Monday, November 30, 2009

Give it up for Alexander Hamilton

Finally, that small intersection of spoken word fans and Colonial American history buffs can come together and give it up for Lin-Manuel Miranda and his appreciation for Alexander Hamilton:

[tip of the hat to Tenured Radical]

Friday, November 27, 2009

T.G.I.F.: I pledge to speak truth to power--Will Philips

On Monday October 5, 2009 10-year old Will Phillips, a resident of Washington County, Arkansas and a student in the West Fork School district remained seated during the daily pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag as a protest as a queer ally because he recognizes that the LGBTQ community is not treated as equal to those who are straight--that basic rights, like the right to marry--is denied to them, and as Will said in an interview with The Arkansas Times:

“I really don't feel that there's currently liberty and justice for all.”

For more on this story, see this CNN piece below:

And here's The Daily Show's reporting of Will Phillips, and Jon Stewart's enlisting of pro-wrestler Mick Foley as muscle to protect any would-be hasslers of young Phillips:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Gaywatch - Peter Vadala & William Phillips
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

It's not often that we take a stand, speak truth to justice, especially a stand that is not popular with the majority of our peers and with the authority figures in our lives. The fact that Will Phillips is doing this at the young age of 10, and that he seems to be such a focused, principled, and articulate young man is definitely deserving of The Great Impossible Feat Award. I hope he inspires others to also think carefully about what they believe in and to work for social justice and equal rights for all. Will Phillips says that he wants to make a difference and that being 10 shouldn't stop him from taking stands. Wise words for us all to live by.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Random Thanksgiving Day thoughts

[For more cohesive thoughts about Thanksgiving, see some former posts of mine here and here]

8:00am Turn on the television in preparation for my annual tradition of watching the Macy's Thanksgiving day parade.

[note: I think this may be the most consistent ritual that I can recall doing that extends from my childhood into my adulthood. At some point I always turn on the Macy's Thanksgiving day parade. I don't necessarily watch it all the way through or watch it without flipping to other channels. And I certainly think that some of the commentary (make that most of the commentary) is inane. But this is my thing--this is what I do--I watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on Thanksgiving morning, and I can't remember a time when I didn't do this]

You'd think that after all this time I'd know exactly what time it begins, but I'm told by Maria Shriver (the first lady of California) that it starts at 9am--so I switch to Bravo where they're re-running a West Wing Thanksgiving episode (the one where President Bartlett calls the Butterball hotline)

9:00am Switch over to NBC and the start of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. They have a woman who is 77 who has worked continuously at Macy's. Southern Man finds it incredibly sad that she has continued to work t Macy's--I tell him she probably can't afford not to. It's not really the most festive thought but it's probably realistic.

9:40am As much as I love the Macy's parade I'm not a huge fan of this thing they do in front of the store where they have different songs from various Broadway musicals performed. In both the "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Billy Elliot" numbers I notice that among the dozen young girls (almost all who look to be white) there is a single African American girl/dancer. Seriously? It's the 21st century. It's NYC. You could only find (more accurately you decided to only cast) a single non-white, African American young girl in your musical? Like there isn't a HUGE Asian population in Britain or the U.S. for that matter--and who the hell cares if it isn't "accurate" to the time period ("Bye Bye Birdie" is set in the late 1950s)--I thought that was the whole beauty of *quote-unquote* colorblind casting? Yes, even on Thanksgiving I don't turn off the critical eye.

*10:05am Parade has finally hit the Macy's store--the marching band who is at the head of the parade is composed of high school band members from every state and Washington DC. In addition to the musicians, there are the usual flag wavers (not sure what they're real name is--color guard?) and cheer-leader type dancers who are in pants but also in what looks like sleeveless tops--and all I can think is IT'S FREEZING--WHY DON'T THEY PUT THESE GIRLS IN COMFORTABLE/WARM CLOTHES! I mean seriously--doesn't anyone think about comfort nowadays?

*10:15 The Chinese American girl's club of Delaware is making their debut at the parade--there are all these young Asian American (assumably Chinese American) girls wearing Chinese looking costumes--girls in lion dancing outfits and these flowy dresses with colorful streamers dancing to Chinese themed classical music (you know what I'm talking about--that kind of bamboo flute/3-stringed music). I know they are supposed to be doing a "Cultural" dance but sometimes I just wish that Chinese American girls could actually be ... Chinese American and not just Chinese. I know, I know, I'm quibbling.

*10:35 Alan Cummings is singing a Sinatra standard "That's Life" and he seems to be on something--of course he's singing on a float with larger than life sized M&M candies--so perhaps the only way he could make it through the parade was stoned?

*10:40 There's all these kids jumping rope and they've apparently been doing it for 2.8 miles and it's apparently the world's largest jump roping brigade made up of kids from every state. I must have missed the whole jump rope craze when I was younger. Didn't know it was cool enough to get you on t.v. (or maybe not cool enough depending on how you feel about jumping rope)

*11:01 Ziggy Marley is on a pirate ship holding a young girl (his daughter?) and behind him is a pirate balloon. I'm actually quite fond of pirates--of course perhaps I mean the cartoon/caricatured ones not one's from real life/historic past.

*11:19 I don't know why but I find lines of people dancing in formation to be hypnotic--cheerleaders, Radio City Rockettes, dance troupes--it doesn't matter. Right now there are these high school girls dancing in these kind of "futuristic" 80s clothing. Maybe I should have been a cheerleader in high school...or maybe not.

*11:22 I've flipped to BRAVO where they are showing a repeat of a Top Chef episode of Season 1 vs. Season 2 finalists. I never did like Marcel in Season 2. I still don't like him. Flipped back to the parade--there's a guy from the Broadway revival of Finigan's Rainbow singing on top of a Big Apple float--and right behind him is the Dora the Explorer balloon. By the way, is it just me or is anyone else freaked out by Boots--that monkey side kick that hangs out with Dora? I recently watched an episode while baby sitting my friend's 2-year old and the whole time I'm watching the show I'm thinking, "That monkey is going to turn on Dora and pull out a knife!"

*11:30 Carly Simon is singing on a Care Bear float--maybe I should be taking a hit of whatever Alan Cummings was on. Really, they gave Carly Simon the Care Bear float?! I've always been freaked out by Care Bears too--is anyone else picking up on a theme?

*11:52 The Pillsbury dough boy is making his debut--about time--I mean, it's perfect, he's iconic and he's a corporate representative. And I think he's cute, especially when he does that belly-button thing (ha! I bet you thought I was going to say I was freaked out by him--I'm so unpredictable).

*11:56 Heeeeeeeeeee's Heeeeeeeeere! Yep, it's Santa Claus (although the guy just missed his lip synching with the broadcast so his words didn't match up to his lips, oh well). Guess I'll be tuning in a year from now. And for everyone who happens to celebrate this particular holiday...


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Passing as Chinese

Today Southern Man and I ate at a new Chinese restaurant we recently discovered. It is now our new favorite Chinese restaurant in the area (this is no small feat because remember, I am in THE SOUTH--and yes, I'm being snobby, but I grew up going to Oakland Chinatown every Sunday and my mother is a mean cook in her own right, so my standards for Chinese food are quite high).

Anyway, we wanted to order pea shoots (which are on the menu) only to be told by our waitress that they aren't available (seasonal--which I should have known, but I thought just *maybe* they had a source on pea shoots in the fall). In trying to find a substitute green, I asked her about the "Chinese greens" on the menu, and our waitress immediately began talking to us (or to me, rather) in Mandarin, peppering her conversation with a few English words directed at Southern Man.

If it's not already clear, I do not speak Mandarin. Or Cantonese. Or any other Asian language. I took three years of college-level Spanish, but even then, I'm not sure I could order in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant either (although if we had been in a Mexican restaurant, I'd probably been able to understand more of what was being said than I was at this Chinese restaurant).

Here's the thing though: you can get a lot through tone, intonation, and context. Case in point: one of the words she used was "green beans," which signaled to us that while they did not have many Chinese greens, they did have green beans. So just at the point when I was going to tell her "I'm sorry--I don't speak Chinese," Southern Man nodded his head and said, "OK, I understand--we'll have the green beans." At which point she smiled at us and put our order in.

I have to admit that I enjoyed this brief moment of passing as Chinese--I mean passing as a fluent Mandarin speaker. Like someone who could read Chinese characters. All of which came to a crashing reality check when Southern Man asked her about a menu that was posted by the cash register--a menu written in Chinese. When he asked her about it (it looked like a special banquet menu) she turned to me with a puzzled look on her face, as if to say: "How come he's asking me? Can't you read?" at which point I fessed up and said, "Actually, I don't speak Chinese--sorry!"

Our waitress was very nice--she apologized to us for speaking in Chinese--to which we, of course, apologized for not speaking/understanding Chinese, and then she translated the menu for us (sounded really yummy!) and asked me where I was from. When I said California, she did something that most people don't do. She said, "Oh, OK" and again apologized for speaking to me in Chinese.

Southern Man noted that unlike everyone else we've encountered, she didn't probe further--didn't ask about where my parents were from, didn't ask what my nationality, race, ethnicity was. Didn't make me feel bad for not being fluent in Chinese. She just smiled, said, "OK" and then told us to have a nice day.

This place is DEFINITELY my new favorite Chinese restaurant!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Education--a right and a responsibility

Let me first say that I am entirely biased. I am a university professor. I have spent A LOT of time in classrooms, as a student and now as a teacher. I obviously believe in education, formal education, as a good and as a goal that everyone should strive for.

Let me also say that I know of many successful people who did not attend college or university--people in my own family who, for a variety of reasons, some chosen and some not, never attended a four-year institution of higher learning. So I'm certainly not saying that I believe everyone must attend college and that a university diploma is the sign of success or intelligence.

But I do believe that higher education should be made available for all people--it should be a possibility that people can feel they can strive for and achieve, whether intellectually or financially.

And it is this last part that has me worried. Especially at my alma mater, the University of California at Santa Barbara. Because like all other UC campuses, its students are now subject to a 32% tuition increase--in real money it means students next year will be paying over $10,000 a year for a public school education. It is one of the largest tuition increases the UC regents have ever made in a single year. Students next year will pay 3x in tuition what students paid a decade ago and 6x what I and my fellow students were paying in the early 1990s.

I grew up in a pretty middle-class family--my parents were typical immigrants in the sense of their frugality and their belief that they should work hard for the betterment of the next generation. While I had dreams of going to a private school, I knew that the reality of our financial situation meant that a UC or Cal State education would be my only real option. And I was really fine with that because I knew that California had one of the best public school systems in the nation, if not the world. And I knew that I could work summers and during breaks to save money for my tuition or at least for incidentals (like food and rent) that my parents may not be able to afford. So I graduated from college debt free, which allowed me to think about pursuing PhD work because I didn't have the pressure of getting a high paying job straight out of school to pay off my debts and then the worry about incurring more debts in grad school (for the record, I am still paying off my grad student loans).

I mention all of this because I worry especially about kids who resemble my own profile--kids of immigrant parents whose one good option--a UC school--seems to be slipping past them. Or kids who will feel an additional pressure to go into majors that will hopefully provide a pipeline into high paying/lucrative jobs, but these may not be career options or even educational options they want to pursue--they may want to be English majors or Art History majors but are being pressured to go into science and math and technology driven majors in the hopes of securing a high paying job to pay back the many loans they have incurred. Or really bright students may decide that studying abroad or thinking about a PhD just isn't in their future. Or worst of all, there will be kids who simply won't be able to go to college because they just can't afford it.

Which means that the diversity--in terms of race but most especially in terms of class will become diminished in the UC system. It means that the gap between those who have and those who have not will grow. It means that we are saying education--a college education--is reserved for an elite who can afford it.

I don't have any cheerful words to end this post with. I wish I did. I only know that we have to do something--that this education is both a right and a responsibility--that everyone has the right to pursue a higher ed degree and that we have a responsibility to make that happen for all students. How to make this happen? I don't know. But we owe it to ourselves and our future to figure this out, NOW.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Obama haters are white (and other observations that you may have been able to guess yourselves)

This just in from The Guardian/UK: "Hate Obama? You may not be racist but you will be white." The author, Michael Tomasky, does a fairly thoughtful job of explaining why discussions of racism haven't been more prevalent in the anti-Obama rhetoric that coheres around President Barack Obama. Although truthfully, I don't think he goes far enough in uttering the magic phrase "white privilege" or more forcefully "white supremacy" when it comes to thinking about how a 98% white crowd could be implicated in structural racism without ever uttering the dreaded "N" word (at least not publicly for television/Fox News consumption).

Which, of course isn't to say that everyone who hates Obama really is white (I think the title of the article is meant to be both a touch hyperbolic and tongue-in-cheek) but I do think that what Tomasky is trying to get at in his piece is the mob mentality as well as the abysmal track record of the Republican party on civil rights (or at least understanding a true history and theory behind civil rights and structural racism).

Tomorrow maybe I'll tackle other things that seem self-evident, like the pervasive sexism that underlies so much of our society which causes us all to forget that our government (let alone the private sector of our nation) in no way reflects the actual gender demographics of our country.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Speaking as an "Other"

I'm teaching Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deveare Smith this week. Last night I re-watched the film with my class and was once again struck by how Smith so completely embodies the various interview subjects of her piece. Her work is a type of documentary theater known as "verbatim" theater. Actors recite the precise dialogue of real interview subjects, including all of the stutters and stammers and "ums" and "uhs." Smith uses minimal props--transforming herself within a 10 minute time span from an African American attorney to an African American church-going woman, to a Korean American store owner by either putting on or taking off earrings, jackets, a watch.

One of the writing exercises I did was to have my students describe a time when they felt like an "other," which I thought was relevant since this is essentially at the heart of what Smith is trying to convey through her embodiment of these various people and personas and in the exact recitation of their speech mannerisms, accents, intonations, and tone. She wants us to see, not her, but the people she has interviewed. To see all these "other" people not as "Others" but as individuals with their own stories--one's we may relate to intimately or feel revulsion towards or sympathy. Or in the best cases, empathy--empathy with someone who seems to be such an "other" on the surface but whose words move us to see who they are--to at least get a small glimpse of who they are.

Yet I was also distinctly uncomfortable watching Smith portray these people. Because some of her portraits almost verged on parody and stereotype--an accusation she has weathered from her various performances like Fires in the Mirror (actually, the review I'd linked to does not lambast Smith but others have in the past). How could audiences, especially ones unfamiliar with different ethnic and racial communities and the ANGER and RAGE associated with being a person of color in the U.S. (and in the case of Twilight: Los Angeles, the specific condition of black rage) understand the depth of emotion conveyed--what lies behind black anger instead of just being witness to the anger itself?

I think what audiences should keep in mind while watching Smith is that she is trying to really honor these people in all their flawed humanity and not to interpret them but to really convey them as they are. And, of course, she has no control over what audiences will take away from her performances.

Perhaps, in thinking about how I will talk about Smith and her performance in my class, I should rely on the tools of my trade. Because what Smith is doing in Twilight: Los Angeles is acting out the simile rather than performing metaphor. She is acting "as if" she were these various people--sharing with us their stories, rather than becoming or being these people--she can never be any of these people. But she can try to speak "as an other" if you will. And in doing so, to try to convey part of the pain and suffering and sorrow but also the sense of redemption and hope and justice that all emerged in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial.

Finally, if you have 25 minutes to watch this clip, you can actually see Anna Deveare Smith enacting verbatim theater and explaining why she performs barefoot!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Growing Up on Sesame Street

If you have been following the changing Google characters this past week you know that something has been coming. Big Bird. Elmo. The Cookie Monster. Oscar the Grouch. Bert and Ernie. And then this morning, the entire cast of Sesame Street. Because 40 years ago today, the Children's Television Workshop aired the very first episode of Sesame Street. And people of my generation, a little bit older and a little bit younger, grew up on Sesame Street. Actually, that's inaccurate; almost everyone younger has grown up on Sesame Street. If you are over 45 you probably missed the phenomenon of watching it in the mornings (and am I incorrect in thinking it may have come on in the afternoons when I was a kid), counting along with the Count, watching Oscar the Grouch be crabby and the Cookie monster be ravenous. And, of course, all those people who thought that Big Bird was delusional for making up this imaginary elephant, Mr. Snuffulpugus (and when was it, exactly, that the producers decided that everyone could actually SEE him? There was a certain magic to knowing that the adults were wrong--that Big Bird was NOT inventing him--that he was real. It was reassuring, to me, because I also had conversations with people no one else could see as a child, and I was sure they were real and that adults just lacked the imagination to see).

Anyway, Happy 40th Birthday Sesame Street! I was also going to write about how this was a really breakthrough show on PBS and in the world of Children's TV programming because of its urban center (NYC), because of its diverse cast of character (Luis, Maria (I think they eventually marry on the show), Gordon, Mr. Hooper), because of the way it embraces difference and change. But I think I'll just let you all see for yourself with this clip celebrating the 40th season, especially since none other than First Lady Michelle Obama starred in the season premiere this morning:

Monday, November 9, 2009

It's in the air or is it kismet?

Just a brief post to highlight a New York Times article this morning that discusses the findings of a study on Korean-American (and I use the hyphen self-consciously to indicate international adoptions from Korea into the United States) transnational/transracial adoptions. Click here for the link.

It's odd to find this article because in my Asian American women's writing class, my students have been doing presentations. On Friday one group presented on the subject of transracial/transnational adoptions, focusing largely on Vietnamese adoptions into the U.S., especially the historic phenomenon of "Operation Babylift" (they also showed a clip from a documentary of that same name that almost had me in tears--which I fought off because it seemed unseemly to cry in my class or perhaps I just don't want them to know what I softie I am inside). Today's presentation is on Korean American women, but one of the excerpts that they had us read was from Jane Jeong Trenka's Fugitive Visions--and for those not in the know, Trenka is a dominant voice in describing and detailing her own and others' transnational/transracial adoptee experiences.

And on a personal note, I had been having some conversations with friends about transracial adoption. So it just seems like there is something in the air or maybe a sense of kismet that has aligned to bring this issue to my attention.

Is someone, somewhere trying to tell me something?

Friday, November 6, 2009

I don't want to represent

Yesterday I guest lectured for a colleague on a book I'm very familiar with, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the book is hard to categorize--part memoir, part fable, part coming-of-age novel, definitely part fiction. It's hard, at times, to figure out how much Kingston is describing about her life as a Chinese American girl growing up in Stockton, CA in the 1950s and how much is embellishment. The students were very interested, concerned and confused even, in their inability to distinguish the "real" from the "fake" of her storytelling. When I pressed them to explain why it was so important to know the difference, one student said that knowing the difference between the "real" and the "fake" would help her understand what is authentically Chinese American culture since this book is a representative of Chinese American life and only by knowing the difference between the facts of her life and the fiction she creates would the student be able to determine what is authentic about being Chinese American.

Which is a lot to ask of a single book or a single author. It's a lot to ask of anyone--that they be an authentic representation of an entire culture. I pointed this out to the class--that it's a tall order and one we usually only make of "ethnic" American writers or artists. That their works get to stand in for an entire culture or ethnicity. We KNOW what it's like to be black because Langston Hughes' poems tell us about his black experiences. We UNDERSTAND what it means to be Chicano because we watch Stand and Deliver and watch Edward James Olmos portray the real math teacher, Jaime Escalanate. We COMPREHEND the complex history of American Indians when we read the novels of Louise Erdrich.

But the truth is, these works, whether based on one's real life experiences or a fictionalized version of the lives of various "others" in America can't really stand in for the millions of stories of a group/culture/ethnicity. And it's a LOT of pressure to ask people/authors/filmmakers/artists to "represent" their culture.

Of course, we do this all the time. In fact, some of the biggest pressure comes from within an ethnic community--we hold ethnic artists responsible for portraying their ethnic community with respect and accuracy. Of course, it should go without saying that "ethnic" is meant to suggest the "non-white"--the minority in America. In other words, white American playwright David Mamet isn't asked to "represent" white American respectfully but black American playwright Suzanne Lori-Parks may get push back on the black bodies which populate her plays.

I am especially struck by the idea that a single individual can represent an entire group after hearing the tragic news about the Fort Hood Army Major, Nidal Malik Hassan, who went on a shooting rampage, killing thirteen soldiers and civilians and wounding thirty others. It's horrific and tragic. And immediately American Muslim groups (because Hassan was Muslim) have been decrying his actions and pleading with average Americans to understand that his actions are not a reflection of the values of Islam but an isolated and individual act of violence.

And I am sad that there may be those in our country that look at Hassan's violence and believe that he represents all American Muslims. He does not represent the face of American Muslims or Palestinian Americans. Yet there will be people pointing at him and taking him to be the face of Muslim America. Which is another sad and tragic aspect to this already sad and tragic story.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Something fun on the fourth workday

In honor of Thursday being the fourth workday of the weekday, I bring you something to make you smile--at least it made me smile:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cruelty and Empathy

There are these public service announcements on cable television that I hate--because they prey on my conscience and tug at my heart. Most of you have probably seen these--they feature dogs and cats who have been abused or abandoned. They look up into the camera with scarred faces and look out from cages in which they sit waiting for release--through either adoption or euthenasia. A celebrity's voice implores people to give voice to the voiceless and to adopt or give money or speak out against animal cruelty. There's usually background music that swells and adds to the pathos of the animals' suffering.

And it hurts my heart to look at these images because the thought of being cruel to a dog or cat is unfathomable to me. And because I've adopted shelter dogs for the last few years--my current dog "B" was found wandering on the side of a highway -- they believe he was abandoned by owners after discovering he had heartworm because the shelter said that he looked cared for (he was not malnourished or mangy) but he did test positive for heartworm, and apparently some owners will abandon their dogs to the elements rather than treat them or seek other owners for them. So when I look at "B" and try to imagine what he had to go through wandering around in the woods, let alone what he may have faced in his home environment, it hurts my heart.

Yet I am also reminded of the fact that suffering and cruelty towards humans has gone on and happens every minute of every day somewhere around the world. And perhaps if I saw pictures of abused children and abandoned orphans my heart would be tugged in the same way. But I'm not sure. I don't want to sound like a monster, but I think I have become numb to that kind of pain or willfully choose to ignore the kind of suffering that I KNOW must happen every minute of every day. I don't even have to go very far to imagine this--in our own neighborhoods there are more than likely abused children and malnourished people.

I suppose I bring all of this up because I recall reading in The New York Times a story about a man who threw a puppy off his apartment building's roof. The pupppy sustained major injuries but survived and folks wrote into the comment section OUTRAGED (as well they should) and calling for this guy to be thrown off the roof of a building and really decrying animal cruelty. And someone commented on the fact that while this is awful--what happened to the puppy--all these people were feeling outraged on behalf of a dog when there were kids facing similar types of abuse and neglect, some dying as a result, in the various boroughs of New York City and why aren't we getting outraged by that?

I don't have an answer. But I think it has something to do with the nature of empathy--that for dog owners/cat owners or animal people, the idea of animal cruelty and the empathy they have with animals--who are voiceless and without agency--runs deep. And yet, I think children are placed in very similar situations--of being vulnerable, voiceless, and without agency.

A bit off the topic of what I normally write I suppose, but I have been thinking about my own sense of empathy and wondering why tears can appear in my eyes when I see these images of animal abuse but I don't feel this same pain knowing that there are children undergoing similar horrors at this very moment.