Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Colorado balloon boy Falcon Heene: I notice when Asian Americans are in the news, for good or bad
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Colorado balloon boy Falcon Heene: I notice when Asian Americans are in the news, for good or bad

The Heene family in a publicity shot from ABC, for the network

I don’t know about other Asians, but I bet Erin and I are not the only ones who flinch whenever we hear or see coverage in the news media that involves an Asian or Asian American. If it’s good news, hooray and we cheer on the butt-kicking Asian, or applaud the award or medal or accomplishment.

But if it’s bad news, we share the tragedy, shame or embarrassment as if it’s happening to our own family.

A good example is the big story today north of Denver, where a six-year-old boy reportedly climbed into his parents’ homemade flying saucer-shaped balloon which took off and floated for several hours across northern Colorado. The media first reported that the “balloon boy” had crawled into the balloon and managed to untie a tether, which set the helium-filled craft free into the sky.

This story took over my office for several hours, with staff standing around glued to TV screens in the break areas, and others sitting at their desks glued to the live feed from KUSA, the Denver TV station where Richard Heene, the father, first called to ask for help with their station helicopter (before he called the police…). Talk about a “water cooler” story — everywhere I went for a time, people were talking about it.

It was either a tragedy or a miracle in the making — if the kid ended up alive, he’d be on the “Today” show tomorrow morning for sure.

As it turned out, tragedy seemed the outcome, when the balloon finally landed on its own, safely in a farm field — without the boy, Falcon Heene. Had he fallen out during the flight? Was a speck captured on one photo below the balloon, seemingly falling to Earth, an attached box that maybe he had hidden in, that had gotten loose?

But tragedy turned to tragicomedy an hour later, when Falcon was found… in a box all right, but a box in the attic of his family’s garage. At this moment, the details of his misadventure are unclear. I’ll tune in to “Today” to learn what happened.

What was interesting to me, was my own reaction to the story as the events unfolded. I was entranced by the balloon’s flight like everyone else. After the initial reports broke,, the site that my company, MediaNewsGroup Interactive, owns, posted a story from 2007 that profiled Richard Heene and his entire family’s passion for science — in particular the science of weather. The entire family are storm chasers. That added a layer of intrigue to the story.

But when a Facebook friend sent me a Huffington Post link that revealed the family was on the ABC reality TV show “Wife Swap,” that added another layer of interesting detail.

But what caught my immediate attention was the fact that the mother’s name is Mayumi, and she’s Japanese, and that the family’s three sons are all cute Hapa, or mixed-race, kids.

When I found that out, I immediately posted the fact to Twitter, then wondered to myself as a journalist, was that important?

To mainstream media, nope. But to Asian Americans, yup. My gut clenched a little more when I realized he was Asian — not for his sake, but oddly, for my sake: that I was a little bit afraid he’d done something wrong and that would be embarrassing, well, to me.

I’m sure many people would find this logic unbelievable and just crazy. But when I called Erin and told her the kid is Hapa, her immediate reaction was, ‘Oh great,” which verbalized my feelings exactly.

A bigger example of this kind of situation was when Cho Seung Hui shot all those students and teachers at Virginia Tech in 2007. The initial news stories reported the shootings without describing the shooter, but my immediate reaction was “Please don’t let it be an Asian.”

When it was reported that he was indeed Asian, the next reaction was, “Shit — please don’t let him be Japanese.” And though it’s tasteless, I have to admit, when I found out the attacker was Korean, I felt bad for Koreans but was relieved he wasn’t Japanese.

We’ve spoken to other Asian Americans including Koreans, and many of them felt the same way whenever Asians make the news.

I wrote about the tendency to paint all Asians (or ethnicities within Asians, as a subgroup) in an earlier post right after the V-Tech shootings. I don’t know if European Americans feel the same pangs when a crime is committed by someone of their own background. Does an Italian American identify with a mass killing if it’s committed by an Italian or Italian American?

I guess it’s simply a part of being cast as an outsider group by mainstream (Euro-American) society, so we feel a group responsibility hoisted upon us. Plus, partly it’s the fact that many Asian cultures historically value tribal, group identification.

But I found it worth noting that today, the story of the balloon boy took on a personal cast simply because he’s Asian American.

Now, I just hope that he didn’t do something bad, and the balloon’s takeoff was just an unfortunate accident. I’m sure we’ll all know by tonight’s 10 pm news locally, and the nation will know after tomorrow’s “Today” show.

NEXT DAY UPDATE: The speculation is growing — fast — that the Balloon Boy episode may have been a bizarre publicity stunt. This morning they went on all the networks and denied it was a hoax. Here’s the CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer last night, where young Falcon says to his dad, “You guys said we did this for the show.”

Here’s video of an interview from 9News, the Denver NBC affiliate that Heene called first for help, before calling the cops. 9News benefitted from the story, and racked up amazing traffic for the day:

UPDATE OCT. 17: After a couple of days of conjecture that the flight of the Balloon Boy was a hoax, the media are announcing that Richard Heene will be charged by authorities tomorrow (Sunday). The obvious charge would be filing a false report to authorities, a low-level misdemeanor. But there may be other charges related to releasing the balloon. Plus, I assume the family will be responsible for the cost of all the law enforcement and rescue equipment and personnel.

So, how do I feel about this now? I feel bad for the kids, and I might feel bad for the mom. I don’t feel much pity for Richard Heene. If he did make this all up and forced the family to go along with the setup “for the show,” I hope he gets hit with more than just a misdemeanor charge and a slap on the wrist.

I hope he loses all chance at the limelight he craves.