Obama Bows to Emperor Akihito

obamabowBarack Obama’s bow-at-the-waist to Emperor Akihito has garnered some pretty harsh responses in the US. Namely, it is anti-Obama critics jumping on the President’s gesture with the ferocity of a jock at my high school who’s just been implicated as being gay.

That the President of the World’s Super Power akin to something along the lines of God of Earth, the United States of America should feel the need to bend over for a small Asian man (repeatedly, as Obama also bowed in an equally as controversial greeting to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah at a G20 meeting recently) is thought of as repulsive, weak and definitively, unamerican by his critics.

Never mind that in Japanese tradition, the Emperor is a direct descendant of a divine being (the sun goddess, and thus probably even more powerful than any ‘god of earth’) and in American tradition, the president is just some chap who is popular.

Are the Obama critics really so afraid of being respectful of Asian traditions that they care about the angle of the President’s back? Is the WW2 anti-Japanese sentiment resurging to combine with some weirdo homophobic pride in a hybrid critique of the nation’s first non-white president?

Perhaps it would be more productive to critique the deep bowing of Obama to a symbolic ruler who represents a government that refuses to acknowledge many of its wartime atrocities and genocidal policies towards its Indigenous cultures. Or would such a critique be too close to the truth of America’s own national history?

So Why Do Asians Love Stereotypes of Themselves?

bananaboysIt was sitting in the middle of a packed theatre in downtown Toronto that I noticed racist jokes aren’t just funny to white people.

Fu-gen, Asian Canadian Theatre Company operating out of Toronto has recently produced some plays that are a bit questionable in their reproduction of East-Asian/Asian-Canadian stereotypes. Brown Balls features three Asian men complaining about their lack of luck with white women while fawning over their technogadgets. Banana Boys is a similar plot, reliant on the effeminizing gaze of white stereotypes of Asian males, the play propping itself up with homophobic jokes/innuendos and failing to speak to any Asian male sense of self-worth, or pride in the beauty of Asian women. As if there isn’t anything else for Asian-Canadians to make plays about.

The crowd around me? 50% Asian males. Howling in laughter. Cheering at the recognition of a common stereotype.

But why?

Some theories on the phenomenon of Asians’ fondness for stereotypes of themselves:

  1. It’s funny. When we tell the joke, we aren’t only the butt but the comedian (too bad the joke is still on us)
  2. Being funny is cool (and its not often we think of ourselves as cool)
  3. Craving for recognition: as poet Ishle Park put it, “Where are our Martins? Our Malcolms? All we have are fathers with thick tongues.”  We don’t see ourselves in the popular imagination, pop culture or otherwise. No strong figures we can rally around and be proud of. So when we see something we recognize that other people recognize as Asian, we embrace it as one of our own children (only it wasn’t ours, it was the child of that white kid in the schoolyard who beat us up everyday for being Asian).
  4. We don’t recognize our strong figures as strong figures, or the things that aren’t the butt of a joke that we have as Asians which we can be proud of.

This is not all bad news, however.  Because there seems to be such an absence of the Asian-American/Asian-Canadian persona in popular imagination, this gives us the room to start promoting people who we feel are deserving of this kind of recognition. Right now, we have the power to shape how Asians are seen in North America. We don’t have to take what was given to us.

White Men Making Decisions for Asian Women: Sarkozy and the Burqa

Sarkozy knows best?“It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

Following a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in which the two disagreed on the issue, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a major policy speech condemning the covering. “The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience,” this male, non-Muslim expert stated on Monday, adding that it deprives women of identity and acts as a prison.

In 2004, France made a controversial decision to ban headscarves in public schools. Sarkozy has evidently watched a few too many Hollywood terrorist propaganda movies, he himself denying the identity of the Muslim women who choose to wear it. As a burqa-wearing thread contributor on Salon.com points out “I’m also happy to have non-Muslim friends who don’t try to take my agency away by assuming I must be brainwashed.” And she is only one of many Muslim women speaking out against anti-head covering sentiments.

Since when is spinning spiritually significant clothing as evil considered to be progressive? Oh right, like when Sikh turbans were banned from Canadian Mounted Forces until 1990. Canada being one of the most progressive countries, naturally.

Many try to play off the call to ‘ban religious symbols’ in the name of secularism. Yet, it is usually muslim women who wear head or body coverings that are the first targeted. On behalf of Islamaphobia and sexism — ahem — secularism, naturally.

Reena Virk: 12 Years Later and No Sign of Justice for Hate Crime

Reena VirkFriday, June 12, 2009 marks the “conclusion” of the fourth trial for the murder of South Asian youth, Reena Virk. Reena was fourteen years old when she was killed in 1997 by a gang of white youth in Victoria, British Columbia. Kelly Ellard and Warren Glowatski are the only members of the entire group of teens tried over the past twelve years in relation to Virk’s murder that were successfully convicted of second-degree murder. Found in combination with the final drowning of the girl’s body were several other potentially fatal injuries inflicted by the group, including attempts to set the girl’s hair on fire.

What makes this a hate-crime?

It is the targeting of Reena’s South Asianness in how her murder’s tortured her that makes it so. Yet, the media repeatedly casted the reason Virk was targeted as the fact she was an outcast, “dark-skinned”, a little overweight, just wanting to fit in. “The implicit message was that had she been white and had she been thin, she would have fit in, and there would have been no reason for her to be killed,” as anti-racist scholar Yasmin Jiwani highlights.

Not surprisingly, that Virk was South Asian is rarely mentioned in related media. While Ellard and Glowatski had allegedly made fun of Reena’s “hairy back” and burned a cigarette into her forehead where a South Asian woman may wear a bindi, racism was not even examined as a motivating factor for the violence. As a side note, at one point in one of the various attempts to bring justice over the four trials, it surfaced that Glowatski joked and prided himself when explaining the blood on his shirt to a witness as evidence he had killed a Native man.

After several appeals, it has taken four trials to date to convict Ellard of second-degree murder. In 2003, she served 18 months of a life sentence before she was let out on bail. She ended up on trial again when she was charged with assault causing bodily harm of a 58-year-old woman. The woman’s race is never mentioned in media reports of the crime.

August 3, 2006 marks the third time Ellard was convicted in relation to Reena. The fourth and latest decision by Canada’s Supreme Court comes after Ellard’s third conviction was overturned in 2008 by the B.C. Court of Appeal. Friday’s conviction again misses to cite the murder as a hate-crime and instead recognizes Ellard as guilty only of second-degree murder.

Man, what’s a sweet, thin, white girl gotta do to be put away for good these days?

Thomas Beatie: “Pregnant-Again” Man, Once a Filipino

pregnant-manSo I had heard a while ago that Thomas Beatie — a celebrity transman — is a mixie much like myself. He too has a white mama, an Asian daddy, and originally, an Asian surname. He too was born with all the plumbing to make and be pregnant with a baby. He too made the decision to get folks to recognize him as male. So I get the whole need to change your gender thing. However, I’m not sure why he changed his name to something rid of all associations to his Filipino heritage. I too had the option to change my name to rid myself of my Asian ethnic associations, however, I didn’t based on the fact that so often trans folks of colour are told they are doing a white thing by being trans. As if the gender binaries of male and female were a universal thing, common and rigidly adhered to in every culture.

I wanted to keep my Asian association when renaming myself, to let people know that just because I’m trans doesn’t mean I’m white. There is a rich history of third gender or other wise non-male and non-female specific people within many cultures, including pre-Spanish Philippines. The rich history includes these societies valuing these people specifically because they are outside the norm of gender. Often times, folks like this would be held in high regard, chosen for positions of spiritual power and authority. However, rigid reforms in gender occurring in the white west, coupled with the need to topple indigenous authority figures influenced European colonizers to seek out and destroy these people. Violent and strategic colonization means that history validating Thomas’s and my trans experience as Asian genderf*ckers now is hard to come by. Transphobia is rampant in former colonized places, as a legacy of colonialism.

And now, because of this erased history, it is our very Asianness that is often used against us to make transphobic and racist comments: “Oh it must be hard with your Baachan more so than on your mom’s side,” “Hey, we don’t do that kind of freaky shit, we’re Asian.” Which makes me sad. Maybe it doesn’t make Thomas as sad as me, what with now two little ones to worry about, not to mention his book tour and the other burdens that fame and fortune bring.

What Does Being “Asian” Mean?

I tried not to take anything they taught me in grade nine geography class too seriously; it was one of those easy courses where the teacher read a National Geographic to herself while you coloured in maps for an hour until the bell rang.  And in my eagerness to shade the shorelines, perhaps I missed the lesson that Asia does not just mean China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan.  That, in fact, it is the biggest continent on the face of the earth.  I know I most definitely missed the lesson that West Asia is sometimes called the Near East or Middle East, which means that as an Asian, I have something in common with the people being racially profiled here for terrorism.  Could my colouring affinity and consequent distraction have led me to believe that the term Asian only applied to folks who looked like me?

I know in Britain it is common to refer to people from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as Asian, and people from East and South East Asia as Oriental, but then what?  How do you call yourself if you are Saudi? Tajik? Lebanese?

And here, when you don’t fit into a pre-defined category, does that mean you are raceless? Or maybe you don’t exist outside of your own imagination.  On Turtle Island, we don’t even extend the racial term Asian to include people the British system does. How is it that me and others with similar features got to claim the entire continent for ourselves?

Although in this liberal society, individuality and uniqueness as ideas are valued, there is something to be said for feeling like you belong to a group. As a collective, you can mobilize for political change, create and sustain a shared culture, make a blog to counteract racism.  There is societal power in group identification that as individuals, racialized people just don’t seem to be privileged with.  The bigger and more recognized the group, the more power it and the individuals in it have.  Like Asian (and Asian-American, Asian-Canadian).  That’s a pretty big and well recognized group.  The Asians that our view of the category currently excludes don’t have a movement or a category of literature studies and maybe have to fill out the Other section on official forms.  Yet their histories are closely linked with that of Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese people, they share many similar forms of racism that East-Asians here have faced, and have struggles that us Official Asians can learn from.

A knowledgeable friend recently told me she heard that the word Asia/n originally meant ‘heathen’.  But obviously we’ve reclaimed that one, right? So maybe it’s time for another change to the word’s meaning. After all, Asia is the biggest continent.  There must be room for us all in its title, and its potential.