Last summer, we were having dinner with some of our neighbors when the topic turned to South Africa. Our neighbor T. was telling us that her mom and sister were on a Catholic missionary trip there, and when I mentioned that I’d lived in Cape Town about a decade ago, T. asked me excitedly, “So you must have read The Power of One?” I’d never heard of the book, but our other neighbor jumped out of his chair and shouted, “Oh my God, that’s my favorite novel of all time!” After some fist-bumping, T. got up and returned with the book, placing it solemnly in front of me. The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay. “You’ve got to read this,” she said. “It will change your life.”
Now I love my neighbors, but somehow I suspected that our book tastes might be a little different. (The not-so-subtle self-help title of a novel set in apartheid-era South Africa didn’t help, either.) My suspicions deepened when I glanced at the book jacket and saw that it was about a white English-speaking South African boy who suffers intra-racial oppression at the hand of Afrikaners. Through his boxing prowess and the support of several black and coloured mentors, he single-handedly fights back his Afrikaner oppressors and becomes a hero to the blacks. (Oh, that’s how apartheid ended? I thought, then quickly quashed the thought before it came out of my mouth.)
So it was with great reluctance that I finally opened the book a few weeks later and started to read. (Spoilers ahead.) Admittedly, the story itself, which takes place in South Africa between 1939 and 1951, was riveting: the young Peekay, a white boy born in Natal Province and raised by a Zulu nanny, attends an Afrikaans boarding school where everyone – from the head bully (“the Judge”) to the headmaster – is a British-hating Boer War-avenging Nazi sympathizer. The life of the bed-wetting Peekay (or P.K., short for “pisskop,” an Afrikaans slur) turns into a living hell, in which he is brutalized by the older boys and left to fend for himself. When he goes back home for the holidays, his nanny arranges a meeting with a Zulu chief and medicine man who presents Peekay (no joke) with a magic chicken and anoints him a Zulu warrior:
“You are standing on a rock above the highest waterfall, a young warrior who has killed his first lion and is worthy now to fight in the legion of Dingaan, the great impi that destroys all before it. Worthy even to fight in the impi of Shaka, the greatest warrior king of all.”
Armed with his magic chicken, Peekay returns to school with newfound confidence, but the tides of World War II sweep through the halls with redoubled force. By the end of the term, Peekay’s chicken has been killed and Peekay himself is transferred to a new town where his born-again Christian mother awaits him, but without his beloved heathen nanny.
The rest of the novel is dizzily Dickensian: on his way to the new town, Peekay takes a train trip where he encounters the great Afrikaner boxer Hoppie Groenewald, who introduces him to the sport. Upon arrival at his new home, Peekay befriends a gentle German music professor (“Doc”) who later ends up in prison during the war as an “unregistered alien.” In his daily visits to see the Doc at the prison, Peekay joins the boxing squad and (naturally) becomes a superstar under the watchful tutelage of Geel Piet, a coloured prisoner. Together with Doc and Piet, Peekay arranges a black-market scheme to smuggle tobacco and letters to the rest of the prisoners, who, in gratitude, bestow upon Peekay the Zulu chief name Onoshobishobi Ingelosi, which means (again, no joke) the “Tadpole Angel.” While Geel Piet is ultimately murdered by an Afrikaner guard, the Tadpole Angel – the great white hope – goes on to become a legend.
Long story short, The Power of One – right down to its title – is a pure white liberal fantasy. It’s the classic story of “going native,” Kipling Kim-style, where the struggles of the oppressed are subsumed under the coming of age narrative of a young white kid, whose personal trials-by-fire and dawning consciousness of the larger injustices around him are somehow meant to stand in for those injustices, with one key difference: he has the power to fuck up the Great Game, the power to win. Single-handedly, too, as his mentors succumb, one by one, to defeat and/or death. But we are meant to see that their sacrifices were not in vain because their wisdom and life experiences (human and animal; white, black, and coloured; English, Afrikaner, German, Jewish, Russian, and Zulu) have come to rest in the worthy vessel that is Peekay, who alone has learned all their ways, and, yes, even their languages.
Appropriately, the climax of the story is wildly reductive, too: when Peekay throws his final punch, it’s to knock out his old nemesis, the Judge, who symbolizes all the evil in the world. When Peekay carves his initials and the Union Jack with a knife into the Judge’s arm, mutilating his swastika tattoo, we’re supposed to cheer as Peekay’s rage dissipates and he says finally, “There was nothing more to say. The slate was wiped clean. The hate was gone.”
Nothing more. The slate is clean. The hate is gone. The power of one.
And just like that, this “classic novel of South Africa,” sweepingly set during the early decades of apartheid, comes to a serenely triumphant end…in the bloody cipher of the Union Jack.
. . .
The Power of One came out in 1989, the year before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. The novel became an instant phenomenon, selling more than 8 million copies, translated into 18 languages, and made into a Hollywood movie starring Stephen Dorff as Peekay and, of course, Morgan Freeman as the wise Geel Piet. (Roger Ebert, who incidentally spent a year at the University of Cape Town in the mid-1960s, wrote an excellent review criticizing the film here.)
The Power of One (1992), directed by John G. Avildsen.
When his novel was first published, South African-born author Bryce Courtenay had already been living in Australia for thirty years. Courtenay himself was Peekay, to a large extent. Raised in an orphanage, he fought his way through a difficult childhood and worked in the mines as a teenager. Courtenay claimed that the novel’s title was inspired by a teacher who saw his potential and encouraged him, like Peekay, to apply for a scholarship to a school in Johannesburg. From there, he moved to London, and then finally to Australia, where he worked in advertising for years before stumbling into late success as a world-famous novelist.
Courtenay was also known for telling tall tales about his past, making it seem like he experienced greater hardships than he actually did. He easily dismissed these rumors, however, saying:
“One of the joys of having left a country where things were not always right for me and having come to a country where I’ve been able to give my utmost is [that] I want to be known for the years I’ve been in Australia, not for the 17 years I spent in Africa.”
Aside from the fact that Courtenay was able to leave apartheid South Africa at all, the biggest irony is that the author’s novel, despite his own disavowal of his actual lived experience there, has come to represent “South Africa” to millions of (white) people around the world, and even incorporated into U.S. high school reading lists to teach students about race, politics, and South African history (cf. Jessica Roake’s recent argument in Slate about the dangers of using books like The Help to teach kids about the U.S. civil rights history).
So much so, in fact, that Peekay’s story has even come to stand in for Nelson Mandela himself. The day after his death, the U.S. State Department released a video in which Maya Angelou recited a poem in honor of Mandela. In response to the NPR story about this video, one commenter wrote:
“I’ve learned so much about a man I thought I knew something about these past few days. Most of all I have learned the Power of One.”
The commenter’s choice of words was neither random nor unique. Google “Nelson Mandela” and the “Power of One” and you’ll find a host of tributes linking the two phrases, like some kind of cultish mantra, in the days after Mandela’s death (including, creepily, this ideological holiday message from Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott).
Of course, this connection isn’t that surprising, considering not only the symbolic place that The Power of One holds in the non-South African imagination about the country, but also that the barebones outlines of Peekay’s life actually do resemble Mandela’s, at least superficially. In his famous memoir Long Walk to Freedom (1994), Mandela details the arc of a life that begins as a young boy in the veld learning from his Xhosa tribal leaders, before moving on to boarding school and then Johannesburg, where he becomes politicized in his interactions with mentors of all races and becomes the leader of the ANC Youth League. Similarly, boxing becomes a crucial part of Mandela’s life – indeed, when I first read the book I was surprised to see how central a role his practice of the sport played in his philosophy and overall well-being.
Obviously, the differences between Peekay and Mandela are far too numerous to list. (And most are just too obvious to even mention.) The one that I do want to point out, however, is the striking absence of the “Power of One” philosophy in Mandela’s account of his life. From the very beginning of the memoir, when Mandela defines himself as fundamentally embedded within his homeland and his tribe (“The Transkei…is home to the Thembu people, who are part of the Xhosa nation, of which I am a member”), to the very end, when he voices the interconnectedness of his fate to that of all non-whites (“Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me”) and acknowledges his unassailable debt to his fellow freedom fighters (“It is from these comrades in the struggle that I learned the meaning of courage”), Mandela constantly reminds us that his transformative role in South African history and the dismantling of the structures of apartheid was not by any means something that he achieved alone. In fact, as he tells us during the account of his prison years, even his role as the global figurehead and charismatic face of the apartheid struggle was one that was carefully constructed and promoted by the exiled and jailed leaders of the ANC, including Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Ahmed Kathedra, who effectively commissioned Mandela to write his memoir as part of this larger project.
The Rivonia Trial. Photo credit: AP Photo / Peter Magubane.
Protesters at the Rivonia Trial. Photo credit: Museum Africa.
That’s why it’s so frustrating to read bullshit like the Marriott CEO’s description of Mandela as “an individual who has changed the arc of history through his or her singular contribution, not as a function of the era or a movement but because of what they did alone” (italics mine). By describing Mandela as “a solitary and powerful example of resilience and forgiveness…[who] alone…advocated reconciliation in a land riven by racism and a desire for revenge,” such a statement completely erases the blood-soaked lives and struggles of the countless other activists and citizens who fought against apartheid, while mythologizing – and neutralizing – Mandela as the quintessential “Magic Negro,” as Musa Okwonga witheringly puts it.
What’s all the more disappointing, then, is that the latest movie about Mandela’s life, the British director Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), starring British actor Idris Elba as Mandela, falls squarely into the trap of the Power of One myth, despite the fact that the film’s South African producer Anant Singh worked closely with Mandela for decades to construct the fullest possible portrait of his life and the liberation struggle. (Purportedly, when Singh first wrote to Mandela in prison to tell him that he was interested in making a film about him, Mandela wrote back, “Why would anyone want to see a movie about my life?”)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), directed by Justin Chadwick.
Ostensibly an adaptation of Mandela’s memoir, Chadwick’s film pretty much cuts out most of the nitty gritty material that provides necessary context to Mandela’s politicization and eventual leadership within the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement. Instead, the opening of the film, a montage of the sun rising over the veld, stirring music, and scenes of a young boy running over the hills juxtaposed with his circumcision ceremony as a teenager, immediately reminded me of that other epic movie set in South Africa mythologizing Mandela – The Lion King. (I’m not kidding, since the Lion King was released in 1994, the same year Mandela was elected President, and the soundtrack composer Lebo M, whose soaring voice we hear in the “Circle of Life,” is a transplanted South African who cited Mandela as his primary inspiration for the material.)
While Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom dutifully checks off a few key moments in Mandela’s memoir and the history of the anti-apartheid movement (the Sharpeville massacre, the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, Mandela’s secret pan-African trip, the Rivonia Trial, the Soweto riots, etc.), Chadwick’s film, as many critics have already noted, gives remarkably short shrift to the actual work that led to these events, as well as to the many, many players in this work. Mandela’s mentors and comrades in the ANC are unjustly relegated to near-silent backdrops behind the actor Elba’s titanic presence – during the Rivonia Trial and for most of the Robben Island sequences, I could’ve sworn that the only person who spoke other than Mandela was Sisulu, and maybe like twice. Furthermore, the acknowledgment of the crucial contributions of other non-ANC groups and organizations to the anti-apartheid movement was virtually nil; for instance, by inter-cutting speeches and scenes with Mandela between the scenes at Sharpeville and Soweto, the film seemed to falsely suggest that Mandela and the ANC might have had a guiding hand behind these populist protests, rather than the Pan-Africanist Congress and ordinary students and teachers, respectively. And where were the trade union movements, the United Democratic Front, the Black Consciousness Movement, and Steve Biko (all of which, except Biko, were discussed in Mandela’s memoir)? And why was the violence during Mandela’s negotiations with F.W. de Klerk’s government suggested to be a generalized bloodbath, rather than a far more insidious and complicated struggle between the ANC and secret government-backed factions of the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party?
Regarding the last point, by obscuring the apartheid government’s direct role in the black-on-black violence, by neutering de Klerk into a decent religious man who simply believed he was divinely chosen for an impossible historical task, and by reducing the imprisoned ANC leaders into a group of grumbling old men who distrust the Mandela’s motives in dealing with de Klerk’s government, the film’s finale ultimately fossilizes Mandela into the wearied, infinitely patient Great Man who alone rises above the petty political squabbles of lesser but not necessarily ill-intentioned men. And the film does this while having earlier protested loudly – through its stentorian trailer, and through its earnest portrayal of the younger Mandela’s weaknesses, excesses, and fraught relationships, especially with the charismatic Winnie – that it would give us a humanized, de-romanticized portrayal of the real Mandela and his times.
So, once again, we find ourselves at square one: despite the fact that Nelson Mandela’s death has opened up a great opportunity to reassess Mandela’s life in relation to South Africa’s history (and don’t get me wrong, there’s been a lot of genuinely good analyses all over the news and internet since his passing), the most buzzed-about cultural product about South Africa right now is, frustratingly, yet another retelling of The Power of One. Perhaps it’s even more dangerous than the whitewashed Peekay version, since it purports to be the “true history” of the most famous black South African in the world, “based on” his own memoir.
This myth needs to disappear, now. It’s already being used by too many revisionists across the ideological spectrum who want to erase Mandela’s militant revolutionary past and, in America, the U.S. government’s oppressive hand in propping up the structures of apartheid – not to mention its own past and ongoing race-related abuses here at home.
In representations of Mandela and South Africa, especially for those of us who are not direct participants in the country’s history and struggles, the Power of One myth needs to be replaced by its polar opposite. And in fact, there is already a term for it: the Bantu word Ubuntu. President Obama mentioned it in his eulogy for Mandela, but it was long popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has defined it as
“…the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We can’t be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. Indeed, my humanity is caught up in your humanity, and when your humanity is enhanced mine is enhanced as well. Likewise, when you are dehumanized, inexorably, I am dehumanized as well.”
And Mandela described Ubuntu, too, in his characteristically narrative way:
“A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”
It’s through the lens of Ubuntu — the grounded realities of interconnectedness, interdependence, and community, not the empty, useless Great Man myth of the Power of One — that we should evaluate and define Mandela’s legacy, both its successes and failures, in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle and South Africa today.
. . .
Update: After posting this, I came across this older review by Andrea Meeson and Melissa Levin on the Africa’s a Country blog that covers pretty much everything I said about the Mandela movie, but in greater detail. A good and important critique.
An edited version appeared in Hyphen on December 23, 2013.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, the hashtag #AsianThanksgiving blew up on Twitter, offering a delicious peek at dinner tables across Asian America: turkey congee, kimchi stuffing, soy sauce gravy, and that old reliable day-after-Thanksgiving staple, turkey fried rice. Asian Thanksgivings were by no means limited to home cooking, of course – the Irish owner of our local pub told us that she and her party devoured several birds at Sun Wah BBQ, the neighborhood Beijing duck joint.
As for our family, we spent Thanksgiving at the same place we’d spent the last five: at Super China Buffet, located in a strip mall on the Western outskirts of Chicago. As in previous years, the place was packed with first- and second-generation families from all over, for whom the American traditions of the Thanksgiving table hadn’t necessarily taken root in the home. Instead, everyone found comfort and family cheer gathered around the steaming food trays of the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Old folks and young folks from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America jostling over heaping piles of crab rangoons, sushi, cheese mussels, mashed potatoes, macaroni, and Jello – what could be more American than that?
If the takeout formula of Chinese food has long been integral to the American gastronomic landscape, then the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet simply represents the utilitarian values of Chinese fast food taken to their logical extremes. The buffet is by no means an American invention, though its current all-you-can-eat incarnation purportedly arrived on the scene in the 1940s in (where else?) Las Vegas, where a local publicist named Herb McDonald came up with the $1 “Buckaroo Buffet” to feed hungry gamblers at El Rancho Vegas.
It’s unclear when and where the first Chinese buffet popped up in the States — in the Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee suggested that it was popularized in the Midwest and the South by a recent wave of immigrants from Fujian province in China, while Betty Xie, editor-in-chief of the industry standard Chinese Restaurant News, told food critic Steven A. Shaw in Asian Dining Rules that they originated in Canada before moving to New York and then taking over 10% of the American Chinese restaurant industry. In any case, the Chinese buffet’s stunning success as a business model makes perfect sense. Both buffets and Chinese takeout operate on the same principles: they’re fast, cheap, and filling. Combine the two and you get…all-you-can-eat egg rolls? Freaking brilliant.
And even more than your neighborhood Chinese takeout that might offer maki rolls, pad Thai, or the occasional burger and fries, Chinese buffets can skillfully adapt themselves to local needs and tastes due to the flexibility of the open buffet layout. A quick glance at three Chicago-area buffet restaurants reveals predictable yet still intriguing differences in admission prices, food options, and clientele. Buffet Castle, located in the largely blue-collar Latino neighborhood of Avondale in Chicago, costs $9.50 for one adult and offers cheese-smothered pizza, burritos, tacos, and taquitos in addition to the typical fried Chinese takeout fare. In contrast, the spectacular Royal Hibachi Sushi Seafood Buffet in the suburb of Hoffman Estates, which can cost up to $27 per person on Lobster Night, offers remarkably fresh sushi and sashimi, a smorgasbord of shellfish, a swanky cocktail bar, and a giant whirring cotton candy machine; well-dressed Asian suburbanites sweep through in Meetup groups, where they line up before the koi pond at the entrance.
Our family’s favorite, Super China Buffet, charges $11.99 and, like its price, falls somewhere in between the other two buffets in the range of its offerings, including a variety of sushi, dim sum, Korean-style pan-fried fish, and Mongolian BBQ. Situated in the mostly white suburb of Norridge with its large Polish immigrant population across the street from one of the most bustling malls in the Chicago area, Super China Buffet serves diners whose demographics shift dramatically depending on the day. During non-holidays, the restaurant is notably less diverse. During Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas, though, as my husband puts it: “It’s like the UN in here!”
It’s frequently noted that Chinese restaurants in America during the last century have served as spaces where other immigrant groups learned to define themselves as Americans. The unique relationship between Jews and Chinese food has been well documented (and endlessly joked about, especially around the holidays), but other immigrant groups quickly caught on to the merits of chop suey, too. As Dawn Bohulano Mabalon writes in the recent volume Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader, for Filipinas/os of her parents’ generation, “going out for Chinese food was an important symbol of their Americanization.”
Of course, however, the American Chinese restaurant – and especially the sprawling chaos of the Chinese buffet – has never been an entirely neutral gathering place. While immigrants may feel more “American” amid such welcoming environments, more fully assimilated and aspirationally minded Americans often feel disdain towards their populist all-inclusiveness. The negative Yelp reviews of Super China Buffet, marked by their (classist) foodie sensibilities and English fluency, are decidedly not written by immigrants who go there for Thanksgiving. As one Asian American woman complains: “The clientele? Gypsys, Tramps, and Thieves. That is all that I will say. Okay…one more comes to mind..douchebags…I hereby turn in my Asian card [sic].”
Now, if my dad could write a Yelp review of Super China Buffet, he would simply say: “Good variety, good value!” (Which are pretty much his exact words every time, except in Korean.) And while it seems obvious, two separate academic studies of Chinese buffets (yes they exist, though sadly I couldn’t find any more recent than 2003) indeed scientifically confirm that these are the two most common reasons why folks keep returning to these establishments. An interesting sub-point is that people insist they don’t go to Chinese buffets for an “exotic” dining experience, which is usually why customers seek out so-called ethnic restaurants. In fact, according to the 2003 study, this reason ranked dead last in the survey.
But maybe it’s the very fact that Chinese buffets are totally not about exoticized “authenticity,” and that the food is generic, predictable, and stubbornly resistant to culinary innovation, that make these restaurants so comforting — and in a way, as American as McDonald’s — to many immigrant diners. Added to all this, too, I suspect that the potentially infinite promise of food is an irresistible draw for those like my parents who’ve endured wartime poverty and hunger at some point in their lives. That’s why I try not to judge – at least not too much – when my folks insist on getting up one more time for that seventh plate of sushi, shrimp, and soft-serve ice cream. (You know what I’m talking about.)
There may be a high price to pay for such cheap abundance, though. Chinese buffet workers, often undocumented and lacking in the language and legal resources needed to challenge unfair labor practices, are frequently the biggest victims of the low-cost Chinese buffet system. Many stories of exploitation of Chinese buffet workers across the U.S. have been reported in the past decade, including in Chicago, where the owners of fourteen Chinese buffets were sued in 2002 by the U.S. and Illinois Departments of Labor for $1.5 million in unpaid back wages to their employees. In a horrific recent case in Countryside, Florida, the owners of a popular buffet restaurant were sentenced for “harboring, transporting, and exploiting illegal aliens” following a two-year investigation by Homeland Security that found the restaurant’s twenty-seven employees living together in three cramped apartment units and working eighteen hour days, six days a week at a rate of $3 an hour.
But the fact that such cases are coming to light, together with this year’s closing of the popular Saigon Grill takeout restaurant in New York, the result of a years-long legal and financial battle that began in 2007 with its delivery workers going on strike, offers both a cautionary tale for Asian restaurant owners and encouragement for immigrant restaurant workers everywhere. Perhaps, then, the huge Chinese buffet industry offers the potential to foreground yet another transformational American narrative – the ongoing story of restaurant workers claiming their rightful place, through collective bargaining and legal action, in the mainstream economy of America.
At present, the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet is an all-American institution in the consumer-driven mold of Walmart, offering low prices and a huge variety to appeal to the greatest number of people. (Oh yes, and both tend to be open on Thanksgiving.) But it’s only when all of its workers are paid and treated fairly that Chinese buffet restaurants will really start resembling the American dream, both behind and in front of the glittering buffet aisles.
. . .
1.6.14: Thanks, Racialicious. Also, a good critique of the last part of my article, where I should have clarified the link I made between the plight of undocumented Chinese buffet workers and American fast-food workers. I mentioned the Saigon Grill closing as a genuinely successful example of Asian restaurant workers — undocumented as well as documented — who, by presenting a unified front through organizing, protesting, and sustained legal challenges, managed to win back stolen wages and tips, negotiate better hours, send one set of abusive owners to jail and force the second to close down shop, and — significantly — mobilize and politicize low-wage workers across the service sector spectrum in NYC. (In this newsletter, the Chinese Staff and Worker’s Association detailed the employees’ “victory for all workers” in their “fight against…common sweatshop conditions” after the 2008 settlement against the first Saigon Grill owners, with the workers’ methods closely paralleling those of the recent nationwide strikes against U.S. fast-food franchises.) While the reasons behind the exploitation of Asian immigrant restaurant workers (whether or not they are undocumented and/or victims of the smuggling trade) and those of low-wage American fast-food workers (many of whom are also undocumented) may stem from different systemic causes, their fates are absolutely, inextricably linked: their shared goals of fair pay, hours, and overall working conditions can and must be achieved — as the Saigon Grill case illustrates — through the education of restaurant workers and consumers about workplace abuses and workers’ rights, collective action, and legislative reform.
1.7.14: Just came across this book, written by Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Must read!
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, 1918-2013. (Image credit: Matthew Willman.)
Today we grieve, but we are all inheritors of Mandela’s legacy and moral imperative for justice. We will not let him down.
At Royal Oak Farms and the Botanic Gardens.
Image source: Asiapacific.unwoman.org
*Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual violence.
An edited version was cross-posted at Hyphen on September 20, 2013.
. . .
Sigh. I really wish I didn’t have to write this, but with everything that has been going on lately, I didn’t feel right letting this one go.
So, last week, my husband’s old colleague (let’s call him Z.), a self-proclaimed lover of poetry, yoga, Eastern philosophy, and beautiful women, posted this publicly on Facebook:
Damn, damn, damn. Where to even begin?
Z. is alluding, of course, to the controversial report released by the UN joint program Partners for Prevention. The results indicated that half of the 10,000 men surveyed across nine areas in six countries in the Asia Pacific revealed that they had used physical and/or sexual violence against a female partner, while 10%-62% of men, depending on locale, admitted to “perpetrating some form of rape against a woman or girl in their lifetime.” (Other key findings: most of these rapes were against intimate partners, not strangers, and the overwhelmingly common justification for rape was the claim of “sexual entitlement” over women.)
Obviously, this survey yields pretty horrifying details that, as the study itself concludes, beg for urgent measures to counter the epidemic of male violence against women and to empower women and girls in both the public and private spheres, especially in societies where equality between the sexes is inadequately underwritten by cultural or legal practices.
But without minimizing the fact that this UN report deserves our outrage and calls to action, it must be said that many Americans’ responses to the study have been bizarre, to say the least: rape-culture denialists, for instance, have dismissed the findings, while in other cases, like Z., reactions have been self-righteous and even self-congratulatory, as a quick look at the comments to pretty much any article about this report will reveal. Over on Quora, a lively debate popped up on the question of why “the west [sic] is hell-bent on studying rapes in the east [sic].” (One user insightfully responded, “Is rape reporting in Western media biased? Yes. Absolutely.”)
Anyway, back to Z. When my husband read Z.’s Facebook post, he immediately posted a response (see C.’s reply below). As you can see, Z.’s flurry of counterattacks became increasingly unhinged, bolstered by his (female!) yoga instructor friend D.’s unhelpful generalizations of Asian men as “disgusting” devaluers of women, and Asian women as “meek and quiet yet manipulative in their own way”:
As I read through this again, I’m stunned by how rapidly the conversation moves from condemning Asian men, to condemning Asian women, to condemning all women, period – leaving American men blameless and victimized by so-called “pussy power plays” and “reverse rape,” which according to Z. is “every bit as wrong as a man physically raping a woman.” Wow. I don’t know, Z. Like my husband, I too seem to be missing your larger point “as it relates to humanity, behavior, culture and perspective.”
The conversation continued. My husband started receiving irate messages from Z., including:
amigo…did you marry an Angry Womyn? You sound increasingly de-balled on here!
say it ain’t so…
another factor to consider: pretty much NO reporting of instances where Women and Womyn use that pussy as a weapon. reverse rape, basically…
happens every day, lots in America
And I wasn’t the only Angry Womyn, it turns out. His cousin, the only other person besides C. to call out Z.’s misogyny, got this rant in return: “You really need to simmer down. And apologize…I sure hope you don’t end up talking to your husband like this. Nasty nasty stuff, cuz-o-roo…”:
Unsurprisingly, the next day Z. deleted the entire original post and conversation and decided to play the victim card instead:
Finally, he consoled himself with some Eastern philosophy:
Well. May the wisdom of the East make you feel better about yourself, Z.
. . .
Of course, my post here isn’t about outing a single misogynist with creepy racist undertones – first of all, because there’s zero chance that Z. will read this, and even if he did, we can probably predict that it would only add more fire to his raging sense of victimhood. As my husband said, Z. is just one sad, insignificant human being in the world. But as much as I want to believe that and then simply forget everything that Z. posted, his toxic words are sadly consistent with the disturbingly universal trend of men – more often than not, men in power – blaming women for sexual assault.
I’m talking, for instance, about two Chicago-area firefighters who were caught allegedly trying to rape a woman, with one of the firefighters claiming to the cops that the victim “had been making eyes at me.”
Or the conservative writer John Derbyshire who argued that women in the military are “eccentric” self-victimizers who are “especially susceptible to the associated pathologies…[of] victim hoaxes for attention, spite, or cash reward” – i.e., they lie about getting raped to get paid.
Or the ex-mayor of San Diego who, stepping down after over twenty women came forth to accuse him of sexual harassment, blamed everyone else but himself, including the “lynch mob” conspiracy fueled by the lies of his accusers, his old evil nemeses Awkwardness and Hubris, and the city of San Diego for not providing him with adequate sexual harassment training.
Or the ex-living monster of a man Ariel Castro himself, who repeatedly blamed his three victims during his sentencing, denying that he’d ever raped or beat them and characterizing himself as a hapless victim of the girls’ lies and sexual appetites.
While all this victim-blaming is going on, the real victims of sexual assault are getting scant support and acknowledgment from their communities and law enforcement. In tragic recent cases, young teenage girls who were raped by their peers or teachers committed suicide while their rapists went virtually scot-free. In the case of 14-year-old Cherice Moralez, the judge in her case sentenced her rapist ex-teacher Stacey Rambold to just 30 days in prison while describing the dead victim as “as much in control of the situation” and “older than her chronological age.” (The judge has since apologized for his remarks, though he couldn’t get Rambold’s sentence extended.)
And these are just some of the headlines from the last few months alone.
. . .
With stories like these constantly flooding the media, it’s alarmingly obvious that blaming the victims of sexual assault isn’t ever just promulgated by losers like Z., who live lives of (not so quiet) desperation, but by serial rapists, law enforcers, public intellectuals, and civic leaders alike. Tragically, such thinking also permeates our younger generations, who are growing up in a culture where online slut-shaming is the norm, and where young perpetrators — boys and girls alike — admit that they “often feel the need to shame other girls for their improper behavior.”
So it’s contemptible and oh-so-hypocritical when some Americans misuse news like the UN report in order to blame “Other” men — lately, Asian men — to feel better about themselves while willfully refusing to take a long, hard look at our own backyard (see for instance, if you can stomach it, the comments to this excellent PolicyMic article about Ariel Castro and rape culture). I’m sick and tired of it. Because, oh by the way, Z., 1 in 5 women in America have stated that they have been sexually assaulted. And, of course, that’s only the number of women who’ve reported it, and in an outdated study, besides.
So as much as I know how many good, good men there are, as long as there are those like Z. believing that American women “have it good” compared to women in the rest of the world if they’re not getting raped, and that men are innocent victims of whatever the hell “pussy power” is, and that whatever the hell “reverse rape” is is somehow equivalent to men raping women, all of us – all of us – have a serious problem on our hands. Let’s just please acknowledge it, please? And then let’s empower ourselves to keep fighting rape culture and victim-blaming in our own communities right here at home.
. . .
10.12.13: An interesting Reddit thread on this post.
Since this article ran in Hyphen late September, it has provoked a lot of thoughtful responses and been circulated by student groups, yoga schools (ironically enough), and national organizations serving victims of abuse. There’s been an outpouring of outrage against Z.’s comments and how they represent destructively entrenched ways of thinking about rape and the victims of sexual violence in the U.S. While there’s obviously still a long, long way to go, it’s good to be reminded that the Z.s of the world are far outnumbered by those who are calling them out and calling for change.
Just got back from an exhilarating, exhausting week in Costa Rica. As many know, a lifetime is not enough to experience its many wondrous ecosystems — covering a mere 0.25% of the planet and yet home to an impressive 5% of the world’s flora and fauna in a country with one of the highest percentages of state-protected land — but we tried to make tiny inroads into a few, including the tropical rainforests surrounding the Volcán Arenal (one of Costa Rica’s several active volcanoes) and the beaches and tropical dry forests of Guanacaste in the west. The lush rainforests are so dense with moisture and life that, as C. described it, for miles all you can see are “plants growing on plants growing on plants.” (And apparently algae growing on tree sloths, which, sadly, we couldn’t see up close since the lazy critters were all passed out way above our heads.)
Since we wanted to take in the landscape at a slower pace, we sidestepped the ziplines and tram tours and decided to hike around. One of our first tourist stops was the Arenal Hanging Bridges, which took us over the tops of the rainforest canopy and gave us our first unobstructed view of the volcano itself — a miracle in the rainy winter season, when the volcano is typically clouded over for much of the day.
At the base of the volcano is the beautiful, mysterious, and (surprisingly) man-made Lake Arenal, shrouded in mist and surrounded by forests, farmland, hot spring resorts, sodas (food stalls), and the occasional fishing pier.
When we stopped for lunch at a soda, the waiter pointed out a family of monkeys swinging in the trees over the kitchen. Along with the stray chihuahua who had claimed this as her spot, as well as the tiny bird that had made her nest inside the TV speaker (bad idea, mama bird — especially during the fútbol game), the monkeys had joined the club of wildlife that had figured out a symbiotic way of living with the folks at Restaurante Cascajos.
Later in the afternoon, C. and I hiked up closer to the volcano to check out the lava fields from the massive explosion of 1968 that wiped out three villages and decimated crops, livestock, and people’s lives and livelihoods. Today, of course, the livelihoods of people around here center on the countless tourists that the volcano itself now draws in.
The signs everywhere were ominous, and we were constantly ordered to park our cars facing outward for a quick getaway at the first sign of a rumbling. All I can say is, my respect for volcanoes — and the townsfolk, animals, and plants that thrive around them — knows no bounds after our encounter with the silently smoking Arenal.
Day 3: waking up to Arenal outside our cabin; rescuing a stick bug from the clutches of an over-excited boy; following horseback riders to La Fortuna waterfall, where we climbed down some hefty steps to get to the base and splash around for a while.
We stopped for lunch at Toad Hall, whose relentless road-side advertising was no doubt inspired by the likes of Wall Drug. To my slight dismay, the kitschy restaurant/B&B/store/art gallery had nothing whatsoever to do with Wind in the Willows. It did, however, have great views of Lake Arenal, as well as a tiny, whacked out orphan baby toucan named (what else?) Sam. We did feel a little sorry for Sam, though. He just looked so damn lonely.
We then got in the car and followed this horse, who was blandly chewing on his hay during the long, bumpy ride. Eventually we ended up on the west coast, where we stayed for a few days on Playa Arenilla in the Gulf of Papagayo.
Everywhere — from the beaches to the forests, the town markets to Zoo Ave — was awash in color.
Everywhere, from the fauna (iguanas, macaws, alligators, emus)…
…to the flora (jungles and forests bursting with croton, heliconia, and maracas that looked like Tequila Sunrises)…
…to the fruit stands packed with bananas, pineapples, mangoes, jocotes, guayabas, and maracuyás.
Of course, not everything on our trip was so vivid and colorful. (Not depicted here: C. driving in torrential downpours around white-knuckle cliffs with zero visibility, turned back at a key junction by a large tree uprooted by floods that was threatening to fall across the one bridge through town, adding three more hours to the journey. Etc.)
Most of all, though, not depicted here is the kindness of strangers who were patient with our Spanish, helped dig our sod-trapped car, invited us into their homes, and went out of their way to help us out when we were miserably lost. And the constant refrain of “pura vida” — literally, “pure life,” but also hello, goodbye, thank you, what’s going on, you’re welcome, fantastic, everything’s great, and may you have a wonderful life.
This past weekend, C. and I took my dad to D.C. for the official event held by the U.S. Department of Defense to commemorate the 60 year anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the combat operations of the war on July 27, 1953. My 81-year-old father, who fled his village in North Korea alone at the age of 13, joined the Southern army at the start of the war and rose to become a lieutenant colonel in the Republic of Korea Army. In May, he had asked me to write the U.S. Department of Defense to inquire about a Certificate of Appreciation that they were sending out to Korean War veterans. One contact led to another, and soon I found myself booking a trip to D.C. with my dad as an invited guest of honor. (My mom was staying behind to take care of business at the old folks’ home, where there was a major reorganization of the head nuns in charge — a whole other heart-pounding story.)
After an initial day of sightseeing on Friday, the next morning we woke up at the crack of dawn to board the bus at the Pentagon to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It was oppressively hot and humid, but the U.S. military servicemen and women who were chaperoning the event couldn’t be more gracious, welcoming, and respectful towards the 5,000 or so veterans and family members who were attending. I especially appreciated the zealous efforts of the Young Marines, who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, running around to keep us all well watered throughout the day.
The keynote speaker was President Obama, whose participation was kept under the wraps until just a day or so before the event. His presence marked the first time a U.S. president participated in a Korean War armistice ceremony, ever — a fact that I was startled (and not a little annoyed) to find out.
After laying a wreath at the Memorial, flanked by top military and government officials from the U.S. and South Korea, the President took to the stage and delivered a moving speech that was steadfastly optimistic and carefully avoided politics to focus more on personal stories. He asked all the veterans — who still fit in their uniforms — to rise, much to the appreciation of everyone else in the audience.
My normally reserved dad (far left in the photo above) made friends all around him, such as these American veterans who were sitting in the row in front of us, and a Korean couple from Virginia next to us who doted on him, listened to his stories, and insisted that a roving Voice of America reporter stop by and interview my dad.
After the ceremony, my dad pulled off the biggest coup of all. As we walked around the Memorial, my dad asked if I could take his picture with this four-star Korean general. While I was getting my camera ready, I watched as he started to talk the general’s ear off. I snapped a couple photos, then the general bowed respectfully and we went on our way.
The night we returned home, I was sifting through articles about the event when I saw this general standing behind President Obama throughout the ceremony. His name was General Jeong Seung-Jo, who, as it turned out, was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces. My mouth dropped and I immediately called my dad. “Appa! Did you know that you gave military advice to the #1 guy in the whole South Korean army?” “I just wanted him to keep some things in mind,” he said matter-of-factly. “He’s a young guy — he was born after the war, after all.” “But what did you say?” I asked. There was a brief silence. “I cannot discuss this matter over the phone,” he finally said.
Standing at attention.
My dad in front of the Memorial.
Later Saturday evening, we walked around the National Mall again to catch a glimpse of the memorials in the darkness.
This is not, and must not be, a Forgotten War.