Chance Encounters in Nihon-machi
Yesterday me and Sushu went to Japan Town in San Francisco to shop for cool stuff to wear to the wedding after-party.
I got these awesome geta:
I have been clomping around in them all day. They make walking slightly harder, but more fun! And noisier.
I got them from a small, quiet kimono shop which is built on the bridge between two mall-type buildings. The shopkeeper was a quiet, fragile-looking old Japanese man.
Me and Sushu were going back and forth between the Chinese and Japanese readings of the inscriptions on various items in the shop, like "Spring summer winter fall:"
"haru-natsu-aki-fuyu" in Japanese, "chwen(1)-xia(4)-qio(1)-dong(3)" in Chinese. The shop guy overheard us so he asked if I read Japanese, so we started talking in Japanese. I told him I had lived in Iwate for three years.
He looked shocked and said "Iwate? I'm from Iwate! What city?"
I said "Kamaishi" and he said "I'm from Miyako!"
Miyako is, like, the next town over. Map:
He was suddenly much friendlier. I told him I was going back to Iwate in a few weeks as part of my honeymoon travels. We had a pretty good conversation.
That made my day. Man, Miyako! Who would have guessed?
We also browsed through a much larger antique-furniture and clothing store, where we made a cool discovery. There was a shelf with a bunch of old papers, books, and writings. On closer examination, some of them turned out to be very old indeed. It was all pre-war; some was early Showa period, some was Taisho and some was even from the Meiji era. There was a Japanese literature textbook, a book of lyrics to a Noh play, and a bunch of other things we couldn't identify.
What was it all doing on that shelf? Was it to be sold as knick-knacks to people who just wanted to decorate with random japanese written material they couldn't read? The thought made me very sad. It seemed like they should be in a museum or a library or something.
The shop lady didn't know anything about where the books had come from. We ended up buying a bunch of them to take home and analyze. I'll blog about them more once we've gone over them and deduced what we can.
The Korean-Japanese Restaurant Phenomenon
A weird thing I've noticed is that a lot of Japanese restaurants in America, especially in the Midwest, are run by Koreans-Americans. When I came back from Japan, my mom was all excited to take me to a Japanese restaurant. She was like "How come you didn't talk to the waiter in Japanese" and I was like "Cuz he's Korean*".
(* = when I say "Koreans" in this post, I really mean "Korean-Americans". Consider it an abbreviation.)
Now, I'm not going to say "Japanese restaurants should only be run by ethnically Japanese people" or anything silly like that. But I'm curious why this phenomenon happens. It makes me ponder a lot of things.
Would American restaurant customers accept seeing a white person or a black person working in a Japanese restaurant? Would that make it seem weird or inauthentic? But seeing other Asian-americans working there doesn't trigger the same reaction, because they look the same as Japanese people, even if they have just as little connection to Japan as the white or black american? Does this betray an attitude of "all Asians are interchangeable"?
Sushu told me the story of a pizza place in China. The chef is a Chinese guy who studied pizza-making abroad, and is really good at it. But when Chinese people find out that the chef is Chinese, they stop going there, because 'pizza is western food' and so it 'should be made by a westerner'. Is this the same phenomenon -- wanting your food to be made by someone who looks right?
It also makes me wonder why there aren't more Korean-run Korean restaurants in America. Maybe it just happens that all these Korean people really like Japanese cuisine and prefer making it. But I'm guessing that Japanese cuisine is just better known, while Korean food is relatively unknown in America, creating a situation where even if some Koreans would prefer to make their own national cuisine, they feel like there's not a market for it so they feel like they have to go Japanese. (Which is a shame, because Korean food is really good!)
It makes me wonder how the people working in those restaurants feel about the fact that they're "passing for Japanese" in the eyes of many of their customers, especially considering that many Koreans are, rightfully, angry about the history of Japanese colonial oppression in Korea.
National/ethnic identity. It's complicated.
So! How about those casting choices for that Avatar movie, huh!
I'm way late to this party (the casting choices were announced in December), but the pictures of the main characters just came out and they are so wrong that I had to add my two cents to the ongoing fan protest.
If you've seen the Avatar cartoon, then you should be able to identify what's wrong with this picture.
I had an interesting conversation a month or two back with a friend who thought that there was nothing wrong with using white actors for all the main characters. The way she saw it, they probably just picked the best actors for the roles, and who cares what the race of those actors is? Aren't the protesting fans the ones bringing race into it? Isn't it more racist to say that the actors shouldn't be white? (And besides, the cartoon characters didn't exactly correspond to real-world races, so...)
There was a time when I would have agreed with her, but now I realize there are a couple major things wrong with that logic.
One is assuming that the actors were chosen on merit, without reference to their race. As it turns out, that's giving Hollywood (specifically Paramount Pictures) way too much credit. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, but then I read this blog post (thanks to Chris for the link). (More here.)
So, first the casting call explicitly expressed a preference for Caucasians for the four main roles. True, they did say "Caucasian (or any other ethnicity)", but the fact that they expressed such a preference proves that the producers made a conscious decision to "whitewash" the characters.
Then, in the casting call for extras, they said quote "We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you're Korean, wear a kimono.".
"If you're Korean, wear a kimono". Do I have to explain how wrong that is? (Ironically this is for the movie adaptation of a cartoon that got traditional Korean hanboks exactly right, in a random Earth Kingdom episode.) Paramount's casting director was saying loud and clear that they want white main characters, and they want asians only in background, non-speaking roles, reduced to their "traditional cultural ethnic attire".
Paramount, you suck.
The other important thing to understand, in order to contextualize the Avatar casting thing, is that the pattern matters. In a perfect world, maybe actors would be chosen strictly on acting skills, and we wouldn't care whether they matched the race of their characters.
But if you look at Hollywood movies, that's not the case. There is a depressing trend: White people are heroes, villians, and the whole range of roles in-between. Asians (including Asian Americans) are kung-fu masters who teach their skills to the white hero, or they are evil overlords/minions, exotic sexually available women, or nerds who are good at math. And very little else. Name me one American-made movie with an asian/asian-american main character not played by Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. (Or, OK, Jet Li. That's three, and they're all famous for their martial arts.)
Let me tell you a little story. One of my Aikido friends in Chicago is a Japanese-american and an aspiring actor. He tries out for lots of roles, has done some stage work, etc. He almost got a minor part in The Dark Knight (would have been "asian lawyer #2" in one courtroom scene) but sadly the scene, and the part, got cut. The finished movie? It had, I think, one asian person in a speaking part and his one defining character trait was that he's "good at calculating". (Aarghh! Again with this stupid stereotype.)
Among the things that made the Avatar cartoon so special were its unusually respectful and well-researched depiction of Asian cultures, and its diverse cast of main characters. When I say diverse, I want to emphasize that in Avatar it was never a matter of including token minorities, or satisfying political correctness — it was part of portraying a complex and realistic world, where the relationships between the different races and cultures were always a major part of the story.
It was a cartoon that respected kids' intelligence. It offered kids a group of heroes comprising two brown-skinned, pseudo-Inuit siblings one pseudo-Tibetan boy, and it respected kids enough not to assume that the audience needed a white main character to identify with. Making a movie out of this cartoon would have been a great opportunity to buck the trend and give some young aspiring asian-american actors a chance to play heroes.
(Note that after coming under criticism, Paramount recast Zuko as an Indian-american dude. So, they lightened all three of the heroes and darkened the villian? I'm, um, not sure that's an improvement.)
I wish Hollywood respected its audience as much as the creators of the Avatar cartoon did, but it's obvious that they do not.
Hope for our Happa Children
When me and Sushu have kids, they're going to have two cultural/linguistic backgrounds. We agree that we want them to raise them bilingual (easier to learn languages when you're a kid and all that). They should learn the customs and the values of both Chinese and American cultures so they can figure out how to combine the best of each for themselves.
The kids are also going to be mixed-race. What's that going to be like for them?
Their identities are going to be complicated. I don't want anybody to put them in a box, or make them feel bad about who they are, or make them feel like they have to act a certain way because of who their parents are.
I don't want them to learn that mixed-race people are freaks, or learn that China is an enemy land full of scary communist bad guys, both of which are poisonous ideas floating freely throughout American society.
I want to make sure we give them the tools to define who they are for themselves. I hope they can navigate these waters, and be proud of themselves, and go far with their lives. Like this kid here:
That's baby Barack Obama with his grandfather. What I love about this picture is the obvious family resemblance (especially if you compare the grandfather's face to the adult Barack's face). The obvious family resemblance between somebody we see as "black" and somebody we see as "white" really highlights the fact that race is a social construction.
Anyway. We're not in any hurry to have babies yet. But it's not so far away anymore. So I've been thinking about this stuff lately.
You must be the Mandarin teacher!
Last week I went to see a student production of "Into the Woods" that Sushu's school was putting on. (The performances were excellent, surprisingly so for a student play. The script... eh. Too cutesy for me. Though I do like the part where they kill the narrator.)
Anyway, what I wanted to say was that during intermission, one of the students' moms met Sushu and said:
"Oh you must be the Mandarin teacher."
(She's not. She teaches history.)
Sushu says she gets this all the time. Sometimes when she tells people she teaches history, they're like "Chinese history?" and she has to correct them again, "no, World History".
I imagine these people are thinking: "Well there must be some reason you're Chinese!".
If I was in a position to have to deal with that kind of assumption, I would probably start giving snarky retorts. Sushu's way too nice to do that, though.