Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Where's That Innate Moral Sense When You Need It?

Forcing People To Act Right.

Earlier this month a settlement was finally reached between the Justice Department and the School District of Philadelphia which amounts to an acknowledgement that the district and school administrators overlooked racially biased harassment and violence directed at Asian children at South Philly High School. As part of the agreement it is required that........

"...the district hire a consultant focused on preventing harassment and discrimination, will serve as a nationwide standard for school systems trying to prevent bullying........[and] Philadelphia schools to develop a plan for preventing bullying; conduct training to increase multicultural awareness; and maintain records of harassment..."
A combination of indifference, alleged participation in harassment by school adminstrators as well as accusations of mishandling written reports of abuse (that is, many reports were simply thrown away), all demonstrate that school admins and the District engaged in a cynical effort to hide evidence of their own abdication of responsibility as well as their evasions in addressing racially biased abuse perpetrated by elements of the student body and staff. All of this demonstrates that racist attitudes towards Asians amongst both staff and students were allowed to foment eventually manifesting as acts of physical violence - you are what you do.

Of course, this type of black/Asian conflict isn't new both in American schools and beyond. Remember Lafayette High School? The situation there bears some eerie similarities to the South Philly conflict. It is this dynamic of minority on minority prejudice that gives this situation and others like it such a complex and almost untouchable character. By tradition it is the well documented and acknowledged oppression of Africans that has defined the dialogue on race in America and so, for many people, instances where the oppressor has African features are difficult to compute. Consequently, obvious anti-Asian racism amongst elements in the black community is dismissed for a variety of reasons - sometimes even by Asian-Americans themselves.

A common refrain is that these apparent race crimes against Asians are an unwelcome but natural consequence of economic hardship and poverty. Others suggest that the experience of racism itself leads to acts of racism. Still others will dismiss black on Asian racism on the grounds that overall African-Americans experience more oppression (both past and present) than anyone ever and are therefore excused by some unspecified logical mechanism from practising tolerance. Then there are some who assert that black on Asian violence is justified because Asians are racist.

The problem is that much white racism is fuelled by a sense of disenfranchisement resulting from poverty. Many recruits to white supremacist groups come from poor working class backgrounds. Would anyone dare to justify white racism on these grounds? Maybe we can accept that poor black students at South Philly have few hopes for a bright future and are thus able to understand (somewhat) their aggression, but what of the staff and District - what's their excuse? College educated and paid a decent salary (and in the case of the District, paid handsomely), these people should know better. You would have to do some amazing logical backflips to tie economic hardship into their racism. Furthermore, how much racism and oppression is required before your own qualifies as justifiable? Of course, if Asian racism justifies black racism then surely Asian racism is justified because there is black racism? The mind boggles.

Of course, as many Asian-Americans might agree, the issue of racial harassment of Asian children in American schools goes way beyond the ghetto and is one of the phenomena that unites all of us in a common experience. The degree may vary from racial baiting to violence, yet the intent is clear. The marginalization process for many Asian-Americans begins in school and as an experience it is perhaps the most overlooked amongst the Asian minority - the result of which is an apparent dearth of pro-active advocacy. Yet as the Asian student activists at South Philly have learned, it is by standing up and fighting back, that you gain allies. By doing this, they have empowered other black students to stand with them and hopefully improve conditions for everyone. The natural by-product of pro-active advocacy is that others become empowered to not go along with your oppression.

This is an important point because I maintain that anti-Asian racism is propagated not by extremism but by apathy and indifference. As the extreme (yet, apparently not uncommon) example of South Philly demonstrates, racism against Asians is fuelled by a willingness of others to "go along" with it, either by inaction or by dismissal of the significance of racist attitudes. Asians are harassed in the culture of the mainstream and this serves as the model of behaviour towards us. How then can harassment of Asian students in South Philly be condemned without condemning mainstream culture? It is this harassment model of behaviour as put forward by American culture that allows people to go along with anti-Asian bias up to and sometimes including the point of violence. It's no coincidence that harassment precedes anti-Asian violence in American schools.

On a final note it is important to highlight this.......

"Justice Department officials signaled that the agreement with the School District of Philadelphia, which............will serve as a nationwide standard for school systems trying to prevent bullying." 

The measures against bullying that the District is being required to take will serve as the nationwide standard. To me, this is our cue. As a community we have to set the standard for what we allow as acceptable behaviour towards our children in American schools. This is our opportunity.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Be Like Water

Recapturing The Heart Of The Tiger.

As readers will know, this past month saw what would have been the 70th birthday of Chinese icon, Bruce Lee. Few Asians in the modern era have had such a profound influence over the consciousness of popular western culture as Bruce. To pay tribute, I present this interesting exerpt from an interview he gave in the early 1970's...........

Although he is remembered for his skill as a martial artist, and appreciated by Asian-American men for being one of the few images of masculinity for their demographic, as the video suggests, his value to the consciousness of Asian men goes beyond his onscreen personna. Clearly, even from this short clip we can see that Lee's greatness as an athlete and martial artist was grounded in a profound philosophical foundation that saw self-discovery as a means to access an existential truth and recognized the flow of self-expression as the natural product of this process.

Maybe because he experienced the frustration of being stifled by the prejudice he encountered whilst trying to break into the American film industry (in much the same way many Asian-American men today feel stifled by stereotypes and exclusion), much of what he says in this interview is very pertinent to the way we can understand our experiences as Asian men. Here İ've presented some of the quotes from this clip that İ believe have some insights for Asian-American men......


".....styles separate man, becomes doctrines/gospel truth - cultures separate man.....

....do not have [a] style, here I am as a human being - how can I express myself totally and completely, that way you won't create a style......[it is] a process of continuing growth.....

...[be like water because] running water never grows stale [it] keep on flowing - honestly expressing yourself...

....[it is] easy to put on a show  - flooded with a cocky feeling - and feel cool.....[but just like] if you learn to speak Chinese it's easy to speak the words but what lies behind the words - what brought on the feelings and expressions behind those words?..."


 It has become somewhat axiomatic for minorities to say that "going back to your roots" or rediscovering your culture can be a dramatic experience of catharsis that empowers the individual and offers an alternative world view to the white-washed perspective. Whilst I see the value of this, it has to be recognized that racism goes beyond cultural white-washing and anti-pluralism, and is fundamentally an assertion of a racial hierarchy that utilizes vaious methods to dehumanize minorities.

In fact, as I noted here, various Asian cultural practices are greedily and more readily accepted than are Asians themselves, which suggests that cultures can be and often are more easily integrated and accepted than races. What this suggests to me is that any kind of Asian-American consciousness must have as a fundamental premise the idea of reconnecting with the essence of what makes us human as opposed to cultural characteristics that defines us as particular ethnicities.

Nowhere is this concept more applicable than in the issue of reclaiming Asian masculinity. Many commentators suggest that balancing dehumanizing cultural portrayals and attitudes with more masculine versions is an essential step (perhaps the most essential step)  in correcting emasculation issues. This idea suggests that masculınity is fundamentally a product of culture and that it is cultural expression that drives the qualities of masculinity. I disagree with this - masculinity is far more fundamental than the mere cultural expression of it because ultimately the qualities that we describe as "masculine" seem most likely to be a product of various biological drives. We could call this biological drive the masculine essence, in the sense that the qualities that derive from it are fundamental to the nature of being biologically male.

Whilst this doesn't downplay the importance of sympathetic media representation as a means to defuse xenophobic and racist attitudes or the value of cultural connection, it does put into question the idea that emasculation can be remedied by these means. If we take Lee's ideas to their natural conclusion we should realize that culture - whether it be inclusive or not - reflects a fundamental tension between that which is instinctual and natural on the one hand and the need to define, describe and ultimately limit those instincts. That may sound like a dubious notion, yet as Asian men in America it's impossible to deny that we live in a culture that seeks to separate us from our masculinity, that is, whatever the things that might be instinctual and natural to us as men.

The kicker is that this is one of the purposes of any culture (including our cultures of origin) - to reign in those things that are natural and instinctual in order to render them relatively harmless and to shape them into something that doesn't threaten the social order. Having media stereotypes that represent us, as well as a grounding in our cultural roots may serve some purpose, yet we have to realize that ultimately all this means is someone else that we probably don't know - or worse, someone who cannot know us - is defining the limits of our identity.

So what all of this means to me is that discovering a masculine identity must involve a process of peeling away the filters of culture that limit and shape our nature. This might involve developing a philosophical foundation driven by the principle of inquiry and the desire for truth. In this video Lee illustrates the weakness of looking to media stereotypes to inform our characters, and the way that cultures (all cultures) can limit inquiry and stifle self-expression. So in some ways it is the striving to release the flow of self-expression that forms the basis for masculinity. Viewed in this way, the notion of masculinity transcends cultural boundaries and moves beyond the principle that identity and masculinity can, or should, be fundamentally culture specific.

All of this suggests that the assertion of an Asian masculine identity is primarily a counter-cultural endeavour. The seeds and roots of this masculine archetype must be firmly planted in the soil of oppositional thinking to all of the assumptions and expectations that are made and required of us by mainstream America and by our own cultures. Bruce Lee, the philosopher, seems to suggest that it is by moving outside of cultural paradigms that a more profound and fundamental truth about who we are can be attained.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Screw All Of You Guys....I'm Going Home

The Cartman Principle.

Life can be funny sometimes.

For various reasons many Asian-Americans will cringe when being called a "model minority". Chief amongst those reasons is the notion that supposed Asian-American academic achievement and economic success are often held up by some white commentators as the model for other minorities of colour to imitate in order to pull themselves out of poverty. Many minorities (Asians and non-Asians alike) view this as a strategy for excusing white discriminatory practices and placing responsibility firmly on the shoulders of minorities themselves for whatever backward social conditions they might face. The general principle is that if Asians can succeed, then why can't other minorities do the same? Many minority commentators point to this idea as being divisive and has set minorities groups against one another, increasing suspicion and mutual hostility.

Yet, as this article proves, white people should be careful what they wish for. Here's an excerpt............

In Silicon Valley, two high schools with outstanding academic reputations are losing white students as Asian students move in. Why?.........Whites aren't quitting the schools because the schools are failing academically. Quite the contrary: Many white parents say they're leaving because the schools are too academically driven and too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science at the expense of liberal arts and extracurriculars like sports and other personal interests.....The white exodus clearly involves race-based presumptions, not all of which are positive. One example: Asian parents are too competitive. "My sense is that at Monta Vista you're competing against the child beside you," [parent, Ms. Doherty] says...........At Cupertino's top schools, administrators, parents and students say white students end up in the stereotyped role often applied to other minority groups: the underachievers.

As you may have read, many white people are refusing to play their own game and are leaving - taking their marbles home with them.

No doubt, the model minority stereotype will lose its appeal for white commentators and will quietly disappear from the dialogue.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Foot-Binding Ain't So Bad

The Case For a More Nuanced Dialogue.

Few would argue that the now abolished Chinese cultural practice of the foot-binding of Chinese women has been the subject of much debate amongst the men and women (but mainly the women) of the Asian minority of America. Although a phenomenon existing exclusively within Chinese culture, some Asian-American women find value in representing the practice as the essence of female oppression in Asia (and by extension within the Asian-Amerian community). Subsequently, the burden of correcting the historical wrongdoings of the culture of foot-binding falls on "Asian men" in general. Apparently Indian, Uzbek, Siberian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Filipino, as well as Chinese and all other Asian men - all must equally share the responsibility for the phenomenon of foot-binding - even though ultimately it took the willpower of strong Asian men to end the practice.

Foot-binding was a practice in which Chinese girls as young as 3 or 4 underwent an extremely painful process to modify the shape and size of the foot. In order to achieve this, the bones of young girls' feet were broken and bandaged in whatever was the desired shape. Foot-bound women lived in constant pain, and infections were a frequent complication. Definitely an ugly practice. Yet, what were the circumstances that brought about this practice? Most accounts maintain that the phenomenon started as a fashion statement amongst the rich and well-to-do of the Tang Dynasty and slowly evolved into a tradition that involved every echelon of Chinese society.

Women who had their feet bound were highly prized in feudal China - their value as wives were increased and for many it was a means to escape poverty. Asthetically, bound feet were considered sexually attractive, and those who had undergone the procedure were widely considered to be chaste. Although it is maintained that foot-binding was a means to  keep women disempowered, on the flip side, mutilating the feet of Chinese women effectively increased their value and thus was a practice that was propagated by the men and women of feudal China.

Ironically, the American practice of modifying the body through cosmetic surgery, bears some remarkable similarities to the Chinese tradition. As was the case with women's feet in feudal China, women in modern America aspire to a standard body shape and type that is extremely difficult or impossible to maintain by natural means, and which is a standard determlned by a patriarchy and not the women themselves. In order to do this some women are pro-active and seek out invasive surgery to meet the required standard. Other women in America simply become sick - that is, they develope eating disorders from attempts at body sculpting through extreme dieting and vomiting. Those women who achieve the desired body shape through mutilation (a.k.a cosmetic surgery), become highly valued and desirable.

Clearly the underlying principles that drove the Chinese tradition of foot-binding and continue to drive the modern American culture of cosmetic mutilation are almost exactly the same. Strangely, yet not unsurprisingly, some Asian-American feminism seems to somehow not notice this fact, and continue with the "Asian men are foot-binding mysogynists" battle cry, seeming to be intellectually stuck in feudal China. Apparently, for some Asian-American feminists a traditiıon not practised by the majority of Asian cultures and one that has been abolished for decades, is more of a threat to their empowerment than an American patriarchy that is powerful enough to pressure millions of women to undergo cosmetic surgery. Somehow, Asian women seem fortunate enough to be unaffected by this American culture of control over women's body image, yet remarkably enslaved to an abolished culture of foot-binding that, incidentally, was never practised by the communities that they grew up in within the United States. This reminds very much of the type of disconnect that I noted here. I look on bemused.

The more I notice this similarity between foot-binding and cosmetic surgery, the more difficult it becomes to view the former as an inherently wicked practice without viewing the latter in the same light. Strange as it sounds, the fundamental difference between the two traditions is the availability of aneasthesia, anti-biotics, and painkillers. Unfortunately, what this means for those too lazy to make nuanced and balanced arguments against the practice, is that foot-binding would be no different and no less brutal that routine cosmetic surgery if practised in the present. Wheelchairs, Segways and escalators make the immobility issue a non-issue, painkillers and aneasthesia make the procedure painless. Modern surgical techniques might even make the practice easier and painless.

With this in mind, it is clear that if I am to be held responsible for a practice that has been abolished for decades, and which was never practised within my own Asian culture, then Asian feminists have to come up with better arguments for their case against me. Otherwise, it becomes extremely difficult to take this type of feminism seriously.

Sadly, as with much of the intellectual discourse that occurs within Asian America, the issue is often overly generalized to the point of becoming simplistic. Often this process goes hand-in-hand with a selective ommission of historical and social realities and an uncritical lack of nuance in the argumentation. Since foot-binding wasn't practised outside of China and never occurred amongst any Asian minority group in America (including the Chinese), it strikes me as strange in the extreme that this phenomenon could cause so much resentment toward the general Asian-American male population and serve as something of the rallying cry for the empowerment of Asian-American women. So how is it that some of the voices of Asian feminism rail vehemently against a practice that was not a Pan-Asian phenomenon and has been abolished for decades, yet few rail against the modern day manipulation of women into undergoing cosmetic surgery?

Hat Tip...

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Asian-American Gender Gap

The Separation of Asian Men and Women.

As readers might agree, the so-called "gender-gap" phenomenon of the Asian minority is one of the most talked about, read, and discussed subjects anywhere there is a gathering of two or more Asians. A complex matter, the gender-gap is something of an umbrella term used to describe several different states of affairs and phenomena that when taken as a whole, could be seen as indicative of a fundamental difference in the way that Asian-American men and women conceive of, and experience, the Asian-American experience.

Hyper-sexualization of Asian women and emasculation of Asian men, interracial dating disparities, the Asian Patriarchy and its misogyny, perceived sympathetic media depictions of Asian women compared to derogatory stereotypes of Asian men, plus various literary and artistic works by Asian women that are perceived by many to paint Asian men and culture in an unfair manner might be considered some of the more important or contentious issues that generally come up for discussion. All of this together is what constitutes the "gender-gap". Although not complete, I believe that the above list covers the most contentious topics of debate on this subject.

It is generally accepted that this concept of an Asian-American gender divide has its roots in the literary world of 1970's in the controversies surrounding the work of Maxine Hong Kingston and, later with the work of Amy Tan. Although the conflict of literary sensibilities between Kingston and Frank Chin in the 1970's formed the basis for the modern debate, I believe that it is Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club that has set the tone for the debate in the last twenty years and served as the catalyst that shifted the debate beyond the literary to the wider community.

That being said, I would argue that the gender-gap, far from being a late 20th century phenomenon that reflects a misogynistic reaction to Asian feminist empowerment stems, in fact, from oppressive laws that targeted the Asian minority, making the gender division one of the factors that defines the Asian-American experience as unique and different from that of America's other minorities. What this means is that the gender division - or the separating of Asian men from women - must be seen as one of the most potent mechanisms of dis-empowerment for the Asian minority and has been in place almost since the beginning of Asian immigration to America. . 

History shows that almost from the beginning, Asian minority communities in America were prevented from flourishing in several ways; immigration controls, anti-miscegenation legislation, denial of property and citizenship rights, limitations on employment and employment discrimination, discrimination in housing, as well as the pervasive threat of personal violence. For the predominantly male Asian minorities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, strict immigration laws meant that any hope of having an Asian spouse was next to impossible - even men who already had wives in Asia were denied the right to be joined by them. Furthermore, immigration laws that although not explicit in the intent, served to restrict the immigration of Asian women specifically into America. Effectively, this is the beginning of the separation of Asian men and women, the goal of which was explicitly to contain and limit the Asian minority and prevent its population from growing.

The second major event that shaped the gender-divide was the phenomenon of the Asian War Brides of the Second World War. In a dramatic reversal of restrictive immigration policies that targeted Asian women, the War Brides Act permitted tens of thousands of Asian women (some estimate that there were up to 100,000) to be admitted to the country as the spouses of American G.I's. Even though a number of these Asian brides were espoused to black or Asian-American G.I's, the vast majority were admitted as the wives of white Americans.  Strangely, what this meant is that (for a brief period) it became easier for an Asian woman to enter the U.S if she was married to a white man, than it would have been if she was married to an Asian immigrant to America. In other words this meant that it was legally easier for a female Asian immigrant to be married to a white American than to an Asian man - Asian women became acceptable mainly if they were partnered with white men.

Clearly, the so-called gender-divide precedes by decades the issues raised by the literary conflicts of the 1970's and 80's and was initiated as a means of social engineering. Those in power controlled the number of marriages between Asian men and women plus the availability of Asian women to Asian men through strict immigration legislation, and ultimately the roles that Asian women would take once they were permitted to enter the country.

In a historical sense, the Asian War Brides phenomenon marks the point where the history and experiences of the Asian minority that existed prior to it, starts to be whitewashed out of history and starts to be replaced by myths of Asian women needing and wanting to be rescued by western men. Put another way, the Asian-American experience becomes feminized in the sense that the apparent benefits conferred on Asian women by virtue of their marriages to white men comes to define and dominate the historical and literary dialogue of the Asian minority and the mainstream alike. The struggles and hardships experienced by the Asian men and women that went before takes a back seat and are largely forgotten, at least in the popular view, simply because it is too uncomfortable to address. Thus, since the 1950's, the Asian-American story has been reworked as the "Asian woman/white man story" or some variation or derivative thereof with Asian men largely excluded from their own history.

So, far from being a natural cultural evolution within the Asian minority, the gender gap must really be viewed as a reflection of  a fundamental difference in historical perspectives stemming from laws that deliberately and unnaturally kept Asian men and women apart. These differences are so profound that it would be most accurate to say that the outlook of the Asian minority consists of two vastly different and perhaps irreconcilable historical points of view - that of the pre-war predominantly male Asian minority whose stories of struggle against oppression are largely absent from mainstream consciousness, and that of the post-war Asian War Brides whose experiences are ostensibly disconnected from the experiences of those that came before, yet whose story evolved into the acceptable version of Asian-American history.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

This Is a Consular Advisory!

Suicide Bombers and Business As Usual.

Anyone that has had the opportunity to live in a foreign country might agree that often the experiences one has can change one's outlook on life and alter their perceptions of ideas and notions that they might have previously taken for granted. I count myself fortunate to have had the chance to live in several places outside of America where the things that might have seemed so important to me whilst there were somehow given a new perspective when viewed through the filter of a different culture.

The country where I currently reside is especially remarkable in this regard. A country that considers itself to have drawn culturally from both east and west it is a nation of contradiction. Boasting a strong secular tradition, the country also has an equally strong religious vein that is apparent everywhere one looks. Hundreds of minarets rise up everywhere along the horizon, calling the faithful to their religious duties five times a day. Most amazing and interesting are the people themselves. Walk along any thoroughfare of the city where I live and you will be struck by the almost surreal juxtaposition of cultures that coexist and interact with very little effort.

It is common to see families out for their Sunday stroll with their twenty-something daughter dressed in a short skirt and tight blouse walking along arm-in-arm with her mother who will be wearing the khimar. Further along the street you might encounter a dreadlocked or punked-out musician type offering to help an old lady climb some stairs. Walk through any neighbourhood and one might hear traditional music coming from one building whilst across the street the sounds of angry rock blare out in response. Extremely passionate, the people here take their politics and social issues seriously. Public demonstrations are common and heartfelt. On any given weekend walking through the central squares of the city, demonstrators calling for more anarchy, socialism, religion, political autonomy or gay rights will be out making their voices heard.

Whilst in normal circumstances this city is nowhere near as dangerous as most large American cities, there are some security issues here that most American ex-pats here are aware of. This was brought home to me this past weekend when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in one of the city's central squares, which typically has a prominent police presence, in an attempt to kill as many of them as he could. Fortunately, no-one was killed although dozens were seriously wounded. In the four or so years that I've been here, there have been several bombings around the city, but most of the time these attacks occur well away from the central part of the city where I live and none of them have involved suicide bombers, so this incident is somewhat unique and close to home - my apartment is a five-minute walk from the place where it happened. 

It is at times like this that the American consulate here will send out e-mails to any ex-pats on its e-mail list warning them to be on high alert and advising on the types of places to avoid. These advisories are generally issued any time that their are heightened political tensions in the region that might lead to personal danger to Americans living overseas and are not always sent as a response to an actual attack. For instance, occasionally there might be a surge in hostile sentiment during which entire neighbourhoods will put up angry posters in their windows and drape damning banners over the street. Of course this can sometimes be accompanied by political and media rhetoric that fuels the resentment. Naturally, this can be a time of great anxiety, although in true local fashion, there is usually no display of personal animosity, with people even going out of their way to let you know that there is nothing personal about the sentiments! Still it helps to be a little wary!

Oddly, this sense of anxiety and foreboding are familiar to myself and perhaps even to many others living in America who are of Asian descent. American communities expressing and acting on resentment and hostility towards Asians that is fuelled by media and political rhetoric accurately describes the experience of the Asian minority. If occurring in the country where I currently reside, America labels this type of social intimidation as nationalism or radicalism, with it being clearly recognized that such attitudes can foster acts of violence against the targeted group. This is similar to America where the media routinely presents dehumanizing stereotypes of Asians, politicians foster xenophobia to win votes (as illustrated very recently in political ads for the mid-terms), and violence towards Asians is trivialized, there is a social acceptance and even encouragement of racist behaviour toward Asians. As I outlined here such attitudes are promoted as a method of social engineering that promotes a racial hierarchy seeking to place limitations on the Asian minority.

Clearly, there is very little difference between radical or nationalist promoted hostility in the foreign country where I reside, and media and politically motivated anti-Asianism in  my very own country, America. The effects on the target community are the same in both places; the mainstream are empowered to express their hostility with demeaning behaviour or violence, the target community experiences anxiety and a sense of danger from their neighbours. In extreme cases, it is this type of environmnent that fosters terrorism, the definition and purpose of which is to limit and intimidate a target population. Negative stereotyping and xenophobic rhetoric normalizes and promotes denigrating behaviour toward the Asian minority and models an attitude of exclusion from the mainstream. Of course, anti-Asian media rhetoric in America might not encourage a suicide bomber attack on Chinatown, but it certainly might lead to harrassment of, and violence toward Asian small business owners or schoolchildren for example, not to mention random acts of violence carried out as Asian-Americans try to go about their daily lives.

So, it is with a touch of sadness that I recognize that my dignity and safety as an American are given more credence when I live outside of the country, than when I reside within it. Living as an American ex-pat overseas, my country will do what it can to ensure my safety, as an American-Asian living in my own country, my dignity and safety are flouted. So, kudos to the Consulate for respecting my dignity and safety, now if only the rest of America would follow suit.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"My Mom Is A Fucking Bitch."

Discovering The Elephant in the Room With Amy Tan.

As readers may know, The Joy Luck Club is possibly the most popular and widely read novel written by an Asian-American author. Although loved by the mainstream, the book is either adored or reviled by Asian-Americans and since its publication a degree of contention has surrounded the novel. Some critics (such as Frank Chin) lambast the book for perpetuating stereotypes and many Asian men complain that the novel depicts Asian men unfairly. Like it or hate it, The Joy Luck Club is the work that many point to as representative of the vast difference between the experiences of Asian-American men and women. Although first published over twenty years ago, the subsequent "controversy" over the book's content seems to have set the tone for much of the inter-gender dialogue within the Asian minority in the two decades since.

There is very little doubt that out of all the ways that the Asian minority seems dis-united, the divide between Asian-American men and women is the most widely discussed and contentious. For some (perhaps many) The Joy Luck Club is the book that made it fashionable for Asian women to be outspoken about their disdain for Asian men and perhaps even made this rejection a necessity in the process of Asian-American feminist empowerment. For me then, there is no question that The Joy Luck Club could be considered to be something of a watershed in the Asian minority experience and particularly in the manner in which the genders interact.

Despite the apparent gravity of the anger and frustration that the book has elicited, I do,  nevertheless, find that it can offer us some intriguing insights into the experiences of the Asian minority. Moving beyond these ideas of inter-gender conflict, the novel is fascinating to me for the sole reason that it simply ignores any kind of Asian-American (or even simply American) historical context.

The American part of the story takes place mainly between the 1950's and 70's, which as readers might know was an extremely turbulent period in American history. It was during this period that America, amongst other things, went from practising apartheid to promoting civil rights, engaged in a highly divisive war in SE Asia, put several men into space, developed the H-bomb, created youth culture, experienced several inner-city race riots, empowered women and gays, and saw the rise of an open drug culture. This is not to mention the social effects of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust that hung over almost every aspect of western creative expression of the period. Apparently, the young Americanized Asian women that the novel describes were somehow unaware of any of these dramatic and world-view building shifts in the culture to which they belonged.

The effect is surreal since despite growing up in a period that could be described as volatile and dynamic, the Americanized characters in the book seemed to have missed the entire experience. Imagine if we had the story of Dr. Zhivago but with characters that are unaffected by the turbulent Russian Revolution. What we would be left with is a sappy love story with one-dimensional and self-absorbed characters. From a purely Asian-American perspective the disconnect from historical context is even more remarkable. At this time anti-misegenation laws forbidding Asian men from marrying white women still existed in several states. Anti-Asian racism was still deeply entrenched in the laws and social context of the time. Racially biased immigration policies limiting Asian immigration were still in force, plus citizenship and property rights were only recently given to the Asian minority. Strangely, none of these factors that had defined the experiences of the Asian minority at the time make it into the consciousness of the characters in the book.

Of course it can be argued that the story describes a universal human condition in a way that goes beyond race and racist restrictions, yet this seems inadequate since the human condition is very much informed by its social  environment. In fact, the story might possibly have been more powerful and universal if the complexities of the Asian-American experience of the time had been referenced in some way. A good example of this in action is the movie "Precious" - set against the backdrop of African-American poverty, the movie describes personal human tragedy that interweaves effortlessly with the historical and social context. Compared to this, the Joy Luck Club seems soap opera-ish.

It is for these reasons that I've always found the Americanized daughters described by Tan to be extremely annoying. Their apparent self-absorption is so profound that they don't seem to realize that the success they achieve in America was built upon the struggle against oppression of those who came before. They seem oblivious to the fact that their ability to effortlessly make dating and marriage choices across the racial divide was a right paid for with the blood of thousands, and that even at the time that the events were being described was a right denied to ethnic minority men and women in many states. Effectively, the Americanized characters described by Tan seem so disconnected from the social and historical realities of their time that they can only be described as borderline sociopathic.

This for me is the ultimate legacy of The Joy Luck Club. If we move beyond the bickering of the interracial dating disparity and view the novel objectively, it should become apparent that the book sets a mode of consciousness for ensuing generations of Asian-Americans that is mundane, socially disconnected and heavily biased toward emotionalism. By definition these qualities are dependent, irrelevent and ultimately favour the irrational adherence to disadvantage that drives the emotional appeal. Fundamentally, this type of approach is impotent for both Asian men and women and directs the dialogue of the Asian experience away from rational discourse that is based upon logical assements. If we ignore the very circumstances that create our world-view, then all we have left is emotive irrelevence.

I would argue that much of the creative, political and sociological commentary of the Asian minority follows this example of the appeal to emotion. The principles of rational argumentation and intellectual honesty take a back-seat to emotional necessity. I would suggest that The Joy Luck Club stands as the leading model for this mode of thinking that continues to the present. As a community that still struggles to define itself the reliance on emotionalism is ultimately detrimental to this cause. So in the end, the thinking espoused by The Joy Luck Club can only be viewed as a literary and intellectual dead-end that promotes short-term emotional expression but that has ultimately failed to inspire a rational, intellectually honest world-view.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Herd Of Cats

Overcoming Stereotypes.

Here in Asian-America much is discussed about the notion of overcoming stereotypes and for many (possibly most) people from the Asian minority the effect of being stereotyped is something that they encounter on a daily basis. Often these experiences might involve the mundane, but sometimes stereotyping can result in violence and even murder. So the issue of stereotyping is complex and covers a wide range of experiences ranging from irritating to fatal. I think it would be accurate to say that the process of stereotyping has a dehumanizing effect and by propagating the social acceptance of demeaning behaviour towards the Asian minority it upholds the structure of social marginalization and personal disempowerment.

America is known throughout much of the world for its commitment to freedom and the cause of individual attainment. Vague and often elusive, the notion of freedom can be and often is interpreted by different people to mean different things. The notion of freedom has been understood to comprise a negative and positive aspect (as examined by Isaiah Berlin). In simple terms, the negative aspect of freedom holds that there be few external restrictions from others within one's society (be it from other citizens or government and generally accepted to come in the form of society's laws) that interfere with one doing as one pleases - limited of course by laws that protect the common good. Positive freedom is more of an internal concept that involves the idea of individuals transcending personal limitations - which can often be in the form of social, cultural or even self created limitations - and achieving one's full potential as an individual.

If we look at stereotyping through the filter of negative and positive freedom we might notice that the process of stereotyping creates an environment that allows mainstream society to restrict our ability to enjoy freedom as completely as other Americans. Political propagation of mistrust of Asia plus social willingness to accept - as normal - behaviour that denigrates Asian peoples and trivializes violence against them (as popularized by the media) all serves to diminish our capacity to live our lives free from pervasive random acts of prejudice and nurtured ignorance.

So, even though we won't find any laws that explicitly deny the Asian minority its freedom, in practice social attitudes are promoted that allow and perhaps even encourage interference in our lives. This means that whilst institutional racism towards Asians is ostensibly limited, the free market promotion of negative attitudes encourages prejudice as an expression of individual choice driven by social expectation and demand, which, put another way, means that institutional racism towards Asians has become privatized. In other words, whatever negative freedoms American democracy guarantees its citizens is diminished through sometimes severe social restrictions resulting from society's eager embrace of negative stereotyping and the subsequent effects this has on the Asian minority.

For most Asians what this means is that despite some degree of economic prosperity (which many people assert is the measure of a minority's integration and "success"), society's promotion of demeaning xenophobic attitudes and behaviours results in routine experiences of baiting, harassment and bigotry that often carries with it the potential for violence. This contradicts ideas of positive liberty as outlined by Isaiah Berlin............
".....we are not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role........I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the degree that I am made to realize that it is not".                                                                                      

Two Concepts Of Liberty
In this sense stereotyping can be viewed as a process of social engineering carried out by cultural institutions and apparently driven by market demand. The goal is to reinforce ideas of a social hierarchy that excludes Asians (especially Asian men), and diminishes our humanity whilst simultaneously mainstreaming hostile behaviours towards us and effectively creating social barriers that promote personal limitations.

What all of this means is that the struggle to overcome stereotyping is first and foremost a personal and private endeavour that seeks liberty from imposition of limitations through the emancipation of the mind. It is individuals that have to emerge as role models and positive archetypes (but not necessarily via the media) for others within their own community. The individual has the choice to decide the power that attempts at social limitation and stereotypes will exert in their lives. This means no centralized notions of what constitutes a "good" or "bad" stereotype where the individual is informed from above on what best represents them. Rather, the process becomes one of individual inquiry that discovers its own limitations and thresholds and by so doing informs the community and society at large about who or what it is.

This is not to say that the work of protesting media stereotyping is without value, but to suggest that we shift our focus away from the sometimes superficial idea that stereotypes are an insult and turn our attention to the real tragedy which is that stereotypes place social limitations on individuals from our community. For instance, I don't like stereotypes such as Long Duk Dong but not because it has the potential to make me look bad. If non-Asians are stupid enough to put that on me, then it's my job to make sure they understand who I really am. What should truly make us angry about the existence of such depictions is that Asian men, individuals perhaps much like myself, have had and to a large extent still have social limitations placed upon them that restrict their opportunities to realize their full potential in whatever their chosen field might be.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"No-One Loves Me!"

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies.

I once attended a seminar that claimed to have the key to prosperity. The promise was simple - cultivate the habit of positive self-talk, and "manifest" prosperity by focused visualizations of one's goals and dreams. Simply, think good thoughts and the world will be your oyster! Eventually, the prosperity I visualized didn't match the prosperity I actually achieved, but I wouldn't say that I'm too disappointed. What I learned and what I came to believe is that what a person believes about theirself and the self-talk that comes from it can have profound consequences in their life. For Asian men, this idea is all-important.

As readers may agree, Asian men are somewhat invisible in this society - and that's at the best of times. When we aren't invisible, restrictions on positive Asian male images means that we're generally negatively represented by mainstream culture. Understandably, this is a cause of concern within the Asian community and for Asian men in particular the weight of this negativity is a heavy burden that, for some, seems to affect many aspects of their lives. It is media mis-representations that are charged with causing a sense of emasculation and disempowerment amongst Asian men. In addition to this, there are others who point to the media's defamation of Asian men as a major contributing factor in the supposed relegation of Asian men in the dating pool. In fact, it has become almost an acceptable standard to point at the media as causing the value of Asian men to decrease in the love market to such an extent that partnering an Asian man is tantamount to scraping the bottom of the barrel.There's little doubt that Asian men have their detractors (who doesn't?), and it's not really uncommon to hear or read various women opining on their negative attraction for Asian men. But is this representative of a general truth? Are Asian men at a disadvantage when it comes to love? I don't think so.

Despite personal testimonials that support the notion that Asian men may encounter negative responses based upon racial characteristics, this in no way proves that Asian men are generally at a disadvantage when it comes to finding partners. Yet, many seem to accept this as a common truth and there is no shortage of cultural reinforcement of this "truth" through online and offline media sources alike. Worst of all is the fact that some Asian men themselves seem to buy into this idea that they are at the bottom of the romance ladder. My own personal experiences, those of my friends, as well as casual observation of Asian men around me leads me to believe that reports of Asian men's undesirability are greatly exaggerated.

Suffice it to say that I never felt intimidated to approach an attractive girl and have also been pursued by attractive girls. I've seen this happen to other Asian guys too. So why doesn't my experience and the experiences of many of those I see around me not fit the stereotype of romantic losers? Is it that I'm simply "good-looking for an Asian guy"? Much as I would like this to be true, I don't think it offers a good explanation!

In  reality, as individuals Asian men are neither more nor less desirable than other men. The fact that so many Asian men seem to believe that this is not the case is a result of the ongoing cultural terrorist campaign being waged against us by society. The undesirable Asian male archetype is as much a caricature as is Long Duk Dong - it isn't real. It is a stereotype just like all the other negative stereotypes of Asian men, the goal of which is to uphold the fragile sexual ego of frightened white men. We don't accept the truth of these other stereotypes, yet we seem to accept the idea that we aren't desirable and internalize it, and therein lies the problem. If Asian men believe that they are going to fail in the world of romance, then that's pretty much guaranteed to happen.

In short, I simply don't believe that Asian men are doomed to failure when it comes to dating, and I especially don't believe that Asian are at a romantic disadvantage. Asian men need to give themselves a fighting chance of romantic success by first changing their mindset and everything else will follow from that.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Invasion of Privacy

The Sexual Harassment of Asian Men.

Shaming of others through mockery, taunting or any other method will always be ugly and will often carry with it painful consequences. The suicide last week of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi is a tragic reminder of this. As readers may know, his decision to commit suicide is alleged to be the result of a "prank" by his roommate and an accomplice that exposed Clementi's apparently hidden homosexuality in a live online broadcast of the boy engaging in a sexual encounter with another male student. No doubt, defendants Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei may have thought that shaming a young man about his sexuality would be a great laugh! Both students now face charges of invasion of privacy with some gay rights activists calling the incident a hate crime which, if proven, would carry with it a harsher sentence.

Sadly, Clementi was the target of the mean-spirited spite with which Asian men may be familiar. Sexual shaming of Asian men is now such a common phenomenon in American culture that sexual inadequacy has become the normal mode of reference for Asian men. Sexual myths about Asian men are broadcast so routinely by many major institutions of popular culture that they have become commonly accepted truths. From big-budget movie productions to home-made YouTube videos the personal and private particulars of Asian men's sexuality are the subject of much public discourse - often carried out with the apparent intent to humiliate.

This is why the incident and subsequent reactions to it are so fascinating. When public sexual humiliation is directed at Asian men society sees no problem with it. If society were consistent then it should find reason to be outraged at the pervasive sexual denigration of Asian men. Yet, as we all appreciate, this is not the case. Perhaps it could be argued that Asian men don't commit suicide as a result of cultural shaming. This may be true (or not - who knows?) but that line of argument also legitimizes social sexual shaming of homosexuality as long as it remains directed at the entire community and not at individuals. This would make homophobia acceptable as long as it isn't directed at any particular individual. As most would agree, this is incoherent and of course unacceptable.

As I've outlined before, Asian male sexuality is feared.  The sexual denigration of Asian men serves to uphold the myth of white male sexual prowess. This is why society is so heavily invested in this phenomenon - Asian male sexual empowerment is the final straw that will break the back of western patriarchal self-confidence hence the vehement propaganda war to prevent this occurring.

Edit: Minor Word Edits For Clarity.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Whiter Shade of Yellow

Single White Female Syndrome.

It is always such a surreal experience when I find myself noticing the degree to which Asian cultures are adored in the West. If I turn on my television and watch an action movie I'm likely to see a white hero kicking the crap out of someone by utilizing Asian martial arts techniques. Some American action films have been influenced by the styles of Asian martial arts movie makers. Many restaurants in our hippest cities will be serving nouveau cuisine with a distinctly Asian influence. Plus there are minor yet pervasive Asian cultural traits and practices that have become integrated into western culture; karaoke, use of chopsticks, Asian fashions, Japanese innovations in comfortable and user friendly car interiors, and interior home designs are but a few.

Quite possibly the most important Asian influences in modern western cultures are Eastern religious practices and their accompanying terminologies which have become increasingly integrated into American spiritual practice. It has become commonplace to hear people talk about karma where they used to talk about punishment of sin, and reincarnation where they used to talk about being saved. Eastern style meditation and spiritual growth through self-realization are concepts that are profoundly integrated into the popular mentality. In fact, such is the appeal of Eastern spirituality that the Dalai Lama is one of the few Asian men (perhaps the only Asian man) in America that white people will watch and listen to without striving to replace him with a whitewashed version - although I hear that there may be plans afoot to make a movie about him with Zac Efron in the lead role.

Of course, the irony is that despite this adoration of "Asiatica" the actual Asians themselves remain somewhat in the cultural margins. This appropriation of Asian culture goes hand-in-hand with the restrictions placed upon postive images of Asian men, many of whom notice this bizarre state of affairs and liken it to not getting an invitation to their own party.

It's cool to be Asian - except when you actually are Asian.

Monday, September 6, 2010

"...the Chinese are extremely bright...and wonderful....!"

When Propaganda Succeeds.

Few subjects inflame the Asian-American community more than the issue of stereotypes in film and literature. In the view of Asian-Americans, stereotypes promote violence against Asians, serves to desensitize the mainstream to dehumanization of Asians, and trivializes our struggles with bigotry. One of the most well-known and, for some Asian-Americans, the most hated stereotype is the Charlie Chan character. The bigWOWO blog recently presented a podcast of Yunte Huang debating Frank Chin on the very subject of the Charlie Chan character and the stereotypes that went into the creation of this character. Here's the link to the podcast, and here's the link to the bigWOWO blog post, check it out - it's interesting.

The podcast was especially interesting because of the comments and attitudes of the (apparently) non-Asian callers to the show. Remarkably, despite the fact that many Asian-Americans perceive the Charlie Chan character to be negative, most (if not all) of the non-Asians that called in to the show felt that the character was a positive depiction of the Chinese people and their character. This raises some questions about what constitutes a "good" or "bad" depiction and even calls into question the notion that "positive" stereotypes can create a shift in social conditions of a given group.

The paradox of Charlie Chan is that despite being apparently adored by non-Asians and the reported sense of goodwill the character generated amongst mainstream fans, there was very little shift in attitudes towards Asians within American society. Anti-Asian prejudice and discrimination continued unabated for decades. So, if we accept that in the minds of Chan's non-Asian fans his depiction was positive for their perception of the Chinese, then the question arises; why didn't these warm fuzzy feelings amongst these fans lead to a discernible social improvement for Chinese-Americans?

The answer lies in the nature of the character itself. An accented Chinese immigrant, the character of Chan is set in a time in American history when it was almost illegal to be Asian. Chinese immigrants in this period experienced immense institutional and personal racism. Restrictions on citizenship, employment, inter-marriage with white women, and land ownership meant that Asian immigrants were forced to live and work in ghettos (aka "Chinatowns") where they couldn't contaminate the local white populace. Xenophobic hostility to Asians led to regular random acts of violence and harassment to such an extent that simply walking along the street became an act of immense courage that could end in violent death. This was the common experience of pre-war Asian immigrants.

What does this have to do with Charlie Chan? Well, absolutely nothing! And that's the point. As wise and clever as he is portrayed, the life of Charlie Chan would have been unrecognizable to the Chinese immigrants of the time. Denied rights and considered barely human, Chinese immigrants could have been killed for attempting to enter many white owned establishments which makes the notion of one of them being given jurisdiction over white criminals competely preposterous. Certainly there are situations where Charlie Chan encounters racism but he is always able to brush it aside with a Confucian quip.

That's why Chan is so beloved - he allows America to brush aside its history of brutality toward its Asian immigrants in a way that makes racism seem almost harmless. Chan is a proto model-minority - he doesn't need any help because he has all this wisdom and culture to draw upon and because he doesn't need help, there's no need to examine anti-Asian racism. Fortunately, this also means that the mainstream gets to deny that prejudice towards Asians can and has been so brutal, and it allows them to hide behind the propaganda that things aren't so bad for Asians because "they do so well" and they're "really smart!"

The biggest irony is that Charlie Chan's existence gives the mainstream an alternate view of themselves and not of the Chinese. This "positive" depiction did not contribute to social progressiveness because what he depicted wasn't real. That's why he was so popular - he allowed manistream America to believe that they hadn't acted like savages toward their Asian minorities.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The King Has No Clothes?

The Oppressed becomes the Oppressor.

No mention of the black Civil Rights struggles of the nineteen-fifties and sixties is complete without a reference to the bravery and determination of the Little Rock Nine. For those unfamiliar with the story, the Little Rock Nine were the first African-American students to attempt enrollment in the segregated Little Rock High School in 1957. The images of the mass of white students shouting racial abuse at them as they enter the school have become  almost iconic and are a  portent of the abuse they would experience throughout the ensuing school year.

In the year following their enrollment the nine faced continual and repeated harrassment as well as physical abuse and intimidation. One of the nine, Minnie Jean Brown Trickey , after enduring repeated harrassment and abuse was suspended and subsequently expelled for calling one of her tormentors "white trash". Carlotta Walls Lanier was spat on and regularly harrassed by white students. The studious and quiet Jefferson A. Thomas was heavily targeted by bullies. Gloria Cecilia Ray Karlmark was especially targeted by bullies and was jostled, pushed and physically intimidated by white students. Melba Patillo Beals had acid thrown into her face. All of the nine faced daily harrowing abuse, bullying, physical intimidation and violence. All the while the Administrative and teaching staff  permitted the violence to continue unabated.

Because of their endurance and bravery, the story of the Little Rock Nine has empowered subsequent generations of the dispossessed and disempowered. All of the nine went on to be successfull in their fields and themselves became community activists. How painful, then, must be the realization that one of the main lessons learned by some of the heirs to the struggle for equality is how to be oppressors.

It's something of a clichè to write that history repeats itself, yet, the ongoing violence and harrassment of Asian students at the hands of the descendants of the Civil Rights movement in South Philly High school proves that this age-old wisdom is sometimes true. As readers may know, the Asian student body at South Philly High School has been involved in an ongoing judicial struggle to have their grievances appropriately addressed by school authorities, who have so far apparently pursued a policy of denial and dishonesty in order to avoid upholding the civil (and human) rights of their Asian students. At the school, students of Asian descent have reported repeated racial baiting, harrassment, intimidation and physical violence all under the watchful indifference of school staff.

It's therefore the greatest irony that Federal investigators have found merit in the complaints of the Asian student body on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The similarities in the experiences of the Little Rock Nine and the Asian students are remarkable. Just like the Little Rock Nine, the Asian students at South Philly want to better themselves through education and hard work. Unfortunately, also like the Little Rock Nine, the Asian student body is being abused by an ignorant group of students whose violence and intimidation has been (allegedly) repeatedly ignored by school authorities. Sadly, on the anniversary of King's speech that inspired oppressed people throughout the world, the heirs to his legacy have been called to address their own oppression of a weaker minority.

Does the King still have clothes?


H/T Masir Jones at Destroy & Rebuild

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Magic Mushroom Clouds

Being White means never having to say you're sorry.

The annual commemoration of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is typically accompanied by a debate on whether the bombings were justified or simply an act of mass-murder motivated by revenge. Often, this debate then evolves into a discussion on whether the Japanese have done or said enough to redress the actions of their militarist regime of the period. Although Japan has issued several apologies to their Asian neighbours, many still feel that Japan has failed to genuinely, and fully, acknowledge atrocities committed by the Imperial Armies against its former enemies. So, even though it's been sixty-five years since the bombs were dropped, the political and social fallout from their use is still being felt.

Whatever position one takes on these issues, I think most people would agree that imperialism deserves condemnation and that any crimes of brutality resulting from any colonization process should be brought to some kind of justice. By examining the attitudes and ideologies that led imperialist nations to believe that they had the right to brutalize, exploit and enslave others, we are better able to understand the basis for much of the biases and prejudices that exist today, both in the way that international relations are conducted and in the racial dynamics within those societies themselves.

Again, although Japan's apologies are considered by some to be insufficient, of all the nations that attempted colonization of Asia - often brutally savage - Japan is the only one that has actually ever apologized for its actions. Somehow, yet for me unsurprisingly, not one Western country that waged wars of aggression on the peoples of Asia, has ever apologized for any atrocities committed during this process of conquest - even though some of these very nations have been vocal in insisting that Japan apologize for its atrocities.

Part of the reasoning behind the West's insistence that Japan fully acknowledge its atrocities is based upon the fear that without full acceptance of responsibility and the subsequent historical re-interpretation that this would entail, Japan might once again become militaristic. This is sound reasoning, yet the West seems unwilling to apply this reasoning to their own imperialism - "sorry" doesn't seem to be a part of their vocabulary. The biggest irony is that after Japan's defeat, the French, Dutch and the British all returned to their former colonies to wage war against the very Asian countries that they had supposedly fought so hard to free - killing millions in the process.

For a diverse country like America, accepting responsibility for colonial brutality is a necessary step in integrating its minorities. For example, the U.S has by and large accepted responsibility for slavery and by doing so has legitimized programs and policies leading to cultural acceptance and  inclusion of the black minority. African-Americans are afforded a degree of respect, deference and empathy not given to other ethnic minorities (at least ideologically). This can be partially explained by the fact that America and other western countries have acknowledged their atrocities and in so doing have placed the presence of its black minorities in a context that supports their specific rights and needs, as well as their very right to be there.

If we compare this to social and cultural attitudes toward East Asian minorities in the U.S, you'll notice a vast difference. There is a fundamental distrust of Asia and its people and Asian-Americans struggle to be recognized as true, loyal Americans. Xenophobia and economic resentments combine to keep Asian-Americans on the periphery of society and therefore vulnerable to violence. Lacking the mechanisms to define and present our own identity, empathy for Asian-Americans is minimized by negative images controlled by a hostile media and propagated by racist institutions.

In short, America exists as the result of colonialism. Its diverse population reflects its past colonial aspirations. Asians are in America as the natural and necessary outcome of America and the West's aggression and interference in our countries. Naturally, this fact isn't covered in the history books. This is why Asians continue to be thought of as outsiders that don't really belong in this society.

Friday, August 6, 2010

I Think, Therefore I Think I'm Asian.

Pulling Leaders Out Of Our Arses

Of the many factors that contribute to making a good leader, one of the most important has to be a solid philosophical underpinning; a basis of thought that guides actions and determines the nature and method of approach to achieving an objective. A good example is Martin Luther King. A strong and charismatic leader, King campaigned for Civil Rights guided by a philosophy of the intrinsic value of man - a philosophy which he exhibited by pursuing his objectives through non-violent resistance. The strength of King's leadership was determined by the strength and coherence of the philosophies he adhered to.

Clearly, King’s greatest asset was the philosophical wealth that he inherited from both African-American philosophers (W.E.B DuBois, William Fontaine, Alain Locke) and various religious philosophies (Jainist non-violence, Christian compassion). There was a circulation of philosophical ideas and ideals throughout the African-American community that tackled issues of racism, morality, colonialism, identity, and cultural expression. From this dynamic richness of philosophical thought African-American leaders seemed to emerge almost as a necessary consequence of it.

By contrast, we in Asian-America are often left to wonder about the dearth of charismatic Asian leaders. If it is indeed true that philosophical richness can provide fertile ground for leaders to emerge and that there is a dearth of Asian-American leaders, it’s unsurprising to find that there seems to be a dearth of Asian-American philosophers also. What exactly is the philosophy of Asian-America? Are we shapers of American destiny or the implementers? Are we in the vanguard of a new America that looks to the East with affection equal to its affection for the West? Is our future full assimilation? Do we need a semi-autonomous United States of Asian-America? What is our vision and who are our visionaries?

In short, I would submit that as a community our need to reassure the xenophobic mainstream that we are “people, just like them”, may perhaps have stifled the development of an Asian-American vision and stunted the emergence of a hotbed of philosophical ideas competing against one another to be the best guide for our future. This may be because of fears that Asian-Americans with new social or political ideas would contribute to xenophobic fear and reprisals against the community. Yet it seems to me that the first step in the emergence of a consciousness has to be through the examination and evaluation of ideas, even those that are scary or uncomfortable.

Clearly, our lack of leadership may be partially but directly attributed to a lack of philosophical richness. A necessary part of that philosophical richness has to include the exploration of concepts and ideas that are uncomfortable, ugly or even frightening. Yet, in the spirit of free inquiry we must be willing to do this regardless of the consequences – if we can’t be free with our ideas, then we’re not really free. We need to move beyond supporting existing paradigms and become the creators of new paradigms.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

We Don't Need Another Hero.

Roll away the Models......

A perusal of commentaries by many Asian-American men in the media, be it blogs, news articles or even some academic literature, will reveal a remarkable fact; many of us believe that the media doesn't provide us with any respectable role models! This is remarkable for two reasons; firstly, I think it's arguable that the media can provide role models, and secondly it's not their job to provide role models. Here's why.....

1) The Media is a poor medium for providing role models.

When most people speak of media role models, they usually mean the movies or television, i.e. movie representations that shows a white hero being heroic and getting lots of play in the process. According to some, this type of representation is supposed to lead to a sense of confidence and warm fuzzy feelings of masculinity in the (male) viewer. Conversely, Asian men are never portrayed as heroes or lovers and so the prevailing wisdom is that this lack of "role models" contributes to feelings of diffidence and emasculation.

The problem is that most media representations aren't real; they're made-up stories that present simplistic depictions of motivations, circumstances and emotions. As such, these types of media characterizations are simply sophisticated caricatures, a form of visual sloganeering if you will. By its very nature, sloganeering is a vulgar, in-bred second cousin to the arts, and as history teaches us, societies that buy into the myths promoted by media sloganeering will produce – at worst - easily-led, unthinking masses that can be manipulated into believing that things like genocide can be justified.

With this in mind, it seems strange that Asian men would even want the media to be the vehicle that provides Asian role models. Certainly, to argue for positive representations is justified, but to desire that the media create Asian role models is both bizarre and dangerous. It’s bizarre because it would seem far more commonsensical to promote a healthy skeptical agnosticism toward what we see in the media, whether those images be positive or negative. It’s dangerous because it creates the false belief that we actually need the provision of media role models.

In short, it’s illogical to argue that the media is motivated to misrepresent Asian men, and at the same time give responsibility to this same institution to provide us with role models.

2) It isn’t the job of the media to provide role models.

Why? Well, because it’s our job, as Asian men, to assume the personal responsibility to be role models for Asian boys. It’s our job to nurture their burgeoning minds to avoid negativity and defeatism, and to exhibit the qualities of masculinity that they might want to emulate. It’s our job to nurture the sense of confidence and self-belief that they will need in order to thrive in a society that demeans them.

When I hear or read Asian guys saying that they never had media role models to look up to, what they really seem to be saying is that they had no role models at all - which seems like a far more serious problem. If they did have a figure in their formative years that they could look up to and emulate, then the lack of a media role model would be a non-issue. So, a more profound problem seems to be that some Asian men feel as though there are no Asian role models who are directly involved in the shaping of their lives and attitudes.Whether or not this is true is up to the reader to decide.

To summarize, it seems evident that the perceived need or desire for media provided role models is less urgent than the need for Asian men to assume the responsibility of becoming role models. Looking to the institution of the media to give us role models is tantamount to accepting the authority of the media over our own lives.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Program on Violence Against Asian American Students: The Philadelphia Story

From the API Movement Blog......
API Movement Building Boston and other groups will be hosting an event with students and community members active in fighting for Asian American student safety after attacks on them at South Philadelphia Highs School……………
……let’s hope for a good turnout.

Especially interesting for me is this;

What happened? How did the students and community build an effective coalition, what is the legal case and situation, did anti-immigrant sentiment played any role, and are Asian American students facing similar issues locally?
As I outlined, here, my sense is that much of the identity (and some other) issues experienced by many in the Asian community may be partially resolved when this problem is addressed. The marginalization of the Asian community begins in the first grade. It’s time to end the cycle. The first step to empowerment of the community has to be the empowerment of our children.

Most if not all East Asian children experience race related harassment and/or bullying in American schools. Of all the things we experience as a community, this is one of the things that is most universal and one which any East Asian who went through the school system of any western country will be familiar. Strangely, the often administration/teacher enabled harassment of Asian kids is an issue that, for whatever reason, the general Asian community seems reluctant to address with any passion. The situation at South Philly is by no means an isolated phenomenon, the only difference may be one of degree and blatancy.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My, what big balls you have!

An Asian-American hero.

Where?!! Where?!! Here, via the Angry Asian Man....Jeremy Lin.

Lin is a fine example of what it will take for Asian men to become empowered. So why do I think that Lin is such a hero even though he still might never play first team basketball? Simply put, the odds are so stacked against him, that to get even as far as he has is a heroic achievement.

As we all know, the idea of Asian male athletes competing successfully with non-white athletes is a paradigm far outside the realm of possibility for many people - including some Asians. The mainstream likes to (no, needs to) believe that Asian men are inherently weaker or slower than they, and for some Asian cultures a career in sport is somewhat shameful and so they don’t encourage their sons to partake, let alone excel. Of course, even more ominously, some Asian boys are told by their families that they are too small, or too weak to compete with westerners, and so mentally they are set up to fail.

Furthermore, many Asian boys feel the weight of media stereotyping to be an almost insurmountable hurdle to their success. This is why Lin’s example is powerful; he has apparently been single-minded in working for what he wants. Stereotypes, negativity, and racism have not stopped him from striving. Most interestingly, Lin never seems to cite a lack of media role models as a hurdle to his determination to succeed, or his belief that he can succeed. This, for me, is the most important point and one that I will probably expand upon in a later post.

In the meantime, kudos to Jeremy Lin!

The Ten Commandments.

These are the guidelines for restricting images of Asian men in the media.

1. Thou shall not have sex.

2. Thou shall not be attractive or sexually potent.

3. Thou shall not be the partner of an Asian female character.

4. Thou shall not be a leader.

5. Thou shall not have a girlfriend.

6. Thou shall not play Genghis Khan.

7. Thou shall not kiss.

8. Thou shall not be confident.

9. Thou shall not be moral.

10. Thou shall be a misogynist.

It’s very rare that we will see a depiction of Asian men that isn’t guided by some or most of these commandments. The mainstream is heavily invested in restricting the depiction of Asian men to these limited qualities.

What are they so afraid of?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I want to be Black!

How the appropriation of black stereotypes rescued the sexual potency of white men.

I’ve always been fascinated with the way that stereotypes of Asian men have changed over the decades. Prior to the 1970’s, stereotypes of Asian men included a sexual dimension not present in today’s depictions. Throughout the mid-to-late 19th century and through to the first half of the 20th, Asian men were depicted as rapacious sexual deviants - Chinese men were stereotyped as craving white women and were considered a threat to their sexual purity. Filipino men were stereotyped as sexual powerhouses, irresistible to white women and preying on their innocence.

Over the past thirty years, these ideas of Asian men’s sexual potency have diminished whilst the stereotypes of Asian men as nerds, losers and sexual inferiors has increased. The shift has been dramatic and the apparent need to simultaneoulsy elevate the image of sexual primacy of white men has seemed almost pathological in its urgency. What then could be the cause of this shift and the almost hysterical manner that characterizes its social and cultural expression?

The first clue is the timing of this shift. The seventies saw the culmination of two decades of social upheaval in America and in particular three shifts in social paradigms that challenged the sexual confidence of the white males who dominated society. Women (white women specifically) became more empowered to demand their rights and asserted their control over their own sexuality. Civil Rights outlawed discrimination and along with it anti-miscegenation laws that forbade interracial relationships were repealed. Most importantly, the seventies saw the previously taboo notion of the hyper-sexualized black male come to the fore.

The combination of these three factors meant that the sexual primacy of white men was no longer guaranteed by racist laws and disempowered white women. Furthermore, the preference of many white women for black partners diminished confidence even further. It’s no wonder that we see such a dramatic reaction to this loss of sexual assuredness. Not content with the sloppy seconds of African-American men, the fight to reclaim sexual pride was on. For this to be achieved a new class of sexual "omega" was created that would divert attention away from the increasingly apparent flaccid potency of the white mainstream.

Almost in the blink of an eye, Asian men became asexual in the imagery of American culture and the process of appropriating the hyper-sexualized image of black men and applying it to white men had begun. The loss of power over the choices of white women and the sense of inadequacy this created was cushioned by the newly created myths of white male sexual hyper-potency. Simultaneously, stereotypes of Asian male sexual inadequacy increased. The rest is history.

Since the 1970’s popular cultural images of Asian men in America have become increasingly demeaning. The turn-around is so complete (and a necessary safeguard of the fragile white dick) that images of an empowered and sexually confident Asian man are anathema to this culture. The fear of Asian male sexual potency is so profound, that Asian men are even forbidden from taking roles in historical movies where the main character was an extremely powerful and sexually potent Asian (see here). In fact, non-demeaning images of Asian men are largely restricted in American society and media for this reason.

So to summarize, it's clear that social and cultural denigration of Asian men is an attempt to salvage the sexual pride of white men. In order to achieve this, the stereotype of black hyper-potency was appropriated and Asian men were assigned the role of the sexual underclass. Restrictions on positive images of Asian men reinforces the position of Asian men in this underclass. It just has to be remembered that these negative images of Asian men are part of a larger myth building process, the goal of which is to prop up the sexual self-image of the white mainstream.

Friday, July 2, 2010

It’s not my fault!!!

Or.....how the Asian Patriarchy can give you herpes.

Earlier this year a rather disturbing study was done by Asian-American sociologist Professor Hyeouk Chris Hahm that revealed a disproportionately high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases amongst young Asian American women. Read about it here. Sad but true.

Study aside, what I found to be interesting about the article, is the rather predictable conclusions that Hahm draws when suggesting causes for this problem. This is what she says about it…..

Accounting for the gender disparity, Hahm suggested that again, culture may be playing a critical role. “Condom use is hard in a culture where women are raised to be accommodating and polite.”
Obvious, right? Asian women are supposedly raised to be submissive and passive, so it’s natural that given this upbringing, young Asian women will not be assertive in many or most aspects of their lives. Case closed, right? I don’t think so.

Hopefully the problems with Hahm’s reasoning will be obvious to the unbiased reader. Clearly, Hahm is suggesting that traditional Asian cultures do a piss poor job of raising strong women. I don’t think this is necessarily true, but let’s put that aside and examine the facts against the presumed cause. Young Asian-American women are evidently engaging in risky sexual behaviour – lax attitudes to condom use and increased risk of exposure to disease resulting from different interracial dating habits. As Hahm says…..

“Asian and Pacific Islander women also have broader interracial dating patterns than Asian American men. This might explain why these women are exposed to higher rates of STDs.”
As with many cases of high risk behaviour, unprotected sex with multiple partners is also a factor. Can you see the problem with this picture?

Hahm believes that these Asian women are so deeply enculturated to be submissive that they can’t muster the assertiveness to compel their sexual partners to use a condom. This is strange indeed! As many readers will know, a traditional Asian upbringing expects Asian girls to be chaste, and sexually demure. It’s expected that a women not date casually, and that preferably they should remain virgins until they marry. It’s also traditional that an Asian woman marry someone within their own social and ethnic group. Any potential husband is usually vetted by the parents and sometimes even chosen by the parents. Sex before marriage is a huge taboo.

Given the above description of tradition, do you see the problem with Hahm’s conclusion? Clearly any young Asian woman engaging in risky sexual behaviour has rejected just about all of what is expected of her, and rebelled against her traditional upbringing. Hahm wants us to believe that despite this rejection of sexual chasteness and traditional roles, that these women somehow retain the submissiveness of their traditional upbringing. These women have the confidence to rebel against centuries of tradition yet they can’t make their boyfriends put on a condom? It’s nonsense.

Of course what is really being said is that it's all the fault of The Asian Patriarchy - the usual suspect. It has become all too easy to point the finger at "The Patriarchy"! The Asian Patriarchy is to blame when Asian women are too weak, too strong, too loud or too quiet. If she makes wrong choices in her lovelife, it's the fault of the Patriarchy, if she adheres to tradition and lives an unhappy life, it's the fault of the patriarchy. If she rejects tradition and acquires an STD, it's still the fault of the Patriarchy!

The fact is that no-one is to blame but the women themselves. Let’s be honest about it, let’s not create victims where they don’t exist. If a woman is strong and confident enough to reject centuries of tradition and expectation, then it’s unreasonable to suggest that she isn’t strong enough to insist on safe sex. Blaming tradition comes nowhere near to being an appropriate explanation for this phenomenon. Even worse, it hijacks any effort to find the truth, after all the answer is so obvious, why delve any deeper?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hating the Airbenders!

I started this blog only this month mainly to present a series of essays and commentaries on some of the issues facing Asian-Americans, particularly Asian-American men. One such issue is media “whitewashing”, i.e., the habitual use of white actors to play characters who are Asian, both fictional and historical and usually it is Asian male characters who are whitewashed out. Another aspect of this phenomenon, as it relates to Asian men, is the issue of whitewashing Asian men out of relationships with Asian women, i.e., an apparent ubiquity of onscreen partnerships involving white men and Asian women, yet very few involving Asian men and Asian women (but this is another story!).

As an Asian man, I’m fully aware of how invisible we are in the media, and I get it that invisibility increases the influence of negative stereotyping. I also get it that challenging invisibility in the media and media misrepresentations is a necessary part of the struggle to end dehumanizing images of Asians. Unfortunately, my feeling is that as much imbalance there is in the media, the response to it by Asian-Americans is equally out of balance. It seems to me that there is a movement of sorts within the Asian-American community that seeks to elevate issues with the media over that of real civil rights issues. I think of this as something of a “populist” movement – populist in the sense that there is an ability to mobilize apparently large numbers of supporters across the nation to protest and engage in demonstrations against whatever media issue is at hand. The Airbender issue is a perfect example of this populism in action.

Most people reading this will probably be familiar with the issue. Briefly, many Asian-Americans (i.e. East Asian-Americans) are peeved that a live action movie re-do of a Nickelodeon cartoon has used non-East-Asian actors/actresses to play characters who were apparently East-Asian in the original cartoon. The response has been immaculate! Letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations, accusations that the director is being racist, and calls for a boycott. I have been amazed!

Recently, I wrote a post (here) about the ongoing struggles faced by Asian-American children in South Philly High School. What seems to be happening there is that Asian children have been targeted for harassment and violence. Beatings of Asian children are routine, and racial baiting is reportedly initiated in some instances by teaching staff. School admins are and have been fully aware of the problem, yet apparently continue to permit an environment of anti-Asian bias in the school. Evidently, this seems to be a major issue that suggests the civil rights of Asian children are being abused.

What is remarkable is the seeming lack of prolonged outspoken national support for these beleaguered children. In the first few days that the story broke, somewhat nationally, several Asian bloggers carried the story, there was some degree of national support in the form of monetary donations (I believe), but since those first few days, the issue has quietly slipped from the popular Asian conscience (although some Asian bloggers continue updating the situation). By and large, the kids and civil rights advocates at South Philly are apparently on their own.

Compare now the response to the Last Airbender whitewashing issue. Since the casting for the movie was announced in 2008, the issue has been kept fresh in the hearts and minds of Asian-Americans across the U.S with repeated calls for letter writing campaigns, boycotts, protests, and so on and so forth. There’s even a website devoted entirely to the campaign. Yikes!

Here is my confusion; why aren’t we getting this worked up about our kids being basically lynched in South Philly? Where are the one day walk-outs by Asian kids across the country in support? Where are the thousands of letter-writers? Where are the weekly demonstrations around the country that keeps the pressure on the South Philly school district? Why aren’t we more angry about it?

Whilst I empathize with the frustration and pain of media whitewashing, I find it hard to understand how the Airbender issue can assume so much importance that it eclipses an overt case of institutionalized racism. People and societies form ideas about people in many ways. The Asian community is extremely concerned about its image in the media, yet, I can’t help but wonder what kind of image we are presenting with our apparent failure to get our priorities straight. I think that prioritizing media whitewashing and misrepresentation over civil rights issues is ultimately as detrimental to our very real cause as the media whitewashing itself.