Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | pop culture
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mudra-gyaan "Gyaan" is not your typical showcase of energetic classical and contemporary Indian dance, which Mudra Dance Studio has become known for. It is, but it's much more too. The stage at the Lakewood Cultural Center, where Mudra has hosted many of its elaborate, every-other-year professionally-produced shows in the past decade, is partially filled with a backdrop of boxed-in platforms that serve as bandstands for the musicians. The boxes are white before the show, but once the house lights dim, they become three-dimensional screens for a complex visual interplay of videos that help tell the story that's primarily told through dance in the front part of the stage. This 3D multimedia richness is just one of the factors that sets "Gyaan" apart from a typical community dance recital, and even a level higher than Mudra's typically impressive Indian showcases. It was so expensive to produce that the group launched a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the production (it was only for a small fraction of the cost). With "Gyaan" -- Sanskrit for "knowledge through experience" -- Mudra founder Namita Khanna Nariani has a message she wants the audience to absorb: that in today's world of violence and tragedy, people have to come together and support each other. It seems trite to say it, but this show is about how love and community and art can save us all.

[caption id="attachment_5601" align="aligncenter" width="520"]Homemade kimchee, homemade takuan and natto. Homemade kimchee, homemade takuan and natto.[/caption] I’m a foodie. Everyone knows this. I write about food, I take photos of food everywhere I dine, I love to cook, and I love food from everywhere. One of my personal rules has always been, if someone somewhere in the world eats something, I’m willing to try it… at least once. So I’ve had chocolate covered ants. Fried grubs. The meat of some strange animals that you wouldn’t think humans ought to eat, like rattlesnake brats. In a way, I was prepared for this gastronomic open-mindedness (open-stomachnes?) by growing up Japanese. I was raised in Japan until I was 8, but even lifelong Japanese Americans know what I mean when I say that Japanese cuisine -- although hailed today as the epitome of high culture and is accepted as mainstream with commonplace dishes like sushi, ramen, tempura, sukiyaki and teriyaki – can feature some nasty stuff. Foul-smelling, slimy and icky-textured. Food that’s best swallowed quickly, without chewing or thinking about. No savoring the flavor, just pop it in and send it down the chute. A lot of people probably would disagree with me, but I feel that way about oysters. I think they’re gross. Keeping my personal rule in mind, I’ll eat them if I’m at a nice restaurant in a town like Boston, where oysters are de rigeur. But I won’t seek them out and suggest an oyster bar for a night out. It’s ironic, then, that people who would slurp down an oyster at a moment’s notice would probably themselves grossed out at some things I love: Raw eggs mixed with soy sauce and drizzled on hot rice; natto (fermented soy beans) mixed with soy sauce and mixed with hot rice; crunchy takuan; oden, an odiferous winter stew.

[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).

godzilla2014 Although Hollywood has been making monster movies since the original 1933 “King Kong,” the monster with the most staying power and screen incarnations didn’t come out of California, but from Tokyo. Godzilla is back with another cinematic reboot produced by Hollywood featuring the usual array of mega-special effects, including a digitized monster instead of a man in a monster suit. Whether costumed or computer-generated, Godzilla is the most famous Japanese American in the world. He’s starred in 28 movies, stomping his way through cities on both sides of the Pacific. Godzilla, or the Japanese pronunciation, “Gojira” (a combination of the words for gorilla, “gorira” and whale, “kujira”) made its first Japanese appearance 60 years ago, in 1954, but the film was edited and scenes inserted starring Raymond Burr as an American journalist for its 1956 release in the U.S. as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!”

[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.

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.

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).

sueypark I've watched in awe and appreciation for the past week as a Twitter hashtag created by writer and activist Suey Park, "#NotYourAsianSidekick, has achieved the impressive feat of trending on the social network, sparking a global discussion about Asian stereotypes, Asian American identity and especially, the challenges faced by Asian American women. Park first used the hashtag on Sunday, December 15 to promote a Twitter conversation the next day about how feminism had minimized and marginalized Asian American women. "Be warned," the tweet announced. "Tomorrow morning we will be have a convo about Asian American Feminism with hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick. Spread the word!!!!!!!" The conversation couldn't wait 'til the next morning. It began right away, and led to a torrent of posts from Asian American women who aired their frustration and anger, inspiring others to add their voices to the chorus.