Thursday, February 08, 2007


Hi all,

So, delayed again this week--my SFGate column got pushed back by a few days due to unavoidable scheduling conflicts, and this mailblog installment got pushed back a few days after I contracted some kind of roving gastrointestinal illness, of which details I'll generously omit. Leaving behind the state of my innards, two big topics to discuss with you this week, both controversial in some quarters. No, not sex and violence (let's save those for fall sweeps).

I'm talking Art and Politics.

First up, art. My column this week is a look at an epochal new exhibition of Asian American contemporary art at New York's Asia Society, titled "ONE WAY OR ANOTHER: Asian American Arts Now." Why epochal? Well, it comes 12 years after the last exhibition of Asian American contemporary art at New York's Asia Society, which traveled the country and essentially ended up becoming the benchmark for the genre. Given that the exhibition was called "ASIA/AMERICA," and focused heavily on immigrant artists and themes of dislocation, identity crisis, and alienation, some critics in the community suggested it offered a somewhat one-sided view of Asian Americans, and one that could be misinterpreted as framing us as perpetual foreigners or exotic outsiders. As much as anything else, ONE WAY OR ANOTHER is a response to that show--and a kind of "wh-wh-wh-wha?" double-take on the very nature of Asian American identity.


By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Monday, October 16, 2006

A new generation of Asian American artists challenges outmoded expectations of what it means to be Asian, American and, for that matter, a "new generation."


ASIA/AMERICA took as its reference point the divided soul, the doubled tongue, the infinitely split infinitive of the immigrant. ONE WAY OR ANOTHER takes as its reference point...well, nothing, really. Which is the point. It's a riotous collection of artists that don't really look at first glance as if they were meant to shown together--any more than any other collection of contemporary artists, that is. Questions of race and ethnicity identity hover over or peek out from behind some of the works, but in fashions that tend to be whimsical and reflective rather than dogmatic. It's not that the art, or the messages behind it, are in any way muted--but as far as identity is concerned, it comes from a place that feel more sophisticated, mature, and generally comfortable than the one occupied by artists of the previous generation.

The curators suggest that that's because younger Asian Americans are more at peace with themselves, more immersed in and thus less conscious of both their Asianness and their Americanness. It's only natural. Though we're still just 4.5 percent of the U.S., we make up a considerable plurality of certain parts of the country--a majority of Hawaii, over a quarter of the Bay Area, a good chunk of Southern California, and, of course, more than a third of all students in the University of California college system, making us the UC's largest single demographic--just ahead of whites.

For kids growing up in an environment where Asianness is the norm--and being born in an era when Asian American is more or less a household term--the experience of being Asian American is qualitatively different.

By way of example, here's something that reader Jenn Ma sent me--a recent editorial from UCLA's newspaper, the Daily Bruin. It's meant to be a joke, writer Jed Levine maintains, but it taps into anxieties that are genuinely being felt by some white (and nonwhite, for that matter) students on campuses like UCLA, which he dubs "UCLAsian."

Sample quote: "As a[n] underrepresented minority at's hard to find other white people I can identify with on a campus that feels more like Taipei than L.A. Yes, white people are an underrepresented minority here at UCLA; while they make up 44 percent of the California population, white students only constitute 34 percent of UCLA's student population. Asian-Americans, on the other hand, make up only 12 percent of the state of California and 38 percent of UCLA students. That's 300 percent over-representation."

(He should spend some time at UC-Irvine, where Asians shot past 50 percent of the student body years ago and haven't looked back since.)

The point of Levine's essay is probably to illustrate the silliness of Proposition 209, which struck down Affirmative Action as a tool to socially balance the UC system's admissions policies (or possibly the silliness of people protesting Proposition 209--the piece isn't sharply focused enough to make this clear, despite basing itself on that satiric marvel, Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal).

But in a larger sense, he's pointing to the fact that the Asian presence in the U.S. is being felt--and not always comfortably, either.

There's a reason that Asians in the U.S. are all too easily reframed as an "invasion" of strangers of dubious belonging, and it's one that the Japanese American community quickly learned after World War II, and the Korean American community after the L.A. riots. Pursuing personal success without civic engagement is a recipe for disaster; cultural expression, community involvement, and above all, political activity are key to any immigrant or post-immigrant community's integration into the social fabric of America.

And so even as younger Asian Americans are getting more comfortable in their own skin, here's hoping they aren't doing so at the expense of passion, heart, and will.

This upcoming election is arguably one of the most important in modern American history--not despite, but because it's not a Presidential election year. Presidential politics is largely theater, with the biggest decisions being made in back rooms by establishment manipulators. But congressional elections are as close to representative democracy on a national scale as this country offers. You vote for "your" local representative, but that rep will make decisions daily that affect the fate of the nation, and, as we've seen, the world. A few hundred votes can make the difference, and this year, there will likely be more tight races, decided by thousands or hundreds of votes, than in any election in our lifetimes.

Our votes count in a congressional race like no other. So I want to urge you to get out there and register to vote if you haven't registered, and to use your vote if you have. One place where Asian Americans aren't overrepresented is Congress--we have lost a number of statesmen and -women in recent years, and are still waiting for young leaders to step up and into their shoes.

A race that could make a tremendous difference is Illinois's 6th Congressional District, where Major Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War vet who lost both of her legs after the helicopter she was piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, is running to replace Representative Henry Hyde. She's a soldier, a hero, an author and educator, and an inspiration in each of those roles--and she's Asian American, her mother, Lamai, being of Thai and Chinese descent. Consider supporting her, either with a campaign contribution (these last few weeks are critical) or even as a volunteer. More info on how to do both can be found at her site.

But if you happen to live in Illinois's 6th District, the path to action is even simpler. There are approximately 200,000 registered voters in the district, and the race is just about evenly split right now. The swing vote? Asian Americans. South Asian Americans in particular make up the single biggest nonwhite segment of the District's voting population, so if you're a Desi in the 6th, your vote could be the one that decides this election. (Chinese are the second largest Asian group, but well behind.) One vote. A handful. A few hundred. It's rare that Asian Americans have the opportunity to literally determine an election of national import on the mainland--this is one such rare opportunity. We should make it count.


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