Moana: A Culturally Significant Inspiration February 28th, 2017 posted by Val Katagiri

MV5BMjI4MzU5NTExNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzY1MTEwMDI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Contributed by special guest author, Adrianne Kwak

I took my daughters to see Moana a couple days before Christmas. It was my hope that the movie would spark a light inside my eleven-year-old to begin thinking about what her own significance in the world may be.

As the questions I asked her post-viewing became more and more leading, I began to see that she wasn’t ready to think in terms of family values and aspirations yet. She enjoyed the details in the animation, the character development, and the music, but when I headed into the territory of personal revelation, she looked at me in quiet discomfort.

It’s fine. She isn’t ready for that. It was less complicated for me growing up because both my parents are Japanese and have accordant traditional values. I grew up on the island of Maui, Hawaii, where the majority of my classmates were Japanese, like me. We learned stories about the demigod Maui in school in the same way that my kids are learning about Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus.

It’s not as simple for my daughters. My husband and I come from two extremely different backgrounds. I am fourth-generation Japanese, was born in Hawaii, speak English, identify as American. Their dad was born in Korea, spoke Korean at home, lived most of his life in America, but identifies as Korean. Sometimes, my daughters and I discuss the ways in which Japan and Korea have a history of clashing, and my daughters, somewhat alarmed, watch their dad and I closely to see what conflicts of ours they can blame on our differing cultural backgrounds.

My daughters are very sensitive to having discussions about race and often comment on (what I intend to be) a neutral explanation: “That’s racist, Mom.” Which leads to further discussion about what it is to be racist and what it is to discuss race to understand the world around us.

thIn any case, watching Moana was a good introduction for my daughters to notice such cultural details as Maui’s personally meaningful tattoos, his haka performance, and his exuberant exclamations of “Che-hooooo!!” There is a nicely illustrated idea about one of the character’s belief that she would return to the earth after she died, as her spirit animal. One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when the spirit animal arrives to encourage Moana in her darkest hour.

A few days after seeing Moana, on Christmas morning, I woke up to a recording of my late grandma singing my favorite Christmas carol on my iPod. I may have written it off as coincidence, but that night before going to sleep, I reshuffled the 2000 songs on my playlist, and once again, what played was my grandma singing that same Christmas song, as if directly to me.

th-1Hearing my grandma singing a seasonally appropriate song was both a gift and a sign for me. Likewise, watching Moana was a timely inspiration for my girls to begin learning about their cultural backgrounds more deeply. Moana has been a starting point for them to entertain stories about the sun god Maui and the volcano goddess Pele. My daughters see Moana as an excellent role model for practicing bravery, kindness, and finding purpose in the world. I would like them to comprehend how Moana took her heritage into consideration when making life decisions.

Furthermore, I intend to support them when they listen to that voice inside them. As Moana did in the movie, I hope that my daughters will find friends to accompany them along the way. Most of all, I hope they know that I will always be with them, the way my parents and grandparents are always with me.

AK Moana Photo

Author Bio: Adrianne Katagiri Kwak is a thinker and dreamer who wishes she could be wide awake in the morning. She is a fan of parents who listen to their children and vice versa.

How Harmless is Ignorant Stereotyping? January 31st, 2017 posted by Val Katagiri

NEWWritten by Special Contributor, Artist Mark Matsuno

   Growing up Asian American, I have seen and felt the effects of being looked upon as “different.” But rarely have I felt excluded. I grew up in San Francisco and my public schools were a mix of all races. So were my friends. A lot of second and third generation Chinese, Jews, Hispanics, Blacks, Whites, you name it, attended my schools. Well-integrated. Name-calling among kids was commonplace back then. For the most part, I was unfazed. Political correctness was not in our social consciousness yet. “You lost the war!” What? I’m 10. I wasn’t even in the war. “Chinaman!” I’m not even Chinese. The intended insults didn’t really bother me. Maybe because I knew they were just assholes. Not to mention, I’ve always been a firm believer in the laws of karma. The Japanese call it bachi.

For some reason, it was the tamer “ignorant stereotyping” comments that bothered me more. “You must be good at math.” “What does your family eat for dinner?” “How do you say this in Japanese?” How the hell do I know? Here’s a good one: “Oh, you’re Japanese. Do you know the Yamashita family?” Hmm, I don’t know. Where do they live? “In Idaho.” Ugh. Does bachi apply here? Please say yes.

Illustrated Haiku: Elephants can't fly without a magic feather. I need one of those.

Illustrated Haiku:
Elephants can’t fly
without a magic feather.
I need one of those.

When I was twenty, I moved to Los Angeles where I remain today. Being an artist, I tend to look artsy, so I’ve been told. I don’t think anyone has ever thought that I was an accountant. I haven’t tried to break any stereotypes, but I think, by nature, I have. That thought gives me a sense of pleasure. If people can judge others by who they are rather than what their ancestry is, the world would be a better place. I knew I wanted to be recognized as an accomplished graphic designer and artist, because that’s how I saw myself. I neither embraced nor dismissed my heritage. It was a non-factor.

I began my career as an art director for Young & Rubicam in a high rise on Wilshire Blvd. At 20-years-old, I had no idea what I was doing, so I was subsequently fired after just three years. Then I had the good fortune of creating movie posters for the film industry. We’re talking about a business dominated by Jews and gentiles. At that time, there were very few Asian minorities involved in movie marketing in the film studios or elsewhere. My graphic design boutique thrived despite this glaring deficiency. In fact, almost forty years later, I am still busy whereas all my contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. Why? I never saw my Asian-ness as a determining factor. I put my faith in my talent and passion and hoped others would, too. I have always believed that people should be judged from the inside out because that’s how I always want to be judged.

Illustrated Haiku: It's hard to believe that miracles can happen. And yet, here we are.

Illustrated Haiku:
It’s hard to believe
that miracles can happen.
And yet, here we are.

I ended up marrying a Hispanic girl and had two hapa kids. I wasn’t trying to marry out of my race. It just happened that way. I still have many Asian American friends, many who I grew up with in San Francisco, but the commonality isn’t our ancestry, it’s everything else: sports, work, family, our interests. Most of my friends in LA are not AAs. Again, it’s not a conscious decision. It just happened that way.

Some think ignorant stereotyping is harmless. But, it can create a stigma that unconsciously influences others, including AAs. It bothers me that Asian American men are still sometimes looked upon as little, geeky gardeners or discreet coroners with thick glasses. We’re not all Bruce Lee, and we’re definitely not how the media often portrays us. The media, TV shows and movies can do a lot to change this perception. I see minor strides, but I don’t see it happening with enough regularity to make a measurable difference.

Illustrated Haiku: Morally secure until we stand in line at Heaven's registrar.

Illustrated Haiku:
Morally secure
until we stand in line at
Heaven’s registrar.

An example: I was in my mid-twenties when a girlfriend, her uncle and I went to dinner at Benihana, a Japanese restaurant on La Cienega. We were up front waiting for a table when a white family strutted in. I remember the dad had a boyish expression of glee on his face, as if Japanese cuisine would be a novel treat for his family and he couldn’t wait to tell the Yamashitas all about it when they got back to Idaho. He waltzed right up to me and said, “Smith, party of five!” Keep in mind, I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and looked nothing like someone who might be a host at this posh restaurant. There was an awkward moment as my girlfriend and her uncle turned their heads to me in disbelief. Rather than explain to him that I didn’t work there, I went up to the reservation list at the podium and saw that his “Smith, party of five” was indeed on it. So I then walked them deep into the restaurant, found a table, sat them and said a waiter would be with them shortly. When I went back to join my friends, they were practically rolling on the floor.

Another time, I was waiting curbside for a valet to fetch my car when a car pulls up. The driver gets out and hands me his keys. Rather than steal his car, I explained that I wasn’t the valet.

Illustrated Haiku: Listening closely before first speaking your mind proves that you have one.

Illustrated Haiku:
Listening closely
before first speaking your mind
proves that you have one.

One more: I was once hired as a freelance art director to work on the Kleenex account in Kansas City, Missouri for a day. The agency had arranged a big dinner party to welcome me. Mid-western hospitality. At dinner, I mostly sat quietly listening to what they all had to say before I pitched my thoughts. As we were all getting up to leave, a woman came up to me with an astonished look and said I spoke English very well. So how do you respond to that? I know it was an intended compliment, but seriously, do you call her out on her ignorance or let it slide?

Are people guilty of negative stereotyping if they don’t even know that they are? Ok, it may not be blatant bigotry, but it still sucks. Which brings me back to my original question. How harmful is ignorant stereotyping? Sometimes it’s merely an annoyance, like someone cutting you off on the freeway, but it is always an injustice to the person being stereotyped because we don’t see the real person underneath the stereotype. I’d like to see all of us being empowered to be our unique selves and not categorized into our stereotyped selves.

Illustrated Haiku: They gently nod out after dragons have been slain and the world is right.

Illustrated Haiku:
They gently nod out
after dragons have been slain
and the world is right.

Bio: Mark Matsuno is the owner of Matsuno Design, Inc., a graphic design studio located in Glendale, CA, and works mostly for the film industry. Mark is also a fine artist. You can see his work at He was born and raised a sansei in San Francisco and currently lives in Glendale, CA. Mark says, “I have created posters for high visibility movies such as Mississippi Burning, High Fidelity and Dances with Wolves, but also suspiciously chosen for films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Come See The Paradise.”

Mark was also recently invited to showcase his illustrated haiku (a few examples of these have been added to this post for your viewing pleasure) at a silent auction fundraiser for Haven Hills, a charity for victims of domestic violence. He was one of about a dozen artists there and his entire display sold, raising much needed resources for Haven Hills.

East Meets West December 31st, 2016 posted by Val Katagiri

Written by Special Contributor, Artist Yuji Hiratsuka

Odori 2016, Intaglio, Chine Collé, and Hand-colored The figures are dressed western style and have tiaras on their heads. The bottom of the image has Hokusai ukiyo-e style waves.

2016, Intaglio, Chine Collé, and Hand-colored
The figures are dressed western style and have tiaras on their heads.
The bottom of the image has Hokusai ukiyo-e style waves.

I was raised in Japan among a mixture of eastern and western influences. For example, Japanese gardens are cultivated high atop thirty-story Western skyscrapers and people dine at a McDonald’s fast food restaurant or sip a cup of coffee at Starbucks while watching Sumo wrestling. Japan is a land of contrasts. On the surface it might appear that the culture of Japan has taken on thoroughly American and European characteristics, but behind this Western façade, Japan’s ancient and traditional philosophies have survived.

In my work, I explore this co-existence of eastern and western influences. My images bear a slight resemblance to traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e prints (which were frequently decorative, brightly-colored and featured highly-stylized exaggerated and distorted figures) while also expressing contemporary aspects of the western world.

Queen Aggie Daikon 2013, Intaglio The figure sits on an antique Victorian style chair. She's holding typical Asian veggie: daikon radish. Also her chest/neck accessory is Persimmon (Asian fruit!).

Queen Aggie Daikon
2013, Intaglio
The figure sits on an antique Victorian style chair. She’s holding typical Asian veggie: daikon radish. Also her chest/neck accessory is Persimmon (Asian fruit!).

Although my artwork is mainly considered representational, I deal with more metaphorical aspects rather than realistic physical evidence. The human body along with other elements – fruits, vegetables, furniture, animals, etc. – have been my most recent focus. The enigmatic figures I draw are reflections of the human conditions that people often find themselves in their daily lives: wryness, satire, whimsy, irony, paradox or mismatch. My figures also employ a state of motion or movement suggesting an actor/actress who narrates a story in a play.

Most of my work is created by the intaglio printmaking process. This involves etching, drypoint, softground and roulette on a copper plate. I use a four-color printing process (black, yellow, red and blue in order) on a thin Japanese Kozo (Mulberry) paper. As in the French use of the technique of “Chine Collé,” I apply glue to the back of the completed work and pass it through the press with a heavier rag paper beneath.

The small transitions in my work from time to time are based on the unpredictable texture that is printed from the etched surface of the copper plate. My prints explore the complex relationship of paper, ink and etched plates to describe my thoughts, as well as the relationship which occurs between figures and space to express human experiences. I try to always investigate the maximum potential available to me as a printmaker to bridge eastern and western expressions.


Artist Bio: Yuji Hiratsuka was born in Osaka, Japan. He has a B.S. in Art Education from Tokyo Gakugei University and degrees in printmaking from New Mexico State University (MA) and Indiana University (MFA). He currently is a professor of printmaking at Oregon State University.

Hiratsuka has received numerous international awards. Since 2010 he has had 13 solo shows in the US, as well as in Korea, Canada and Northern Ireland. Some of the public collections that include Hiratsuka’s art are The British Museum, Tokyo Central Museum, Panstwowe Museum in Poland, The House of Humor and Satire in Bulgaria, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cleveland Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, New York Public Library, The Library of Congress and The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art.

See other images of his artwork here.

Baba & Ben December 1st, 2016 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by Special Guest Writer,  Anne Hawkins

Anne Hawkins

My grandparents kept a copy of Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories in their living room bookcase. As a young child, I read that book countless times curled up in their recliner as my grandmother cooked dinner or my grandfather watched his afternoon baseball game. Sometimes my grandparents told me versions of the Japanese stories that they had learned as children, and often that led into other stories about their own lives. When I got older, we had a copy of this book in our own home. Over the years, I would pull it out to read now and again. I liked the stories themselves, but what I really loved was being brought back to those summer days with my grandparents – some of the happiest moments of my childhood.

Years later as an adult, I picked up a book called Tori and the Origami Box while visiting Talk Story Bookstore in Hanapepe, Kauai, just down the road from my grandparent’s old house. Tori is a young girl in Hawaii growing up with her Japanese Obaasan (grandmother). Tori spends every afternoon learning from her Obaasan and developing a special bond with her. After my son Ben was born, my mother visited us often, and she and I read this book to him, along with the numerous other books we had in our home library about grandparents and grandchildren.

By the time Ben was a year old, he kept crawling over to the bookshelf and choosing this book, especially when my mother was out of town. When Ben began to talk, he opened the book and pointed to Tori’s Obaasan and said, “Baba,” and smiled. The next time my mother returned for a visit, he looked at her and said, “Baba.” Ben and his two younger sisters all now refer to my mom as “Baba.” And even now that he’s almost six, Ben still likes to take out Tori and the Origami Box. I know it brings him comfort just as reading those Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories still does for me.

The connection Ben sensed so early on between the Obaasan in Tori and the Origami Box and his own grandmother made me more cognizant of the need to find books that feature characters that look like our family. I am always particularly on the look out for books that emphasize the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren and the importance of sharing our lives and passing on our stories from one generation to the next. Some of the books we’ve enjoyed include:

Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells – Yoko is a young cat who moves from Japan to the United States and faces the challenges of balancing her old culture with her new. Yoko misses her Obaasan and Ojiisan back in Japan and decides to fold paper cranes to help celebrate and remember her peaceful times with them. This is part of a series of books.

Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say – this book tells the story of the author’s grandfather’s journey to the United States from Japan and his lifelong desire to be in both places at once. Say has numerous books written for children that address the complex history and realities of immigration and the feeling of living between two worlds. Other books we have enjoyed by Say include Tea with Milk, Kamishibai Man, Music for Alice, and The Boy in the Garden.

Suki’s Kimono by Chieri Uegaki – Suki spends her summer with her grandmother who presents her with the gift of a kimono. When Suki returns to school in the fall, she wears her kimono and shares with her classmates stories of the Obon festival.

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai – there are countless children’s books that tell the story of Japanese Incarceration. In this book, the author tells the story of her grandmother, Mari, who was interned at Topaz and found a way to discover beauty in her harsh conditions. I appreciate the message of hope in seemingly hopeless situations and the power of pride and attitude. Other books on this topic that we’ve shared include Baseball Saved Us, So Far From the Sea, and Fish for Jimmy.

Author Bio: Anne Hawkins is a criminal defense attorney in San Francisco, California. She is the daughter of a third-generation Japanese-American mother and a fifth-generation Irish-English-American father. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. This year, she was thrilled when her son’s preschool teacher read Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to his class. Her favorite authors include Amy Tan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, and Gail Tsukiyama. Recommendations welcome:

Anne blogs at her website:


Getting in the “Writing Zone” October 31st, 2016 posted by Val Katagiri

edlin-219269_74x74Contributed by award-winning author, Ed Lin

[Note: Ed Lin generously conducted a writing workshop that would help launch our community Anthology book project. Thank you, Ed!]

I am willing to tell you about my writing process in the form of snippets if you promise me that you won’t adopt any of it wholesale. What works for me probably won’t for you, although I hope you find elements that are useful.

I can reduce my method to three phrases: 1) no rituals; 2) follow your distractions fully; and 3) let your kids play.

Well, when I was trying to seriously write my first book, I had set up all these rules for getting in the “writing zone.” I had to have a certain CD on, a certain snack at the ready and a two-bottle liter of Coke with a certain cup to drink it from.

I think I coped with that for a few months when I realized that I had set up a ritual for my writing. Some nights I would pass on writing because, oops, there were no more chocolate-coated Digestive cookies. No Coke in the house? Guess I can’t write.

Having a ritual wasn’t helping me to prep to write. It was an excuse *not* to write.

I ended up scrapping everything. No more excuses. I drank water and I wrote.

It’s hard for me to have a regular writing schedule because all too often, I don’t feel like writing when the free time I’ve set aside arrives.

I am not a masochist. I will not chain myself to the computer in order to punch out a preset minimum of words. I will not live that stereotype of the writer going to a cafe…only to log in to social media or write emails.

If you’re going to procrastinate, why do it in a half-assed sort of way? Go to the movie theater. Watch two films. Take yourself out for a full meal. Get ice cream after. See concerts.

I believe that the impulse to procrastinate comes from the creative process. That process can’t be completed if you keep forcing your brain back to the keyboard. Don’t be that parent trying to drag their kid back into the house. Let your kid run loose. Indulge your imagination.

What always happens — for me, anyway — is that I’ll be lost in a film and then realize something about what I am writing, what the next step should be or how to fix an element that wasn’t working. I’m newly motivated and I can’t get to my keyboard fast enough.

One of my favorite writers, Charles Willeford, believed in the art of apparently doing nothing in order to further his writing. I’m not going to put it in quotes because I don’t remember the exact wording, but he said something along the lines of: You’re really writing but your wife just sees you sitting there, drinking a beer.

The last thing I’ll say about my writing process in this space is that I never work on just one story or book. I always have at least two active files I work on. I am easily bored and nothing can do it like working on just one thing. I started what became my second book, This Is a Bust, even before I was done with my first, Waylaid. The latter had a first-person voice that was so, um, extroverted and driven, it left a vacuum in my mind that I had to fill with the extremely withdrawn and marginalized character of Robert Chow in Bust. Working on one primed me to work on the other.

I used to only write two books at the same time but lately, it’s been one book and a series of short stories on the side. Or short stories and a book on the side.

I became a father almost four years ago and since then I’ve been writing short stories and giving them boys’ names. I’m not sure why I’m writing short stories because I haven’t written many before. I don’t tell my kids how to play, I just let them.


Ed Lin, a native New Yorker of Taiwanese and Chinese descent, is the first author to win three Asian American Literary Awards and is an all-around standup kinda guy. His latest book, Incensed, a Taipei-based mystery, was published by Soho Crime in October.

Support your independent bookstore by purchasing it here!

Here is a listing of Ed Lin’s books.

Secret Asian Woman September 30th, 2016 posted by Val Katagiri

This month’s blog contributor is Dmae Roberts who wrote the story, My Brother–The Keeper, in our Anthology, Where Are You From?: An Anthology of Asian American Writing


For years I’ve whimsically called myself “Secret Asian Woman.” White people generally assume I’m white and have turned to me with a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” look when they’ve made a comment or joke about Asians. Other Asians have expressed astonishment when I’ve revealed my bi-racial identity.

As Secret Asian Woman, my mission has been to call out racism that’s usually directed at other people. I’ve spent my adult years looking for a name to answer the question: what are you? I’ve usually had to check the “other” box when identifying my race. It’s only been in the last decade that there has been a mixed-race, multiracial or bi-racial category.

I was born in Taiwan and lived in Japan until I was eight-years-old. When my family moved to Oregon, we lived pretty much in isolation regarding other APIs. Before social media, mixed-race people couldn’t find each other as easily as we can now. I find hope in all the mixtures of millennial Americans who accept each other’s races without having to define it into a “check other” box. Social media allows people to call out racism more easily and to find community and kinship as multiple races.

In 1989, I came out from “undercover” as a secret Asian when I created my radio documentary Mei Mei, A Daughter’s Song. Since then I’ve written personal radio pieces, stage plays and essays delving into my identity and family history. During the three-year period of my mom’s illness, I started several chapters of a memoir while taking care of her. After she passed away, writing about the grieving process got too painful so I paused for a couple of years. Instead I excerpted short essays from the larger memoir that were published in anthologies, magazines and my Asian Reporter column. One piece was My Brother—The Keeper, which was published in Where Are You From?

I pitched my memoir to agents and publishers at a couple of writing conferences, but they all seemed confused and resistant to my story because it was so intertwined with my family stories. Agents especially would ask, “Is it your story or your mom’s or brother’s story?” And while they responded to my mom’s WWII dramatic story of being sold into servitude in Taiwan when she was a child, they thought my personal story didn’t have the same drama. It didn’t seem enough to write an honest exploration into identity and family history.

So last year I received a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to hire editors and formatters to independently publish The Letting Go Trilogies: Stories of a Mixed-Race Family. The stories are sets of three essays that were written over a decade about mixed-race identity and my family’s experiences. I also include the stories I wrote when my mom was ill. It’s all about letting go of the pain, grief, anger and regret I’ve experienced in Oregon. It’s also about forgiving one’s self in order to move forward and heal. My book has become a way to start conversation about what it’s like to be mixed-race in a mostly white area. It’s empowering for me, and, I believe, for people who read it.

All my life I’ve had difficult conversations with people about race when I lived in Eugene and then Portland. In the next year, I’ll be having new kinds of conversations as part of the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project. My topic is entitled: What Are You? Mixed-Race and Interracial Families in Oregon’s Past and Future. I’ll be going to different towns and cities in Oregon, leading conversations about mixed-race. I’m looking forward to having these conversations. Mixed-race is the fastest growing demographic. Finally, more people like me. Perhaps I’ll get to talk with you either at a book reading or a conversation project event. I hope so. Secret Asian Woman is not so secret anymore.


The Letting Go Trilogies is available via CreateSpace. (See also my detailed bio.) It is available in both book and Kindle formats on Amazon. It’s also available directly from me on my website. My other projects are available at MediaRites.


Nothing Into Something: The Legend of Fu September 1st, 2016 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by one of our Anthology authors, Ben Efsaneyim

[Note: in the Anthology, Ben wrote What a Difference a Word Makes and we inadvertently misspelled Ben’s last name as Efsanem. Ah, what a difference two letters can make! Sorry, Ben, and thank you for writing your novel so we now have this opportunity to correct our error.]

Nothing into Something: The Legend of Fu

It is a bizarre paradox to consider that nothing – i.e. the absence of a thing or anything – could serve as an inspiration for a novel. Yet, as I began to learn more about the story of the first Chinese migration to America, I came to realize that the rich history of these primary waves of migrants has lacked an American cultural narrative. As I delved deeper into this history, I came to realize that there was a very good reason why America has chosen to forget.

As soon as the first Chinese immigrants began to arrive on the West Coast in the mid-nineteenth century, hostility towards their presence began to emerge. Over the ensuing decades, a campaign of hatred was waged against them that can easily be described as an ethnic cleansing. More than seven decades of an Asian migrant group’s history has effectively been erased. This absence of a cultural narrative is what prompted me to write The Legend Of Fu.

Our culture abounds with stories of Wild West heroes engaged in dramatic duels with gun-slinging outlaws, hardy pioneers who braved attacks from Natives to build new lives, and grizzly beast-men, both terrifying and adored for their ruddy tenacity in the wild, wild wilderness. By contrast, the bravery, tenacity, hardiness, and heroism of Chinese migrants beset by violence, as well as social and political exclusion, are missing from cultural narratives describing the period. The Legend Of Fu interweaves factual incidences of mob violence and anti-Chinese racism to show how the power of racial stereotyping defines an ethnic minority so that society’s engagement with them is based solely on these racist beliefs.

The demonization of Asian men constitutes the other major theme in the book. The novel re-frames the idea of the Asian arch-villain. The main protagonist, Fu, is fundamentally an arch-villain in the eyes of society but an arch-philanthropist in truth. He is an “anti-Fu Manchu” if you will, albeit set in story with the awkward reality of anti-Chinese racism added to the mix. In the stock stereotype, such Asian villains possess a dastardly supernatural power that aids them in their efforts to undermine Western civilization, all conducted from an underground secret lair in the exotic hell-hole of Chinatown. But such stereotyping does not allow for the possibility (and in the story, the reality) that Fu’s mystical connection can actually be a force for good.

Colleen, the other main character in the novel, is a white woman whose secrets from her past drive the action in the story. Through her character, I sought to glimpse the psyche of the white mainstream that persecuted the Chinese and to suggest that racial stereotypes are merely the worst aspects that a society refuses to see in itself and instead projects onto the Other.

The book is a fast-paced action thriller, set in 19th century San Francisco’s Chinatown, that follows the fortunes of Fu as he survives the brutality of a coolie ship, escapes to Mexico, and finally makes his way to America with his childhood friend, Gan. As a successful merchant and philanthropist, he inadvertently rescues Colleen from a brothel and immediately finds himself in the middle of an escalating intrigue. When a thousands-strong mob descends on Chinatown, Fu, Colleen, and his companions work feverishly to solve a mystery that could stave off their destruction. Amidst the real-time plot, the undercurrent of anti-Chinese racism and its resulting violence pervades the lives of the characters. Background stories are told in flashback, contextualizing the actions, thoughts and motivations of the main characters.

I pulled no punches with the depictions of the brutal persecution inflicted by white mobs, nor with the language used to dehumanize the Chinese. This was not done for shock value but simply as a genuine recounting of the events that inspired the novel.

History and historical experience are the foundations of identity. The Asian American narrative from this period is absent, meaning that all the heroic “founding fathers” of Asian America whose tenacity and bravery forged the basis of subsequent Asian migrations have not been given a voice in the tapestry of the American narrative.

In writing his book, I hope to achieve a realistic and accurate retelling of historical facts in a dramatized setting, devoid of the need to compromise truth.

For a more detailed book interview

The Legend of Fu is available for purchase

Rave reviews from readers

vk Efsanem Kavala 018

Bio: Ben is a writer who has lived in Istanbul, Turkey, with his wife and son since 2007. He has a Fine Arts background and studies and writes about Asian-American issues. He blogs, is passionate about playing the guitar, and draws and paints for pleasure. He is overly modest about his extensive knowledge of wines and regularly thrills his family with his cooking. The Legend of Fu is his first novel.


“What Are You?” August 1st, 2016 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by Special Guest Writer, Anne Hawkins

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to read. In elementary school, I read books about girls who always managed to get themselves in trouble – books like Ramona and Pippi Longstockings. Though I never gave it much thought, it made sense that I was drawn to books about characters who reminded me of me. As I grew older, my almost frenetic reading pace mirrored the urgency I felt to better figure out who I was and my place in the world.

I imagine like anyone, I struggled to develop my identity – but with constant reminders that no matter how I viewed myself, others felt that I did not quite belong. My Japanese grandmother never wasted an opportunity to tell me that I looked like my white father, while I was asked on an almost daily basis by the white people I grew up around, “What are you?”

I never knew what to say in either situation. I was sure if I kept reading I would find someone who would say it for me. Before high school, the only book I recall reading by an Asian-American writer was Farewell to Manzanar. That book, along with Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, had a profound impact on my political views, but I hardly identified with the life circumstances of the main characters.

In high school I stumbled upon Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. The Chinese-American daughters in the book navigated two cultures, two languages, and two sets of often conflicting expectations. They weren’t me, but they were the closest I’d felt to characters who lived the tensions I had such difficulty articulating. Suddenly, I knew there was more out there that would get me closer to what I was looking for. And so I kept reading – and started asking for recommendations.

Someone recommended Kaui Hart Hemmings’ The Descendants to me because my family is from Hawaii and it’s set in Hawaii; I enjoyed it. Someone recommended a Kazuo Ishiguro book to me because he’s from Japan (though raised in Britain) – I went on to love all his novels. My aunt got a little closer and recommended Barry Eisler’s John Rain series to me, which features a half-Japanese assassin. I certainly don’t identify with the assassin life, but Rain struggles with his mixed-race identity, even undergoing plastic surgery to make himself look more Japanese. Then, in anticipation of this blog piece, a friend recommended Patricia Park’s novel Re Jane which features a young half-Korean woman who returns to Korea to better understand her own identity. I had high hopes for this book – finally, the half-Asian fictional soul-mate I’d been in search of all my reading life. But alas, Jane was nothing like me. She never knew her father, and her mother passed away when she was quite young. She was raised in a predominantly Korean-American neighborhood – lost in many ways that had nothing to do with her mixed-race background. Lacking a connection to Jane, I felt more disconnected than I’d felt since I was a kid – which is not a reflection on the quality of the book, only on my unrealistic expectations. When I finished the book, I turned back to The Joy Luck Club.

One of the characters in The Joy Luck Club comments: “I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these things do not mix?” I see that conflict in me – but I also see my life experience in its entirety as profoundly American – mixing races and cultures may not be as cut-and-dried as Tan’s character wanted, but it’s an experience no better or worse than any other. And this is why nowadays when I do feel like answering the question, I say that I am mixed-race. I don’t pick one because I’m not one. I don’t say “half-Asian” because I feel like that ignores that I am also “half-white,” with all the privileges that identity may afford me. I am finally able to see this identity as liberating. We’re all more than our race or ethnicity – even if, like me, it may inform and shape so much. We’re all trying to figure out who we are. But, so many people need us to be one thing that they think makes us easier to understand. To be mixed may raise questions, but it suddenly somehow explains why I am made up of conflicting beliefs and interests. It makes it okay that they didn’t know what I was because, after all, mixing things up is just complicated. For all those years I spent defined by what I was not, it’s suddenly perfectly fine to just be who I am. And someday (especially now with the help of the internet), I’ll find that book with a character who truly understands me.

Anne Hawkins

Bio: Anne Hawkins is a criminal defense attorney in San Francisco, California. She is the daughter of a third-generation Japanese-American mother and a fifth-generation Irish-English-American father. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. This year, she was thrilled when her son’s preschool teacher read Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to his class. Her favorite authors include Amy Tan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, and Gail Tsukiyama. Recommendations welcome:



My Education July 2nd, 2016 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by Special Guest Author, Pearl Rockett

I grew up in Upcountry Maui on a huge ranch. The Ulupalakua Ranch provided homes to all the families working there. The families living there were mainly cowboys and ranch hands. My father worked as a store clerk and Mom was a maid for the Baldwins, owners of the Ranch. Families were mainly people of Hawaiian ancestry, though some were Japanese like my family. I had the best times playing with all the children but developed the closest relationships to those who lived nearest to my home.

There was a forest behind our home, filled with tall and very old Eucalyptus trees. The forest was so filled with trees and wild plants that one could not see through it to its end. Kaniu, Powell and I made a “house” under huge tree trunks that had fallen from wind or age. We would play “pretend school” where one was a teacher and the others, students … or mamangoto where we would cook using tree branches, leaves and old bark from the trees. The forest also was our hideout when we played cowboys and Indians.

I grew up with families who were respectful of each other, caring, loving, and warm and kind. To this day, I feel very close to these children who are now adults and have moved out of Ulupalakua and have families of their own. My mother, brother, and I are always invited to gatherings or luaus that these former Ulupalakua families have. We have a strong bond of Aloha. It would be inconceivable for us to not attend the funerals of our Ulupalakua friends, because they mean so much to us.

My idyllic childhood ended when I had to attend high school. Transportation to a high school was a big problem, because my mother didn’t drive and Dad had to work. My parents found a family who would let me live with them, so I moved from rural Ulupalakua to the “city” of Wailuku so I could walk to Baldwin High School. In exchange for room and board, I worked as a live-in maid/babysitter in this Wailuku home. It was very difficult to transition from a country girl to a city girl. I had to iron the family’s clothing, especially the white shirts, till midnight every Friday and Saturday nights. I cleaned the home, babysat a 1-yr-old boy, and had to deal with his two very overwhelming brothers who were about 11- and 13-years-old.

The baby was sweet and smiled at me the first time I met him. I had never babysat before but learned very quickly! The younger brother would torture me by hitting me when I wasn’t looking, taunting me to no end. One evening when I went back to my room and opened the door, a spider was dangling right in front of my eyes! Another night, I walked into a string that was taped across my doorway in a zigzag manner. You should have heard the laughter. Sometimes they would hide in the bathroom, throw things at me, and shoot me with their water pistols. Boys! The older one was kinder and usually was cordial towards me but did conspire with his younger brother. He was into girls and didn’t have as much time to be mischievous. The boys in Ulupalakua were never so naughty. I remember crying in the shower every night for several months just because of the strangeness of my new way of life.

Despite this, I adapted to the ways of this family and accepted their mannerisms and attitudes. I admired the mother for her love of books. She had a bookshelf from floor to ceiling, her own personal library, and she would read to her boys all the time. She loved poetry and introduced me to the poet Shelley. At dinner, she would read stories to the boys and me. By the time I got to my room in the evenings, it was 8pm and hardly time to do ALL my homework. Many times I fell asleep on my books. It was during this time that I read Gone with the Wind. I loved that book. I owe all the books I’ve enjoyed to the mother who inspired me to read.

I always admired how the mother carried herself; she most definitely grew up with the “silver spoon in her mouth.” Still, she was kind and caring towards me. She also liked to laugh and was a cheerful person with a wonderful sense of humor. She never criticized me and would often ask me to ask my teacher about some science question. She played bridge with her lady friends, and I always liked those days because I could eat the leftover mint and jellied candies. I remember being hungry all the time.

I was impressed with the “power” of the elite, as the Baldwins were. One evening a plane flew over their home and its loud engine frightened the family enough so that the younger boy dived under the table. The father immediately called the FAA and asked them to change the route of the plane. In my own home, we were taught to gaman and tough it out. It was an awakening for me to see how different this family’s culture was from mine.

I regret not having fun high school experiences. I couldn’t go to the dances, participate in plays, clubs, Rally Week, etc. Always had to get home to babysit. But, I believe I have survived this far because I had to grow up fast. My reflections of those days are mostly good memories, and I do have a soft spot for the boys. That kolohe younger brother became a Hawaii State Representative. The “baby” is working on a tour boat. The mother lives in Oregon with her oldest son. Recently, two of the mother’s friends passed away … brought back memories for me. In fact, the daughter-in-law of one of her friends plays on my tennis team. Small world.

To this day, I avoid ironing clothes and cleaning the house. I hate cleaning refrigerators!

I am now 69 years old with three adult children. I lost my husband 16 years ago and have adjusted to my solitary life in Wailuku. I visit my grandchildren on Oahu. I am retired and am having the best times of my life. Tennis keeps me socially-connected and physically-active. I still love to read and enjoy going to symphonic concerts. I also enjoy quiet times. I am at peace.

Pearl cropped pic

Bio: Pearl Rockett was born in Kula, Maui to parents of Japanese descent. She graduated from Maui Community College and worked most of her life for the State of Hawaii’s Department of Health, Wailuku, Maui. As an active retiree, she plays tennis four times a week and is her team’s captain. Her team plays in island-wide tournaments and sometimes even wins! As a volunteer for Na Hoaloha agency, she helps home-bound seniors who are still ambulatory by providing transportation to doctor appointments, shopping, community events, hair appointments, etc. She also dances hula, plays the ukulele, paints on canvas and silk scarves, swims, reads, travels, and parties.


A Harmless Question? June 1st, 2016 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by Special Guest Blogger/Speaker, Jason Shen

Some may ask, what’s the big deal in asking, “Where are you from?” It’s just four innocent words, right? People might ask this question in a spirit of genuine inquiry — as you get to know someone, you want to learn where they grew up, what their home environment was like, what their parents do, etc. But to many Asian Americans, this seemingly innocuous question (WAYF) can feel unfriendly, even alienating.

My study found that three quarters of Asian American men can recall being asked WAYF six or more times, specifically where the asker is looking to determine the other’s country of origin.

For Asian women, the issue is even worse, as it often gets wrapped around ideas of being “exotic,” “submissive” or other objectifying stereotypes. There’s a reason this “What Kind of Asian Are You?” comedy sketch, featuring a White guy trying to hit on an Asian woman, has nearly 9M views on YouTube.

What WAYF Sounds Like
Stranger: “Hey, where are you guys from?”
Me: “Well, I live here and my parents and sister are visiting from Boston.”
Long pause.
Stranger: “I mean what nationality are you?”
Me: “Well, I basically grew up in the United States and we’re all American citizens. So … we’re American.”
If the stranger persists, I will state that I was born in Suzhou, China and moved to the U.S. when I was young, to which the stranger usually offers nothing meaningful in response.

My sister was born here. I have lived in America for 27 years, am a U.S. citizen, was part of the United States Junior National Team for men’s gymnastics, was even recruited by the White House to serve the American people as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, and yet when someone looks at me, they presume I am from “somewhere else.”

It is easy to dismiss this story as “just something that happens” or say that “there will always be rude people out there,” but just because there will always be people who litter doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continually encourage people to dispose of their trash properly.

Edit 3/18: My coworker Joan pointed me to her friend’s amazing/horrifying Tumblr “Where is Your Face From” which chronicles more of these kinds of stories.

The Problem with “Where Are You From?”
1) The Implied Message
When someone asks you where you are from, the implication is that you are not from here. But where is here? Here could be interpreted in two ways: the physical region (e.g. New York City), or the psychological region the asker believes him or herself to occupy (e.g. “being American”). While some well-intentioned people mean the former, Asian Americans have experienced the latter often enough that it becomes internalized as the message.

Some people might justify this microaggression on the fact that Asian people are a relatively “new” minority and it’s true that 74% of Asians in America were born abroad. But that does not justify the presumption that someone who is Asian is “from” somewhere else. Perhaps they were born somewhere else, but many grew up in the United States and consider themselves part of American culture just like anyone else and to imply otherwise is unfriendly and even alienating. In addition, there are still 4.5M+ Asians living in the United States who were born in this country and should have their “I’m from Dallas/Michigan/the West Coast” response be completely accepted.

2) The Frequency
Receiving an implied message on a monthly, weekly, and for some people, daily basis, can really compound the alienation. Individually, micro-aggressions seem almost harmless, but in aggregate they can make you feel pretty bad.

3) The Timing
The negative effect of WAYF is exacerbated when the question is asked very early in an interaction. This leads to a feeling of objectification where it becomes clear the asker isn’t interested in them as a person, but how they can be categorized by a label. A person’s ethnic background is a personal topic and just being curious about it does not give one license to ask it in the first 15 minutes of a conversation, just as being curious about a scar on someone’s face does not give one license to ask about it right away.

4) The Responses to Your Question
WAYF is often followed up with more racial stereotyping. If you indicate somewhere in the United States (e.g. “I’m from LA.”), the polite folks will accept the answer and smile, the ruder ones will then ask, “But where were you born?” or “Where are your parents from?” etc until they finally get you to respond with your ethnic background.

Common responses include “compliments” like “You barely have an accent” or “I love _____ food!” which do little to further the conversation. I understand that these responses are often an attempt to relate to the other person but often feel forced and rely on stereotypes, increasing the sense of alienation. It promotes the feeling that there is so little that this person feels in common with me that they need to resort to my ethnic background to forge any kind of connection.

Suggestions for Improving on WAYF
1) Try rephrasing the question
If you want to get to know someone, why not try a question that is less threatening and gives the other person more of a chance to own their own narrative? These following questions allow the other person to share information that they feel would better help you understand them, which presumably is what you’re really after.

  • Have you always lived around here?
  • Where’s home for you?
  • Where did you grow up?

2) Remember that something you ask once is something they hear often
Imagine you were born with a head of green hair. Of course people would be curious and you’d probably get many comments and questions about your hair — how did your hair get green? What’s it like having green hair? And while every person’s curiosity is genuine and not malicious, the sheer volume of questions is still a constant reminder that you look different from everyone else and there’s something off about you.

3) Try a different line of conversation altogether
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that most people, Asian or otherwise, want to be defined by what they’re doing and thinking and where they’re going, not where their “people” are from. Ask them their opinion on a recent news story or about any good books they’ve read recently or how they like to spend their time outside of work. Hell, even asking about their job, while trite, is at least a decision they had some choice in making. No one gets to decide which ethnic group they were born into.

So, please, think twice the next time you want to ask the question “Where are you from?”


Bio: Jason Shen is a product manager at Etsy, a global marketplace for unique and creative goods. He previously served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow and founded a venture-backed ridesharing startup. He leads the Asian American Man study, which was covered recently by National Journal, and writes at his blog The Art of Ass-Kicking. He holds a B.S. and M.S. from Stanford University and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Marketplace. Jason was born in China, grew up in the suburbs of Boston, spent nearly a decade in Silicon Valley, and now lives in Brooklyn.