Mr. Hyphen: Reflections on Love, Community, and Embracing the Forgotten

As I’m sitting in my one-bedroom apartment in Honolulu; listening to my old 90s Kai & Pinay (yeah, you’re welcome Theresa, Rhommel, Anthony, and Kimmie) albums; and at the verge of gouging my eyes out to strategically not read any more critical theory on early American Studies, I am delightfully reminded that the Mr. Hyphen competition is slowly approaching us.

For Thai/America: I remember when I first applied to compete for the Mr. Hyphen competition back in 2009. Initially, I rode the organizational wave trying to engender and propagate a voice for the marginalized Thai/American community—a voice that was and is generally under rug swept under the shadow of more visible Asian/American groups. We, as a collective group, are one percent of Asian/America—which is a mere three percent of the communal census count for the United States. Basically, Thais in America are invisible; except for the exotified imagery we see daily—Thai restaurants, sporadically placed Theravada Buddhist temples, and the occasional references to sex trafficking, tourism, and Ong Bak.

And so here I was, just coming off of the grassroots struggle, Save the Thai Temple, and on the verge of finishing my Masters degree in Asian/American Studies at San Francisco State University. I was a somewhat cocky little S.O.B. who wanted to conquer the community, nonprofit, and corporate world, bringing some semblance of social acceptance and inclusion to the community that raised me to the man I became. Doing so, I reached out to the Thai American Scholarship Fund—a small project which helps subsidize academic and housing expenses for college-bound Thai/American youth—as a base for why I ran for Mr. Hyphen. However, days before the actual pageant I was awoken by a voice that urgently needed someone to listen as well as allow her story told.

For Janet: At the time, Janet was approaching 23. She was an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) studying International Development, and dreamt big of becoming a fulltime teacher. Although I actually never met her, I felt an instant rapport to her image and words through her website—as if she was my Diana to my Anne. We exchange e-mails and phone calls, and through our pen pal dynamic, I found myself drawn to her compassion, integrity, awkward humor, and self-determining spirit. During her last year at UCLA, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (bi-phenotypic)—a blood cancer which affects all of the bone marrow in the body and, in many cases, may quickly spread to other organs.

Every day, thousands of people are diagnosed with leukemia or lymphoma. Of those numbers, 6,000 patients will be searching daily for a match on the national registry. For Asian/Americans searching for a perfect match or a possibility, the success rate is quite trivial since we make up 7% (about 530,000) of the entire donor pool; making it that much harder for numerous individuals to search for a match. In addition to this heart-wrenching number, all minorities and people of color have a combined chance of 20-30% to find a donor, whereas a Caucasian patient has a vastly huge chance, 80%. These statistics are overwhelmingly daunting as well as almost disgusting to a degree. Changing these drastic numbers and bridging the gap to a comparable space is about education, re-education, and application with the information given and held.

And so, humbly, I reached out to take on Janet’s name and her mission as a part of my organizational campaign for Mr. Hyphen. I still kept the Scholarship Fund close to my heart and the main reason why I ran for the competition, but I made a small space for this girl I came to have an affinity towards.

For Southeast Asian/Americans: The year I competed for Mr. Hyphen, I was indulged by some of the most generous, attractive, talented, and out-spoken community leaders I have ever known in my short life. In addition to this and oddly enough, it was the year for the South and Southeast Asian/American sweep. In the running, there was Amit Singh for Sikhcess; Danny Le for The APIA Spoken Word & Poetry Summit; Leng Phe for Tiny Toones Cambodia; RJ Lozada for the Center for Asian American Media; Tony Dizel for Serve the People; and finally myself, representing the Thai/American Scholarship Fund and Helping Janet through the Asian American Donor Program (AADP). Beyond my organizations, these were and are truly some of the most amazing, beautiful, and genuine men in our community. Amongst the downtime in between guys’ performances, the changing of gears and ware, as well as just sitting down to catch a breath, these men would talk about their groups, their people, their backgrounds, and their experiences with such vigor, love, and enthusiasm that it was striking and almost embarrassing to discuss my own aspirations in lieu of these extraordinary towers of lived lives. Larger-than-life they were, and beautiful they are.

For Michelle: At the end of the day and the competition, I walked away with the title and the prize money for my community groups: half for the Scholarship Fund, and half for Janet—who donated the winnings to AADP to help their organizing efforts. Although I represented these two wondrous and fabulous instituitions, on a basic and innate level, this whole experience was and is a love letter to my parents and their struggles to emerge as Thai-immigrants in the United States as well as the life and eventual loss of Michelle Maykin who started Project Michelle.

Mentioning this is not to take away from the people and groups I represented, hardly. But the reason I bring up and have brought up Michelle and my parents while talking about those I represented is because, in our community—in our body politic with intertwined histories of exclusion, racial politics, sexism, classism, and discrimination on and of health, as well as many more—everything is interwoven to one another. Everything is connected by a strand that comes from the same well and curtain of movement and diaspora; the maintenance and simplicity of talk story from various countries of origin; the death of loved ones, but also the birth of kindred spirits and soul mates; as well as the amazing beauty of undertaking the power and knowledge of shared history in addition to understanding the shared lives of various people of color.

As Mr. Hyphen: For me, this is about displacing the dominant discourse and re-emerging—hands held—with what our community is becoming and could look like with the inclusive voice of the marginalized. Stating this, I think what Mr. Hyphen—in addition to all of our nonprofit, academic, and corporate work—embodies is what one of my literary heroes, Professor Lisa Lowe, says about retrieving and exploring spatial history: “[That] They offer other modes for imagining an narrating immigrant subjectivity and community—emerging out of conditions of decolonization, displacement, and disidentification—and refuse assimilation to the dominant narratives of integration, development, and identification.”

At the end of the day, it is about uncovering what is discarded as well as tending to the emerging voices which are birthed from our very hands. It is about acknowledging and answering an unasked question that W.E.B. DuBois says lies between our bodies, our memories, and our experiences, in accordance to this and another world. Furthermore, at the end of the day and drawn through the black of the night, it is about asking ourselves if another world is very much possible and, if so, what is beyond the veil of darkness?

For me and in regards to this reflection, the reality in contrast to the ambiguity about understanding the things we do and the people we were. In addition to this, it is about appreciating who we were, who are, and who we are meant to become. Through this path of discovery, it is furthermore about love—for ourselves, for others, and for our communities. Through the pain of remembering and the resurrection of worn out aspirations, it is about being brilliant and being strong. It is, as people of any color or defining characteristic, about reminding ourselves to dream big, and dream forever.

Stay loved and stay blessed, P.

*****
Mr. Hyphen 2011 is on November 5 and is once again hosted by D’Lo. Celebrating the work of 5 API/A men from the community, they’ll showcase their talents for a chance to win $1000 for their causes. Click (http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/mrhyphen) for tickets and additional information.

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