NOTE: This is a slightly revised (added “Courtship of Eddie’s Father”) re-post of a very early column I wrote back in 1998, bemoaning the lack of Asian faces on TV shows.
Like a zillion other people across the country, I tuned in to the final episode of “Seinfeld,” and I gotta say, I was only mildly impressed. Oh, I liked the show whenever I caught it, but I was a casual viewer, so the nasty humor that the characters reveled in didn’t connect with me the way they may have for diehard fans.
What the show did, especially with its segments making fun of foreigners, was get me thinking about Asian faces on TV. As a Japanese-American kid enchanted by American popular culture of the 1960s, it never occurred to me growing up that there were very few people like me on the shows I watched for hours on end.
My beautiful mixed-race niece, Sage, who calls herself “hapa.” This photo was taken on Christmas Day 2014 during a family meal at … where else? … a Chinese restaurant.
I’ve recently finished writing revisions for a new edition of my book, “Being Japanese American: A JA Sourcebook for Nikkei, Hapa … & Their Friends,” which will be published this June by Stone Bridge Press.
I mention this not just to pimp the book to you all (speaking of which, you can pre-order the book now), but because I wrote in the new foreword how I have decided not to use the word “hapa,” at least for now.
Instead, I wrote that I’ll use “mixed race” instead.
Hapa is a word originally used in Hawaii to describe mixed-race people, like half-Asian, half-Hawaiian. The term was used as a slur, but over the years it’s become commonly used even by mixed-race people. In fact, I’ve heard mixed-race people other than Asian combinations refer to themselves as hapa.
But in 2008, when I moderated a panel in Denver titled “The Bonds of Community: Hapa Identity in a Changing U.S.” for a conference sponsored by the Japanese American National Museum, a man stood up during the question-and-answer period and said he thinks it’s a racist term. At the time, I pushed back gently and noted that it’s already a pretty common term.
But the interchange with this man has stayed with me ever since.
One of the few times I heard a reference to Ferguson was in this panel: from left, Hansi Lo Wang (NPR), Shefali S. Kulkarni (PRI), Ernabel Demillo (CUNY-TV), Emil Guillermo (AALDEF) and moderator Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man).
I just got back from a week in Washington, D.C. attending the Asian American Journalists Association’s annual convention. I sat in on a lot of interesting (and some not-so-interesting) sessions about social media and journalism, issues in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, and lots of other current topics in the news.
But one topic was barely mentioned as part of the panel discussions: The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man who was shot by a local police officer in the small town of Ferguson Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.
He was killed on August 9, and for the next week – during the AAJA convention – the tension in Ferguson between protesters and law enforcement has been front and center in the news.
My brother Gary (on the right) and me at Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan circa 1965. Note that my brother is wearing a Cub Scout (or Webelos) shirt — we were both Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts starting in Japan, and I was even an Explorer Scout! How American can we get!
This has been a good week for sometimes contentious but bracing conversations on Facebook. The latest one started when I posted a link to an excellent Forbes article by Ruchika Tulshyan titled “‘Where Are You From?’ And Other Big Networking Racial Faux Pas”
The article raises the oft-aired complaint by Asian Americans that asking “Where are you from?” (sometimes linked to the even more irritating “You speak English so well…”) is a social, racial no-no.
I certainly can’t argue with that. I’ve written plenty about this very topic. I once criticized Martha Stewart for pulling the “Where are you from?” card, and in the post also included the conversation from my book, “Being Japanese American” that so many Asian American are all too familiar with, which starts with “You speak English so well” and veers off into “where are you from?” territory.
The Forbes piece quotes a South Asian news producer making a point that many Asian Americans should learn by heart and recite whenever we’re asked the question:
The Amache Museum, a block from Granada High School, is managed by students from the school who take the “Amache Preservation Society” class. The students maintain the concentration camp site outside of Granada.
It’s a rite of greeting among older Japanese Americans. I’ve seen it happen over and over – one JA is introduced to another, and if they’re old enough, the first question they ask of each other is, “what camp were you at?”
We all know that “camp” in the context of Japanese Americans has nothing to do with summer camp. These people are not being nostalgic about singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire, hopping along in potato sack races (maybe it would be rice sack races?) and learning how to “rough it” in the great outdoors.
“Camp,” of course, in the Japanese American context, are the internment camps, or as I increasingly call them, “concentration camps,” that 110,000 people of Japanese descent were held in during World War II. So an elderly man says he was in Arkansas, and the other man says “Oh yeah? Which one?” “Jerome.” Common ground is found, and the two reminisce, if that’s the right word, about their families’ unjust incarceration.