Monday, April 28, 2014

This Is Happening

I have a short, ten minute piece that will be performed at 2014 My Asian Mom by the wonderful people at a-squared. It starts Friday. It is happening. You can buy tickets, here (I don't know why it says 7:00 in the ticket drop window, the production starts at 8:00).

So, this is happening. When I wrote my piece, "Why Do We Mistreat Our Korean Mothers?" I was not sure I would ever see it performed. It's fast-paced and split into ten separate parts, a disjunctive narrative that could fall apart under the weight of its chaotic asymmetry. And, even though it's not a direct adaptation of my life, it's still very personal, and a part of that embarrasses me, because I'm also a very private person. But it's time to get over that.

I have faith in a-squared. I have faith in the power of theater, or is it theatre? Google says I'm spelling it wrong.

This is happening too. No, not Calvin Kline. He is not happening (here).

After months of random Kpop posts, Zander Stachniak and I have made a separate website, Critical Kpop. It is a labor of love. This website is happening, has happened, will continue to happen. We've put a lot of work into it (okay, okay, Zander designed most of it) and we think, no, we strongly believe, that we're looking at Kpop from a different angle.

I was worried about this site too, because I worry about everything. I was worried about it failing immediately and embarrassing me, but I was conversely worried about it succeeding and embarrassing me.

What I should accept about myself is that I am always, somehow, embarrassed. If it's not about bad fortune, I'm embarrassed about success (fleeting as it is), about my reaction to success (am I gloating, am I showing off?) I'm embarrassed by conflict, by friendship, by my own exhaustion (you'd be exhausted too if you were this embarrassed all of the time)! When I'm not embarrassed at the moment, I'm considering how I will be embarrassed next, and I wonder, even now, why this is such an essential part of my biological makeup, what part of me sets me in a constant state of shame.

Which is to say, I'm embarrassed by this blog. I'm embarrassed by my lousy segue, informing you to look at the website for the Marble Room Reading Series, which I am co-curating with Olivia Lilley, and am very happy (and embarrassed) about. May 18th is our 12th reading.

And the new issue of Ghost Ocean Magazine is out (why bother with segues?), and it has poetry and fiction that I strongly believe in, and a review of Joshua Young's play in verse, The Holy Ghost People, that I also believe in.

I'm a fiction editor on the magazine (did you know this?); Heather Cox, a poet you should know, founded the magazine, and the wonderful press, Tree Light Books. The press is happening (has happened even). Heather is happening.

When you think about it, and maybe you should, the entire world is happening. Good, bad, tragic, impossible to fathom. The world has no time to be embarrassed, no time to say, "Sorry about that tornado." Or; "You're welcome for the nice breeze." There is only movement and spinning and spinning, etc.

I'm not sure what my point is with this post, except to say: This is what is happening in my life and I'm happy and I'm embarrassed. But also, I can't forget, so very fortunate.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

New Dystopias: A look at Bald New World(s), Orphans, and the complete and total Annihilation of Identity

I've always enjoyed reading about damaged worlds. I feel a thrill in weaving through Dystopic Literature, not just to see what writers do with their futuristic worlds, but to figure out what these worlds are saying about us right now

Peter Tieryas Liu's Bald New World, Ben Tanzer's Orphans, and Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation are dystopic books released within the past year that bring us into three very different futures. But they carry similar themes, a synchronicity that can't be ignored. 

I've written about Peter Tieryas Liu's work extensively because I feel like he's pushing Asian American writing into new avenues. With Bald New World, Peter writes his most personal story yet but brings us into a setting that may just be his most bizarre. In a future where everyone on Earth has gone bald, wigs are the largest commodity. Peter's book follows aimless but good-natured Nick Guan, a war-veteran and photographer, and his friendship with eccentric billionaire filmmaker Larry Chao, who owns, through inheritance, the most powerful wig company in the world.

The story is about image, yes, and about human greed, but at its core it's a story about belonging, and friendship, and what that makes you as a human being.

Who are you, really?

Peter uses the dystopic landscape of a world teetering on the edge to test the limits of human identity. This is a story about image but not just what you see in a mirror: It's about how you perceive yourself.

One of the most telling moments is when Nick finds himself embodying the body of a cricket, as part of a neural sport dangerously played in the future. It's so dangerous that Nick almost forgets that he is, in fact, a human, and the hormonal instincts of the cricket nearly take full control. But if his mind still believed he was a cricket would he still be Nick? With plastic surgery so precise in this future that you can look like literally anyone, who are you really? And does it even matter?

At its heart, Bald New World is a confrontation with identity in a world where so much of that can be bought.

With Orphans, Ben Tanzer brings us a dystopia that pushes inequality to the limit. In this future, jobs are the commodity. And with jobs being so scarce, keeping one, at all costs, is the only thing that matters. Even above holding your own individuality.

There are many issues at play here that break down the identity of the protagonist, Norrin Radd. Norrin has to sell real estate on Mars to the richest people on Earth, who are looking to start a new, better world. He's good at his job, a job that he hates, so what does that make him? No one cares.

What's most interesting about Ben's book is how the Corporation (capital "C") of this novel don't stop at minimizing people at work, using them as cogs, the Corporation's reach touches the home - where they supplant their employees, some gone for months at a time, like Norrin, with idealized clones. These Terrax inherit the memories and much of the personality of the employee, without their glaring, and very human, flaws.

Using Terraxes to take the place of the employee at home is used to avoid heartbreak over these long separations, to keep up productivity. But what the Corporation in this story is really saying is chilling:

In every single way, you can be replaced.

With Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer's first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy, we get a dystopia that continues the question of identity. But it doesn't just say, You can be replaced. A big part of the story leaves you wondering if that would be such a terrible thing.

The enemy here isn't a monolithic corporation, the enemy is science itself (or maybe that's not the right word to use here, maybe there is no enemy). There are strange things happening at Area X, a place cut off from the rest of the world. Annihilation follows an expedition (the twelfth to reach the site) of four nameless woman; our protagonist is the biologist, but there is an anthropologist, a surveyor, and the leader, known only as the psychologist. Names are not important here, in this case, they are forbidden. You are your skill. The personal is to be kept at a minimum for the security of the mission.

But that doesn't stop the mission from falling apart.

As we learn more about the biologist, we find that her participation in this mission is not simply for science. Her husband traveled through the strange, ever changing terrain of Area X on his own mission, and when he returned, he was changed. Himself, but not. Hollow. And then he died. The biologist is in Area X to find out what happened to him. As she progresses, she must also figure out what is happening to her.

Through her interactions with the breathing landscape, her own biology begins to change. There is no doubt: Area X is changing her from within. But if her cells change, her own biological makeup, is she still herself? Can you become an entirely different being and not even realize it?

When it comes down to it, all three books are very different and ask different questions about identity. All are worth reading and analyzing and questioning.

For myself, I'll never stop questioning.

I believe that we are more than our jobs. We are more than what we like on Facebook, what we read, what food we eat. We are more than our skin. Our race. Our personality. Who we love. Even our biology.

But I can't stop wondering. How much more?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cambodian Son, American Exile

Exile. Many of our artists create their greatest works deprived of their native countries. Think Dante and The Divine Comedy. Think: Voltaire. For a time, Hemingway.

And now, think: Kosal Khiev. Cambodian Son follows the life and times of the Exiled American/Spoken Word Artist/Former Gang Member/Attempted Murderer/Fatherless Cambodian as he struggles with his new home, misses his old home, and not just survives, but lives.

Make no mistake, Kosal Khiev is an American. And this is a very American story, a tarnished man seeking redemption. Reaching bottom, and then climbing, desperately, to reach salvation, or justice, or success. I came to the opening night of the annual Asian American Showcase, expecting this basic, but very fulfilling narrative.

But what makes Khiev's story so compelling is the brilliance of that execution, the intensity and charisma of Khiev himself, and the complexity of filmmaker Masahiro Sugano's storytelling. 

This isn't just a story of one man's rise from the bottom, of a man without a country. It's a story seeped in history, of wartime sins: the bombing and displacement and purge of the Cambodian people in the 1970's, the effects of which have rippled down generations, into the lives of millions of people today (how could it not?).  

It's a story of a dehumanized prison system that takes damaged teenagers and throws them to the wolves. Of an immigration policy that tears those children away from their families, sometimes forever. And, of course, it's a story about art, used for healing, and expression, but also as a vessel for the human experience. Like an extra limb for the soul. 

There's a lot going on here. All of these issues intersect and respond to the imperfect life of Kosal Khiev. The complexity of the story is even apparent in the exile. Kosal is Cambodian, but the only life he's ever known as a child was in America. Because of history, his family found themselves exiled from Cambodia, their home. America was his home, and yet, he's lived half of his life in its prisons. 

I'm talking a lot about stories, and I have talked about new, diverse narratives in so many posts because I think they are: 1. Important, 2. Morally Just, and, almost just as important, 3. Interesting. 

But I can't forget that this story here is true, and these struggles are everyday. Opening Night at the Asian American Showcase made it a point to bring the story to reality. At the end of the documentary, (the filmmaker) Masahiro Sugano, spoke with the audience, and he brought with him Kosal Khiev, through the miracle of Skype, where he answered questions from the audience. 

Kosal is still in exile, his struggle far from over. For the viewer, this is a story. We have to be reminded. For Kosal, this is his life

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

on Satire #RACISM

Sorry #NotSorry

It was a stupid tweet, obviously. Ching-Chong Ding-Dong is tantamount to screaming "Gook" at me on the street. If you're a popular figure (and I know it's an intern or a web editor that sent that tweet out), you can't put something like this out there, especially without context, and not expect a response.

I wonder though if a hashtag of #Redskins make this tweet okay? If it was clear that he was being ironic, would this work? Repeating dehumanizing words, words that many Asian Americans hear all the time, is that even really satire?

Colbert apologized on his show on Monday, reminding everyone that he is being satirical here. The crowd gave uproarious support for the embattled idol. People are overreacting. Being stupid. They don't know what satire is. Everyone is just too sensitive nowadays. 

Overreaction #Proportion 

Of course when Asian Americans were upset about How I Met Your Mother's yellowface, it was an overreaction.

Of course when Asian Americas were outraged at Two Broke Girl's portrayal of a silly Asian buffoon, Han Lee, that was an overreaction.

Of course, of course!, when a child on a Jimmy Kimmel segment called for America to kill all Chinese, and they still aired it, causing Asians to protest, that was an overreaction.

Of course when Seth Macfarlane's sitcom, Dads, made fun of Chinese penises and strange sexual appetites, that was an overreaction when Asian Americans were upset.

Of course (of course!), Katy Perry's appropriation of Asian culture at the AMA awards and the outrage that followed, this too was an overreaction.

All of these incidents, alone, made in a vacuum, a fantastical sphere without history or time, are not outrageous. The Colbert Ching-Chong Ding-Dong, alone, is not a huge issue.

But understand: There is history here. There is context. Understand: These are just a few examples that have come up recently. 

Media #Comedy

Micky Rooney in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's. This film was Iconic Hepburn. Forever marred.

Micky Rooney playing this character is the epitome of everything wrong with Asian portrayals in media.

Do I see a change from then and now? Yes.

Now this is done in the guise of irony. This continues, it breathes, this perception of Asians lives on.

Oppression #Perception

What I'm talking about is not Oppression, capital "O," I'm talking about Perception. Which is a tool of oppression, but hear me out here. You've made it this far.

What I'm saying is that as long as these perceptions of Asians live on, even through irony, Asian Americans will remain as Others.

What I'm saying is that Orientalism, even done with reverence, is a form of imprisonment.

I'm saying that it's time we went beyond these stereotypes and even beyond satirizing them. Because when you use racial humor ironically, you're still seeing race, not the person. It's still, in the end, dehumanizing.

We need new narratives. Asian Americans that have goals and dreams and faults that go beyond. It's time. Asian Americans must demand new stories.

Privilege #Problem

I think it's important to know my own privilege. My privilege is that my race is ambiguous. As I've grown older, it has become even more so. I can navigate many different worlds without worrying about someone yelling "Gook" at me on the street. Since I am not often perceived as Asian, people's perceptions of me are often blank, but when it benefits me, I can use my (half) Korean ethnicity to my advantage.

I have a short play upcoming in the show, My Asian Mom, this May. I'm very proud of it, but I'm also scared. I wonder sometimes: Is my play Asian enough? 

My mother is Korean, was born and grew up there, but I often don't know if her personality has anything to do with her culture, if anything she does is truly, distinctly, Korean. So I worry that, somehow, my play and experiences will not be viewed as "authentic."

That's the problem. Even I have an image of what an Asian American story should be. I have seen so few examples of anything different, that my imagination is limited. My mind has been wired this way. We are imprisoned by banality.

Satire #Satire

So the question remains, was Colbert's Ching-Chong Ding-Dong satire?

I'll give him this, it was an attempt at satire. Satire punches up, the old saying goes, and this, with context, almost does that. But satire, at its best, takes something morally wrong, and exaggerates the injustice to add humor and highlight the absurdity. The Washington Redskins owner trying to pay off Native Americans while keeping that horrible name, that is morally wrong. Using the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation joke doesn't quite highlight that absurdity. Because it's everyday language for many people, language used against Asian Americans to dismiss or badger them. For it to work as satire, truly, he'd have to use language that were more absurd then the language that is presented here.

Colbert is not the first and only comedian that uses racial (or homophobic, or sexist) humor to confront those issues ironically. Often, it's effective. But even more often, the point of those jokes are lost, and instead, the humor becomes the words themselves, and those words and those thoughts continue.

But is shaming the answer? Is telling someone that you can't say *this or *that the way?

I'm not so sure. And if shaming is effective, it may not be the way, just a way. 

Now #Tomorrow

It's getting better.

It's getting better.

It's getting better.

It's getting better. 


But we're not there yet.