Thursday, September 27, 2007

Scenes from Seattle

In an effort to be less bare bones/text driven, I offer a few scenes from my trip to Seattle--a brief Asian American pictorial if you will.

First panel of mural at Pike's Place commemorating Japanese Americans' contribution to Seattle and the legacy of internment.

Last panel of mural at Pike's Place commemorating Japanese Americans' contribution to the area and the legacy of internment.

Lion dance in Seattle's Chinatown

Bruce Lee's gravesite (and the orange I brought him when I paid my respects)

A Diverse Final Three

I'm addicted to the reality show on Bravo, Top Chef, and tonight's episode whittled down all the competitors to the final three: Hung, Casey, and Dale--a Vietnamese American immigrant, a white American woman, and a gay white American man. The one straight, white male, Brian, just got voted off on tonight's episode. Dale sports a mohawk and has a fairly masculine vibe going on, Casey is feminine but also stands her ground and isn't any more or less emotional than her male competitors, and Hung is the most aggressive and confident and independent of the three. A lot of stereotypes being broken and challenged in this show, so Bravo to Bravo!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I'm at the Portland, OR airport and as I'm looking around me, it dawns on me that there are is a certain homogeneity to airline passengers--especially at 8am (I've been here since 7:00am) and especially when it's not summer. Although I do think you can detect certain regional differences (there tends to be a higher concentration of Asian American passengers in the Bay Area/CA), in general most airline passengers appear to be white middle-class American--with a fair number of them being business travelers (mostly male, some female). There's more than a similarity to race, however--there's a similarity to our luggage, to our dress, and in a post-9/11, post-British bomb scare world, there are many less carry-ons and many more flip-flops/sandals.

It does make sense that airline passengers would be a fairly middle-class bunch--although air fares have decreased in recent times, the truth is, it still costs money and it takes a certain mentality to fly (I recently came across a few examples of people who never fly--out of fear-anxiety but also because they were priced out of such travel or believed themselves to be and because they never flew before, as adults I think there was a certain anxiety about this type of unknown travel).

So my question is: are there any places that are truly heterogeneous? Where diversity really exists on every level--gender, race, class, sexuality, region, religion, age? Traveling by train you see more people of color (especially in the South you see more African American travelers) but there still doesn't seem to be true diversity (there are also a lot of college aged people on trains). Would a baseball game be a more representative slice of America? Do sporting venues give us the chance to come together en masse and in public? Or perhaps it's the hospital--after all, illness never discriminates.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Legacy of Internment

This is my last day in the Pacific Norhtwest. It has been a fruitful research trip, and an even more fruitful recharging the batteries trip. And unlike my recent excursion in West Virginia, nothing on this trip has really sent me into the realms of racial discomfort and paranoia, although there have been moments, in reading and researching about the Japanese America internment/incarceration, and in looking through the archives and handling original documents related to this piece of history, when I have been filled with a sense of deep sorrow and sadness.

I don't know why the Japanese American internment/incarceration has this effect on me--but I've always felt a strong pull to make sure people know the details about this period in U.S. history--that one of the worst flauntings of the constitution happened with Executive 9066--that Japanese Americans experienced the worst brunt of institutional racism and discrimination--one whose legacy is felt to this day, not only within the Japanese American community but in terms of our own governmental policies with respect to post-9/11 and Iraqi and Afghani detainees.

It always amazes me that more people don't comprehend the ramifications of EO9066--that the constitutional rights of ALL PEOPLE, INCLUDING U.S. CITIZENS, WERE SUSPENDED ON FEBRUARY 19, 1942 and the U.S. military chose to only incarcerate people of Japanese descent. Sure there were a few Italian and German men (almost all were immigrants and had not been naturalized) who were detained, but there was never a forced, en masse removal of German or Italian American people on the West Coast. And there was never a case of espionage by any Japanese American--so the conceit of "military necessity" was a myth that many historians have since proved in the aftermath of internment.

And again, as I wrote in an earlier post, the internment was never only about the Japanese American community. There have always been allies of various races who protested the internment. And there were certainly plenty of people of all races (including some self-hating Japanese) who probably thought it was a good thing. But I guess the thing to remember is that like it or not, we're all in here together. I'm not trying to plead a Rodney King "Can't we all just get along" mantra, but I do think that we need to remember the past and to understand that it's never just about one group--the legacy and ramifications of internment (like slavery and like the displacement and genocide of American Indians) affects us all.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Baby Steps

Recently I received an email from a former Mount Holyoke student who wanted to get me caught up on her life and to share an anecdote with me. A few years ago she was working for a Fortune 500 company and found herself in a board room with about a dozen people (mostly men in their 40s and 50s) to review a brochure that would advertise the "diversity" and "global influence" of their company. The image they selected for the brochure was of a geisha. The student, who had taken an introduction to Asian American literature class with me, as well as an independent study on Asian American literature, realized, immediately, how problematic this image was, took a deep breath, and told them what her concerns were and made suggestions for more appropriate images to convey the message of diversity and global awareness. Her suggestions were both heard and taken seriously, they got rid of the geisha, and they implemented the new images.

Baby steps, but important ones. And I'm really proud that she was able to speak truth to power, to make her concerns heard, and to be taken seriously. She attributes a lot of her core convictions to being a Mount Holyoke alum, and I have to say that after teaching there for 3 years I am a convert to single-sex education. So here's to all of us taking small steps to try to enact social justice, one brochure at a time.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Speaking Out

I'm in Seattle doing research in the University of Washington archives. They have a lot of materials about the Japanese American internment, and two of the files I looked through were of Seattle area attorneys, Austin Griffith and Arthur Barnett, two men who represented various Japanese Americans and wrote letters to various government officials in an effort to find exemptions for these people from internment, and in the case of Arthur Barnett, a member of the American Friends Service Committee, he was very active in working with the Japanese American community in helping them through the evacuation, relocation, internment and then eventual relocation back to Seattle. Barnett, was also the attorney who represented Gordon Hirabayashi, one of four people who brought lawsuits against the US Government alleging the unconstitutionality of the camps (he didn't win during his time but he was vindicated years later, along with Min Yasui and Fred Korematsu).

Which just goes to show, there have always been people who have protested injustice--there have always been white allies. And I think that's important to remember, we've never just stuck to our own.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Asian American Chick Lit

I'm in the middle of reading the second of Kim Wong Keltner's Asian American chick lit books, this one called Buddha Baby. The first, Dim Sum of All Things, followed the adventures of 20-something Chinese American, San Francisco born and bred Lindsey Owyang. Neither is very good. As in, bad writing. As in, bad chick lit writing. The writer uses extended metaphors and similes in every paragraph and a lot of them are cheesy. The characters are relatively two-dimensional, and basically, it's just not good writing--the prose is not singing off the page, but rather, clunking off the page.

So why am I reading it? Well, there's this odd tension in the book--it seems to want to be chick lit and yet it also wants to be this self-consciously reflective piece of social justice and Asian American activism. It contains a little Chinese American history lesson in its pages, and a larger Asian American consciousness that does feel reminiscent of some of the better Asian American literature out there. It's this weird hybrid form, and actually, for that reason, I feel it's not successful--because it just doesn't know what it wants to be.

Or maybe, it's just bad writing, I mean what do you do with a passage like this:

"She was like an early Californian panning for gold, believing in her right to discover buried secrets. However, the strong current of verbal reticence that invisibly gripped the nearly dried-up Owyang riverbed hardly ever yielded a shiny pebble of insight" (Keltner 76).

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Middle Passage Legacies & Residue

Last night I saw August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, which is the first (in chronology) of his cycle of African American plays that are set in the Hill district (a predominantly African American community) in Pittsburgh, PA. Gem of the Ocean is set in 1904 and features Aunt Esther, a spiritual leader of the black community, a woman who is 284 years old who holds the memory of the Middle Passage--the trauma of slavery--one who helps to heal and to "cleanse" the souls of black folks.

It was a remarkable play, and as one of my friends said, it really brought home the point that slavery--the legacy and residue of slavery and the middle passage, is a theme that continues to inform the lives of African Americans and all Americans. It is not simply a thing of the past to forget about and move on from. It is an entity that continues to inform how people live their lives.

We can see this in the Jena 6 case (see below to the post "Being Paranoid vs. Being a Target"). The latest update is that the charges of second degree murder have been overturned from the lead African American teen (thank goodness!). For more, go to this NY Times article (click here):

And the thing about the Jena 6 case and Gem of the Ocean is that both make a point that while white Americans have oppressed and abused and victimized African Americans, there is still space for inter-racial relationships, friendships, and intimate connections. Certainly the legal team and alternative media outlets and social justice organizations that worked on this case were staffed by people of various races. And even within the play there is a character, Selig, a white American peddler, who is clearly a friend and ally to the African American household central to the plot. And this is also what is important to remember, that the U.S. has never been monoracial, in either its composition or its intimate relations--there has always been inter-racial intimacies.

Anyway, after watching Gem of the Ocean I wish I could sit down and watch the 9 other plays in the cycle. An overwhelming task, perhaps, but an important one--because I think it's paramount for ALL Americans to really understand what the legacy and residue of slavery and the middle passage has left us, and how we can come to terms with this legacy--not to wish it away or believe it is gone but to move forward without forgetting.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Asia as Sign and Symbol

I'm in the Pacific Northwest doing research on the Japanese American internment (I'm looking for obscure references to an obscure policy that exempted a scant number of women and children of Japanese ancestry from internment). It's great being back on the West Coast. I'm doing work and staying with friends and yesterday I had two experiences that reminded me that while I may be back on the West Coast, and while there may be more of a critical mass of Asian Americans (than in the South) there are still incidents that remind me that "Asia" and references to "Asia" and "Asians" (whether American or not) are still used as signs and symbols of difference.

Incident #1: I am talking with my friend in a public spot with some acquaintances of hers and we are talking about her Thai friend and another person mentions having met this Thai friend and another man turns to us (we, I should say, are the only Asian American women in this group) and the man says: "I knew a Thai mail order bridesmaid." Believing he had misspoken, that he meant to say "bride" instead of "bridesmaid" I say "Wow, that makes me sad" and the man comes over to sit next to me and explains that it was supposed to be a joke--one that a comedian Steven Wright had made once upon a time. But the timing of it, as well as the creepy factor I got from him made me feel like it wasn't an innoccuous or innocent reference.

Incident #2: In the play, "Distracted," that we went to later that night, a play about a white suburban California family who are coping with figuring out how to handle their son's diagnosis of ADD, there are several references to outsourcing of jobs to India, cheap goods made in China, the perils of not inoculating your child because there are all sorts of children now coming into the country and into our public schools--from Asia, Africa, Korea, China, Ethiopia, El Salvador, and Mexico, and they are bringing their diseases with them, and my favorite, a query about whether a man is black or muslim because his skin is so dark, and whether it would be possible for him to be muslim because he is in a gay relationship.

All of these remarks were peppered throughout the 2 1/2 hour play--and they were minor incidents--said for quick laughs. The main drama was about this white suburban family struggling with the trauma of their son's diagnosis of ADD. And I'm not trying to say that family issues and particularly ADD isn't a real or serious issue, but the entire play smacked too much of white middle class privilege--of the kind of norms that one often takes for granted that the U.S. is made out of. And very subtly, with all these references to "Asia," made for cheap laughs, it also reinforces the continued notion that to be "from Asia" or have ancestry in Asia is to not be fully incorporated within the American social fabric. After all, you may be part of the brown hordes bringing diseases to the uninnocculated white children of America.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Do I Need to Travel to China?

Today at Staples I was waiting to make 5 photocopies at the single copier that was working. An elderly gentleman (probably in his 70s) was photocopying what looked to be (and turned out to be) his legal life documents. He was affable enough--even offered to interrupt his copies to let me jump in, but he said he was almost done and in an effort to fit in more to Southern norms and culture (ie: to be more patient) I said it was OK for me to wait and he really was done within about 7 minutes (a long time for me but in the scheme of things, probably not a big deal).

At any rate, as he finished up, he turned his attention to me and asked: "Are you Hawaiian?"

Let me pause here and note that I was wearing a brown sundress that showed off a lot of my skin, which at this point in the summer is a fairly healthy caramel color. I also had my hair down, and I don't know if these things are stereotypically "Hawaiian" or not but I also have to say that when I have been mistaken for "Hawaiian" it's normally older white American men whose dalliance with the South Pacific has taken the form of a trip to Oahu or Maui where I'm sure they've seen lots of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans who are local and hence "Hawaiian" and perhaps I do look like them. I should also add, though I'm sure you can guess, that this older man is white.

Anyway, I say: "No"

And he insists that I look Hawaiian and I shrug my shoulders and say I'm not, at which point he asks the dreaded question that ALL ASIAN AMERICANS HAVE HAD TO ANSWER AND THAT MOST OF US HATE: "Where ARE you from? Which country?"

Me (sighing inside--I mean, I just want to make 5 lousy photocopies): "I'm from the United States of America."

Him, now a bit flustered: "No, I know that, I mean, where are your parents from...where are your people from?"

Me (not willing to give in): "California"

Him: (now he's bemused and acting like I'm retarded rather than being frustrated by my obvious deference of his questions): "No, I mean what is your ancestry? Where are your ancestors from?"

To which I tell him that if he's asking about my ethnic background, it's China/Chinese.

Him: "Oh! Ni hao?"

Me (now being deliberately obtuse): "Sir, if you are inquiring as to whether I speak Cantonese or Mandarin, I do not."

Him: (now laughing amiably because he thinks we're having a jolly little conversation): "Oh, I've been to China several times and have picked up a few useful phrases. Have you ever visited China?"

Me: (now just annoyed, I mean, he's a nice older fellow, but really, I JUST WANT TO MAKE MY PHOTOCOPIES): "No, I've never been to China."

Him: (he's now VERY SURPRISED and in ADVICE mode): "But you HAVE to go to China. It's where your people are from!"

And I just shrugged and made my photocopies and he left, finally.

And so, here's the question: Do I really NEED to go to China? My Mom grew up in Jamaica (yes, I omitted that from our conversation because I really didn't want to be talking to the man in the first place) and my father fled China in the 1950s. There are no close relatives in China, that I know of. I don't speak Cantonese or Mandarin. I have nothing against China--I would love to walk on the Great Wall, to visit Shanghai, to see the Weigar population of Western China. But there are also places I'd love to go: Italy, Tibet, Costa Rica, Kenya, the Galapagos Islands, Great Britain. Do I owe China a top priority because I have an ethnic connection?

Sunday, September 9, 2007


Ever had a moment when a word, a typical word, all of a sudden started to look foreign and you had to think hard about what that word really means? The word "public" is often used as the opposite of "private." I've been thinking of what "public" means since this blog is now, once again, public. It is now open to the general public (you don't need an invitation to view the blog or to register with blogger to view it). Anyone can find their way to this blog, to read my random thoughts and musings, my off-the-cuff remarks about the state of race in America (and any other things I happen to be ruminating on at the time).

There are now rules of engagement, so to speak, about this blog (see the right sidebar). When I began this experiment three months ago, I really thought that only a handful (as in maybe 3-4) people would ever read it--it was really a pre-writing excursion to get me jumpstarted with the book project. But after a surreal incident at the end of July and a lot of thoughtful comments from people, on and off this site, I realized that I'm interested in this blog for a variety of reasons, and like many academics who can't stop thinking of the next project, am hoping to write about my experiences with this blog one-day (maybe sometime soon...more on that later).

Anyway, that's my post for the day. To think about the word public--that there has been a tension in my life between the public and the private. That I value my privacy--I want to contain myself and my innermost thoughts to myself, and yet here I am, going public, with my thoughts on this blog (even when it was by invitation) and by making this blog open to the public once again. And really, I've always been proud that I was a public school girl (educated in California's high school and university systems) and that I teach at a public university. So it does seem appropriate that the word of the day is public.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Tribute to Madeline L'Engle

Madeline L'Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time (1963 Newberry Award Winner) died yesterday at her home in Connecticut at the age of 88. A Wrinkle in Time (and the follow-up book, A Wind in the Door) was probably one of my favorite childhood books. It follows a girl, Meg, bookish and odd, a girl who feels out of place, who is fierce and devoted to her younger brother, Charles. It is about traveling through time, about fantasy, about the power of stubornness and doing the right thing even when it's hard. It gave me inspiration, as I'm sure it gave millions of other young girls and boys inspiration to imagine another world--to believe in the power of stories and imagination and creativity.

I never really read any other works by Ms. L'Engle. She was prolific, mostly writing young adult fantasy works. If you want to read an article about her life and works, go to this New York Times article (click here).

I don't know that she has anything to do with the topic of this blog--mixed race--but she has everything to do with the power of stories (which was the topic I was going to blog about--so more on that for a later post). Her stories, her ability to imagine other worlds, are powerful. And it reminds me, again, of how important narrative is--how important stories are, to give meaning to our lives.

In fact, let me end this tribute with the words of Ms. L'Engle herself on why stories matter:

"Why does anybody tell a story . . . It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Being Paranoid vs. Being a Target

I'm returning, once again, to the topic of racial paranoia, because over the Labor Day weekend I was in West Virginia visiting some friends. And over the course of three days I became aware that I must have had an invisible sign on my forehead that said "Please stare at me long and hard." While I think some of the staring was out of curiosity, there were distinct moments when the staring felt hostile. And it's hard for me to unpack whether it's because I was with my white boyfriend (which means we constituted an inter-racial couple, the only one I saw in the 3 days of our trip) or because I was visibly Asian and hence different and hence not from there (aside from looking at my face in the mirror, there were no Asian people I saw over the course of 3 days--not at rest stops or restaurants or gas stations or supermarkets or the Hampton Inn we were staying at).

I, obviously, felt paranoid. Even my white Southern boyfriend, born and raised in a Southern Capital, felt uncomfortable with the evangelical and conservative overlay we felt, at times, hitting us on our travels (which only increased my paranoid feelings, because if my white Southern boyfriend is feeling like West Virginia is uncomfortable TO HIM, you can only imagine what I was experiencing).

However, I want to be clear about one thing: nothing bad happened to us. Nothing was said. Nobody bothered us. While I may have detected a certain curtness with our Shoney's waitress (that's right, we ate at Shoneys: and for anyone traveling out there--DON'T DO IT! ONE OF THE WORST MEALS OF MY LIFE. But we were hungry and tired and looking for something quick near our hotel that wasn't fast food). And while the woman at the Dairy Queen could not take her eyes off me--kept staring at me with an expression on her face that indicated that she had stepped into something foul and unpleasant, nothing was said, nothing was done.

Which means, that all in all, it wasn't all that bad. Uncomfortable? Sure, but it is vastly different from experiencing the effects of real institutional racism.

Which is the topic of this post: The Jena 6. Again, for a more succinct (and visual) summary than I can provide here, please go to the link on the Racialicious website:

Link to Jena 6 case:

The African American teens in Jena, LA experienced people putting nooses on a tree, a man who aimed a rifle at them, being beat up at parties, and overall harassment and abuse. That's real racism. I mention this not to say that my paranoia isn't warranted--it comes from a place where I fear what is happening to these African American students could happen to me in places where I'm obviously a curiosity, at best, or an item of hostility and possible abuse, at worst. But the truth is, as much as I think it's folly to rank racism, the history of race relations in the South, of racism against African Americans in places like Jena, LA is a long and deep and troubled one. And it is different, my experiences as an Asian American woman, are different than the experiences of young African American men.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

We Will Not Be Silent

About a year ago, an Arab American architect, Raed Jarrar, was detained by Jet Blue and the TSA at JFK Airport because he was wearing a tee-shirt that had Arabic lettering and the English translation, "We Will Not Be Silent" underneath.

To hear more about Jarrar's story, go to these following links:

You Tube


Essentially, Jarrar was not allowed to board the airplane until he put on a different tee-shirt over the one that read "We Will Not Be Silent." The phrase originated from a student resistant group in Germany in the 1930s, The White Rose, and this slogan was used in a newsletter to protest against Hitler's regime and institutionalization of fear and anxiety and xenophobia. It is a rallying cry of protest against a government who is not listening to the needs of its citizens--who is acting unilaterally and losing credibility and respect from the international community.

Sound familiar?

If you want to learn more about the group who produced the tee-shirts (they gave Jarrar one, which is why he ended up wearing it, not thinking it would provoke the reaction it did) go to the link for Artists Against the War here -- you can also order a tee-shirt for yourself.

I don't know if I can get one in time for my trip to the PacificNorthwest, and it's probably not the smartest thing to do. But it's a very small act of resistance, and once I get my tee-shirt, I will be wearing it out and about. Then again, it's very different for me to show up at the airport wearing this tee-shirt than for someone who looks like Raed Jarrar (and with his name and his accent). But still, if we don't resist these small acts, what will happen when the larger ones happen (or are happening)?