Posts by Min
“…activism can be the journey rather than the arrival…” – Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century
Grace Lee Boggs carries many titles. One of them being a visionary organizer – someone who practices the art of imagination to create alternatives to existing systems. In her earlier years, she received her PhD in philosophy, but she could not find a job because she was a Chinese woman. It was while she was living in a rat-infested basement that she started to become involved with organizing for better living conditions with her Black neighbors. That was the beginning of her fight for civil rights alongside the Black community.
In her book, “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century,” Boggs proposed a need to transform our institutions and people. In the new American revolution, we would focus on nurturing the humanity within us rather than growing an economy based on racism, capitalism, and militarism. Within this vision, we would be responsible and respectful humans who are kind and compassionate towards ourselves, each other, and the community; we would be artists, thinkers, and makers of a world we want to live in. But resisting isn’t enough for systemic change. Our day-to-day life has been conditioned to see, act, and think in specific ways that upholds racism, capitalism, and militarism that to reimagine a new, responsible America, we also need to change ourselves. Change will take time, action, and internal reflection and change does not have to be dependent on our leaders.
Community engagement is a form of resistance to white structures as it disrupts the idea that we are powerless to make changes. Boggs argues that change is the most effective and important action to “rebuild, redefine, and respirit” our broken and seemingly desolate communities from the ground up. There can be a negative connotation when we start small – there would be voices saying it would be hard to have an impact that influences a “big” change; that starting small is a weak movement bound for failure. But starting small is the most powerful tool we have because through these “small” acts of involvement, we become leaders, thinkers, and compassionate people that see ourselves as makers of history and agents of change (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs).
Growing up, I always envisioned leaders to be smart, all-knowing, and confident – they were the most visible and active person standing in representation of others. Those were the people I saw who were celebrated, so I subconsciously ingrained this image of leadership to validate and invalidate who were “good” and “bad” leaders – myself included. With my narrow imagination of leadership, I wasn’t sure what it meant when others would say “everyone is unique in their own ways” or “we all have something to contribute.” It felt a bit ironic to learn about Boggs’ idea of community engagement as a form of self- and communal empowerment when I think about being a “Community Engaged Fellow” on campus. This role has helped me better understand the people of Colorado Springs and the inequities that affect them, but it constantly felt like I was going through the motions. I certainly didn’t see myself as an “agent of change,” so I started questioning what the point of community engagement was. What is my purpose of being there?
Maybe feeling loss reflects how I haven’t found a space I deeply connect with. Maybe it’s because I don’t see the impact I have. Learning about Boggs, however, I think I was also in the wrong headspace – I was so caught up with the idea of “having an impact” that I failed to recognize that community engagement is about the people and not about me. The act of starting small and rebuilding, redefining, and respiriting from the ground up is a collective resistance to oppressive structures because through our involvement, we are growing our communities, each other, and our souls. I don’t have to know the answers or see myself as a particularly “useful” person – it is also important to reflect and recognize our struggles, mistakes, and the humility to change.
Back in April, former Democratic presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, urged Asians and Asian Americans to embrace our “American-ness” by wearing “red white and blue” to combat the coronavirus and anti-Asian racism (The Washington Post). That’s easier said than done. From the mid-1870s syphilis outbreak, the 1876 smallpox epidemic, to the 1939 tuberculosis epidemic, these diseases were constantly conflated with race to conclude San Francisco’s Chinatown as a “plague spot” and a “laboratory of infection” (Nayan Shah, “Public Health, Race, Citizenship). Chinatown, Chinamen, and Chinawomen were defined as dirty and unhygienic aliens whose differences posed a danger to the American nation. The racialization – or the scapegoating – of bodies is not new. Also known as the “yellow peril,” casting Asians as disease carriers have been a tactic to justify xenophobia, immigration restrictions, and the denial of political rights (Turner Willman and Jason Oliver Chang, “Unmasking Yellow Peril). With COVID19, this is the first time many Asians and Asian Americans have stepped outside their homes with the fear of whether they would safely return. How can we simply wear “red white and blue” like a cape that protects when the nation itself has already been driven by fear that we are all diseased? How can we embrace our “American-ness” when this nation fails to include us within the American narrative as citizens and humans worthy of respect? What, then, does it mean to be a citizen of this “honorable” United States?
The term “Asian American” is a social construct as well as a movement. It first emerged in 1968 and was used by activists to reject stereotypes that “defined” who Asians and Asian Americans were in mainstream media. 1968 was also a time when students in the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State and at UC Berkeley were protesting for an academic curriculum that acknowledged and included the histories of communities of color.
As writer and Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen describes, “Asian American” is both “necessary and insufficient” (Nguyen, “Asian Americans Are Still Caught in the Trap of the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype. And It Creates Inequality for All”). Necessary as it is better than being called a “gook,” a “jap,” a “chink” – examples of some racial slurs for the “Orientals.” This term gives us an identity to organize around and for us to recognize that our anger, frustrations, loss, fear, and even emptiness aren’t “minor,” invalid feelings in this race-based nation (Nguyen). It is insufficient because it represents our own participation in (anti-Black) racism, settler colonialism, capitalism, and militarism.
To be Asian American is complex. It reminds us that our narratives have been one of inclusion and exclusion; it gives us a name to survive; it allows us to claim “American-ness” as well as our complicity in hurting other people of color without guilt. “Asian American” allows us to erase the trauma that our ancestors carried as we bask in the “success” of being “model minorities” – a role that ultimately pushes the white agenda of pitting people of color against each other. And when we “fail” to uphold white supremacy, we conveniently become the “perpetual foreigners” who are “threats” to national security. Or in other words – threats to white exceptionalism. No matter who we are, all too often, we fail to challenge the broken system called the United States. How do we start questioning when we don’t even know where to begin? But…we all start somewhere, right?
This identity is a face as well as an act. It is not a name we earn to call ourselves after meeting a checklist of criterias. It’s a journey of learning and unlearning our mistakes, our responsibilities to each other, and our places in our communities. Thus, proving our “American-ness” – proving our humanity – is not as simple as wearing “red white and blue.”
“It’s like a magazine” would be the simplest way I would describe what a zine is. But a zine is different from the colorful booklets we pick up to randomly flip through pages at a doctor’s office. Of course, they share similar elements of having images, texts, and messages – a medium where art, stories, and advertisements are pieced together – but the do-it-yourself nature of a zine is the “cornerstone for marginalized voices” free from corporate goals (Rona Akbari, The Creative Independent). I would say, the personal nature of a zine is what makes it different from a magazine. We don’t need to be a professional artist, writer, or publisher to be a producer of art.
Our final project was to make a zine relating to our experiences during the pandemic and to the class. In all honesty, it was a struggle. In my optimism to start early, our class had zine study sessions over week 2. You would think that starting early meant having my zine completed early. Alas, that was only a fruitful hope.
In the beginning, my idea was focused on “ethnic heroes.” I wondered, in my childhood, who was someone (American) I looked up to that “looked like me”? Certainly prior to this class, I didn’t learn about activists, Grace Lee Boggs or Yuri Kochiyama, who fought for our human rights. My “American” childhood was very much revolved around the Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Wizards of Waverly Place, Hannah Montana, Malcolm in the Middle, and the Simpsons. Like many other Cantonese speaking kids, I also grew up watching a lot of TVB shows. When I think about Asian American role models, the only person that came to mind was Michelle Kwan and that was because we had her autobiography at home. Other kids in my grade talked about Bruce Lee, but I always thought he was a martial arts icon from Hong Kong since all the references I got of him were from TVB. Embarrassing, right? But the idea of doing a zine on “ethnic heroes” was just not calling to me. So, for the rest of week 2, I mulled about in a cycle of unmotivation that carried on to week 3.
But I was in an emotionally worse state during week 3. I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I was becoming increasingly restless. While I was going through my internal turmoil, I was also reminded that there are more than 200,000 people dying due to COVID19. “Oh shoot,” I thought, “here I am worrying about school and forgetting that a global pandemic is still happening.” Adding on to my stress was this feeling of uncertainty. Usually, I would have a general idea of my emotions…but I couldn’t pinpoint why I was so unmotivated. When my professor and Ocean Vuong, writer of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, was describing how the process of creating doesn’t have to be towards finding closure, I wondered what exactly does that look like. What does it mean for my zine to not “conclude” with closure? The funny thing was, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted healing from, but I that thought of “closure” kept returning. In me, there was this hope that as I wrap up my zine, I would feel more at peace. But I just feel as trapped as before. Hence, the title of my zine – “trapped.”
Did you just read a few paragraphs of nothingness – yup. What I do know, though, is that the process of making a zine illustrates a message that we’ve been having a dialogue about in class. Art doesn’t always have to have an answer. The role of art, however, is a medium for us to recognize that we have the power and ability to be cultural producers. We are all shaped by different moments of joy and sorrow, of content and loss, of peace and war, and taking charge of our own narratives is also a form of resistance and solidarity with each other.
When the Emperpor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka
Follows a Japanese American family who were incarcerated in the Utah desert during World War 2
Fox Girl, Nora Okja Keller
Three teenagers’ in America Town, the US military camp in South Korea in the 1960s, struggle to survive the impact of militarized intimacies, such as betrayal, violence, and prostitution
Inside Out & Back Again, Thanhha Lai
Childhood experience of a Vietnamese refugee in the US.
Internment, Samira Ahmed
Muslim Americans resisting in the internment camp they were forced to go to.
These descriptions are nothing but blurbs because there is so much to unpack. I hope you’ll approach these books with an open-mind – especially if Asian literature is a new genre for you.
We live in a very visual world today. As I glance at the numerous books on an aisle, a book cover makes or breaks whether I pick up the story and flip over to read the description. When I got this list of books, they all seemed so unfamiliar – until I saw the book cover of Inside Out & Back Again. Whether it was at the library or in one of the scholastic catalogs, I was sure I saw it somewhere in the past and it just never piqued my interest. It gave me a similar vibe as Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen; both had a tree, at least one person, and a dreamy background. I enjoyed Flipped, but looking at the cover of Inside Out & Back Again, I probably thought it was a coming-of-age book about a white protagonist. Maybe if I had noticed how the author’s name is oddly “foreign,” I would’ve considered the possibility of a “foreign” protagonist. So I guess…don’t judge a book by its covers and a picture is worth a thousand words, right? If these books make you feel uncomfortable, then good. We can’t always live within the comfort of our bubble, and this discomfort has definitely been an enriching learning journey for me.
Some questions to think about:
What do you know about war? How are these stories challenging your perceptions of war and of people? What are some of the messages the stories are saying? How are your experiences and knowledge influencing your interpretation? What is made visible and what is then rendered invisible? What are the dominant narratives that these stories challenge? Who is represented and who isn’t? Why? How? Is there an intended audience? Who? Why?
If you have the chance, read these and have conversations with someone else 🙂
Excerpt from Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai:
More is Not Better
I now understand
when they make fun of my name,
yelling ha-ha-ha down the hall
when they ask if I eat dog meat,
barking and chewing and falling down laughing
when they wonder if I lived in the jungle with tigers,
growling and stalking on all fours.
Because Brother Khoi
nodded into my head
on the bike ride home
when I asked if kids
said the same things
at his school.
I could go back
to not understanding.
This year, I felt a different kind of sadness – a type of fleeting emotion sprinkled with a touch of hopelessness…and perhaps helplessness too. I’m not quite certain which one, so let’s say both. Why? Because I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned about American imperialism.
The America I once knew was bright, especially to people who had left their motherland. For us, she was a new beginning. She meant opportunities, a better life, and success. But who is this America that represents life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for?
As an immigrant who has settled on the territory of the Tongva peoples, I am thankful to call this place my home. As a student at Colorado College, I want to acknowledge that this is the land of the Jicarilla Apache, Cheyenne, and Ute peoples on which I am living, breathing, and learning about settler colonialism and its legacies on the indigenous and Asian communities. I am very grateful for these opportunities and spaces to unlearn, question, and share with my fellow peers and professors, especially since the privilege I have to sit and consume information comes with a cost that people before me had shed blood for.
Throughout these blocks, I quickly realized that I am still living in an America that doesn’t belong to everyone. As I come to understand that violent histories just repeat themselves, the light at the end of the tunnel seems to flicker and fade as the image of America as a safe space for dreamers shatter. But so what? What am I going to do after learning that America has dispossessed Indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, incarcerated Japanese Americans, criminalized Muslim Americans, refused refugees, hated Chinese Americans, and more?
At this moment, ignorance seems so blissful. Similar to how Ha, the main character from Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, wished she could go back to not understanding the racist comments her classmates made, I sometimes wonder if it would be better for me to not know. All too often, I wish I could hide under my blanket and fall head over heels for fictional rom-com protagonists. Out of sight, out of mind – right? Not really. No matter how much I want to escape thinking about “so, what now?”, it’s constantly in the back of my mind. While understanding English made Ha angry, it also empowered her. I loved how she later used English to stand up for and protect herself. Certainly, I don’t want to turn a blind eye to the pain that nameless generations of marginalized communities have faced and are facing. I have no idea what I am exactly searching or aiming for, but I know that even if learning makes me feel sad, angry, and hopeless, it’s a much needed foundation. I also need to know what I am fighting for – whatever that may be – right?
Side note: Originally, I wanted to write a post on cliches/old sayings/ idioms that I would use to describe the literature we read. However, I decided that it just makes more sense to include it in this post, so if you noticed, there are several cliches/old sayings/ idioms here…
“Her watch had said six o’clock for weeks. She had stopped winding it the day they had stepped off the train” – When the Emperor was Divine, Julie Otsuka
We have all heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but what do we know other than the Japanese had attacked America? In my K-12 education, I sure don’t remember learning that there is a disproportionate number of US military bases in Hawai’i. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1945, which ordered the “relocation” of all persons of Japanese descent to incarceration camps. Why? Because they were Japanese and, thus automatically, a threat to national security. More than 120,000 first generation Issei and their Nisei children were affected – even to this day.
For the Japanese American girl in “When the Emperor was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, time had long stopped since she and her family were incarcerated. At the camps, there was literally no sense of time as they spent every single day waiting. Waiting for their father. Waiting to go home. Waiting for normal to return. But life can’t return to normal. In the three and a half years the family was imprisoned, many things had changed already – including themselves. From unconsciously sleeping together in the same room to quickly finishing their meals after their release, these habits were a testament of their legacy as criminalized “enemies.” Returning home wasn’t as simple as pressing an “unpause” button. They had to make sure not to trouble or offend anyone; they made sure to be the first to apologize even if they didn’t do anything wrong. They had to rebuild their trust with their peers and their neighbors and vice versa. In this America I know of, healing is so hard when her apologies often manifest in a monetary reparation and/or in a document that “acknowledges” the violence and trauma she inflicts on communities of color.
When life drastically changes, we can’t pause time and expect to return to “normal.” As we are ordered to stay at home and practice social distancing, this time of uncertainty is daunting and can be emotionally exhausting as we wait and wait and wait to go back to school, work, and hang out with friends. Of course, I don’t think it is fair to compare our experience during this pandemic to Japanese American incarceration, but I do hope we can learn to understand and accept that things will change – whether that is our attitude, our habits and routines, and more. Maybe this is too optimistic of me, but rather than being consumed with hate, frustration, and stress, how can we be present for each other and for ourselves?
It has already been two months since we first received the move-out notice in March. In the beginning of this semester, we hardly thought about the coronavirus having such a huge impact on us because of its “distance.” I still remember how I was worried about missing my friends when I go study abroad blocks 7 and 8, conflicted between which summer block abroad I wanted to take, and excited about my Venture Grant. While my plans soon became “unplanned,” it’s funny how things also worked out as I switched into classes by two amazing professors.
For many of us, this has been a bittersweet time as goodbyes were hurriedly said – or not said. For the seniors, they’ve also worked so hard and they won’t have a ceremony that solely belongs to them. I believe that many of us aren’t just aiming for this piece of paper to recognize the efforts, the stress, and the tears of these years. Rather, there is a sense of nostalgia for the memories and friendships formed at CC. And, I guess there is also a moment of finality and accomplishment to be able to walk up the stage to receive their diploma.
To all the people I know who are leaving – college isn’t easy and you guys did it. We don’t know what is going to happen during this time, but what I do know is how funny, insightful, and beautiful you are. Thank you for being such patient mentors who constantly inspire me to be more kind, passionate, and also skeptical. That’s right. “Skepticism” may sound cynical, but I believe it’s a spark of curiosity to question and have conversations. Although our time together was short, I am very glad to have met you and I hope we can continue to be in good health and may we stay in touch 🙂
The dominant narrative tells and shows us that war looks like…
WW1. WW2. Vietnam War. Bombs. Guns. Men. Death. Enemies. Tension.
Glory. Honor. Power. Protection. National security. Memorials. Veterans. Social Mobility.
Beyond the romanticized documentation of war, war is scary as it affects everyone and all aspects of life. The US is an empire that has built its status and power through its military. This give-and-take relationship, in which the US military “provides” the resources to “improve” the quality of life in the foreign land while dispossessing the native people is a traumatic, painful, and violent experience. In the words of my block 6 Professor Nadia Guessous, living in America gives us the “luxury of distance” from war. In our day to day life, we do not hear or see planes flying above our heads – ready to drop a bomb anytime; we do not hear or see bullets piercing through skin nor people bleeding to death; we do not hear or see frantic cries for help. And with this “luxury of distance”, we somehow become normalized to think people who are not directly involved in combat wars are safe and well-protected. War is not always about direct combat. As Dolma mentions in her post, “Asian American in the Time of Coronavirus,” war can be used as a metaphor to describe intangible “enemies.”
War stories are references that we often rely on to catch a glimpse on how it affects the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of people with war memories. But how do we know what is a “true” war story? For all we know, the author could have written from his or her imagination or draw from memories with missing pieces and made-up experiences. The truth is complicated and we should be skeptical with the information we consume, especially if it fulfills our expectations that the story is written by men (as the majority war stories are) and about someone who participated in combat. Rather, peeling off the layers of war can show us that war stories are so complex. They can be about familial relationships between the parents who experienced war and their children, about the intergenerational trauma and identity struggles, about the different silences and sacrifices made, about emotions that are hard to express, about militarized spaces and intimacies, about racism, and more. As Tim O’Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story,” a “true war story is never about war.” I thought something my classmate said was very endearing – if we are so caught up with finding the “truth,” we will “miss the beautiful irregular mundaneness of these stories, how they speak so closely to our hearts.”