Monday, January 26, 2009

On a Mongrel's New Year

I seem to have a new Chinese New Year tradition here in Portland - eating dinner alone and thinking about my lack of Chinese-ness.

Because the thing is, after all the ish I talk about being "Asian" and my Chinese roots and all that, I still don't have a single Chinese friend here in Portland. Seriously. In spite of my spoken-word odes to my Chinese ancestors, I only have my mom's generation left, and no Chinese family close enough to visit for dinner. Even though I'm on the planning committee for an Asian Youth Conference, I ate my noodles alone in a Chinese restaurant tonight.

I walked in the door, and the lady gave me a "Happy New Year," and it felt good. I sat down, and she came back to give me a fork (although all the rest of the place-settings were there: plate, teacup, napkin, and chopsticks), and that didn't feel so good. When she saw my red Chinese shirt (my mom got it for me when she returned my grandmother's ashes to China) under my jacket, she said, "Oh! You are celebrating the New Year! Thank you!" in the same way you would thank a little kid for trying to write you out a check with crayons on construction paper.

And, again, as with last year, I find myself quietly thinking about my Chinese-ness. How much I can claim - and how much I have no right to. Are my attempts to connect to aspects of Chinese traditions (our celebrations of Chinese New Year didn't go much past red envelopes and dinner with the grandparents when I was a kid) that I did not fully grow up with a matter of respect, or a bastardization and/or insult? I don't know. And each year I am faced with this same set of questions.

I ask myself why I don't have Chinese community or friends here. Certainly, Portland isn't the best place to find Chinese people (or any non-white people, in general), but that's not it because I have friends of other colors. So maybe it's that there are no Chinese folks where I work, which is a definite factor. Or that when I've tried to take part in what should be Chinese group activities, I've fallen short (I signed up for a Tai Chi class - my grandmother taught Tai Chi, and I wanted to honor her after she died - where I was the only Chinese-blooded participant, teacher included).*

But what I keep coming back to is the fact that I'm not really Chinese. Those Chinese "gangsta" youth I mentioned in my last post were calling me out as a "sell-out," remember ? I'm just a mongrel that doesn't look Chinese enough for people not to be confused when they see me wearing Chinese shirts. And that's what I'm always going to be.

And so I remind myself on this day that it's up to me to create my own traditions. I am the pooling together of many different cultures, and so there is nothing wrong in my personal "traditions" being as mixed and partial as the racial identifiers in my physical appearance. To me, Chinese New Year is as much about how I grew up and honoring my ancestors (which I do) as it is about figuring out what fits.

And so, for me, the CVT's Chinese New Year traditions look like this:

- I try to do some sort of house-cleaning (or self-cleaning) before the New Year for good luck and new beginnings (it's not the most thorough, though).
- The morning of, I wake up, go to my grandparents' (on both sides) little "altar" and bow three times to all four of them (they are all dead, now).
- I dress in as much red as possible (definitely wearing my red short-sleeve Chinese shirt), down to my red shoelaces.**
- I make a point of writing "Happy New Year!" (instead of "Happy Chinese New Year") on my board at school, so my kids ask me about it in every class, and I take some time to talk about it (which usually ends up with a short description of how I grew up, since, undoubtedly, a few are like "You're Chinese!?")
- I try to bring in some jellyfish and chicken's feet for the kids to try (chicken's feet because that's all my grandmother, aunts, and mother would eat when we went to Chinatown for dim sum; jellyfish because that was one of my favorites as a kid, and my students think it's so 'gross').
- I go by myself to the little Chinese restaurant near where I used to live (it's not the best, but it's hurting, financially, so I try to go there as frequently as I can) and eat some uncut noodles (for long life) and Chinese vegetables with rice, alone.
- I think about how this last year has gone, how far I've come, and where I need to get headed.
- And I spend serious time pondering my identity and all it means to me; and what I need to do to get a better grip on it.
- And, for the last two years, I've written a blog post about it.
- Finally, I'll light some red candles at night, bow to my grandparents some more, and enjoy flame-lit darkness.

Overall, I don't think it's such a bad set of traditions. I might add on a bit as I get older (I plan on going to live in China a while, maybe as soon as this coming Fall, so that should change my views a bit), but this is what works for me, right now. And that's all there is to it.

They say that what happens on the first day is a preview of the coming year, so if quiet reflection, good food, and some personal writing are what's in store for me, I won't complain. They also say that every dog has his day - and it's no different for this one. I may not do it up fully "Chinese," but that wouldn't be appropriate if I did, and so I'll just be content to do it up my own style during my Mongrel Chinese New Year.

And so I wish all my readers a Happy New Year (whenever yours began), and may you all have long lives, luck, and prosperity in the future.

And if any of y'all want to send me some hong bao full of cash, I'd have no problem adding that to my list of traditions above . . .

* Oddly enough, outside of Chinese restaurants, the most Asian folks (of any ethnicity) I've seen were at a b-boy battle I went to last Saturday night, but that's a conversation for another day.

** I made sure to explain the "good luck" of wearing red to my kids at school, since the majority are gang-affected.

*** And, just for clarity, I happen to be a monkey, not a dog, but the picture's about referencing my title . . .

Saturday, January 24, 2009

On "Baby"

On the box for the movie, "Baby" is compared to both "Boyz n the Hood" and "Scarface." And, since those movies are so completely different in style and general themes, that pretty much sums up how hard it is for movie critics to stay away from ridiculous generalizations and stereotypes.

They could have at least compared it to "Better Luck Tomorrow" (even though "Baby" isn't really like that, either) - except for the fact that nobody's ever heard of it (look it up).

So why did the critics have such a hard time having any legit movie comparisons for "Baby"? Because it's about Asian Americans. Gangsters. Asian American gangsters. Right. A lot of movies like that out there.

The movie is set in the early 90s (with flashbacks into the 80s), following the (brief - he's only 18 at his oldest in the film) life of Baby - a Cantonese American, son of a drunk, no mother - drawn into gang life for lack of other, healthier family. Let's just say it's not exactly an uplifting film.

And it's not a bad film. At all. The start is a bit rough, but by the middle of the movie, I was drawn in fully. It does a pretty solid job of depicting the quicksand-like fall into trouble that urban gang life represents - as well as the fact that juvenile justice facilities pretty much only guarantee that kids come out as criminals (whether or not that's how they went in) with no skills for living clean once out.

Of course, for me, I had other reasons to appreciate this film. First and foremost, obviously, was the fact that the majority of the characters (and all of the major roles) were portrayed by Asian Americans. How many American movies out there can say that? Better yet - different Asian ethnicities were portrayed by - sit down before you read this - different Asian ethnicities! Seriously. The Chinese folks spoke Chinese (Cantonese, actually), Vietnamese spoke Vietnamese, and there were Koreans, as well. Hell - there were multiple fight scenes where not one of the characters performed a spinning jump kick or any other form of martial art. I mean - damn. Is that even legal!?

And I'm not done yet. Being set in the 90s, the "Asian Gangster Chic" styles represented in the film were all too familiar (as I was a 90s teen, myself). Baby's hairstyle for the second half of the movie alone gave me a little bit of "back in the day" nostalgia for the days when all the Asian Gangstaz at my high school gave me shit for being an "Asian sell-out." It seriously made me miss them.

And, finally, it addressed something that gets absolutely NO attention in the media or otherwise - there are Asian American gangs. Lots of them. And I'm not talking about the freaking Triads or Yakuza, I'm talking Asian Americans. Kids who speak English just as well as (or better than) their ancestors' dialects. Kids who grow up in the same segregated poverty that the better-known, darker-skinned gangbangers come from. Different in a lot of ways, but so very much the same.

Of course, not so much the same that it's not insulting that the San Francisco Chronicle called it the "Asian American 'Boyz n the Hood,'" or that the said that, "For Asian American movie watchers, 'Baby' is going to become their 'Scarface.'" Seriously?

We're not following the clean kid whose father is teaching him how to be a man. There is no glorification, no rise to power here. And why is it that this movie is obviously expected to be seen only by Asian Americans?

Oh, right - because it is. Trying to find an image to put on this post, I found the Korean baby singing "Hey Jude" instead about 8 out of 10 times. The only sites that reference it are Asian American film sites (or blogs).

Hell - the only reason I picked it up was because it had a picture of a bad-ass Asian dude, guns blazing on the cover. Probably the same reason most other folks will put it back down. It makes me wonder if non-Asian folks could even watch this movie without feeling like they had to totally suspend their disbelief the whole time ("yeah right - like Asian-Americans live like that - this isn't Thailand!").*

I don't know. This was a piss-poor movie review, but what else can I say? There's nothing to compare it to. Maybe it kind of was like "Boyz n the Hood" . . .

* I remember my brother telling me how, when she saw "Better Luck Tomorrow," my Chinese aunt said that she didn't like it because "Asian teens don't do that kind of thing." Ai yaa!!!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Positive for Just One More Day

I get plenty of opportunities to complain about all that's wrong with this country and society, etc. on this blog, but I'd like to just keep the positive feelings going for one more day.

I started my morning watching all the clips of the Obamas' inaugural evening - all their balls and dances and mini-speeches. And I have to say, outside of all the other great things about this man (and his family) moving into the White House, is the fact that he and his wife actually seem to like each other. Maybe even - Heaven forbid - love each other. All the times she'd lean in and whisper something in his ear, him laughing softly about it - that's what couples are supposed to do.

And, really - when was the last time you saw a presidential couple act like that? When was the last time the President and his wife looked like anything other than a marriage of convenience? Seriously?

And then the man does the bump on the dance floor . . . Do I really have to say anything else about that?

So, full of these positive little feelings about the new first family and what it symbolizes, I headed to school to start a new term. Due to the nature of our school (and the transience of our population), we get new students every term, and this one was no different.

So we're in my third period math class, doing class introductions, going over my classroom expectations and what-not, and I look over to one of the new students (a Somalian girl) sitting off to my left. She's furiously scribbling something on a piece of paper with a big grin on her face, and I can't help but wonder what she's up to.

And then she holds up her sign, with the most blissful and proud look on her face. The sign? It reads, "My President is BLACK!"

She sees me read it, and I look at her. We catch eyes, she gives me a big grin, and I couldn't help but laugh and smile a big-ass goofy smile.

This is a student that I just met this morning. One who came to my school because things weren't working out in her previous public school. Who had regular problems with her teachers, has plenty of reason to be angry and sad and distrustful. And we got to share this on her first day.

You'll be damn sure I'll never forget it, either.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"I Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear . . ."

His name, his skin-color - that was too cool . . .

Although I've got to say all the cannon-fire right after his oath had me cringing.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On MLK on his Day

Of all the images I saw to use for this post, this one seemed the most appropriate, for some reason. On the day before a black man takes over the White House, here's a photo of one of the first black men to get into the White House and have a little pull. And now, three decades later, the tables are about to turn a bit - I can't help but feel a little giddy as I imagine Obama in Lyndon Johnson's place, and an earnest white man swapped for MLK.

Now, as far as MLK goes, there is nothing I can write here that can honor him better than (or even as well as) the numerous events, articles, videos, etc. that are out there or happening today. And so I won't try to do that. Instead, I'll put in a few thoughts on his legacy, from my perspective, on this day.

In my head right now, this holiday is sandwiched between two extremes - the shooting death of unarmed Oscar Grant by a BART policeman in Oakland (for a quick-and-dirty description, go here) and its riotous aftermath (almost worse, read here), and the inauguration of our first black president tomorrow.

The former represents "business as usual" and the obvious neglect of MLK's famous "dream" and the means by which he wanted that dream achieved. The second represents an historic step towards the achievement of that "dream" decades sooner than most of us believed it could happen.

So which one is the true indicator? Obviously, the shooting and riots makes clear that we are a long ways away from the "post-racial" society that a lot of wannabe "color-blinders" would like to claim. However, Obama's election also shows that this country just isn't quite as racist as a lot of us (myself definitely included) thought it was.

If you've read this blog for a while, you know I'm a big Blue Scholars fan, and this quote from "Back Home" always seems to sum it up so perfectly:

"And they say progress but the fact is, Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy is lookin like the street we named after him
Permanently under construction, the people hustlin'
Despite the pain and sufferin'"

Now, Geologic is talking about the MLK Ave. in Seattle, but he could just as well be talking about Portland (or any number of other major cities in the U.S.). Here, MLK Ave. used to be tied to the predominantly-black area of town. It used to be lined with black-owned businesses, homes, etc. Now, as you proceed northward, the street progresses from mostly white-owned businesses, to fancier, gentrified white-owned businesses, to a bit of that "permanently under construction, people hustlin" stretch of blocks that still remains primarily a black neighborhood - then back to the rest. And, not unpredictably (but sadly), those few blocks I mentioned are where white folks try not to be after dark.

And I think it truly is in this street named after him that we can see a representation of MLK's legacy.

In that one street, we see how "things are getting better" in a very surface-level way. The street is getting "cleaned up," there are "nicer" businesses and restaurants popping up. It's "safer." Much like the election of Obama as president signifies the "progress" we've been making.

On the flip side, that street makes clear that segregation still very much exists (although not as a legal institution). It demonstrates the distinct economic gap between black and white that continues to this day. The schools in the north part of town are the city's worst, by far. The area is targeted by police and "gang-prevention" task forces (which has to happen, due to the current escalation in gang violence in the area, but it's still a sad reflection of Bull Connor's "police state").

And so - on a symbolic level - we've come a very long way from MLK's time. People of color have so many more rights and protections compared to the 60s in this country. People of color - men and women - have reached prominent positions in the government and society as a whole. A man of color is about to sit at the head of the table in the Oval Office.

But - damn - do we still have so much more work to do. Because the state of segregation in this country (by neighborhood, by quality of schools, by economic status, by police targeting) hasn't come as far - by half - as it should have, considering my previous paragraph. As long as "cleaning up" a street means moving the people of color out, MLK's dream remains only a wish in the wind. As long as police can murder an unarmed black man in front of a crowd of folks that share his skin-tone , MLK's ghost cannot rest. As long as large numbers of people of color still feel that violence and revolution are the only answer, we cannot allow ourselves to sit around patting ourselves on the backs.

So - today, I will think on the positive indicators of change and progress that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s courage (and that of the men and women who fought - and fight - the same fight) has allowed us to achieve.

Tomorrow, I will watch the inauguration with tears in my eyes, and smile with joy at all the voters around me.

After that? It's back to work, and I will continue to think on the fact that George Bush (Sr. or Jr.) never gave their speeches from behind bullet-proof glass and do what I can to spark some true, permanent change for the better in this country.

And I ask the rest of you to do the same.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

On Engaged Learning

I walked out of my class for a minute today to get some water, and none of my kids noticed.

Let me say that again - I walked out of my class for a minute today to get some water, and none of my kids noticed.

Yeah, I teach middle school (at the "middle school" of all middle schools, no less), and I walked out of my class for a minute, and none of my kids noticed.

There's something very wrong with that picture. Seriously.

For one - considering the particular kids I work with (so-called "at-risk youth;" the kids that other middle schools cast away) it's crazy that I left a room full of students completely unattended. The fact that I even thought about it is kind of crazy (considering what would normally happen if I did that).

The second part - even crazier than the first - is that they didn't even notice. Not a one. They didn't even know I slipped out.

Why was that? Well, considering how "bad" those kids must be, it's probably because they were fighting. Or playing violent video games. Or maybe they were so crazy and "out of control" that they didn't notice me leave because they never pay attention to me, anyway. Right?

Nope. They didn't notice because they were totally engaged in learning. Yeah - you heard me. A room full of middle school kids didn't even know that I left the area because they were too intent on learning to look up and see me gone. They were too happily discovering new things by themselves that they didn't even think to find me to ask for help.

I kid you not.

Now, this is not a post to talk about how great a teacher I am. Because, to be honest, this is the first time this has ever happened (could be the only time, too). No - instead, I write of it because it was so amazing to me. It is also a good representation of what's wrong with the education system today.

The class the kids were in was my elective Music Production class. In this class, I am teaching (along with another teacher) kids to write original music; use digital software to sample, loop and edit tracks; make their own beats using a digital drum machine; and to write and record lyrics to produce a complete song (that will be burned to a cd and given to them at the end of the trimester).

Today, the kids were so engrossed in putting together their music and playing with samples, that they didn't have time to "get into trouble." They weren't messing with each other. They weren't putting each other down. They weren't complaining about being bored or getting frustrated because it "didn't make sense." No - they were just creating something new, and learning how to do so through the experience of playing with sounds.

And it's easy to say - "Well of course they were into that, because it wasn't real learning."

But it was. In the last few weeks, they have been intently writing lyrics for their songs - expressing joy, pain, love, and other emotions they never share with each other (or anybody else). They have been learning to get comfortable with the computer software. They have learned about beats, bars, rhythm, and how to keep musical time. They have learned how to determine a song's tempo. They've created hip-hop music, rock songs, motown-esque ballads. They've had art, math, social skills, language arts, and a little bit of history all in one class.

And every single one of them has been in it from start to finish. And it's not like these are some special selection of kids. I have two classes of Music Production, with a very representative cross-section of our student population (almost half the school, really), they have been learning more - and actively so - than in any other class I've ever taught.

But there's one huge problem: this is the exception. It should not be such a huge f-ing deal that I left a class of kids to learn, and there was no problem. It should not be so amazing that the kids are happily learning through experience. It should not blow my mind that the majority of the time in class today (after 10 minutes of in-front-of-the-class "teaching"), I just sat and watched the kids create. That they called my name to share what they had made - not to ask for help or call out other students.

Because our schools in this country don't work like that. Our school system does not provide for this kind of learning to happen. There is too much B.S. "content" to teach in the "core" classes (math, science, reading) to slow down enough to really dive in and enjoy a particular topic. Budgets are too small to allow for anything even remotely "artsy" to get funding - even when hard academic skills are being learned. Teachers don't get paid enough nor have the time to put in to create truly engaging lesson plans. Training is a joke. Most teachers are doing it for the wrong reasons or are completely disconnected from the kids they teach. Those that do it right do so at the cost of sacrificing most of their outside life. So many things are wrong with the system - and they all combine to keep this from happening: kids so engaged in learning that they don't even really need the teacher, or feel like they're "learning."

But it's possible. So when our kids hate school and can't help but go a little crazy when they are there - it might just be the fault of the school, and not necessarily the kids. Or, more accurately, it might just be the fault of the school system, and not so much the kids. Because these students I'm talking about are the kids that society wants to forget. These are the ones that are "bad" and "disrespectful" and "lack discipline" and everything else folks like to throw at them. And yet - these are the same kids that created the "perfect learning environment" that teachers speak of in hushed whispers of impossibility.

What if somebody had enough and finally rebuilt - ground to ceiling - this depressing school system so that that was the norm? It could happen. My math classes could look like this, no matter the kids. If only the "system" would allow it to happen.

And I can't help but think that it's likely impossible. At least very improbable. But I won't let go of the surprisingly-wonderful gift this country gave me two months ago, and so I allow that it's worth it to hope. Hell - maybe I can even be an active part of that change.

And so I turn to you, dear readers - how best can I begin the Education Revolution?

Monday, January 12, 2009

On Race and Class Through Musical Culture

Saturday night, I went to a classical guitar performance (Eliot Fiske with Angel Romero, for anybody interested). The show was held in an old church with two levels of seating - a perfect scene for two masters to play Spanish-influenced classical music on the guitar.

And it was one of the better musical performances I have seen in a long while. Not only were the two musicians playing at the highest level, but they also seemed to be honestly enjoying the experience of performing and playing together. My emotions constantly pinballed between amazement (what I call "holy sh--" uncontrollable awe) and a sense of fun, musical joy throughout the whole two-hour show, and I came out of it inspired and lighter on my feet.

In fact, I am currently searching for some Spanish-style classical guitar pieces to sample for some of my own creative expression.

Of course, I couldn't help but notice the make-up of the crowd at this particular performance: predominantly white, middle-to-upper class, 40s and older, dressed elegantly. There were a number of Asian folks, some possibly-mixed folks, but not a SINGLE black face in the crowd.

And there's nothing new there. Between the price of the ticket ($30 a pop), and the cultural associations of classical music, I wasn't really expecting a bunch of young folks of color to be there.

But, oddly enough, it wasn't really who was there (or not there) that struck me the most. Instead, I kept thinking about how the crowd behaved throughout the performance.

Basically, the performance alternated between complete silence (and stillness) of the audience while the music was being played, to controlled applause and murmuring in between. Again - exactly as expected.

But, for some reason, it felt really odd to me this time around. Because the thing is - the type of guitar they were playing was far from "traditionally" passive classical music. The Spanish flavor (specifically the Flamenco influences) infused their playing with a penchant for dramatic flourishes, a bit of showing-off, and emotion. Energy was interspersed with a catching rhythm and bursts of jaw-dropping feats of ridiculous guitar aptitude (I can't even begin to describe the crazy sh-- Angel Romero did with his guitar). Half the time, I had to catch myself to keep from yelling out loud or nudging my friend (A.) and saying, "Did you f-ing see that!??" It was sick. In the good way.

And that's the crazy thing. The overall feel of this show (in terms of the actual performance) reminded me more of watching a b-boy battle or hearing a ridiculously-talented emcee flow to an equally-talented dj's beat than a "typical" classical performance. There was just so much energy and bravado.

And yet - the crowd just sat still and silent, waiting until the end to applaud (loudly, but still seated - and just clapping). When the whole show was over, the crowd got a little livelier, but it blew my mind how strict cultural rules can be. These two men were blowing the lid off the place, and we were all just sitting there (myself included).

And it seemed such a perfect example of cultural norms in action: the generally white, (but more importantly) upper-class mentality of controlled emotions versus the generally PoC, (but more importantly) not-so-upper class mentality of let it out and be heard.

I mean, to sum it up - folks were just sitting around, getting excited, but holding it in and waiting their turn to show some appreciation through controlled clapping when - I felt - we all should have been screaming at the amazing parts and stomping our feet to the rhythmic parts - maybe even dancing a little bit.

And I know I wasn't the only one. I could see the physical reactions from the folks around me at the "oh-my-f-ing-G did he really do that!?" parts - and I wasn't the only one that wanted to say something. I heard the excited murmuring after each piece, and I knew I wasn't the only one who wanted to be a little bit louder. I saw bodies rocking a bit to the rhythms - not just mine.

But none of that happened - because of the cultural rules of watching "classical music." The same rules that say the ticket price must be exorbitant, and the dress code is formal. The same rules that implicitly make folks of less means (and of color) feel out of their element and keep them away.

Because it's not just hip-hop fans who let loose - any loud-ass rock show will be filled with screaming fans. In fact, I bet everybody in that church with me at the show has also screamed their heads off and moved their bodies at a different kind of musical performance in the past.

Just not there. And it makes me wonder - how did this come about? Did everybody used to respond to music emotionally and loudly (as seems most natural) until the upper-class tried to distance themselves from the "peasants" by acting differently? Did some group of Free-Mason-esque Illuminati sit down and draft the "rules of upper-class spectating"? Did some upper-crust Freud-disciple decide that "controlling one's emotions" was most "civilized" and then adapt that to every aspect of their world? Did white folks see how folks of color did it, and then change their own rules to make sure that they acted noticeably different - and make it easier to exclude the PoC?

It just makes me wonder. Because how we all behaved at that show was so unbelievably unnatural, and yet it was completely unsurprising at the same time.

Just like the ridiculous "rational" behaviors people demonstrate when confronted by race.

Expected. Normal. And so totally insane.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On Racial Misogyny

I've written and re-written this post a few times now. Every time, I find myself filling it with disclaimers and clarifications that just bog it down and make it worthless reading.

Why? Because I'm an American male. This is my first real attempt at writing on a topic in which I am so out of my element. Or so I keep thinking.

But the fact is - I have written about injustices and ignorance regarding races not my own without so much hemming and hawing and deflection. I haven't felt the need to pepper my readers with disclaimers that tread lightly and reiterate my lack of expertise or direct understanding of these other issues. And I have ended up writing things that have struck a chord with readers, anyway.

So why has this one been so difficult for me? Perhaps the truth lies in the brutal reality that we get most defensive about the things that we fear are true about ourselves. And so it is not so much my lack of experience with the subject-matter that is my issue - but rather my possible experience of the issue from the wrong side.

Now, there are many forms of "racial misogyny." However, the focus of this particular post is on exotification: the tendency for men to sexualize and objectify women differently based on the woman's racial features.

A prime example (and the one that - for obvious reasons - hits most closely to home for me) is the infamous "Asian fetish." This is a whole pile of garbage around some (I would argue "many") men's tastes for Asian physical features. It also ties into stereotypes about submissiveness, sensuality, and the like. Whatever the reasons, there are tons of men (of many different races) that end up espousing the overall hotness of Asian women. Not specific Asian women, mind you, but Asian women, in general.

Now, where this becomes a bigger problem is when Asian women are not present in large numbers in these men's lives. If a man lives in Japan for a long time, for example, he is going to end up finding Japanese women (and features) attractive. Of course. However, if he lives in a predominantly white (or black or other non-Asian) community, his attraction to Asian women isn't likely to be due to experience. And, if it is, it is going to be based on one or just a few specific instances generalized to a whole (notice that the man in Japan would be into specifically Japanese features - and not simply "Asian" features). Because, of course, there is no such real thing as any particularly "Asian" features - considering "Asia" comprises ethnicities as varying as Eastern Russian to Pakistani.

And so I live in perpetual bitterness over Asian exotification - the whole concept that "Asian women are hot" based solely on their "other"ness or stereotypes about their sexuality. I had a friend with a very clear Asian fetish who - I kid you not - thought that every single waitress we ever had at any sushi bar, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai restaurant was hot. Every single one. The only explanation I could come up with? Well, that they "all looked the same" to him.

On top of the stereotyping that coincides with exotification of other races is the inherent oppression in the act. Not only is general objectification of women by men an act of domination and oppression; but add to that the connotations of subjugation and domination in the sexualizing of an entire race. The parallels to the uncountable instances of rape by colonizers, slave-owners, conquerors, etc. of their "subjects" is no coincidence. And so I can't help but cringe whenever I hear men (especially white men, but not just white men) talk about how they "like 'exotic' women."

My only response that seems to make an impact without sparking full-on defensiveness is "so am I 'exotic'?"

And the problem is that so few men associate this form of exotification as offensive or demeaning - because it's couched in seemingly-positive terms: they aren't saying they hate these women, they're saying that they prefer them. They think that these "other" women are "beautiful" - they're not bad-mouthing them. And so it is exceedingly difficult to point out that it's the underlying implications that prove wrong and distasteful.

So the question turns to - as a man of color, where do I fit in? Am I as equally-vocal a champion of anti-exotification as I am a champion of general racial understanding? Do I bristle with indignation every time I hear another male talk about a woman's desirability tied in with her race?

The sad answer? No. I don't. Often I do - but not every time. Should I? Absolutely. One reason I don't do those things is that I have always been a proponent of "picking one's battles" - only fighting when I think I could actually win. It's the same with matters of race a lot of the time.

But, unfortunately, the other reason I don't always speak up is because I'm a part of those conversations, sometimes.

Now, before I lose the majority of my readers and friends (who happen to be women of color), let me explain:

I think about interracial relationships quite often. Partly because I am the result of one, partly because (due to my mix) almost every relationship I could end up in would have to be one. And in thinking about interracial relationships as they pertain to me, I have come to this conclusion: all things being equal, I would prefer to have kids with a partner that is no whiter than myself. The main reason for that is simple - I don't want my children to be less colorful than myself, if I can help it. I want them to fully understand and identify with what being a person of color in this world means, and they couldn't fully do that if they passed as 100% white (or so I believe).

That's the logic of it.

However, that's not everything. Because, when it comes down to it, I am much more attracted - physically - to women of color. And, when attracted to white women (because that still happens - imagine that), it is generally to white women with less "normalized" features (i.e. I'm not going for the skinny blonde with blue eyes).

I like women with curves. I like darker skin. I like fuller lips and brown-to-black hair.

And that's right about when the record-scratch - SCRIIIIIIIIIIITCHHHHH!!!! - comes: that kind of sounds like those f-ing racial misogynists I was just talking about.

But I don't mean it the same way they do. And I understand all the power dynamics and the stereotypes and the . . .

It still sounds the same. Enough that - taken out of context - who would ever know that it's not the same? In fact, do I even know beyond a doubt that it isn't the same?

I mean - how much of my "preference" is due to my conscious thoughts on my unborn child? How much is due to my personal experience and exposure (am I attracted to black women more because I lived in Tanzania for a year and a half or because they're "different")? And how much is due to sub-conscious stereotypes or - oh God no - fetishes?

I honestly can't say for sure. And that bothers the Hell out of me. I think it's mostly experience and personal politics - but it can't all be.

And so I'm stuck on this shaky middle ground - is there any way for me not to stand here? I have always treated women with respect and taught the same to younger men and those around me. I have erased the word "b---h" from my vocabulary (in all contexts). I ask my female friends questions, I listen to their answers, and I have always done everything possible to make every woman (young and old) feel safe around me.

And yet I still stand here, a sometimes-perpetrator. Is it an inevitable result of growing up male in American society? I can't say. I fear that it may be - but I also believe that nothing is truly inevitable. So the real question is: what can I do about it? Is consciousness enough? Is there a way to deal with attraction to women without it becoming tied up in racial features to some level?

How do I separate passing, gut-level attraction to women of color from racial misogyny? Hell - how do I keep random physical attraction (that I don't actually act on in any way) being on a level with any form of misogyny?

I'm aware of it, and I think about it. But that doesn't change the fact that I still have my preferences, and if I heard my own preferences spoken out loud by somebody else (say, a white guy), I'd get more than a little annoyed by it. So where's the line? Am I immune from exotification because I happen to be "exotic," myself? Can I be a racial misogynist for preferring features of the "other" if I'm also an "other"? And could a white guy avoid any of that (or the accusations thereof), ever?

A lot of questions and not a whole lot of answers (yet), but that won't keep me from continuing to examine my own positions of power and privilege (as a male) - something that should probably be done even more often.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

On "Pan-African" vs. "Pan-Asian"

So I took myself a (relatively) long break from writing in this blog during my Winter Break from work. And I needed it. But it's time to get back to work, and here I go.

While I was taking my break (outside of my quick-hitter about "Shooter"), a couple holidays went by: Channukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. Now, I, myself, (half-assedly) celebrate Christmas. But I've tried to do my part in at least partially understanding those other Winter-time celebrations that I did not grow up a part of. At this point, I probably know quite a bit more about Channukah than Kwanzaa.

So, being aware of that fact, I decided to do myself a little bit of Kwanzaa research over the break. I already knew the very basics behind Kwanzaa (that it had been created as an "African-American" holiday, drawing from various "African" traditions as a means to give African-Americans a true holiday of their own during this time). As a result, I had a basic appreciation for the intentions behind Kwanzaa, and the symbolism of its celebration.

But, as I got deeper into my research, I had some issues. While reading about the "Seven Principles" and the Swahili names given to them, I had a little bit of an itch. The problem being that I lived in Tanzania for a year and a half, and I actually speak Swahili (nearly fluently) and am very familiar with (recent Tanzanian history). And so I noticed that most of the words were taken from President Nyerere's terms for the socialist experiment he engaged in with Tanzania's fledgling independence. The meanings had been slightly altered to pertain to ALL Africans, but the roots were clear. And that all made sense - the problem being, of course, that - having lived in Tanzania - I know too well what a dismal failure that grand (and well-intentioned) experiment proved to be. Tanzania is now one of the poorest countries in the world and similarly corrupt, and so it just struck a sad chord within me to see those hopeful (but ultimately failed) terms as the foundation of the Kwanzaa celebration.

So I went further in and read of some of the traditions associated with Kwanzaa . . . and something about it all just hit me in a strange way. So much of it seemed like a bastardization of various African cultures. I had spent so much time correcting folks when I came back to the States about the difference between "Tanzania" and "Africa" - it just seemed so wrong that this whole holiday derived from attempts to further such confusion.

It really bothered me. And I had trouble understanding why. None of it pertained to me, directly. It's not my culture, or racial background. I don't have the same history. I live in a different time (Kwanzaa being conceived in the midst of the Civil Rights era). Why should I really care one way or the other? In fact, I should be for it, considering my heavy involvement in issues of race and general support for all things that give some pride and power to folks of color.

And yet it still bothered me.

And then I figured it out - my problem was that I was associating the "Pan-African" movement and ideals with all things "Pan-Asian." And I am not a fan of Pan-Asian happenings.

Because, to me, "Pan-Asian" almost solely refers to the bastardization of Asian cultures. To me, "Pan-Asian" represents all those things that cause all the non-Asian folks out there to think we're "all the same." We all look the same. We all eat the same food. We all speak the same language. Etc. To me, that's what "Pan-Asian" represents.

I hate it when I walk into a "Chinese" or "Thai" or "Vietnamese" restaurant that actually serves "Pan-Asian" foods. That people don't automatically realize that "Pad Thai" is a Thai dish and doesn't belong in a Chinese restaurant kills me. When people reference interchangeable Asian nationalities that eat dogs, I want to cry. When people listen to somebody speak Japanese and ask me if I can understand. When people think that Korean and Japanese cultures are "basically the same" (ignoring the history of hatred between the two). When people have "Asian fetishes" without realizing that Asian features run the full range of human skin tones, body shapes, and facial appearances.

All of this pisses me off to no end. All of this frustrates me and drives me nuts because I know I can do nothing to educate people out of any of it.

And so, when I relate "Pan-African" to "Pan-Asian," I have so much inherent distaste bubbling to the surface that I can't get over it - and so I find myself projecting those feelings onto Pan-Africanism.

And I realize that that is unfair. African-Americans (mostly) don't have the privilege of knowing their actual ethnic roots. They can't say which nation their ancestors came from. They can't know which specific traditions their ancestors took part in. They can't know which language their ancestors spoke. The ultimate insult and degradation of slavery is that it stole the slaves' past and history and traditions. African-Americans who have come from slavery can never know where they truly, specifically, came from. All they can know is the continent. And so an equal embrace for all things "African" - whichever nation or ethnic group that stems from - makes sense in that light. Because what else is there?

"Pan-African" and "Pan-Asian" are not the same. Not even close. I came from immigrants whose ethnic and national origins I know. And that gives me the privilege of getting all hot and bothered when other folks don't honor that specific heritage and instead lump me in with "all those Asians." African-Americans can't say the same - and so they do not have a similar privilege (or reaction). And, as a result, I find myself wondering if that can partially explain why so many African-Americans I know (friends and otherwise) don't really care to differentiate between various forms of Asian-ness. And why Asian-Americans and African-Americans continue to have so much trouble connecting and finding common ground in this country.

Who knows? All I do know is that a little bit of research and self-reflection can go a long way - and that has allowed me to appreciate Pan-Africanism on a whole other level.

What do you all think?