Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Here we are, knee-deep in May, and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month feels like it’s entered with a whimper, not a bang. I’m certainly still waiting for the burst of pride, warmth, and community spirit that’s supposed to be coursing through my veins with the arrival of our federally designated enclave of celebration.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve been traveling a lot recently, and have missed out on some of my usual APA Heritage activities--the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans’ annual Heritage Festival here in New York, where literally thousands of Asians and non-Asians alike get their AZN on with food, t-shirts, cultural performances, and oh yes, food; the various college conferences and workshops and galas that begin in March and April, displaced backwards by the practical constraints of finals and graduation.

Or maybe it’s just that APA Heritage Month is the Jan Brady of commemoratives -- overlooked, underappreciated, misunderstood, and generally greeted with a middle-child shrug: Which is what inspired this week’s SFGate column (hitting the web a few days late--how Asian of it), exploring the meaning of the term Asian, its relevance to the American (and global) discourse on identity, and its future in an era where the nature of identity in general is beginning to grow increasingly hazy and complex:

By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is here ... not that you’d notice. The sounds of crickets chirping lead Jeff Yang to reflect on the term "Asian" -- what it means and where it’s going ... with a little help from his readers.

Constant readers will remember that just a week or so ago, I sent out a call for your thoughts regarding the meaning of the term Asian to this very list; I wanted to give a shout out to all of you who responded with feedback--all of which was interesting, all of which was incorporated in one way or another (even if it was merely as data in the wildly unscientific charts that I Excel’ed up for the piece’s graphics), some of which was bizarre, and some of which was brilliant. Much love also to intrepid bloggers amongst you who reposted the request to your own blogs and websites, including Angry Asian Man, Amy Lee, Jenn Yee, and Meliza, among others. Because I wasn’t able to use all the great quotes I wanted to, here’s a selection of some of the more interesting things that people said in reaction to my request:

“I think that the whole emphasis on such things as the terminology ("Asian", "Oriental", etc.) is something that is specific to the USA, and is certainly not universal…I could react with the usual derision at the fact that we are now over 30 years into the designation of ‘Asian’ as a term replacing ‘Oriental’ (one immediate response: ‘Oh, get over it already!’) and still we’re asking these same inane questions. But I’ll be quick and I’d like to make one point: we in America are often very shortsighted. Even though we have our ‘heritage,’ it’s usually something that most of us don’t really know.” -- Daryl Chin

“Here in New Zealand, it was white people who first started calling us ‘Asian’ in the 1990s, because a lot of East Asian migrants started arriving, and white people couldn’t tell Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans apart. Those of us who have embraced the term in a political sense extend that umbrella to South and Southeast Asians….Is ‘Asian’ identity something that can only happen outside of Asia, in the West? I don’t think so…shifting geopolitical and global trade alignments are changing the picture--and the space is opening up for something interesting.” -- Tze Ming Mok

“I didn’t know I was Chinese/Asian until I was eight years old. No joke. I never ate dinner at a friend;s house before, so I thought everyone ate rice…My two best friends were white and black. My white friend told me I was white too, because my skin was closer in color to hers. So sad.” -- Charlene Li, business reporter and writer for Seattle’s NW Asian Weekly

“Will we still use the word Asian in 40 years? Maybe not, words change....it was Oriental, now it’s Asian, it was maid, now it’s housekeeper....it was masseuse, now it’s massage therapist. so maybe we’ll be called ‘Eastern culture-therapists,’ or something silly like that.” -- Odessa Chen, musician, jewelry designer, artist

“My friend Kayo from Japan is the most Asian person I know. She lives in Los Angeles but you wouldn’t know it...her whole apartment is Japanese. She only shops at the Japanese supermarket, works for a Japanese company. She mixes up American catchphrases in funny ways: For example--she eats a ton but is super skinny. Once, a friend of mine said to her, ‘Dang, you eat a lot...you must have a hollow leg!’ She then started telling everyone, ‘I have an empty leg!!’ That’s Kayo.” -- Freelance writer Claire Midori Kleinerer in Los Angeles

“Fake Asians are weird! I saw what appeared to be an African American woman wearing a kimono on campus the other day. I was very confused. Boys that are into anime are weird. On one hand, I think they might know more about some aspects of Asian culture than I do, so maybe that’s why it’s weird, but I also am suspicious of their interest. I want to know why.” -- Robyn Tasaka, graduate student, Ann Arbor, MI

“One time I was in a random church crying, looking for refuge. I was a low-point in my life. I ended up talking to the pastor who was a white male. The pastor kept making suggestions that were TOTALLY culturally insensitive. After I told him his suggestions weren’t realistic for my family situation, he briefly excused himself. He came back and introduced this white lady to me: ‘Amy, this is ____. She might be able to help us out. ____ has been working at the Asian Art Museum for 10 years. She knows a lot about Asian culture.’ Despite the fact that I was crying so hard that I had hiccups, snot all over my face, and my eyes were swollen, I had to stop and laugh. Usually, I just laugh.” --Amy Lee

I really dug the insights--and I hope to turn to you guys more often, though not at a frequency that becomes annoying. And now, on to other stuff…

--Holy cats! The 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors are winners of the hotly contested 2006 International Sketch Comedy Championships! And they’ve been named the Best Sketch Comedy Troupe in San Francisco by the SF Bay Guardian! They’re FUNNY! And they’re ASIAN! I love that Asian Funny! If you’re not in the Bay, do the next best thing and check ‘em out on iFilm and YouTube:

"Charlie Chan/Chang Apana"

"Memoirs of a Chinese Geisha!"

--Veteran NatGeo photog Mike Yamashita has a new feature-length documentary out, GHOST FLEET, THE EPIC VOYAGE OF ZHENG HE, based on the incredible journey he took to document the explorations of the great but forgotten navigator, Zheng He. The Chinese admiral led seven epic voyages that took him to over 30 countries, from Sri Lanka and Vietnam to Kenya and Tanzania. Yet he and his “Treasure Fleet” have been lost in time, and forgotten by China and the rest of the world for over six centuries. To commemorate the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s first voyage, Mike traveled over 10,000 miles, from Yunnan in China to Africa’s Swahili coast, taking pictures all the way. I haven’t yet seen the film, but I saw the feature in the July 2005 edition of National Geographic, and the photos are amazing. Word has it that it’ll be in the Los Angeles Film Festival (June 22 – July 02; full line-up of films will be announced June 1) so L.A. readers, keep an eye peeled.

--If you’ve got a brilliant idea for a short film and a coercive hold on enough friends, relatives, and acquaintances to pull together a guerrilla cast and crew, why not put your digicam where your mouth is, pal? Register for ACV/MTV WORLD/THE FILM LAB’s 3RD ANNUAL 72 HOUR FILM SHOOTOUT, taking place June 9-12, 2006. You get three days to write, shoot, edit, and produce up to six minutes worth of undistilled brilliance, which will then be judged by a panel of critics, filmmakers, and other worthies (I judged it last year, though don’t let that stop you from entering). Because the underlying intent of the shootout is to hook Asian Americans on the cracklike thrill of moviemaking, at least one key production member and a principal actor from each team must be of Asian descent.

More info:


--And for a set of good reasons why it’s important for Asians to be involved in controlling our own media image, Bay Area readers should definitely check out Jeff Adachi’s The Slanted Screen, playing at the Roxie, May 19-25th. It's a documentary that shows how Hollywood has twisted and caricatured the image of Asian males--creating images that haunt us to this day (“Sexy American GIIIIRRRLfriend…”)

--My thoughts are included in a set of far more worthy individuals, commenting over at P.O.V.’s fascinating “Borders” online discourse project, on the nature of identity in general and American identity in particular. Check it out--the project and its participants are interesting, and the results are worth reading

--And one last self-pimpatory note: This Wednesday, May 17, I'm going to guest-host "The Leonard Lopate Show" on WNYC, New York's flagship NPR station. The show runs from noon to 2 p.m. Eastern time, and you can tune in to it via streaming audio on the Web (or download it as a podcast after the fact). It's a live show, with phone-in segments, and it'll be the first time I've done an entire radio program from that side of the mike. I'll be interviewing Peter Hessler, author of the truly engrossing book Oracle Bones; doing a segment on the "packaging" of college applicants that touches on the competitive stress faced by kids of immigrants; and welcoming back to the program father-son home-improvement gurus Alvin and Larry Ubell. If you're interested in hearing what I sound like in person, check it out. I'm going to try hard not to suck.

Until next time, enjoy the non-stop merriment of APA Heritage Month!


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