Next Gen Asian adoptions | Defusing Laos | Tofu! | Fiction contest winner
ASIAN AMERICA UNABRIDGED
Ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro in
The New Legacy
Issue 21 | FALL.10 | $4.95
Artistic memories (p. 42)
04 Editor’s Note
Who Needs Cooking Lessons?: Mainstream television is jumping on the Asian food bandwagon, but young Asian American home cooks aren’t biting. By Darryl Campbell
As American as Tofu: The past, present and future of making soy bean curd. By Susan C. Kim
Two Cups of Rice: You thought you knew how to make rice. By Sylvan Mishima Brackett
F.O.B. | Front of the Book 10
Q&A: Jake Shimabukuro reintroduces the ukulele to the world. By Luis Torres
lazy susan: Geeks turned board game designers, New York speed dating and hip-hop dance crews.
RECIPE: How to leave a video game legacy. By Annette Lee
REDUX | Another Look at Media 18
YELLOW BRICK AVENUE: Asian Americans and social networking. By Akito Yoshikane
FEATURES 32 born identity: Asian adoptees are reclaiming their heritage by adopting children from their birth countries. By Kelley Christine Blomberg 36
Land of a million bombs: The "secret war" left Laos riddled with unexploded bombs. Now, the Laotian American community is reaching out to help. By Santi Suthinithet
TAKEOUT | Stuff to Take Home 20 The Future of Fragrance: Perfumer Yosh Han appeals to the public’s sense of smell. By Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik
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Read the Hyphen blog, back issues and more at hyphenmagazine.com
Asian food goes mainstream (p. 22)
Next generation Asian adoptees (p. 32)
Familiar Strangers: Artist Diem Chau sculpts memory into everyday objects. By Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik
FILM 46 A fighting chance: An Asian American film crew shows the human side of Mixed Martial Arts. By Sylvie Kim
BOOKS 50 Becoming Asian American: Karen Tei Yamashita’s literary epic, I-Hotel, documents the 1960s civil rights movement. By Cathlin Goulding 52
Be No. 1 in your own living room (p. 17)
New world tofu (p. 25)
MUSIc 54 Ladies Delight: Former Filipina American hiphop group the Rhapsodistas talks music, politics and making it in a male-dominated industry. By Mitchell Kuga
Fiction 60 Pilgrims (What Is Lost and You Cannot Regain): winner of the 2010 Asian American Short Story contest. By Sunil Yapa
First Person 66 seeking perfection: Hyphen’s publisher recounts her struggle against the pressure to be thin. By Lisa Lee
Top Three: Books that left a legacy in author Belle Yang’s creative life.
Comic 69 The New Legacy By Louie Chin
COVER CREDITS: photographer Aaron Yoshino | photo assistant Mark Kato | hair/makeup Aya Sakutori | model Jake Shimabukuro
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Looking Forward and Back After Portuguese immigrants introduced the ukulele to Hawaii in 1879, King David Kalakaua fell in love with the four-stringed instrument and encouraged its use for a renaissance of Hawaiian cultural arts. Kalakaua thus mixed old and new to make the ukulele a symbol of Hawaii, and his legacy continues. Today, the mashup is in the hands — and fingers — of ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, featured on this issue’s cover. Shimabukuro, who attained rock star status after his cover of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” hit YouTube, has added a modern flair to this traditional Hawaiian instrument. He’s creating his own legacy for the ukulele with his music. “As DJ Qbert [has done with] the turntable, Jake's music has impacted the way people perceive the ukulele,” says Aaron Yoshino, who photographed Shimabukuro for the cover. “That truly is leaving behind a legacy.” This issue is about the intersection of past and present. In Laos, the legacy of America’s war in Southeast Asia is a countryside littered with unexploded bombs that still threaten to kill and maim. Santi Suthinithet profiles Laotian Americans who advocate for the clearing of these bombs and work to improve living conditions in the country. After World War II, large numbers of Americans began adopting babies from Asia. Kelley Christine Blomberg, who was one those
babies, writes about an intriguing phenomenon: Asian adoptees adopting children from their birth countries as a way to connect to their heritage. In our Food section, Darryl Campbell looks at the mainstreaming of Asian home-cooked cuisine and its simultaneous decline among second- and third-generation Asian Americans. Susan C. Kim examines how San Francisco Bay Area manufacturers of handmade tofu, a centuries-old tradition, continue to thrive; and in the You-Thought-You-Knew-How category, Sylvan Mishima Brackett, owner of Japanese catering company Peko-Peko, provides tips for cooking rice to perfection. Redux takes us back to 1997 and reassesses the impact of Asian Avenue, the pioneering website that was a social network before social networks technically existed. The issue closes with “Pilgrims (What Is Lost and You Cannot Regain),” the winning entry in the Asian American Short Story Contest run by Hyphen and The Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Winning author Sunil Yapa tells a Sri Lankan immigrant’s poignant story of anguish and reconciliation. History offers lessons for each new generation. At Hyphen, we’re always looking forward with an eye on what’s behind us.
Harry Mok Editor in Chief
Cover Shoot: Behind the Scenes Photographer Aaron Yoshino was familiar with the work of this issue’s cover model, ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro, from growing up in Hawaii, but Yoshino had lost track of Shimabukuro’s career over the past decade and a half, during which the musician had become an internationally renowned phenom. “Shooting him was a process of reconciling the sort of geeky, glasses-wearing, locally born Japanese guy who was really good at playing the ukulele, and who I heard on the radio in high school, with the 2010 version of Jake,” Yoshino said. “That is, the nicely dressed and styled local boy who is really good at playing the ukulele.” As it turns out, Yoshino found Shimabukuro to still be very much a local boy at heart. “He was one of the more patient subjects I've had to shoot, and after three hours in front of studio lights, Jake was cheerful as ever, jamming [on] his ukulele and trying not to smile for every photo — his natural reflex.”
Go to hyphenmagazine.com/extras for more photos from our cover shoot.
Correction: A feature story about abortion and Asian American women in Issue 20 misspelled the surname of one woman profiled in the article. She is Priscilla Huang. That article also omitted that it was funded by New America Media as part of the 2009 New America Media Health Fellowships.
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Photo by andria lo
By Lisa Wong Macabasco
Even as Asian food is featured frequently on cooking shows and in magazines, Asian Americans appear to be abandoning it, according to Darryl Campbell, who explores the phenomenon in this issue. “Second- and third-generation Asian Americans simply don't cook Asian food for themselves anymore,” says Campbell, a co-editor at The Bygone Bureau, an online travel and culture magazine. Campbell identifies two cooks who are part of the new legacy of keeping Asian food in American kitchens: Indian vegetarian food expert Manjula Jain of Manjula's Kitchen and Thai mother-and-daughter team Dim and Cathy Geefay. For his part, Campbell makes Asian food regularly at his South Bend, IN, home — and he claims to make a mean pancit. We say goodbye to three beloved editorial staffers with this issue. Neelanjana Banerjee has been with Hyphen since the beginning, and over the past eight years has shape-shifted from advisory board member to to managing editor to Books and Fiction editor. One thing that hasn’t changed over time is the volunteer effort that makes the entire magazine happen — both a blessing and a curse, she says. “There is this powerful sense of dedication and learning among the staff. But, still, we work really, really, really hard and could use some dollas!” Banerjee will soon be packing her bags for a sabbatical in India with her husband, Robin Sukhadia, who was crowned the first Mr. Hyphen in 2006. Departing Film editor Sylvie Kim calls sitting down with actor John Cho a highlight of her twoand-a-half-year tenure. “I had to put my digital recorder down because my hand was shaking so much during the interview,” she says. “He's just as good-looking in person.” Kim, who focused the Film section on up-and-coming filmmakers and actors, will continue to co-edit Hyphen’s blog while finishing a master’s thesis in Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. Copy editor Elizabeth Smith is departing to teach in Japan after a year with Hyphen, which she calls “the coolest Asian American magazine out there — once, upon hearing that I worked with Hyphen, a friend got really excited and called it ‘like Rolling Stone for Asians.’ ” A memorable moment was being brought backstage by Hyphen events manager Lanlian Szeto to interview contestants in the 2010 Mr. Hyphen contest: “She said, ‘Pick your favorite.’ Don't mind if I do!”
Although Julia Sonmi Heglund had never used Asian Avenue, she enjoyed taking a nostalgic trip back through the Internet to illustrate this issue’s story on the rise and fall of that Asian American web community. “I'm a sucker for early websites, both their aesthetic and content,” says Heglund, who lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Morning News. Hawaii native Aaron Yoshino grew up hearing Jake Shimabukuro’s music, but today he’s blown away by the ukulele superstar’s international celebrity status: “He was invited to play for Queen Elizabeth — I don't even think Ozzy has gotten to do that yet.” At the cover shoot, Yoshino was treated to a song that the queen was probably not privy to. “Jake plays a cover of the Family Guy theme like nobody's business. He 100 percent totally slays it.” To illustrator Louie Chin, the theme of this issue isn’t merely about trends or things happening now; it’s also about everything that has come before. For this issue’s comic, Chin performed an in-depth analysis of the facial hair of a family of men throughout generations and sifted through photos of “random rugged men” from the past for accuracy. Look closely, and you’ll see the artist himself: “I kind of put myself in the comic, in the sense [that] I can't grow any awesome facial hair.” The Brooklyn, NY-based artist has self-published two books (Rat and It's Not All Ok), and a third called Bensonhurst, based on the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up, is slated for a September release. See more of Chin’s work at west-ate.com. In the short story “Pilgrims (What is Lost and You Cannot Regain),” Sunil Yapa details the unexpected encounter between a recent emigrate from Sri Lanka and a local man with painful ties to her new home in central Pennsylvania. Discussing the title, Yapa says he came across this definition after writing the story: “Pilgrims are persons who journey between states, passing through territories not their own, seeking something we might call completion.” Yapa lives in New York City, and his writing has appeared in the MultiCultural Review and Pindeldyboz: Stories that defy classification.
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Open Letter to Hyphen Readers Dear Friends, As a volunteer-run publication, Hyphen is a passion project and a veritable labor of love. As one of its longtime contributors, I remain committed to the magazine because I love what Hyphen is about: coverage of Asian America that you won’t find anywhere else. I joined Hyphen in 2005 because I wanted to help tell stories about our community that have gone overlooked by the mainstream press. I’ve written articles on topics ranging from eco-friendly nail shops to Filipino krumpers (a style of dance). I’ve also edited two sections of the magazine — all in the name of presenting and covering Asian America, unabridged. Despite our niche, Hyphen has not been immune to the economic downturn. In the past year, our income dropped by half. But thanks to our dedicated staff, we continue to produce a magazine featuring top-notch articles, design, artwork and photography. But we need your help. We need to raise at least $10,000 this summer, which is the cost of printing one issue of the magazine and paying small stipends to our feature writers. We rely heavily on donations to continue our work, so we ask that you donate what you can, from $1 to $1,000. No cliché here — every little bit helps. If the power of the Asian American story isn’t enough, here are just a few reasons from the past year to continue supporting Hyphen: • We were nominated for a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award, which recognizes excellence in alternative and independent publishing. We were selected from more than 1,300 publications. • We attracted hundreds of submissions for our third annual short story contest, the only writing competition to highlight emerging Asian American authors. Co-sponsored by New York City’s Asian American Writers' Workshop, the winner receives a $1,000 award; the current winner’s story is published in this issue. • We expanded our website and now feature additional Web exclusives and more original work from our stand-out photographers and illustrators. We continue to provide daily commentary and coverage on issues that matter to Asian America, from hate crimes to immigration reform to pop culture criticism. I hope you’re as inspired as I am by what we have accomplished so far this year, and that you’ll continue to support our work by sending in a tax-deductible donation via our website (hyphenmagazine.com/donate). Thank you in advance and please know that we can’t do this without you! Sincerely,
Momo Chang Hyphen editor and writer
Publisher Lisa Lee
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Editor in Chief Harry Mok Managing Editor Lisa Wong Macabasco Creative Director Erica Jennifer Loh Jones Editorial Editors Neelanjana Banerjee (Books, Literature), Sita Bhaumik (Artwell, Takeout), Momo Chang (DVDs), Nina Kahori Fallenbaum (Food), Cathlin Goulding (Books), Sylvie Kim (Film), Abigail Licad (Books), Kimberly Lien (Front of the Book), Pia Sarkar (Features), Margot Seeto (Music), Maveric Vu (Front of the Book), Yumi Wilson (First Person), Akito Yoshikane (Redux) Contributing Editors Annette Lee, Angela Pang Copy Chief Kimberly Lien Copy Editors Kony Kim, Pauline Moc, Elizabeth L. Smith Editorial Assistant Jimmy La Creative Director of Photography Andria Lo Photo Editor Jessica Lum Editorial Designers Dalen Gilbrech, Lawrence Guzman, Jennifer Kim Van Nguyen Design Assistant Jennifer Kim Van Nguyen Business Personnel Manager Lanlian Szeto Legal Counsel Hung Chang Accountant Jay Chi Secret Agent Annette Lee Publisher’s Assistant Stephanie Chan Marketing Events Director Lanlian Szeto Events Coordinators Christina Dou, Christopher Jocson, Clay Ngo, Dian Pan Advertising Manager Lorenzo Mah Circulation Manager Arthur Chiu Subscriptions Manager Stephanie Chan Community Outreach Manager Willa Hu Community Outreach Coordinator Andrew Pai Marketing Associates Anthony Cheng, Ianna Huang, Irene Kao, Charin Kidder, Kevin Lin, Mark Power Production Director Mike Lee Business Copy Editor Jackie Huang Summer Interns Ivana He, Celi Tamayo-Lee, Marian Manapsal
Tech Web Director Sean Aquino Designers and Developers Christine Vilar, Nina Reyes Tech Consultant My Nguyen SEO Consultant William Wong Techie Andy Kuo Blog Editors Sylvie Kim, erin Khue Ninh Bloggers Saif Ansari, Neelanjana Banerjee, Cynthia Brothers, Momo Chang, Joyce Chen, Winston Chou, Ken Choy, Melissa Hung, Theresa Celebran Jones, Lisa Ko, Claire Light, Alvin Lin, Dot Lin, Jessica Lum, Mic Nguyen, Jennifer Thuy Vi Nguyen, Barbara Jane Reyes, Catherine Shu, Joy Tang, Catherine Traywick, Victoria Yue Board of Directors Samara Azam, Janice Lee, Chia-Chi A. Li, Wil Wong, Bernice Yeung Founding Editor Melissa Hung
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Hyphen on the scene Out and about across Asian America.
7 Hyphen Issue 20 and Home:Word New York City release party 1. MC Geologic of the Blue Scholars rocked the sweaty masses at The Delancey on June 4.
An Rong Xu (three-half.com): 1 Frank Jang, courtesy of RAMS: 2 Han Wang (theinvinciblecities.com): 3 Andria Lo (andrialo.com): 4 Gene Lewis: 5 JJ Casas (jcasasphotography.com): 6 Jay Jao (mochamonkey.com): 7 Albert Law (porkbellystudio.com): 8 Les Talusan (lestalusanphoto.com): 9
Changing Reality: The Voices of Asian American TV Stars, organized by RAMS, Inc. (Richmond Area Multi-Services) 2. A panel on being Asian American on reality TV with Project Runway winner Chloe Dao, Top Chef winner Hung Huynh, The Amazing Race winners Tammy and Victor Jih and The Real World: San Francisco cast member Pamela Ling at San Francisco's Hotel Kabuki on May 12. Slant 10: Bold Asian American Images film festival 3. Festival curator (and Hyphen founding editor) Melissa Hung with filmmaker J.P. Chan (I Don't Sleep I Dream) after a screening of short films made by emerging and midcareer Asian American artists on May 21 in Houston. Hyphen Issue 20 and Home:Word release party meet and greet with Magnetic North and Taiyo Na 4. Taiyo Na (front, left) and Magnetic North serenaded
8 fans with smooth summertime jams from their new album at the Museum of Chinese in America in Manhattan, NY, on June 6. Eighth Annual Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles 5. Actors Samrat Chakrabarti and Radha Mitchell at the closing night gala reception on April 25. Hyphen Issue 20 San Francisco release party 6. 2009 Mr. Hyphen winner (and Issue 20 cover model) Pahole Sookkasikon with Jane Cho on May 14 at Som Bar. Alien/ation: An Illustration Show, organized by Hyphen and Paper Hat Productions 7. Live paintings by Rick Kitagawa. 8. (From left) Scott Leddy with artists and brohams Danny Neece, Jon Stich and Jorge Mascarenhas on July 10 at Space Gallery in San Francisco. The Sulu Series, a performance showcase presented by Sulu DC 9. Sulu DC founding co-director Simone Jacobson at Almaz Restaurant in Washington, DC, on February 20.
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Four Little Strings Jake Shimabukuro reintroduces the ukulele to the world. Writer Luis Torres Photographer Aaron Yoshino The word “ukulele” may conjure up odd images, like gimmicky strumming by actors in old movies or tropical tunes rendered by pseudo-Hawaiians in touristy TV commercials. But the ukulele, introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in 1879, has a long tradition as a serious instrument. And Jake Shimabukuro, who covers everything from Bach to the Beatles with world-class virtuosity, has brought the ukulele to new levels of sophistication. Shimabukuro, a fifthgeneration Japanese American from Hawaii, has collaborated with diverse artists, including Cyndi Lauper and Yo-Yo Ma, and has toured with the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Bela Fleck. “I’m always thrilled when people come up to me after a concert and say, ‘Wow, I’ll never look at the ukulele the same.’ They have a greater appreciation for the instrument and that makes me feel good,” Shimabukuro says. With his ninth solo album set for release in September, Shimabukuro is poised to carry this little four-stringed instrument to the mainland — and beyond. Having read about you and your work, I have to ask: Is your name now officially “Ukulele Sensation Jake Shimabukuro”? Oh, I don’t know about that. But it’s been really amazing how people have been supportive, and it’s amazing that the ukulele has been gaining so much popularity. I’m just a big fan of the ukulele itself. Every time I hear the ukulele in a commercial or on television or the radio, you know, I’m all smiles. Are audiences still amazed at the versatility of the ukulele the way you play it? I’ll get comments like, “Where were the other instruments on stage? I couldn’t see them.” Or, “Where was the rest of the band hiding?” They don’t see how it’s possible to get all of that sound and color with just four little
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“Whatever I do, I make sure it’s something that my parents would be proud of.”
strings. I like surprising people and I love just watching people’s faces light up when they hear a song they’re totally not expecting to hear on the instrument. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is sort of a signature now for you. Do people still go crazy when they hear your interpretation of that song? It’s great. I have to say thank you to YouTube and Google. That little video clip has really helped to get my name out there and expose people to what I’m doing with the instrument. And the thing is, I don’t even know who put that little clip on YouTube. From there, people just started emailing it to friends, and I hear now there’s about 5.5 million downloads. I still can’t believe it. What are among the most satisfying experiences you’ve had as a performer? In December, I was invited to perform for the queen of England at the Royal Variety Performance. That’s a show that the royal family puts on each year, and it’s kind of a benefit concert. So here I am on stage, playing with Bette Midler. We played the Beatles’ “In My Life.” And just to share the stage with Bette Midler, Lady Gaga, Michael Buble and Whoopi Goldberg — what an honor. Does the queen dig the ukulele? It turns out she’s very familiar with the instrument. George Harrison was a big ukulele enthusiast [and] I know that he rubbed elbows with the queen many times. And the ukulele is becoming quite popular in the UK. I think the queen likes ukulele. How have you been able to process all the success you’ve had with this little instrument? When I first started playing ukulele, I played all traditional Hawaiian music. When I was a teenager, I started to branch out and play different things. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I’d be meeting the queen of England or playing [in] front
of thousands of people. I’m just so grateful. And it shows that ukulele has come a long way. You see that when Paul McCartney plays something on the ukulele at his concert in a dedication to George Harrison or when you see Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam playing ukulele. They make it cool [by] showing that it’s not a toy. It’s not a novelty. It can be a very, very serious instrument played in a concert hall. Is composing as satisfying as performing for you? In the beginning, I wasn’t focusing on being a songwriter. I liked covering other tunes, like a Beatles tune or a Michael Jackson song, and then I [would] arrange it for ukulele. Now, over the last couple of years, I’ve been finding a great deal of excitement, a great deal of joy in composing, in writing [and] trying to create my own songs. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that. You’ve recently written a song “Go for Broke” in honor of the 442nd Regiment, the decorated Japanese American World War II veterans. The Japanese American veterans have always been a huge source of inspiration for me. The way that they live, their commitment, their conviction and their loyalty to this country and patriotism — it inspired me to always try to make the right decision. Whatever I do, I make sure it’s something that my parents would be proud of. Luis Torres is a journalist based in Los Angeles. He last wrote about Japanese Peruvians in Issue 19.
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It’S Our Turn Asian Americans get into the business of board games. Writer Steve Cha Photographers Nathan Kwok and Jessica Lum WE CAN’T seem to shake off nerd stecause waiting for turns is the boring reotypes that paint Asian Americans as part of a game,” Pillalamarri says. “Most pimple-faced youths with Coke-bottle times, people can't put their finger on glasses, extensive dental gear and a why this experience is more fun.” Notapenchant for engaging in three-day-long bly, North Star board games never elimiRisk battles. nate players. Today, these “nerds” have rebrandPillalamarri isn’t the only game fanated themselves “game enthusiasts” and ic turned designer. Wei-Hwa Huang, 34, instead of living in their parents’ baseis a four-time winner of the World Puzzle ments, these Asian Americans are Championship. The designer describes changing the board game world in both the cult and mainstream scenes, turn by turn. Such is the case for Satish Pillalamarri, who proved at a young age that he understood the elements of a well-played turn: sacrificing a bishop to keep his rook, building a hospitality empire on Boardwalk and keeping Pieces from Say Anything by Dominic Crapuchettes and Satish Pillalamarri his spy hidden in Stratego. He also learned that board games his evolution from a puzzle tester to masbring people together. termind as a natural “growth of a person, “I taught my mom [chess] because I where they transition from a consumer to wanted someone to play with,” Pillalaa critic to a creator.” marri, 31, says. Much like Pillalamarri, Huang believes While Pillalamarri’s childhood love of that “a good game is one that is fun. Peboard games like chess and Monopoly is riod.” But constructing a fun game can at hardly unique, he inherited his knack for times be, well, puzzling. entrepreneurship from his father. Now “As a game designer, you often have the co-president of Maryland-based to make trade-off decisions — which is North Star Games, Pillalamarri and his better, a game that most players are OK business partner Dominic Crapuchettes with playing or a game that a few playhave launched two successful lines of ers really, really like but everyone else board games: Wits & Wagers and Say hates?” Huang says. Anything. Both are fast-paced group Though he resides in Silicon Valley, games where all players act simultaHuang spent many of his formative years neously, guessing numerical values to in Taiwan, where, he says, board games questions for the former and predicting are cheaply produced and often imitatplayers’ answers for the latter. ed. There, Huang learned an important The former Jeopardy! contestant lesson: “Ideas are cheap, easy for othventured into board game development ers to steal and hard to really protect.” in 2003 as an MBA student at the Uni- Perhaps that’s why Huang’s first mulversity of Maryland; North Star would tiplayer board game is still under tight officially go into business later that year. wraps — he doesn’t want any overseas Unlike the strategy games he played as a bootlegs. child, North Star focuses on developing While Pillalamarri and Huang have and delivering socially engaging games focused on fun games, Andy Uehara, that are easy to learn and quick to play. a graduate student at the University of “None of our games have turns be- Southern California’s interactive media
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Puzzle master Wei-Hwa Huang
program, aims to create educational games that illuminate relationships and interaction. “Boards games have something digital games don't have: faceto-face, physical [interaction],” Uehara says. “People act differently when online.” Though Uehara, 33, focuses on educational digital games, he has also helped create two board games: Conveyor Belt Deathmatch (where players angle to bump each other off a conveyor belt) and Elephant in the Relationship, a more serious game about any kind of relationship. “People aren't always clear and upfront,” Uehara says. Through a combination of word restrictions and Mad Libs, a player must get their partner to guess the unknown topic. Considering the strides that each of these Asian American board game designers are making, it looks as though we’ve turned a nerdy stigma into a cool and profitable professional calling. Now get ready to pass “Go.” Steve Cha is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His last article was about Japanese maid cafes in the United States.
Fast As You Can Can you find true love over 12 five-minute rounds? Writer and photographer Gloria Kim I WALK INTO Forbidden City, a bar in New York City’s East Village, and order soda water. Not to be a teetotaler, but to keep my wits (and eyes) about me. I’m here for Asian CineVision’s first-ever speed dating event — also my first speed dating experience. This event is a one-off fundraiser, but numerous other companies hold regular events for Asian American singles in Manhattan. Such companies are catering to a growing market. According to a 2007 study published in the American Sociological Review, while the rate of Asian-white marriages is declining, marriages between Asian Americans are on the rise (due in part to the increase in Asian immigration to the United States during the 1990s). These
We are to scribble onto yellow cards the names of people we like. Round one: I meet Min Kim, a lively film researcher. My first impression is positive: glasses, interesting job and — the bonus — Korean American. I tell him we share the same surname and the conversation promptly blossoms around further commonalities. We’re both University of Cali-
Min Kim chats with Sophia Giddens, the speed dating event’s host.
couples must start somewhere, right? Going into this event sober, I have no expectations. I’ve spent my 20s flitting between Los Angeles and London, halfhoping to find that elusive Korean-British male wit — a fool’s errand, it turns out. At this point, I’ll be satisfied with sharp, funny, creative and motivated. No actors. Fifteen minutes in, the bar is pretty empty. I befriend the woman next to me, Eva Yuan, a grad student at Pratt Institute who’s 30 but looks 23. She guesses that I’m 22, underestimating by five years. Later, Dianna Lo joins us; she also looks younger than her 25 years. The age bracket for tonight’s event is 21 to 30, but few of us look a day over 25. We speculate that anyone under 25 probably wouldn’t be serious enough to pay $25 to speed date. (For what it’s worth, the 31 to 40 event for the following evening is sold out.) Once all participants have arrived, we learn that there are 12 five-minute rounds.
fornia alumni and L.A. bred, and we know of each other’s high schools. But then the tipping point: He reveals that he’s 24 — too young for my blood. Next is a reserved graphic designer. Amid the din of the bar, I think I hear a Scottish lilt, but he’s Egyptian. Then, the lineup grows increasingly unremarkable, and I go into talk-show-host mode. I rotate through an apparently drunk guy, a token white guy, a questionably gay guy and a cute-but-smarmy guy. One guy, a veteran speed dater, compliments my hairstyle but then blows it by calling it “The Justin Bieber.” In the end, I choose two of the 12 I met — though my interests are more friendly than romantic. My first speed dating experience has actually been less than nervewracking; I’ve been spared the stress of having to suss out an Asian fetish or playing ethnicity-guessing games.
I match with just one, Kim. Fair enough, since the only other guy I liked was the questionably gay one. Lo, whose three picks reciprocate, says she probably won’t speed date again. “I'm more attracted to personality, and it's hard to say yes or no in just five minutes,” she says. Last I heard, she’s met with one of her matches. Yuan reports that she “didn’t really like anyone there” and would prefer to seek out someone with a shared background. She’s gone on to explore different formats and has had better luck at a Chinese singles event. I, on the other hand, meet Kim for an amusing night out that ends in Korea Way with an awkward hug that definitively brings this experience to a close. Maybe I'll try kismet next. Gloria Kim is a writer and designer living in Los Angeles. Her last article was about Asian American actors who leverage their ethnic ambiguity.
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Dance, Dance Evolution Asian Americans pop, lock and break their way into hip-hop dance culture. Writer Maveric Vu Photographer John C. Liau AMONG THE DOZENS of dancers on within the hip-hop dance stage, the three smallest ones grab the industry as well. spotlight. Jeremiah Bastida — who looks However, while Asian miniature in his oversized white T-shirt American dancers are reThe youngest Funksters strike a pose. — has been dancing with Funksters, the ceiving unprecedented youth division of San Francisco Bay Areaairtime, there may be based hip-hop dance company Funkbrelsome backlash. “While la, for three years. He is 9 years old. we’re at the height in “The whole idea was to combine a terms of visibility, it always sense of community and family with a presents a challenge when professional dance atmosphere, to crenetworks are going to be ate something new that the dance community did not have,” says Gina Mariko Rosales, former Funkanometry San Francisco executive director. Funkbrella is part of an emerging scene in the hip-hop dance FR3SH Dance Troupe, from New Jersey, performs at Kaba Modern flips its choreography upside down. world: community- and Sockhop in San Francisco in June. college-based dance crews composed primarily of Asian Amerlooking for something different [for ratally progress into more theatrical, musical icans. With the help of dance competition ings],” Calvario says. “We’re very lucky productions, complete with story lines TV shows, many of which prominently feathat we came at an opportune time, but and elaborate sets. She cites San Diegoture Asian American dancers, these crews some of the younger groups might find it based crew — and 2010 Body Rock runare making waves in the industry, as well more challenging to break through now.” ner-up — Choreo Cookies as an innovaas planting the steps for the next generaAsian American hip-hop dancers may tive crew to watch out for. tion of hip-hop dancers. have a secret weapon for continued sucOther more nontraditional dance “Having Asian faces on TV has really cess: a culture of discipline and respect. styles are becoming integrated into hipexploded the identity of hip-hop dance,” Ingrained interdependence and reverhop performances, and Asian American says Arnel Calvario, a dance crew manence for elders allows dancers to set egos dance crews are at the forefront. Channelager and adviser. “With so many Asian aside and work cohesively. “When you put ing ’70s New York gay club culture, Kaba American dancers on TV now, we’re at a together discipline, respect and a sense Modern executed a group-synchronized time where the face of hip-hop dance is of family, that’s really a foundation for a “shablam” — where a person spins into very diversified and inclusive.” successful group,” Calvario says. a flat-backed drop with one leg extended This is due in large part to shows Like in any family, there is a sense of and the other tucked — during a perforlike MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew learned tradition that reveals itself in the mance at Sockhop, Funkbrella’s annual (ABDC), which brought the Asian Americhoreography. In the ’90s, many Asian fundraiser, in June. Voguing, wacking and can hip-hop community into the national American crews finessed popular street other club styles are also moving from the spotlight. Blogs and Facebook status upstyles like popping, locking and breaking. streets onto the stage, courtesy of Asian dates overflowed with love, particularly Then, the moves began to evolve. American dancers. for Kaba Modern, which Calvario founded “A lot of Asians are opening [hip-hop “[Our influence is] at the height right in 1992, and JabbaWockeeZ, the show’s dance] to other styles and other forms,” now of any other time in hip-hop dance culfirst-season winner. says Anna Sarao, founder of Body Rock, ture,” Calvario says. “In mainstream, we’re And the momentum grew. Jabba went a massive annual hip-hop dance compevisible; in underground, some of the best on to headline its own show at the MGM tition in San Diego, CA. “The choreograpeople winning battles [are] Asian AmeriGrand in Las Vegas earlier this year. phers I see nowadays are blending concans. It’s definitely a proud time.” Quest Crew, an all-Asian American dance temporary jazz and lyrical [dance] into the troupe, won the third season of ABDC. movement.” Maveric Vu is Hyphen’s Front of the Book editor. According to Calvario, more Asian AmeriSarao predicts that the Asian Ameri- His last article was about Asian American car cans are garnering positions of power can hip-hop dance scene will eventu- designers.
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RECIPE Q&A Step 1
The Big Game How to become a video game legend. Writer Annette Lee Illustrator Vikki Chu Perhaps the easiest legacy to leave is the one of the video game — even if it is the only high score on your gaming console. You may not be this year’s Donkey Kong champion, Hank Chien, but hey, you can be No. 1 in your own living room.
WHAT YOU NEED • A video game console • Adhesive bandages • Understanding roommates or family members • Earplugs for roommates or family members • Dedication 1.
Break things. Break all the pots and cut all the grass. At least in Zelda’s world, that’s where all the money, hearts and goodies are.
Keep your digits nimble. Your moves are only as fast as your fingers. Those monsters trapped in bubbles in Bubble Bobble won’t pop themselves. Do some finger push-ups at work. Challenge your friends to impromptu thumb wrestling. Or even better: Challenge a Chinese finger trap to do its job.
Don’t save up for rainy days. Just like your tax refund, you say you’ll save it but end up splurging on an iPad or shoes. If you can’t live like a responsible adult, you shouldn’t play like one either. In Super Mario 3, go ahead and use those Warp Whistles because what the hell are you really saving them for anyway? Seize the day, Mario.
Go all in. Press ALL the buttons — REALLY FAST. This strategy worked for me, at least, in Mortal Kombat.
Practice makes points. Ultimately, unlike forcing yourself to memorize the week's new list of characters for the allday Chinese lessons that consumed every Saturday of your youth, leaving your mark on the video game high scoreboard is going to take even more practice, dedication and mindless repetition. Your only teacher is the game and the only person you can let down is yourself.
Sacrifice. Just as sometimes you’ll be forced to sacrifice a “life” in order to advance in the game, so too must you sacrifice in real life. Your friends, family, social life and waistline will have to suffer in order for you to achieve personal greatness. Your boss may fire you, your significant other may leave you and your power wardrobe may now consist of sweats and a stained kickball team T-shirt from 2004. However, in the end, everyone around you — those left anyway — will understand and even rejoice with you when they see your initials blinking under the bright neon words: High Score.
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The Yellow Brick Avenue Today’s social networking phenomenon has its roots in Asian America. Writer Akito Yoshikane Illustrator Julia Sonmi Heglund Growing up in Chicago’s northern suburbs in the mid-1990s, Jillian Pobocan often felt culturally isolated as one of the few Asian Americans in her area. But in a shift from previous generations, the emergence of the Internet allowed her to seek connections online. So when she was 17, Pobocan was one of the hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans to sign up for Asian Avenue, a race-based online community that has been credited as the second social networking website ever created, after sixdegrees.com. “There were a lot of people I met on there with similar backgrounds, who were [also] one of the few Asian students [in their areas],” Pobocan said. Yet today, Pobocan, now 29, hardly ever visits Asian Avenue, as its popularity has declined amid the explosion of competing social networking websites. What was once a nexus of the panAsian online community for the new millennium has lost followers to blogs and other popular social media platforms. Facebook has been especially popular for Asian Americans,
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according to a user demographic report released by the website last year. Based on surnames and US Census data, since 2005, Asian Americans have been more likely to use Facebook than any other racial group, including whites. When Asian Avenue first launched in 1997, the digital landscape was a new frontier: The idea of an online community was in its infancy and email was still novel. Ben Sun, after working with Internet companies as an investment banker, decided to create a free, niche-based online community with a group of friends. He co-founded Community Connect Inc., the parent company of Asian Avenue, which would later create BlackPlanet and MiGente, similar online communities for blacks and Latinos. What began as a small startup among a group of friends in Sun’s Manhattan, apartment grew into a venture to create a digital forum for Asian Americans that shaped new ways of forging relationships and demonstrated the Internet’s ability to serve minority communities. “Simply, it was taking what happens in the community offline
and bringing it online,” Sun said. Asian Avenue connected strangers through personal profile pages, where users left each other messages on their guestbooks. Many even met in person, which in some cases led to lasting relationships, Sun said. For people like Pobocan, the website offered a new way of fitting into society — using the Internet to foster fellowships with people from a similar background. It was there where she found a measure of solace under the pseudonym Babyian1917, spending two to four hours a day chatting with other Asian Americans, learning HTML to customize her profile page and keeping up with the latest news and issues — all efforts to ease the isolation she felt as one of the few Filipina Americans in her class. “I got to know a lot of poets, artists and political activists via Asian Avenue,” Pobocan said, adding that she still keeps in touch with many of them. In addition to providing a kind of cultural catharsis, it also became an arena for activism and outreach. The website’s administrators highlighted a leukemia patient who needed a bone marrow transplant, and an outpouring of support to find a donor followed. Members also campaigned to repeal a controversial advertisement for Skyy Vodka, which showed an Asian woman in a kimono pouring a drink for a white woman. The outcry prompted the company to rescind the ad and issue an apology. But Sun insists there was no political agenda for the site. “What we wanted was to allow the community to have a voice and for us to have no stance,” Sun said. With as many as 1 million unique monthly visitors, the website offered a venue for emerging writers like N. Rain Noe to reach a large audience. Noe’s column, “Love in a 10-Block Radius,” chronicled his dating experiences in New York City and became an instant hit on the website. “I basically went from telling a funny story around a cafe table to a couple of my friends to repeating the same story to thousands of readers all across the globe,” Noe said, adding that the column led to speaking engagements at universities across the country. Community Connect Inc. became profitable in 2002, according to Sun; BlackPlanet and MiGente eventually surpassed Asian Avenue in total members. But there were challenges. The operational costs — bandwidth, storage, processing power — were much more expensive than they are today. And since the Asian American community is a smaller market than other ethnic groups, the advertising dollars were insufficient to sustain Asian Avenue. A crucial turning point in Asian Avenue’s decline, Sun said, was the decision to change the website’s user interface in the mid-2000s. The swift change befuddled users, causing them to feel like their living room furniture was suddenly reshuffled. “It really alienated a lot of people from the site,” Sun said. “It was probably one of the biggest mistakes, if not the biggest mistake, I made as CEO of the company.” In 2008, Sun and his co-founders sold Community Connect Inc. for $38 million to Radio One, the largest interactive media company targeting the black community. Radio One’s acquisi-
tion immediately bolstered its Internet presence through BlackPlanet. But the inclusion of Asian Avenue and MiGente in the deal caused the latter websites to become secondary priorities. Sun was greeted with a broken image when he visited Asian Avenue recently, unlike the welcoming, bright, green and yellow homepage in its heyday. “They left the server on and no one is looking at it,” he said. Sun, now 36, said he is “incredibly content” with what Asian Avenue accomplished. He continues to work as an Internet entrepreneur. “We actually changed a lot of people’s lives in really meaningful ways, especially around friendship and dating and finding love,” he said. The website left an imprint on the evolution of social networking, but in the absence of Asian Avenue — which was an epicenter for news and opinion, chat rooms and message boards, as well as user profiles — the concept of a single, central hub has instead splintered into several new media outlets. We go to Facebook to connect with friends, Gmail to chat and Angry Asian Man or Disgrasian for news. Lisa Nakamura, director of the Asian American studies program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said a fragmented portal isn’t necessarily a bad phenomenon, but one should be cautious about relying on one-stop shops. Companies can be bought and sold and the rules can suddenly change, turning loyal users into nomads. “We have to look to the Internet to not just be like Walmart where everybody has to be doing the same thing in the same place,” she said. “People move around a lot. There’s no reason now to be stuck in one place.” Nakamura said that Asian Americans today are participating in atomized communities where people belong to multiple groups and causes. Websites like 8asians.com or mymomisafob. com can create communities nested in comments sections after each blog post. These localized communities can be anonymous and immune from data mining at a time when platforms like Facebook and Google have come under scrutiny for privacy issues, Nakamura said. But both Sun and Nakamura concede that the vast resources of Facebook will make it difficult to create a competitive — and profitable — social network. “Like every other ethnic group, Asian Americans are struggling to take back the Internet’s subversive potential,” Nakamura said. “Whether this is the triumph of multiculturalism or whether it’s a fragmentation or exclusion of minorities, it could be viewed either way.” Still, the ebb and flow of social networking will continue to evolve, perhaps offering an opportunity for another innovative community in the future. “Hopefully, there are still Asian Americans out there that are inspired to build stuff for the community,” Sun said. “It may not be huge, but it’s still important.” Akito Yoshikane is Hyphen’s Redux editor. He last wrote about autogenerated Asian dating ads displayed on Asian American blogs.
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The Future of Fragrance Perfumer Yosh Han appeals to the public’s sense of smell. Writer Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik
What do you lose when you are less attuned to your sense of smell? On a spiritual level, your sense of smell is most closely linked with your intuition. You can’t always rely on GPS [fakes British accent] "turn left at the road." [Laughs] Let’s think about it: I smell a rat; I smell a winner; I smell something fishy. If you’re out of touch with your smeller, you’re out of touch with yourself. Do you think scents have the power to transform? Of course. One of my fragrances, Ginger Ciao, is my alter ego, synonymous with your potential in every moment. Ginger Ciao is daring, invigorating and so full of life. When other people smell or wear Ginger Ciao, you see it in their body. What surprises you most about the way people want to smell? People wear their fragrances really loud. Part of that is that people can’t smell themselves after 15 minutes. It’s called olfactory fatigue. [Even if] they can’t smell themselves, that doesn’t mean that other people can’t smell them. Another thing that surprises me in my fragrance workshops is that we think that men want that caveman smell, but men want to smell like 16-year-old girls. You mean men want to smell like a 16-year-old girl or they want to connect with their inner 16-year-old girl? Maybe it’s both. But when they put [perfume] on their skin, it doesn’t smell like a 16-year-old girl. It smells good on them. These men don’t identify with manly man fragrances and that’s why they
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find me. You have more men wearing women’s fragrances and way more women wearing men’s fragrances. Do you think this is a sign that gender roles are shifting? What really surprises me is that a significant portion of women give their power away to their significant other: “I won’t know how I smell until my husband smells me.” Really? Of course, it’s programming. If you ask a 10-year-old if something smells, they’ll tell you. They’re not going to wait to ask their dad if it smells good. How has your sense of smell changed since you’ve been a professional perfumer? I can smell what people eat. During one workshop, I could tell that this man had eaten a burger a few days before. It’s really disturbing. OK, can I tell you something? Sure. When people find out I’m a perfumer, this is what happens [pulls shirt collar back and lunges towards me]. [Laughs] Can you imagine a complete stranger sticking their neck in your nose and then having to sit next to them on a plane all day? Wow. I never thought of that as an occupational hazard! It’s terrible! So what do you think is the new legacy of fragrance?
(This page) Photos courtesy of sven widorholt/YOSH olfactory sense
“People don’t use their smeller,” Yosh Han says. She’s trying hard to change that with an eponymous collection of luxury fragrances available at department stores, such as Barneys New York, as well as holding perfuming workshops and creating custom scents. Han has blended fragrances for a novel, the opera and even time travel (she blended a series of scents inspired by everything from “Cavemen” to “Dystopia” for youth writing workshop 826LA’s Time Travel Mart). What does this scent maverick think about the future of fragrance?
The young ones are so much more sophisticated. I did a workshop for sixth graders and they loved earth, coconut and chocolate. Sixth graders! All loving the base notes! True, a lot of young ones like sweet. But as far as forecasting for the future, it’s not about the Froot Loops. That’s what they’re getting in fragrance ... this nasty, sweet horribleness. Stuff that smells like cherry cough syrup. But what kids consider luxury is very different from adults.
For my clients who have “been there, done that,” coming to do a custom fragrance is less about the actual perfume than the experience. I can say to them, "Here’s seven different lavenders for you to smell," and they can travel the world in lavender. My idea of luxury is the experience. Sita K. Bhaumik is Hyphen’s Artwell editor.
I’ll Have What She’s Having Yosh Han’s five Asian American-designed products that define the new luxury.
1. OW Socks Give your feet a stripey upgrade (some styles were designed by Han herself). officewiederholt.com/socks
2. Canopy Verde Need a luxe handbag to match your hybrid? Canope Verde uses organic fabrics, chromefree leather and chemical-free embroidery. canopyverde.com
3. PopCards These lovely lasercut cards are made from recycled paper. publiqueliving.com
4. Vice Chocolates Vice Chocolates makes impossibly silky confections in stunning flavors. The M. Butterfly with lemongrass, lime and coconut-infused ganache would make David Henry Hwang ask for seconds. vicechocolates.com
5. Shubilove Your shoes deserve better than a plastic grocery bag. Show them some love with cute fabric travel pouches and inserts. shubilove.com
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Who Needs Cooking Lessons? Asian cuisine has moved out of the box and into the mainstream — but many Asian Americans still don’t cook it at home. Writer Darryl Campbell Photographer Andria Lo Jamie Oliver thinks every American should know an Asian recipe or two. Last fall, he arrived in Huntington, WV, where half the people are obese, to film his show Food Revolution. His mission: Convince a thousand locals to cook healthy meals from scratch rather than turn to frozen pizzas or fast food. The first recipe he taught was a simple Cantonese stir-fry of beef, bean sprouts, cilantro and chilies. Granted, Oliver’s gastronomic horizons are broader than average (he once performed a song about lamb curry in front of a live audience), but less enterprising celebrity chefs have also started to incorporate Asian techniques and ingredients. On a typical day of Food Network programming, for example, Rachael Ray or Robin Miller might tout a bottle of nam pla or a jar of black bean sauce as options for giving dishes a suitable “Asian flair.” Such pan-Asian muddles might generously be called eclectic interpretations, but multicultural enthusiasm sometimes slides into unthinking Orientalism. On one disastrous episode of SemiHomemade Cooking, Sandra Lee passed off a thoroughly Chinese meal — siu mai, Sichuan crispy beef and a mandarin orange-vodka cocktail — as an “Indochine brunch.” This episode prompted an angry response from blogger and Saveur editor Andrea Nguyen, who wrote that “Asia is huge and the cuisines are varied. We don’t all look and cook the same,” and suggested that this “mishmash representation of Asian food ... sets us back a good 50 years.” Cultural tone-deafness aside, it’s a minor miracle that these domestic divas are attempting to expand the American palate be-
yond meat and potatoes. After all, the Rachael Rays of the world appeal to home cooks who have the right equipment but a limited sense of adventure, who can poach an egg but can’t make a quiche lorraine. Yet, these daytime “dump-and-stir” shows have managed to introduce exotic ingredients and unfamiliar techniques to their viewers without causing a mass exodus from the Food Network. To paraphrase Martha Stewart (who’s surprisingly deft with pan-Asian cuisine), this is a good thing. Ten years ago, public television was the only venue for view“Asian American teens are ers to learn Asian 20 percent more likely than cooking from Asian white teens to eat junk food daily.” chefs like Martin Yan, Ming Tsai and Leeann Chin. Now, viewers can tune in to basic cable and pick up Asian cuisine from white, middle-aged, chefs-next-door who are no more prone to apologize for the foreignness of their Asianinspired dishes than they would for spaghetti or tacos. Asian food has leapt into the vast culinary middlebrow, suddenly suitable for the anodyne world of shows like 30 Minute Meals. Even if mainstream attention isn’t inspiring pilgrimages to trendy restaurants like Momofuku Ko in New York City, or inducing people to follow Sichuan chef Peter Chang around the southeastern United States (as did journalists from The New Yorker and Oxford American this past winter), at least it’s pushing home cooks
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out of their comfort zones into the (expanding) Asian sections of a “real” menu that includes chicken feet and century eggs. When their local megamarts. Asian cookbooks insist that neophyte cooks stock galangal and But, if more Americans are buying cookbooks and watching palm sugar in their pantries, the message is clear: Do it right, or cooking shows, they still aren’t fixing their own dinners. According don’t do it at all. to market researchers, less than 58 percent of Americans cook for So, what happens if you can’t make a “pure version” of a trathemselves, and that’s only if “cooking” encompasses the ingredi- ditional recipe — does that make you culturally incoherent? After ent assembly involved in, say, making a cold-cut sandwich. Sales all, for second- and third-generation Asian Americans, food is a of pots and pans are down over 10 percent from a year ago. strong link to cultural heritage. The fierce traditionalism of chefs, The fast food industry, however, is thriving — April marked the cookbook writers and food critics can threaten that link — and 84th consecutive month of same-store sales growth for McDon- might be driving away would-be home cooks. ald’s franchises — and makers of processed food like ConAgra As a result, many young Asian Americans avoid the inauthenand Kellogg have posted better-than-expected quarterly earn- ticity minefield by simply not cooking Asian food. Those who do ings, even amidst the recession. cook for themselves seek a safe middle ground between rigid Contrast this with the state of affairs in Japan, where the aver- authenticity and total assimilation. Usually, this means a hybrid age person eats three pounds of vegetables for every pound of comfort food: ketchup fried rice, beefaroni with oyster sauce or meat. In China, the ratio is about 5-to-1; in India, it’s more than 10- teriyaki hot dogs. Even self-described foodies tend to focus on to-1. For the average American, the ratio flips: We eat more meat food as a spectacle rather than as a piece of culture. For inthan vegetables every year, and about a thousand calories a day stance, food blogger and Harvard senior Lingbo Li gives readers more than most Asians do. tips on how to photograph food at a restaurant or “how to be a These are the eating habits to which second- and third-gen- foodie, and look good in your underwear too” — but almost never eration Asian Americans aspire: We’re quicker than almost any posts recipes. other ethnic group to abandon our traditional diets. The comIn other words, everything about Asian food is officially upbination of a meat- and starchside down. It has finally broken free heavy diet with a generous porof the takeout box but maybe it’s tion of processed, prepackaged, “Ten years ago, public television was the only swung too far in the other direction, frozen and fast food means Asian to a point where people are most venue for viewers to learn Asian cooking Americans face a health crisis. A likely to learn to make it from nonfrom Asian chefs. ... Now, viewers can tune 2005 survey by the California DeAsian chefs and television personin to basic cable and pick up Asian cuisine partment of Public Health found alities. Just as Asian food is winning from white, middle-aged chefs-next-door.” that Asian American teens are converts outside of Asian America, 20 percent more likely than white it is losing young Asian Americans teens to eat junk food daily, and who lack the time, interest or cononly one-third of Asian American children eat the recommend- fidence to cook traditional foods. Some Asian Americans prefer ed daily servings of fruits and vegetables. In the country as a easy, nostalgic shortcut foods; many more have given up on cookwhole, the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes is 60 percent higher ing and consequently are succumbing to diabetes, heart disease among Asian Americans than among white people, and sons of and obesity at alarming rates. Asian immigrants have an obesity rate of 30.8 percent, nearly Oddly, then, Jamie Oliver and Rachael Ray might be the last, twice that of their fathers. best hope for Asian home cooking. If they can’t entice people Part of the problem is that traditional foods are time consum- back to the kitchen by way of television exposure and sheer force ing. As Michael Pollan noted in The New York Times Magazine, of personality, then Asian cooking will go back to the gastronomic the average American spends 27 minutes a day preparing and ghetto of restaurants, frozen food aisles and immigrant kitchens cooking food — barely enough time to make a stir-fry, let alone a from which it came. decent curry or a pot of pho. But as long as we can stir-fry, we’ll survive. An even stronger deterrent might be psychological. When it comes to ethnic food, authenticity is still the gold standard. Some Darryl Campbell is the assistant editor at The Bygone Bureau (bygonebureau. com) , a travel and culture magazine. say the quality of a Chinese restaurant depends on whether it has
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As American as Tofu The past, present and future of manufacturing tofu. Writer Susan C. Kim Photographer Andria Lo
A confession: I’m an Asian American food writer and I’ve never liked tofu. It’s true. The all-important protein, which sustained ancient Asian civilizations for centuries, quite frankly, bores me. Tofu served in saucy, stir-fried dishes? Ho hum. Deep-fried tofu? Eh. Raw tofu? Yeah, right. Then, I visited San Jose Tofu Company, a nondescript shop in Northern California that makes tofu by hand. At the locally loved hole-in-the-wall factory in San Jose’s Japantown, the barely there kitchen is decorated with two metal vats and stacked wooden crates. “Don’t worry,” an older Japanese woman says. “This tofu is so delicious.” She praises the soy milk, testifying that it provides an inexplicable energy boost and has replaced her morning coffee. A teenage girl in flip-flops trots in toting a plastic container, which owner Chester Nozaki fills with shiny, wet tofu. I wonder what a teenager does with fresh tofu. “I eat it raw sprinkled with soy sauce and bonito flakes,” she says. “It’s so yummy!” A middle-aged Asian man standing nearby agrees and says, “It’s the best tofu around. My father used to buy it from this place since I was a kid and I’m still coming here to get my fix.” I throw down $6.50 and walk out with two blocks of tofu and two quarts of soy milk, looking like I just won a goldfish at a carnival. My taste buds were stunned. This was like no other tofu I had ever eaten: silky, mild, slightly nutty and unbelievably fresh. Instead of the chalky texture of packaged tofu or the leathery blocks sitting in a water barrel, this reminded me of fine goat cheese, smooth and creamy. No weird bean aftertaste, just pure gossamer perfection. I devoured those blocks raw — raw! — with soy sauce and a few drops of sesame and chili oil over the next two days. If heaven’s serving fresh bean curd, then I’m born again.
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The only machine used at San Jose Tofu Co., is a bean grinder.
Tofu’s Long Road
That’s it. Well, sort of. “Tofu is 98 percent science, but the two percent that’s art is more nuanced,” says Minh Tsai, founder of Hodo Soy in Oakland, CA. “What’s the right temperature of the milk to make silken tofu? What will make the liquid coagulate exactly how you want it turn out with the perfect texture and flavor?” This two percent coagulation factor sets incredible tofu apart from the mediocre. Commercially produced silken tofu is made with a synthetic coagulant that works 10 times faster, which also makes it harder to control, Tsai says. Shelf life is also a factor. Natural soy proteins don’t last very long, so tofu has a short shelf life (something I discovered the hard way, after I had to throw out two expired blocks of tofu). San Jose Tofu Company’s handmade tofu must be eaten within a few days. Hodo Soy’s tofu, which is produced using a partly mechanized production, lasts one week. Packaged tofu uses a thinner, more diluted soy milk (hence, less protein) and can go for a month or longer. But what you gain in shelf life, you lose in flavor and texture.
The soy curd has been made by China’s Han Dynasty as far back as 206 years before the birth of Christ. According to legend, a Chinese chef accidentally threw in calcium sulfate, a natural derivative of sea salt, in an attempt to flavor puréed soybean. It curdled up and voilá! Tofu. Chinese family businesses began to sell tofu and soy milk locally and its popularity spread via visiting Japanese priests who brought tofu recipes back home. In the late 19th century, the influx of Chinese immigrants to the United States transported the tofumaking tradition to Northern California, where soybean processing factories were built — Wo Sing & Co. being the first in 1878 — to feed an increasing demand. San Francisco’s Quong Hop & Co. was founded at the turn of the 20th century and is the oldest existing tofu maker in America today. In 1958, packaged tofu first hit US supermarket shelves. How do these little round soybeans end up as wobbly, white blocks? Amazingly, nearly the same way they did 2,000 years ago. Dried soybeans are soaked overnight and ground. This extracts liquid, also known as “soy milk.” The fibrous byproduct, okara in Japanese, gets sold or given away to tofu customers; Koreans call it “bee gee” and use the coarse white flakes in a hearty kimchi stew. The milk is heated and a coagulant (the calcium sulfate) is added. The resulting curds are broken up and packed into wooden boxes stretched with porous cloths. Large weights (and I’m talking so insanely heavy that I couldn’t move one even an inch) are placed on top to drain the excess water. Finally, the blocks are cut into cubes and stored in cool water. Amy Nozaki at San Jose Tofu Co., prepares tofu from scratch. The first batch begins at 1am.
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(THIS PAGE) PHOTOS COURTESY OF HODO SOY
Folding yuba (tofu skin) at Hodo Soy Beanery in West Oakland.
Bringing New World innovation to tofu at the Hodo Soy Beanery.
Chester Nozaki, owner of San Jose Tofu Co., makes tofu the way his grandfather did it.
With the exception of South Korea-based Pulmuone (recently merged with Wildwood Tofu of California), soy products in Asia are still made the old-fashioned way: by small, family-owned businesses right in their shops or at home in their kitchens, hand-stirring the milk and pouring it into wooden crates, then selling it straight to the customer. Handmade tofu was part of Tsai’s everyday life in Vietnam. He recalls bustling breakfast stalls lining the streets, selling sticky rice, tofu and sweet soy milk. “My grandfather and I would go for a stroll every morning and bring breakfast back for the family,” he says. “It was our daily routine.” Tsai remembers one family who made all its tofu at home, including laboriously grinding the soybeans by hand. “I remember that burnt smell of the soy milk as they stirred it over a burning stove. Then, they would pour it through a cloth, add sugar to the sieved liquid and sell the soy milk steaming fresh. The tofu wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon, after the milk had been curdled and
the curds pressed between wooden slats.” The fantastic aroma of fresh soy stayed with Tsai even after he came to the United States. After searching the United States for 20 years, he still couldn’t find good tofu. “I wanted it like the way I remembered,” he says. Tsai opened Hodo Soy in 2004. Different from the typical mom-and-pop tofu maker, Tsai’s company sources organic and nongenetically modified soybeans and utilizes shiny, new machines. “But we still maintain the old-world processes. We just make it cleaner,” he says, referring to the sometimes-questionable sanitation of handmade (read: hand-touched) tofu. “We’ve just mechanized the measuring, scooping, grinding and handling of the beans.” Like most small tofu shops, Tsai keeps his product local, refusing to sell beyond the San Francisco Bay Area because he doesn’t want to change his tofu to make it in mass quantities or to last longer on the shelves. “I’ll sell to wider areas if we expanded and set up production in those places,” he says. “That way, the tofu is still the same fresh, locally made product I make in Oakland. I won’t skimp on quality.”
The Future of Tofu Most Americans only know the packaged stuff. It’s supposedly very good for us, so we mold it into different shapes and squish it into our diet — frying it up or stuffing it into sausage casings to replicate hot dogs (love those vegan barbecues). Everyone wants to love tofu, but nobody puts it on their what-I’d-want-to-eat-if-it-wasmy-last-day-on-Earth list. Is there a practical place for the commercial variety of tofu in the United States?
The Hunt for Fresh, Handmade Tofu
Writers Susan C. Kim and Nina Kahori Fallenbaum Shops hand-making their own tofu can be found tucked away in many neighborhoods around the country. Go early and often — if you find a winner, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Wo Chong San Francisco
Hodo Soy Beanery Oakland, CA
San Jose Tofu Co. San Jose, CA
Both fresh and packaged tofu fly out of this little shop located in a small alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The sweetened soy milk is delicious and cheap: 75 cents for a small bottle, $1.50 for a large bottle. Don’t forget to pick up fried tofu as well as fresh soybean products just like local restaurants do.
With John Scharffenberger of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker as its new CEO, Hodo Soy has big aspirations for the humble bean cake. Until James Beard starts giving out tofu awards, you can learn more about their product at Northern California farmers markets, select retailers and by touring its Oakland factory. hodosoy.com
Run by the Nozaki family since 1948, this establishment sells super fresh tofu for $2 per block and sweet tofu with ginger syrup for $2.50. Soy milk (still warm!) is $1.25 a quart, but call ahead and reserve if you’re going to pick up in the afternoon because the supply rarely lasts past morning. sjtofu.com
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“I think it’s great because people still don’t know what to do with tofu,” Tsai says. “The tofu industry is not dissimilar to the latest artisan rage over chocolate, olive oil and bread. There’s room for both the big guys, who get the product and information out to a lot of people, and the little guys, who encourage the big guys to make better products.” The proof is in the customers. Over the years, Nozaki’s customer base has diversified to include more Asians, Latinos, blacks and whites from around the Bay Area. “I have no idea how they are preparing it, but I just know they are buying a lot of it,” he says.
A Dying Art Nozaki and his wife, Amy, run their operation 20 hours a day, almost every single day, beginning at 1 a.m. The only machine they use is a bean grinder. One batch of tofu takes an hour from start to finish, but they make multiple batches throughout the day so that the block you are walking out with is only minutes old. That’s why you have to get there in the morning. There’s only so much they can make, and it’s first come, first served. “We just use our intuition on how much we need for the day,” Nozaki says. “It’s the wrong way to do business, but that’s how my grandfather did it.” They sell out every day. Like any passionate artisan, Nozaki is proud of his craft. “In the beginning, I loved the heavy labor involved,” he says. “Lifting 120-pound batches of tofu, setting soybean paste into a steaming, hot tank of water without letting it splash. But we’re getting old now and it’s taking a physical toll on us. Hopefully, someone in the family will approach us about taking [the business] over.” Meanwhile, his customers keep coming each day just to get one more taste of a glorious, ancient art form. Susan C. Kim has written on food, travel, home design and the environment
Illustrations by Rosa Chou
for The New York Times, Time magazine, Sunset magazine and Coastal Living.
Tofu Tips Submerge fresh tofu in cool water and store in the refrigerator for no more than a few days. Packaged tofu will last until the expiration date. Replace the water daily. Tofu can be mashed, blended, whipped, ground, crumbled, marinated, simmered, steamed, baked, broiled, sauteed, barbecued, fried or deep fried. You can do almost anything to it. Go crazy. Just be sure to eat it while it’s still fresh.
Japan Traditional Foods Sausalito, CA
Pulmuone Wildwood Inc. Fullerton, CA and Grinnell, IA
Tofu Yu LLC Berkeley, CA
This American affiliate of Japanese company SKH Foods aims to do the nearimpossible: introduce artisan natto, the fermented and stinky soybean dish that can be considered a cousin of tofu, to the health-conscious masses. Natto is currently sold in specialty shops throughout the West Coast. gourmet-natto.com
In another exciting example of tofu-led globalization, Korean natural-food giant Pulmuone has merged with hippie mainstay Wildwood to form a sprouted soy burger and soondooboo sauce empire. Will this nouveau business combination work? Not sure, but the frozen, MSG-free pot stickers are incredibly yummy. pulmuonewildwood.com
Run by a former tofu entrepreneur from China, Tofu Yu does both Chineseand Western-inspired beanery mashups (think chocolate mousse and jalapenolaced tofu ham). Only sold wholesale or through restaurants and farmers markets (no retail sales at its factory). tofuyu.com
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Two Cups OF Rice Peko-Peko Catering goes back to basics. Writer Sylvan Mishima Brackett Photographer Aya Brackett
Sylvan Mishima Brackett grew up eating Koda Farm Kokuho Rose rice.
Sometime in my early 20s, I discovered the pleasure of the Japanese izakaya. Roughly speaking, these are taverns: places to consume beer, sake, shochu (or all three!) with food thatâ€™s straightforward, focused on the ingredients and well-suited to drinking. I loved the drunk salary men cavorting at the yakitori stands under the tracks near Tokyo's Shimbashi station and the low-key drinking spot where I first tasted horse (raw, with garlic and green onion). These kinds of food are hard to find back in the United States: uncomplicated, reliant on high-quality ingredients and without the seriousness that seems to adhere to Japanese food as it makes its way to the West. With the exception of horse, I know from years at Chez Panisse in Berkeley that we here in California have raw ingredients to rival those of Japan. So I've driven all over Northern California, hunting down ingredients for my catering company, Peko-Peko. I've dug up bamboo shoots just as they popped out of the ground in suburban backyards. I've skewered locally raised pastured chicken (heart, skin and all) to grill as yakitori; fried up petrale sole, caught the same day, to be eaten whole with bones and fins; pickled just-picked, tender red turnips and their leaves; cured steelhead salmon roe with soy and
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sake; and, of course, cooked freshly harvested (or "new crop") California rice (my current favorite is Tamaki Gold Koshihikari). Peko-Peko's cooking won't be completely Japanese, but that's OK with me. We are in California, after all, and good Japanese Californian food suits me better than not-quite-as-good-as-Japan Japanese food. And it goes well with a beer, too.
How to make perfectly cooked rice Although simple in theory, cooking perfect, aromatic rice is not easy. It's always the most daunting project for me when cooking for a large group. Al dente rice is terrible. Mushy rice is worse. At home, I never cook less than two cups or more than four cups at a time. My childhood standard was Koda Farm Kokuho Rose rice. Fitting, I suppose, as this rice varietal is like me, half-Japanese. The Koda family first migrated from Fukushima, Japan, in 1908 and hybridized Kokuho Rose after returning to the San Joaquin Valley from internment camps. Raised in California but of Japanese extraction, this variety has a slightly longer grain than most of what's eaten in Japan but shares the same toothiness and fragrance of the popular Koshihikari rice (such as California's Tamaki Gold). (1) Carefully measure exactly two cups of dry rice into a heavy cooking pot with tight fitting lid (or rice cooker). (2) Wash it. Washing is important. Equally important is to wash it decisively: The longer the grains stand in the water, the more water they absorb. (3) Add enough cold water to cover and vigorously swish the rice with your fingertips. (4) Pour off the milky water, using a wire mesh strainer to catch any stray grains. Quickly fill the pot three-quarters full with water, swish and strain again. Repeat until the water runs clear; I wash it five to seven times. (5) Pour all the rice into a
wire mesh strainer and let drain for a half-hour. Pour the rice back into your pot and, if using a Koshihikari varietal (like Tamaki Gold), add precisely the same amount of water as rice. If using a Kokuho Rose varietal (like Koda Farm) add 1 1/8 cup water to every cup of rice. To complicate matters, if you buy new crop rice in the fall, you'll find 5 to 10 percent less water is needed; the longer rice sits in storage, the more water evaporates from the grain and the more water you'll need to add. (6) To cook rice on the stove like my mother used to, place the pot on the stove, lid tightly on, and bring to a boil. You'll know when the rice has reached a boil by the steam spitting out from under the lid. Turn the flame down to the lowest possible, and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off heat, and allow the rice to sit undisturbed for 10 minutes. Open and mix carefully with a wet bamboo rice paddle. Serve immediately or cover with a damp cloth to absorb condensation that may drip from the lid. Sylvan Mishima Brackett is the former creative director at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He started a Japanese catering company, Peko-Peko (eatpekopeko. com), in Oakland, CA, in 2009. See a recipe for Peko-Peko pork gyoza at hyphenmagazine.com/extras
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Page 32 and 33 photos by Baii Nguyen
A growing number of Asian adoptees are choosing to adopt children from their birth countries as a way to reclaim their culture. Writer Kelley Christine Blomberg Photographers Baii Nguyen and Lisa Nalven When Rebecca Eun Hee Viot speaks of her daughter Ruby, her tone expresses a love that clearly transcends words. “She has basically done what no husband or therapist or boyfriend or girlfriend has ever been able to do,” Viot said. “She’s basically quieted my heart.” Viot, a Korean adoptee, grew up in the Midwest feeling a disconnect between her US life and her culture of origin. But, through Ruby, her adopted Korean daughter, Viot has filled a void within herself. Over a half-million children in the United States are adopted, and 60 percent of Americans have either been through the adoption process or know someone who has, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York-based nonprofit devoted to improving adoption policy and practice. Once a hushed issue, adoption has become more commonly accepted and practiced over time. Between 1971 and 2001, US citizens adopted 265,677 children from other countries. In the last decade of that period, international adoptions more than doubled from 9,050 to 19,237; girls dominated those adoptions over boys, 64 percent to 36 percent. The first documented transracial Asian adoptions in the United States date back to the 1900s, but only after World War II did they become more pervasive. Between 1971 and 2001, 156,591 children were adopted from Asia, making it the most popular global region to adopt from (Europe came in a distant second, with less than a third of that figure). In 1990, South Korea dominated US international adoptions; and in 2001, China took the lead. Today, a growing number of adoptees are adopting children from their birth countries, according to a 2009 study released by the Donaldson Adoption Institute titled "Beyond Culture Camp." Of adoptees polled in the study, 30 percent reported that they had adopted at least one child. In comparison, 3.7 percent of households in 2003 included at least one adopted child, as reported by the US Census Bureau. These figures may indicate a potential trend: “No one’s done that kind of work so we don’t know for sure, but if you look at the study, there was a stunning percentage of adoptees who adopted,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson
Adoption Institute. Asian adoptees can benefit from an expedited adoption process depending on the adoption agency and country they choose. A Korean adoptee, for instance, is still considered a national and, therefore, granted preference in adopting a child from Korea. When Viot was 6, she left South Korea, her birth country, to live with her adoptive white family in St. Paul, MN. Growing up in the Midwest in the ’70s was difficult. Viot and her biological brother, part of an early wave of Korean adoptees in the United States, were the only people of color in her neighborhood. Their family lacked access to resources to learn more about the children's birth country and any relevant cultural differences. Viot's adoptive parents raised her as though she shared their history and experiences. When Viot was ready to start her own family, adoption wasn’t her first choice. But when complications moved Viot and her husband to adopt, Viot naturally looked to Korea: She felt she could better understand an adopted child from her country of origin.
Rebecca Viot, her husband, Darrin Viot, and their adopted daughter, Ruby Jang Viot, at their home in Minneapolis.
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“I have to stop myself from thinking that just because [Ruby and I] look alike that is enough. I'm still learning about the traditions. I have to do my homework, just like my [friends who are] Caucasian adoptive parents.” — Rebecca Eun Hee Viot
Ruby dancing in her traditional Korean gown.
Rebecca and Ruby's keepsakes from Korea: Rebecca’s white dress from the time she was adopted; Ruby’s All About Me book, blanket and other outfits.
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Ruby arrived at Viot's St. Louis Park, MN, home in 2008 as a 9-month-old baby. Since then, Ruby has brought peace to Viot's life and tightened Viot's bonds to her birth country. “I never took a pride in being Korean," Viot said, though she wasn't necessarily ashamed. “I was often confused and sad because I knew I didn't fit in. I just didn't know who I was.” Motivated by her daughter, Viot has begun to explore Korean food (she can now cook kaktugi, bulgogi, japchae and kimchi jigae) and the Korean language (she has learned to read Hangul and aspires to speak it with her biological family). She is also interested in learning Korean drumming and dance through the Korean Heritage House, which recently opened in the Twin Cities; Ruby will be enrolled when she turns 4. “We're learning together,” said Viot, who has founded an Internet forum for parents undergoing the adoption process. I have to stop myself from thinking that just because [Ruby and I] look alike that is enough. I'm still learning about the traditions. I have to do my homework, just like my [friends who are] Caucasian adoptive parents. Looking alike eliminates one complication that often accompanies international adoption: Most people assume Ruby is Viot's biological child. But Viot anticipates that Ruby may still grapple with cultural and identity issues. She hopes to expose Ruby to her Korean heritage from the outset — something Viot's parents were unable to do for their adopted children. “I want my daughter to know from the beginning who she is and why she does some of the things she does and thinks the way she does," Viot said. "There are a lot of things my parents didn’t do that I am going to do. I am going to make every effort to learn the language. As her mother, I want her to have less holes to fill in when she's older than all the holes I had." But Viot knows she cannot shield Ruby from everything: Ruby will grow up with the label of "adoptee." "The day she totally intellectually understands that she is adopted is the day that her selfview will change." In 1961, at 15 months old, Melinda Matthews met her adoptive
Photos left and bottom by Baii Nguyen. Photo right by Lisa Nalven
“I absolutely needed to pass on my adoptive heritage; it meant far more to me than continuing my genetic heritage.” — Melinda Matthews
Photo by Lisa Nalven
Melinda Matthews, her son Ben Rosenthal and adopted daughter, Kimmy Rosenthal, in Plantation, Florida.
family in New Jersey. Despite some challenges, Matthews views her experience as a Korean adoptee in a white family as positive. Unlike Viot, Matthews always had a desire to adopt from her birth country. “Adopting my daughter didn’t feel like baby-buying to me,” Matthews said. “It was, ironically, the sole thread from my own adoption that I felt compelled to continue. I absolutely needed to pass on my adoptive heritage; it meant far more to me than continuing my genetic heritage." An adopted child was someone Matthews could relate to completely, someone she could guide and understand. "Most importantly, I could love full-heartedly and unreservedly, without passing along the twin specters of guilt and gratitude that have haunted me,” she said. Matthews now lives in Plantation, FL, with her three children: two biological children and her youngest daughter, Kimmy, who was adopted from Korea as a 5-month-old. Like Viot, Matthews believes that her physical similarity to her adopted daughter, now 11, goes a long way. “I don't think she is impacted much by her adoption,” Matthews said. “She doesn't stand out as physically different so she doesn't draw the questions and stares that I did. She’s never singled out as an adoptee.”
In fact, strangers often remark on Kimmy's resemblance to her, especially compared with her biological children who are halfKorean and half-white. Matthews has fostered the same relationship with Kimmy as with her biological children. "I have not emphasized our adoption connection," she said, though she is always alert and open to that topic being raised. "I want her to be aware of her adoption and mine, but I don't want her pegged as the ‘adopted one.’ " Kimmy, whom Matthews calls a very social "all-American girl," occasionally asks about her biological parents, but for now she doesn't dwell on the topic. Kimmy has not yet shown much interest in Korean culture or in seeking out her roots. But Matthews is preparing for the time when that changes. "That is when I hope I can step up and support her the way she needs to be supported. I just hope if anything comes up that I can give her perspective or that I can at least understand. "Her experience is really different than mine," Matthews said. "She does not seem to be the oddity that I was growing up.” Kelley Christine Blomberg is a Korean adoptee who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in San Francisco.
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Laotian refugees reach out to aid their war-torn country. Writer Santi Suthinithet
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Phil Borges, courtesy of Legacies of War
A Laotian girl rests against a row of recovered UXOs.
Laos is historically referred to as “Lan Xang,” the land of a million elephants. Today, it would be “The Lao people suffered greatly because of more accurate to call it the land of a million bombs. the bombings. The people cannot [work] their From 1964 to 1973, as part of the Secret War lands for a living because they are afraid the operation conducted during the Vietnam War, the US military dropped 260 million cluster bombs — bombs will explode at any time.” about 2.5 million tons of munitions — on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. This is — Khambang Sibounheauang, war veteran equivalent to a planeload of bombs being unloaded every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years — nearly seven Handicap International, a non-governmental organization (NGO) bombs for every man, woman and child living in Laos. specializing in the field of disability, because they are “highly imIt is more than all the bombs dropped on Europe throughout precise and indiscriminate” weapons designed to “scatter exploWorld War II, leaving Laos, a country approximately the size of sives over swaths of land often hundreds of yards wide.” Utah, with the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily Of the 260 million cluster bombs dropped by the United States, bombed country in history. up to 30 percent of them failed to detonate. These bombs were Bounthanh Phommasathit is a survivor of the bombing who released on targets in a large shell or casing. Each of the casings immigrated to the United States with her family in 1978. She still contained roughly 600 to 700 small bomblets, or “bombies,” as vividly recalls the destruction of her village. they are often called in Laos. ”I remember all the circumstances,” she said. “I saw horrific There are now close to 78 million unexploded bomblets littering things. I saw the bombing. I saw the bodies. I was born during the rice fields, villages, school grounds, roads and other populated Vietnam War in December 1967, so I observed and experienced areas in Laos, hindering development and poverty reduction. the bombing when I was starting elementary school. I was in More than 34,000 people have been killed or injured by cluster Xieng Khouang province, the most heavily bombed area in Laos. I munitions since the bombing ceased in 1973, with close to 300 remember we hid in the bombing shelter underground.” new casualties in Laos every year. About 40 percent of the acNearly half of Laos is now contaminated with unexploded ord- cidents result in death and 60 percent of the victims are children. nances (UXOs), explosive weapons such as bombs, grenades At this time, less than 1 percent of the UXOs have been cleared. and land mines. Cluster bombs, explosive weapons that work by Laos was officially recognized as a neutral country during the ejecting hundreds of smaller submunitions over a wide area, make war. However, some top Washington officials, fearing Commuup the majority of UXOs that plague the country. Cluster muni- nist influence and the North Vietnamese transport of troops and tions pose an especially grave danger to civilians, according to weapons to the south through Laos, prepared and executed a
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UXOs being prepared for demolition.
Bombs ready for disposal.
Deminer investigating a possible explosive in the ground.
038 HYPHEN Fall.10
all photos on page 38 are courtesy of UXO Lao | Drawing Courtesy OF legacies of war | DRawn by refugees
This drawing salvaged from the Vientiane refugee camp shows airplanes shooting at the town of Phonesavan in July 1969.
clandestine war. Lao civilians found themselves be- “I realized that the ‘American Dream’ wasn’t ing bombed relentlessly by a foreign superpower uniform — that each of us contributed to the and bore the brunt of this indiscriminate bombing American Dream. And most importantly, we have the campaign. opportunity to shape it.” ”The [American] airplanes flew over our heads and surrounded the cities. They thought they were — Channapha Khamvongsa, Legacies of War executive director bombing the Viet Cong, but they mostly killed civilians,” Phommasathit said. An estimated 350,000 Laotians lives were taken throughout the course of the bombings. of War in 2004 was due largely to the rediscovery of a collection Meanwhile, all of this was concealed from the American public of historic artwork by Laotian refugees who were victims of the as well as many other members of government. Toward the end American bombings. of the war, hundreds of thousands of Laotians, like PhommasaBetween December 1970 and May 1971, Fred Branfman, an thit, became refugees, desperate to flee the carnage and instabilAmerican educational advisor, and Boungeun Luangpraseuth, a ity that was consuming their country. According to the Library of Laotian man, collected illustrations and narratives in the refugee Congress, after 1975, an estimated 10 percent of the population camps of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where bombing victims — about 360,000 Laotians — resettled in other countries, includhad fled. This artwork — executed in pencil, pen, crayons and ing the United States. markers — documented the lives of the bombing victims and bore Almost four decades after the bombings have ceased, the witness to the atrocities they experienced on a daily basis. The ilchildren of the first wave of immigration to the United States have lustrations were known only to a small and select circle of people now become adults and the Laotian diaspora continues to come and were thought to be lost forever. No one had seen them since into its own as a relatively new part of the growing Asian American the end of the war. community, where its population totals 400,000. Decades later, they resurfaced at a fortuitous meeting between Emerging from this generation are people who, working with Legacies of War Executive Director Channapha Khamvongsa and a broad range of individuals and organizations both in the United John Cavanagh, currently on leave from his position as director of States and Laos, are seeking to address this history of war and the Institute for Policy Studies, which is a prominent progressive its implications — and to finally end the unnecessary loss of lives think tank in Washington. It turned out that Cavanagh had kept caused by the bombs. the drawings safe for over 25 years; he knew that they would be At the center of many of these efforts is Legacies of War, a of significance one day and was waiting for the right opportunity Washington, D.C.-based organization advocating for the clear- and person to come along. That person turned out to be Khamance of unexploded bombs in Laos. The founding of Legacies vongsa; through her, the illustrations were returned to the Laotian
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A depiction of the atrocities of war: A wife mourns after finding the body of her dead husband; a teen hit by a bomb while he was seeking cover in a rice field.
tinue to innovate and to encourage progress. Khamvongsa’s trip back to her homeland made a lasting impression. “There is nothing like passing through the lush countryside of Laos and seeing the awe-inspiring views of the green mountains and flowing river and seeing the naturally integrated villages so full of life,” she said. “Much of Laos today is what one would imagine it was like hundreds of years ago: beautiful, serene and breathtaking. One can’t experience the beauty of this land and the decent people [who] live and depend on it without wanting to make sure the land is safe for generations to come.”
Bombing survivor Phommasathit settled in Ohio with her family in the late 1970s and dedicated her time to providing assistance to other newly arrived Laotian refugees. In 1991, she began a series of almost-annual trips back to Laos. During her first trip, she visited a hospital that was in extremely poor condition with serious shortages of medical supplies and decrepit, outdated equipment leftover from the Vietnam War era. She decided at that moment that she wanted to help. Upon returning to the United States, she wrote a letter “One can’t experience the beauty of this land and to the Vietnam Veterans Association. “I hoped to find someone who had damaged my country,” she said. the decent people [who] live and depend on it The veteran who responded, Lee Thorn, was one without wanting to make sure the land is safe for of the soldiers who loaded the bombs that were generations to come.” dropped on her village in Laos when she was a child; he was battling post-traumatic stress disorder. The — Channapha Khamvongsa, Legacies of War executive director two eventually founded the Jhai Foundation, an or-
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Drawing Courtesy OF legacies of war | DRawn by refugees
American community and that action in turn inspired her to form Legacies of War, where much of the art is now housed. Khamvongsa came to northern Virginia from Laos with her parents when she was 7 years old. ”When we were in the refugee camp, I remember being told by others in the camp that once we got to America, all our dreams would come true,” she said. “We believed the streets were lined with gold and that everyone was so rich they would never have to wear the same clothes twice.” Realizing those dreams were myths didn't diminish her enthusiasm. “As I got older and with every experience, I realized that the ‘American Dream’ wasn’t uniform — that each of us contributed to the American Dream. And most importantly, we have the opportunity to shape it.” Visiting Laos as an adult, she was humbled by those who risked life and limb to clear the unexploded bombs. “We are very privileged, those of us from Laos who were able to grow up and be educated in America,” she said. To Khamvongsa, this is something that should not be taken for granted. She argues that there is a shared responsibility in the Laotian American community to keep moving forward, to con-
A UXO risk awareness session.
ganization that provides communication services and facilitates economic development for rural communities in Laos, as well as in Thailand, Vietnam and India. Their first project together was reconciliation work — digging wells, renovating schools, distributing medical supplies, setting up computers — in the Xieng Khouang village that Thorn helped to bomb. Thorn continues to do victim assistance work and travels to Laos frequently, and both he and Phommasathit are connected with Legacies of War. To say that the two have become like brother and sister would be an understatement — Phommasathit’s parents officially adopted Thorn in 2000.
Photo courtesy of of UXO Lao
Khambang Sibounheauang served as a commander in the Royal Lao Army and fought alongside US forces against the Communists in Laos. He is a proud American who has remained active in military service as a volunteer in the Tennessee State Guard. Sibounheauang is frank about the toll the bombs continue to take on Laos, where the vast majority depends on subsistence farming: “The Lao people suffered greatly because of the bombings. The people cannot [work] their lands for a living because they are afraid the bombs will explode at any time. We need this to be resolved.” This year has seen a series of encouraging developments, including the ratification of the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans all use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions and commits countries to clearing contaminated areas and providing victim assistance. Over 100 countries have signed on and it recently became binding international law. The United States has not yet signed on to the convention, although in 2009, President Barack Obama signed a law banning almost all exports of US cluster munitions. Many involved in cluster bomb clearance work are encouraging the Obama administration to join or at least send representatives to the convention's first meeting in Vientiane later this year. Another major milestone was the first congressional hearing on
UXOs in Laos and subsequent American funding for their removal held by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in April. Khamvongsa spoke on behalf of Legacies of War, along with representatives from the State Department, the Humpty Dumpty Institute, a nonprofit focused on humanitarian issues, and the Mines Advisory Group, an organization that provides assistance to countries affected by UXOs. The hearing was chaired by Rep. Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa and joined by Rep. Mike Honda of California. Honda traveled to Laos earlier this year as part of the first delegation composed of Asian American congressmen to do so. “I will never forget our visit with officials responsible for overseeing bomb-clearance work in Laos. What I learned shocked me,” he said. Honda, now a vocal advocate for US assistance in Laos' bomb removal, said: “During our meetings in Laos, we learned that about 1,000 workers are destroying ordnances and leading education programs throughout the country. The bomb-removal program in Laos is effective and efficient, called the ‘gold standard’ by the State Department’s own Weapons Removal and Abatement Office. The removal process works, but it is expensive and more funding is needed now to prevent more casualties.” During the proceedings, witnesses recommended increased US funding for UXO clearance in Laos. Khamvongsa suggested at least $7 million in 2011, followed by an annual commitment of $10 million over the next 10 years — which in total amounts to less than what the United States spent in one week bombing Laos. These requested funds would strengthen and expand the scale of the UXO sector’s work. ”The US spent $17 million a day [in today’s currency] for nine years bombing Laos,” Khamvongsa said. “However, the US has provided, on average, only $2.7 million per year for clearance in Laos over the past 15 years.” The necessary funding, as many of the witnesses pointed out that day, would only be a fraction of what the United States spent on helping to rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII, and those situations involved regimes that had actually declared war on — and attacked — America. “The problem of UXOs in Laos has been allowed to persist far too long,” Khamvongsa said. “Too many innocent lives have been lost. Too many farmers and children have been left disabled, their lives forever changed. But it is not too late to stop this senseless suffering.” Santi Suthinithet is a journalist and editor based in New York City.
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Writer Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik
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Photos courtesy of the artist
Artist Diem Chau sculpts memory in everyday objects.
Diem Chau makes sculptures that you want to cup in your hands. Embroidered figures float on nearly invisible screens of silk to decorate porcelain dishes. Crayons are carved into figures from childhood memories. These objects are wonderfully detailed, in a whimsical, "how'd she do that?" way. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, and based in Seattle, Chau uses everyday methods and materials to create intimate visions. She pulls together personal narratives through craft. "I'm not trying to preserve or relive the past with my work," Chau said. "I just want people to realize that there was a past and that we're all connected to something. Even if that connection is as thin as cobweb, it's still there." A visual storyteller, Chau looked to a box of photographs from her deceased father as the catalyst for a previous series of works. More recently, she has returned to these same images with very different intentions. She looks for the people she didn't know. "We all have those familiar strangers in our lives," Chau said. "Someone who was, at one time, very important to someone we loved. I think about all the lost stories within those images. I try to think about how these strangers play into my life and how we really know, and yet don't know, the people around us." In her embroidered pieces, these phantoms appear as featureless figures and silhouettes often connected by a simple red thread. While Chau learned the language of sewing from her mother, her approach to craft is decidedly contemporary. She embroiders in spare lines and accents of color, the linear simplicity of her images contrasting with patterned porcelain. In this work, she navigates the tricky terrain of cultural and personal memory with deft hands and an arsenal of stories. See more of Diem Chau's work at diemchau.com. Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik is Hyphen's Artwell editor.
Facing page: "Shadow," 2008 This page, from top: "Sisters," 2007 "Hair," 2010 Collection of Kathie Maxfield "Offering," 2010
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This page (clockwise from left) "The Family," 2008 Collection of Keven McAlester & Eve Epstein "Just Before Dawn," 2009 "Women," 2008 Private Collection "Passages," 2009 Collection of Margo Howard Facing page "Passages," 2009 Collection of Margo Howard
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(From left) Local boxer Derrick Cagaanan works out in front of filmmakers James Z. Feng and Michael Solidum, whoâ€™ve made a documentary about MMA.
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A Fighting Chance James Z. Feng’s film crew exposes and humanizes the world of Mixed Martial Arts. Writer Sylvie Kim Photographer Brad Wenner IT’S JANUARY, but San Francisco’s winter chill can’t be felt in the steamy confines of El Nino Training Center. Echoing within the walls of this Bayview-Hunters Point gym — which is owned and operated by Strikeforce Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Gilbert Melendez — are the sounds of grunting, limbs slapping upon mats and the whirring of James Z. Feng’s video camera focused on a dozen fighters preparing to compete. Some of these young men and women have relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area just to undergo training in MMA, a full-contact combat sport incorporating martial arts styles such as boxing, wrestling and judo. Feng’s crew is nearly done filming the independently produced documentary Fight Life. The film’s tagline —“All pain. No glory.” — sums up both the behind-the-scenes rigor of MMA, one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports, and the crew’s own experiences as indie filmmakers seeking resourceful ways to stretch a chronically limited budget. The first MMA matches in 1993, subsumed by the promotional company Ultimate Fighting Championship, were violent and gimmicky spin-offs of Brazilian jujitsu. Since then, fighting styles have been streamlined and guidelines implemented. As the sport has gained legitimacy, a profitable industry has formed around the octagonal fighting ring. Feng wanted to spotlight fighters’ personal stories and dispel misconceptions about MMA. In previous films about MMA, according to Feng, “negativity has really been the focal point” such that the sport is portrayed as too violent or likened to “human cockfighting.” In contrast, Feng says, “my goal is to show that [MMA] is a real sport” by presenting stories that reveal MMA fighters as “people you can relate to.” Fight Life strips away MMA’s idealized facade, which is an artifact of big-money endorsement deals, and springboards to Hollywood roles for fighters such as Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s turn in the film adaptation of The A-Team (2010). Instead, the film looks at the hardships of training, life on the road, the modest prize money earned by newer fighters, tolls taken on personal relationships and health risks faced by uninsured competitors. The driving forces behind Fight Life have been the film’s humanizing angle and the young crew’s networking savvy. The indie documentary, still in post-production at the time of print, has generated hefty buzz in MMA circles — including coverage on numerous MMA blogs and a feature on Yahoo! Sports — and it is already available for request on Netflix. Feng first witnessed the stark reality of amateur fighting when he attended an MMA event in which his friend Bryan Maffei was competing. Feng, who had assumed that MMA was a glamorous sport, found himself rooting for his friend
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“[It’s] likened to ‘human cockfighting.’ ... ‘My goal is to show that [MMA] is a real sport’ by presenting stories that reveal MMA fighters as ‘people you can relate to.’ ” — James Z. Feng, director in what looked like an old high school gym surrounded by strip club promoters. Maffei, who had trained for several months, made about $2,000 for his fight. Feng empathized with his struggle to pursue a life goal despite financial worries and fear of failure. Still, that sum was relatively high compared to champion fighters like Jake Shields, Feng says: “Jake’s first fight was for like 200 bucks.” Shields, a fighter based in Northern California, is current StrikeDirector James Z. Feng worked odd jobs to fund his documentary.
force Middleweight Champion and a household name among MMA circles. In fact, Fight Life owes much of its momentum to Shields’ significant screen time. With its legitimacy enhanced by the participation of Shields, the film ultimately secured appearances by other prominent fighters such as Melendez, Nick Diaz, Chuck “Iceman” Liddell, Frank “The Legend” Shamrock and Lyle “Fancy Pants” Beerbohm. The Fight Life crew started out with few personal connections to the MMA world — Feng made the first contact by telephoning Shields’ father — and could not promise mass distribution. So, Feng’s team took a novel approach to snagging celebrity subjects: uniqueness and sincerity. Eschewing the typical MO of MMA filmmakers who focus on training and fighting, this crew wanted to focus on people’s lives both in and out of the gym. Once Feng’s team clarified their intentions, MMA insiders granted interviews, welcomed the team into training centers and provided access to major events. The team has not only secured coveted fight footage but gained insights into personal details of fighters’ lives, such as Melendez’s impending fatherhood and Beerbohm’s prior experience as an incarcerated drug addict. The film’s A-list talent has helped garner fan support, sparked snazzy trailers on the Internet and earned endorsement by fan-created MMA blogs. The Fight Life crew is also working with promotion and merchandising companies, featuring brand logos in the film (as they did for MMA apparel company TapouT) in exchange for consumer-targeted plugs. The free publicity has been invaluable in promoting this project, which is mostly funded out of Feng’s pocket. To offset the film’s costs, Feng has raised money by working odd jobs such as delivering brochures and coaching tennis, and, finally, by landing a contract position at a startup that allows him flexibility to shoot. “Unless your name is Michael Moore, nobody is throwing lots of money at you to make [a documentary],” one of the film’s producers, Seher Basak, says. Although the film has not yet been picked up by a distributor, Feng isn’t worried and takes heart in the project’s grass-roots following. In this aspect, Feng identifies with the MMA fighters he’s been filming. “These guys are hustling to make a name for themselves,” Feng says. “That’s what I’m doing. They’re broke; they’re doing it with a lot of risks with no insurance. I’m doing the same thing.” Sylvie Kim is Hyphen’s Film editor.
When We Became Asian American
ON A FRIDAY evening in San Francisco’s Manilatown Heritage Center, Karen Tei Yamashita prepares to read from her new novel I Hotel (Coffee House Press). It is standing-room only and the warm greetings, embraces and conversations indicate that this is not simply a literary event but a reunion of old friends and activists. Yamashita scans the room, nodding at familiar faces. She smiles and then apologizes. “I’m sorry,” she says to the crowd. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell all of your stories in the book.” It is fitting Yamashita should launch I Hotel at the same exact spot where, over three decades ago, thousands of activists fiercely protested the eviction of elderly Filipino, Chinese and Japanese residents. The International Hotel, now the site of Heritage Center, is the nucleus of Yamashita’s latest literary feat. Similar to her other novels — Brazil-Maru, which examines Brazil’s sizable Japanese immigrant communities, and Tropic of Orange, in which a multiethnic crew of Los Angeles citizens undergo a chaotic series of events — I Hotel draws upon extensive interviews and uses multilayered narratives to tell the story of the Asian American, or Yellow Power, movement. I Hotel is divided into 10 novellas, or “hotels,” which each focus on a single year, locale and lives of three characters. In the novel’s afterword, Yamashita describes her research as “scattered across political affinities, ethnicities, artistic pursuits — difficult to coalesce into any one storyline or historic chronology.” The daughter of two Northern California Democrats, Yamashita was raised primarily in the Japanese American community of Gardena, CA. It was in Los Angeles that she began the research for I Hotel, documenting the work of Asian American activists in the early 1990s with the filmmaker and Amerasia Journal designer Mary Kao. In 1997, when Yamashita became a professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she realized the San Francisco Bay Area was at the red-hot center of the Yellow Power Movement and she began to focus her interviews and archival research on this region. When Yamashita began her interviews in the late 1990s, the International Hotel was but a “hole in the ground.” Initial evictions of hotel tenants in 1968 were followed by a decade-long struggle to halt encroaching developers and re-establish the hotel as low-cost housing. At this time, Yamashita surrounded herself with such figures as poet Al Robles, former members of the International Hotel Tenants Association and Filipino farmworker activists in Delano, CA — all people who wanted to, as Yamashita says,
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“revive the memory of the hotel” and “[keep] the dream alive.” In a period of over 10 years, Yamashita amassed over 150 interviews. “I had to figure out where the pain was,” Yamashita says. The interviews became the basis for the characters in I Hotel and the diversity of voices lend an alarmingly realistic glimpse into the volatile 1960s. “Everyone was there, really there,” Yamashita says in her afterword. Along with the International Hotel, the novellas are also set at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkley — where turbulent student protests over the establishment of an ethnic studies program took place. Characters include a saxophonist just released from prison for his involvement in a student protest against a “fascist administration at San Francisco College” and a Filipino chef (and member of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee) who claims he once baked tarts for John Steinbeck. While she captures an extraordinary range of personalities in I Hotel, Yamashita also employs a mind-boggling range of styles and genres. Parts of each novella are broken up into radio broadcasts, transcripts of documentary film, poetry, numbered lists — even dance choreography. At one point, comic panels (drawn for the novel by Sina Grace) satirically illustrate a Chiquita banana mothering a pair of Siamese twins, one being Anna May Wong and the other Suzie Wong. The variety in narrative structures enabled Yamashita to more
photo courtesy of Jacob J. Thomas
Karen Tei Yamashita’s sprawling literary epic is an electrifying documentary of the 1960s Asian American Civil Rights Movement. Writer Cathlin Goulding
I Hotel is a potent throwback to an era when Asians established their identities, not simply as “sojourners, immigrants, FOBs, refugees, exiles,” but as Asian Americans who “forever embed this geography with our visions and voices.”
accurately document what Asian Americans created during the Yellow Power Movement. “There were all sorts of new strategies for activism and also for recounting events from the point of view of people on the ground,” she says. The final eviction of the International Hotel tenants, for example, is related in a cacophonous radio transcript of police removing the elderly tenants against the backdrop of ear-splittingly fierce protests. The high-velocity realism of I Hotel reflects the volatile and explosive temperament of the Yellow Power Movement, what Yamashita described as “rejecting the impotence of being immigrants.” At a time when Arizona lawmakers have banished the
teaching of ethnic studies in public schools and the Texas Board of Education has approved textbooks dramatically underplaying the contributions and oppression experienced by people of color, I Hotel is a potent throwback to an era when Asians established their identities, not simply, Yamashita writes in the final chapter of I Hotel, as “sojourners, immigrants, FOBs, refugees, exiles,” but as Asian Americans who “forever embed this geography with our visions and voices.” Today, the Asian American Civil Rights Movement is entrenched in our way of thinking about race in America, but “we don’t know it anymore.” Cathlin Goulding is Hyphen’s Books editor.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Writer Cathlin Goulding
i-hotel book cover Photo courtesy of coffee house press
Karen Tei Yamashita describes the characters who populate I Hotel as “revolutionary geeks,” since their activism was deeply rooted in the radical political theories of communist and black civil rights leaders, as well as the poetry and writings of Asian American farmworkers and activists. Here are a few books that Yamashita says comprise the intellectual architecture for I Hotel:
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X The Black Civil Rights Movement was the driving inspiration for the Yellow Power Movement. I Hotel’s characters were closely modeled after reallife Japanese American Black Panther Richard Aoki and take cues from Malcolm X’s militant approach to addressing racism in America.
Rappin’ with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark: Poems by Al Robles Al Robles, Filipino poet and activist, was one of the people whom Yamashita interviewed and collaborated with in her decade-long research for I Hotel. A consummate storyteller, Robles was a key figure in the San Francisco literary scene and was at the center of the effort to resist the eviction of tenants of the International Hotel.
America Is in the Heart: A Personal History by Carlos Bulosan Carlos Bulosan’s account of his emigration from the Philippines and the exploitation of and efforts to organize Filipino farmworkers was one of the sources Yamashita read in her preparation for I Hotel.
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New and noteworthy Monique Truong’s second novel, set in the South, narrates the life of young Linda Hammerick as she comes to terms with family, boys, school, career and illness. But this is no ordinary coming-of-age story. Linda has a secret sense: Each word she hears triggers a corresponding taste in her mouth. These “incomings,” as she calls them, intensify her memories, even as the nature of her condition and true familial origins remain mysterious. As shocking and heartbreaking revelations unfold, this novel imparts the message that self-identity should hinge not upon social categories or physical appearance but rather upon one’s lived experiences, including those hidden. Truong interweaves Southern legends with Linda’s narrative, adding layers of meaning to an already-intricate plot. And Truong’s prose is lovely, conveying a voice that is honest, whip-smart and funny. This must-read book surely belongs among the year’s best literature. — Abigail Licad
Home Boy By H. M. Naqvi (Shaye Areheart Books) This book is about three young, rap-spouting, coke-snorting Pakistani men who call themselves Metrostanis. Claiming New York as home, they are equally at ease in “the paan-stained streets of Jackson Heights” as in the hush-hush lounges of Tribeca populated by “socialites, arrivistes, homosexuals, and metrosexuals.” When 9/11 strikes, their Metrostan is exposed as a mere simulacrum of a home that crumbles as they are ejected from habitual haunts, and a madcap dash to Connecticut to save a friend results in a harrowing run-in with the FBI. Needless to say, this is an exciting read. The prose, a wicked amalgam of slang and dazzling wordcraft, swerves and hurtles like the virtuosic hijinks of a cabdriver in Manhattan traffic. If the journey’s end is a bit unsurprising and unsatisfying, it’s because Naqvi handles the controversial sociopolitical issues tentatively. The passages on the jihad and the hijab, and the fleeting effect of the stint at the detention center, pale in comparison to Mohsin Hamid’s rigorous The Reluctant Fundamentalist, especially since the young, returned-émigré Pakistani narrator of that book tells a similar tale. For all that, Naqvi’s debut is a provocative and irresistible success. — Nawaaz Ahmed
Juvenalia By Ken Chen (Yale University Press) The modern preoccupations of Ken Chen’s award-winning debut collection, Juvenilia — the past, unknowable family secrets, identity, heartbreak — commonly appear in writings by the descendants of immigrants. What makes the book notable, and deserving of the Yale Younger Poets prize, is the fresh and intelligent way the poems confound these themes. “The mind itself has no walls” — and, accordingly, the speaker in the poems scours sources as discrepant as Batman, the ancient poet Wang Wei, an ex, a neighbor, and Confucius for a revelation that the speaker suspects cannot be realized: “The fantasy being the existence of the answer.” Rather than solutions, the inquiries deliver an assemblage of disjointed narratives, syllogisms, aphorisms, elliptical observations and halfdiscovered truths. Poetry becomes a way through both loss and revival, a means to “adjust your eyes to the unlit room” and “deploy your heart past its range.” Somber yet playful, self-disparaging yet hopeful, this collection brims with the promise of more achievement to come. — A. L.
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top three We asked Belle Yang — author of the graphic memoir Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale: “What books have left a legacy on your creative life?”
A House for Mr. Biswas By V.S. Naipaul (Vintage) [When] I read this nearly 20 years ago, [I loved] the luxurious tale of a man’s plodding pathos and humor in searching for and creating a house of his own. My family had been refugees from mainland China to Taiwan to Japan and finally to America, in search of a private space where we could be free to live and love.
The Enigma of Arrival By V.S. Naipaul (Vintage) I read this after the Tiananmen massacre in China, where I was neither truly Chinese [nor] foreign. I reread the book on returning to the United States. It is a claustrophobic retelling of Naipaul’s arrival in England as a poor student from Trinidad, too afraid to venture from his lodging, where he ate his meals over a trash bin. The pain of adjustment and the constant reminder of his foreignness were like a scab repeatedly torn off.
The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh Edited by Ronald de Leeuw (Bulfinch Press) Few realize that Van Gogh was not only a painter but also a well-read literary man. His letters found me when I returned from my three-year sojourn in China. I was encouraged by his adamant road [in becoming] an artist — starting his career at the late age of 30. His brother Theo’s support was like my [mother] and father’s unflagging emotional and spiritual wisdom, which [has] sustained me these 25 years.
photo courtesy of Joseph Yang
Bitter in the Mouth By Monique Truong (Random House)
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The Rhapsodistas in 2006: (from left) Liezel “Zelstarrr” Rivera, Irene “Shortyrocwell” Duller, Krishtine de Leon (formerly known as “EyeASage”) and Natasha “Sola” Pineda (not pictured is Valerie “Sho Shock” Francisco).
In the video for “Mrshmlo,” the lead single off Rocky Rivera's eponymous debut LP released earlier this year, the emcee stares down the camera behind flowing lashes, her cropped faux hawk bobbing to the beat as she waves a manicured nail with a no-youdidn’t bravado. Leaning against a car and sporting sky-high stilettos and a necklace strung with bullets, the 27-year-old Filipina flashes a gold grill between ruby red lips, from which come the lyrics: “I’m a 5-foot, I’m a looker/Good enough to eat but I’ve never been a sucka.” Even a trait as seemingly straightforward as “sexy” is executed with studied complexity — a sustained tension between video-vixen comeons and tomboy swagger that practically defines the personas of some of the most prominent female emcees in hip-hop today. Rocky Rivera, born Krishtine de Leon and also known by the emcee alias EyeASage, is part of a rare breed: the Asian American female emcee in the hypermasculine and predominantly black world of contemporary hip-hop. If one Filipina spitting on a mic is a political statement, imagine four. In the mid-2000s, de Leon was part of a Filipina American
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emcee collective in San Francisco called the Rhapsodistas, which fused community and activism with music. Asian female rappers — not to mention a quartet of them — have been rare compared with the slew of African American women in the rap game. Pioneers like MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante and Queen Latifah, and even contemporary artists like Lil’ Kim and Jean Grae, have helped erode the novelty of black women in rap — something that continues to be an issue in the Asian American hip-hop community. The story of the group, of which de Leon is the only member still in the music industry, illustrates the particular challenges faced by these Filipina American emcees, many of which persist today. De Leon founded the Rhapsodistas in 2004, along with spoken-word artist Irene “Shortyrocwell” Duller and two other women they met through San Francisco State University’s League of Filipino Students, Valerie “Sho Shock” Francisco and Natasha “Sola” Pineda. (A fifth member, Liezel “Zelstarrr” Rivera, joined later as a singer.) All four 20-somethings were college-educated immigrants who were bred on hip-hop culture.
Photo courtesy of Kirstina Sangsahachart
Former Filipina American hip-hop group the Rhapsodistas talks music, politics and making it in a male-dominated industry. Writer Mitchell Kuga
Francisco believes the group provided more than just novelty for hip-hop audiences. “We were saying things in specifically different ways,” she said. “After people got over the shock that there were four amazingly beautiful, gorgeous women going as hard as we could, they were also really appreciative over the things that we would talk about, which sometimes was just girl stuff, lady things, and other times we were talking about community things, like human rights violations in the Philippines — things we were passionate about politically.” The group recorded its first song for MySpace in a friend’s closet, and it gained popularity quickly. “It was definitely surreal to me that there was that power to allocate space as women to make art, and bam — the next minute, we’re on stage performing it,” Duller said. “That was empowering for sure.” The Rhapsodistas played shows mainly at underground hiphop clubs and community events. A large chunk of their support came from the San Francisco Bay Area organizing community, due to the Rhapsodistas’ affiliation with political Filipino groups. But with that support also came particular expectations. They
ing themselves, but with no blueprint to follow, the Rhapsodistas struggled with evoking the appropriate on-stage personas, ones that neither hardened them into thugs nor debased them into video vixens. “We were often transforming,” Duller said. “One moment we were too hard. The next moment it was like, ‘Let’s wear our female sensibilities.’ ” In 2006, the group slowly parted ways, pulled away by the responsibilities of school, careers, political organizing and raising families. The difficulty of committing time to the Rhapsodistas was also exacerbated by the misogynistic, racially codified culture of hip-hop. “This is being really honest, but I don’t think we were really sold on us,” Francisco said. “Because hip-hop is a male-dominated place, it was like, ‘Let’s do this and see how far it goes and just hope for the best.’ “ De Leon is now the only Rhapsodistas member pursuing a music career full time. “I was watching VH1 the other night and they were talking about how all these groups have their one diva person, like Diana Ross or Beyoncé,” said Francisco, who is working on a dissertation at the City University of New York on Filipino domestic workers and trans“I was born into hip-hop, but for some reason because of what I national families. (Duller is a professor at San look like or who I am or my gender, the question is raised about Francisco State University and University of how much of that lifestyle I really live.” San Francisco.) “Not to say that Krish is a — Krishtine de Leon diva, because she’s definitely not. But I think she was definitely more serious about comwere sometimes the only female emcees on a bill, and Liezel Rivera mitting herself as an artist.” said the group struggled against being pigeonholed in the confines Rocky Rivera features the same charismatic, focused emcee of feminist-related subject matter. “We’re women and we represent that de Leon always was, but the screws are tightened a little hardthat to the fullest, but sometimes we want to talk about love, and er. She has a playful yet hard-hitting flow evocative of Slick Rick, sometimes we might want to talk about my car getting broken into,” but imbued with subject matter more commonly found in spokenRivera said. “People think women can’t be complex.” word cafes. On “Girl Like Me,” de Leon rides a reggae-tinged beat, In fact, de Leon said her legitimacy as a true emcee is often rapping about a man’s misdeeds: “I know you see her in the video questioned within the broader music industry. “[The most difficult grinding in a miniskirt, bragging to your boys about the things you thing is] really convincing people that I’m hip-hop, too,” said de want to do to her/Oh boy, you’re just a sucker for the dirty wine, Leon, who appeared on the 2007 MTV reality show I'm from Rollpulling all the dirty girls, thinking with a dirty mind.” On “Heart,” ing Stone, where aspiring journalists worked as interns at Rolling she mentions social justice icons Angela Davis and Dolores Huerta. Stone. “I was born into hip-hop, but for some reason because of Those looking to follow a similar route to a career in hip-hop will what I look like or who I am or my gender, the question is raised likely face the same challenges that de Leon and the Rhapsodisabout how much of that lifestyle I really live.” tas experienced. “It’s definitely not going to be a walk in the park,” In the street cred-obsessed world of hip-hop, questioning the Duller said. “But that’s the type of female Asian emcee that we want validity of the Rhapsodistas was an easy shot; after all, the memto be broadcasted, because those emcees will be the ones to rise bers met through the college circuit. But hip-hop was pervasive above the bullshit. And there’s a lot [to fight against], whether it’s while they were growing up in California in the ’80s and early ’90s. your male counterparts or the DJs hitting on you or getting paid “The most available form of music to me growing up in a lowless or being put in the front of the lineup when no one’s there yet.” income neighborhood was definitely rap,” said Francisco, whose For de Leon, who has a 2-year-old son with rapper Bambu (forbrother was involved with gangs. “We took inspiration from the merly of the rap group Native Guns), the question isn’t how or if, struggles of our mothers and our fathers being immigrants and but when. “I have a family to feed, I have a future that I really have what it was like for us to be uprooted from our homelands and to prepare for,” she said. “It makes things more serious. You can’t raised here and struggling with those identities. And the university keep talking about it. It’s time to do something about it.” was the place where we first started to unpack those things.” Highly aware of their identities and how they were representMitchell Kuga is a writer living in Honolulu.
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Breaking In Shin-B shows other Asian female emcees how its done. Writer Mitchell Kuga In the sink-or-swim world of the Los Angeles music industry, emcee Andrea “Shin-B” Kim is fighting the good fight for Asian American female rappers. Her albums combine Top 40 hip-hop sensibilities with vocal flow, but her live performances feature unadorned, raw rhyming. Kim, a University of California, Irvine, graduate in Asian American Studies, also conducts hip-hop workshops, with the hopes of one day running her own label to help other Asian American female emcees in the game.
Is there a bigger market for Asian rappers in Asia? I worked in Korea from 2006 to 2007 to try and pursue [my career] there, because there were a lot more opportunities. But the problem in Asia is they don’t really want you to go outside of the box. They want you to stick with what works for them, which were the pop groups, girl groups and boy bands. That’s not what I want to represent. There’s just more leeway to do things in the United States, which has a bigger indie culture and invites more originality.
What’s the story behind your emcee name? Shin-B is similar to the Korean word for “mysterious.” It was a nickname given to me by friends because I normally don’t voice my opinions; I keep things to myself. But with this alter ego, I’m able to say whatever’s on my mind.
Who are some female emcees you respect? Eternia, Tasha, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Jean Grae, Lady of Rage — they’re all individually strong both vocally and mentally. I’m biased. I tend to favor female emcees who rap with a hungry tone: lower pitched, strong bars, confident. When they rap, they do it with such passion that it screams for attention.
You also rap in Korean. Is the creative process different depending on which language you’re writing in? The whole syllable structure is different — in Korean you can get a lot more words into a phrase. The emotions are still there, it’s just a matter of wording it.
photo courtesy of Yunice Kang for PAC
You’ve been an emcee for close to a decade. How has Asian American hip-hop changed? There’s a dominating presence of [male] Asian American emcees in hip-hop. But there’s still been a lack of emcees in the female department. People tend to not want to give an Asian female rapper support — it’s almost taboo. It’s a mixture of stereotypes, a double whammy: an Asian and a female trying to rap in a male-dominated, mainly black industry. ... There’s that whole stereotype of the Madame Butterfly, the subservient and conservative model minority. For Asian females to step outside of that box and do something like rap is very extreme.
What advice would you give other Asian female emcees trying to get into the game? I wish a lot more were actively pursuing it. When I conduct workshops, females say that they want to rap but can’t because they’re afraid of the backlash. Sure, it’s largely a male-dominated spectrum. You have to learn to ignore negativity and surround yourself with good people who will uplift you and give you constructive criticism. Surround yourself with really good male emcees and soak in everything. Get on rosters for shows. Invest in a mic so you can record at home. Go out to local hip-hop shows and study how the greats perform. Don’t downplay yourself just because you’re an Asian female. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to have confidence that you’re just as good as any male, possibly even better. Kim’s third LP is scheduled for release on September 11. Visit shin-b.com for more information.
Did you worry about what others might think of you? Definitely. I still struggle with that today. I always wonder: Why am doing this; who am I doing this for? And it’s hard because no one wants to give you a chance because you fit into a stereotype. Record labels don’t want to sign me because I’m too much of a risk and don’t have my own niche. It’s been hard on me emotionally and there have been times that I’ve wanted to quit, but I know I’m on this mission to help out other up-and-coming females. What did your family think about your music career? They were against it for the longest time. I understand where they were coming from. It is a risk, and they were just worried about my future, but I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, and it was pretty much the only thing I wanted to do with my life. Within the past year and a half, they have finally accepted it and been incredibly supportive. They see the newspaper articles mentioning my name, and it gives it some sort of solid credibility in their eyes. Whenever they’re out in a social gathering, they’ll plug my name.
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No Rest Klangbad christyandemily.com
Apple O’ Kill Rock Stars deerhoof.killrockstars.com
Through the Chaos Narnack Records hypernovamusic.com
Passport Curious Creature Records emimeyer.com
Christy Edwards and Emily Manzo are an amalgam, combining polar-opposite musical backgrounds while searching beyond either influence into new sonic terrain. While seeking a new keyboardist for her other band, Lil’ Fighters, Edwards, a self-taught punk guitarist, found a friend and musical companion in Manzo, a classically trained pianist. The duo’s third release, No Rest, was recorded at Klangbad Studios in Germany by Hans Joachim Irmler, keyboardist of krautrock pioneers Faust. Guitars gently jangle along the rumble of the Wurlitzer organ through a dark, cavernous resonance. Luminous notes flicker and fade into shadows. The drums never break beyond a pulse, with an occasional percussion palpitation. Vocal harmonies are set slightly off-time with each other, evoking adventurous expression rather than precise execution. The overall effect of vastness via minimalism is accentuated by Irmler’s production, which carefully places every instrument and voice while accentuating their tones, adding warmth and timid luster. The end result contradicts the album’s title, as Christy & Emily will lull you into repose with effortless ease. — Ryan I. Miyashiro
Who reissues vinyl these days? Cool people, that’s who. The reissue of Deerhoof’s 2003 release Apple O’ features strippeddown, off-beat, experimental indie rock tunes, in addition to stellar live bonus tracks and demos — some of which sound better than the studio versions. Since the band’s inception in 1994, the San Francisco quartet has seen a number of different recording and touring lineups, all in the name in keeping it fresh. Founding member and drummer Greg Saunier got the idea for the album after reading a review of the band’s 2002 album Reveille in Thrasher magazine. He turned the page to read an interview with The Pixies’ Kim Deal, where she dismissed Pro Tools and digital recording tricks, which had been used heavily for Reveille. So homeboy was like, you know what, let’s keep it real. The result was the ultimately live-feeling Apple O’, recorded in one nine-hour-long session. It’s amazing how such unpredictable song structures can make for great melodies; it’s like pop music with a jazz mentality. The opening riff on the track “Dummy Discards a Heart” is reminiscent of other kindred Kill Rock Star acts, but what sets Deerhoof apart from those acts are ... surprises! Isn’t that what punk and art are all about? — Lyle Matsuura
For many Americans, the phrase “Iranian rock band” is something like “chocolate bacon.” On paper, it doesn’t look right, but you can’t help trying to convince your friend to buy it so you can check it out. The adventurous types who pick up on the four-piece Hypernova will wonder how this melodic lovechild between Interpol and The Strokes could come out of a country where Western music is banned from television and radio airwaves (just imagine, no “Freebird”!). After establishing its street cred by throwing underground basement shows around Tehran, and later touring with Sisters of Mercy in 2008, Hypernova’s first full-length album, Through the Chaos, since the 2006 EP Who Says You Can’t Rock in Iran? is definitely an achievement. Jams like “Fairy Tales” and “Lost in Space” will most likely pop up in your Bloc Party Pandora queue soon enough, although if you’re keen on your rock, you may conclude that most of the tracks are watered-down versions of the New York garage/indie rock from yesteryear (à la the bands previously mentioned). But hey, this is forbidden fruit we’re talking about here. — Matt Ratt
Comparisons to Rachael Yamagata are inevitable. Not only are Emi Meyer’s similar-sounding vocals set against catchy, soulful, jazzy piano pop, but both are also young, half-Japanese, half-white females. But it’s not as if Yamagata forged a genre for those like her to coast to success: Meyer self-produced her first album, Curious Creatures (2007), when she was only 19. After completing a degree in ethnomusicology, the Kyoto, Japanborn, Seattle-raised musician has found success, capturing the title of No. 1 jazz artist on iTunes Japan in 2009. Though it is not uncommon for Asian American artists to hit it big in Asia, Meyer isn’t playing it safe with formulaic J-pop. Meyer’s academic background lends itself to an awareness of avoiding exoticization in music — a fact evident in Passport, her first venture into composing and singing in Japanese, which Meyer has described as “mind opening.” Hints of bossa nova, dub and reggae sneak into the album, which was recorded in the United States, Japan and Brazil. Even those who aren’t jazz fans should be curious to hear Meyer’s deep, bold, soothing voice, and while those with no grasp of Japanese can still snap along, those who understand it will appreciate the poetic phrasing of the language. This young one’s on fire. Another album, in English, is due this fall. — Margot Seeto
Christy & Emily
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The Conscience of Nhem En Directed by Steven Okazaki farfilm.com Veteran filmmaker Steven Okazaki delivers a haunting short documentary set around Tuol Sleng prison, the infamous site of nearly 17,000 executions ordered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. The eponymous subject of the film, Nhem En, was a prison photographer who, at age 16, added thousands to the Khmer Rouge’s collection of prisoner photos, snapped right before their torture and death. Okazaki skillfully juxtaposes Nhem En’s Nuremberg defense (“The interrogators had their job and I had mine.”) with testimonials from three of only eight documented survivors whose memories of torture and the deaths of their family members remain fresh decades later. Clocking in at only 26 minutes, much of the film’s gravitas comes courtesy of the photos themselves — stark black-andwhite snapshots of men, women and children. Some may ask why Okazaki chose to interview Nhem En as opposed to higherranking Khmer Rouge officials. The film, with its footage of present-day Cambodia still in a state of healing, suggests that everyone shares responsibility in addressing the atrocities of the genocide. Special features include Okazaki’s documentary on indigenous Hawaiian culture and politics, Troubled Paradise. — Sylvie Kim
Sounds of a New Hope
Only the Brave
Directed by Eric Tandoc soundsofanewhope.blogspot. com
Directed by Lane Nishikawa onlythebravemovie.com
Directed by Tony Lam vincentwhofilm.com
Political exile Jose Maria Sison said, “A song is three to five minutes, but if it has nice content and [is] sung by a good singer, it can spread very fast.” Hope and participatory change is what Filipino American rapper Kiwi (Jack de Jesus) attempts to spread through music. Eric Tandoc’s 40-minute documentary captures Kiwi’s transformation from a gangbanger in Los Angeles to San Francisco Bay Area community organizer. Tandoc borrows the title from the first episode of Star Wars, where the young Jedi transforms from an unknowing and uninvolved individual into a force in the dismantling of a malevolent empire. Footage from the United States and Philippines demonstrates Kiwi’s struggle to build community and break down Western imperialism in the hopes that national democracy can exist in his native land. Seeing Kiwi struggle while conducting rap workshops with youth in the Philippines gives the audience a glimpse into the existing Filipino American and Filipino disconnect, but it is folks like Kiwi who understand the importance of making connections. The film ultimately inspires the viewer to understand the potential social force of music by showing how hip-hop can affect youth from San Francisco’s Excelsior District to Metro Manila’s Caloocan City. — Matthew Ledesma
Lane Nishikawa writes, directs and stars in this feature-length dramatization of the Asian American (but primarily Japanese American) 442nd Infantry who fought in North Africa, Italy and France during World War II despite the internment of Japanese Americans. Co-stars include notable Asian American actors such as Jason Scott Lee, Tamlyn Tomita, Mark Dacascos and the late Pat Morita. Content-wise, the film provides a rich account of the experiences and accomplishments of Asian American soldiers as well as their lives preand post-war. However, the slow pacing of the film (opening with an extended voiceover monologue) and the tendency toward the melodramatic put a polished finish on a gritty topic and a moment in history. Brief moments of candor such as the soldiers shooting the breeze at night in their sleeping quarters make us yearn for more of a nuanced perspective into the lives of these men rather than a historical celebration that seems more appropriate for classrooms than personal viewing. DVD extras include behind-the-scenes footage and the film’s trailer. — S.K.
The brutal beating death of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982 galvanized students, activists and citizens across Asian America. Vincent Who? is a followup to the 1987 documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? and was inspired by town hall meetings organized by Asian Pacific Americans for Progress on the 25th anniversary of his death. When the filmmakers interview current college students about the Vincent Chin case, no one is able to give a clear answer; this is used as a means to question where the Asian American movement is today. The film is rooted in compelling interviews with powerhouses such as activist/journalist Helen Zia and civil rights attorney Dale Minami, balanced with the voices of younger activists, students and politicians. Zia and Minami suggest that Asian American activists have made a large impact through policymaking. The next generation claims that activism doesn’t have to come in the form of protests but through less visible acts such as teaching and journalism. The film also touches on hate crimes against South Asians and Arab Americans after 9/11. Archival video footage and newspaper clippings serve as painful reminders of how hate crimes damage a community and, at the same time, can bring people together to seek justice. — Viet-Ly Nguyen
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Winner of the 2010 Asian American Short Story Contest, a collaboration between Hyphen and The Asian American Writers' Workshop
Pilgrims (What Is Lost and You Cannot Regain)
Writer Sunil Yapa Illustrator stroopwoffle
Asoka froze with her hands in her hair and a rubber hairband in her mouth. Just
stood frozen like that in the act of tying back her hair as if caught in the flash of a photograph. She was staring at the back of his head where he sat slouched watching a football game. She had a strong urge to tell him he was going bald in a spot on top of his head that he couldn't see in the mirror. “Then you’ll pull out a bunch of saris,” he went on. “And lay them on the bed like baskets of fruit. Apples, oranges, pears. You’ll look at them for god knows how long.” He stuffed another pappadam in his mouth, crunching loudly. “Then you’ll finally ask me if I think it’s terribly inappropriate to wear a sari to this party. To which I will reply, ‘Probably.’ “ She took the hairband from her mouth, sighed. “I will also say that because we’re going to be the only Sri Lankans you would maybe feel more comfortable wearing jeans. Americans don’t wear saris to Thanksgiving dinners.” “We’re not pilgrims, Sanjay,” she said. “You know this.” He turned then, twisted in the chair, grinning at her like a boy, that grin she’d first fallen in love with. “It’s America, baby. No one cares.” He was often like this, relaxed and jokey around the same topics and the same groups of people that put her on guard. True, he’d been born here among these people, whereas she’d only arrived six months ago, but that didn’t exactly explain the unease she felt. She turned from the room, the TV gurgling on like a baby. “I’m going for a walk,” she said.
she was sweating inside the yellow vinyl raincoat she’d taken from the closet. She pulled back the hood and wiped damp strands away from her face. Her hair was dark and long. Her face, too, was dark. Much darker than other Asians, it was more the blue-black of an African face. It was dark enough, she had noticed, to cause people’s glances to linger uncomfortably when she went with Sanjay to the local supermarket or when they stopped for a cup of tea in the afternoon at the local coffee shop when she went by herself to mail a letter to her mother — any one of the million small tasks that required her to venture out into the pale and alien world in which she now lived. Just this past week looking for a new tea kettle at Wal-Mart, she’d had to stop a man to ask for help — a heavy older man probably in his 60s. He’d pushed his glasses higher on his nose and looked her up and down, taking in her dark skin; the twisted braid that fell down her back; the gold bangles that climbed her wrist. He’d even paused for a moment to let his gaze roll smoothly over the swell of her breasts. She’d been wearing a thin cotton T-shirt and had wished for a sweater, something heavy to pull around her with an urgency so sharp it was like a knife in the chest.
By the time Asoka got to the top of the hill, she was drenched. It wasn’t raining hard — just a steady, damp November drizzle — but
She had known life would be different here. She had known that if she chose Sanjay over any one of the suitors her mother
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had chosen for her back home that she was trading a known future for one unknown. Yet despite the repeated warnings, she was still sometimes struck dumb by their life together. The big, empty house in the country, his job as a professor, her shopping trips to the mall, the credit cards stacked six-high in her purse like a row of dead fish in the market — she had known life would be different here with this man, yes, but she hadn’t known it would be so American. At the top of the hill, she paused and checked the time — 6 in the evening, so 6 in the morning in Sri Lanka. She pulled a cell phone from her jacket and dialed a long string of numbers. Though she knew the number perfectly — it was the house she had grown up in and had spent all of her life in — she dialed slowly. Behind her, a gravel road ran down the hill. She and Sanjay lived in the country, 20 minutes from the university where he taught, and the road, unplowed, was crusted over in patchy snow that was now turning to slush beneath the drizzling rain. To her left, the hill fell away in a steep cliff covered in brambles. Far below her, beneath the low gray clouds, she saw the glimmer of a stream and beyond that a new housing development uncurling on a hillside. The subdivision wasn’t finished yet, surrounded by the stubble of fallow cornfields, and from this distance the new houses looked to Asoka like tiny paper matchboxes, fragile and somehow unreal in the gauzy gray light. She saw road construction equipment — a bulldozer, a dump truck, the long yellow blade of a gravel spreader — parked at the end of one of the unfinished roads like a cluster of toy trucks forgotten by a child and she bent and scooped a piece of gravel from the snow and tossed it over the cliff. She watched it fall and bounce and then lost it among the jumbles of rock. Six months ago, just weeks before Asoka was to leave for the United States, her father had died of a heart attack. He’d been always a healthy man, boisterous and full of life, but he had worked too hard and drank too much. One morning while driving to work, his car had jumped the median and careened into the oncoming traffic. A week after her father’s death, she had gone to the coroner’s office to sign some papers that her mother claimed she could not read. The coroner was a small man with round glasses and a brisk, professional air. That day, he had leaned back in his chair and, after polishing his glasses for a moment with the white sleeve of his lab coat, he had confided to Asoka that her father had been dead long before his car had leapt the median. Tapping his chest with one long brown finger, the coroner had said in a voice almost rueful as though discussing a wayward child, “His ticker just went. Massive heart failure, you see.” She stood waiting for the call to go through. The rain fell gently
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around her as she listened to the clicks and hums of the island’s antiquated phone system. At 6 in the morning in Colombo, her mother would be starting her day. The image of her mother sitting in the kitchen alone having the day’s first cup of tea, the steam rising from the cup, the right elbow tucked neatly into her left hand, aroused in Asoka a feeling of both loneliness and guilt. It was a strange, ambiguous mixture of emotion, one which she had hoped would dissipate as she settled into her life here with Sanjay, but as the months had passed, the feeling had only grown more acute. Why did she feel like such a traitor? Over the sound of the rain and the fuzz of the international call, she heard something coming up the road. She turned her head, listening, distantly curious. It sounded like a truck, its engine loud and roaring, tires spitting gravel as it raced up the hill. Before she could move, the truck appeared over the top of the rise, bearing down on her where she stood in the middle of the road. There was an instant of incredible surprise — she barely had time to register the two teenagers in the cab, hair the color of corn silk falling around their faces — before she did the unthinkable. She stepped back. The slope crumbled beneath her boots. The truck roared past her, both boys turning to watch her as they passed, their mouths round O’s of incomprehension. And then she fell. Her scream followed her all the way down.
It seemed a miracle as she got to her feet, shaking, but she had injured nothing more than a banged-up wrist. She couldn’t believe it. She looked at her boots, her legs, her arms, her hands. Her phone was still there in one hand, clutched so tightly that she had to deliberately unfold her fist one finger at a time, the knuckles white with tension. She put the phone in her pocket and massaged the hand. Finally, not really wanting to but unable to stop herself, she craned her neck and looked at the road high above her. She followed her way down the hillside, not daring to believe that she had survived. A long, dark smear of mud cut straight down through the rocks. She saw yellow fragments of her jacket strewn across her path, clinging to the thornbushes like pieces of torn flag. She was alone now with the sound of the rain, the truck gone, the drops spattering quietly on the remains of her jacket. So quiet, she thought. No onlookers raced to her side. No crowd formed around her. No flood of questions pouring from their mouths as they helped her to her feet.
The image of her mother sitting in the kitchen alone having the day's first cup of tea, the steam rising from the cup, the right elbow tucked neatly into her left hand, aroused in Asoka a feeling of both loneliness and guilt.
How strange. She didn’t hear any of the birds whose names she didn’t know. The one that sounded like glass breaking. The harsh cough of a crow. That one she knew. The worst thing, she thought as she marveled at the long dark streak of mud, was that those boys didn’t even stop to see what happened. Were they drunk? High on something? Worse? Her thoughts were interrupted by the slow grind of brakes. She saw twin tire tracks, two dark furrows that disappeared into the forest and now, idling beside her, a battered farm truck loaded with hay bales and what looked like the bloody carcass of some animal stretched out on top. Behind the wheel sat an old man in a green mesh hat. He was looking at her with concern, his gray eyebrows lifted over blue eyes. When he rolled down the window and asked if she needed help, she heard the kindness in his voice and was so surprised at the sudden rush of gratitude that she felt herself begin to cry. Sobs shook her body softly like thunder rattling windowpanes. The old man got out of the truck and wrapped her in a blanket. He helped her into the passenger seat. If he thought it strange to find a dark-skinned woman alone in the rain, he didn’t mention it.
In the truck’s warm cab, her crying subsided. She told him where she lived and he nodded. The ancient truck creaked forward into the forest. “You had quite a tumble,” the old man said. He held up a small, silver flask then unscrewed the cap and took a drink. He offered it to her. Lying at her feet on the worn boards of the truck’s floor were a toolbox and a rifle. Below them were newspapers stained a dark red. She pulled the blanket more firmly around her shoulders, noticing as she did that it smelled of something familiar, dusty like hay and horses or like the barn behind their house that she had gone into only once looking for a rake or something sometime back in September, or was it October, feeling aimless and bored one day while Sanjay was at the university teaching. She had shivered as she entered the shade of it for no reason that she knew and had never gone back in. “No, thank you,” she said.
the windshield. At the top of the road, they came out into a flat plain where the last of the daylight lingered, gathering in muddy puddles and in the water running along the road. Finally she said, “Do you live around here?” He shook his head. “Used to. But that was years ago.” He took off his green hat and ran a hand across his head as if there were more to say. “Matter of fact, this whole valley used to be ours.” He took another quick drink and she remembered something then that the real estate agent had told them the second time she and Sanjay had looked at their house. Asoka had asked what was here before the houses and the real estate agent, a woman in a gray skirt and suit jacket, had said the man who used to live there sold the entire thing to the developer. All 250 acres. “He used to farm all this,” the woman had said looking around, an odd expression on her face as though she couldn’t really believe that anyone had ever farmed the ground where these houses now stood. “But his son and daughter-in-law got killed in a car accident in front of the mall. The old man was so heartbroken he sold the whole thing practically overnight. They never did find who hit those kids.” Asoka looked more closely at him. The weathered face. Dark creases and shadows in the hollows of his eyes. “Were you a farmer back then?” Asoka asked. Well,” he said, “we did all sorts of things. Land didn’t pay you much. Not in money anyways.” He paused. “Of course all that’s changing now with people like you moving in and all.” She didn’t say anything, suddenly regretting accepting his offer of a ride. He took off his hat, rubbing fiercely at his gray stubbly hair as if embarrassed by what he had said. He took another drink. “Listen,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I want to show you something.” “I really need to get back home.” He took another drink. “I’m sorry about what I said,” he said. “It won’t take but five minutes. Do you mind?” Asoka looked at him and looked out the window and then looked back at him. He was watching her with those pale blue eyes, the flask sitting between his legs. “Fine,” she said.
They drove for a while in silence, winding their way in curves up out of the narrow valley. The only sounds were the rattling of the heater blowing oily air into the cabin of the truck, the rain tapping on
At a faded stop sign, they turned left onto the main road merging with the flow of after-work traffic heading out of town. They continued for a few minutes, the car silent, the sun setting behind
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them reflecting a dull red off the tall glass buildings of the mall, more brightly in the windshields of the new cars gleaming in the dealership lots, row after row. She recognized the mall from trips there with Sanjay and thought she recognized that car dealership — they all looked the same, didn’t they? — but as the sun dropped below the horizon, they went past a huge gas station that she didn’t recognize at all. The station was at the entrance to a four-lane highway and Asoka thought they might enter the highway, but they continued past. A few minutes later, they turned off the road at an unmarked entrance to an abandoned factory. In the last of the remaining light, she saw a huge, hulking earthmover sitting in the darkness below two tall towers. There were weeds reaching as high as its trackless wheels and its yellow paint was pitted with rust. She shivered and pulled the blanket more tightly around her as they drove on past the earthmover, past the empty towers with all the glass windows broken, past the dilapidated, ramshackle wooden buildings that might have once been the factory office and began to descend back into the valley. Tall pines were silhouetted against the disappearing sky and Asoka felt an uneasy sense of foreboding come over her. Just as she was about to say something to brighten the mood, the old man broke the silence. “Used to be there was a mill in this valley,” he said clearing his throat. “Paper mill. We just drove by some of what remains of it.” “I thought you were a farmer,” she said. “Well, we never owned up here,” he went on. “But my father worked off and on at the mill for about 40 years, and when I was a younger man, I was up here some, too. Work was good, supported most of the people in this valley, but the thing was that mill put out an ungodly stench. Like they were killing animals in there and burning the flesh. Just terrible. Used to peel the paint right off the houses.” He went on, telling her how when you lived in the valley, you just got used to the smell after awhile, got to be so you didn’t even notice it. He told her how every house up this side of the valley had to be repainted every three or four years. You’d repaint it and whatever was coming out of that mill would just peel it right off again. Still everybody repainted. “You see?” he said. She nodded. “You just got used to some things,” he said. “Whether you liked it or not.” “A ways back there was a leak from the mill,” he said. “Spilled near half a ton of industrial metals into the creek and ruined the fish. Didn’t
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kill them, you just couldn’t eat them anymore. Those poisons had got into them. Still that didn’t stop us from pulling trout out of there.” That was their God-given right, he told her and in his voice now there was something new, a quality of nostalgia or wistfulness maybe, she thought, that reminded her of her father sitting on their back porch telling stories of his childhood. Back when his son was around, the old man told her, they had spent many an evening up there on the stream fishing for brook trout. They’d get their flies and their lines and pull on their hip boots and they’d walk up past the empty concrete tanks of the old abandoned fish hatchery, him and his son, past that old steel bridge that’d been damaged in the flood, passing on up into the state land beyond that, crossing the stream, fishing back and forth as they pleased, the water running cold and clear around their boots. But after the spill, you couldn’t eat the fish anymore. They still went up there and caught them, that didn’t stop them, but now you had to take the hook out and put the fish back in the water, holding it there in the running stream until it regained its senses and knew where it was. Then with a flick of a tail, it would disappear back into the darkness of the deep pools. “Seemed kind of funny at first,” he said, “to put a fish back in the water after you caught it, but you got used to it. After a time, it got to be normal.” Got to be so that you almost enjoyed putting a big one back, he told her, your son watching with a grin and you thinking, I’ll see you another day, old fish. It was possible to get used to a great many things. In the weeks following her father’s death, Asoka had offered to stay in Sri Lanka with her mother-. She had even offered one last time in the faux leather chairs of the Colombo Airport International Departure Lounge, stomping her foot as she spoke as if her mother were a stubborn animal, insisting that she would stop this marriage and move back home. But her mother declined in her usual way, clutching her sari with one wrinkled brown hand and waving her daughter away dismissively with the other as if to say, “Oh, Asoka, you are silly to think an old woman like me needs you for company.” Still, Asoka had wondered at the tremble in her mother’s chin, wondered as she lay in bed with Sanjay snoring beside her if her mother had some premonition of the long years of loneliness that lay ahead. Or did her mother turn from her because she somehow suspected what Asoka could not say — what she would never say, not to her mother, not to Sanjay, not to anyone — that even with her father just weeks in the ground, every beat of her heart had whispered of escape, begged her to leave that island, told her to flee and never turn back. The man had stopped talking. Asoka watched as they passed
The bills dropped slowly, spinning and twirling their way down like confetti before they disappeared altogether into the darkness below the bridge, still falling.
a few small houses, the pale flickering light of TV sets spilling from the windows. “I’m sorry your son died,” she said. She knew. Even as she said it, she knew that it wasn’t at all what she meant to say. The old man just shook his head from side to side. He pulled the truck off the road. “This is what I wanted to show you,” he said.
Night now and an expanse of concrete stretched out before them bathed in the orange light of sodium arc lamps. He got out and walked across the front of the truck, stopping at a low concrete wall. He walked with a limp and Asoka sat for a moment watching him in that odd orange light. Then she followed him, leaving the blanket behind in the truck. She stepped to the edge of the concrete wall and with a sudden rush of vertigo realized that they were standing on a bridge that stretched high across the valley. The old man steadied her with a hand on her shoulder, then pointed to a group of lights far below them, so small they looked like a handful of stars. “That’s yours,” he said with a funny grin. “Your home.” She stood for a moment just looking. Her home. She wanted to tell him that she understood loss. Understood the way it pulled at your chest like something being torn out by the roots, how you were never really free of it no matter how far you went, but she didn’t have to words to explain and then he said, “Grab that toolbox from the floor.” And motioned to the truck. She went back and found it. A gray toolbox sitting on the floor of the truck where her feet had been. She picked it up, groaning with effort. “What’s in here?” she said. “When my son died,” he said. “Well.” He shook his head, not making any move to help her. “You want to know the real reason I sold all this land? This land that was my father’s and his father’s before that.” She set the toolbox down on the concrete retaining wall of the bridge. “I sold it because some slick developer gave me a boatload of money for it. That’s why. And I didn’t see any reason at the time to say no.” He flipped open the lid of the toolbox. Asoka gasped. The thing was stuffed with green bills. “That’s not even half of it,” the old man said. “Those fools gave me nearly a quarter of a million dollars.” She took one out and held it up between her fingers. A hundred
dollar bill. Without warning, he leaned over her and grabbed a handful and tossed them up and over the side. The bills hung in the still air before them nearly motionless, bright and unreal in the waxy yellow light from the lamps above them. “For what?” he said. “I don’t know what the hell to do with it all. Worth about as much to me as those dumb, sad fish we used to pull out of the creek.” She stood on tiptoe and leaned over the retaining wall. “Not worth a damn,” he said. The bills dropped slowly, spinning and twirling their way down like confetti before they disappeared altogether into the darkness below the bridge, still falling. She was shocked and then moved and although she couldn’t have explained why exactly, she thought of her father, how he had died alone driving to work; she thought of the sudden spike in his chest, surprise and pain running across his face like a shadow; what had he thought of in that moment? Did he think of work, the tasks of the day he would never finish? Did he think of her mother? Did he think of her and the long journey she was about to make? She thought of how his car had leapt the median, sparks flying from beneath the carriage, she thought of how he died, his car crushed like an empty can; she thought of how he used to laugh in the evenings, sitting on the patio, his shirt and shoes off, telling stories with her uncle. How they would laugh! Bills fluttered up and out of his hands like birds. Then his hand came to rest on her shoulder. And though she felt her phone vibrating in her jacket, heard it ringing, had been feeling and hearing it, she realized, the entire time they’d been standing on the bridge; though she knew that in moment she would answer it, that they would then follow the curving road back down to her house, that she would tell Sanjay nothing of accident only that she would be ready for the Thanksgiving dinner in a few minutes; knew, too, that it would be the first of many, the life she had chosen here in this new country laying claim to her; though she knew all of this, saw the inevitability of it — for now she let it ring. And though she couldn’t have explained it, she thought, I want to stay like this forever. This moment of time stretching out forever. Here on this bridge, above the darkness with this man’s hand on my shoulder. How strange. Then the moment passed and she reached into the toolbox and grabbed bills with both her hands and let them fly. Sunil Yapa received his Master of Fine Art in fiction from Hunter College in New York City. He is currently working on a novel set during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.
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Lee celebrating her 14th birthday in 1998.
Lee at high school graduation with her mom in 2002.
Seeking Perfection "No solids after 6 p.m." "No liquids after 7 p.m." "No rice or noodles." "No fried foods." "No dairy." "No soda." Apparently, "no" is a key theme at the weight loss spa my mother and I frequent. At 6 a.m., half-awake, I hobble to the kitchen to scarf down my breakfast: a tiny bowl of granola and leftover fruit. For lunch, I wolf down half a ham sandwich, in which a bit of meat is dwarfed by a forest of leafy greens. No mayo; no mustard; no dressing. I chase it down with a shot of orange juice. Dinner is whatever I can squeeze in before 6. Usually, I get sauteed vegetables that have been drenched in boiling water so as to strip them of all sauce, grease and goodness. At age 18, when my primary goal was to become as beautiful as I could be, I followed this regimen for 90 days. Going far beyond food, the regimen also included cleansing, meditation and pep talks about how a new svelte body would match my beautiful face. The weight-loss spa in Taipei, Taiwan was a world where I could “fix”
myself, namely by transforming my appearance to match my inner beauty. Once my body is perfect, improving the rest of me will be cake, I thought, optimistically shelving my old fear that I'd never be a size six. The truth, as I would realize much later, is that no quickfix diet could change me, inside or outside. But in that moment, I doggedly pushed forward. I climb into bed exhausted and hungry. My stomach growls. I can only dream about my next meal. In the spa, I wear a beige frock and choke down a green powder that will supposedly cleanse my system and make me thin. I try to wash it down with water, but this only makes the powder lumpy and difficult to swallow. My tired gaze meets that of another young woman. We both look quickly away. Moments later, I am lying on a table in a dark room. Strange male hands press my stomach, massaging the flesh as if it were dough. I grind my jaw together as more force is exerted, but I endure the pain. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, as my parents have always said. Silently, I wonder if I’m kidding myself. No diet has worked before; why should it work this time? Still, I retain an inkling of hope. The next day, the spa’s weight machine reports that I have lost four pounds. I feel watchful eyes scrutinize me and hear congratulatory words. Later in the dressing room, I smile as I stroke my bruised, flabby stomach, tracing my fingers up and down the light indigo marks. The magic has worked. I steel myself for the next treatment. I remember the moment when the wonder started, when my mother and I sat in the office of a mama-san type who described the treatments that would change my life. My mother, who had been a size zero as a young adult, listened intently. She was thrilled by the notion that her oldest daughter, who had inherited her wit and her ethics, might look more like the women on Chinese variety shows and hence build a stronger sense of self-worth. For three months, she’d sacrifice her credit card to this cause. And I’d follow along, if only because I no longer wanted to look
A scribbled note from 2002 tracking what Lee ate in one day.
photos courtesy of lisa lee
Hyphen’s publisher recounts her struggle to face down the pressure to be thin. Writer Lisa Lee
FIRST first PERSON person
Do you have a story to tell in 1,000 words or less? Send submissions to firstperson@ hyphenmagazine.com.
Photo of Lisa on right by Andria Lo
Glamour shots taken in Taipei in 2002 after losing 15 pounds.
Today: more comfortable in her own skin.
“big-boned,” as my mother described me (or “healthy,” as my aunts and uncles politely framed it). As a child, my parents had never fretted about my weight — they cared only that I stayed well and active. But by age 8, I was quite aware that I was bigger than most kids on the playground. And I have memories from seventh grade of wondering why it was a struggle to pull my knee-high socks over my oversized calves while my friends’ socks fell loosely about their ankles. I remember a cute boy I liked calling me “thunder thighs” during a dodgeball game. Over the years, I became tired of not fitting into jeans the way most of my peers did. In fact, for a long time I didn’t wear jeans — it was too painful to confront the fact that I was a size 10, not a size six like the small and dainty girls I thought I should look like. A month into the program, my weight loss has begun to plateau. I am wiped down in ginger essence, embalmed in plastic wrap and thrown into a sauna. My skin burns everywhere. I try to shut out the pain by visualizing extra water expelled from my body. A day later, I am hooked up to an electric machine designed to shock my muscles into burning calories. I cringe as the dial is turned up and briefly worry about brain damage, but my fear dissipates when I am told that 30 minutes on this machine is like working out for two hours. For 30 more days, I continued to starve and sweat my body into submission. I wanted to be thin, beautiful — everything that everyone covets. I wanted to make my mother happy. In the end, I shed 20 pounds. My mother was ecstatic; I was even happier. To maintain my sleek new image (and to shed more pounds), I continued to eat next to nothing, popped diet pills and avoided going out with friends so I wouldn’t have to explain my food choices. When asked why I ate so little, I typically lied and said that I had already eaten. My friends became suspicious, and once they even attempted an intervention. But I laughed and told them
they were crazy to think I had issues “After three months, with food. I was in deep denial. my diet pills ran out My newly improved self and its and I began gorging on corresponding lifestyle didn’t last brownies. I regained the long. After three months, my diet weight I had lost.” pills ran out and I began gorging on brownies. I regained the weight I had lost — and more. I began to suffer insomnia. My new look involved wearing a long-sleeved shirt layered beneath another loose T-shirt to hide my bulges. Only now, years later, am I finally able to come clean with the scariness of it all. I see now that I was chasing a dream that wasn’t mine or even my parents’. When playfully blaming boyfriends for making us women feel this way, they have retorted that no one is forcing us at gunpoint to be skinny. Insensitive, I know, but accurate. I don’t know who to blame for creating this illusion, and naming a scapegoat wouldn’t serve much purpose. All I know is that at one point, this dream became everything I wanted. I pursued a thin image that was supposed to exude confidence, control and ultimately beauty. For many years, I was ashamed of my inability to embody this image. Now my shame stems from knowing that this desire to be skinny conflicts with the person I want to be — a woman who wants to demonstrate that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty. And yet, despite knowing this, I look at photos of me from that time and can't help wishing for a split second, or maybe longer, that I could look like that now — for the compliments, for the envious and admiring glances, and perhaps for the superfluous feeling that I appear to have it all. Lisa Lee is Hyphen’s publisher.
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it k c REDESIGNED FOR A cheout! RED NEW STATE OF MIND
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