Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, follows a mother and son separated by immigration agents, borders, and new families. Deming Guo wakes up one day in the Bronx to find that his mother Polly has disappeared. Soon, he is Daniel Wilkinson of upstate New York. We follow Daniel as he struggles through high school, the emotional turmoil of his mom’s abrupt departure, makes a friend who isn’t white, makes a friend who was adopted from China (same but different), and graduates high school. Until he learns some information about his mom’s whereabouts.
The novel flits back and forth between Daniel’s story and Polly’s, told from her own perspective. But while we follow Daniel’s story more or less linearly, Polly’s unfolds more circuitously. From her present life in China married to a successful businessman who doesn’t know she ever had a son, we follow Polly’s life backwards and around: Days raising Deming in the Bronx to her life as a child in China, to the terrifying series of events that led to her forced separation from her son unfolding in the very last pages.
This is a story about family, about bonds that are broken and reforged. About immigration and injustice. About forgiveness and moving forward. Who are the people who live in between and how will they find their way? Lisa Ko’s two protagonists are deeply human, flawed and enticing, shaped by circumstances often beyond their control, yet seemingly fully aware of the choices they make. In the end, Polly and Deming search for themselves, in each other and in constant turmoil over what kind of life to lead. Parts of The Leavers are truly gripping, stunning in their storytelling arc, in other places, a bit slow, but overall, Ko offers an interesting arc and a truth about our current time.
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Back in July, I was able to attend Politicon (think of it as Comic-Con for political geeks) in Pasadena, California. This was the third year it was being held – I had first learned about it last year, but had planned on going to the Democratic National Convention (which I did), so didn’t make any plans to attend. This year, I wanted to check the 2-day event out, especially after reading about this panel: Asian American Pacific Islanders: Crucial Vote in Swing States:
“Asian Americans could make up the margin of victory in almost every swing state, and they have more business and consumer economic power than any other minority group. But what are their politics? And why are no politicians trying to court them? This panel looks at how to reach these enigmatic voters. Moderator: Richard Lui Panelists: Bill Wong, Hon. Judy Chu, Lou Diamond Phillips, Steven Olikara.”
I’ve met Richard Lui and Congresswoman Judy Chu, but hadn’t met or heard of Bill Wong or Steven Olikara. And to be honest, I hadn’t realized (or maybe forgotten) that actor, producer & activist Lou Diamond Phillips was an Asian American (“He was born in the Philippines and numbers among his ethnic extractions Filipino,Cherokee Indian, Scottish-Irish, Hawaiian and Hispanic blood.”) – he’s made his racial ambiguity play to his advantage and has played different ethnicities in his acting career (I most remember him from the movie, Stand and Deliver).
Panelist Steven Olikara did note that the room was full of Asian Americans, but to be honest, given that the attendance of Politicon 2017 was estimated to be around 10,000 people, that panel room maybe 200 hundred Asian Americans. Relative to those who attended and also the population of Greater Los Angeles, which is approximately 11% of the population), I was again disappointed.
I was most interested to see and hear Congresswoman Chu speak:
There was a lot more the panelists had to say, but if you’re interested, you can take a look for yourself in the YouTube video.
Overall, it’s is exciting to see more Asian Americans getting involved in politics. But I think there could be so much more involved than we are today. But my frustration must be tempered with the demographic realities that most Asian Americans (something like over 70%) were born outside of the United States, and that many immigrated to the U.S. in the past two decades.
I caught this recent Bounce commercial:
“If only Harry used some Bounce to dry, he would be less wrinkly and winning at life. Toss wrinkles, static, lint, and pet hair goodbye.”
This businessman is pitching something to a group of humorless groups of Asians, which I assume are foreigners (since in the U.S., it would be unlikely for a group of Americans on a team to be all Asian Americans). Of course, his pitch would be better if he didn’t have a wrinkled shirt on.
Personally, I just like the parodied song.
Of course, in the alternative universe, the guy’s pitch is going great now that he has a non-wrinkled shirt on. I guess there is only so much creativity you can have for a fabric softener ….
So what do Asian Americans watch on TV? USA Today analyzed Nielsen data for most of the first half of 2017 and came up with the data shown above. I was personally was surprised that it was so divergent compared to other major American ethnic groups. America’s Got Talent as the most popular Asian American show? Really? Why so different?
The article mentions possible causes for the differences, such as Asian Americans averaging less than 15 hours a TV viewing a week compared to African Americans who averaged 44 hours. I wonder about the effects of cord cutting and online only shows on Amazon Prime or Netflix. My kids and I hardly watch ever TV series, cable or broadcast, with TV watching usually restricted to sports and for me, Game of Thrones. The Daughter in particular likes a few online only shows. Since I couldn’t find the actual data from Nielsen that went into this, it’s really hard to say for sure.
That there are differences is revealing in itself, saying that ethnic groups in the US really do have differences in preferences and tastes. I would have like to seen more data, particularly on the viewing hours. 44 hours vs 15 hours is a vast difference. It would be interesting to see it broken down by income levels – do wealthy people watch as much TV and the same shows as middle class or poor Americans? I suspect that advertisers have already done that kind of study.
Twenty thousand people every year visit Shingō Village in the Aomori Prefecture (referred to as: Kirisuto no Sato or “Hometown of Christ” by locals) that claims that Jesus visited Japan during his lost years and then returned after escaping crucifixion by having his brother take his place on the cross, making his way to Shingō where he became a garlic farmer, married a local woman, and had three children.
Today, in Shingō, you can visit Jesus’ alleged grave site and museum. Next to Jesus’ mound is another mound where Jesus’ brother’s ear is buried along with a lock of hair from Mary—both of which, according to the legend, he carried with him when he fled execution.
Just in case that’s hard to read:
When Jesus Christ was 21 years old, he came to Japan and pursued knowledge of divinity for 12 years. He went back to Judea at age 33 and engaged in his mission. However, at that time, people in Judea would not accept Christ’s preaching. Instead, they arrested him and tried to crucify him on a cross. His younger brother, Isukiri casually took Christ’s place and ended his life on the cross.
Christ, who escaped the crucifixion, went through the ups and downs of travel, and again came to Japan. He settled right here in what is now called Herai Village, and died at the age of 106.
On this holy ground, there is dedicated a burial mound on the right to deify Christ, and a grave on the left to deify Isukiri.
The above description was given in a testament by Jesus Christ.
Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is. Especially when you consider the fact that only one percent of people in Japan identify as Christian. But let’s pretend for a moment that there is something actually to this whole thing. How do people know Jesus visited Japan and then later died there? According to the legend, in 1935, Jesus’ last will and testament was found, which proved that he had not only been in Japan but died there. The document was “coincidentally” burned during World War II, but “luckily” someone had made copies.
What’s the proof that Jesus was actually in Shingō? Here is the “evidence” that is often cited:
It has been pointed out that some of the traditional clothing of the region included toga-like robes worn by men that were unlike other Japanese clothing, as well as veils worn by women, all of which seem more like something from biblical Palestine than Japan. In addition, some of the ancient traditions of the area included other things that are considered to be decidedly non-Japanese, such as carrying babies in woven baskets, wrapping them in robes embroidered with something akin to the Star of David, and marking their foreheads with crosses of charcoal. Even the regional dialect is said to have connections to the Holy Land, with some words resembling Hebrew more than Japanese. Even the name of the village itself was once Herai, which is remarkably similar to the Japanese word for Hebrew, Heburai. On top of all of this, it was once said that many of the villagers had decidedly foreign looking facial features and even blue eyes- let’s ignore that Jesus most certainly did not have blue eyes- that were seen to be a sign that they were descended from someone of non-Japanese origin. (Source)
My favorite part of the myth is Jesus’ supposed decedents have not let the fact that they are related to arguably the most important person to ever walk our planet get to their heads. In fact, a reporter asked one of them if they were going to do anything for Christmas and this was their answer:
“I’m not really planning anything at all for the 25th as it doesn’t really matter to us,” said 52-year-old Mr Sawaguchi. “I know I am descended from Jesus but as a Buddhist it’s just not all that important.” (Source)
Thankfully, it appears that most people in the village don’t actually believe any of this. They seem to mostly want to play along because it brings tourists—from I imagine all over the world—to a small village no one would visit otherwise and spend money at the museum gift shop.
“We’re not saying that the story is true or what is written in the Bible is wrong,” a village official told the BBC. “All we are saying is that this is a very interesting old legend. It’s up to the people who come here to decide how they interpret it.” (Source)
Are you interested in visiting Kirisuto no Sato? It’s apparently quite a commute from Tokyo. For specifics, check out CNN’s Travel article.
What do you think? Any chance Jesus didn’t die on the cross and ended up in Japan as a garlic farmer instead?
Vanessa Hua’s debut collection of short stories, Deceit and Other Possibilities, guides readers through a “deceit” to provide a compelling portrait of human nature. The spotlight falls on a range of individuals, a Hong Kong celebrity, a Korean American pastor, a Mexican American learning an unorthodox trade from his father. Not about spies nor lies precisely, each story is a portrait of a life — choices that unravel to reveal who we are against who we want to be against who we are expected to be. Lessons learned, mistakenly or rightfully.
Continue Reading »
Because I had grown up in neighboring Newark and then lived in Fremont California for many years before moving to San Jose, I was intensely curious to read what Trespassers? Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia by Willow S. Lung-Amam had to say about Asian Americans life in suburban Fremont. Would it present anything that I didn’t know already? After reading the book, I was surprised at how much was new to me – primarily the amount of resistance Fremont’s Asian American community encountered when it starting asserting itself in areas ranging from education to shopping centers to housing.
The Hope of Another Spring: Takuichi Fujii, Artists and Wartime Witness brings Fujii’s art to a broader audience with the stunning pages from a diary he kept while incarcerated during World War II. Written by Barbara Johns and with an introduction by the artist’s grandson Sandy Kita, this book offers a historical, art historical, and also deeply personal insight on to Takuichi Fujii. The first half delves into Fujii’s biography, providing an overview of his life in Seattle and the position of Japanese issei artists within the West Coast art scene, before delving into his family’s forced relocation first to the detention camp in Puyallup, Washington, and then to Minidoka, Idaho. The author also provides a as thorough an accounting of Fujii’s career and life work as possible.
But the gem of this book is the reproduction of Fujii’s diary that takes up the second half. His sketches and their accompanying notes (diary entires of a sort) provide a detailed look at life inside a Japanese internment camp and the emotional turmoil of that experience. The text ranged from a simple description to more of a thought out musing. It’s very poetic in styling and voice. All told, the works provide an intimate portrait of this life behind barbed wire fences. The Hope of Another Spring offers an issei artist’s perspective to our understanding of Japanese American’s wartime incarceration, while also bringing a valuable study of Fujii and his artistic journey and long career.
Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn is the riveting sequel to Heroine Complex, starring not just one, but two badass Asian American superheroines. You may or may not recall that I loved Heroine Complex when it came out last summer. The first book in this series followed Evie Tanaka as she morphed from sidekick to full blown superhero with fire throwing powers. Throw in a budding romance thrown in and an at times testy relationship with her best friend, boss, and San Francisco’s beloved superhero Aveda Jupiter, and it’s a thrill of a read. Now in Heroine Worship we switch gears to focus on Aveda, formerly Annie Chang, who is now sharing the spotlight with Evie. We follow Aveda/Annie as she struggles with a demon-less SF, deals with the fact that she’s been a less than great friend to Evie, and where she falls in the Aveda-Annie spectrum. The plot revolves around Evie’s engagement and impending wedding. That backdrop provides all the necessary quirky props, settings, and bridal beasts, but in the end, like the first book, this one is really about Evie and Aveda/Annie’s friendship.
Heroine Worship starts a bit more slowly than its predecessor. And I think it’s only natural that fans of Complex love Evie a little more and Aveda a little less. Aveda spends the first half or so behaving in expected Aveda ways (mostly a belief that she knows best), but in the second half, the novel really takes flight. We get more of Aveda/Annie’s back story, including a wonderful and deep set of scenes with her Chinese parents about expectations, pride, and family. We get a fun and sweet romantic line. We get more feelings (FEELINGS!). And we watch Aveda become comfortable with herself as Annie and what that means. It’s really in that journey that she ultimately enamors herself to us readers.
Heroine Complex is the book I immediately sent to my friends. I have already followed up with them for Heroine Worship, accompanied with the advice, “Keep reading, it’s worth it.” And when you’re done, schedule a viewing of The Heroic Trio.
I was surprised to see this commercial. Not that Asian Americans don’t need Depend adult diapers, but that this commercial highlighted a use case I had not thought about – firefighters wearing Depend’s:
“On Jon’s crew, every second counts. See how the breathable fabric of Depend® Real Fit® briefs helps him manage his bladder leakage so he can stay prepared for whatever lies ahead.”
The commercial highlights that “Jon S.” is an actual Depend user. If I hadn’t moved to California, I would have experienced “California Asian American Culture Shock” – seeing an Asian American firefighter, especially in a television commercial!
The one minute version of the commercial goes into more details regarding “Jon S.”:
These commercials were first posted back in January 2017 – so I’m not sure why I haven’t seen them until now … The again, Depend customers are probably generally older than I am, so maybe I’m not watching the same program as the elderly. Though “Jon S.” is definitely not the stereotypical Depend user.
In April of this year, I was asked by Southern California Public Radio to do a presentation about my family as part of their new series called, Unheard LA. The following is the video from my talk, followed by my original speech (broken into two parts). Please note, the text is from the original draft of the speech, so at points is considerably different than the actual talk I gave.
February 19 is the Day of Remembrance. This year marked 75 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II, most of which lived on the Pacific Coast. It was later stated, after an investigation ordered by President Jimmy Carter, that the actions of the government were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." Here Koji Steven Sakai share his family’s experience.
Posted by KPCC In Person on Friday, June 2, 2017
CHAPTER 5: The story (cont.)
The “camp” my family was sent to was in Topaz, Utah.
Now imagine: People going from sunny and WARM Hawaii to the high deserts of Utah—where in the winter there was a snow on the ground and in the summer it was often over 100 degrees. They couldn’t have been prepared for that.
It is important not only to know where they were but why. In 1943, America needed soldiers and people to help the war effort. And there were 120,000 Japanese Americans sitting idly in these “camps.” But the problem was that the government couldn’t tell the “good” Japanese Americans versus the “bad” Japanese Americans. So, they created a loyalty questionnaire.
The two most important questions were questions 27-28.
There were only two possible answers to these questions. Yes, Yes and No, No. Answering one of them no, meant you were answering them both no. These two questions literally divided my community and its effects can still be felt today.
So why did people answer yes-yes? It’s pretty simple actually. They were loyal and willing to prove it. And they had no allegiances to any other country. The No-Nos were a bit more complicated. Some said, take me out of camp, take me out of this prison, I’m willing to answer yes, until then: No. And they believed Question 28 was a trick question, because the basic underlying assumption was that you had allegiances to another country.
How did my grandfather answer these questions? No Question 27 and No to Question 28.
Here are my grandfather’s words on why he answered the way he did:
And, because of his answer, they were sent to Tule Lake.
…where all the “bad” Japanese were sent.
In 1944, the US government passed a law that allowed American born citizens to renounce their citizenship voluntarily during wartime. The bill was designed to pave the way for the mass deportation of Japanese Americans after the war.
It was under this law that my grandfather (and other Japanese Americans like him) renounced his citizenship. He said he did this because he was convinced that Japanese Americans were going to be deported to Japan and it’s better to be first rather than last in line. Secondly, there were pro-Japanese factions in camps that threatened him and his family if he didn’t renounce his citizenship.
Once Tule Lake closed, they were sent to Crystal City, Texas.
This camp was for an “enemy aliens” and had to adhere to the Geneva Conventions, meaning better food and shelter than the “regular camps”. And when I looked into it, there was a swimming pool in Crystal City
After the war, my grandfather and other Japanese Americans realized renouncing their citizenship was a mistake. They worked with Wayne Collins, a wonderful lawyer from San Francisco, who said, “You can no more resign your citizenship in a time of war than you can resign from the human race.” He argued their renunciations had been the result of the unlawful detention and the terrible conditions in Tule Lake and not their decision.
My grandfather argued he was an American by birth. His rights had been violated. But he wanted to remain in the country.
After much hand wringing, my grandfather and his family were allowed to stay…
… they were given $25 dollars each and one way tickets back to Hawaii. Their citizenship was returned to them 10 years later.
I don’t look at my grandfather’s story through rose-colored glasses. There are many disturbing things about his story. In fact, the first time I read it I thought he was a spy. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away before I was born. I have so many questions I wish I could ask him. The most important being, did he know about Pearl Harbor.
But even without those answers, I no longer believe he was a spy. He just got caught in a wave of hysteria and was making the decisions he thought was best for him and his family. Blaming my grandfather also takes blame away from the government, who incarcerated 120,000 based entirely on their ethnicity.
Now that I know the story, I use every opportunity to pass the story to my son.
CHAPTER 6: Passing the story
It started with a trip to Manzanar when he was four.
But this was not just a one-time thing. Every time we pass places where Japanese Americans were incarcerated here in Southern California, I make sure to remind him. So that includes Santa Anita Race track, Griffith Park, Pomona Fair Grounds, and Tuna Canyon. I tell him, “this is where they locked up our people.”
This is my life’s work, to share the story of my family and others who were locked up. In fact, I constantly tell my son that we, as decadents of people who were locked up in these “camps,” have a moral responsibility to make sure that it never happens again to anyone ever. And I share it with all of you in the hopes we don’t let history repeat itself again.
Follow me on Twitter @ksakai1.
At my local Trader Joe’s in Silicon Valley, this frozen dish goes for $4.99. I’ve had this dish before where I have stir fried it, so this time around, I microwaved the dish – first the shrimp separately, then adding the shrimp to the rice, for a total microwave time of around 4 to 5 minutes:
Overall, the dish tasted almost as good as stir fried. Overall, I like the dish – it was pretty tasty, and maybe even a little spicy for some. I highly recommend compared to some of the other frozen dishes I’ve had from Trader Joe’s.