Friday, November 30, 2012

Wrong Again!

The Folly Of Taking Asians For Granted.

One of the more surprising outcomes of the recent Presidential election was the overwhelming support shown for Obama by Asian-Americans. Almost invisible during the campaigns (particularly in the Romney camp) the way that Asians voted went against all expectation. my sense is that this is because, as I've written before, much of the commentary that I have read that has been written by western "experts" on Asia and its peoples often seems made up or largely coloured by preconceived ideas that can only be described as chauvinistic in nature.

A recent report from the Pew Corporation seemed to suggest that Asian-Americans have achieved a level of economic success equal to, or slightly better than, that of the white majority. In terms of both household and personal income, Asian-Americans rate as some of America's highest earners. Although disputed by many Asian-American commentators for not taking account of higher per-household earner rates amongst Asian families, and for completely ignoring around 17% of Asian-Americans from some Southeast Asian groups whose high poverty rates and chronically low employment and below poverty-line income would have lowered average income rates for the entire group considerably, the Pew report was widely lauded as evidence of a successful immigrant minority group that has moved passed issues of racial inequality and "come good".

Most importantly, for this essay, is the fact that the findings of the Pew report seemed to show that Asian-Americans were almost no brainers for the election - their income levels, and even purchasing trends, all suggested (according to some) that the community would be full-on for the Republican cause. The completely unpredicted outcome of the election has shocked many of the commentators on Asian-Americans, although I would suggest that Asian-Americans themselves are far from surprised that so many of us would vote the way we did. What this highlights is the degree to which the dialogue on Asian-Americans is out of touch with the reality of our experience and that much of the certainty and truth about what Asian-Americans think and believe derives less from what they say about themselves and more from self-proclaimed "experts" taking advantage of the fact that Asian-American opinions are invisible in most of the narratives about them.

It probably should go without saying that much of the thinking on Asian-Americans is built fundamentally on a foundation of stereotype and gross generalization. The outcome of the election has defecated in the gaping mouths of shocked observers whose smug assertion of Asian predictability has been shown to be an embarrassing folly. What it revealed is that despite commentators claiming to "know" the Asian-American community, much of what is predicted about us must be appallingly ignorant and perhaps even informed more by cultural and racial stereotypes than an unbiased assessment of reality.

So what does the outcome of the election say about Asian-Americans? In terms of stereotypes the Asian vote seemingly belies several things that are believed about us in one fell swoop. Asians are often derided for being driven by money over everything else - making them a-political in their pursuit of the dollar - unconscientious and inconsiderate of social inequality, and racist towards African-Americans. Strange then that such a group would vote for a black man, whose party stands for social justice, greater inclusiveness, and fairer wealth distribution. It is no longer politically expedient to assign qualities and beliefs to a group of people about whom very little is actually known whilst cynically excluding them from the dialogue. 

And it is really quite a simple concept to understand - reaching out to Asians like they are actual human beings instead of a formless mass of de-individuated statistics with no human qualities might yield more positive results. Despite being not yet substantial enough to necessarily swing anything less than the tightest election - although this is likely to change in the not too distant future - the Asian vote illustrates how deceiving it can be to rely on income stats, and the opinion of self-proclaimed experts, when discussing Asian-Americans. These tactics have been used as a means to feign inclusiveness and understanding, whilst in reality is a way of avoiding meaningful engagement.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Social Anonymity

Disfiguring The Asian Face.

I read an interesting article on the BBC news website that discussed the private and social experiences of people who have suffered from the disfiguring condition of Bell's Palsy. The condition is a dysfunction of cranial nerves which leads to partial facial paralysis, leaving sufferers facially disfigured. Interest piqued, I embarked on a brief cyber-surf looking for more information on the phenomenon on disfigurement and how it affects the sufferers, socially, emotionally, and psychologically. During this research I became aware of a sense of deja vu from what I was reading, and came to realize that some of the testimonies of facially disfigured individuals could be seamlessly interchanged with that of Asian-Americans (myself included) and easily reveal much about our experiences and our uneasy presence in western societies.

Naturally, this was something of a shock because I, like most Asians, am not disfigured, yet, the experiences of some disfigured individuals reveals some very striking similarities between disfigurement bigotry and anti-Asian racism. Asian racial characteristics are routinely mocked and singled out for abuse throughout mainstream culture, and the pervasiveness of harassment of Asian children and mockery of their racial characteristics by their non-Asian peers is a testament to how ingrained hostile reactions to our racial characteristics are in American society. What this means is that even as children, non-Asians are conditioned to think of Asian racial characteristics as abnormal and behave as though mockery of them is natural. Sadly, many Asians themselves, become conditioned by this process to think of their own racial characteristics with shame and embarrassment. A key difference, however, is that whereas the mockery and distaste for facial characteristics of Asian people is considered socially acceptable, mocking the disfigured is ostensibly frowned upon even though it obviously exists.

One interesting point of note is the way that the condition of disfigurement somehow becomes a public consideration along with the individual who suffers from it. The Bell's sufferers in the BBC article report a kind of shift in the social rules in that normal behaviour is often suspended in social situations in which they find themselves. For example, many of their social interactions are often characterized by staring and inappropriate overly personal questioning, or outright rudeness and hostility. So the normal rules of social introduction and interaction shift so that there is a presumptive dynamic in which a disfigured person is "answerable" for their condition - that is, the normal rules of social interaction are "leapfrogged" permitting rude behaviour and awkward, uncomfortable, and overly-personal (for the person being grilled) questioning.

In this interesting YouTube video, an advocate for the disfigured (at 1:21) talks about a loss of "social anonymity" experienced by the disfigured. Their condition prompts presumptions about their character, leading to behaviour that causes them discomfort and distress and even leads to intimidation. It is almost impossible not to notice the familiarity of these experiences because they could be easily interchanged with those of Asian-Americans and paint an accurate portrait of how Asians are conceived of in America's culture and society and how these perceptions drive negative behaviour.

This notion of suspending accepted social norms is a common feature of the Asian-American experience. Possibly the most frequent and common manifestation of this phenomenon is being accosted by total strangers demanding to know where you are from (racist heckling is another example of social acceptance of suspending the social rules). Ostensibly an insignificant issue, until we notice the contextual anomaly of this social interaction. Accosting people that you don't know and who insist on asking personal questions is completely socially inappropriate - even by American standards. If you were to go up to a white American that you didn't know (or barely knew), they would be completely thrown by the question and would feel extreme discomfort - I know because I have done it (you should too). Why the discomfort? Because it is a very personal question and knowing the answer to it tells you absolutely nothing about the individual in front of you. Yet, I suspect that many non-Asians believe that knowing the geographical origin of the Asian person you happen to be harassing with this line of questioning does reveal insights into their character.

Of course, this is because the guidelines of behaviour followed by mainstream America are modeled by cultural depictions in which Asians are typically portrayed as de-individuated curiosities at best or debased objects at worst. What America's media racism models for non-Asians is a certainty about the characters of the Asian people being depicted such that the irrational idea arises that knowing geographical origin does indeed grant a profound insight into that person's character. Because Asian racial characteristics are depicted as anomalous and are routinely mocked and denigrated in American culutre, I would suggest that non-Asians are conditioned to respond or react to Asian faces and the human beings attached to them, in the same manner that people would react to disfigurement. The key difference being that disfigurement has an element of pathos attached to it granting some degree of dignity or compassion from society. Asian racial characteristics and the accompanying "knowledge" these physical characteristics reveal are almost entirely associated with negative character qualities and irredeemable differentness.

Thus, this notion of social anonymity is a social privilege that is almost guaranteed to non-Asians, but casually denied to Asian-Americans. The narrative of Asians is entirely authored by a mainstream culture that promotes, with authority, the idea Asians can be conceived of  in a generic way such that geographical origin, racial background, and physical characteristics, can inform enquirers about character more than the specific life experience of any given individual. What this means is that social anonymity guarantees non-Asians enough personal space to be able to tell their own story about who they are because there are no presumptions about them - more importantly, non-Asians generally don't have to deal with negative presumptions.

In summary, American culture has generated such a negative attitude towards Asian racial characteristics that it can be argued that such physical qualities elicit similar cultural and social responses experienced by people with facial disfigurements. The most compelling evidence for this comes from anti-Asian racism in America's schools - non-Asian kids learn by practicing bullying and harassment that Asian racial characteristics are abnormal and (aided by denigrating cultural depictions of Asians) that such qualities reflect negative character traits. As a result, many Asian kids grow up with negative feelings about their own racial characteristics and will often self-represent them negatively - that is measure of how successfully America has made the Asian face into an aberration.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Another One Bites The Dust

Asian Girl Boasts About Her Own Stupidity - Receives Cyber-Beatdown.

Several weeks ago, another Asian woman stepped up to provide more evidence that despite having high college graduation rates and a forbidding reputation for educational attainment, intra-community-stupidity remains one of the biggest obstacles to Asian-American flourishing.

In an article published in an online mag called XOJane, agent provocateur hopeful and latest outspoken useful idiot, Jennifer An, wrote a flighty confession on how her racism determines her choices in the world of dating and love. In short, she relates how she simply not only doesn't date Asian men, but will only date white men, and all because she is a racist. Better still, not only is she a racist, she's happy to be that way, so there! Unfortunately for An, being so casual about anti-Asian racism is a big no-no in America's "pretend it doesn't exist" consciousness. The negative reactions to her article from non-Asians, in particular, highlights the degree to which An, and other Asian women like her, over-estimate the value of their perennially childish contributions to the society they hope to ingratiate themselves into.

Despite this, it has to be acknowledged that the issue of race has many facets and nuances. So while it is true, in my opinion, that social and cultural conditioning create a default mainstream position that is hostile and suspicious of Asians, I also maintain that there are some who might be willing to look beyond the the pervasive anti-Asian attitudes, recognize it for what it is, and reject it. This is only one part of a larger race dialogue within American society that seems to be trying to negotiate the meaning of the American identity and how the multi-racial and multi-ethnic character of 21st Century America has or will alter that identity. In this light, this might be why An's piece (and its back-pedaling follow-up) elicited negative reactions from so many non-Asians. The nature of the opinions of An (and many other Asian women) opt to drag the conceptualization of this complex dialogue down to a high-school level and trivialize a subject which is a major issue for many people - of every race - and who are genuinely working to find resolution.

In other words, An's post is stupid and just as I alluded to here, the trend of young, well-educated, career-oriented, Asian-American women, who view their dating choices as some kind of grandiose activism and inflate its social, cultural, and political relevance is actually exposing itself as the work of attention-seekers who have no substantial insight to offer the race question - or even the interracial relationship question. No wonder white-male-run-mainstream-media loves to give these girls a platform to express their pointless opinions - it diverts the attention away from meaningful dialogue that recognizes the unfairly maintained power share that white males enjoy. Nice one.

Even though I'm disinterested in the combative character of the typical dialogue of Asian-American out-marriage and dating rates, there are aspects to the subject that are pertinent to the Asian-American experience. The first point of relevance is that Asian "IR" rates are often put forward as an indicator of decreasing anti-Asian racism. As I wrote here even academic studies cannot hide the fact that interracial marriage indicates an uneven softening of anti-Asian attitudes along gender lines with seemingly more willingness to integrate Asian women than men. Clearly, in the case of Asian-Americans, interracial relationships are a poor indicator of a general decrease in racism towards Asians. In the unintentional manner of an idiot savant, An's piece actually shows this to be true with some Asian women adopting - rather than changing - negative attitudes towards Asians as part of the integration process.

The second point of relevance is that interracial relationships between Asian women and white men have become (because of, and evidenced by, articles like An's) the central theme of the Asian-American dialogue - it even occupies the central theme of many (possibly most) mainstream depictions of Asian-Americans. What this means is that the predominant Asian-American story has become a story of white men and their Asian partners - diminishing or excluding all other narratives in the process. This is something verging on a moral issue since issues such as endemic racially biased physical and psychological abuse of Asian children in America's schools receives considerably less media attention than the problem requires even as the frequency of media coverage of Asian women's dating choices increases.

The third point is that the many articles written by Asian women on the subject display a remarkable childish self-absorption that is embarrassing at best and just plain creepy at worst. This phenomenon is bad for Asian people in general but it is especially dis-empowering for Asian women. One of the justifications for racist thinking in America and Europe's history has been that people of colour are childlike in their emotions and their intellectual capacity. Thus, because people of colour are unable to manage their own affairs it justified colonization, stealing of land and resources, and worst of all it justified slavery and indentured servitude and ultimately the second-class citizen status of non-white peoples - even in their own countries. Asian women who through this kind of flighty affect, and dizzy thinking, are simply prolonging the demeaning role outlined for them by white chauvinism. And these girls don't even have the excuse of being poorly educated.

Perhaps even more interestingly is that for many Asian-American women, like An, it seems that dating white men informs a significant aspect of their identities without which their sense of "American-ness" might be diminished. Furthermore, the basis for their sense of belonging in mainstream American culture hinges largely on their relationship to white men. This means that for some Asian-Americans (and it is not only the women), being American means absorption into white culture and unconscientious adoption of it sensibilities without questioning or challenging any prejudices that may underlie it. It also means that for some Asian-Americans what they have to say is meaningless without a white presence in the narrative.

Of course, it comes down to a conflict between the historical perspectives that inform cultural endeavour. Since historical experience forms the basis for culture, the fact that Asian and Asian-American history is written and owned by Western perspectives that are fundamentally hostile and disdainful of Asia (and often driven by racial chauvinism), any Asian-American culture is suppressed almost by definition because the history that should give rise to it is skewed. To express an accurate Asian perspective will necessarily be a source of conflict which is why is easier to adopt mainstream prejudices at the expense of an original or oppositional perspective.

This is the underlying reality of articles like An's. Instead of rising to the challenge of thinking for oneself, the authors choose a parasitic approach that is neither original, nor insightful, but instead upholds the status-quo of prejudicial thinking.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Some Thoughts.

I got a chance to see the controversial-for-Asian-Americans-movie "Cloud Atlas" this past weekend (and no, I didn't pay to see it) which is a fantasy/Sci-Fi epic that explores the continuity of human nature through the stories of several sets of characters set in various time frames spanning several hundred years, past, present, and future. I suppose one could say that the characters represent "archetypes" of the human experience whose qualities range from wicked, greedy, oppressors, to flawed heroic saviour types, as well as everything in between. The movie explores this idea of the relationships between archetypal characters and their role in the evolution of human progression (and digression) being played out over centuries and employs the theme of reincarnation to show how the human story can be viewed as a repetition of this struggle between those archetypal characters who seek to diminish human flourishing and those who wish to expand it.

Although at times visually breathtaking (Halle Berry!), and generally well-acted (Halle Berry in a white jumpsuit!), the epic theme and the fractured way that it had to be expressed meant that there was just too much story to be told and in a too disjointed way for the movie to work successfully. Of course, from an Asian-American perspective the movie employed some character development practices that have left many within the community feeling alienated from the film. I'm referring to the use of "yellowface" - the practice of using theatrical make-up and prosthetics to transform Caucasian actors (but in this case also black actors) into East Asians. A time-honored practice in the entertainment industry, yellowface is both a symbol and strong measure of the degree to which the movie industry discriminates against Asian actors - particularly Asian male actors.

In short, in Cloud Atlas four different actors, all male, three of whom were Caucasian, one of whom was African-American, are "transformed" into Asian men by perfunctorily slapping a strip of skin-toned latex over the upper lids of the actor's eyes to make them seem to turn into slits and slant off-horizontal. Now, it has to be said that there was a smattering of incredulous snorting around the theatre when these Asianized (or Asian-eyesd) characters first appeared, which seemed to suggest that the latex prosthetics were unconvincing. According to some defenders, this race-replacement strategy was necessary because the movie's theme of reincarnation was depicted by using the same actors to play different characters reborn over time. Apparently this is because there are no other means by which this simple idea of a soul being reborn into different bodies could be conveyed without using laughable make-up on the same actors. Of course, this rationalizaton fails when we realize that Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim Sturgess, and Doona Bae, all play the roll of the main character (whose soul is reincarnated into their bodies) at different epochs in history. So clearly, audiences aren't so stupid that one would need a comically made-up actor to portray a different race, otherwise this wouldn't have worked.

Naturally, Asian-Americans are disturbed by this strategy of race-fakery in film when it would seem that finding talented male actors of Asian descent to splice into these roles would have been easy to do. The choice to chink-up non-Asian actors has been defended against accusations of racism on the grounds that the movie has a diverse cast (including an Asian female in a major role). Yet, it is difficult not to notice that the choices made by the movie's makers are almost identical in character to the practice of discriminating against Asian male actors that is customary in Hollywood and which white-washes Asian males out of leading roles even in historical pieces where the main character is Asian. Most telling of all was that several people in my group - Turks who are unacquainted with America's racial politics - remarked how the amateurish and silly  the race make-up seemed, leaving them to wonder why Asian males weren't cast in the roles but Asian women were.

Perhaps worse still is the fact that the only time an actual Asian male takes centre stage in the film it was in a beyond-minor role as an asshole who sexually harasses a female waitress and then gets his ass beat by her. Thus, the movie displays all of the qualities we see of a typical Hollywood flick that marginalizes Asian men out of leading roles, but then leaves room for a portrayal of an Asian male getting beaten up by a girl - just in case we forget that an actual Asian man couldn't possibly perform the heroic deeds of a white man with latex over his eyelids. Perhaps the whole issue could be resolved by casting Asian men made up to look like white-men-made-up-to-look-Asian. The irony of this movie is, therefore, remarkable in the extreme. The movie's grandiose claim is that it is documenting the "connectedness" of us all - except, of course, when the connection is with Asian men.

But there is another aspect to this movie that seems to have gone unnoticed amidst the criticisms aimed at the film's Yellowface. Korean actress Doona Bae plays a major role in the movie as a clone waitress, "Sonmi 451", who upon realizing that she has been created to be a slave, has an awakening of consciousness that leads her to recognize the injustice of her existence, the consequences of which changes the course of human history and leads to a better world. Yet, what I realized was that the Sonmi character, despite being the focus of a major shift of human consciousness, was actually little more than the tired stereotype of a helpless Asian woman being rescued and directed by white men - albeit in this case, with latex upper-eyelids - who, in the process, give her life true meaning.

In a strange juxtaposition of contrary archetypal concepts, Sonmi's awakening changes the course of human history whilst her character remains completely vulnerable, non-self-sufficient, unskilled, and completely helpless. But the reason she succeeds is that she is rescued, protected, and told what to do by men. In fact, her only strength is her ability to curry sympathy through fatalistic tear-shedding - the several scenes in which her tears drip dramatically from her helpless doe-eyes became rather annoying after a while. I found the narrative to be completely unconvincing in its own right, but also a rather tired reworking of an old stereotype. This seems to confirm what I have long suspected that in some quarters Asian women are the new baby seal-cubs who are adorable but who need rescuing because they can't help themselves. In an unintended symbolism, Sonmi goes on to be worshiped  as a Goddess in the far distant future - mirroring Hollywood's worship of the fantasy of the helpless Asian woman.

Overall, I find it disturbing that a movie can purport to be a narrative of the human connection across the ages, and the "oneness" of the human experience, yet those who made the movie seemingly don't practice what they preach. Instead they adhere to the common-in-Hollywood racially biased practice of excluding Asian male actors from leading roles, or reserving them for brief cameo roles in which they are humiliated in some way. The film's "profound" message is further diminished when we realize that the story's most important character - Sonmi - is actually a unoriginal stereotype. This is the enlightened side of Hollywood.