Building bridges with the Muslim community

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Late last year, Erin and I were lucky enough to travel to New York City to see the Broadway musical “Allegiance” starring George Takei. It’s a story about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and it vividly and powerfully brings to life the emotional toll of the experience on JAs for generations since then. I wrote about the play and interviewed Takei and others for AARP’s AAPI Community.

Two nights after attending the show and while we were still in New York, the Paris attacks happened. The next day, we had scheduled a visit to the 9/11 Memorial and museum in lower Manhattan. Like the way “Allegiance” evoked the racial hatred against my community 75 years ago, it was a powerful reminder of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. There’s a lot in the museum exhibit about the terrorists who committed the acts, and the aftermath that included hate crimes, not just against Arab Americans but also Sikh Americans. I saw a photo of the slogan that someone put up on a banner in the Ground Zero site: “United We Stand.”

The rest of the day, I was haunted by the 1970 hit song, “United We Stand” by a group called the Brotherhood of Man: “United we stand, divided we fall; And if our backs should ever be against the wall; We’ll be together, together, you and I…”

The song was widely played in the days after 9/11, though most people probably missed the spirit of uniting with Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.

I was proud that JACL, the Japanese American Citizens League, held a press conference within days after 9/11 to decry violence against Arab Americans. We were the first voices nationally to warn against racial profiling in the wake of the attack, because we knew too well the potential disaster that can be sparked by fear and ignorance.

Unfortunately, there were hate crimes committed in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, including against Sikh Americans, who aren’t even Muslim. And some commentators supported rounding up Arab Americans into concentration camps just like the Japanese Americans during WWII.

Sadly, the hatred and fear that was aimed back then at Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians and anyone who might represent “the Other” are back.
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George Takei’s “Allegiance” is a timely historical musical for today

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After a November performance at the Longacre Theatre in New York’s fabled Broadway district, AARP members were invited for a “talkback” with George Takei and other cast members answering questions about their powerful musical, “Allegiance.” (NOTE: This post was riginally uploaded to the AARP AAPI Community Facebook page.)

“I remember we started the school day, each day, with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my school house window as I recited the words, ‘with liberty, and justice for all.’”

Takei recalled his experience as a child, sent with his entire family to a concentration camp along with more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent – including, like Takei, half who were born in the US and therefore American citizens – during World War II.

Now, at age 78, Takei is pledging again, making his Broadway debut in “Allegiance,” which tells the story of Japanese American incarceration inspired by Takei’s childhood. The parallels between the 1940s incarceration and the national mood today are striking. The news is filled with politicians speaking out against accepting refugees from the Middle East, and some are stoking a palpable fear within the public over Muslims.

Takei has spoken out eloquently on his vast social media networks in response to the hate-filled climate – he even invited David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia to come see a performance of “Allegiance” after the mayor announced he didn’t want any Syrian refugees in his city, and cited the Japanese American incarceration as a model. The mayor said the threat from ISIS via refugees is “just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”

Takei criticized the mayor for his “galling lack of compassion” and added, “…one of the reasons I am telling our story on Broadway eight times a week in ‘Allegiance’ is because of people like you. You who hold a position of authority and power, but you demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons. So Mayor Bowers, I am officially inviting you to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you, too, will come away with more compassion and understanding.”

Educating the public about what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, when 120,000 people of Japanese heritage (half were US-born American citizens) were removed from the West Coast and sent to nine concentration camps as far east as Arkansas, is one of Takei’s lifelong goals. His family spent the war years in Rowher, Arkansas.

“I’m always shocked when I tell the story (of Japanese American incarceration) to people that I consider well-informed,” he said, “and they’re shocked and aghast that sometime like this could happen in the United States. It’s still little-known. So, it’s been my mission to raise the awareness of this chapter of American history.”

“Allegiance” accomplishes Takei’s goal with Broadway grandeur that matches any hit musical, with songs that soar and tug at heartstrings, tight choreography and a storyline that is familiar to many Japanese Americans, but not to the public at large.
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“Into the Badlands” brings Asians and martial arts full circle

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OCA just emailed out a brief statement from Daniel Wu, the star of AMC’s action-drama “Into the Badlands,” that’s worth reading:

“I grew up in America in the ’70s when there were no Asian Americans on screen. After a career of 18 years in Hong Kong where I didn’t have to think about race at all, coming back to America and thinking about when we’ve seen an Asian American lead on a show, I realized almost never.

AMC was adamant that the lead for Into the Badlands would be Asian American. It’s not our intention to transform Asian-American male masculinity across the country through this one show, but “Into the Badlands” is a great start.

Television and American media need to reflect American society. There is a very large Asian-American population in this country and we need to see that on screen. Times have changed, people have changed, and this is a different era than it was even just 10 years ago. “Into the Badlands” is breaking new ground, and that’s awesome.”

– Daniel Wu

It’s an awesome show if you like martial arts and violence, and Wu’s spot-on about the great step this represents for Asian American men on TV. His role joins Steven Yeun and Daniel Day Kim among butt-kicking AAPI hunks.

The show, which to me evokes both another series on AMC, “The Walking Dead” and the “Mad Max” movie franchise for its depiction of a bleak, violent future, brings the martial arts stereotype of Asians full-circle, starting with “Green Hornet” and “Kung Fu.”
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Immigration, refugees and the gift of citizenship

Denver's Mayor Michael B. Hancock welcomes the 100 applicants and their family members to the citizenship ceremony.

Denver’s Mayor Michael B. Hancock welcomes the 100 applicants and their family members to the citizenship ceremony.

I was born in Japan, but because my father was born in Hawaii when it was a U.S. territory, I am an American citizen. I didn’t have to take a test, and recite an oath of allegiance. After my family moved to the States in 1966, I remember helping my mother, who’s from a small town in northern Japan, study for her citizenship test. I was eight years old.

I don’t remember the ceremony when she repeated the oath and was given her naturalization certificate, but it was probably something like the wonderful ceremony I saw today, on the top floor of the Emily Griffith Technical College, a school that teaches English as a second language and gives many immigrants the skills for them to find jobs in America (full disclosure: I’m a member of the Emily Griffith Foundation‘s Board of Directors).

One hundred people became American citizens today in Denver. They came here from all over the world, from Bhutan to the Ukraine, Canada to Cote d’Ivoire. Some held small American flags in their hands as they waited, and waved them when they were asked to stand to represent their soon-to-be-former countries.
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Why are Asians so rare on Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV shows?

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My wife Erin and I love junk-food TV. From “Black List” and “Blindspot” to “Grimm” and “Castle,” we turn into small-screen zombies at night, depending on our DVR to serve up our shows. But there’s one junk-food TV brand that we’ve decided to strike from out diet, and delete from our DVR.

After years of devouring the medical soap series “Grey’s Anatomy,” a couple of seasons of the media-political soap “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” the most recent ABC hit series written and produced by Shonda Rhimes, we’ve gone cold turkey on her shows.

Here’s why: Rhimes is a terrific storyteller, and pioneering producer who casts African Americans in prominent or starring roles in her series. But except for Sandra Oh’s keystone character, the irascible but brilliant surgeon Cristina Yang, Asians are either non-existent or generally fringe-ified. It’s almost as if with Oh’s departure from Shondaland (Rhimes’ production company and the realm where all these shows dwell), the box for Asian stars was checked off: “Done.”
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