Archive: May 2008

I received this announcement from Turner Classic Movies about a retrospective series in June about Asian stereotypes in Hollywood movies:

Turner Classic Movies presents “Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film”

This is a groundbreaking festival of 37 films examining the portrayal of Asians in classic movies. The festival is co-hosted by Robert Osborne (TCM’s primetime host) and Dr. Peter X Feng, an associate professor of film, ethnic and cultural studies at the University of Delaware and expert on Asian American film.

Asian Images in Film will feature interviews from some of the most notable Asian actors, actresses and directors in the industry including George Takei, Elaine Mae Woo, Wayne Wang and Ming Wen. Films shown range from the silent era (1899) through modern films (2001) and include The Dragon Seed, Bridge to the Sun, Shanghai Express, Enter the Dragon and Joy Luck Club.

For a full schedule, video clips, photo gallery, articles and more; go to

Race and Hollywood : Asian Images in Film premieres Tuesday, June 3rd at 8pm and will continue every Tuesday and Thursday in June on Turner Classic Movies.

Unfortunately I don’t get Turner Classic Movies so I won’t be able to tune in, but from the looks of it, it sounds like it should be a very interesting and worthwhile series. I commend TCM for putting this on and just as important, for collaborating with an Asian American media expert such as Prof. Peter X Feng to provide the necessary context and perspective.

Previously, I’ve written about the characteristics and attitudes of Muslim Americans and also about what other Americans think about Muslim Americans. To expand this theme ever more, the Christian Science Monitor reports on a new study by the Gallup Organization that illustrates what Muslims around the world think about the West in general:

When asked what they most admire about the West, Muslims pointed to (1) technology, (2) a value system of hard work, self-responsibility, rule of law, and cooperation, and (3) fair political systems, with respect for human rights, democracy, and gender equality.

What they dislike the most about the West includes: denigration of Islam and Muslims, promiscuity, and ethical and moral corruption.

What they admire least about their own Muslim societies includes: lack of unity, economic and political corruption, and extremism.

Most Muslims agree on what the West should do first to improve relations: demonstrate more respect, show more understanding of Islam as a religion, and not denigrate what it stands for. The issues that drive radicals are also important to mainstream Muslims, but they differ in their priorities and the degree of politicization and alienation.

Moderate Muslims next hope for Western policies that support economic development. Radicals are more focused on the West discriminating less against Muslims and refraining from interference in the internal affairs of Muslim countries.

In terms of what Muslims (moderates and radicals) around the world say the West can do to improve relations with the Muslim world, the first two suggestions — support economic development and discriminate less against Muslims — sound pretty reasonable to me.

It’s the third suggestion — stop interfering with internal affairs — that is a little more thorny and problematic for many Americans from both sides of the political spectrum.

Specifically, many Americans of different political ideologies object to the harsh restrictions that exist in many Muslim countries on the rights of women. The most extreme (or at least most publicized) examples of this type of gender discrimination occurred when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan and severely restricted the activities of women, using physical violence in many cases.

This is perhaps the most common and significant complaint against Muslim societies, at least among many liberals. And it is this complaint that makes it difficult for many Americans who would otherwise support greater respect toward Muslim countries to wholly embrace the idea of not trying to influence such policies that we in the West view as oppressive and even abusive.

So is there a middle ground here? In fact, the Gallup study goes on to note that most Muslims around the world support equal rights for women:

Majorities in most countries believe that women should have the same legal rights as men: They should have the right to vote, to hold any job outside the home that they qualify for, and to hold leadership positions at the cabinet and national council levels.

Majorities of men in virtually every country (including 62 percent in Saudi Arabia, 73 percent in Iran, and 81 percent in Indonesia) agree that women should be able to work at any job they qualify for. In Saudi Arabia, where women cannot vote, 58 percent of men say women should be able to vote.

In other words, the majority of Muslims support the same kind of equal rights for women that the West also supports. It is only a small vocal and militant minority of Muslims who believe that women are inherently inferior to women.

This support for women’s rights in the Muslim world is significant because it serves as an important bridge between western and Muslim societies — that is, it allows Americans like me to find common ground with Muslims around the issue of interfering with internal affairs.

In other words, there is no need to interfere with the internal affairs of a Muslim society when it comes to treating women equally because the majority of Muslim populations share the same beliefs on the topic. When gender discrimination does occur, the results of the survey show that we can count on the majority of Muslims to oppose such unequal treatment the same way we would.

Ultimately, this understanding can serve as the “social glue” that can facilitate closer and more respectful relations between the Muslim world and the West.

A common and popular theme in this blog and the entire Asian-Nation site concerns the issue of assimilation into American society. Many Asian Americans, along with other groups of color, still navigate the many forms, levels, and outcomes associated with what it means to become assimilated as “Americans” in this country.

With that in mind, Diverse Issues in Education reports on a new study of assimilation among various racial/ethnic groups that finds that immigrants today assimilate faster than earlier immigrants, but that some groups inevitably assimilate faster than others:

Newcomers of the past quarter-century have assimilated more rapidly than their counterparts of a century ago, according to a conservative think tank. However, the report from the Manhattan Institute indicates that Mexican immigrants are not assimilating as fast as other groups. . . .

In an article for The Boston Globe, [the study’s author Prof. Jacob] Vigdor said many Mexicans do not have much incentive to assimilate because they strongly expect to return home and they can function in Spanish-speaking populations in the United States. In addition, those without legal status lack a path to citizenship and better jobs.

This new report is not likely to sway many opinions when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration because both sides can legitimately claim that the results of the study support their own positions.

That is, critics of rights for illegal immigrants are likely to argue that since Mexican immigrants, particularly those who are here illegally, are less likely to assimilate, we should continue efforts to exclude them because ultimately, the results show that they aren’t interested in becoming American.

On the other hand, supporters of more rights for illegal immigrants will contend that there’s an important cause-and-effect issue here — many illegal immigrants can’t assimilate because they don’t have the resources or rights to do so. With that in mind, if we allow them to become citizens, they will eventually assimilate into the American mainstream.

As I’ve stated before, I belong to the latter group and favor giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, although not at the expense of others who have been waiting for a immigration visa for years and even decades.

To alleviate this bottleneck, we need to expand the levels of immigration to the U.S., especially considering that immigrants produce many tangible benefits for American society and its economy. I realize that this is a controversial idea, but as a sociologist and an immigrant myself, I firmly believe it to be true.

Previously I’ve wrtitten about two particular trends among Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans — the first is how many Vietnamese Americans are increasingly relocating back to Viet Nam in order to open businesses and get a iece of Viet Nam’s fast-growing economy. The second trend is the burgeoning high-tech industry in Viet Nam, as it tries to catch up with its “Asian tiger” neighbors such as Taiwan, South Korea, and of course, China.

As luck would have it, the San Jose Mercury Times has a story that combines both of these trends — growing numbers of Vietnamese Americans in the Silicon Valley area returning to Viet Nam to open high-tech business ventures:

For decades, the Vietnamese who settled in Silicon Valley, which has one of the largest Vietnamese populations outside the Southeast Asian country, and the leaders of Vietnam eyed each other with suspicion, if not hostility.

Now Hanoi is luring them back as the country embraces a pro-business path similar to its neighbor, China. In April, government officials held the latest in a series of seminars in Ho Chi Minh City focused on encouraging even more Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) to return.

Particularly the younger generation are responding by taking the 15-hour flight across the Pacific to launch start-ups and head up operations for multinational companies. They all want a piece of Vietnam’s hot economy.

Most software outsourcing companies here were founded by Viet Kieu. Overseas Vietnamese hold high-level positions with companies like Intel and venture capital firms. The government reports Viet Kieu entrepreneurs invested about $90 million last year. . .

While Vietnamese enjoy greater personal freedoms, returning Viet Kieu are mindful that they must stay clear of local politics. The government prohibits any debate about its one-party system. . . . These days, Viet Kieu are as likely to be wined and dined by Communist Party officials as to be spied on. . . .

For the most part in Vietnam, pragmatism has replaced anger. Officials know Viet Kieu have critical business experience, technical know-how and vital overseas connections, all of which are desperately needed in this emerging economy.

The article does note however, that there is still some emotional tension among Vietnamese Americans — especially concerning the older generation — about doing business with the communist government.

As I’ve also written about before, many first generation Vietnamese immigrants vividly remember the brutalities and suffering inflicted on them and their family members by the communists and as such, are likely to react angrily to anything seen as “cooperation” with the communist authorities.

Nonetheless, this economic and cultural trend is inevitably going to increase in the years and decades to come, even if Viet Nam continues to be controlled by the communists.

This trend is also another example of the globalized nature of the evolving Asian American identity these days. That is, as we move forward into the 21st century, these kinds of transnational economic and cultural ties and networks are only going to become more prominent and significant among many Asian Americans.

Just as important however, is that in facilitating these kinds of transnational, global ties, Asian Americans are not turning their backs on their American identities. In fact, they are strengthening them by leading American society and its economy forward into the globalized marketplace.

In other words, for good and for bad, the U.S. needs to adapt to globalization. As this story shows, Vietnamese Americans are leading the way — for the benefit of both Viet Nam and the U.S.

One of the basic foundations of this site and blog is that having a strong Asian American identity has many benefits, individually and collectively. As I’ve said many times before, having a strong pan-Asian identity allows us to connect our similar histories and experiences, and let us draw upon our collective resources and speak with a louder voice in American society.

But on the individual level, does having a strong Asian American identity help or hurt someone’s ability to handle racism and racist incidents? As Diverse Issues in Education reports, that question is at the heart of a new study released by a team of Asian American psychologists:

Asian American adults, ages 18-75 years old, were questioned about any negative feelings they may have had in the previous 30 days. Participants were also asked about their perceptions of racial and ethnic discrimination, how often they felt discriminated against because of their ethnicity and how close they felt their feelings were to others in the same ethnic group.

For participants born outside the United States, embracing their ethnic identity did not guard against the ill effects of discrimination on psychological wellness. However, for Asians born in the United States, ethnic attachment did affect whether discrimination made people feel more distressed.

“Among adults in their 40s, feeling strongly about their own background can counteract the negative effects of discrimination,” says Dr. Tiffany Yip, the report’s lead author and an assistant professor at Fordham University.

More analysis from the report showed that U.S.-born participants in their 30s and those above the age of 50 who described themselves as having strong ethnic identity had more mental distress from discrimination than those participants with a weaker ethnic attachment.

So there seems to be a mixed bag of results here. The study apparently shows that among foreign-born Asian Americans, having a strong ethnic identity did not seem to produce any benefits in terms of helping them deal with racial discrimination.

For U.S.-born Asian Americans, the study notes that there seems to be a U-shaped curve in regard to how a strong ethnic identity affects racial distress — the negative impacts of racism are high among those 30 and younger and 50 or older, but low among those in their 40s.

In reading the article more closely, the authors argue that this pattern is likely the result of “life cycle” factors. That is, those between 18-30 are generally trying to “find their place in the world” and establishing their careers and as such, incidents of racial discrimination can be very jarring for them as they seek to achieve some personal stability.

On the other hand, among Asian Americans 50 and older, the authors argue that they are likely to be in a phase in which they’re preparing for old age and retirement and are seeking to minimize stressors as much as possible. In this context, incidents of racial discrimination can also be quite upsetting.

But for those in their 40s as the authors argue, racism does not produce as strong a negative result because they tend to be more settled personally and professionally and have learned effective coping skills to deal with incidents of racial discrimination — such as relying on their strong Asian American identity.

Ultimately, the study does not suggest that having a strong Asian American identity is some kind of magic bullet that automatically insulates someone from racial distress. Instead, the take-home message is that, combined with where you are in the general “life cycle,” having a strong Asian American identity is like having another set of tools and resources that you can use to better deal with the negative impacts of racism.

For me personally, I would much rather have such tools at my disposal than be blissfully ignorant about why racism exists against people like me. In other words, at least for me, knowledge — and my Asian American identity — is power.

Earlier I wrote about a new book written by a Muslim American family that tries to guide young Muslim Americans through the American racial landscape and the assimilation process. To follow up on that post and as the Christian Science Monitor reports, young Muslim Americans are already changing one aspect of their cultural tradition — dating:

The careful rules that dictate male-female interaction and courtship quite simply can’t be applied in the US as they are in predominately Muslim countries. . . . The result: US Muslims are pioneering ways to read Muslim rules in ways that make sense in an American context. . . .

Though it may seem old-fashioned in a US context, finding a partner without your family’s help bucks most Muslim traditions. . . . the concept of dating for fun simply does not exist in Islam. Any potential match is judged, pursued, or abandoned based on marriage potential.

In the US, however, many Muslims – especially Arabs – have re-interpreted parts of the courtship process to allow for something closer to the American way.

The article goes on to describe various ways that old traditions and contemporary circumstances clash when it comes to finding a spouse among Muslim Americans. Even though such cultural changes inevitably cause some degree of unease on both sides, these examples illustrate how Asian Americans — that includes Muslim Americans — are slowly forging their own identity that combines elements from both cultures.

As I’ve written about before, these new forms of assimilation are great examples of how increasing American and international diversity, globalization, and transnationalism are changing the landscape of how racial/ethnic minorities identify themselves in 21st century American society.

That is, we used to be limited to the rigid dichotomy of “American” versus “non-American.” But with the world changing all around us, I would argue that we now have more opportunities and more power to assert an identity that, if we want, combines both the the traditional and the contemporary.

This new identity can also include the idea that our “foreignness” may actually be an asset, rather than a liability, since it directly reflects the demographic, political, and economic changes taking place all around us. As we assert these new forms of being an American, we will undoubtedly encounter resistance from more “traditional” Americans.

Nonetheless, these institutional changes taking place all around us are real and they are only accelerating. In that context, as Asian Americans, I think we should take the initiative to lead American society forward into the 21st century.

If you’ve been following the Democratic presidential nominee campaign even just a little bit, you already know that for good and for bad, Obama’s candidacy has thrust the issue of race into the national spotlight, front and center. But within this context, one of the issues that we haven’t heard much about is the opinions and attitudes of “ordinary” White voters and whether or not they will vote for Obama.

In other words, the question before us is, just how much as American (specifically, White) society changed? Or to put it bluntly, have Whites become less racist? Well, as CBS News reports, several incidents involving his campaign volunteers have called into question whether or not many White voters are in fact, more racially tolerant these days compared to say, 50 years ago:

For all the hope and excitement Obama’s candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed — and unreported — this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces.

They’ve been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they’ve endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can’t fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president. . . .

“The first person I encountered was like, ‘I’ll never vote for a black person,’ ” recalled [one Obama volunteer canvassing in Indiana]. “People just weren’t receptive.” . . . One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn’t possibly vote for Obama and concluded: “Hang that darky from a tree!” . . .

On Election Day in Kokomo, a group of black high school students were holding up Obama signs along U.S. 31, a major thoroughfare. As drivers cruised by, a number of them rolled down their windows and yelled out a common racial slur for African Americans. . . .

Obama has won five of 12 primaries in which black voters made up less than 10 percent of the electorate, and caucuses in states such as Idaho and Wyoming that are overwhelmingly white. But exit polls show he has struggled to attract white voters who didn’t attend college and earn less than $50,000 a year.

I see this as a classic case of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty.

That is, should we focus on the fact that Barack Obama has waged the most successful presidential campaign of any person of color in American history and is on the verge of being the Democratic nominee for President, or do we focus on the fact that a significant percentage of Whites, particularly working class and non-urban Whites, flatly refuse to even consider voting for him simply because he’s Black?

This is not just an academic question that only intellectuals care about — this question goes to the heart of the current state of American society and the level of racial prejudice that still exists in this country. I’ll leave it up to you to decide for yourself how you want to interpret these sentiments against Barack Obama.

What I will point out is that this question about where do we stand as a nation on the question of race, is not going away any time soon because it is a question that symbolizes a much larger epoch in American history and is a question that will become more politically and socially salient as American society becomes increasingly diverse and globalized.

We are reaching a crossroad in American history. The path that we choose to go down will ultimately determine the fundamental nature of the American identity and our unity as a nation.

You might remember my previous post that described criticisms over the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. memorial statue in Washington DC. That initial controversy centered on the fact that the sculptor was not African American, or even American — he was Chinese and that critics charged that King’s legacy was being “outsourced” to China.

Well, a new and different controversy has emerged — as MSNBC reports, the federal commission that has final approval over the statue now wants the form of the statue changed, saying that the current pose appears too “confrontational” and “totalitarian”:

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts thinks “the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries,” commission secretary Thomas Luebke said in a letter in April. . . .

The centerpiece is to be a 2 1/2 -story sculpture of the civil rights leader carved in a giant chunk of granite. Called the Stone of Hope, it would depict King, standing with his arms folded, looming from the stone. At 28 feet tall, it would be eight feet taller than the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. . . .

Its general design was approved by the seven-member federal commission that year, based on drawings of the Stone of Hope that showed a more subtle image of King, from the waist up, as if he were emerging organically out of the rock, the commission said. . . .

The team wants to hold on “to the power and inspirational image” of the current version, [the memorial’s executive architect] said. The sense of confrontation in the sculpture is not a coincidence. “We see him . . . as a warrior,” Chaffers said yesterday.

“We see him as a warrior for peace . . . not as some pacifist, placid, kind of vanilla, but really a man of great conviction and strength.”

It should come as no surprise that such national memorials are inherently prone to historical, cultural, and political disagreements and controversy. We only have to remember the initial storm of criticism surrounding Maya Lin’s design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a classic example of that.

Nonetheless, in my opinion, this latest controversy over the actual look and pose of the statue represents another form of being “colorblind” in 21st century American society. As I recently wrote about, the dominant norm and discourse in American race relations these days seem to be implicitly based on being “colorblind.”

In theory, it’s great to not treat people differently based on their racial/ethnic identity. But in practice, ignoring people’s racial identity means ignoring their different histories, characteristics, and community needs and instead, relying on the simplistic idea that we now live in a true meritocracy where racism no longer exists and everyone is on a completely level playing field.

In that context, I am not surprised that the federal commission (undoubtedly composed predominantly of Whites) found the current pose too “confrontational.” Apparently, they do not want the statue to remind people that the Civil Rights Movement was a struggle and that many people actually died in the process of “confronting” racism.

They would rather pretend that everything is perfectly fine now and that as a “colorblind” society, we don’t need to dwell on the past and be reminded that a little over 40 years ago, it was perfectly legal and normal to treat people of color as inferior, subordinate, second-class citizens.

In other words, in wanting the look of Dr. King’s statue to look less “confrontational,” what the federal commission wants to do is to avoid confronting the racism that Dr. King fought against and that still subtly pervades the mindset of American society today.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what it means to be colorblind these days.

If I may, I’d like to deviate a little bit from my usual topics and today, talk about what it means to be a “hero.”

These days,we see plenty of examples of superhuman feats that are described as “heroic.” Whether it’s the latest comic book action character getting translated into a movie or the TV show “Hero” about people with strange, magical powers, the term “hero” gets thrown around a lot these days.

But what does it mean to be a “hero” in ordinary, everyday life? Well, here’s the one of the best (and most tragic) examples I’ve seen — Dad Died Saving His Little Girl:

With an out-of-control car bearing down, Joseph Richardson grabbed his 4-year-old daughter and held her up out of harm’s way. It was his last act — and one that apparently saved his daughter’s life. . . .

Richardson was walking his daughter to a McDonald’s for burgers at 6:40 p.m. Monday when a 1990 Chevy Cavalier jumped a curb and careened towards them, police said, citing witness accounts. He grabbed his daughter just before the car slammed the two into the fence, police said.

Mr. Richardson, even before you gave up your life to save your daughter’s, it sounds like you made quite a difference in the lives of people around you. For all that you’ve done for your community, your family, and especially your daughter, you are truly one my heroes.