Friday, July 29, 2016

To Be Asian-American: Speaking American

Is an immigrant who lives in a Chinatown community and rarely speaks English less American than my parents who chose to live in a predominately Caucasian suburb?

There’s this presumption that when immigrants come to America, they need to become “American.” They need to speak English, adapt American customs and embrace mainstream American culture as their own. This idea is similar to the cultural melting pot that people once used to reference in describing America.

If we are to be a country built on the idea of personal freedom and self-determination, to assert that there is a singular path and qualifications that immigrants must follow to be American runs counter to the core values of our country.

The idea of a melting pop illustrates a big pot that minorities join and assimilate into, perhaps having a microscopic effect on the contents of the pot, but more likely experiencing a loss of identity in the wash of an illusion of “Americanism.”

My parents chose to speak mostly English to my brother and I instead of Mandarin Chinese. We probably ate as much Chinese food as typical American food. Culturally we were almost 100% American, watching American television and listening to European classical music and American pop music.

I have cousins who had very different experiences as children of immigrants. Some of my uncles and aunts only speak Mandarin Chinese to their children and hardly ever eat anything but Chinese food. I remember going over to one of my uncle’s house as a kid and seeing rows of videotapes with Chinese characters imported from Taiwan.

When I was younger, I thought that my family was superior because we spoke more English in our house and consumed more mainstream American culture. This came from the immature logic that in order for my families’ choices to be correct, someone else’s choices had to be inferior. As a more mature American citizen, I respect and embrace my uncle’s choices.

As American’s we want to honor’s people’s individualities and celebrate other cultures, however it’s in our human nature to feel uncomfortable when we hear people speaking languages we do not understand or walk down streets where the signs are not in English. We can’t have one without the other. It’s okay to acknowledge that discomfort because it is in this feeling that we can find a point of empathy of people coming to America who experience this feeling of alienation on a daily basis.

Yes, it would be easier if everyone only spoke English in America, but easier isn't necessarily better.

To be American is not about the language that is spoken or about the food. It’s about embracing a shared set of values, and positively contributing as a responsible citizen to our communities.  Immigrants make very different choices about what it means to them to be American.  It's in these choices, that we find the freedom, and the diversity that enriches all of our lives.

So who's more American, the Chinatown resident or Asians like my parents living to predominately Caucasian communities?

Neither.  Being American isn't a competition and it is the fact this choice exists in our country which defines its greatness.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Monday, July 25, 2016

Parenthood: Week 162 - Getting The Toddler To Stay In Bed

Now that Ollie has a big boy bed, he’s been popping of bed repeatedly and leaving his room after we put him down to bed. The common advice is to place him back into bed, without talking to him. The idea is that after a couple nights of this, he will give up and stop getting out of bed.

After, oh the thirtieth time I put him back into bed, I was feeling kind of stupid. I get that maybe I needed to power through and keep doing it, but it didn’t feel like it was working for me. He was coming out of his room giggling, and when I put him down he was still riled up and the fact that would almost immediately pop out of bed, showed me that he needed help to calm down and needed more structure than I was provided. So I grabbed a pillow and lay down with him in bed.

We’ve helped him go to sleep, his entire life.  I’ve written about rocking him to bed as baby in this post and this one.  Laying with him in his big boy bed is just an extension of this.

Just like when Ollie was a baby, this process of fun, frustrating but overall gratifying.

Ollie tried his best to make me laugh when I was in bed with him. He would crawl on top of me and pretend to be a blanket. It was in this position that he discovered how to tickle me. I tried my best to keep it together but I couldn’t help but giggle, which only led to more silliness.

As Ollie is going to sleep he likes to tell me about his day, sing songs, carefully stroke my eyebrows (I don’t know why, he just likes touching them) and cuddle with me. In the darkness, sharing Ollie’s bed, there’s something special about these shared moments. It’s like two friends whispering secrets to each other.

Along with all of the cute stuff, it’s really frustrating. There are times when Ollie hits me, screams in frustration, refuses to settle down, throws his blanket and pillow off the bed (and then cries because he can’t get them). It’s hard to not loose your patience when someone who you are trying to help, isn’t working with you. However it’s not Ollie’s fault, he doesn’t understand the consequences of not getting a good night’s rest.

When I would rock Ollie to bed as a baby, I would feel his body sink into my arms and I knew he was ready to be put into the crib. There’s a similar feeling lying next to Ollie. His movements are calmer, his breath is slower and you can feel his energy settling down into a peaceful slumber. It’s weird, some days, once he gets to this point, I get out of the room as soon as I can and other nights, I just lay there next to him and listen to him breathe. Sometimes the craziness of the storm makes the calm that much more beautiful.

Friday, July 22, 2016

To be Asian-American: The American Dream

There was Rock 'n' Roll, Ford Mustangs, but most importantly, the American Dream.

My parents came to America looking for a change, for a way to break free out of patriarchal traditions, and for opportunities to create a life that was their own. Neither of them had horrible lives in Taiwan, in fact they had pretty good circumstances. Both of them belonged to successful families, both were educated and they were blessed with peace surrounded by the conflicts that were all around them in Asia in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the way that Happy Days colored a time of great social strife and injustice as a feel good utopia, American music and film presented America as a place of joy, freedom and opportunity. So after my uncle, my father's older brother, settled in America, my parents followed suit and moved to the Seattle area to pursue the American Dream.

In those early days, America had its moments. My dad's first pay check went to going out to a fast food fish and chips restaurant. They served beer in frozen mugs, which my parents had never seen before. This amazed them and they really felt like they made it draining beer out of those mugs. To this day, they talk about this date as one of their favorite memories and if you look in my parents freezer, you will always see a beer mug in there.

After some time, my dad bought his dream car, a Ford Mustang. This was a legendary car in the mid-1960s that epitomize for my father everything that was great about American. Unfortunately no one told my dad that by the late 1970s when my dad got this car, the Ford Mustang was as my dad explains, a piece of crap.

That car was not the only time the American dream let my parents down. My dad worked a a dishwasher, my mom with a master degree worked as a maid and a babysitter. They constantly faced racism, (and still do to a lesser extent) and found that doors of opportunity were not open to them. Instead, they had to pry them open combatting prejudice with optimism and perseverance.

In this strange new land there were people, a few who embraced my parents differences and showed the potential for good in white America. These were neighbors, teachers and friends, who reached out and gave them hope that mainstream America could be more accepting and tolerant as it has become since my parents came to this country almost forty years ago.

My parents lives would be easier if they had stayed in Taiwan in their years as young adults. They really struggled in American. It was a hard life, but it was their life, one they created together, one they could own. Now that they are older, they have no regrets, no doubt that coming to America was one of their best decisions.

I'm very weary of the notion of the "American Dream". This idea that hard work in out country is the only thing that you need to be sucessful is simply not true. Yes, hard work was a big part of my parents success, but they also benefited from belonging to successful families, being educated, immigrating by choice, and being perceived as a model-minority . . . and of course, luck, a lot of luck. If you look at subsets of Americans who struggle with economic upward mobility they lack many of these benefits, if not all of them.

America is not defined by the rich privileged white guys who founded this country. What has made America great and continues to help us grow as a country are individuals pushing against racial and social injustice to bring us closer to the promises of our forefathers. My parents are part of this. No, my parents weren’t lawyers and they didn’t work in the government, but they came to America and proved everyone they met the value and worth of Asian Americans. In this way, they did the most important type of social change: influencing the hearts and minds of people through taking care of themselves, their community and their country.

This may not be cars or frosted mugs, but that's the real American Dream.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Parenthood: Week 161 - Parenting Like A Man

When does fatherhood make you feel like a man? When you teach you son how to catch a ball? When you effectively change a blown out diaper in a restaurant bathroom? When you effectively cook dinner, watch your toddler, and do laundry all at the same time?

The affirmation of masculinity is an important of part of the male identity. The male identity in our culture is heavily influenced by ideas about gender roles and a sense of insecurity, which has led to a very narrow view of masculinity (I wrote about this further in this series of posts).

In the same way that masculinity is mostly defined by “not being feminine,” fatherhood traditionally can be more easily be defined as not doing what the mom is doing. Traditional ideas of fatherhood in our culture has dad’s not cooking for the kids, not changing diapers, not giving baths, and not singing lullabies. If you go with Disney's Bambi as a model, there’s really not that much for dads to do. There’s “bringing home the bacon” (not literally, as grocery shopping is traditionally a woman’s job), disciplining children and going on a select few outings: camping, fishing, hunting and trips to the hardware store.

There’s been a movement in our culture of men breaking out of the traditional father role. All of my dad friends are more involved in their children’s lives than their fathers and many of the dads I know in my father’s generation (including my dad) are more involved in their children’s lives than their fathers.  Of course there are plenty of dad’s out there who are continue to hang onto the traditional father role, even if their wives are working a full time job.

This change has come about for a couple reasons. The modern feminist movement has empowered woman to demand that men take a more active role in parenting. The Gay Rights movement has helped straight men break out of traditional gender roles. However I believe that the biggest reason that men are taking on a more active role and redefining what it means to be a dad, is because the traditional idea of fatherhood emasculated men and modern men wants something better.

How manly do you feel when you have a limited role in your child’s life and have a distant relationship with your child? Where’s the affirmation of your success as a father and a man in that? Investing time and energy into your child, working hard to take care of them, and embracing all the facets of their personality, gives you a lasting feeling of success and pride.  This feeling is an affirmation of masculinity in a way that Jack Arnold the father from The Wonder Years, was never able to enjoy.

One of my friends who works for a law firm was talking about taking clients out to expensive steak dinners with top shelf whiskey. I commented, “that’s kind of a cool feeling, it makes you feel like a man, wearing a suit and having a great dinner like that.” He replied, “that doesn’t make me feel like a man, going home and spending time with my wife and son, that makes me feel like a man.”

Friday, July 15, 2016

To Be Asian-American: What kind of Asian are you?

Cashier: hmm. . Kingsley Chin-Jer Tang, you must be from Shanghai.
Me: No, I’m actually from Seattle.
Cashier: So you’re Japanese.
Me: Uh, no. I said I was from Seattle.
Cashier: but where are from?
Me: I'm from Seattle.
Cashier: [awkward silence]
Do you think I was being a jerk to that cashier? I knew exactly what the cashier meant. He wanted to know what flavor of Asian I was. I could have made it easier on him and helped him with his awkward wording and told him that my parents are from Taiwan. But it’s not my responsibility to help people figure out how to be respectful and sensitive in the way that talk about race. This person’s display of ignorance through making assumptions about my race made me feel uncomfortable and awkward, so I decided to return the favor.

It made a difference that the person who was asking was Caucasian. When a person of color asks me about my race, they almost always ask in a more appropriate way than Caucasian people (e.g. How do you identify as a person of color?). When people of color ask me about my racial identity, most of the time, it comes from a genuine interest in my lived experience as a person of color. Honestly, when Caucasian people ask me about my race, especially in insensitive ways, it feels like they asking about a club (oh, you're from Taiwan, that's nice, how's that working out for you?).

Can you imagine if people made assumptions about parts of identity casually conversation?

“Oh, I see that you are a woman, you must be into Sex And The City.  You are such a Samantha.”
“I see that you are wearing a sports jersey, you must be a straight and enjoy degrading jokes about woman.”
“You look pregnant.  How's that long term relationship going with the man that you married.  When are you due?”

Just because I’m Asian doesn’t mean that I want to talk about being Asian all of the time. When you are a minority, most of the time when you are reminded of this fact, it comes from a negative interaction. When a person asks me about being Asian and follows that up asking me how to cook fried rice, it makes me feel sad and brings up all that of that bad stuff like the time in college when a white girl debated with me about my Asian heritage insisting that I was Korean.

My students ask me all of the time about how I identify as a person of color. Most of the time they ask me in unintentionally insensitive and inappropriate ways. I embrace these missteps as teachable moments. I signed up for this as a teacher. but I didn’t sign-up for going to a store and having my ethnic heritage questioned.

I’m not saying that we should be colorblind. The whole “colorblind” movement did grievous damage on the way that we talk about race in America. It’s okay to wonder what country someone is from. That’s fine. This is one of the first things that I wonder about when I meet someone, but it’s never the first thing I ask about. Go ahead and embrace that curiosity, just don’t be disrespectful and don’t make assumption.

If you ask someone how they are doing and they immediately bring up the fact that they just came back from visiting their Korean grandparents, go ahead and ask for details about their Asian identity. If someone is wearing a Cubs jersey, it’s probably safe to talk about baseball and I don’t mind at all that people bring up superhero stuff with me because I’m almost always wearing a superhero t-shirt.

My face, my hair, my skin tone, my race, aren't conversation starters.  I didn't choose these things.  I don't put on my Asian-ness when I wake up in the morning.  The social construct of race, the stereotypes and prejudice surrounding my Asian identity, were forced upon me.

You want to know more about being Asian?  Go to the library, read a blog or talk to me, I'm happy to talk about my racial identity, just get to know me as a person first.  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Monday, July 11, 2016

Parenthood: Week 160 - Big Boy Bed

MOMMY!!! DADDY!!!!!!

Since school got out, we’ve been wakened by Ollie screaming at his top volume for us to get him out of bed . . . at 6:30am, every morning. We figured it couldn’t be any worse with a big boy bed.

When we first brought Ollie home, he slept in a mini-crib. He was this little bundle in what seemed like a huge space. After about two months, Ollie switched to a normal sized crib, which again seemed way too big for him. Over the next three years, Ollie really came to enjoy his crib. He would invite me into his crib and we would read books together. He enjoyed putting a sheet over the top of the crib so that it could be a tent. Unlike other toddlers, Ollie never figured out how to climb out of his crib, because more often than not he wanted to stay in his crib.

Now that Ollie was pretty much set with potty training during the day, we realized that in order to move on to night potty training, he would need a big boy bed. We skipped the step of the toddler bed and went straight into getting him a twin-sized bed to replace his crib.

At first Ollie wasn’t very excited about the idea of a big boy bed and told us that he wanted to keep his crib. We explained that now he was getting bigger, he was going to get a big bed. In that big bed, mommy and daddy could read stories with him, and Buffy could cuddle with him. While I climbed into Ollie’s crib on many occasions to read with him, Ollie knew that it was crowded with both of us in there and he seemed excited when I told him that we could both be in bed and have more space.  We took Ollie to Target and let him pick out some sheets with a cute dog pattern that he enjoyed. We continued to talk to Ollie about how much he was going to like his new bed.

The bed and mattress came and Ollie eagerly tried to help us take apart the crib and put together the bed. This mainly consisted of Ollie touching the part of the bed we were moving helping us hold it. While he couldn’t really help out and often got in the way, we didn’t chastise him for this as we felt it was important that he felt like he had a role in this transition to a new bed.

Once everything was set up, we explained to Ollie that instead when he woke up, he could get out of bed, open his door, open our bedroom door and say good morning.  I taught Ollie how to do this.  I started with both Ollie and Diana pretending to sleep and then Ollie would get up, open the two doors and wake up mommy. Ollie loved this process and insisted on practicing getting up and saying good morning to mommy for almost half an hour.

The first night, Ollie slept in his big boy bed, I was worried that he would wake up, open his door and run around the house. Also, we were worried that he would pop out of his bed over and over and that we would have to spend a time putting him back into bed as Super-nanny recommends.

We were lucky. Ollie stayed in his bed all night. Instead of screaming for us in the morning, he slept in or waited for us to come get him. Even with a wake-up clock that would turn green, Ollie still doesn’t quite get that he can get out of his bed under his own prerogative. Right now, this isn’t such a bad thing. All of us including Buffy appreciate not being woken by Ollie’s screams.

Ollie has fallen out of bed, which resulted in giggles not cries. And he still has yet to leave the room by himself after waking up.  One day, he'll realized the freedom of no longer being in a crib, but until then, I'm going to enjoy the extra sleep.  Seeing him once again laying in a bed that seems way too big for him is a nice reminder that he still has a long way to grow and that he is still my special little guy.

Friday, July 8, 2016

To Be Asian-Americans: Tears

My Asian-ness keeps me from crying when I hear about another unjust death of an African-American. I am shaken to the core at horror of the violence, but I do not shed a tear because I do not see myself, my son and my family represented in that video. Intellectually, I understand the injustice, the history that led to these tragedies and the hard work that must be done to move our country forward.

Emotionally, as a human being, I empathize and I hear the strength in the mother’s voice and anguish in the girlfriend’s cries and I am moved and I feel the feelings, transform in a warmth behind my eyes, but I don’t completely let go and the tears do not come.

I don’t cry because I do not know and I cannot completely understand what it means for African-Americans to see one of their own face terrible injustice, again. I’ve read Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and watched Gates’ series African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. I have a great depth of knowledge of Motown and Soul music and I can drop many Rap verse by memory. I’m proud that I’ve taken the time and that I have interest to learn about African-American culture, but I’m not black. I can spend the rest of my life immersing myself in African-American culture, and I still will not know what it means to be black in America.

The reason, I have this interest in African-American culture is because it has taught me what it means to be a minority in America. I spend most of my time as a minority surrounded by white people. I don’t belong to an Asian church or have a group of Asian-American friends that I hang out with. I live primarily amongst white people. When you are a “model minority”, it is easy to forget that I am not one of them. It is in African-American culture, that I have found inspiration and understanding in the development of my racial identity.

I’ll never forget walking into my first teachers of color lunch and seeing a room, where once again as an Asian-American, I was a minority. Instead of being lost in a sea of Caucasians, I was embraced in by a group of African-Americans. We validated each other’s feelings and trusted what we could not fully understand to be truth, honoring other’s perspectives. It is in that room I felt valued and seen for what I am, an Asian-American.

These shootings are an issue for Asian-Americans. It is not an issue in the same way that it is for African-Americans, or for Caucasians. All of this racially based violence is a symptom of how we as Americans value and in many cases devalue groups of people in our country. Unfortunately it continues to manifest most tragically and most visibly in the African-American community. But even if it doesn’t affect your community, it affects you. With tragic injustice, the promises you tell your children about our country become closer to lies and in these lies we lose our souls.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Monday, July 4, 2016

Parenthood: Week 159 - Going To The Movies

Ollie went to the movie theater for the first time to watch Finding Dory. We had tried to watch Finding Nemo with Ollie a couple months ago, but he really wasn’t interested. Then he watched this film at school with his class and he came home very excited about the film. His favorite character was the stingray, Mr. Ray. It took us a couple days to decipher his singing as the song that Mr. Ray uses to teacher about the different zones in the ocean. We like to think that Ollie likes Mr. Ray because he’s a teacher just like mommy and daddy, but it’s probably because of the way that he sings flies through the water.

The day before we went, we told Ollie that we were going to go see Finding Dory, which was going to be like Finding Nemo. We explained to Ollie that we were going to go “tomorrow.” Ollie then spent the remainder of the day trying to figure what “tomorrow” meant. An hour would pass and he would ask if it was tomorrow yet. Eventually he understood that tomorrow was going to be when he woke up the following morning. This worked out fine until the next morning when we had to explain that we were going to go to the movie in a couple hours, which initially didn’t make sense to Ollie.

We talked about how the movie theater was going to be dark, which in Ollie’s head meant that it was nighttime.  We explained what Ollie could do if he felt scared and that if he need to go to the bathroom or wanted to leave early, he could ask us at any time. We also went over how he needed to be quiet during the movie.

Ollie did really well in the movie theater. He got annoyed and impatient with the half an hour of movie trailers before the film (which annoyed us as well). For the first part of the film, Ollie stayed in his own seat and then later switched to Diana’s lap. Finding Dory wasn’t a bad film for Ollie to watch, but it wasn’t perfect. It was a little bit too long and a little bit too dark. For the last half hour, Ollie repeatedly told us that he would rather watch Finding Nemo.

There are more reasons not to go to a movie theater than to simply stay home and watch a movie in our family room, especially with a toddler. Movie theaters are expensive. It’s better to watch movies in smaller chunks for Ollie (and us).  And we really should preview films before watching them with Ollie, which is both time-consuming and costly.

However it’s undeniable that there is magic in a movie theater and I saw that in Ollie’s eyes looking up at the screen with wonder as the film took us through the ocean. I loved going to the theater as a kid and I look forward to sharing more movie-going experiences with my son.

A couple tips for the toddler film experiences:
- Bring snacks and/or buy popcorn.
- Grab a cardboard drink tray to use as a plate
- Skip the movie trailers if possible.
- Go during a matinee time.  Less movie goers to disturb and it's cheaper.
- Talk over the experience and the film beforehand.
- Be prepared to help your kid unpack the experience and the film afterwards.  Conversations about the movie theater (that may seem repetitive) are important in the processing the experience.

Friday, July 1, 2016

To Be Asian-American: Loving v. Reality

I was 5 years old when I had my first kiss. It was just a peck, nothing more than Preschool-aged play. I don’t remember her name, but I know that she was Caucasian.

My wife is Caucasians, and the vast majority of my past love interests (crushes and girlfriends) were also Caucasians. If you didn’t catch the hint from the title of this post, I’m Asian-American.

Growing up, my parents never talked to me about the why I should date within my own race or with people who shared my own cultural heritage or with the issues of dating someone who wasn’t Asian. My parents knew how hard it could be to find love and they didn’t want to put up more roadblocks. They also strongly believed in creating a new cultural identity mixing their Taiwanese traditions with America ones. Encouraging me to date other Asian girls was inconsistent with this approach to Americanization.

Then things started happened in high school that made it clear to me that while Loving v. Virginia, the 1967, United States Supreme Court Case that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage was long since past, not everyone was on board with that decision.

An Asian parent after finding out that I was taking a white girl to prom, complained to my mom saying that I should take an Asian girl since some of them didn’t have dates yet. A Caucasian teacher echoed this same sentiment. And then at a wedding reception, one of the people at our table after asking me about the race of my girlfriend and finding out that she was wife, chastised me for dating a girl who wasn’t Asian.

I fully respect people’s desires to date and marry within their own race or cultural identity., it’s all good. Even with only a cursory knowledge of Jewish history, it’s easy to understand why a persecuted minority group, who’s people have suffered incomprehensible tragedy and withstood efforts to erase their culture would want to marry within their cultural identity.

I also understand what that person was saying at that wedding. For many people having a shared cultural identity and race would help in developing a marriage. A shared cultural identity with similar life experiences could make a lot of things easier. While there’s a school of thought that says that people who have many differences actually have better long-term relationships, there is logic in the “marrying within your own race/culture is helpful”-logic.

The whole interracial thing hasn’t been a huge struggle in my life but it has presented challenges. Sometimes when my wife’s name is called in a waiting room people are surprised that she is white. There’s a lot of mandarin Chinese spoken in my parent’s house, that sometimes I forget to translate for my wife. I’ve had to correct acquaintances who assume that my wife is Asian (this is pretty awkward). I’m glad that everyone likes to mention how mixed-race children like my son are so good looking but many of these people are completely ignorant of the unique challenges that Ollie will face in his cultural development as a person who fails to fit into traditional racial categories.

I don’t completely understand the evolutionary biology, and the social influences that affected the relationships in my life. But I do know that I love my wife. You may not believe me, but her “white-ness” was never an issue in my mind. I’m not saying that I’m colorblind. I knew she was white from the moment I met her. Trust me, I’m very aware of the race of people around me. Our differences were bonuses, not burdens. It is exactly this shared viewpoint on life along with our belief in each other that provided the foundation for our relationships and our family.

We are not out of the woods in our acceptance and understanding of interracial marriage.  Yes, Loving v. Virginia was 49 years ago, but in issues surrounding interracial marriage still resonate in our cultural consciousness. About a month ago, I talked to a Hispanic student about how minorities often have preference lists for race when it comes to dating. With her parents, African-Americans were at the bottom of that list and she was told explicitly that she couldn’t date a boy because he was African-American. I shared the ranking that is typical for Chinese-Americans.

This isn’t so much an expression of racism but rather an expression of generational differences, cultural influences and societal pressures. The idea of a “ranking” is disturbing, but it’s a lived reality. I’m not proud of this shared experience between minority groups, but I’m really we were able to talk about it.

I wonder, do some Caucasian people have these lists?  Do they talk about it openly?
Have you talked race and dating with your family?

Have you been made to think about the race of who you date or who you marry?