As if Julie Chen's revelation that she was pressured into eyelid surgery to advance her career--a decision for which I don't blame or judge her--wasn't rough enough, it was disheartening to hear her say "many of us [Asians] are born with too much (emphasis mine) fat on the top of our eyes." I'm dismayed by the extent to which a certain standard of beauty/image is engrained in our minds.
I have another persona and his name is Wayne. “Who is Wayne?” you ask. Wayne is the one that orders the pizza. He is the one that calls to make the restaurant reservations. Wayne likes his burgers with sauteed onions and peppers, but no cheese. Wayne gets his doppio over ice with one pump of classic syrup.
But, Wayne is more than just avoiding the inconvenience of having my name butchered. Wayne is for anonymity during those transient interactions with strangers. The exchange of pleasantries with the supermarket cashier. The recounting of his trip to Vietnam to his barber. Answering surveys for the free schwag.
Wayne is also for when I don’t feel like deciphering what someone means when they ask, “Where are you from?” Where am I from? Do you mean where was I born? That’d be two towns over. Did you mean where I grew up? Right down the road.
No, I know what you mean. “Where are you from from?”
This isn’t one of those “things only white people ask me” situations either. My Vietnamese mechanic in San Diego thought I was Mexican until I started speaking in our native tongue...and even then. The Dominican cashier at my neighborhood butcher listed off five Latin countries before I let her know that she was on the wrong side of the planet--let alone continent. The joys of racial ambiguity. Where are you from? The question could mean three different things to me, but always seems to mean the same thing to the people asking. This isn’t to say that I hate when people ask. It’s just not always the conversation I want to have. Nope, Wayne is low key and incognito. He doesn't quite pique people’s interest or invite questions the same way that Việt does.
But above all else, Wayne is escape...escape from a joke that’s plagued me my entire life.
No, my last name is not Nam, nor is it my brother’s name.
I've shared my thoughts on yellowface here on this blog before, so you'll probably have an idea of the level of my disappointment after watching this video of 4 Asian frat bros clowning out to Justin Timberlake's "Suit and Tie."
As reported in the OC Weekly:
The video was created as promotion for the fraternity's annual "installs" event, which celebrates the entrance of new brothers. It was posted on YouTube with the disclaimer: "No racism intended. All fun and laughter."
Yup, that's an Asian dude in blackface impersonating Jay-Z at around 0:54. Also, smart move attaching your names (if, in fact, those are your real names) to this "project." Good luck with that.
Let's break this video down. If you're Asian and you want to portray JT, then no whiteface, no wig, nor any attempts at signaling "whiteness" to the viewer is required. Putting on a suit and tie and lip syncing the hook is enough. Impersonating Jay-Z, however, is a different story. You'd think dropping a line or two from Hova's verse would do the trick. Nope. Clearly, the answer is blackface. The result? JT gets to be identified as being a singer. Jay-Z, on the other hand, isn't afforded the same artist status. You see, the problem here with relying on blackface--aside from being overtly offensive-- is that it doesn't give Jay-Z his due as a rapper but instead, defines him first and foremost as being black.
Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z at the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles on February 10th, 2013. Lester Cohen/WireImage
I spend a lot of time in the car with my dad these days driving him to and from his doctor's appointments. For one, I'm his chauffeur because he doesn't drive anymore, and two, I'm his interpreter. Being a child of immigrants, it's a hat I've worn for as long as I can remember. Mostly, we spend the time talking about the Bruins or he'll get on my case about what he perceives as my lack of a marriage-and-having-kids plan. But, it's becoming clear to me that car rides are also his favorite time to talk about science.
Yesterday morning was no exception. On our way home from my dad's dentist appointment he decided he wanted to talk about Copernicus, the Renaissance astronomer who put forth a mathematical model (heliocentrism) that placed the Sun at the center of the solar system and the planets orbiting around it. Except he didn't know Copernicus' name so he kept referring to him in Vietnamese as nó, which could mean "he" or "it", so for all I know he also could have been referring to science the "institution." It was sort of unclear to me. Anyway, it was a subject he said that he'd learned in grade school, which made me think, "Grade school?" I thought about it some more and I couldn't really remember when Copernicus and heliocentrism was taught in school.
Image of heliocentric model from Nicolaus Copernicus' "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium"
Halfway into our conversation, he turned to me and asked, "Hey, remember how the Church thought the Earth was at the center and the Sun revolved around it? Boy did they get that one wrong, huh?" It's funny because I don't think I can ever recall my dad being critical of the Church. He chuckled and looked out the passenger side window.
"They just couldn't argue with the science in the end, could they?"
I am unfamiliar with Anthony Jeselnik's’s comedy, so I watched this clip with completely naive eyes. It’s a segment from his show, The Jeselnik Offensive, setup as a gameshow called “Which Kind of Asian is this?” in which contestants are brought on stage and tasked with identifying what kind of Asian a person is based solely on their photo and “clues” given by the host. Of course, these clues are really just intellectually lazy Asian stereotypes of the dog-eating, bad-driving, and under-pressure-to-achieve variety. You know, the standard offensive, if not straight-up racist, fare. The gameshow plays on the all-Asians-look-alike trope, so it comes as no surprise that none of the contestants are able to accurately identify any of the Asians pictured.
As AngryAsianMan writes, “But yo, this is not even funny. Not even the yellowface switcheroo part at the end there. What was the point of that?” One might even wonder what exactly was the point of the whole segment. I guess a case could be made that Jeselnik’s turn as an ill-minded host of a racist gameshow is really irony in the strictest sense. Here he's taking being offensive to the extreme in order to illustrate the larger point that, yes, this shit is racist and offensive. But for me--and this is where AngryAsianMan and I diverge--the switcheroo is where the ship really turns around.
Toward the end of the segment, Jeselnik brings out the last contestant who is--surprise, surprise--Asian. After ribbing him a bit for being a movie critic and blogger, Jeselnik shows the Asian contestant this image:
What kind of Asian is this? The worst kind...
For the uninitiated and unfamiliar, this is Mickey Rooney’s egregious, yellow-faced portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, a buffoonish Japanese caricature from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s--comprete with buckteeth, grasses, and the crassic “L for R” mispronunciation:
Being a movie critic, the Asian contestant immediately recognizes this as Mickey Rooney and “correctly” identifies Yunioshi's character as being Japanese. That's when the incorrect-buzzer sounds and Jeselnik informs him that the correct answer they were looking for was “Oriental.” But the gag here isn’t simply, “Hey look! Not even the Asian guy with his innate Asian-dar can tell Asians apart.” For while the contestant is right--Yunioshi’s character IS Japanese--the portrayal of Yunioshi is by no means an accurate depiction of Japanese-ness, but rather a mixture of offensive stereotypes lumped into what qualifies as "Oriental" in the American consciousness. Therefore, to call Yunioshi anything other than Oriental--or the racist notion of Oriental--borders on being complicit in validating those very stereotypes. More than that, by evoking Yunioshi the skit taps into the long history of racism directed towards Asians in cinema that still finds its way into today’s films and which serves only to cement Asian stereotypes in the minds of Americans. It’s a type of racism that says to Asians, “we actually don’t care what kind of Asian you are” and so we’ll continue to carry on the traditions of yellowface, whitewashing, and the “interchangeable Asian.”
Either that, or I’m giving Jeselnik WAY too much credit and he’s just being callously racist.
Communicating science is tough as it is, never mind doing it in my native tongue. Especially, as I'm embarrassed to admit, when my spoken Vietnamese is atrophying like a disused muscle and my written skills are, well, nothing to write home about.
One of the reasons I started science blogging was a compromise to my father. In the minds of many Vietnamese immigrant parents--this probably extends to other ethnic groups as well--only four career options exist for their children: doctor, lawyer, engineer, or garbage man. No disrespect intended toward my fellow waste collectors, but this is the view of many of our parents. However, my father's dreams for me went a little against the grain since he wanted me to be a journalist. You can only begin to imagine how perplexing it was for me that my dad was disappointed in my affinity for the sciences. Of course, while blogging was an attempt at finding middle ground with my dad, the central irony in all of this is that my writing isn't really geared towards him. His English is only a hair better than my Vietnamese. Now, that's not to say we don't talk science at all. In fact, many of our conversations range from science news he's read on Vietnamese-language websites--some of which require elaboration if not outright debunking--to the details of my own thesis project.
Our conversations, however, can be a maddeningly staccato, mish-mash of Vienglish (I know, it lacks that certain yo no sé qué of "Spanglish"), with me attached to either my phone or computer ready to consult Google translate and my dad with his four hardcover Vietnamese-English dictionaries open and ready at his fingertips. But despite this, talking about science is one of the more rewarding experiences I get to share with my dad. For one thing, I practice using simpler analogies and try to find culturally-relevant examples to get around the language barrier. Recently, for instance, while on the topic of fermentation we talked about my dad's perfected recipe for making dưa chua*, a Vietnamese specialty of pickled mustard greens.
Even more rewarding than honing my own communication skills, however, is being able to witness my father's inquisitive mind at work. We're talking about someone whose formal education ended somewhere in grade school. His questions and insights from our countless conversations tell me that the limit of one's curiosity isn't set by their level of education.
As for my father, I have to believe he enjoys our scientific conversations, as well. Otherwise, he wouldn't be making cheat sheets like this one:
Today is Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year and we're ringing in the Year of the Snake. And while it should be a day to celebrate, I'm bummed out for a couple of reasons--one of which is here at home and the other is all the way out in sunny California.
Now normally, I'd be spending the day with my family honoring our ancestors with offerings of food, incense, and all that good stuff. And on Tết, when I was younger, all the older members of my family would give me lì xì, or "lucky money" in little, red envelopes--one of the benefits of being the youngest in the family. Now, it's my niece who gets all the lucky money.
lì xì envelopes
And of course, we'd eat. My mom generally prepares a delicious feast for Tết, and my favorite of all the dishes is bánh chưng, which is sort of like a square-shaped pork,mung bean, and sticky rice tamale. Nothing beats bánh chưng sliced-up, pan-fried, and served with pickled shallots and daikon. Bánh chưng is one of the most traditional Tết dishes--the other being bánh dầy. The creation of both dishes is rooted in Vietnamese mythology, when the legendary king, Hùng Vương, held a competition to choose a successor among his sons. The son who created a dish that best honored their ancestors would assume the throne. While most of Hùng Vương's sons scoured the country for rare and exotic foods for their dishes, Lang Liêu, the poorest son, created his dishes with the simplest of ingredients. When asked about his dishes, Lang Liêu explained that the square-shaped bánh chưng represented the Earth (back when my peoples thought the Earth was square), while the circle-shaped bánh dầy represented the Heavens and that his two dishes brought harmony between Heaven and Earth. Impressed by the simplicity and symbolism of the dishes, Hùng Vương picked Lang Liêu as his successor.
Unfortunately for my family and me, "Nemo" just dumped about 2 feet of snow on us and many of the roads still haven't been cleard. So instead of celebrating with my family and enjoying bánh chưng, I'll be spending the day shoveling and digging my car out. Sorry ancestors, y'all will just have to hang tight until next weekend for your food and incense.
But really, it's what's going on in California that has me bummed out the most. While I'm stuck here in the snow, one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the US, "Little Saigon" in Westminster & Garden Grove, CA will be celebrating the New Year with a Tết parade.
Except parade organizers are not allowing Vietnamese LGBT groups to officially march in the parade. In past years, when the city of Westminster organized the parade, LGBT groups were welcome to participate officially. This year, however, since the city was financially unable to organize the parade private groups stepped in to fund it. And they are opposed to LGBT groups participating in the event. Their objections?
"We do respect them," said parade organizer Neil Nguyen. "But that type of life is not accepted yet in our culture. Our culture is based on family values, men and women, husband and wife, God and people." (source)
But as Jimmy Nguyen writes, "the Vietnamese community in Little Saigon and anywhere else will lose nothing of their heritage if LGBT people march in their Tet parade."
Since the parade is being privately funded, they argue that they have the right to deny applications submitted by LGBT groups to participate. In response, rivaling petitions have popped up on the internet (along with some upsetting comments). LGBT groups have sought help from the courts but "Orange County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey T. Glass declined to grant an injunction requested by the Partnership of Viet Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organizations." After the court decision, one of the lawyers for the parade organizers stated, "We respect everyone's 1st Amendment rights." Yet strangely, the subject of public kissing was on the negotiating table between parade organizers and LGBT groups. Needless to say, I've spent the past few days frustrated by the feeling that part of my community is a step behind the friggin' Boy Scouts (although, there now seems to be some backpedaling on that front).
I should emphasize here that LGBT Viets are not barred from marching in the parade just LGBT groups under an official capacity. So, I hope that my LGBT brothers and sisters are not discouraged from participating today. I hope that LGBT Viets and their allies will march in the parade and be vocal and be visible to the community. I hope that the New Year brings with it more acceptance of LGBTs in the Vietnamese American community.
Today, President Obama took the oath of office and gave the inaugural address of his 2nd term, perhaps poignantly on Martin Luther King day. I still remember the disbelief I felt four years ago when Obama was elected president--to be honest, I never thought I'd see a black president. Now just four years later, President Obama's second, and also historic, inauguration has given me the audacity to wonder if I will see any other historic "firsts" in my life*.
First woman president? Hillary Clinton seems poised to have the best chance, but now I wonder if she'll run anymore given her age and health. First non-Christian president? Seems unlikely anytime soon, although some will go to great lengths to argue that we currently already have one. A LGBT president is even more doubtful, but some historians speculate that that title already belongs to President James Buchanan. How about Latino/Hispanic? Surely, one of these Latino American leaders must have presidential ambitions.
And of course, how could I forget a first Asian American president? Does Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have a shot? So far, the closest we've come to sniffing an Asian American presidency is probably the late Senator Daniel Inouye who at the time of his passing was President Pro Tempore of the US Senate, and therefore third in line of presidential succession.
I wonder if America, after Obama's two terms, would be ready for some more history-making so soon. Or will the US suffer from some sort of "firsts"-fatigue syndrome and slip into another era of white dude presidents?
*This also had the unintended and depressing effect of viewing my life in terms of how many presidential election cycles I have left.