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?