fighting to be american

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Image credit:  AP Reuters via VOANews.com

(An edited version of this post appeared in Hyphen on July 31, 2014.)

. . .

Last year, my younger cousin joined the Army. On the day he left home for training, his dad called my dad, tearful and upset. What was going to happen to him? my uncle wondered. Was he going to be okay? My father tried to reassure him not to worry. “Thanks to him,” he said, “our family is finally American.”

When my dad proudly relayed this conversation to me, my first response was, Thanks a lot, Dad.  What about all the decades our family has spent building our lives here? Did he really think we needed my cousin to join the Army to make it official?

But my dad’s heartfelt response to my uncle also reminded me of the sobering fact that, for nearly two centuries, Asian immigrants tried to fight their way to naturalized citizenship by serving in the U.S. military. And native-born AAPI servicemen and women, especially those fighting in wars on Asia-Pacific soil, have often found themselves having to prove their loyalty to the U.S. by risking their lives beyond duty. (A recent obituary, for instance, described how native Californian Lt. Kurt Chew-Een Lee, the first non-white officer in the Marines, was seriously wounded in the Korean War during a battle where he shouted “Don’t shoot, I’m Chinese!” in Mandarin to confuse and entrap the surrounding Chinese forces.) The relationship between military service and citizenship has indeed been a complicated matter for Asians in America for a long, long time.

This all came back to my mind a few months later, when my husband and I brought my then-81-year-old father to Washington, DC last July for the U.S. Department of Defense’s 60th anniversary commemoration of the Korean War armistice. (You can see my photos from the event here.) My father was eighteen when he began fighting in the war, and he eventually became a colonel in the ROK Army. At the commemoration, flooded with emotion and my dad’s memories, I had no room in my heart for a critical response to the experience. When a woman from Texas came up to us in the hotel lobby, embraced my dad, and handed him a card that said, “Thank you for your sacrifice,” I wasn’t sure what, or who, she thought she was expressing thanks for. At that moment, though, I let myself believe that her gesture meant that my dad was being fully accepted as American – and a hero, at that.

Now, looking back at the event a year later, it’s easier for me to critique its erasures and revisionary meaning-making. Even before the ceremony, I was frustrated by how difficult it was to find information that wasn’t solely aimed at American veterans of the Korean War. And while there were many Korean veterans in attendance, none of the official events that weekend were designed to honor or include them. As my dad and so many other Koreans who fought on the U.N. side had ended up in America because of this war, I thought the ceremony should have at least acknowledged their presence by including these veterans as an integral part, rather than just as spectators, of a ceremony memorializing the war that ravaged their homeland.

Unsurprisingly, all the glowing rhetoric that day — from President Obama’s carefully nonpartisan speech to the official book gifted to attendees as a souvenir — emphasized the words “unforgotten” and “victory” in an effort to reverse the longstanding U.S.-centric view of the Korean War as a forgotten conflict with no end in sight. But the greatest irony, in retrospect, was the sight of former Veterans Affairs Secretary (and highest-ranking Asian American) Eric Shinseki, soon to be embroiled in one of the largest controversies in the VA’s history, sitting a few feet away from the President as he spoke the words: “Here in America, no war should ever be forgotten, and no veteran should ever be overlooked.”

Of course, for those of us in the AAPI community, it’s not just our veterans — including our immigrant veterans — who are often overlooked. It is also our active-duty servicemen and women, many of whom experience what researchers call “race-related stress” throughout their military careers. A 2007 study of AAPI Vietnam War veterans found that race-related stressors were significantly related to PTSD symptoms. Then again, we don’t need to look to the past for examples of what this type of stress can do. In the past few years, Private Danny Chen and Lance Corporal Harry Lew committed suicide as a result of racial abuse by their peers. Former officer Anu Bhagwati left the Marines because of the discrimination and harassment she experienced, which was further compounded by her gender. As Iraq War veteran and LGBTQ activist Lieutenant Dan Choi says, “Being an Asian American serving in the military, it’s very isolating.”

Despite all this, however, there has been an unexpected surge of young AAPI military recruits since the recession. According to former Army infantry captain Tim Hsia at The New York Times At War blog, there is a rising need for Asian Americans to serve in the military as public servants, cultural interpreters, and potential peacekeepers in the Asia-Pacific region. The reasons that are given for the actual surge in AAPI recruits — the military’s educational incentives; the fact that new recruits are born after the Korean and Vietnam Wars; the greater visibility of high-ranking Asian Americans in the military — are more open to debate (as can be seen in the lively comments section of this NPR article). One reason that particularly resonates, given the fraught history of Asian Americans in the U.S. military, is the one from an anonymous Korean American Naval Academy recruit, who said that he joined the military in order to gain full acceptance and entry into mainstream American society. (If the former Green Beret commander Chester Wong’s memoir [Yellow] Green Beret is any indication, of course, many  already feel like they’re a part of the family.)

As for whether the U.S. military is now a safe place for Asian Americans in general, Tim Hsia’s answer is a resounding yes.  Coming from a more cynical standpoint, my feelings are far more ambivalent, but I maintain cautious hope.  For the sake of all our immigrant and native-born AAPI veterans and servicemen and women who are currently serving in the Armed Forces, I hope that they will no longer need to prove their service and sacrifice in order for them to “become” American, but will instead be equally recognized and honored because they are American.

. . .

A few links to information about AAPI veterans and active duty personnel:

AAPI Fact Sheet from the Center for Minority Veterans at VA.gov. A comprehensive summary of data on AAPI veterans and active duty servicemen and women. Statistics from the past three years show that there are approximately 300,000 AAPI veterans and 50,000 active duty members currently serving in the military.

U.S. Department of Defense AAPI 2014 Heritage Month website. The DoD’s annual page recognizing AAPI contributions to the military. Updated every May.

News about Asian American veterans at AsianAm.org. Not clear how often the site is updated, but a handy aggregator nevertheless.

2013/14 Directory of Veterans and Military Service Organizations. A comprehensive directory of veterans groups in the U.S. released by the VA. This year’s directory lists a few Asian American veterans groups, as well as groups for veterans of wars based in the Asia-Pacific, though the latter don’t appear to address the specific demographic and needs of immigrant veterans of these wars.

fashion and fame

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Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad, Hanneli Mustaparta, and Nicole Warne of Gary Pepper Girl. Photo credit: Getty.

“They’re taking photographs of you / and the style of things to do…”
– Lyrics from The Angels’ “Fashion and Fame” (1981)

The Golden Age of the Fashion Blogger really is over.

To those who’re still paying attention, of course, this is already ancient news. (To those who say, “Who cares?” Go away. I’m not talking to you.)

Even the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan, who famously (albeit belatedly) heralded the rise of fashblogs back in 2007, drove the nail in the coffin this April in a post on NYMag (whose title I allude to above). In it, Givhan argued that industry insiders have successfully co-opted those elements that made fashion bloggers so appealing: namely, their social media savvy, and the fantasy of democratic openness and access to the fashion world that their blogs offered to their readers. But now, when so-called “top-tier” bloggers are luxury brand ambassadors, and industry heavyweights like Lucky’s Eva Chen are tweeting from the front row themselves, the line between insider and blogger has been officially, irredeemably blurred. “Because what the fashion industry loves,” Givhan quips, “it woos — then swallows whole.”

Which is a damn shame, because back in the day when Bryanboy and Susie Bubble ruled the margins of the fashion world with their wonderful weirdness, and Rumi and Aimee and Karla and everyone else were just Style Icon hopefuls on Chictopia, fashion blogging offered readers the promise of a warmer, fuzzier relationship between fashion lovers and the world they adored, mediated through the engaging persona of the blogging Everygirl (because most of them were, except, you know, Tavi and Jane Aldridge). Fashion bloggers – or more specifically, the type of (mostly female) fashion bloggers who playfully experimented with their style and carefully cultivated an intimate, confessional relationship with their readers – seemed like just another cyber-BFF, an extension of the “real” friendships that everyone was already getting used to fostering through social media. Except that these blogs were safe and highly focused spaces to theorize and celebrate, without shame, the supposedly “frivolous” project of stylish self-fashioning.

This utopian state didn’t last long, of course. Fashion commentators broadly offer three (and not necessarily competing) interpretations of what happened:

  1. Blogger influence in the fashion industry waned in general, as evidenced by the fact that a large number of fashion bloggers weren’t invited back to New York Fashion Week this February.
  2. The most successful bloggers became brand shills and thus lost editorial integrity in their reportage and personal endorsements.
  3. A more nuanced combination of 1 and 2: while most fashion bloggers have fallen in influence, a tiny echelon of top-tier bloggers have become more entrenched than ever in the industry, whether by turning themselves into brands that have moved beyond their blogs, or turning their blogs into media juggernauts that have moved beyond their personae.[1]

The common thread running through all these arguments is the consensus that this particular type of personal fashion blogging no longer embodies, at the very least, the illusion of a “democratic…ownership” of fashion, as Givhan described it back in ’07.[2]

And while all of this rings true, it wasn’t necessarily the return-on-investment economics of fashion blogging that finally convinced me that the golden age was over. Instead, it was a dishy Fashionista article about bloggers and their boyfriend/photographers (a.k.a. “beau-togs”) that was forwarded to me a few weeks ago. (Thank you J.!) After getting over the initial shock of discovering that The Blonde Salad’s Chiara Ferragni and her fellow Italian man had split over a year ago (where have I been?), I found myself especially intrigued by the following line:

“Ferragni and [Riccardo] Pozzoli’s relationship was high profile enough to warrant a public release that announced their relationship was over.”

A public release? I thought. Wow.

And that’s when it really hit me: Democratic ownership be damned. The Top Tier Blogger had officially become a bona fide Celebrity.

. . .

How exactly did this happen? While there are many measurable, discrete signs of this trajectory – perhaps a blogger joins forces with a leading fashion house or signs with a major Hollywood talent agency; maybe her (mega-paid) appearance in the front row of a show inspires more Instagram posts than the runway looks themselves, or something she wears sells out in a day – what interests me is the more elusive, symbolic process by which a blogger’s persona gets sublimated into celebrity (exemplified, and not without irony, by the Blonde Salad’s recent transformation into a Simpsons cartoon).

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Ferragni Simpsonized. Image taken from TheBlondeSalad.com.

As the sociologist Joshua Gamson points out, there are two popular, overlapping myths in our culture about the process of “celebritization”: talented people can become famous, and ordinary folks can be manufactured into stars. “In the first,” Gamson observes, “they are successful because they are extraordinary; in the second, they are ordinary people, just like us, only luckier, prettier, and better marketed.”[3] These paths are hardly mutually exclusive, of course, but the internet, as we all know, has made the second a million times easier, equipping DIYers with the tools to increase their chances for fame through digital savvy, networking, and ceaseless self-promotion across various social media platforms.

In a sense, the trajectory of the “successful” fashion blogger can be viewed as a shift between these two celebrity narratives, albeit in reverse. The early appeal of this type of blogger was precisely her Everygirl vibe, except that she was cool and #ohsofashion and made readers want to hang around and be friends, even if the relationship was decidedly asymmetrical from the start. At first, the blogger might have indulged this illusion of friendship by responding magnanimously to readers’ comments; if readers linked back to their own blogs, she might’ve dropped by and left encouraging comments on their outfit posts, too. (The egalitarian promise of the blogroll: Link me and I’ll link you back.)

But as certain bloggers became increasingly popular and pulled away from the crowd, things started to change. Though it’s hard to pinpoint moments exactly, in retrospect the shift becomes clear. Maybe it was the day that the photos suddenly increased in size and quality, as the iPhone was replaced by a Canon 5D. Or maybe it was the day she first announced (hint-hint) that an exciting project was in the works – the first of many more to come. In any case, over time, her responses to reader comments dwindled away; the blogroll silently disappeared. Her site and her clothes grew sleeker; the fonts sprouted serifs; the home page filled up with ads, sponsorships, modeling gigs, designer collaborations. The blogger and her blog – always named together – started to be praised, featured, trackbacked, and endlessly dissected by industry rags.

Imperceptibly, in front of everyone’s eyes, the ordinary blogger had transformed into an Extraordinary Brand.

. . .

There’s more to the story, of course. But before I get there, I want to backtrack a couple thousand years. (Hang with me for just a second.) Theories and modes of “celebritization,” after all, have been knocking around for a long time – ancient Greek poets praised the exceptionalism of athletes and war heroes, and the Catholic Church elevated ordinary folks into famous saints based on exacting, arcane criteria. Our own word “fame” is based on the Latin word fama, which signified honor, reputation, rumor, or scandal, depending on context, and was portrayed in Virgil’s classical Latin epic Aeneid as a screeching winged goddess with flapping feathers, eyes, ears, and tongues who would swoop through towns spreading hot gossip. (Talk about anti-feminist!)

But while the Roman poet Ovid, writing in the 1st century A.D., also made allusions to fama as a wild, anarchic figure in his work Metamorphoses, his poem concluded with a far more idealized vision of his own fama that contradicted the earlier imagery:

and now I have finished my work (opus),
which neither the anger of Jove, nor fire, nor the sword,
nor devouring age will be able to destroy.
Let that day, which only rules my body (corpus),
end the uncertain span of my years whenever it wants.
I will be borne, with the better part of me,
above the highest stars
eternal
and my name (nomen) will never be forgotten
…I will be read in the mouths of the people
and through all the ages
…I will live in fame (fama). (Book 15, Epilogue)

In a work dedicated to the whims of fate and the gods (and, yes, fame itself), Ovid’s bombastic sign-off seems pretty presumptuous, to say the least. But in contrast with the ghastlier specter of fama that speaks directly to our anxieties, Ovid’s confident ending vision speaks powerfully to our own desires to assert control over our name, our work, and our reputation for as long as we possibly can.

This is, after all, the same fundamental impulse (aside from immediate monetary reward, of course) that motivates fashion bloggers to build successful name brands on top of their blogs. Because what is their blog but a creative work (opus) that exists beyond their body (corpus), memorializes their name (nomen), and represents the “better part” of themselves, at the height of their aesthetic powers? While we know that the internet isn’t necessarily forever, we’re still bound by the notion that what goes on the internet sticks around for a while. The successful fashion blogger understands this better than anyone else—in fact, she’s made an art form out of it, meticulously producing, editing, and curating images of herself with the foresight of an archivist and the rigor of an artist.

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The sublime Nicole Warne in a field of lavender. Image taken from GaryPepperGirl.com.

Interestingly, the more successful a blogger is at creating the illusion of perfection and transforming herself into her most ideal symbolic form, the more she effaces the labor that goes into producing this static illusion. Much of this is conscious – as sociologist and former model Ashley Mears pointed out, the coveted “look” of top models is defined and valued mainly by its lack of definition, its ineffable sense of mystique (see my earlier post on Mears’s work here). Similarly, the more polished a blogger’s persona becomes, the less she reveals, textually or visually,[4] about the painstaking, everyday drudge work that goes into producing her look and final images. And dynamic videos and so-called “behind-the-scenes” posts about a photo shoot don’t count, since they tend to offer an idealized narrative (carefully constructed as “candid”) about the mode of production and the labor/laborers involved.

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Ironically, though, while a blogger’s (laborious) effacement of her own labor allows her to control her symbolic status, when outside observers do the same (ironically, again, while analyzing the phenomenon of a blogger’s popularity), they threaten to take away the blogger’s control over her own work and meaning. Returning to the Fashionista article about blogger boyfriends, what I found both fascinating and disturbing is the way that at the same time the article reinforces the rarified status of bloggers who are considered to be at the top of their game, it diminishes the bloggers’ ownership and authority over their creative work. Proffering the maxim “There is a golden rule in style blogging: you are nothing without your photographer,” the article glibly wrests control away from the blogger and put it in the hands of a man – in this case, the blogger’s boyfriend/photographer.

Of course, not every successful fashion blogger has a significant other who is also their photographer, although this type of creative and business partnership, as the article points out, is not un-typical. But the business of fashion blogging is obviously much more than the quality of one’s beau-tog. The Fashionista article itself exposes contradictions in its argument: just as it overstates the boyfriend’s role in the partnership, it still reveals that the blogger maintains overall control, with the power to drop (Fashion Toast) or retain exes (The Blonde Salad) based on their perceived worth to her business. (And this doesn’t even cover blogger/professional models like Hanneli Mustaparta or Zanita Morgan, who are their own photographers – in Zanita’s case, she’s completely replaced herself on her blog with other models as her photography career has soared.)

There is a popular sub-genre of fashion reportage that does focus on limited aspects of bloggers’ labor, demystifying the economics of blogging by zeroing in, with laser-like precision, on top-tier bloggers’ investments, expenditures, and incomes. But I can’t help thinking that in the end, while in many ways illuminating and necessary, these kinds of analyses often end up overemphasizing the extra-textual persona of the blogger, so to speak, cracking open the door to the blogger’s potential disempowerment as a creative player in her own enterprise, especially in less critical analyses of her work.

Because the greater the emphasis on what falls “outside” the blog itself, the more scrutiny intensifies over the details of the blogger’s life that spill beyond the boundaries of her carefully controlled product. The second half of the Fashionista article makes this awkwardly clear when it moves into gossipy tell-all territory, prodding anonymous sources to dish about the bloggers and ex-bfs to confess details about their breakups. (Rumi Neely’s ex-boyfriend Colin Sokol speaks! Forget about outfit posts – the silenced male gaze has finally been given a voice!) All of this, of course, is a clear sign of these bloggers’ nouveau status as celebrities: the personal intimacy that initially characterized the relationship between the blogger and her readers is replaced, now, by the shallow, glossy media voyeurism of celebrity gossip magazines. But while it’s certainly true that fashion bloggers often turned their own eye to the consumer-related minutiae of their daily lives (the daily makeup routine post! the “what’s in my purse” post!), it’s different here. The open back-and-forth dialogue between blogger and reader is gone – indeed, really, the blogger herself is gone – replaced by a reporter’s speculation based largely on hearsay.

Of course, the process of “celebritization” – the reification of the blogger’s persona by the public, often at the expense of her creative authority – isn’t inevitable for every fashion blogger who’s achieved success in the field. Just like other celebrities, some bloggers are more gossiped about than others. Obviously, the more popular and more vigilant they are in their work of self-presentation, the more vulnerable they are to the barest whiff of scandal. This isn’t a totally bad thing – at the very least, it means that the blogger has succeeded in making the public care – but it certainly explains the most famous bloggers’ increasing need to seek protection from the publicity machine behind their own swelling bastion of agents and publicists.

But as the vultures keep circling around tighter and tighter, perhaps the best thing for a famous blogger to do is what Chiara Ferragni did.

When Fashionista came a-calling to ask what Ferragni had to say about her employment of both her ex and her boyfriend for her blog, she did what any smart celebrity worth her salt would do.

The Blonde Salad refused to comment.

In any case, her handlers at Next Model Management wouldn’t have let her talk, anyway.

 

. . .

Notes

[1] The most notable example of the latter is Leandra Medine’s The Man Repeller blog/magazine, which recently topped the list of Fashionista’s most influential fashion blogs. However, since Medine’s site focuses more on fashion criticism rather than self-referential “outfit” posts (which Medine has moved away from since the blog’s beginnings), my comments don’t necessarily apply to her site and other blog/magazines like it.

[2] Even if this illusion was never true to begin with, as Minh-Ha T. Pham has pointed out in “Blog Ambition: Fashion, Feelings, and the Political Economy of the Digital Raced Body” (Camera Obscura 76, 26.1 [2011]: 1-37). From a different perspective, many non top-tier fashion bloggers, including several commenters on the Independent Fashion Bloggers network, insist that for them fashion blogging never lost its utopian goal of fostering a shared community of style enthusiasts, since money and fame was never their end goal. While this is may very well be true for many bloggers, their sentiments don’t necessarily contradict the arguments above regarding fashion blogging’s demise, which are concerned with fashion blogging’s calculable influence in the fashion industry at large.

[3] Joshua Gamson, “The Unwatched Life Is Not Worth Living: The Elevation of the Ordinary in Celebrity Culture” (PMLA 126.4 (2011): 1061-69 [1063]).

[4] I include here less obvious elements, such as paying for a costly upgrade to a blog’s template to eliminate visual distractions such as free ads or “amateurish” fonts and formatting, and other signs of “entry-level” blogging labor.

canyon country

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Last week, we went back in time.

After a few days in Salt Lake City for a conference, C. and I drove down to Moab to visit the Arches and Canyonlands.  300 million years ago, this fiery, parched landscape in the Colorado Plateau was covered by inland seas, which swelled and receded 29 times, leaving behind massive slabs of salt.  Rock deposits slowly built over these saline beds, and over the next few millions of years, the salt itself receded like the sea, dissolved by wind and water.

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Evidence of these shifts lie in these faceless monuments,  poised precariously on the edges of geological time.

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Top to bottom:  Balanced Rock, Delicate Arch Viewpoint, Park Avenue, and Turret Arch — though it feels strange to refer to these by man-made theme park names.  (Although it definitely felt like an amusement park in the middle of the day on a Saturday, with RVs and tour buses piled up at each checkpoint, spilling out tourists who came not so much to be awed by nature, but to stop and gape at one vividly monikered hoodoo before moving on to the next. After a while, it was hard not to start doing the same, if only to keep up with the crowds.)

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Canyonlands, 527 square miles of red rock sliced through by the Colorado and Green Rivers, was less crowded than Arches — probably because it’s further away from the town of Moab, and because it’s advertised as mostly backcountry, harder to access and get around.  Self-fulfilling, therefore, and plenty of opportunities to get lost.

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C. and I were intrigued by the black soil, composed mainly of cyanobacteria, lichen, algae, and fungi, lurking just off the walking trails.  We learned that these unassuming patches of soil are in fact critical to the ecosystem, storing moisture and nitrogen that feed desert plants and, in turn, desert critters.  Wherever we encountered these fragile crusts, life was thriving.

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After visiting Canyonlands, we took a detour off the main road through Moab to drop by the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve, a so-called “oasis in the desert” — though with the blazing temperatures and the desiccated warpath of invasive tamarisk trees, which were being killed off in a controlled attempt to eradicate the species, it felt post-apocalyptic.  A serious zombie hideout.

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On our last day back to SLC, we stopped by the small town of Price to check out its fabled Prehistoric Museum, run by Utah State University Eastern.  It’s totally worth a stop if you’re traveling nearby.

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(Top to bottom:  Sculpture of Allosaurus devouring a Camptosaurus; Animantarx fossil; Fremont Indian pottery and petroglyphs.)

Paleontologists and archaeologists are still finding fossils and the remnants of prehistoric Native American civilizations in the area, many of which are housed and exhibited at this wonderful educational museum. It’s a good reminder, because when you’re deep in the canyonlands, it’s easy to forget that this stark desert landscape teemed with all this life millions of years ago.  (The Ute, of course, are still here now.  Along with Utahns, Mormons, Moabites, and millions of international tourists each year.)

II

For many, the late conservationist and cantankerous anarchist Edward Abbey is the Thoreau of the Utah desert, and his 1968 work Desert Solitaire its Walden.  Part memoir, part diatribe, the book drew from Abbey’s experiences as an Arches park ranger in the ’50s shortly before its development into a National Park.

At his most compelling, Abbey was a masterful word-painter, and his book brims with descriptions that attempt, often valiantly, to stretch beyond the banality of our limited observational powers and capture the terrifying, mind-numbing experience of the sublime.  “When the first rays of the sun strike the cliffs I fill a mug with steaming coffee and sit in the doorway facing the sunrise, hungry for the warmth,” he writes of his first morning at Arches. “Suddenly it comes, the flaming globe, blazing on the pinnacles and minarets and balanced rocks, on the canyon walls and through the windows in the sandstone fins.  We greet each other, sun and I, across the black void of ninety-three million miles.”

Abbey’s paeans to the unpeopled desert, however, turn sour when he contemplates the popular tourist destination that Arches had become since his tenure. Some of his vitriol hits the mark, especially when directed at the mercenary development-minded factions of the National Park Service and the tourism industry, who place emphasis on “enjoyment” at the expense of “unimpairment” of the national wilderness areas.

But a lot of it is pure, ugly ranting, in which Abbey scorns the thought that other people should have the same access to our natural treasures that he enjoyed as a privileged, able-bodied white man. “What about children? What about the aged and infirm? Frankly, we need waste little sympathy on these two pressure groups…The aged merit even less sympathy: after all they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled.” (Never mind that visiting the Parks presupposes that one is able to get time off work and have the means to get there. Though Abbey would say, Too bad for them! More room for us who can.)

With his patronizing, often insulting attitudes towards not only the young, the old, and the disabled, but also women (and the “chocolate-colored mistress I’ll have to rub my back”), Native Americans (“the average Navajo suffers from a handicap more severe than skin color, the language barrier or insufficient education: his acquisitive instinct is poorly developed”), and a poor, unsuspecting rabbit that he kills out of philosophical curiosity (“I try but cannot feel any sense of guilt. I examine my soul: white as snow…No longer do I feel so isolated from the sparse and furtive life around me…Long live diversity, long live the earth!”), I wasn’t surprised to find that Abbey was also vehemently anti-immigrant, legal or no. In an essay in his later work One Life at a Time, Please, Abbey argued:

[I]t might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-generically impoverished people….Especially when these uninvited millions bring with them an alien mode of life which—let us be honest about this—is not appealing to the majority of Americans. Why not? Because we prefer democratic government, for one thing; because we still hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful—yes, beautiful!—society, for another. The alternative, in the squalor, cruelty, and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see.

The desert, and by extension America, you see, is “Abbey’s Country,” as he called it. Diversity doesn’t mean other people, but the mystical merging of Abbey’s soul with that of a rabbit he just murdered, or whatever the hell.

I shudder to think of all the present-day Abbeys who think like this.

Thoreau would shudder too, I hope. (Not that he was immune to privileged white-male solipsism himself in Walden, of course – such as when he wonders why “we can be so frivolous…as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, [when] there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south…worst of all when you are the slavedriver of yourself.” So I guess Abbey does have some unfortunate precedent in Thoreau here, too.)

I do grudgingly credit Abbey, however, for reminding me of the complicated layers of my own relationship to the environment during our travels. As I re-read Desert Solitaire during our Utah trip, I thought about the privileges – time, money, physical health, cultural ease with the outdoors and the idea of camping, etc., etc. – that allowed us to access and enjoy these parks, as members of the swarm of “industrial tourists” that Abbey so despised, and not always wrongly. I also thought about the NYT article that came out last year on the National Parks’ recent efforts to attract more minority tourists, and the troubling conversations on the Dish that emerged in response to this article, including one reader’s observation that a California Parks study had found that “people of color avoided their parks because they were located in rural areas, and they did not feel comfortable or welcomed in the conservative small towns that are often the gateways to the parks.”

In her book Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions (2010), my dear friend Kimberly Ruffin critiqued the “limited triumvirate of Ws: wilderness, the West, and whiteness” that governs the mainstream American imaginary about our environment and those who have access to its beauty and riches, as well as the means to conserve and eulogize them. As Ruffin reminds us, while a tiny pantheon of white male conservationists and nature writers have had the privilege to frame the very ways we’re supposed to see and experience our natural world, an untold number of Americans have long been violently denied their kinship and inheritance to the land. (For a recent searing reminder, if you haven’t already, please, please read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” which I was reading alongside and against Desert Solitaire.)

All this is not to say that those of us who can should conscientiously avoid enjoying – and learning from – the majesty of our National Parks and wilderness areas. More access, not less, I say, provided that such access is made available with the least impact on the environment as possible.

However, there’s always an unsettling reminder that nature is not free, and that ecological citizenship is not available to all. Just like the rest of our society, even its vastest, emptiest spaces are tightly circumscribed — allowing in a few, while leaving others out.

taking care of our seniors

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An+elderly+woman+enjoys+sweet+dumplings+at+a+nursing+home+in+Beijing.

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 folks. 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.

. . .

Update: This post prompted interest in senior-serving organizations across the U.S., so after Hyphen crowd-sourced readers for AAPI elderly organizations in their area, I wrote a follow-up post compiling suggestions into what I hope will be an ever-growing list.

oases in the california desert

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.)

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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 silence.

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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)

mandela and the myth of the power of one

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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.”

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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.)

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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.

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The Rivonia Trial.  Photo credit:  AP Photo / Peter Magubane.

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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?”)

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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

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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.

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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.