Asian Americans are used to being invisible — it’s shocking when we get recognition

Asian American Pacific Islanders have been so invisible in mainstream American society, working hard in the background but rarely achieving high profile attention (unless it’s for something lousy, like Jon Gosselin or Falcon Heene!), that we’re shocked when the spotlight suddenly shines on some aspect of our culture and identity.

A lot of the reason is that culturally, Asians have a tendency to eschew attention. It’s the old “the nail that sticks out will be pounded in” rule. Don’t bring attention to yourself, don’t make waves, don’t complain, don’t don’t don’t. It’s partly our own fault that we’re invisible. But another reason is that the mainstream media, from Hollywood movies to the news industry, tends to ignore us, marginalize us or exoticize us. We’re the “model minority,” we’re doing fine, we don’t have complaints, we don’t need the attention. Things are changing… I’ve written about the increase in Asian faces on TV, for instance. But there’s still a ways to go.

When Erin and I speak to journalism classes, I always tell budding reporters to diversify their Rolodexes (not that young people these days use Rolodexes). Journalists should avoid going to the same sources time after time just because certain people “give good quote.” When reporters do that, they tend to choose people who are like them. We tell students to go out of their way to find people who aren’t like them for a quote, whether it’s a subject matter expert or a person on the street. It’s especially important to do this for stories that aren’t even about ethnicity. So, if you’re writing about the effect of the economic downturn, don’t just hang out downtown and talk to men and women in suits.

When it comes to Asians, don’t just find Asians when you’re ding a story about the Cherry Blossom Festival, or Asian gang violence. Quote an Asian in a story about Wall Street, or football, or the weather.

And, we tell them, if you quote an Asian person, we’ll guarantee you that everyone ion that person’s community, whether she’s Japanese, Cambodian, Chinese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, whatever — will know when the story runs that you quoted someone from their community.

Because we’re so invisible, we’ve developed a sort of radar when we are in the media. I found this out firsthand when I would run into little old Japanese American ladies in recent years who’d tell me they read everything I wrote in Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly newspaper, back in the 1980s when I was music editor. I wrote about everything including hardcore punk and rap, but these ladies said they read my stuff because they knew I was JA. It mattered to them that I was one of their own.

So I was thrilled to see that President Obama released a video noting the Indian holiday of Diwali the other day, which spans three major Indian faiths: Hinduism, Janeism and Sikhism. One more sign that things are changing, I thought. Asian Americans have a place at the White House, and our President is shining the spotlight on us.

What I didn’t realize was the effect this video might have on someone who is Indian. So I was moved when I read this post on 8Asians.com by guest blogger Sanjay, “Obama is the First President to Extend Holiday Wishes for Diwali.”

I cried. Like a little girl. It was like the moon landing for us — finally, a president is directly speaking out to me and my people — a president celebrates Diwali in The White House!

This weekend I made the trek back to The Bay Area where I grew up, to celebrate the Hindu New Year, Diwali. Diwali is a celebration of lights, and marks the triumph of good over evil, and is celebrated with great fanfare by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists, around the world.

All through the weekend I received phone calls and texts from inspired friends and families wishing me Diwali wishes, and gushing over the news that Obama was the first president ever to celebrate Diwali in The White House. (It started in the Bush era, in 2003, but President Bush never personally took part in the celebration, nor was it celebrated within the main White House walls.)

… In the end, I will never forget the faces of my family as we stood around the computer screen, and watched The President speak to us… to acknowledge us, and to let the world know that we too are just as American as any! I know I will tell my children, and hopefully children’s children, of the day when Diwali was celebrated in all of America. Thanks again Mister President, and Happy Diwali.

It’s just a little thing — you’d think any President could take a couple of minutes and share holiday wishes for people in America, and the world, who celebrate a faith that isn’t one of the Big Three. Bit it’s been a very rare event, and Sanjay expresses his shock and delight perfectly.

This is the power that a little bit of light can generate. Let’s hope the light keeps shining, and that it gets brighter and brighter.

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