Saturday, April 01, 2006

INSTANT YANG v.13: A Brand New Year; Trippin'; A Brand New Gig

Happy New Year, all--piping hot and fresh from the oven, 2006 has arrived, and with it, a month-and-a-half-long interlude of whimsically clean-cut behavior. Daily exercise. Fiber loading. Quitting sundry vices. Spending time with in-laws. Statistics show that February 15 is the standard expiration date for the goody-two-shoes routine, so don't toss the fat pants just yet--what January dieting taketh away, February bingeing usually gives back in spades.

Not that I'm saying New Year's vows are an entirely lost cause--in fact, this week's column offers up a handy guide to keeping some of the most common resolutions the Asian Pop way. Lose weight! Be a better parent! Save money! Kick a disgusting habit! It's all here, kids--neatly illustrated with examples yanked from 2005's Asian Pop headlines:

Looking back at 2005's headlines, Jeff Yang suggests handy Asian Pop solutions for four of your most common New Year's resolutions

As you might guess, this week's col is also a stealthy part one to our annual Asian Pop Year in Review--with our Best and Worst installment scheduled next. There's still time to pimp your favorite ride, if you've got one--your picks for notably bad/good/weird movies, music, software, books, events, people, gadgets, and phenomena are all welcome, though I can't promise I'll do more than peep 'em; the larder's already pretty full with goodies, as well as, uh, lard...

On the home front: Thanks to all of you who wished me well after that rather personal post last time out, describing my painful and somewhat disgusting bout with oral surgery. I'm glad to say that I've pretty much recovered (except for what you might call a minor drinking problem--part of the fun has been relearning how to swallow liquids without accidentally dribbling from my nostrils).

I'm also breathing at night, which means I'm no longer dependent on massive doses of caffeine to stay awake during the day. Plus, the snoring thing? Gone. Of course, this factors in my having lost about 17 pounds after two weeks of dinner-through-a-straw--seven of which I've since regained, as I've spent the past week and a half on a rest and recuperation jaunt split between the Caribbean (St. Maarten/St. Martin) and Spain (Barcelona/Madrid).

A few words on the Antillean island of St. Maarten/St. Martin. It's the smallest island in the world to be partitioned between two different nations, the Netherlands and France respectivel; the difference between the two sides is palpable. For one thing, the French side is really quite Frenchy. You hear and read French everywhere, because a reasonable percentage of the population--both permanent and transient--is actually from France. By contrast, Dutch people are far and few between on the Dutch side. Dutch St. Maarten is less concerned with presenting tourists with a seamless cultural environment than gently but firmly parting them from their money. Which means that the French side is all cafes au lait, baguettes, and nude beaches, while the Dutch side is all souvenir stands, casinos, and timeshare hucksters.

Topless sunbathers and slot junkies aside, the island is a remarkably fun and relaxing place for a family vacation--with a surfeit of lovely beaches and a reasonably large number of kid-friendly activities. Our two-year-old son Hudson has discovered the verb "to need," so all we've been getting recently is sentences beginning with "I need." We satisfied Hudson's need for fish by taking a reef ride on a semi-submersible. We quelled his need for monkeys by visiting St. Maarten Park, a tatty but simpatico zoo with free-ranging peacocks, more lizards and snakes and parrots than you can shake a stick at, and, yes, plenty of monkeys.

After a week of Franco-Dutch fun in the sun, we returned to New York to drop Hudson off at home in time for the start of his next semester of preschool (with Heather's mom doing childcare duty); the following day, we left for Barcelona, where we spent a terrific three days exploring the city's Modernist architecture (Gaudi rules) and eating several pigs' worth of Serrano ham. I'm writing this now from Madrid--the disapproving older brother of fun-loving Barca--where we've just returned from an evening of not enough flamenco and too much sangria.

Just so you don't think I'm doing the verbal equivalent of boring the hell out of you with holiday slides, I'll just note that our travels have provided us with an interesting illustration of the way that the rest of the world sees Asians. There's a standard triptych of archetypes, and we were exposed to all three:

In St. Maarten and elsewhere in the Caribbean, Asians are the mercantile class, retailers and restaurateurs. Every corner grocery we passed had a Chinese name and proprietor. Every souvenir stand and department store was owned and run by South Asians. And scattered liberally across the island were dozens of curry houses and chop suey takeaways, making Asian fare oddly more plentiful than the creole cuisine the island counts as its own.

In Barcelona, adventuring beyond demarked tourist routes, we satisfied our curiosity by strolling briskly through the "Barri Chino"--the city's queasy underbelly, so named not because of a preponderance of Chinese residents (the neighborhood is largely Arab and South Asian), but because a visiting American writer back in the 1920s associated the area's random thuggery and flagrant, wall to wall prostitution with Chinatown back home.

And in Madrid, heading out for an evening of tapas and flamenco, we found ourselves accidentally whirled into the gravitational field of a huge group of Japanese tourists, who clapped dutifully in unison at the performance, then left en masse during intermission--emptying the theater, to the dismay of the dancers and proprietor.

The common thread in these three archetypes is crime. Barcelona's Barri Chino is a reminder of how Asian communities are associated in the Western imagination with vice and decadence, particularly of the sexual variety. Cross the boundary into Chinatown, and the rule of law evaporates. "It's Chinatown," Jake Gittes is told, in Roman Polanski's movie of the same name--explaining the film's lurid sexual denouement. A (doomed) Chinese cop says much the same thing to Mickey Rourke's character in Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon: "This isn't New York! This isn't even America, It's Chinatown!" Somehow, this casual criminality is associated not with rampant poverty or anti-immigrant prejudice (which, in the case of the U.S., led to policies that barred Chinese men from bringing their wives over, encouraging the rise of prostitution in those communities). Instead, it's suggested that it's endemic and instinctive--part of the enigmatic, exotic quality of the Asian personality.

Of course, Asians aren't just seen as the perpetrators of crime--we're also perceived as its easiest victims. In St. Maarten, burly rent-a-cops glower in front of even the smallest Asian-owned establishments, attesting to the frequency with which they're burglarized--because, as one Maartenite said candidly, the thieves "go where the money is." That's also the theory that has led the popular travel guide Frommer's to warn Madrid-bound readers that "Asian Americans seem to be particularly at risk...of muggings and violent attacks."

Throughout the world, Asian tourists are seen as naive and wealthy, low-hanging fruit for scammers and snatch-and-grab artists. The travel guide's warning has sharpened my wife's suspicion of even the friendliest strangers; she wears her purse underneath her jacket, compulsively pats herself down to make sure she hasn't been pickpocketed. At first, I laughed it off--until we were accosted by three young women, claiming in broken English to be "Italian tourists" looking for help with directions. As two of them spread out a map to distract us, the third stood quietly behind us. Heather muttered to me in Chinese that something was wrong, and we pulled away from them over their protests. A block away, Heather discovered that the zipper on her purse had been surreptitiously pulled open.

Nothing was missing, thanks to Heather's Spidey-sense. But now we're both wearing our bags inside our jackets.

One last bit of news: When we get back from Europe, I'll be heading out almost immediately to Minneapolis, to meet for the first time the colleagues at my new job--working as a consumer strategist for a company called Iconoculture. They're a pioneering firm in the now-burgeoning trendspotting industry, with an extensive field force of experts dedicated to identifying and analyzing emerging changes in the consumer landscape. I've joined Iconoculture to serve as a set of eyes and ears on the Asian American market, and tune in to new fads and phenomena crossing over from Asia's vibrant cultural cornucopia.

Thankfully, they've agreed to let me continue writing my col on the Gate, so I'll be able to continue to blather at you on a biweekly basis, with your permission...

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