Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | asian american
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[caption id="attachment_5582" align="aligncenter" width="520"]AARP's TEK team helped elderly Chinese at a senior center in Boston learn to use smartphones, and they were sending texts ad shooting selfies at the end of the session.  AARP's TEK team helped elderly Chinese at a senior center in Boston learn to use smartphones, and they were sending texts ad shooting selfies at the end of the session. [/caption] [caption id="attachment_5588" align="alignleft" width="214"]This was a fun photo booth at the AARP Member Convention in Boston, which promoted an upcoming PBS series about baby boomers sponsored by AARP. Nope, I'm not actually in the series... This was a fun photo booth at the AARP Member Convention in Boston, which promoted an upcoming PBS series about baby boomers sponsored by AARP. Nope, I'm not actually in the series...[/caption]As a journalist, I’ve been really lucky. I started my career as a music critic and then a reporter, so I’ve always been able to write about pop culture – especially the pop culture of my generation, the baby boomers. Then when the Internet came along, I was able to move over to work almost exclusively in digital media, and these days I work in and speak about social media. And since I started writing my “Nikkei View” column and blog, I’ve been part of a growing chorus of Asian American voices (like the JACL's Pacific Citizen, which is about to re-launch its website after a two-year hiatus!) covering issues and stories that mainstream media frankly tends to ignore. So I couldn’t believe my great fortune last month when I was named the 2014 Asian American Journalists Association’s AARP Social Media Fellow. AARP, if you aren’t familiar with the organization, is the American Association of Retired People, whose members are 50 years old and older. That means that this year, the youngest baby boomers are turning 50 and can join AARP (the baby boom went from 1946 to 1964).

[caption id="attachment_5550" align="aligncenter" width="520"]My brother Gary (on the right) and me at Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan circa 1965. 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![/caption] 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:

[caption id="attachment_5534" align="aligncenter" width="520"]This group performed a combination Middle Eastern belly dance and a Chinese dragon dance together at a festival. No, it was NOT authentic on either count. This group performed a combination Middle Eastern belly dance and a Chinese dragon dance together at a festival. It was NOT authentic.[/caption] I read with interest a recent Salon commentary by novelist Randa Jarrar provocatively titled “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers.” She made the point that the popularity of “belly dancing” in the U.S. often has nothing to do with the rich cultural heritage that “Eastern Dance” has in the Middle East, where she grew up. She calls out "Arab drag" at restaurants and argues with Caucasians who take up Arabic-style dancing. Jarrar notes the origins of American belly dancing in 1890s “side-show sheikhs” with their harems of exotic dancers. This history of Arabic cultural appropriation has similar historic parallels in the use of blackface minstrelsy and the introduction of Asian images in the American pop culture of the late 1800s and early 1900s. By today’s standard’s Al Jolson singing “Mammy” or the ghastly fake-Japanese of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” seem ludicrous, but they were common ways that Asians and blacks were portrayed more than a century ago. You’d think we’ve progressed – and we have, in many ways. But think back just a few months ago to the American Music Awards, and Katy Perry’s ghastly faux-Orientalist performance that featured the proverbial everything-including-the-kitchen-sink array of props that signaled “Japan” and “The Orient” without actually being authentic Japanese or Asian. Just imitation Asian, like the imitation Middle Eastern exoticism of belly dancing. In recent years a similar discussion has gone on around the origins and current state of yoga, and how far Westerners have taken it from its Hindu spiritual roots to a mere healthy-living fad. A couple of days after Jarrar’s opinion piece, a response essay came from a white attorney, Eugene Volokh, who blogs for the Washington Post. His equally provocatively-titled piece, “What would Salon think of an article called, ‘Why I can’t stand Asian musicians who play Beethoven’?” reminded me that people – even smart people -- don’t get it.

gamelantunasmekar I fell in love with the mesmerizing music of Gamelan Tunas Mekar the first time I heard it. The Denver-based group was my introduction to the rich traditional music of Bali and Indonesia, with its intricate patterns and precise time signatures. It's a music that's propelled by an ensemble of percussion instruments and flutes: Bells, drums, gongs, xylophones and metallophones. The music is groove-y to the max, and hypnotic with its percussive repetition and variations. Gamelan Tunas Mekar is really good at performing Gamelan music, and visually they're dynamic on stage not only because of the orchestra of unique instruments that are arranged on stage, but also because they showcase sinewy, traditional Balinese dancing. The group is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Most of the members of Tunas Mekar are not from Bali or Indonesia, but the group takes the authenticity of its music seriously. The members have learned from two Balinese masters who've passed along their knowledge. Its second master, I Made Lasmawan, moved to Colorado and has been Gamelan Tunas Mekar's Artist-in-Residence since 1993.

There's an embarrassingly small library of fiction books and feature films, about the Japanese internment during World War II. The humiliating experience of 110,000 people of Japanese descent carted away from the West Coast and into hastily built concentration camps is still under-represented in American pop culture. Classics like "Farewell to Manzanar" (in both book and film form) can be hard to find, and better-known Hollywood productions such as "Snow Falling on Cedars" (again, on both the page and screen) can be hits but are fleeting. One of my favorite indie feature films about the era, "Come See the Paradise" starring Tamlyn Tomita and Dennis Quaid, is little-remembered and deserves much wider acclaim. There are still many stories left to tell about Japanese Americans and their time in concentration camps during WWII. So it's cool to see a young filmmaker using the contemporary tools of social media and "crowdfunding" (asking the public to donate money) to bring his original JA story to life. And, it's even cooler to see that Chris K.T. Bright's project, "Tsuru" has caught the attention and gained the support of enough people that its Kickstarter fundraising campaign reached its initial goal of $15,000 in a mere three-and-a-half-days. Kickstarter gives the money to a project only if it meets its goal; if the campaign fails, every donor gets her money back. Now, Bright and his crew are hoping to keep raising money to reach their "Stretch Goals" in the month remaining in the campaign.

[caption id="attachment_5501" align="aligncenter" width="520"]Amache Japanese American internment camp 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.[/caption] 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.

jeremylin-linsanity Evan Jackson Leong, the director of the entertaining and inspiring documentary "Linsanity: The Jeremy Lin Story," tells interviewers that Lin's story "transcends sports, race and culture." That's true enough, because Jeremy Lin's story -- a determined young man loves basketball above all else but is ignored by colleges and the NBA despite his talent, and perseveres in the end by sheer determination and religious faith -- is universal. But as an Asian American, Lin's story is inspirational for me precisely because he's Asian American. His ethnicity was the main reason he was dismissed by colleges and the NBA, even though he was an all-star leader in high school. I hope everyone watches "Linsanity," which went on sales on DVD this week, and is inspired by his universal story, or his incredible accomplishment as an Asian American. I know many Asian Americans watched it at film festivals, or during one of many special fundraising screenings for Asian and Asian American nonprofit organizations across the country. In Colorado it was screened by an Asian American fraternity at the University of Colorado in Boulder and a Japanese American history group in Denver. If Asians didn't watch the documentary in a theater, they probably watched it on cable TV -- Comcast featured it in its Asian American channel for months. But it's great to revisit "Linsanity" on DVD (wish there were some extras added, though).