taking care of our seniors


Image credit: China Daily.

What can we do to help improve the lives of the millions of “invisible” AAPI elderly in the U.S.?

(An edited version of this article appeared in Hyphen on April 8, 2014.)

. . .

The largest generation in U.S. history is cruising into their golden years. Over the next twenty years, the number of folks in the U.S. aged 65 and older will double in size and climb to 20% of the population. These staggering numbers loom over national debates regarding the budget and healthcare as we tackle the issues raised by the aging of our parents and grandparents.

Many public figures have joined the discussion, including Lisa Ling and Martha Stewart — Stewart, for instance, has channeled her energies and star power into setting up the Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital, a geriatric primary care facility, and publishing the book Living the Good Long Life: A Practical Guide to Caring for Yourself and Others. In this richly designed guide, Stewart offers up “Golden Rules” for seniors to abide by for a long and satisfying life, including tips on travel, exercise, skin care, and safety-proofing one’s sunlit home.

Of course, for the millions of AAPI seniors who live in the U.S., Stewart’s guidelines for aging gracefully may seem wistfully out of reach – if they’re able to read them in English at all. Although today’s AAPI elderly are a heterogeneous group, the majority of them arrived after the 1965 Immigration Reform Act and the Vietnam War. But while AAPI seniors over age 65 – expected to grow to 2.5 million by 2020 and 7.6 million by 2050, from fewer than one million in 2000 – are one of the most rapidly growing elderly sub-groups in the U.S., “they remain largely invisible” in national discourse and public policy, as the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging states. And they are facing many troubling challenges as they grow older.

Everyday challenges

Because we are different and do not speak English, Americans seem to ignore us. Another day, my husband got on a bus and then he paid the fare. While he waited to receive his change, the driver threw it on the bus floor. He cried and could not stop crying. It is hard to live in this foreign land with our language problem.”[1]

By far the most critical issue for a majority of AAPI seniors is their limited English proficiency.  “For AAPI seniors who immigrated to the U.S. in middle age or later, cultural and language isolation can be a major factor,” says Sam del Rosario, LCSW, a social worker who works with older adults. Language barriers can certainly turn dangerous, as we saw in January when 84-year-old Kang Chun Wong was beaten and bloodied by NYPD after jaywalking and purportedly resisting arrest because he couldn’t understand English. But the problems exacerbated by language barriers needn’t be so violently realized in order to impact a senior’s life in fundamental ways. For many seniors who choose not to “burden” their children by living with them, not understanding English means not being able to navigate the healthcare system, be civically engaged, apply for subsidized senior housing, or access community social services on their own. It means a million daily indignities, like the one experienced by the Korean American couple above, who can’t shake off a sense of their own “foreignness” even on their daily bus rides.

Former restaurant owner Kang Chun Wong, 84, of Manhattan, who was brutally beaten by NYPD police in January for jaywalking. Image credit: Jesse Ward/New York Daily News.

Barriers to community

For many, it also means living in nursing homes and other long-term senior care environments that aren’t always attuned to AAPI seniors’ linguistic and culturally specific needs. As Tanzina Vega writes in The New York Times, “Finding a home health aide or nursing home supervisor who speaks Spanish is usually easier than finding one who speaks, say, Khmer.” Diet is also a concern; it’s hard to find food at senior homes that are tailored not only to the tastes but also the dietary needs of Asian American elderly, who often have specific nutritional concerns such as calcium and vitamin A and C deficiencies.[2]

The lack of welcoming communal areas in their places of residence has driven many seniors out into the open to seek out makeshift watering holes to socialize together in their own languages. This can lead to even more difficulties, however: In one high-profile incident in January 2014, elderly Koreans were escorted by police from a McDonald’s in Queens after managers complained that the seniors were overstaying their 20-minute dining limit. While the incident ended more or less amicably after protests led by Asian American community leaders, it drew national attention to the need for more inviting social spaces for AAPI seniors.

Invisible problems

Other, often unacknowledged problems plague the elderly in our communities, including mental health challenges. Compared to the general senior population, older war refugees from Southeast Asia exhibit “unusually high rates of psychological disturbance, particularly posttraumatic stress disorder.”[3] Stressors seem to hit elderly Asian American women especially hard: suicide rates among AAPI women over age 75 are almost double the rate of other women in the same age group.

The financial situation is also precarious for too many Asian American seniors. A 2012 survey found that 12.3% of Asian Americans over 65 lived in poverty, compared to 9.1% of the general population over 65. (The dismal figures are compounded for those within the LGBT community.) Many AAPI seniors are uninsured, while nearly 40% — including my own parents — rely on Medicare and Medicaid as their only sources of health insurance.

Like so many other Asian immigrants, my parents were small business owners with limited English. Living on the margins of the mainstream economy, they never learned how to navigate the bewildering world of Social Security and retirement planning. Their story is sadly typical: recent Census numbers from Chicago, where we live, indicate that two-thirds of elderly Koreans like my parents are living under the poverty line, and nearly all of them are immigrants who have resided in the U.S. for more than ten years.[4] The tragic irony is that an increasing number of these seniors are choosing to “reverse emigrate” back to Korea because they foresee a future where they die alone in a country that no longer feels like home.

How can we help?

These statistics are simply unacceptable. So what can be done to help our folks and other elderly in our communities?

Fortunately, some national and local trends indicate cause for hope. Growing awareness about the diversity of the aging population in the U.S. has prompted organizations such as AARP to reach out to Asian American communities. The National Institute on Aging has sought to educate health care providers about their patients’ culturally specific needs, and also recommends increasing seniors’ access to professional interpreters, who are mandated by federal policies to be made available by healthcare providers who receive federal funds such as Medicare. And despite incidents like the McDonald’s controversy, much progress has in fact been made, especially in major cities, to provide spaces for AAPI elderly to socialize, learn English, vote, enjoy free lunches, obtain information about housing and social services, and even become politically active in their communities.

As family members and caregivers, we can help and advocate for our elders by educating ourselves first. As the only child of older parents, I’ve long felt frustration and despair over the lack of information and support networks for Asian American seniors and their children/caregivers. All too often, it’s incumbent on us to seek out resources on our own. Some of the most helpful mainstream resources I’ve found are the National Council on Aging’s website, and books such as Virginia Morris’s How to Care for Aging Parents and Joy Loverde’s The Complete Eldercare Planner

As for AAPI resources, we’re fortunate to have the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, the nation’s leading organization for AAPI elders. In 2012, the Diverse Elders Coalition, to which the NAPCA belongs, published a comprehensive report on minority and LGBT elderly that you can read here. (For those in the Chicago area, the Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly provides a list of all the various community organizations that serve immigrant elderly in the region.)

If the seniors in your life are able-bodied and healthy, check in on them regularly and encourage their independence as long as possible. According to Jisun Sohn, Deputy Executive Director of Chicago’s Hanul Family Alliance, it’s important to include seniors in everyday social activities and encourage them to volunteer and be active in the community. “They might actually not be physically capable, but we should always remember to ask, invite, and keep them in various circles of social life, because it is so easy for them to develop depression when they feel they are alone and no longer productive members of society,” Sohn advises.

As your loved ones grow older, talk with them about their preferred living arrangements. Do they want to live alone, with family, or friends? In a retirement community – perhaps one that is specific or sensitive to their cultural needs, whether a single floor or an entire facility? Do they need to be in a nursing home, or do they require hospice care? (The U.S. Department of Housing has information about senior living options here, and A Place for Mom works directly with you for free to help find the best senior residence for your loved one.) Wherever they live, be vigilant and check for signs of elder abuse. In the meantime, keep a copy of their medical, financial, and other important records close at hand, and open up a conversation about the difficult topics of end-of-life wishes and arrangements.

And don’t forget political advocacy. As Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, encouraged in her Colorlines bucket list earlier this year, “Call each and every candidate running for office in your community this year, and let them know that caring for our aging loved ones and the [predominantly women of color] workforce that supports them is a priority for you.”

As our family and loved ones get older, it’s important for us to think seriously about how we can ensure their health, dignity, and well-being well into their golden years.

My awesome parents. Image credit: My own.

[1] Young-Me Lee, “The Immigration Experience among Elderly Korean Immigrants,” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 14.4 (2007): 403-410, pp. 407-408.

[2] Katherine K. Kim, Elena S. Yu, William T. Liu, Jaekyung Kim, and Mary Bess Kohrs, “Nutritional Status of Chinese-, Korean-, and Japanese-American Elderly,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 93.12 (1993): 1416-1422.

[3]Amy Weisman, Greg Feldman, Cynthia Gruman, Roberta Rosenberg, Rebeca Chamorro, and Irene Belozersky, “Improving Mental Health Services for Latino and Asian Immigrant Elders,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 36.6 (2005): 642-648, p. 642.

[4] Kiljoong Kim, “The Korean Presence in Chicago,” in The New Chicago: A Social and Cultural Analysis, ed. John Patrick Koval (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), p. 166.

oases in the california desert


For spring break, C. and I headed out to the Mojave Desert and spent a few days in Palm Springs, Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree. After no fewer than three polar vortices in a never-ending Chicago winter, all we wanted was a steady blast of heat and sun.  These were just a few of the highlights.

. . .

The Integratron:  According to the website, this incredible structure, situated on a geomagnetic vortex, was built in 1954 by George van Tassel, an aerospace inspector and UFO contactee, based on the blueprints of “the design of Moses’ Tabernacle, the writings of Nikola Tesla and telepathic directions from extraterrestrials. This one-of-a-kind 38-foot high, 55-foot diameter, all wood dome was designed to be an electrostatic generator for the purpose of rejuvenation and time travel.”

I don’t know about time travel and alien communication, but the hour that we spent in the sound chamber lying on mats and zoning out to the sound of quartz singing bowls was blissful, meditative, and rejuvenating.


The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens:  Located in Palm Desert, these grounds boast over 450 animals species from North America and Africa and 1,200 acres of botanical gardens.  Plenty of cactus and critters to watch and enjoy, including the ever-watchful meerkat.


Indian Canyons:  The Palm, Andreas, and Murray Canyons are located, ironically enough, at the edge of Palm Canyon Drive, the main strip through downtown Palm Springs, but once you’re there, the resort town feels a million miles away. Part of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indian Reservation, these canyons harbor the largest oasis of California Fan Palms in the world. These magnificent trees, scarred by frequent desert fires, can grow up to 60 feet in height. Hiking around the trails that wind around and above the trees, you can’t help marveling at their otherworldly, prehistoric beauty.


A few other images: an abandoned structure in the middle of the canyons; a centuries-old mortar used by Cahuilla women to pound corn into meal; Cahuilla pottery for sale at the Trading Post.


Pioneertown: A straight shot up Pioneertown Rd. from one of the places we were staying at in Yucca Valley, this tiny village was built as a movie set in 1946 for old Hollywood Westerns. Today, its most famous business is Pappy and Harriet’s, an old-style saloon and music venue with the buzziest open mic in the high desert, hosted by local legend Ted Quinn, whose long career in the entertainment world was first launched by his appearance as an adorable 5-year-old boy in this classic Bayer Aspirin TV commercial.  C. got a chance to play with the house musicians, backed by Clive Wright of the ’80s band Cock Robin.  (The next night he played again at Teddy’s open mic at the Joshua Tree Saloon. Lots of fun!)


Joshua Tree National Park: What can I say? (Other than my small annoyance on discovering just now that my hair was on the lens the whole time.)


At one point in our walk, C. and I stopped in our tracks and listened. All we could hear for miles was the sound of pure silence.


The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference manifest to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert. Let men in their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelope the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas – the canyons and hills, the springs and rocks will still be here, the sunlight will filter through, water will form and warmth shall be upon the land and after sufficient time, no matter how long, somewhere, living things will emerge and join and stand once again, this time perhaps to take a different and better course.

- Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968)

(For more pictures, visit here.)

mandela and the myth of the power of one

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, a 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. 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 cult-like 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 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.

So it’s 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 countless other activists and citizens who fought against apartheid, while mythologizing – and neutralizing – Mandela into 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 have 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 that 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, especially for audiences who aren’t direct participants in South Africa’s fraught history, 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.

the all-american all-you-can-eat chinese buffet


The almighty Chinese buffet.

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.)

Image credit:  Chris Busby at TheBollard.com.

Image credit: Chris Busby at TheBollard.com.

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 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!