Japanese Americans & Intersectionality

Contributed by special guest author/poet David Mura

David Mura has written two memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Identity and Sexuality. His novel about the son of a No-No Boy is Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire. He has also written four books of poetry, including The Last Incantations. David’s latest book is A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity and Narrative Craft in Writing. His website is www.davidmura.com

 

When my father as a teenager was imprisoned in the Jerome, Arkansas internment camp during World War II, his white high school teacher told his class that when they got out of the camp, they should try to be not just 100% American but 200% American. The Japanese Americans were imprisoned not for anything they had done, but for their race and ethnicity, and so, not surprisingly, my father took his white teacher’s advice to mean that he should become like white Americans: He and my mother raised me in a credo of assimilation not just into America but into a definition of American which equated America with white people.

Thus, when I was in high school and a white friend said to me, “I think of you David just like a white person,” I thought: Yes, that’s how I want to be considered. In college, when I met my wife, whose family roots go all the way back to the Mayflower, I told her I considered myself an American, not a Japanese American (the terms Asian American or people of color weren’t part of the culture then).

After college, in a Ph.D. program in English, I read an all-white Anglo-American canon. I wanted also to become a poet, and in my poetry workshops, other than a handful of poems by Amiri Baraka, I read only white poets. I was taught that to call myself a Japanese American writer or to write about race would relegate me to a literary ghetto, would be to take up a non-aesthetic, politically-based ideology, would be to try and get into literature through a sort of backdoor affirmative action program. When a fellow graduate student, the African American poet, Marilyn Nelson, lent me a copy of Aiiieeeee! the first major anthology of Asian American literature, she remarked, “I think you might be interested in this.”

But. I was not. I didn’t read it for a couple years. But when I did, reading the work by Japanese American authors like John Okada, Wakako Yamauchi, Hisaye Yamamoto, and Momoko Iko, I sensed that they were pointing to a direction I might take as a writer to explore the Japanese American experience.

But it was only when I happened to pick up in a bookstore one day, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, that my take on my own identity shifted. I’d heard in college about Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and its account of the anti-colonial revolutions in the Third World. But in Black Skin White Masks the Paris-trained Black psychoanalyst from Martinique was examining the psychology of racism.

In one passage, Fanon described the education Black West Indian children received in the French colonial schools which talked about “our ancestors” the Gauls and how the European explorers and colonists went into Africa to civilize the savages. What are these Black school children learning, asked Fanon, but self-hatred, self-alienation and an identification with their colonial oppressors.

Reading this, I had the immediate reaction, “Oh, shit, that’s what I’ve been doing.”

In that instant, I finally realized I wasn’t white, I wasn’t ever going to be white, and I had to figure out just what I was and formulate a new and different identity.

I began to read Black writers like James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and I discovered in their work a language to talk about race and my own experience of race—my sense of alienation and self-hatred from white standards of beauty, my denial of my cultural roots and history as a Japanese American, my adopting a belief in the supremacy of white culture and its norms. And I realized that the language of race I was learning from Black American writers was not present in any of the white writers I had read (and I had read through almost the entire Anglo-American canon—at least the white version of it).

Several years after this, I helped start a community-based Asian American arts organization in the Twin Cities where I live. I became friends with the African American novelist Alexs Pate and we talked incessantly about the issues of race, both in politics and literature. After the events surrounding the Rodney King beating and the violence in Los Angeles, Alexs and I created and acted in a performance piece, “Secret Colors,” where we examined our lives, our friendship and the tensions between the Asian American and African American communities. In that show, we tried to talk to our own communities about their mutual distrust, about the possibilities of alliance and connection, about thinking beyond our relationship with whites. Later, Alexs and I made a movie based on this piece, “Slowly This,” directed by the great African American cinematographer, director and artist, Arthur Jaffa.

During the making of that film, Alexs and I were staying at a hotel on 49th street in New York. As we stood outside the hotel one day, no taxis came down the side street. I suggested we go up to Broadway to hail a cab. Alexs said, “Okay, but I’m a Black man in New York with dreadlocks. If I stand outside a hotel, the cab might think I’m staying at the hotel, but if I go up to Broadway I’m just another Black man the cabs won’t stop for. Maybe with you, it’s different.”

All of this was part of my process of understanding and exploring the experience of Blacks in America and then reflecting upon those experiences both in terms of the African American community itself and in terms of my own community. I was learning to think intersectional before that term became a popular coinage.

A few years after that, in 2001, I started to teach at VONA, the only writers’ conference for all writers of color (and not just one race), and I realized there were other communities of color whose experiences and literature I needed to learn and learn from. My own understanding of what it means to be a Japanese American or Asian American needed to encompass those communities and not just my community’s relationships with white America.

Today, I still live in the Twin Cities where more than seventy percent of the students are children of color and where my children have grown up amid a diversity I could not have imagined as a child or a teen growing up in an all-white Jewish suburb of Chicago. My children have grown up familiar with other immigrant communities as well as with their Japanese American identity and with the languages of race that I first learned from African American authors. They understand that as Japanese Americans and Asian Americans in 2020, they are living in a multiracial, multiethnic society where we all must work to understand each other—our histories, our cultures. They understand that such work is even more important in this dire time of Trump with its racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment whose earlier strains sent my father and mother to the internment camps of World War II.

What is happening now, for instance, with the Muslim Somali American community echoes so much of what Japanese Americans experienced during World War II. And since my middle son has been going out with a Somali American woman for several years and has several Somali American friends, and since I’ve also had Somali American students and friends, and my wife Somali patients and colleagues, their community is now simply part of my life. I cannot think of America the way my parents did when they got out of the internment camps; our lives are much more inclusive and various now—and richer and more complicated.

Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers: How a Literary Origin Story Began with a Shout

Contributed by special guest author/editor Shawn Wong

Shawn Wong is the author of two novels, Homebase and American Knees, and editor or co-editor of six anthologies of Asian American or American multicultural literature. He is a professor of English and Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His website is: ShawnWongWrites.com

 

In the summer of 1969, while an undergraduate English major at UC Berkeley, I decided that I wanted to be a novelist. The problem was that I was the only Asian American writer I knew in the world. No professor or high school literature teacher had ever assigned a book by an Asian American writer or even mentioned the name of an Asian American writer in my literature classes. There were no Asian American students in my creative writing classes. I was it.

Think about that for a second. No Asian American literary organizations, no Asian American studies classes, no subject category in the library under “Asian American Literature,” no Google. In fact, it didn’t even occur to me to ask the damn question, “Are there any Asian American writers?” until I was 20 years old and unpublished myself. When I went to my American literature professor at Berkeley and asked him, he said there weren’t any Asian American writers.

To make a long story short, I did not believe him and decided to begin a search. I found Jeff Chan, then a graduate student and a teacher in the newly formed Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State College who introduced me to Frank Chin who had just returned to Berkeley from Seattle where he had been a news writer for a local television station. Together, Jeff, Frank and I discovered Lawson Inada’s work in an anthology of Fresno poets in 1970. We called him at his home in Ashland, Oregon and he drove down to Berkeley the very next weekend to meet us.

Jeff, Frank and Lawson were all older than me by 8 to 12 years. I was still in college. By the time I graduated in 1971, we had the manuscript to Aiiieeeee! in our hands. We had found 14 writers to put in the anthology that my professors said did not exist. You might say that I majored in Asian American literature except there were no classes, no teachers, no grades, not even independent study credit. My side gig was Asian American literature while I was still writing papers on Spenser and Shakespeare and Yeats. I ended up teaching myself the subject that I would eventually teach in my first job as a college professor in 1972 at Mills College. I entered graduate school in Creative Writing at San Francisco State College in 1971 and I shopped our manuscript around to publishers without success. We often got back insulting and ignorant comments or questions such as inquiring whether or not the stories in the anthology were in translation or that the “least ethnic pieces were the best” or that the stories were interesting as social history rather than literature.

In 1972 I won a prize in a children’s short story contest from The Council on Interracial Books for Children. Roberta Palm, an editor from Howard University Press, contacted me and asked if I had a children’s book manuscript they could see. I didn’t have a book-length manuscript, but I wrote to her and told her that I had a manuscript for an anthology. In 1974 Howard University Press published Aiiieeeee! as one of their first ten books to kick off their entrance into publishing.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising to note that African American presses were the first to recognize the legitimacy of Asian American literature. My first three books were published by African American presses. Our anthology was reviewed everywhere from the Rolling Stone to The New Yorker to The New York Times with rave reviews. We received only two bad reviews—both from the only Asian American reviewers to review the anthology—one in Bridge Magazine and the other in the Honolulu Advertiser. One reviewer took exception to the fact that we stated there was Asian American literary English specific to the author’s ethnicity, a kind of street English, and the other reviewer noted all the Asian people we had not included even though he could not name the names of the excluded writers.

The University of Washington Press has published the third edition of Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers, a groundbreaking volume that shows how Asian Americans fought for—and seized—their place in the American literary canon. This new 3rd edition celebrates the 45th anniversary of the anthology and includes material from the previous editions of the book from four different publishers. Professor Tara Fickle (University of Oregon) will be designing a website, featuring a treasure trove of archival materials collected during the compilation of the anthology in the early 70s, including correspondence and interviews with authors, correspondence between the four editors, as well as other documents, photographs, reviews, unpublished versions of the original introduction and other valuable primary materials that tell the story of the rediscovery of Asian American literature that our teachers said did not exist. Get a 30% discount if you order before December 31, 2019 using the code WST30 Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers.

The King and I: How We as Asian Americans Inhabit Our Bodies

Contributed by special guest author/poet David Mura

David Mura has written two memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Identity and Sexuality. His novel about the son of a No-No Boy is Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire. He has also written four books of poetry, including The Last Incantations.

David’s latest book is A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity and Narrative Craft in Writing. His website is www.davidmura.com

 

In 2010, I was chosen to play the King in a local Minnesota production of “The King and I.” I had acted before, mainly in performance pieces I had written or co-written with others, and as a writer who constantly presents his work to audiences, I was a practiced and accomplished public speaker.

But this was a classic Broadway musical and I was the lead. And I had never had any formal training as an actor.

So, before the rehearsals started, I took an acting workshop at Theater Mu, the local Asian American theater. The instructor, Randy Reyes, devised this exercise where we would go to the local mall and observe someone walking through the mall and then come back and imitate their body movements. I first chose an older Somali woman, but she quickly entered a beauty salon and so I had to make another choice. I then saw a group of young white men, not big enough to be football players but bigger than normal; I thought they might be baseball teammates. I saw that they walked with arms outspread, chests forward, in long loping strides, taking up as much space as they could. They moved through the mall as if they owned the mall.

Back at the workshop, I realized that I walked through the mall with a slight crouch, hunched over as if always on guard, always wary of where some attack or challenge might be directed my way. As if I were an alien presence. As with many people of color in America, my first concern, which emanated from my body posture, was safety, protection; both consciously and unconsciously, I felt I had to be attuned to any potential negative forces around me.

With the help of Randy, I realized I couldn’t play the King of Siam with my normal body posture or movement. I had to stand and move and enter my body in a new way; I had to believe not just that I could be the king of a country, but I was the King of my country. I should not just project power and strength but embody power and strength. I had to imagine a country where my body had never been invisible or marginalized, where I was always destined to be King. Similarly, to play the king, I had to improve my vocal projection, to breathe in and out from the bottom of my diaphragm, to speak from deep in my core.

The cast of The King and I was large, indeed like a small village. There were the wives of the king, his attendants, children of all ages. It was bracing to be part of such a group of Asian Americans. At the opening we received a standing ovation, and we played to full houses and standing ovations throughout the run. (In an odd connection, my cousin, the singer and actor Paul Nakauchi, has played the King in a London and a traveling production of The King and I; so I’m pretty sure we’re the only Japanese/Asian American family with two members who have played that role.)

There are times still when I lose the King’s sense of strength and power and relationship to my body. But I have known it; I have enacted it on stage before crowds of several hundred. I have taken over the stage and owned my body. So I do know now how that feels.

My friend, the Korean American actor Sun Mee Chomet, tells me that when she teaches women, especially Asian American women, to breathe and project properly, from the core of their body, and these women feel the power emitting from their voice and body, they often break down weeping. So many repressed emotions are stored within the core of our bodies, and in getting in touch with this core and the voice it produces, these emotions are released; the women feel then a strength that they did not know existed within them. One implication of this: Asian American students can benefit from training in theater and the arts, and such training can be extremely helpful and just as essential as any academic training to their becoming leaders or moving up whatever ladder they are trying to climb. Just as importantly, our own psychic health as Asian Americans is influenced by how we inhabit our bodies, and if it helps us, we all have the ability to change how we do that.

Go Back Where You Came From (for Beverly)

Contributed by poet/author Tony Robles

Go back to the mountain
Of your heart
Carved with your poem
Your story

Go back to the
Skin scarred
Soil of your name
Before the teachers
Mispronounced it

Go back to the
Strong smell of who
You are, lingering in
Pots and pans smouldering
In the fire that is you

Go back to when
Your words betrayed
Your throat in
A shadow of shame

And somebody
Else’s laughter

Go back and get it
Back, whatever it is
Or whatever it isn’t

Go back to your face

Will it
Recognize you?

Go back
Where you came from

Is it everywhere,
No where?

Go back

(C) 2019 Tony Robles

BIO:  Tony Robles – the People’s poet – was born in San Francisco. He is the author of two books of poetry and short stories, Cool Don’t Live Here No More – A letter to San Francisco and Fingerprints of a Hunger Strike. His poem, The Beekeeper, was featured in Where Are You From?: An Anthology of Asian American Writing. Tony was awarded the San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Literary Artist grant 2019-2020. He has worked as a tenants’ rights advocate and served as board president of Manilatown Heritage Foundation, following in the footsteps of his uncle, the late Manilatown poet Al Robles. Tony currently lives in North Carolina where he is working on his first novel.

“Where From … ? Go Back … !”

When our Asian American activist group put together the anthology, Where Are You From?, we decided that the question we are often asked would make a good title for our book because it expressed many of our experiences as AAs in America. The question can be interpreted in many ways, depending on who is asking and how they are asking the question. It can be interested. Wary. Looking for reasons to accept or reject. Befriend or report to the authorities. The question might make us feel like The Other, as not belonging even though many of us are American citizens. Sometimes we choose to believe that the question is asked as a chance to explain ourselves. Sometimes we walk away from the question feeling resentful that we are obligated to prove that, even though we aren’t White, we still have a right to be in the United States, too.

Recently, we are having to confront a less opaque “threat” when we hear the directive, “Go back to where you came from!” The person saying this has already pronounced judgment on the Other. They have closed their minds to hearing our stories. Today, it is even more important that we share our stories* so people will see us as fellow human beings with the same feelings, wants, and needs. I think most of us feel terrible when people say insensitive things to and about us that imply that we are inferior to them and don’t “belong.” We all want to make good lives for ourselves and our families. We want to belong and be accepted for who we are and what we bring to those around us. We want to live in a peaceful world which will allow us to make these “good lives.” I have a hard time understanding those who tell others to “Go back to where you came from!” because, as a citizen in a nation built by immigrants, doesn’t this mean we all (including the person making that demand) have to leave the United States? Doesn’t this mean only Native Americans have a “right” to be here, if we base this “right” on origin?

In some ways, “Where are you from” and “Go back to where you came from” ask the same “origin” questions. Is Origin:

  • Where our Original ancestors were born? What if they mostly lived somewhere other than where they were originally born?
  • Where we, ourselves, were born? What if we mostly lived somewhere other than where we were originally born?
  • Where we are now citizens?
  • Where we live now even if we are not yet citizens?

When we move to another place, it’s never without a lot of anxiety and difficulties… but I have a feeling that most people move because they want better lives and are willing to risk everything. That is why my grandparents moved to Hawaii from Japan. That is why my husband and I moved to Oregon from Hawaii. Is that such a bad motivation? Isn’t that how progress is made? By people wanting better lives for themselves and their children?

The immigration issue is very complex. But it seems to me that the screening at our borders could be simplified if we ask different questions of those wanting to be admitted to our country. Questions such as:

  • Why do you want to live in the United States?
  • Do you know anyone in the U.S. who can help you until you are on your feet?
  • What kind of work can you do if admitted to the USA?
  • Will you promise to be a good person while in the USA (and if you do something bad like rape, kill, torture or maim another human being, then you can be deported … and to be fair, maybe any American who does any of these things can be deported to the country their ancestors came from if it’s decided that ancestral origins define where we came from)?
  • And are you a human being (as opposed to an alien from another planet – although, perhaps one day, we may need to be open to them as well if they will help us with the multitude of problems we are creating for ourselves, our country, and our planet … )?

 

Valerie Katagiri is co-editor of Where Are You From: An Anthology of Asian American Writing and coordinates the web-blogs for the book’s related AsianAmericanWriting.com website. She would love to hear your stories.

* Email Valerie at info@asianamericanwriting.com if you have personal stories and essays (and videos, art, poems, etc) that you want to share with our readers.

Repatriating Myself: Becoming Asian American

Contributed by special guest writer, Michelle Hicks, as part of our collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog)

Correcting my mother’s emails and work announcements almost every day was tiring. She called me every day at all hours, saying that her request was very important and I should not let her down. Everyone will see her communication, so it is best not to mess up. Growing up, I was always annoyed with her because this responsibility fell to me, a 10-year-old. I saw how people treated her, felt how inconvenient it was for me to incessantly proofread every single document she produced, and was angry that I was the translator of important documents. Moreover, I saw how she got passed over for promotion countless times because of my failures to translate well enough. I just did not understand why she did not just try harder to improve her English and do it herself.

As a result, I never wanted to be “that Korean” who couldn’t speak English or who was stuck at a dead-end job. I wanted to be the “American Dream” my mom hoped for. As a misguided kid, this meant the rejection of everything it means to be Korean outside of my house. I tried with every fiber of my being to reject my heritage and who I was in order to assimilate. I spent extra time doing my English homework so I could learn what good grammar was. I begged my mom for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of jigae or other homemade meals she made with love.

In these moments, I didn’t realize how much Whiteness I had internalized or how entitled I was to believe that I was better than where I came from. My mother has given me everything, food, an education, and love, and with that I bought into the myth of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” In my mind if she just “tried harder” and did more, then we could have the coveted Dream; however, upon entering high school, I realized how much my mother had done for me and how “trying harder” was impossible because she was already doing everything she could to make my sister’s and my lives better. She had carried her dreams across an ocean for us and pushed us to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that she didn’t have when she was our age.

Only then was I able to take the necessary space to fully understand how common my experience of proofreading parents’ emails and other communications is in the Asian American community. For the first time, I found a kinship in my community, because I was finally able to feel a unity in our shared experiences and understand a solidarity in our struggle for a better future. By seeing others who were my age unabashedly unafraid to be themselves, Asian and all, I finally could feel comfortable with myself. I started the long process of repatriating myself. Now, I am more freely speaking our language, practicing our customs and traditions, and connecting with my mother. It led me to become passionate about inclusion, equity, and the issues that affect the Asian American community and other communities of color. Though this realization has taken me almost a decade and a half, I am finally learning to be Asian American.

Bio: Michelle Hicks is the Census Intern at APANO. She is originally from San Jose, CA, and is Korean American. She is a senior at Willamette University and upon graduation will receive a Bachelors of Arts in Politics with minors in American Ethnic Studies and Spanish. Michelle is passionate about political engagement, civil rights, and human rights and hopes to cultivate a more equitable Oregon.

 

APANO: Established as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2010, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. We use our collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating with our communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key focus areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, we create a vibrant space where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. We strive to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within our communities. Learn more about APANO on our website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.

Still Making Trouble

“Dance rock band front man Simon Tam sought to trademark The Slants. His aim was to reappropriate a term long used to disparage a minority group and to render the term a badge of pride. All of us agreed.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Contributed by Anthology author, Simon Tam

What do people do after they’ve won a landmark Supreme Court case that has essentially derailed their life’s work in the arts? For me, I’ve spent the last two years sharing that story in hopes of inspiring others to become civically engaged and to be more intentional about the kind of art that they’d like to create.

I can’t believe that it’s been a couple of months since my memoir, Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court, was released. Since then, I’ve been traveling across the country presenting this story and engaging in thoughtful conversations with activists throughout the country. This has been especially meaningful because it’s been providing me with an opportunity to share the new nonprofit that I’ve started with others to help provide scholarships and mentoring to Asian American artists who’d like to incorporate community-driven activism into their work.

I’ve always had conflicted feelings about publishing my book. Part of me feels that my story is important and needs to be shared (probably why I travel so far and wide doing so). But another part of me is filled with the seeds of doubt planted by the many publishers and editors who told me that my book wasn’t worth releasing for a number of reasons: there’s no Asian American marketpeople don’t care, you’re not known enough. One publisher told me, “We already have an Asian writer.” Yes, I did use their critical feedback as further motivation to finish my book … but sometimes that negativity creeps up in those moments of self-doubt.

Recently, I had a live interview on PoliticKing with Larry King and I had an incredible review in the Washington Post that called the book fascinating, compelling, and important. And, there have been other interviews and reviews with NBC NewsKOIN Newsthe Model Majority podcastthe WGN Morning ShowQuartz, and more. Readers have told me how much my story has meant to them. I’ve been able to bridge gaps, especially with those who have misunderstood my work or approached it with misguided assumptions. I’m told more reviews are coming. Does it feel like some vindication for the early feedback I received? In some ways, yes … because, I am truly excited, humbled, and grateful for everything. Whenever anyone wants to interview me for a story or requests a book for review, I’m still pleasantly surprised. According to several book publishers, this book wasn’t supposed to make it. Yet, here we are making it. Changing the landscape. Hopefully changing assumptions about Asian American authors and stories. One review and interview at a time. Showing that our stories matter. Making trouble.

BIO: Simon Tam is an author, musician, activist, and troublemaker. He is best known as the founder and bassist of The Slants, the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band. He is the founder of The Slants Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing scholarships and mentorship to artist-activists of color.

Simon has been a keynote speaker, performer, and presenter at TEDx, SXSW, Comic-Con, The Department of Defense, Stanford University, and over 1,200 events across four continents. He has set a world record by appearing on the TEDx stage 13 times. His work has been highlighted in over 3,000 media features across 150 countries including The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, NPR, BBC, New York Times, and Rolling Stone.

In 2016, Simon joined President Barack Obama, George Takei, Jeremy Lin, and other celebrities in the #ActToChange campaign to fight bullying. He recently helped expand civil liberties through winning a unanimous victory at the Supreme Court of the United States for the landmark case, Matal v. Tam, in 2017.

He has received many accolades for his work, including: “The Mark T. Banner” award from the American Bar Association, the “Hugh M Hefner First Amendment Award,” “Milestone Case of the Year” from Managing IP Magazine, the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Ovation Gala, and “Distinguished Alum Award” from Marylhurst University.

In 2019, he published his memoir, Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court. You can purchase it wherever books are sold and read excerpts at www.slantedbook.com

I Walk in the Steps of Those Who Came Before

Contributed by special guest writer, Margie Tang-Oxley, as part of our collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog)

I am from a small gold-mining town in Northern California called Grass Valley. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 12,860 residents of Grass Valley; 188 identify as Asian and 11,493 identify as white. My mother and I are two of those 188. We are also two of only three in my family who live in the United States. The year I graduated from high school, there was one other Asian American enrolled in my school of 784 students. I was the only student who was Chinese American. Growing up, I fixated upon these numbers, feeling the pressure of these statistics weighing on me. I would think to myself over and over again, “My actions are responsible for 50% of the Asian American representation here.” I felt that whatever I did would define who Chinese Americans were in this community. These numbers surrounded me like the bars of a cage,  a constant reminder of my cultural isolation.

When I graduated from high school, I moved to Portland, OR to study history at Reed College, focusing in particular on Chinese American history. I saw this course of study as a way to free myself from the cage I was in. Even if I was the only Chinese person from Grass Valley, CA, the knowledge of those who shared my experience as an American of Chinese heritage would be my key to freedom — freedom from the crushing Otherness I had felt for so long.

However, as I studied, I began to notice in book after book, in article after article, in lecture after lecture, that the name “Grass Valley, CA” appeared. And once I noticed the name, I saw it everywhere. Suddenly I saw Chinese Americans visiting Grass Valley, spending their youth selling cha siu baos in Grass Valley, panning for gold in Grass Valley, running laundries in Grass Valley. And finally, I saw it: There was once a large Chinatown in Grass Valley. A Chinatown so large that in the second half of the 19th century it contained over 3,000 residents. Grass Valley is a historic town, and so the streets and shop fronts look largely the same as they did during the Gold Rush. Thus, the idea that there were once 3,000 Chinese people walking on the streets I had walked, running shops on the sites where I now shopped, left me speechless. I had never seen remnants of a Chinatown growing up, never learned about one in school, never saw mention of it in our local museum. Where was this Chinatown? Where had my people gone?

I kept reading and eventually learned that the majority of Chinese residents in Grass Valley had either died, left after economic prospects dried up, or were driven out of town by angry, white mobs. All that was left is a small plaque commemorating the site were this Grass Valley Chinatown had once stood. To this day, I’ve never been able to find that plaque. But now, whenever I go home, I no longer feel so imprisoned by my Chineseness among this white majority. When I walk around, I can feel the spirits of the Chinese Americans who came before me. I can feel the memory of their footsteps on the paths I take. I know that though I never met them, and that I never will, I hold their legacy within me. I carry the torch of the Grass Valley Chinatown that once was. Though in this moment I may be one of only 188 Asian Americans, I am also one of thousands that ever were. And when I remember that, I don’t feel so alone.

Bio: Margie was born and raised in Northern California and is a mixed-race second-generation Chinese American. She graduated from Reed College in 2018 with a degree in history. Her senior thesis focused on Chinese American cuisine and how restaurant owners created a sense of authenticity in their establishments during the Cold War. In Fall 2019 Margie will be starting a PhD program in Asian American History. In her free time she enjoys cooking and eating at local restaurants, reading, and spending time with her tiny dog, Chicken Combo.

APANO: Established as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2010, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. We use our collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating with our communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key focus areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, we create a vibrant space where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. We strive to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within our communities. Learn more about APANO on our website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.

Learning to Eat

Contributed by special guest writer, Brian Liu, as part of our collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog)

When David Chang, in his scathingly honest Netflix cooking show, Ugly Delicious, asked a group of Asian chefs and food writers if, as kids, they wanted to be white, I didn’t expect to see everyone around the table raise their hands. I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, where Asians outnumber everyone, with Whites coming in a close second, and the native population limping behind all the other races with its permanently broken ankle. Growing up, all my close friends were Asian. But looking back, we already knew that the world didn’t belong to people who looked like us. At least not the world that seemed to matter, the world of beautiful thin white folk who were the heroes and champions in our imaginations and televisions. It was also around that time that my best friend, who is Japanese, started saying that he hated Japanese people. Jokingly, of course.

Grilled pork salad with thick rice noodles at Nam Giao.

In an episode of Ugly Delicious, Chang recounts how being a first-generation Asian American means existing nowhere. In the States, he is seen as a Korean first, even though he grew up in Virginia. And despite all the Korean food he’s cooked and eaten as a kid, he doesn’t speak the language and is treated like an American when he travels to Korea. He claims that his cooking is a byproduct of his alienation. I had to admit, watching David talk about his experiences around being Asian American, that being in the majority in Hawaii sheltered me from the constellating, reclaiming language that other minorities sometimes share. Instead we formed local identities, modeled ourselves after a culture handed down by the mixed-plate meals of plantation workers. Some of us who had inherited the tongues of our parents absorbed the culture our parents left behind, becoming more Asian than American. Most of us ended-up half-there half-not, our English a mix of mannerisms and slurs we had learned at the dinner table, school, the mall, the beach. The same friend who made anti-Japanese jokes commented on his frustration at barbershops. “All the haircuts in the books they have there are worn by these handsome white men,” I remember him saying. “It’s not gonna look the same on me. I’m fat. And Japanese.”

Many Chinese immigrants post-1960’s came from wealthy, educated, and cultured backgrounds. Hawaii is a perfect example of this. Other Asian families can trace their lineage back to plantation workers who toiled alongside other Pacific Islanders in the sugar industry. Then there are those like me, born in America, who have parents like mine. Parents who are well-intentioned and are — in the upward-mobile American-economic-striving sense — white.

Our complicity in the ongoing struggle between White and Black America is often understated. And so is the position we occupy. Think of Elaine Chao, wife of Senator Mitch McConnell, who recently defended her husband, famous for his obstructionist partisan polemics, from immigration protesters, saying of both McConnell and the President, “I stand by my man … both of them.” Chao is an immigrant from Taiwan. So are both of my parents.

Ugly Delicious is a portrait of our complicated American palettes, our messy lurching histories and the colliding intersections that create and destroy new flavors, new intimacies, and new forms of intolerance. In the rice episode, Chang interviews a Chinese chef whose menu caters to the Americanized Chinese palette: General Tso’s chicken, beef and broccoli. Chang asks the man, “This isn’t what you grew up eating. Why do you cook food you don’t eat for people who don’t look like you?” The man doesn’t miss a beat. “ … If Chinese people come in and want me to cook something that isn’t on the menu, I’ll cook it. But this is what White people want to eat. So that’s why it’s on the menu.”

In another episode, David Chang learns how to make dumplings from an elderly woman who reminds me much of my grandmother. I hated dumplings when I was young. But now, I remember the affection that accompanied the food. I remember my grandmother’s concern when I pushed the plate away. I wanted hamburgers not dumplings. And yet she would always push the plate back in front of me. “Please eat,” she would say, “I know you’re hungry.”

Shows like Ugly Delicious have me asking myself about where I speak from when I try to speak about race. It has me thinking about what it means to participate politically as an Asian American, to claim that identity for myself, to claim a right to that community and history, in a time where Race Politics and Immigration Policy continue to offer up disenfranchised minorities and communities of color as scapegoats for our collective problems. It has me wondering about the well-being of friends who might be asking questions about their gender identities and trying to cope with the pressures they face from their parents and the culture their parents come from.

I am a student of Hanif Abdurraqib when he writes, “Even now, I’m not as invested in things getting better as I am in things getting honest.” The truth is that a lot of us have excused ourselves from the table, from the work of honesty, especially when it involves deciding “to be honest about not loving the spaces we have claimed as our own.” Hanif asks, “Who is going to be brave enough to ask where home is and seek out something else if they don’t like the answer?”

Asian American stories range wildly and it is sometimes hard to separate the lies from the truth. When I first heard the term pathological liar, I didn’t think it applied to me. But the lie does not just conceal the reality that being Asian American is not the same as being White American. The lie is that some of us grew up treated as if we are white, grew up wanting to be white with all the privileges that whiteness confers, yet know, deep down, we never can be.

The lie that I have been telling myself is that I can live without asking what it means to be Asian American. The lie that I have been telling myself is that I am full when I am not. I am hungry. My grandmother would be happy to hear it. She would tell me the dumplings are ready.

Bio: Brian is one of APANO’s 2019 Vote Fellows. He was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii and is a first-generation Asian American, the son of two Taiwanese immigrants. He graduated from The Evergreen State College in 2016 with a Bachelors in Liberal Arts. His degree placed an emphasis on Institutional Sociology and the History of Technology. His undergraduate research involved studying ways new technologies displace traditional forms of living. He currently attends the Oregon Institute for Creative Research.

Brian’s political engagement work in Oregon started with Forward Together during the 2018 Election season where he worked as a canvasser for Reproductive and Immigration Justice. His work as a canvasser invoked his passion for civic engagement and direct action as models for participating in local forms of social justice and policy change. He hopes to continue working in and on behalf of his community, learning more about the problems that the AAPI community faces, and participating in political work grounded in grassroot and intersectional philosophy. In his spare time, he loves eating and reading whatever he can get his hands on.

APANO: Established as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2010, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. We use our collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating with our communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key focus areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, we create a vibrant space where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. We strive to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within our communities. Learn more about APANO on our website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.

Descendent Threads, Part 3 of 3

Contributed by special guest artist, Lynn Yarne

A detail of the Altar

Many of my stories of Portland Old Town/Chinatown/Japantown are ones that are second- or third-hand, and it is difficult to pin chronology, objectionable happenings, and local mythology/community memory. The stories are of resilience and community, of darkness and joy, of mystery. The piece that was included in Descendant Threads is an altar to these stories. Old Town is a very haunted place, but I like to think of it as full of guiding spirits.

I am a fourth-generation Chinese Japanese American. Both of my grandmothers grew up in Old Town, nearly right across the street from each other. In times of darkness, I have found power in the stories of my predecessors: circumstances that they were dealt and sacrifices they made created exponential opportunities for me and people of my generation. My great-grandmother was a mother of four. Her husband died of infection when my grandma was young and she used her skill sets to do whatever she could to take care of her children and children in the neighborhood. She was said to be able to cook anything she could smell or taste. Her mother, thinking Western culture was the devil, prohibited Western anything – and my great-grandmother taught herself to read and write in English in addition to Cantonese. In my altar she is portrayed as the 1000 Hand Kwan Yin, a favorite deity of my grandmother, holding a book, a peach, a sewing needle.

Still from an animation inside the altar with Eva (my paternal grandmother)

Eva, my father’s mother, always laughed. From her I learned about joy and levity in life; her Chinese name meant contented moon. Fumi, my mother’s mother, taught me to work hard, listen, and gaman. In my altar they are formalized as gods, exponential love and labor, guides.

The altar piece is still in progress. It is a project that asks me to continue seeking wisdom from the world around me, to actively acknowledge pedagogy and reverence within each other’s spirit. Throughout this process, I’ve had opportunity to connect to amazing sources of inspiration, stories from Chinatown and Nihonmachi elders, mentorship from artist Chisao Hata, and Descendant Threads artists Horatio Law, Ellen George, and Roberta Wong.

Bio: Lynn Yarne is an artist and educator from Portland, Oregon. She works within animation and collage to address generational narratives and histories. She is curious about community, participatory works, magic, and rejuvenation. Lynn holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MAT from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She currently makes art projects for and about the public education system.

 

 

______________________________________________________________

Lynn Yarne: Stories from Nihonmachi
March 7, 2019 – May 5, 2019
at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, 121 NW 2nd Ave, Portland, OR 97209

Portland artist and educator Lynn Yarne explores the history and culture of Portland’s Japantown/Chinatown district through the stories of nine elders in her multi-media exhibit, Stories from Nihonmachi.

Working with family members and former Old Town residents, Yarne gathered stories, images, and auditory recordings to create a multi-media altar piece. Her work explores community, memory, and the power that comes from recognizing the strength, resilience, and sacrifice of one’s ancestors.

In conjunction with Yarne’s exhibition, Grant High School Digital Media students will present re-imagined logos from Portland Japantown businesses, sports teams and organizations of the past.

Email: info@oregonnikkei.org

More info:  www.oregonnikkei.org

Phone:  503-224-1458