Tuesday, August 20, 2013

let's talk about 'yellowface.'

I adore Audrey Hepburn, but I can't stand to watch Breakfast at Tiffany's. What would be an otherwise lovely film is tainted by Mickey Rooney's portrayal as Hepburn's Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi--now one of the most commonly-discussed examples of 'yellowface.'

But although Rooney's character has been denounced by critics since the film's premiere in 1961, it hasn't stopped yellowface from appearing in popular culture--only this time, there doesn't seem to be many people denouncing it. While it is quite the achievement for Linda Hunt to be the first to win the 1983 Oscar for portraying a character of the opposite gender, the man she portrayed was a Chinese-Australian photographer.

In the 2007 comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Rob Schneider played an Asian minister, complete with slanted eyes, a wider nose, and darker skin. Schneider is a quarter Filipino, but apparently that didn't make him "Asian" enough for the role. And, most recently, Cloud Atlas casted non-Asian actors to play Korean characters--including Jim Sturgess, who previously starred in the 2008 film 21, the story of six MIT students who learned how to count cards and cheat the Vegas casino system. 21 was based on the true story of Asian-American students, but you wouldn't have gotten that based on the film.

(Update: My friend Laura makes a great point in the comments section about Cloud Atlas and essentially calls me out for not having seen the film. I stand corrected!)

2007: Rob Schneider in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"

So, perhaps all of this just further proves that there needs to be more Asians in the mainstream in order to debunk the apparent myth that there are no talented Asians who deserve the spotlight in films, television, music, etc. It's disheartening when it has become the norm to simply accept that we will never be leading men and ladies.

Take, for instance, this recent interview with Olivia Munn, who flat out says she will never be Wonder Woman because she is Chinese: "That's probably not what they would do. I don't know a lot of Asian-American women who are getting great opportunities yet, and the other actresses (vying for the role) are probably really famous and Hollywood tends to go for the girls who are already in the big movies."

It's frustrating, yet true: Asian-American women are not seen as leading ladies because there aren't many leading ladies who are in fact Asian-American. So then, how do you get to be a leading lady? Good question. (And for all of you who are going to throw Memoirs of a Geisha at me, consider the fact that the leading lady in the film is a Chinese actress playing a Japanese character while speaking English.)

As I wrote last February, we continue to see a lack of representation in the mainstream media--this extends from entertainment to journalism--and, more unfortunately, a subconscious anti-Asian sentiment that runs beneath the conversation: "Saturday Night Live covered it best last week during the show's cold opening during a mock game recap in which three anchors made plenty of jokes about Asian Americans, but when one anchor tries to make a joke about African Americans, he's immediately stopped."

This is a conversation that extends beyond eliminating yellowface as a practice in Hollywood in the 21st century, but until we can all agree that that's offensive and should be stopped, perhaps the conversation needed to break barriers is a long way away.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

'to the boy i already knew i would never marry...'

I've come to expect that the pain associated with a forced goodbye is an inevitable emotion. There is no easy way to part with someone who once occupied a space in your heart, and there is no easy way to remove every trace of that person without feeling like you're losing a part of yourself.

Exhibit A from an earlier blog post: "I was four-years-old when Colin proposed. It was snack time and he casually offered me a celery stick and a ring from the toy box." (Spoiler alert: he moved away the next day after our wedding, and so came my first introduction to the kind of boy who walks away without warning.)

At the age of 24 now, I can only think of one person for whom I fought against my every natural instinct to walk away from--a boy I loved for more years than I should have, until telling myself not too long ago that love never happens so easily that you should assume the other person is fighting to stay with you too. (No, it wasn't Colin. My four-year-old self got over that fairly quickly.)

If you know me, you'll know my affection for Joan Didion, and you can already guess that I'm about to quote her. Didion has a lot to say about enduring heartbreak and suffering from heartbreak and recovering from heartbreak, and there is one line in particular in "Goodbye To All That" that I never really noticed before in my dozens of times of reading it until recently: "All I could do during those three days was talk long-distance to the boy I already knew I would never marry in the spring."

I didn't move across the country and from city to city just to get over a boy, but that reason certainly crossed my mind. The first month I spent on the east coast two summers ago was lonely and filled with dread and regret as I wondered how many moments he and I would be missing out on apart. More than spending the previous year in a passive tug-of-war of emotion, he was someone who changed my life when I needed a reason to believe in living again.

There is no rhyme or reason when it comes to cutting off ties with someone you once so casually said, "I love you" to. There is no explanation for why our hearts feel a metaphorical break when we reach for the phone to call or to text, only to remember that it is no longer the norm to be in touch. There is no rationale in purposely choosing to walk away from someone we care about because we believe it will be better for our own sanity.

And yet we do it, because hanging on and talking for days with someone we will never be with despite how much we long to be with that person...it's something that we think may comfort us because it's something that's familiar.

But letting that go, moving past it and saying, "No more"... does that mean I've truly grown up? At least, enough to no longer love someone who I trusted too much with my secrets and my dreams? I've only ever had my heart broken so completely once in my life, so I'm no expert, but perhaps heartbreak should be something that can move us to push forward. It could destroy us, or it could be something that builds us into stronger people. Let's hope for the latter.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

when to say 'ni hao' to a stranger. (spoiler: never.)

"I speak Mandarin, you know."

I looked up from the text message I'd been writing, unsure of how to respond. I hadn't been expecting a stranger I'd gotten into an elevator with to say that, especially as his first words to me.

"I'm sorry?" I asked, thinking I misheard him.

"I know Chinese," he said. "Ni hao."

He looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to respond back or smile or applaud--I don't know. I just stared. "I don't know Mandarin," I responded. The tone of my voice was dry and unemotional, and I wanted to be sure nothing of our interaction could be confused for any sort of delight. I was not delighted.

We unfortunately got off on the same floor, so he continued the conversation:
HIM: "So what kind of Asian are you?"
ME: "I'm Chinese, but I speak Cantonese."
HIM: "Oh. I don't know Cantonese. [pause] You should learn Mandarin. I can teach you--want to go out?"
One hundred points to Gryffindor if you guessed the answer to that question.

Angry Little Girls by Lela Lee
Three tips for those wishing to speak to an Asian female you do not know:

1. Don't greet her with "ni hao." It isn't cute, it isn't clever, it doesn't show her how worldly and suave you are. It makes you kind of a jerk: you're assuming, first, that she is Chinese--and no, not all Asians look alike. Second, you are acknowledging that you see her ethnicity before you see her as a human being. (It's the same as going up to a redhead and saying, "Top o' the mornin' to ya!" in a terrible Irish accent that you've learned to mimic from a Lucky Charms commercial.) It is a form of fetishizing her, treating her as an object you've defined before actually getting to know her as a person.

2. Don't suggest she learn a language she isn't familiar with. I suppose this goes for anybody who is talking to any stranger. There are plenty of Asian Americans who grew up only speaking English in their homes, and they don't need to explain to you--a stranger they've just met--why they don't speak an Asian dialect. Do I ask every Caucasian person why they don't speak Latin? Telling an Asian person to learn a dialect she doesn't know can be seen as patronizing. You do not need to instruct someone you've just met to go learn something.

(Side note: Once, I had someone get belligerent with me because I couldn't translate something in Korean for him. "Why didn't your parents teach you Korean?!" he yelled. Because my parents are Chinese, sir.)

3. Don't ever (ever, ever, ever) ask, "What kind of Asian are you?" Think about that question for a moment: by asking "what" in the context of "what are you," you're turning a "who" into a thing. "What kind of Asian" implies that the person you're interrogating is part of a grab bag of ethnicities. If you absolutely must ask a stranger about her ethnicity, why not just ask that? "Excuse me, what is your ethnic background?"

Bonus tip: cut the "Where are you from? No, no--where are you really from?" questions from your mental phrasebook. When you ask somebody that, you're that person into an "other." You've judged, by the way the person looks, that she must not be from this country. But there are plenty of Asians born in America, and when you ask, "Where are you from?" and we reply, "California" or "Connecticut" or "Ohio," don't push us to validate your assumption that we aren't American.

Monday, August 5, 2013

'you were born in America, so why does it matter?'

This 1886 propaganda poster shows Uncle Sam
booting a Chinese man back to China. The
poster claims, "The Chinese Must Go!" and is
meant to assure Americans that washing machines
would easily replace Chinese laundry washers.
In the summer of 2000 during the Sydney Olympics, I remember sitting in my living room with my mother and asking her why the phrase "Chinaman" was bad. We'd been watching a men's diving match, and I had meant to ask Mom about one of the athletes from China, but instead of asking about "that one Chinese man," I accidentally said, "that one China man."

"Don't say that," my mom responded quickly.


She explained it was an offensive term, used once-upon-a-time as an insult to Chinese immigrants. We talked a little about how Americans treated Chinese immigrants in the past, and about how she and my dad both experienced racism as children when they came to America in the '60s.

Up until that point, I was aware of the concept of racism, but at 11 years old, I hadn't been entirely aware of its reality. But as I got older, I began looking back at and learning more about the environment I grew up in and what being the daughter of an immigrant family really meant.

Why didn't Asians stand up and protest too? I remember thinking after a lesson in the Civil Rights Movement in junior high. I was starting to get angry about racism and injustice, but in the early stages of my teenage years, I had no way to really express what I felt. My friends in school didn't share the questions I had, and most just didn't want to talk about it.

"You were born in America, so why does it matter?" somebody asked.

It mattered. But I stayed quiet. And then in college I learned what "model minority" meant, and I didn't want to stay quiet anymore for the reason that Asian Americans were, and still are, expected to stay quiet--to be a good worker, to keep our heads down.

I often wonder if that's why some feel it is okay to make remarks at or about Asian Americans--because rather than lash out or speak up, the belief is that we'll look the other way and just keep our anger to ourselves. I've been stopped multiple times by strangers on the subway, in elevators, on the street, in stores--all so they can ask me what my ethnicity is, what "kind" of Asian I am, or if I speak Mandarin (or Korean or Japanese or, occasionally, English)--that's all they want to know: if I speak the language. They never need help translating or anything like that; they just want to know if I can speak it. A man once literally grabbed my arm as I was walking up the stairs from the subway to ask me if I spoke Mandarin. When I pulled away and said I had to go, he called me a "rude chink."

Another time in the grocery store, a man called me a "Jap" and ranted at me about how "my people" ruined everything. He followed me around the store and screamed at me about how I should "go back home" because I didn't belong, and threatened to "finish the war" right then in the produce section.

He was most likely crazy, as I had noticed him earlier talking to himself in one of the aisles. I left and didn't look back--but what bothered me the most was not that this man had threatened me like that. What bothered me was that nobody in the store full of people said or did anything. They all looked, some whispered. Nobody intercepted.

When I started writing this blog post, I wanted to talk about several things: the fake Asiana pilot names, the completely racially insensitive song "Asian Girlz," the community of people angry that a business owner changed his restaurant's name in order to remove the word "chink"... and I realized there were just too many things I wanted to say about all of it.

I've blogged often in the past here about race and identity, and the representation of Asian Americans in society and popular culture. For several reasons having nothing to do with my interest and passion in the issue itself, I stopped. But I think now is absolutely the time I begin again. Now is absolutely the time to not stay quiet.