Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Role of the Documentarian

Unlike many documentaries, "My America" features the documentarian as a central figure, as opposed to a non-existant entity behind the camera. Throughout the film, you see Renee, you hear Renee, and you get to know Renee (to the point where I am now in a first name basis with her). Her life is portrayed unabashedly in "My America." Baby photos, old home movies, and even footage of her wedding are featured prominently, creating a unique relationship between the viewer and the documentarian. Michael Moore often plays a large role in his films, getting a good deal of screen time (probably because he's such a character). Renee goes one step further: she's not only in the documentary, she also uses her life as content. It's HER America. Renee's story functions in "My America" in much the same way as Victor Wong's or Yuri Kochiyama's. Indeed, Renee often draws parallels between her life and the lives of those she meets--she compares the death of her younger brother to Victor Wong's son's murder, Alyssa Kang reminds her of herself, etc...
What are the implications of this? Does it lend the film an authenticity? How would this film have been different had the documentarian been an invisible force behind the camera? Perhaps a more interesting question, how would this film have been different had the documentarian been non-Asian? Could it still be titled, "My America"?

Response to My America/Honk

Having lived abroad for the first half of my grade school career (1st – 6th), my experience as a subject of discrimination or center of stereotype has been different than most Asian Americans who have spent their entire lives growing up in the U.S. Because I resided in Japan and Korea, I did not feel the same alienation that some of my peers have felt. Whenever anyone would ask, “Where are you from?”, I would proudly answer, “America!” Although I do not remember the point where I attached the “Asian” prefix in front of “American”, it was well after my childhood years. Like the Filipino-American sisters of Louisiana, I often reply that I am an American before even thinking twice about my ethnicity or background. Upon my return to the states, I was suddenly exposed to the stereotypes that seemed to have amassed during my leave and was unleashed all at the same time.

“Hey kid, where are you from?”


“Cool, where are you really from though?”


Questions such as these have made me question my own identity. Did I belong here in the U.S.A? Who had the right to be the true American? Should I change myself to become the ideal American citizen? Throughout Renee Tajima-Pena's “My America”, she is followed through her journey through the USA examining and revealing the definition of Asian American culture. Her search of “Asian America” through interviews and close examination of the many issues of Asian history in America has helped me understand that I am not the only Asian dash American trying to find my own identity.

Response to My America and Class Discussion

I think part of what surprised me the most about My America or Honk, If You Love Buddha was that during the documentary, I often found myself drawing parallels between my personal experiences and that of Renee Tajima-Pena’s. Like Tajima-Pena, I continuously struggle with what it means to be an “Asian American,” partially because I am a product of a biracial (Chinese and Caucasian) marriage. I often find myself torn between two worlds in which I don’t easily fit into either one and personally appreciated that Tajima-Pena’s documentary establishes that there is no one type of Asian. During her road trip, Tajima-Pena meets Asians from all walks of life—from the Louisiana Filipino sisters to her hero Paul Wong. Of all the characters Tajima-Pena spotlights, however, these Southern Filipino women intrigued me the most. I found it extremely interesting that they consider themselves to be white and are horrified at the idea that they could have been asked to attend “colored” schools. To me, although in retrospect I do not like/want to admit it, I do not seem them as white and instead see them as Asian. Thus, Tajima-Pena’s documentary proves that even Asian Americans like myself can hold certain stereotypes and incorrect perceptions of other Asian Americans. Although it is not necessarily our fault that these stereotypes internally exist, that does not mean that we should idly accept them. I believe that the first step in breaking down these false notions is to openly acknowledge and then address them.
In class today, we addressed some of the stereotypes held regarding Asians, which drew my attention to a topic I am covering in a different class. Our discussion made me think of articles I recently read for my Anthropology class, Violence and the Media, which focused on the brutal beating of Vincent Chin. In her 2002 article “A Slaying in 1982 Maintains Its Grip on Asian-Americans,” Lynette Clemetson writes that even 20 years after Chin’s death, Asian Americans still find themselves dealing with “persistent stereotypes, like the 'perpetual foreigner' with questionable allegiances or the 'model minority'” and how these stereotypes still affect the Asian American fight for equality in America in the present day (Clemetson). This causes me to wonder how far we have come as a country if after over 20 years the same issues that caused Chin’s death still directly affect us today. I hope we might get to address this horrific event sometime later in the course and consider what the impact (if any) it had on society and on future generations of Americans.

If you are interested in this article, here is the link:

Response to My America

Throughout her movie, Renee Tajima-Pena emphasizes the importance of family in shaping one's self-portrait as an Asian American. For many characters interviewed in the movie, their sense of identity has developed from child-parent or child-grandparent relationships at home, whether these relationships were good or bad. For Victor Wong, his rocky relationship with his father, a former mayor of Chinatown, has lead him to reject the idea that he is Chinese, the idea that he should "return" to his "homeland." On the other hand, the Filipina Americans in New Orleans have long accepted the idea that they are American, not Filipino, inherited it from their grandmother. It seems like the question of "Am I Asian or Am I American?" gets contested within the family, the smallest unit of community, before the younger generation begins to form their sense of identity in larger communities outside home.

Keeping this concept in mind, I think Tajima-Pena does something very interesting towards the end of the movie. Using her family as an example, she seems to portray the ideal way to grapple with the question of Asian American identity. In her family, the younger generation immigrants are not the only ones who are on the journey for their identity; their parents and grandparents never stop searching for their identity. Not only that, they continue to change their self-perception, as Tajima describes her parents, "They learn from their children. Not a very Asian thing to do, or is it?" Here, she does two very important things: 1) she comments that child-parent relationships are symbiotic, that both parties progress through conversations, not lectures and 2) she raises an important question of "What is Asian American?" And it seems like the definition of Asian American transforms along with the Asian American people's change in perception of themselves.

Someone has raised a good question about why Tajima-Pena has chosen Victor Wong's story to weave the narrative together, and I think it's because Victor has experienced the parent-child relationship from both perspectives--one as a Chinatown mayor's son, and the other as a father of third generation Asian Americans. Through him, Tajima-Pena shows us the transformations
of an Asian American, his struggle to balance his inherited values with his self acquired values. Although Victor Wong is far from an amiable character, I think he serves as a model for a progressive Asian American who has conformed with the American society's values without losing much of the Asian values. His giving of the red envelop to a baby whose parents seem to be very Americanized is an important symbol of the undying "old" Asian influence in Asian American communities.

Being Asian American

The term Asian American has always been ambiguous to me. Growing up in a predominantly white middle-class area, I had no Asian Amercan friends, nonetheless hardly any other Asian Americans within a 50 mile radius. Although to many, Renee Tajima-Pena's film "My American... or Honk If You Love Buddha" brings more confusion about the term Asian American, to me, watching the film left me with a unifying feeling. The people she interviewed were diverse: each from different generations, different areas of the country, and different experiences being Asian American. It seemed the unification of "Asian Americans" could be impossible with such dissimilarities across the United States. However, to me, this film created a community, demonstrating that there were others like me out in the US. Not only did these people look Asian, it seemed all of them had the same urging question of identity. Many felt displaced either in the Asian community, ike Victor, or in the white community, like the Renee. Either way, the film allowed me to see that we all had this commonality, and I was not alone in the world.

Response to "Honk if You Love Buddha"

I guess I have similar issues with Honk if You Love Buddha as the rest of the class. Rather than present us with a unified look of Asian Americans, the film documented the various types of people who fall under the Asian American identity. While this was enlightening in portraying positive depictions of Asian Americans who break typical Asian stereotypes, it also brought me to the same conclusion that Christopher mentions in his earlier post that Asian American is a “subjectless” term (Alien Encounters 5). How can one term encompass such a large group of varying people? Does the fact that these people live in America and come from some sort of Asian background enough commonality to group them together? Also, while the film aimed to show the large variety of Asian Americans it managed to exclude South Asians.
Wouldn’t they too be considered Asian Americans? I guess I have less of a problem with the film and more of a problem with the term “Asian American”.

Also on a side note, like Allison, I was also confused about the role of Victor Wong. I guess he was chosen as the uniting voice because he did so many different things over the last 4 decades and because he fought so hard in not being defined by his race. I also thought his story was interesting in relation to the entire film because like he spent his whole life trying to reject the traditional Chinese ways of his father and various stereotypes people had about Asians, but in the end he just ended up isolating himself from his family. I also find it interesting that a lot of his acting roles were stereotypical Asian roles like the “Grandpa Mori” wise sensei role within the 3 Ninjas series. Why would he play the stereotypes that he spent his whole entire life trying to escape?

"Our" America

From the opening scene, with Renee Tajima-Pena enjoying an All-American can of Coca-Cola in front of the classic stars-and-stripes backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, before embarking on a quintessential American road trip, the message Tajima-Pena seems to be sending is that Asian-America is America -- not separate from it, but intertwined in America's events and stories. Renee Tajima-Pena interviews a fascinating span of people, from coast-to coast, proving simultaneously that Asian-America is everywhere, and that Asian-Americans occupy a vast array of roles in shaping America's history.

Discarding many Asian stereotypes, Renee's subjects prove that Asian-Americans can be freedom fighters, southern belles, or movie stars. I remember being really struck by the Kochiyamas, especially -- it is not often that the role of Asian-Americans in the Civil Rights movement is discussed. Activism seems to play a major role in many of the interviewees lives, and this, to me, was especially inspiring.

I feel as if the film was also effectively able to tackle the subject of racism; the subjects didn't hesitate to describe discrimination they had faced, even within their own families. The Seoul brothers of Seattle were especially effective in dealing with racism head-on, with clever lyrics, in a normally African-American dominated medium. However, in the story of the Filipino-American sisters in Louisiana, who proclaim, "We're Americans first, then Southerners", I found an interesting twist -- they considered themselves white, though still retained a strong sense of their Filipino culture. I wasn't sure what to make of them, though I did find their story fascinating.

The diverse stories of all those interviewed shows just how rich our stories are, and how inspiring. Tajima-Pena shows that Asian-Americans are not "the other", they are America.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My America, or Honk If You Love Buddha - Response

Upon viewing Renee Tajima-Pena’s film My America or Honk, If You Love Buddha, I found that I enjoyed her efforts to look into the many pockets of America, as there were some in which I never would have expected to find stories about Asian Americans. One of the most interesting aspects I found about the film was the similarities and differences seen in the activism roles of a multitude of people Tajima-Pena interviewed, such as Yuri Kochiyama, Victor Wong, the Seoul Brothers, and student activist Alyssa Kang. The fact that all of these people were championing for an Asian American voice shows that this desire spans geographical region, background, and age. I found the fact that Tajima-Pena included activists from different generations to be refreshing, as the theme of generational conflict seems to be ever-present when it comes to speaking about Asian Americans of different ages. The stories of the various activists also showed the shift in the focus of activism. I found it to be a positive shift, as the younger subjects of the movie, for example the Seoul Brothers and Alyssa Kang, focused more upon issues facing Asian Americans, such as the typical Asian American male stereotype and Asian immigration issues. I feel this shows the emergence of issues pertaining to Asian Americans and the willingness of the younger generation to speak out about them.

One of the questions that I had while watching the movie was wondering why Victor Wong was the consistent narrative that tied the movie together. I could understand that his openness about various Asian American issues was a good way to lead from one topic to the next in the documentary, but is there any other reason why his voice was chosen to be the “uniting” character? Why did she choose his voice over the other people that she interviewed?

My America, or Honk If You Love Buddha

The film, My America, or Honk If You Love Buddha, searches for what is Asian America. By the end, the film presents an interesting challenge to the viewer: how do Asian Americans see themselves and how do Asian Americans express themselves? However, the term Asian American presents a difficult challenge as far as definition. As expressed in the introduction of Alien Encounters, I agree that the term is best viewed as subjectless and not to be enumerated (5). Nevertheless, I find problematic the fact that the film neither features nor mentions South Asians in America. It is understandable that the film cannot encompass all facets of “Asian America” but rather shows how Asian Americans relate and shape the term and their environment. However, the film features mainly families of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent. The lack of South Asians begs the question then if it was intentional or accidental. In this light, the title is somewhat ironic since the Buddha and Buddhism originate from India which could itself raise the question of the connotations of the word Buddha. Furthermore, though the film does examine the intersection of race and class, albeit superficially, with the Laotian immigrant in Duluth, the film promotes a heteronormative view of Asian Americans.

Without critiquing the film too harshly, I was surprised by the various facets of Asian Americans. One of the biggest surprises was the son of Bill and Yuri Kochiyama who was part of the Freedom Rides. At least in the textbooks with which I was taught, the Freedom Riders were only white and black civil rights activists. An Asian American as part of the Freedom Riders was a nice surprise since horizontal hostility between ethnicities has been seen as a deterrent to prevent such coalitions. However, I wonder, then, what are the relationships between Asian Americans and other groups (whether the group can be classified by race, class, or gender) and how is it expressed in pop culture? The film shows one positive relationship. I was also surprised when the film mentioned that the teacher declared the Japanese internment camps as false and the parents as liars. For me, it poses the question of what it means to be a witness and the expression of witnessing.

-Christopher Huynh

My America...

As stated in class and on this blog, the movie portrayed the idea there is no one stereotypical 'Asian-American story'. However, it highlighted the gut check question, "Where are you from?". The movie opened with her reciting the phrase "Go back to where you came from", which I am sure most of us have all encountered. This statement not only raises a sense of resentment and anger within the victim, but it simultaneously makes for internal confusion. America is defined by whites and whites usually prefer to be in the company of other whites. There is an economist Thomas Schelling who studies racial dynamics and argues a small preference for one's neighbors to be of the same color means that the only stable equilibrium is complete segregation in the long run. I feel that the term Asian-American is an attempt to outwardly counter this economic theory. This is shown throughout the course of the movie in the unraveling of all the different regional accounts and interviews. While there may have been no universal story, there are underlying themes of all the Asian-Americans finding a niche in their community which was not formed on the basis of race. The most extreme examples that come to mind are the Louisianan Filipino women and the Korean-American youth rappers from Seattle. They both transcend the idea of being foreign and have gone to another extreme of showing how they are part of America. Those shown from Seattle and Louisiana internalized their surrounding region and its culture and have been able to create a comfortable and unique blend with their own background. The film demonstrated a great step in how the both the country is defining itself and how its people are defining the country.

My America or Honk, If You Love Buddha Response

Renee Tajima-Pena presented the question "Will we ever truly belong in America?" in her documentary; she attempted to answer it with a roadtrip. Similar to the many zigzags present on such a trip, Renee at times fluctuated in her devotion to answering that question. And perhaps this results more from the nature of the question than Renee's attempt. Her use of the pronoun "we" suggests that asian americans are collectively a similar group, one which faces the same struggles and issues. But as shown in the film, this could not be further from the truth. The lives of those interviewed were almost inherently different from one another. There was clearly a shift in dynamic from watching an immigrant seamstress recounting the horrors of her escape to listening to the Soul brothers preaching Malcolm X's mantra, "By any means necessary." In regards to the former, I wished Renee delved a little bit deeper into her narrative. She claims that she is too embarassed to ask the seamstress about identity. Now this is interesting. Does Renee's embarassment undermine the idea of identity in regards to survival? Do these two things intersect? Throughout this segment, the seamstress talks mainly about her life as a survivor; her identity is formed around one basic goal: to live. In a way, her identity seems like a natural outcome of her hardship. I felt as though she did not (whether consciously or unconsciously) construct a persona from american culture like the Soul brothers with their use of urban music to "fight back" or Tom Vu with his role as a financial success. This actually leads into the deeper question of what exactly is identity, how much of it is constructed? I find it very difficult to answer Renee's deceptively simple original question without sounding completely incoherent. It is impossible to make sweeping general statements about asians americans as each experience is different. Victor Wong said that he did not know what it meant to be Chinese and American growing up; he was confused as no one before him had really set a precedent on what it meant to be an Asian American citizen. Perhaps not so much has changed since the fifties (in regards to this confusion) as Asian Americans' relationships with their country and with themselves are constant changing. It is hard to say if there can be any defining precedent on how to be Asian American. The question originally posed by Renee is not static. Maybe it was best that she did not leave the viewer with a definite conclusion.

My America or Honk, If you Love Buddha

Renee Tajima-Pena, in her quest to find out what it means to be Asian-American in her film, My America or Honk, If You Love Buddha, shows the viewers that being Asian-American is just like being any other American.  Asian-Americans in the movie did not fit one stereotypic model, but like all other Americans, differed with each other depending on circumstances such as class, gender, education, immigration, and probably most importantly, region.  As different as the rednecks from the South are from the Hippies in the West, were the Korean-American rappers from Seattle to the eighth-generation New Orleans Burtanog sisters, Filipinos that considered themselves white.  Their history, generation, and regions shaped who they are.  It seems that the the struggle to find a cultural identity and to be an American that many of the Asians seemed to go through in the movie is one that may only pass with time.  The Louisianan Filipino women seemed to have the greatest sense of who they were in America because their families had been in the U.S. so long.  Because most Asians in America are relatively recent immigrants, they will inevitably encounter questions from others and themselves about how they fit in the melting pot country that they are in.  And although Asian-Americans, along with African-Americans, Latino-Americans, and other Americans may always be compared to each other like in the radio commenting on the mental, sexual, and reproductive capabilities of Asians in comparison to other races, people will realize that the recognition of differences does not necessarily separate Asian-Americans from other Americans, but reinforces the notion that America is a melting pot nation and that Asian-Americans contribute to what makes the country America.
Given the diversity of Asian America, can we speak of a Asian American consciousness? Is a common history of marginalization and struggle enough to unite a population under a single identity? Does this common history even exist? For example, the two brothers in Seattle seem to share a sentiment and experience closer to their African-American friends than to Ms. Yang in Duluth or Mr. Choi in NYC. Pragmatically, it seems that the historically disconnected waves of immigration are an impediment to organizing political and social movements around Asian American identity.

Even though I desire a sense of solidarity with other Asian Americans, my personal struggles with identity feel very removed from the civil rights and anti-discrimination rhetoric used during political climate of the 60's and 70's. I have always considered myself "Asian-American" or "Korean-American" without even considering the historical context and identity politics in which these terms were created. The "American" portion of my self-assigned label represented my integration into mainstream culture and a certain rejection of my cultural heritage, while the "Asian" portion represented my resignation to the inescapable biological and historical causes of my difference. Even though my grandparents were never prisoners in Japanese internment camps and my parents are not refugees from the Vietnam War, the fact that I feel compelled to find this history relevant to my identity seems to be an indication that I have been unwillingly conflated with other Asian ethnicities by White America. In such a way, the label Asian American feels empty and bland, a catch-all term that used to have empowering political connotations but is now merely attempts to rationalize an uncharacterizable population.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My America: Or Honk If You Love Buddha Response

One of the first things I noticed in the film was actually something that had nothing to do with the content of the movie: the accompanying background music, specifically in two points of the movie, the beginning and end. In the opening credits, part of the theme is played in a distinct Chinese style or Oriental scale plays. This by itself would not be significant, but there aren't any other pieces of the music that could be associated with other Asian cultures. Again at the end, the same scale is used again. In a film that tries to reveal something about Asian American identity, the fact that the theme music is distinctly Chinese influenced represents a indelible tendency in American society to associate Asian with Chinese. Of course, this has a lot of do with the fact that Chinese Americans have had a longer and/or more well documented history in the United States. Regardless, when I see Asian American representation in the media, I sometimes find myself judging it by how heavily weighted it is on Chinese related content.

Blog Guidelines

Welcome to the class blog for AMCV 1611W: Asian Americans and Popular Culture.

Use this blog to post your reactions to the readings and films each week. Your posts don't need to be formal. We're not looking for lengthy essays. But we do want to see that you're engaging the material. What surprised you? What did you find most interesting about a particular reading or film? Why? What questions were you left with after a reading or film or class discussion? Feel free to pose questions here, to comment on each other's entries, to draw connections between the readings, films, lectures, and discussions. Draw connections to material that we're not discussing. Refer to specific examples from the readings and films as appropriate.

This is your opportunity to record your thoughts and commentary about the course and to get a sense of what others are thinking. We'll pick up some of this in class discussion. And some of the musings on this blog may also provide material for our class website project.

Please post by Sunday each week in response to the material for the coming week.
In other words, respond to Chan Is Missing and accompanying readings by Sunday, 2/4. We're a little behind this week, but please post a response to My America, Or Honk If You Love Buddha by this Friday, 2/1.