Asian American

Thoughts on Crazy Rich Asians

My apologies to y’all for being on hiatus for so long. I am actually undergoing some major changes in my life, specifically a career change. I am going back to school to become a civil engineer. I start school again in September. It’s gonna be an adventure.

craAnyway, a good friend and I recently watched Crazy Rich Asians (2018). Neither of us had read the book beforehand, but I thought, listen, we’re getting a movie with an entirely Asian cast. Clearly we cannot miss this.

There is a lot about Crazy Rich Asians that makes it really different from other romantic movies. The friend I saw it with is Korean and is familiar with Korean soap operas, and she says the movie is “basically a Korean soap opera, but in a 2-hour movie instead of a 20-hour television series”. I understand what she means; the film does a much better job of character development than the average romantic comedy.

First of all, I think both Constance Wu and Henry Golding deserve better than the roles they were put in. Wu is such a badass. She could easily play a lead role in a Marvel movie. In this film, she plays kind of a sappy, second-wave Asian girl who somehow doesn’t know who the richest family in Singapore is even though she’s an economics professor at NYU. Is anyone else not a little bothered by this? Isn’t it supposed to be harder to fool a woman of her caliber? Purportedly, the novel is based on some truth, but I feel like there was a way to portray Rachel Chu that makes her look less silly.

My friend and I also had problems with Nick Young (Golding) as a character. In my friend’s words, “He seems dumb. He has no empathy for Rachel. When she’s being destroyed, he offers her sushi.” I do see her point. My critique comes from how Nick doesn’t seem like a real character. The story focuses so much on Rachel and her experience of the family. Nick barely does anything, which makes him look like a mama’s boy who gets whatever he wants. Maybe that was the point. I was just hoping for someone more complicated. Hasn’t Golding played Oscar-nominated roles before, or am I getting my Asians mixed up?

My other problem with the film is that the supporting characters are FAR more interesting than the two leads. My god, where do I begin. First, I’m in love with Astrid Young (Gemma Chan). According to my friend, there is a character like this in every Korean soap opera: a beautiful model-girl/lawyer/CEO who is modest and kind to everyone. She reminds me a little of Raina Amin (Yasmin Al Massri) from Quantico. I love that moment when she tells her husband, Michael (Pierre Png), that she can’t give him something he has never had, and walks away. Seriously, the supporting women in this film carry the entire movie.

Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) is also such a fierce bitch. I love all of her outfits. When I’m an old Asian woman, I want to be that gorgeous. Honestly, I was a little bored with the fact that the future-mother-in-law is the antagonist because if you observe what she says, Eleanor is not actually working against Rachel. She is just brutally honest. When she says Rachel could never measure up to the family’s expectations, she speaks from experience. As a first generation child of immigrants, I can relate to that sentiment. I try to be honest with my white partner about what my family will expect from them. If anything, Eleanor is doing Rachel a favor.

On a tangent, I thought the story would have been more interesting if Rachel and Nick did not end up together, but perhaps were brought together by circumstance later on in their lives, perhaps after a child or two and a divorce or two. I think that would have been a more realistic story. But I guess the movie had to appeal to an American audience, and Americans are hardly realistic.

In addition, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) is fantastic. Her family is fantastic, too. She and Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos) are the gay best friends that everybody needs to have. I love how she shows up to the Young’s estate in dog-print pajamas and changes in their house like it’s no big deal. She is also a fucking good friend to Rachel (women, take note: this is how to be there for one another in the most feminist way). She gives her the outfits she needs to fit in with these crazy rich people. She gives her a place to stay when she’s bummed and has no will to do anything (because she thinks she’s not going to end up with Nick. Women, take note: this is a stupid way to be. Being with a man is not everything. They should have gone to the mall and been fabulous.) She knows how to have a good time and not take herself seriously. Best character.

I do enjoy the cast of goofy men in this film, too. Ronnie Chieng as Eddie Young is perfect. Ronnie does a great dickbag impression. I also very much enjoyed Jimmy O. Yang as Bernard. In the words of my friend, “there’s always that one guy who wears ridiculous things and is a huge asshole.”

While the plot is a bit contrived, I do enjoy the absolutely beautiful shots of Singapore. My mother has been to that country and I greatly envy her for it. I love the implication that Asian countries can and do compete with the U.S. as beautiful places. I have always contended with the idea of a “first world” and the rest of the world, and while this movie perhaps does not contradict that (it is about rich Asians, after all), it does challenge the notion that all Asian immigrants were escaping communist dictators or abject poverty. Now someone just make a movie about crazy rich Arabs, and I shall be satisfied.

All in all, I would say Crazy Rich Asians is a visually stunning piece with some notable supporting female characters. Though I wish the same could be said of the main characters, I am impressed by the level of detail that was given to the supporting characters. There were so many, but I did feel as if each one was a whole person. A work in progress, I hope to see more in this vein, but bigger, more fireworks!

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An Analysis of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandAfter reading The Lowland, I’m interested in knowing what Jhumpa Lahiri’s Myers-Briggs type is. If I had to fathom a guess, I would say she’s an ISTJ based on her writing style. The dryness with which she describes people and settings makes me think she’s a sensing/observant person. There’s a certain habit to the way she comments on body parts–eyes, mouths, erections–that reveals a pragmatism rather than the curiosity about hidden meaning that intuitives express. The way she talks about characters in isolation, delving into their thought processes and the ways that they arrive at conclusions, makes me conclude she leans more towards thinking than feeling (though frequently, Lahiri reveals the complexity of emotions in these discussions about internal modes of thinking). It was hard to pick up on whether she’s a judger or a prospector from her writing style alone, but I felt that judging was more fitting because of the way she frequently writes about obligations–not necessarily the fulfilling of obligation, but the awareness that some kind of social pressure usually exists for people to act one way or another. Introversion was the most obvious of the characteristics I picked up on. If you’ve ever heard Lahiri interview, or even just notice the way her characters are so conditioned by loneliness, it’s not hard to “see” her introversion.

Of course, I myself am an ENFP, so that might influence this analysis. For all I know, Lahiri is an INFP who has a longer attention span for sitting still and writing than I do. In typical NF fashion, I am sometimes more interested in getting into an author’s head than analyzing content.

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like spoilers, I suppose this is the point where I tell you to stop reading.

The Lowland spans a story of over half a lifetime, starting with the childhoods of Udayan and Subhash, the protagonists, two brothers with very different temperaments who were born probably at some point in the 50’s, and ending in the decade after the new millenium. If I had to compare it to another book that encompasses huge plots of time, I would say The Lowland is actually similar to The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. Both novels revolve around the death of one of the main characters, both victims of violence, and both deaths are a result of systemic oppression in some form. Both novels delve deep into the internal affairs of the main characters after the death of a loved one. In addition, I would say both authors toy with the idea, though in very different ways, that humanity is more important than a cause.

In The Lowland, while Udayan’s naive willingness to follow the Naxalite movement over a cliff ought to be critiqued, I think he should be given more credit than Lahiri gives him. He was part of the movements of global student activists in the late 60’s and early 70’s that made governments everywhere wake up and realize things could not go on the way they always had. Granted, the government in West Bengal took a very reactionary stance in response to the students by killing them and then putting the bodies on display throughout the city to suppress the movement with fear. This was the proof the world needed that the government had become a cruel, sick, twisted entity that would do anything to protect its own power.

In due course, we learn that Udayan and his then-wife, Gauri, play a role in the murder of a local policeman in Calcutta. In turn, Udayan is killed by the police. Lahiri writes of both incidents matter-of-factly, as though if either were to occur even without the historical context, the other would still inevitably follow. She reveals the senselessness through which killing occurs. Life is taken and human beings, in their infinite nostalgia, are left to find significance on their own.

The killings, while they are conveyed without fanfare, hold deep political significance. A policeman dies on one end of town, his family mourns. The foreshadowing comes after the fact, an echo of what Udayan’s family goes through. Then Udayan dies on the other end, his family mourns, and the impact of his death resonates for three generations. This is a keen point, especially given the current state of affairs with the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and also the shooting of the five cops in Dallas. Death is death is death, which brings us back to the concept that humanity is more important than a cause. The moment at which Udayan became comfortable with killing a person was the moment at which he lost his humanity, a sad case considering he joined the Communist Party in the hopes of restoring humanity to those in the most need. Almost at the end of the novel, it is revealed that, “…only the policeman’s blood had prepared him [for death]. That blood had not belonged only to the policeman, it had become a part of Udayan also. So that he’d felt his own life begin to ebb, irrevocably…” (Lahiri, 2013, p.339). Ironically, the point at which he commits this inhumane act is the point when Udayan finds his own humanity.

This is also interesting considering the way Udayan is characterized up to that point. Even though he is the younger of the two siblings, it is in Udayan’s shadow in which Subhash lives. Udayan is the more mischievous of the two, constantly pushing the limits of his parents’ patience, while Subhash is quietly industrious, subscribing to filial piety and social obligation. The relationship is heavy with expectation. Udayan’s tendency to act before he thinks is a perfect foil to Subhash, who displays the inertia of those who think far more than they act. One could say Subhash is implicitly at least partially to blame for his brother’s death. Udayan implored him to stay, but he left for the United States, interpreting his brother’s request as a challenge to his own ability to make decisions. Udayan’s socializing is then left in the hands of the Communist Party. His comrades become his primary source of support.

On this note, Lahiri’s commentary on social activism is, at times, not so subtle. Here is an excerpt:

[Gauri] was thankful for [Subhash’s] independence, and at the same time she was bewildered. Udayan had wanted a revolution, but at home he’d expected to be served; his only contribution to meals was to sit and wait for Gauri or her mother-in-law to put a plate before him. (p.126)

Throughout the novel, I could feel that Lahiri has a certain disapproval for overt displays of support for a cause. She takes an almost patronizing tone, as though revolutionary movements are started by small children who have little capacity to follow through.

In the same breath, Lahiri shows an undeniably feminist critique of the ways movements are lead. Unrepentant violence, dogma, and militancy are certainly markers of toxic masculinity, traits that I doubt would exist in movements centering feminist principles. Lahiri points out the hypocrisy of militant movements–how on one hand, men can advocate for revolution of the working class, and on the other, are so comfortable with the subordination of women.

By the time I had finished one third of the book, I already found myself sympathizing with Subhash, the older brother who moves to America to study oceanography. It is somehow easy to commiserate with Subhash, who, in the course of the novel, becomes a single father to Udayan’s daughter. He is also portrayed as the more dutiful of the two sons. In contrast, Udayan is hard to relate to, portrayed as a rebel from a young age. His murder seems to have been brought about as much by him as anyone. Gauri, his widowed wife and mother to his child, is even harder to relate to. After the death of her husband, she becomes a cold, unfeeling person, plunging into the safety of academia. She has no qualms at all about leaving Subhash and her child behind.

The argument could be made that everything Gauri does is justified as a woman who realizes just how unreliable men can be. It makes no sense that in our modern society, or even in the 70’s when Gauri was married, women are still expected to marry men and be dependent on them in a social sense when they are as susceptible to death as women are. Gauri learns this at a relatively young age, and spends the rest of her life as an independent woman who achieves success as a professor, something that I think should be celebrated. Furthermore, she is the kind of woman for whom social expectations matter not at all. Gauri gives no fucks. She cuts her hair short. She wears tight clothes. She has sex with a woman. She drops meetings without explanation. She shows up at her husband’s house without calling. She does whatever she wants whenever she wants. Personally, I think that’s awesome. More Desi women should have the courage to live like that. Yet, she is portrayed as someone plagued with guilt, unable to forgive herself for leaving her child. I’m sure if it was a man leaving his child, he would not be portrayed in this way.

I digress. Oddly enough, I think the way Lahiri writes about sex is one of my favorite things about her writing, though it is not at all romantic. This is another trait of her writing that makes me think she is more sensing than intuitive. I, an incorrigible intuitive, cannot seem to write about sex without getting caught up in the significance of it: the romanticism of feeling another person’s skin, kissing, orgasms, cuddling. Lahiri does none of that. Here is an example:

She was wearing slacks and a grey sweater. The clothes covered her skin, but they accentuated the contours of her breasts, the firm swell of her stomach. The shape of her thighs. He drew his eyes away from her, though already a vision had entered, of her breasts exposed. (p. 141)

I still don’t understand how, in a passage where literally nothing happens, she expresses something lasciviously enough to get me horny.

Lastly, as one who loves the stars, I also love observing what commentary authors have on night skies. This is Lahiri’s:

He sees the wide beam of moon’s light over the water, pouring down. He is overwhelmed by the sky’s clarity, the number of stars. (p. 329)

It seems like the sky is a reflection of where Subhash’s life has finally come to land, so to speak. He is no longer haunted by the secret he kept from his daughter. He is no longer deceiving himself in an unhappy marriage. He has found some peace, and as of yet, some possibilities.

Many as my criticisms are, there are a lot of things I liked about The Lowland. I feel the novel says a lot about the curious constructions of memory and time, how peoples actions in the present can so closely mirror those of their ancestors, and how emotion is as important a factor as time in how well we remember events.

Works Cited

Lahiri, J. (2013). The Lowland. Toronto, Canada: Alfred A. Knopf.

 

Impressions of Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

snow huntersThe second book I finished this week was Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon, a novel about a young Korean man named Yohan and his life in Brazil after the end of the Korean War.

Yoon uses beautifully simple prose. He writes so delicately about human relationships that I was brought close to tears several times. Yoon’s style is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of my Melancholy Whores. There is the same dream-like quality, but without the magical realism.

Granted, Yoon has a way of making the real magical. I particularly liked this excerpt.

–What stars, he said, and laughed, gazing up at that vast canvas above them, Yohan astonished by how it was possible that it was the same sky through all their years, in countries across the sea. How the sky never changed, never appeared to grow old. (Yoon, 2013, p.90)

At first, it seems like the same trite phrase about the stars that everyone writes, until the comment about oldness. It was then that I realized the excerpt was never about the stars, but the feelings Yohan has about his friend and mentor while he looks at them. We can understand the way he misses people (and will miss people) while he looks at stars.

In addition, I enjoyed Yoon’s commentary on love throughout the book.

But he had never known him, had never been close to him in the way he witnessed other sons and their fathers.

Perhaps it would have been different if his mother had lived. Perhaps his father had been someone else and a wife’s death had altered him.

Or perhaps his solitude was always there. He would often wonder about that. (Yoon, 2013, p.140)

On the surface, this is a straightforward description of Yohan’s father. However, the sentence at the end asks several questions of the reader. How much do we really know about the people we are close to? Even our own parents had lived lives unknowable to us before we were born. How much of people’s behavior is truly their own nature, and how much of it is done in reaction to being observed or as a product of experience? Yet, Yohan still believes in the love his father gave him. There is a duality there that is revealing of human nature: that doubt is a natural part of love.

 

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s something I recommend for gloomy days, or perhaps gloomy times like these when nativists are looking for reasons to throw immigrants out of countries. It only took me a day to read, and there’s something about Snow Hunters that just lowers my blood pressure. It was a welcome respite from the chaos of modern living.

Works Cited

Yoon, P. (2013). Snow Hunters. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

 

A review of an Asian Feminisms class and Ingratitude, an Analysis

 

ingratitudeI recently finished Ingratitude, by erin Khue Ninh, a book that, for me, provokes some surprisingly potent emotions in spite of being such a small tome.

Before I embark on this review, allow me to explain the context in which I was introduced to it. This past spring semester, I took an Asian American Feminisms course at UMass Amherst. It was the first women’s studies course I had ever taken in my life. It was a class of only 12 students, of whom 8 were women of Asian descent, 10 were undergraduate students, and 2 were graduate students (including me). On the whole, I found the course to be very instructive in a number of topics I had not previously explored. I really appreciated most of the readings for laying bare many experiences of Asian women that I had not previously encountered in academia. Some of the topics discussed in the class included Orientalism, legacies of war and colonization, racialized femininity and masculinity, and transnational feminism.

The professor, who I will not name, was also a great instructor, centering student learning by allowing students to take up most of the class time with discussion. However, I did at times find her to lean more towards “academic intellectual” than “pragmatic facilitator”. She had very little ability to hold space for emotions, and as a model with whom many of the students could identify, I think she effectively suppressed a lot of the emotional responses that students could have brought forth. On one memorable occasion, during the class where we discussed the legacies of war, one of the readings was about Korean comfort women, and how their position in society was determined both by the Japanese invasion of Korea as well as by American soldiers in the Korean War. I asserted that this seizure and capitalization of women’s bodies was “a thinly veiled form of terrorism”. There was a brief pause in the class after that, at which point the only response the professor chose to give was to move on to the next topic.

On another notable occasion, I had gone to her office hours one afternoon to talk about my final project, and she asked me how the class was going for me. In my naïve manner, I assumed she actually wanted an honest answer from me, so I shared an observation with her that I thought should be addressed. I said that I noticed the students in the class only ever responded to her questions and statements in the class, but they never interacted or responded directly with one another. I brought that to her attention hoping perhaps she would encourage those interactions. After all, it’s not a true discussion if it’s only between the teacher and the student.

Her response was very strange. She chose to tell me that, while we were on the topic of giving feedback, “some” of the students (a number was not given to me) were “disgruntled” by how frequently I laughed in the class. Specifically, she commented on my “facial expressions and noises” that I made in the class. I was very surprised. This did not feel like feedback as much as it did a way for her to undermine my power and affirm her own authority. The colorism of that interaction cannot be ignored either—this professor is light-skinned and of Korean descent, and I am South Asian. At the time, I thanked her for “bringing the comments to my attention,” though in the back of my mind, I thought whichever student it was that had complained was a coward for not voicing their complaints to my face. The logical response of the professor, at least to me, would have been to tell whoever complained to respect that people have different emotional capacities. My opinion of this professor diminished slightly after that point.

After being treated thus, it is no surprise to me that such a person thinks that Ingratitude is useful for instructive purposes. During the course, each week a student would start the class with a brief presentation on the main points from the week’s readings. Model student that I am, I had not read Ingratitude the week it was assigned, during the topic of Asian American Literary Subjectivities. I think I saved myself some indignation, though I also probably kept the class from being able to learn from my rather contemptuous point of view.

To my knowledge, the eight women in the class adored the book. The presentation that week was given by an English major studying at Mount Holyoke, a native of Cupertino, a stone’s throw from San Francisco, California. This is a person who is able to travel to Taiwan every year, whose parents are probably paying for her education. Her presentation, which was significantly lacking in criticality, historical context, and even a basic analysis of capitalism, enthusiastically affirmed the words of an author who predictably faulted parents for everything that sucked about Asian women’s lives. The room reeked of hypocrisy.

I had stated in previous classes that I unabashedly defend Asian parents. When I said in class that day that I had not read the book, but I could fathom by conjecture that I probably would not agree with most of erin Khue Ninh’s analysis, the professor’s response was to say, “Well, you’ve stated your views in the past, Leonie.”

This is nothing compared to the complaints I have with the book itself, now that I have read it. Ninh’s book is an analysis of how immigrant families trap women of Asian descent in a role as an obedient, high-achieving daughter based on—not historical archives, not an analysis of Asian women’s labor, not even qualitative research with actual Asian women—literature by women of Asian descent. Yes, you read that correctly, literature as in fictional novels. She uses fictional novels to build a highly complex patriarchal, racial, and economic analysis of the family structure. From where do my doubts spring? I can’t imagine.

Furthermore, in the entirety of a novel about how oppressed Asian American women are in the role of daughter, Ninh never once includes internalized racism or sexism as causes for this oppression in her analysis. This is curious because Ninh literally describes internalized racism, though she doesn’t refer to it as such, within the first few pages of the novel as a reason why Asian people might act the way they do.

It is a central tenet of the model minority thesis that the model minority identity is a myth…That may be a disingenuous case to make…The heart of the issue is not whether an Asian immigrant family currently meets the socioeconomic or professional measures of the model minority. Rather, the issue is whether it aspires to do so, whether it applies those metrics: not resentful of the racializing discourse of Asian success as violence, but implementing that discourse, with ingenuity, alacrity, and pride, from within. (Ninh, 2011, p.9, emphasis from original text)

This is quite literally a description of internalized racism. I define internalized racism as the process of subconsciously incorporating the messages one receives about their own racial group into one’s own identity as though they are fact. Would that not also be a reason why Asian parents treat their children the way they do? In fact, could it be the sole reason? Could the sole reason be that Asian Americans have internalized the belief that they must be high-achieving, a belief which white America industriously circulates? Ninh didn’t seem to think so.

Another point of contention I have with the novel is the hilariously far-fetched logic Ninh frequently uses to draw her conclusions. Here is an example:

Ideally, then, parental sacrifices enable the next generation to live lives unfettered by the practices and psychology of close bookkeeping. In actuality, however, as Su-ling Wong points out, “the code of Necessity creates its own enslavement: one sacrifice calls for another” [33, full citation included in Notes]. Whereas in theory, Necessity works itself out of existence—immigrants work hard so that with success they and theirs will no longer have to work hard—in practice, Necessity reproduces itself, perpetuating its mindset and demands onto the next generation, even after the conditions of material adversity have come to an end. (Ninh, 2011, p. 33)

In other words, why is oppression perpetuated? A logical individual might look at historical and economic context and the ways in which Asian immigrants first came to be in the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as plantation workers, indentured servants, sailors, in other words, slaves in everything but name. (Lee, 2015, p. 42). People in these lowest strata of economic class frequently do not have access to the kinds of structures that help people accumulate wealth (ability to take out loans, own a house, build credit, pay for an education, save money in bank accounts, etc.) because they live in tenement buildings in the inner city or on farms, their citizenship hangs by a thread, and their money goes into paying off the indenture. Thus, subsequent generations frequently inherit debt, much in the same way that the descendants of Africa living in America have had historic difficulty accumulating wealth because they were brought to America as slaves.

Is this the logic that Ninh uses? No, no it is not. Ninh says that parents ought to be able to pay off their debts, debts that, when they were incurred in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, sometimes had to be paid off one literal cent at a time for debts of hundreds of dollars (Lee, 2015, p.42). That way, children can be free. Oh wait, but debts can’t be paid off because they’re not real. They’re just some magic thing parents made up called “Necessity”. Hence, children are oppressed because parents made up the fact that they are in need. Why would parents lie about being in need? Does this make sense to you? It doesn’t to me.

Even putting Ninh’s analysis in a modern context makes no sense. If parents in Asian American families are paying off their debts because they are able to, where is this Necessity that drives them to abuse and oppress their children? And if they are not, does that not bring us back to the argument that Asian families in the working class cannot accumulate wealth in traditional ways?

The most maddening of Ninh’s many nonsensical analyses is her assertion that Asian American’s romanticizing of the Third World reveals an underlying desire to assimilate to capitalism (if I’m even reading this text correctly. Ninh’s tendency toward a confusing verbosity is equally annoying).

Both Chao and Wong’s pieces betray a desire, in fact, to fossilize Evelyn’s parents as forever the opposite of white capitalist America (as if having been a materially deprived Chinese native makes a subject automatically and henceforth politically subversive), and to color themselves “bad” by association. But to paraphrase Kingston, one’s family is not necessarily the Third World poor to be championed; in a confusing state of affairs, any of these purportedly bad capitalist subjects might well have found themselves prosecuted as owning class by agents whose motivations were themselves suspect. (Ninh, 2011, p. 121)

Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure here, but I think Ninh just defended the bourgeoisie against the “attack” of the working class under Communism in China because, you know, Ninh knows how much they would suffer if the working class ever rose up.

What completely blows my mind about this book is how individual-minded and second-wave Ninh’s thinking is. She never once asserts the ways in which feminine people and the Feminine are powerful, choosing instead to focus on the Catch-22 of not being able to pay off parents’ debts and how rebelling against parents is still a way of “settling debt” (Ninh, 2011, p.155). In other words, she portrays Asian daughters as having a lack of agency over their own lives. She never entertains the radical possibilities of being part of a collective, which is not surprising given her lack of historical analysis. She never considers how feelings of abandonment can be mitigated by the feeling of being tied to bodies of people who share a history, an ancestry, and a story. She only ever looks at the individual woman, how she is antagonized by the family, and how breaking filial piety is futile.

The one statement Ninh makes that I perhaps partially agree with is that filial piety could and should change for Asian children. However, where Ninh puts the burden of accountability on parents, I think the process needs to be a deeper and better-articulated dialogue among two generations. I particularly believe the consequences of immigration, colonization, racism, sexism, and capitalism must be included in an analysis of family roles if it is to be accurate.

All things considered, Ninh worked really hard on what I consider to be little more than the vengeful rantings of a spoiled brat. Ninh is a tenured professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Go figure.

Furthermore, for me, the goal of raising critical consciousness is to achieve liberation. At its core, this work requires love—a powerful, fierce love. I think this is a critical component missing in Ingratitude, one that is mentioned but is hardly featured prominently. To paraphrase Darkmatter, if the Revolution happened tomorrow, I would not want to survive it if my parents could not stand right there beside me in the end. I do not plan to abandon them, even in the times when I feel they are being unfair. Before I accuse them of their adultism, of their classism, of their ableism, love is the ability to admit that I have unfathomable privilege as a person who was born in the United States, who went through the American system of education, and for whom English is my native language, things that are not true for my parents. Love allows us to peer into the power dynamics between two generations without ignoring what power is present on both sides.

Works Cited

Lee, E. (2015). The making of Asian America: A history. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Ninh, e.K. (2011). Ingratitude: The debt-bound daughter in Asian American literature. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Correction:

At first, I referred to Ingratitude as a novel. Actually, it’s an account of the relations between Asian American children and their parents through literary analysis.

A Group Observation of an Undergraduate Staff in Student Affairs

This is an (informal) report of observations I made of the staff that I supervise (most likely some inherent bias there). Because my staff consists of Asian Americans working at a predominantly white campus, I felt their words and actions resonate with me. I’ve given a (brief-ish) synopsis of what I inferred from their words and actions and the impact it had on me.

 ~*~

The group I chose to observe was the undergraduate staff of the Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center (YKCC). There are three members of this group (whose names I have changed for the sake of anonymity): Ashley, Tina, and Mike. All three staff members self-identify as Asian Americans. Ashley is a senior who is studying public health and graduates this semester. She is the program coordinator of the YKCC. Tina is a sophomore double majoring in anthropology and psychology. She is the administrative assistant. Mike is also a sophomore, and he is an electrical engineer. He is the liaison between the YKCC and the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success (CMASS).

To provide a little more context, the YKCC is part of four cultural centers at UMass Amherst. The other four centers are the Malcolm X Cultural Center, the Latin American Cultural Center, and the Josephine White Eagle Cultural Center. These cultural centers are part of CMASS, which falls under the Advocacy and Inclusion cluster of student affairs. All four cultural centers and CMASS are four years old. Before CMASS was created, each cultural center had a full-time professional staff member and an academic programming component. Each center is now staffed by a ten-hour graduate assistant and three undergraduates.

I chose this group because I also identify as Asian American, and I feel invested in this community and its development. I am the graduate assistant for the YKCC, so I felt that doing this observation (with the permission of the staff, for a period of three weeks) would be a good way to gain insight on what the staff members believe their role is, what they believe my role is, how much agency they feel they have, how I validate them, and how they validate one another.

While I observed this group, I noticed that in daily interactions, the students rarely go deeper than what Richard Francisco refers to as the surface level of communication (p. 33, 1999). For example, during weekly staff meetings, the two women would sometimes admit that they hoped the staff would have more time to meet in social settings outside of work instead of only within the office all the time. Sometimes the staff would talk about homework assignments that were taking up a lot of their time, or when they were going home to visit their families.

I believe there were many factors that kept the conversation at this level. First, all the staff members are Asian Americans. Their parents were immigrants to this country, and most likely raised their children outside of the monolingual, extraverted, and materialistic context in which a lot of American children are raised. In my experience, and as a person who identifies with the Asian experience, I find that Asian American students might not verbally express everything that goes on in their lives, unless they trust someone very deeply. However, this does not mean they do not feel deep emotions or do not connect to people on a deeper level. I found it interesting that even though she does not talk about her identity too often, Ashley hosted two events about identity this semester. One was called Breaking the Monolith, which was about how Asians are frequently represented as a homogeneous group of people that all have similar physical features, abilities, and backgrounds, instead of the diverse communities that actually make up the Asian community. The other was called The Model Minority, and it focused on how (in)accurate it is to describe Asian Americans as the minority that has “made it” in America. In the evaluations of both events, many participants wrote about how they appreciated the space to tell their stories authentically, and to learn from other people’s experience. Many of the participants were Asian Americans, though multiracial students and other people of color did attend as well. From this, I could infer that this space for expression was meaningful to Ashley. She believes in the importance of discussion and allowing people to form their own opinions.

When the group did go to the fourth and fifth levels of group development, it was often because of pressure from their jobs. For example, this semester, the staff was supposed to prepare events for Asian Heritage Month. Due to a lack of both communication and inclusivity from my supervisors, the undergraduate staff felt as though their work was being solicited but they were not given an equal chance to be part of the planning process. I began to hear a lot about how they felt our department was being run. For example, Tina had been going to the committee meetings for the heritage month in my place because they had been planned at a time when I had class. Tina was one of two undergraduates on a committee of six people. One day, she said, “I never hear this other undergraduate [sic.] talk at these meetings. If she’s never even been to the YKCC, why is she there?” To me, this conveyed a lot of frustration about how these committee meetings were being held. Tina felt that she was taking on a lot of responsibility as one of the few undergraduate representatives at these meetings. This other undergraduate, whom none of us had ever met and who seemed to be there only because my supervisor knew her, did not seem to understand that there was a community counting on her to represent their opinions, and was subsequently wasting the committee’s time. I could infer that Tina feels invested in her community and wants it to be represented fairly. She feels despondent and underappreciated when her input, to which she gives a lot of thought, is not validated.

Another moment when the group stumbled into level five was when I was asking them to evaluate how well the center had accomplished its goals this semester. When I asked the two women to give their input, they gave it very freely. When I asked Mike, however, we did not get past the first question because he refused to assign a number to the way he felt. When I inquired further about why, he said, “It seems pointless to be evaluating things right now when we have not been keeping track of this all year.” I thought that was a brave thing for Mike to say. He is referring to the fact that our cultural center is lacking the kind of structure that allows for people to keep track of goals in an adequate manner. This is partially my own fault for not doing a better job of revisiting our goals throughout the semester. I can infer that Mike wants a more authentic relationship with his work. He wants to feel as if he is actually making a difference. Though he may not be aware of it, his quote is indicative of huge structural flaws in the way our cultural center, and cultural centers at UMass in general, are run. All four centers are in the attics and basements of buildings, and there are problems with access in nearly all of them. The YKCC is right next to a bathroom. There is no custodial service available to the room, and the air circulation is terrible. Mike’s quote seems to point out the irony of how much these huge departments of student affairs ask of these students, and how little they give them to work with.

From what I observe, these group members enjoyed one another’s company and often found solace in being able to relate to one another. Ashley would frequently offer the other two staff members rides home. She also would offer to pick up bubble tea from Lime Red if any staff members were interested. When we wanted to create staff hoodies, Mike offered to find a store with good quality material so that we would not waste our money.

I think balancing the gender dynamics of this group was difficult. Mike was the only man on the staff of four individuals. He also worked with my supervisor, who is also a woman, and my supervisor’s supervisor, who is also a woman. The two women on staff tended to be more talkative than Mike. Mike also expressed himself very differently from the women. While Ashley and Tina were very open about their complaints and opinions, Mike was most likely to express how he was not concerned. His most frequent response if anyone asked for his input was to say, “I don’t really mind what you decide.” This tells me that somehow, the center is not talking about things that are relevant to Mike. He has disclosed to me that he is from Boston, and that his family is Chinese. My instincts tell me that his background is working class, and I am inferring that this has a lot to do with how he comunicates. Ashley and I are from upper-middle class backgrounds, and while Tina is from a single-parent family, she still relates to me and Ashley as a woman. I think Mike has difficulty in expressing what he needs because he does not relate to our narratives. The way this impacts me is that I feel I have not done a good enough job of including him in our conversations, but I am also not sure what to do because I do not want to seem condescending in my interactions with him. I wonder if just naming my observation to him would help.

My main take-aways from this observation are that this group is very close-knit, in spite of each individual’s differences. While they have faced significant challenges this semester, they have found comfort in being able to support one another through hard times. They seem to value even just having a space where they are allowed to complain about the institution, and their complaints are validated by others who have had similar experiences. My hope is that the group (including me) can find ways to either confront or circumvent our frustrations next year. I think it is a good thing that we have created a space where frustration can be acknowledged, but I also want to think of ways that we can overcome that frustration and thrive.

 

Barkakati, L. (May, 2015). Group Observation. Amherst, MA: UMass Amherst.

Francisco, R. (1999). Five Levels of Interpersonal Communication: A Model That Works Across Cultures. In Cooke et al. (1999) Reading Book for Human Relations Training. (pp. 31-39). NTL Institute.

Unity Is Not Groupthink

One of the great misconceptions about social justice advocates is that they’re perfect. They came out of the womb with picket signs and slogans for the cause. They live their lives to serve other people. We see this myth perpetuated in the many posts and statuses about Maya Angelou and Yuri Kochiyama that inaccurately portray them as saints. People seem to think that there is only one way to be an advocate–to be like the advocates of the past, or like the prominent advocates of today.

In this sudden frenzy to model ourselves after successful predecessors, there seems to be an obsession with unity within Asian America. While I believe unity has its place in the grand scheme (where numbers have sometimes been enough to make progress), I would like to contradict the idea that unity has ultimate importance. I would rather hear the unaltered and diverse opinions of community members, even the misinformed ones, if it brought us closer to true representation.

I’ve been growing weary of the way many Asian American organizations silence the perspectives of newer or less popular members if they convey an ounce of dissent to the status quo. It seems as though if a person expresses a contrary opinion even once, they’re suddenly labeled as the outspoken maverick of the group. If they continue to speak up, community members will slowly turn away until they are no longer listening to that person, god forbid anyone joins them and turns into a team of renegades. Is this how fragile our community is, that we fear a few new ideas are a threat to the entire structure? Are these the actions of an inclusive community?

I used to work with a South Asian advocacy organization stationed in Tampa the summer before my senior year in college. I was the newest and youngest person on the board, which had about 12 members, all South Asian women. One of the reasons why I joined was because I wanted to initiate sex education discussions for the youth of the community, especially the middle and high school ages. In addition to the standard sex-ed lesson of STDs, using contraception, and practicing safe sex, I wanted these students, especially the girls, to be educated on what consent is, looks like, and feels like. I specifically wanted to create a yearly workshop that discussed all these issues.

This idea was not met with particular enthusiasm, which did not surprise me. In my experience, South Asians have never been too inclined to talk about sex. But what really surprised me was how easily they dismissed the feasibility of the idea. One of the board members said there would be complications because we would be talking to minors, and she clearly did not want to deal with parents. Another complaint was that they didn’t want to be held accountable for any “ideas” that kids got. One member said, verbatim, that she didn’t want to kids to think “oh, I thought ‘this’ [referring to some sexual act] was okay because [the organization] said I could do it”.

They relegated my proposal to the pile of other proposals they were on the fence about. It was put off for 4 months, and then never happened because I wasn’t around to push for it since I had graduate school applications. I can’t help but ask, who exactly benefits from this? Something that is intended to help a community never sees the light of day because it’s inconvenient or embarrassing to care about it.

I can think of countless similar examples in other organizations. What is most frustrating about this bureaucracy is that it perpetuates the very stereotypes we claim to be working against. By selecting only the people whose opinions are the most agreeable to represent us, we are saying loud and clear to the rest of the world that we only value conformity and submission.

Essentially, people are scared of advocating because, cliche as it is, they do not think they are good enough to represent. That idea of the representative’s life is the community’s and not their own is noble, but a little outdated. While Yuri and Maya came to be icons of certain movements, they were absolutely acting of their own accord. And while all thoughts shouldn’t always be acted on, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard. How will we know what ills people suffer from if they are forced to be silent? What has deluded us into thinking we are doing such a great job when we’re not even listening when someone tries to express themselves?

I don’t want to be represented by the most distilled, bland, obsequious people any more. They do not represent me, and in my opinion, they do not represent Asian America either. Our community needs leaders who are confident enough that they can take criticism and admit when they are wrong. We do not need heroes that wait in the sidelines and swoop in at the last second to save us from ruin. We need humans: people with the ability to empathize, be vulnerable, and above all else, the integrity to say what needs to be said, not what people want to hear.

Mobilize

I often reflect on the time I spent in elementary school. Many of the experiences I had then take on a different meaning now that I see them from a social justice perspective. I find it interesting that, in spite of society’s best efforts to be “colorblind”, I was very aware at a young age that I was not white (or not “normal”). This may have been because my mother taught me my family’s cultural practices early on, thereby conditioning me to present as a person of color. There were other indicators as well, like the way my parents and I thought I had to adhere to rules more strictly than a lot of my same-aged peers. For example, there was a very lenient uniform code at my school. While I showed up every day in red or white school polos and pairs of khaki or blue pleated shorts at my mother’s behest, other girls showed up in tee shirts of every color and jeans and denim shorts, and no one ever passed a comment for them.

I believe the real red flag for me was the way people treated me. It’s not as if they were ever rude, but I distinctly felt that people didn’t listen to me. In group projects, I’d give suggestions that somehow never made it on the paper. I’d volunteer for tasks, and then my name wouldn’t appear on the list. I might have taken it personally, except I knew other Asian American students to whom the same things happened. However, if a white student said something, anything, no matter how silly, misinformed, or off-target it was, they inevitably received some reply, even if it was just another student saying “shut up!” or “that’s stupid.”

One particular incident comes to mind to illustrate this point. I was nine years old, in fourth grade. It was after lunch one day, and I was waiting outside the cafeteria for the next class period to begin. There were several other students out there, too, and we were queuing up to go back to our classroom. I was standing behind two girls from my class. We all knew one another, but we weren’t good friends or anything. I was in choir with one of the girls, and they were talking about how she was nervous because she had received the solo in one of the songs we were going to perform. I tried saying something to help her feel better, but I received no reply. Just in case they hadn’t heard me the first time, I repeated myself, louder this time. They still did not reply. Both continued to speak only to each other.

It’s been a while since fourth grade, but I still remember the embarrassment I felt after that encounter. I had wondered if anyone had watched me being ignored. I also felt strongly indignant because the two girls had behaved as if they did not have to reply to me. It made me think twice before approaching either of them again.

At school, all the white children fell into a hierarchy. They also seemed to have a protocol in place when someone at the bottom of the social hierarchy happened to encroach on another person or another group’s space. In their own special way, they would tell the unpopular ones to get lost.

For me, there was no place in this hierarchy. Regardless of whether I was welcomed or not, I invariably received little to no acknowledgement in the social groups of white children. On one hand, that meant I could flit in and out of groups at will, and stick with whichever ones I pleased. On the other, it also meant I never truly belonged to any group, and if I needed help or got hurt, I usually had to deal with it by myself.

Now this is not to say I’ve been heartily accepted into every group of Asian people I’ve ever come across (as I’ve mentioned previously). This is also not to say that there aren’t groups of white people into which I have been truly accepted nor that there aren’t white people out there who are not accepted by other white people. In spite of the picture I am painting, I had a lot of fun in school as a child. It is where I discovered how smart, creative, and capable I am. But I think knowing what I know now gives a depth to those experiences that I couldn’t see when I was that young.

Years later, in college, I received the education that helped me understand being a person of color at a predominantly white institution. I learned the vocabulary–microaggressions, bias incidents, internalized racism–to describe what had gone on for years in my life. The 20-year-old me could not help wishing that someone had told me these things a long, long time ago. I think this is something that we, the children of Asian Americans, need to encourage Asian American parents to do more, or perhaps do for our own children. Sheltering me did not help me at all; if anything, it kept me from speaking up when I should have. In the work that I do, I hope I can bring the age threshold down for when Asian American children learn the truth about race in America. This movement would move faster if, instead of having to educate twenty-somethings on basic social justice issues, they already knew the issues and were ready to mobilize when they reach adulthood.