/marries white men.

In other words, how do I keep from being a walking cliche?

The truth is, I'm not sure I do. I mean, I am aware that when people see me and Southern Man, we do not upset the status quo--after all, an Asian American woman with a white man is a fairly standard pairing in real life and even in infrequent reflections in popular culture: Klinger dated a Korean woman on M*A*S*H, Sandra Oh's character on Grey's Anatomy first dated a black surgeon then a white surgeon, that Asian American best friend on The Gilmore Girls dated a white guy, and if I could think of more depictions of Asian American women in mainstream media I guarantee that if they're depicted as being romantically involved with someone it's not with a fellow Asian and usually with a white guy.

[Aside: Or at least I'd say this is true in cosmopolitan areas and college towns--the truth is, we've had our fair share of hard looks in West Virginia and more rural areas of the South--this is where the idea of Asian as honorary white really breaks down--you may be OK eating at their restaurants but you don't want your son and esp. your daughter marrying one of THOSE people]

I am a professor of Asian American literature who studies mixed-race issues--I KNOW the politics of inter-racial romance and especially the way that desire and race have been coded in the U.S.--the ways in which Asian men, in particular, have been feminized in and demonized, so that they are not seen as desirable sexual partners.

[Aside: If you don't believe me, check out the work of scholar Gina Marchetti and Darrell Hamamoto, among others--and the excellent documentaries: Slaying the Dragon (1988) and Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded (2011).]

So why am I married to Southern Man?


I love him. As I write this, I know that it's not that simple. I've written in the past about this very fact--the ways in which I, and others, are impacted by internalized notions of race and beauty. The way I, and others, are influenced by society and popular culture into thinking that there are certain partners who are more desirable and attractive than others. I know that part of my attraction to Southern Man is bound up in the many reasons I'm supposed to find white men attractive, above and beyond other men. And I know that on the surface we look like we are perpetuating certain stereotypes of inter-racial dating models, particularly those that have a history of neo-colonialism and imperialism in Asian nations where the U.S. military has invaded throughout the 20th C.

But I do love him. And there are things I love about him that aren't reducible to either his race or ethnicity or mine (our shared love of dogs, of cooking, of politics). And I think deciding that I couldn't or shouldn't date him because I want to be politically correct--because I want to live the political progressive politics that I espouse--wouldn't ring true.

I think what's difficult is that no one questions the same-raced couples. There is an assumption that if you are of the same racial group and you are dating or partnered, this makes sense. Because this is still seen as "the norm." So it's only when people fall outside of this pattern that questions of politics arise. But as with thinking of the term "ethnic" as referring not only to people of color but to encompass white Americans as well, I think we should begin asking what the politics of NON-inter-racial couples says about our society and culture--why, in a time of increased globalization and an attention to social justice issues--why wouldn't more people date across ethnic, cultural, and racial lines?

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?)