Monthly Archives: August 2010

Anthony Yooshin Kim.

notes in search of something else (june 2010)

in 72 hours, i drove from san diego to the city of angels, & from the city of angels to the bay area. & tomorrow, i‘ll be boarding UA 893 for a twelve hour flight back to the mothership on the other side of the pacific rim, my first return since my first visit two years ago. “you go wherever the wind takes you,” is how a friend of mine described my restlessness this weekend, my internal machinery that demands that i always be in motion, in a circuitous & cyclical search for a methodology for life. it reminds me of the story of the bird without feet in days of being wild, the one who never lands & sleeps on the breeze when it’s tired. that’s me. never one place or another, neither here nor there, on the break or making one. i was born to be elsewhere. but breathing. always, always breathing.

& so i sit here in the kitchen of a house my omma & appa worked their entire lives to buy. a house that stands in its quiet pocket of suburbia & serves as testament to the illusive weight of their trans-pacific han for be/longing in america. & i think—they moved here after my freshman year of ucsd in 2002, & two years after that, my omma was twisted in the throes of a devastating illness that threw her sense of self asunder. “a sea bird on the freeway that stretches its neck for a water that may no longer exist,” is how i put it so many springs ago. this house is estrangement to me, newer than our old one in san leandro, its air always heavy, full of ashes & strain, like the red earthen clay of cesaria evora’s voice entreating me with “sodade, sodade…” & yet, it’s the house i find my way back to now—sober & drunk, in laughter & tears, with love & grief, from southern california, from korea, & from michigan. maybe what i’m experiencing now is a term that my brother, pahole, dropped on me a few weeks ago, an “emotional transnationalism,” a post+memory, a pained nostalgia, a mixtape that serenades me with its hopes, dreams, ghosts, & memories that i live with on a daily basis but can only acknowledge when i let myself slumber—and not just the seam between wakefulness & sleep, but rather, when i’m floating in the music that never ceases & finally listening to the cadences folded into the unwieldiness of my thoughts.

& so, inspired by pahole & josen, i’m finally writing my love letter, except it’s not a love letter in the traditional sense, more so a loosely held kite that dances away into the clouds with felicitous choreography. you see, when we were at AAAS, drinking courvoisier & cheap champagne poolside at our hotel in austin, pahole told us about how everything he writes is a love letter. to his mother & father. to his community. to his ancestors. & to thai/america. & as i sat there, uncomfortably pale from the silent traumas of winter & sheathed behind the ubiquity of my stunner shades, his words circled & criss-crossed like a vagabond into the han that lives in the heart i keep so guarded. my eyes started welling up with a water that comes so easily to me now, flowing from the subterrains of memory my halmoni entrusted into my uncertain hands, even as a small boy—a water like persephone’s faint memory of spring even in the cold, cruel hollow of hades. in-between this surge of oceanic pressure & paralleled dreams, i couldn’t help but think about how that morning, my omma, who had just learned how to text message, wrote “hi son, how are you? hope you are learning a lot in texas. mommy loves you.” how the souvenir ship on sixth street where we bought ourselves, & lisa lowe, a “don’t mess with texas” shirt, was owned by two women who spoke with the unmistakable lilt of kyungsang-do rolling off their tongues. how my appa, holding court on his corner of 98th and golf links, would always clip articles about “asian american studies” & slip them into overstuffed envelopes when i was in college. & of course, how my halmoni tended to me with the same strong, spotted hands that would drown in steel basins of pickled cabbage & whose passing i still mourn on a daily basis even two years after the fact.

although my return to san diego was bumpy, i have been surrounded by so many folks who remind me of what’s at stake. almost like free form poetry, the beauty & tension of the pause from one word to the next, a stream of revolutionary improvisations in the making. i can only think of what i have learned from everyone this year, those secret spills of other things heard, other things seen. here are some glimpses. from pahole: to be brilliant. heijin-noona: to be passionate. deepa: to be purposeful. judy: to trust the process. debbie: to be made. alice: to be free. jackie: to be silly. joje: to “suck it up & do it.” jimi: to nourish. josen: to re-member. amanda: to imagine (otherwise). theresa: to question. morelia: to be present. patty: to be rooted. ash: to have balance. thea: to cut knowledge. steph: to build bridges. sarah: to be fearless. sam: to be. teresa: to breathe. kyung hee: to listen & to sing. john: to confront & to dance. wayne: to risk & to love. you are my community. i am because of all of you. thanks be.

& so, in seoul, i begin another adventure, in search of fellow travelers, lovers, fighters, thinkers, drinkers, movers, shakers, old school souls, & other kindred spirits, in the wax & wane of freedom dreams & insurgencies still emergent. i’ll let all of you know how this goes. i promise you, i’ll be back. till then, peace out.


Janet Liang.

Identity & School Experience: The Asian-American Model Minority – Non-traditional and unlikely pathway to the American Dream

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My name is Janet, and I am a fourth-year International Development Studies major and Education minor. I am the 23-year old daughter of Teresa, a mail carrier, and Guy, a custodial maintenance worker. My parents immigrated to the United States in 1985 from Guangzhou in southern China. Due to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution at the height of the 1970s, a revolutionary class struggle campaign that sent most of China’s population to agricultural communes in the countryside, my parents were deprived the opportunity to pursue higher education in China, making me now the first in my family to attend college. 

I attended Hawaii’s public schools from kindergarten to third grade at Kauluwela Elementary, just a few blocks from the subsidized housing apartments where I spent most of my childhood. Struggling with the language barrier that limited their economic opportunities, my parents decided to settle for work as waiters in Chinese restaurants in downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Villages, holding four jobs between the two of them in order to pay the bills.

Hawaii was the quintessential melting pot of diverse heritages melded together: my childhood friends all possessed fractional portions of every ethnicity imaginable in their DNA – part Korean, part Hawaiian, part German, part Portuguese, part Japanese, and part Chinese. As a result, I grew up in communities that embraced the notion of “ohana,” which means family in the Hawaiian language, emphasizing the importance of cultural relativity where cultures certainly collided, but were negotiated at the same time with mutual respect. Compared to the United States’ historical struggle for equality among minority cultures, living in Hawaii rarely exposed me to the tensions and pressures until I saw these disparities reflected in the continental US. However, when parents found out that I would be shuffled to Central Intermediate in a moderately run-down neighborhood located in the outer skirts of downtown Honolulu, they pooled together their amassed savings to send me to the Maryknoll Schools, a co-educational private Catholic school and one of Hawaii’s premier unofficial magnet schools. They were only able to afford me and my brother’s tuition for two years, which estimated at nearly $10,000 annually for each of us. This was perhaps the most important shifting point in my educational experience, right at the age of nine, when my parents physically removed me from being directed to what they saw as a potentially dangerous urban middle school under the influence of street gangs, territorial wars, and drug problems. After spending two years at Maryknoll, Hawaii felt the ripple effects from Japan’s economic recession in the late 1990s and those macro-effects transpired to our family’s household. Since Hawaii’s state economy thrives mostly under the tourist industry, this had a huge impact on my parents’ jobs, both of whom were laid off from their employers. We packed our bags and flew to California to start a new life under those circumstances.

No longer able to afford a private education for their children, my parents settled in Castro Valley, a small town in the San Francisco East Bay, renting the basement of a couple’s two-story house they saw from newspaper ads. They resumed similar waiter jobs in Chinese restaurants, this time with more opportunities than Hawaii. My brother and I walked two miles every day to our respective new schools, and at this time I entered Canyon Middle School in the sixth grade. After a year of savings and some research into Northern California’s API (Academic Performance Index) scores, they decided to settle in Pleasanton, a major suburban town just ten miles further east, akin to the likes of Southern California’s Irvine. The median income for a household in the city was $105,956, and the median price of a detached single family home was $832,000 as of November 2007 according to the East Bay Association of Realtors. As a result, it was ranked the wealthiest mid-size city in the United States by the Census Bureau in 2005 and 2007. The racial makeup of the city, including similar reflections within the schools was 79% White, 3% African-American, 10% Asian-American, and roughly 8% Hispanic or Latino. And consequently, I attended Amador Valley High, one of Pleasanton’s comprehensive high school ranked 317th in the nation by Newsweek. These rankings and accolades reflect some of the privilege I had in attending one of the best high schools in Northern California with an abundance of resources and a well-rounded faculty with highly qualified teachers (most who have already attained their Master’s degrees).

The lack of cultural diversity in Pleasanton has been a hallmark notion not only from outsiders, but even amongst the city’s inhabitants, earning its beloved nickname, “Pleasantville,” with the city’s characteristics not very far removed from the Hollywood’s depiction of small towns with old-fashion conservative values, innocence, and naivete. There were very few discussions about race in high school aside from the cookie-cutter Multicultural Activities Fair featuring ethnic food from different cultures around the world. However, a memorable controversy did stir in high school when a white student had wanted to establish a White Student Union. If the school could have a Black Student Union or an Asian Student Union or a Muslim Student Union, then why was it barred from one that recognized European Americans? The city debated on this farce, and some feared that it would reignite quasi-Ku Klux Klan sentiments. It did raise the controversial issue of double standards, and if a White Student Union was not prejudicial toward any student groups but simply a celebration of their ancestry of immigrant European families, why should they be denied that right? Perhaps a more politically friendly solution would be to “break” them up into smaller ethnic groups like Italian, German, and French student unions. This rhetorical question plagued our minds in high school, but quickly dissolved as the school district attempted to close the case as if it never came up. That was how anything controversial was handled in the school district — quickly absolved, folded and tucked underneath a pile of files as if it did not exist.

 I quickly assumed the role of a “model minority” due to some of my academic successes. Watching my parents come home tired from 16-hour work days to afford the severely high standard of living in Pleasanton inspired me to work hard academically. I was perceived to be an intelligent student from my teachers, but very few realized that it came solely from pure will and determination, and not necessarily intelligence, to challenge myself. In truth, I only scored mediocrely on my SAT and graduated with a weighted 3.9 GPA, some of this under UCLA data averages, but I tapped into the school’s advantages and enrolled in over 15 Advanced Placement and honors courses throughout my high school career.

The overwhelming sense of duty to my parents and the pressure to succeed in every aspect of my education did propagate a few psychological problems in high school. My counselors and friends, at times, thought it was highly unusual that I was clinically depressed for a few months during my junior year due to the stress and anxiety of high stakes testing and the inevitable rituals of the college admissions process. It was difficult for the school to recognize my need for psychological help, most likely from the fact that I was the coveted Asian-American model minority. The stress and anxiety reached its peak in high school senior year when I was confronted by my AP Calculus BC teacher for dropping his course, because he felt that I could handle more than five AP courses in one year along with extracurricular and work commitments. I knew he was coming from the best of intentions as my teacher, but I struggled through math, receiving extensive two-hour tutoring for AP Calculus on top of a workload that only afforded me an average of three hours of sleep per night. Despite the fact that I had completed high school with Honors Pre-Calculus and AP Statistics which was more than enough math to get me through college, perhaps he was disappointed that I did not try harder. My father tried to justify my weakness in math by stating that girls’ strengths remained in the humanities and social sciences, while boys were inherently better at the math and sciences. Though my father had good intentions for his explanation, in retrospect I realize now that I conceded to “stereotype vulnerability” when the anxiety and verbal statement — that women usually do worse than men in math — interfered with my performance and consequently I indirectly confirmed a self-fulfilling prophecy by actually scoring poorly. The lack of sympathy and understanding in a high-performing school as an Asian-American student made it difficult for me to recover from low self-esteem until I reached college. As researchers Sucheng Chan and Ling-Chi Wang supported in “Racism and the Model Minority: Asian-Americans in Higher Education,” the notion of the “whiz kid” stereotype that I was quickly classified under, where “teachers and administrators neglect the difficulties faced by Asian-American students on the groups that youngsters who are doing so well academically cannot possibly need any special help.” Nothing could be further from the truth as I tried to galvanize my parents’ efforts in the land of opportunity, perhaps having to work excessively harder to get to where I am today.       

Perhaps the most important privilege was the love of two parents who made extraordinary strides and sacrifices for their children’s educational achievement. In fact, they made this their life’s purpose and in many ways I am indebted to them in shaping parts of who I ultimately am.

My identity and school experiences come full circle, culminating with a passion to become a teacher and to ascertain both the micro and macro effects of race, class and gender in today’s classrooms.


Facebook Group.

I made a Facebook Group tonight for the API/A Love Letter Project — it’s kind of legit now.

Join, contribute, share, and be merry: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=142943852394933&ref=mf


Pahole Sookkasikon.

Awhile back, Josen Diaz wrote her letter (below) and noted that a part of inspiration came from me. I, in turn, was greatly inspired by her words and her work. Her phrase, “I see you” touched me in a way that words could not comprehend; never fully understanding the spaces in-between social complexities and intimiate fragility. And so, in lieu of Josen’s subtle but grasping words, I began my own love letter with her phrase: “I see you.”

“I see you,” is how Josen Diaz—a friend and colleague I respect dearly—began a piece she wrote recently and I felt it appropriate to mimic her introduction.

Awhile back, I came up the idea of using my thesis as a platform to immortalize and construct a love letter to my parents and the Thai/American community. I think the imagery of the love letter exudes something individuals in our community have lost: optimism, intimacy, and the belief that there is something more for the people we fight for. For the past three years, I’ve been entrenched in the Asian/American academic, activist, and nonprofit world. Every day I hear epithets of anger, disillusionment, and even longings for retribution. Especially in the Masters Asian/American Studies and Ethnic Studies programs, for the most part, I would hear “fuck this” and “fuck that.” People would be so angry about the things that have happened as well as trying so hard to be analytical of the past that they would not imagine themselves or the people around them beyond these haunting narratives.

Of course, I am not innocent of these ideologies. Similarly to my colleagues, I am just as guilty of the condemnation and almost self-loathing holes we dig ourselves into. These are the tools and vices we are given and taught. It is the anger that is bestowed upon us by our predecessors that “invigorates” us to do what we do. I was even once told by a professor that to be angry was my most valuable weapon in academia. However this anger is not always the most productive, nor is it the most viable route to take. Take for example my thesis: a critical look at the ways in which the West and United States tried to extend and immortalize racist sentiment and imperialism upon Thailand and Thai/America through propaganda and the arts.

In the beginning, my studies centered on defaming and debunking the narrative of Anna Leonowens and how horrendous her stories were to the Thai community. However, as I dwelled deeper into my research, I came to understand the facts behind her legend(s). Leonowens was initially a woman named Anna Harriet Emma Edwards of Anglo-Indian blood. She was a single mother and concocted this very amazing individual—Leonowens, the English Governess—to protect both herself and her children in a Victorian world which would have cast them aside. Although my research is heavily structured around theory and pages upon pages of arguments against Victorian literature, sexploitation, and subtle racism against the Thai and Thai/American community created by the adaptations of The King and I, I came to terms and understand who the woman behind the façade actually was.

So my research evolved and adapted to this newfound revelation. I understood that there is beauty in her story just as there is beauty in the identity formation of Thais in America as well as other communities in America. Instead of holding displaced anger within, I re-visualized my initial argument and rewrote my paper to include an underlining poeticism that I would hope my family and friends would discover. From my study on the evolution of Anna Leonowens’ narrative, it came to pass to further include a self-reflected account of my parent’s life in the U.S.

In the opening to my conclusion I wrote: “As a child, my father used to tell me stories. They were personal accounts of how hard life was in Thailand and how harder it was for him to come to the United States. He would sing me songs about his dreams, my mother’s ambitions, and the shared promises his friends and many Thai immigrants had while making the trek to this apparent land of opportunity. My father, probably the love of my life, would tell me chapters upon chapters of these stories about endless dreams and uninhibited goals. However, these tales of personal ambition and conquest slowly became filtered and altered by the reality of the Asian-immigrant narrative in the U.S.” My parents gave up a lot to survive in the United States. They gave up the world they knew, the friends and families they loved, and the land that gave them uncompromised senses of belonging and security.

Here, in the United States, my parents worked hard beyond measurement. Through worn bones and tired faces, I would see them. I would see them hurt in pain; worry about how much next month’s tuition bill would be; their mortgage and expenses; as well as how much longer they would have to endure maintaining a self-run restaurant. But my parents’ struggle is no different than the struggle most of our parents’, our relatives, family friends, and our communities have gone through. Their story is just one more chapter about the inconsistencies and disparities that welcomed many, when so many dreamt about opportunities that were promised when embarking towards the west.

I do not know if I can properly articulate what it means to be Asian/American, nor can I fully encompass all the stories of my parents as well as yours to depict what it means to be Asians in America. However, in her book on the Hmong-refugee experience, Kao Kalia Yang wrote it best when she said, “And the adults kept saying: how lucky we are to be in America. I wasn’t convinced. I saw them walking in the snow drifts, their backs bent, their hands curled to their sides. I felt the humiliation of not knowing English, and a bubble of hurt began. But when I saw how hard they all worked to keep us in school, to put warm food on the tabletops, I could not, no matter how discouraged, say: This is not enough. This is not the life I had wanted for myself or you in this country or any other. We’ve come too far for this. Haven’t we?” This isn’t enough and there is more. Looking beyond our society and people’s past mistakes and blunders, another world is still very much possible.

Amongst my cohort, professors, and friends, I am sometimes known as the cheerleader. I want people that are within my world and even beyond it to know that amazing things are possible even if they are coated with tinges of hate and memories of pain. Regardless of the cultural troupes or identity markers that define us—race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender, academic standing, and much more—we are viable bodies to create difference for those we care about. We can be angry and hungry for justice, but that anger has to be a productive instrument to re-imagine the terrain of our people. I think and believe the key to change is in how we fight—in how we fight for one another.

In this small rant and ramble, I am not sure what I am truly getting at, but I do know that there is validity in my voice and my choice of words. Truthfully, in many aspects, the world is a fucked up place but it doesn’t have to be. I believe that what needs to happen is that we, as contemporary Asian/Americans as well as communities of color and/or marginalized, must look to our histories and (as journalist K.W. Lee states) “the voices of our ancestors” to remedy past mistakes and the hardships we damn ourselves in. In this and this small naivety, I suggest that the same (and at times, blind) optimism our parents gave into when migrating out of their homelands, is the same optimism we give ourselves and our futures. It is a clean slate—a belief and hope that the world holds unimaginable piles of opportunity for you and for the people you love.

Returning to my parents, I never really understood their story, or how hard they worked until I finally reflected back during my first semester in graduate school. I came to realize that my parents’ sacrifice carried me further than I could ever imagine—farther than limitations of the U.S., deeper into my cultural history, and shaping my future.

And so I see you. I see all the ghosts which haunted us. I see all that you’ve sacrificed and the dreams that still linger overhead. I see all the ways—the numerous ways—in which your dreams and love for me are unconditional and more brilliant than any star in the sky or academic degree I could ever earn. And just like I see my parents, their struggles, and the lives they have formed here, I understand yours—you who are reading this now. In hindsight, this is not only a love letter to my parents and my community, but a love letter to you. This is a love letter urging you to be loved, and to be remembered as immortal as love letters can be. This is a love letter to remind you to be strong and be brilliant. This is a love letter for you to dream big, and moreover, dream forever. And like Josen whole-heartedly suggests and I pushed, this is a love letter to remind you that, “I see you and you are seen.”