Erica Johnson is a woman on a mission. Earlier this year, she launched a blog called Hapa Voice where she posts submissions from hapas -- mixed-race Asians -- with photos and short autobiographies that explain a little about themselves. The titles of each post are a simple rundown of the submitter's ethnic mix.
This elegant, straightforward approach to stating one's own identity is both powerful and moving, especially for hapas because their identities have been a central focus all their lives, even more so than other people of color. Being mixed adds a layer of richness for themselves, and too often a lare of confusion for others. So it's really cool to read entry after entry on "Hapa Voices" and see so many people who are finding their voice... and their identity.
Johnson has been inspired by the work of hapa writer, filmmaker, artist, activist, standup comic and lifeguard (really) Kip Fulbeck.
His "Hapa Project" and books such as "Part Asian, 100% Hapa" are clear antecedents for "Hapa Voice." In the book, Fulbeck traveled the country shooting portraits of mixed-race Asians accompanied by statements of identity by the people posing. He recently published a new book of adorable portraits of little hapa kids, "Mixed."
But as an ongoing website project, "Hapa Voice" takes Fulbeck's inspiration and breathes it more life. Johnson explains the origins of the "Hapa Voice" blog on its "About" page:
With Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month about to end, I thought I'd write a bit about the terms we choose to describe our identity. Like other ethnic groups, the labels we use for ourselves seems to be always evolving. Hispanic evolves into Latino; Negro to Black to African American; Native American to American Indian. Asian Americans are sometimes called Asian Pacific Americans, sometimes Asian Pacific islander American, and sometimes Asian American Pacific islander. These labels lead to a crazy bowl of alphabet soup acronyms: AA, APA, APIA, AAPI.
I choose to say (and write) "Asian American" most of the time, but say "Asian American Pacific Islander" and use the acronym AAPI for formal references. Although organizations such as APIA Vote and APAs for Progress helped get Asian Americans involved in the political process, President Obama and the White House prefers AAPI, as in "Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month." (Note that the poster shown here, from East Tennessee State University, calls it "Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.")
Earlier this month at an AAPI Heritage Month event sponsored by the Colorado Asian Roundtable, our friend emcee Kim Nguyen stumbled on "Asian American Pacific Islander" and I had to snicker. It's a mouthful, all right, especially when you say it over and over into a microphone. And even just saying "AAPI" repeatedly gets to feeling odd, as if the letters lose all meaning upon repetition.
As it happens, we may be on the cusp of a change in how we identify ourselves anyway.
The Sacramento Bee the other day ran an interesting story that proposes that "Asian American" is fading off like the term "Oriental" before it.
"As Sacramento's growing Asian immigrant communities celebrated Sunday's Pacific Rim Street Fest, a growing number note that Asian American isn't a race and said they choose to identify by their ethnicity," the article stated. The excellent (required reading) group blog 8Asians picked up on the SacBee's story and expanded upon its theme of ethnic Balkanization.
Asian Americans are increasingly identifying more by their specific culture and ethnicity, and not so much as a larger, racially-linked group.
Like a lot of social change, this may be a generational swing.
With a week before BANANA, the first-ever gathering of Asian American bloggers, I've been thinking about Nikkei View's role, or how I see my voice as part of the AAPI blogosphere.
The beauty of the Internet and of blogging as an avenue for self-expression, is that we can develop not just one mighty chorus of an Asian American voice, but that we can cultivate many, many disparate voices, all with different tones and characters. It's like jazz -- not everyone will play the melody; many prefer to play harmonies, or like the beboppers of old, turn the melody inside out. Some will come up with atonal free jazz; some will play safe and mainstream instrumental soft rock; some are suited for taking fiery, flying solos while others will be content keeping up the steady rhythm that allows the soloists to take off.
Man, I didn't think I'd stretch the metaphor quite so far.... but it kinda works. My point is, I think of myself as a bridge in that I will write about very mainstream topics like a traditional dance concert, and then get all up in arms about racism or internment or whatever.
Here's another reason why we wish we lived on the West Coast: "Aoki," a new documentary about Richard Aoki, the third-generation Japanese American who was one of the founding members of the revolutionary African American Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, is premiering in Oakland (where the Black Panthers were formed) on Nov. 12.
At "Here and Now," an event for Asian American non-profit organizations in San Francisco yesterday that Erin and I participated in, someone handed out cards promoting the premiere. And this morning, Angry Asian Man had more information about it.
Like most Americans, and probably many Asian Americans, I wasn't aware of the role Aoki played in such a turbulent period of our history. It turns out (the documentary reveals for the fist time) that Aoki, a veteran by the mid-'60s, was the man who gave the Panthers their first guns, from his personal collection, and taught them how to use firearms. Although there were AAPI members of the Panthers, Aoki was the only one in a leadership poition, given the rank of Field Marshall.
He went on to be one of the leaders of the emerging Asian American consciousness of the 1970s. He died just this year.
It humbles me to learn how little I still know about the history of Asian America.
I'm glad people like filmmakers Ben Wang and Mike Cheng are making documentaries like "Aoki." On the "Aoki" website you can read about see clips from the film.
Alas, there is no Asian film festival in Denver. There used to be -- the Aurora Asian Film Festival was held in Denver's eastern suburb (people in Aurora hate for their city to be called a suburb). It was sponsored by the Denver Film Society, the folks who bring the annual Deniver International Film Festival to town. But it folded after a few years because the local AAPI community didn't support it (Japanese only went to Japanese films, Chinese went to Chinese films, Filipinos... well you get it. And, many of the communities tried to have too much of a say in what movie should or should not screen. If it was racy, or showed a negative side of the community, the Film Society would get push back to switch the film, or have to fight to show it. So ultimately, it was too much hassle for the trouble. As the Japanese would say, it was mendokusai (a pain in the ass).
So I read with envy as the months go by about the San Diego Asian Film Festival, the San Francisco Asian Film Festival, and others. Because I can't go, I usually don't write about them. I tend to write about things that affect readers here in Debver, whether it's a national issue that affects all Asian Americans, or about a Denver Asian community event.
But I want to say a few words about the Austin Asian American Film Festival, because 1) it's in one of my all-time favorite towns and 2) I beat up on Austin a little bit a couple of months ago when I wrote about an Asian festival down there that used the "wonton" font, which bugged me, and 3) because Eugenia Beh is doing the publicity for the festival and she's cool and works tirelessly for AAPI causes including Asian Americans for Obama.
I traveled to Austin for many years during my music critic days, to spend a blissful week at the South By Southwest Music & Media Conference, and most of the time was spent enjoying Austin and the great food and the great people... and oh yeah, listening to a lot of music.
I wish I could go to the AAAFF -- it sounds wonderful.
The Asian American blogosphere is all abuzz, and with good reason. The White House has more AAPIs in high places (the Cabinet) than ever in history. And yesterday, President Obama signed an executive order restoring the President's Advisory Commission and White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, who is Chinese American, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will serve as co-chairs.
The the commission was originally created during the Clinton administration, but it expired during George W. Bush's presidency and was not reauthorized. That alone says a lot about Bush's view of AAPIs as a force in this country, I think. It also says a lot about Obama's empathy for and understanding of AAPIs as a people who are woven throughout the fabric of American society.
As part of the ceremony, Obama also paid tribute to the South Asian celebration of Diwali, the end of the harvest season in India and Nepal.
The video of the ceremony is above; here's the full text of President Obama's speech:
"Lumina," an online-only series produced with Hollywood-level quality by an Asian American, Asian Canadian and plain ol' Asian cast and crew in Hong Kong, is set to debut on the Web on Tuesday, September 8 with a double-episode, and I for one can't wait to check it out.
In case you haven't heard about it, here's an earlier post about "Lumina."
The series is written and directed by Jennifer Thym, an Asian American who's a longtime expat, living in Hong Kong. From what I've seen of her vision, I think "Lumina" has the cross-cultural potential to make a splash on the international filmmaking scene. Who knows, maybe the webcast will lead to a major studio production. That would be a new way for a filmmaker to break into the Hollywood ranks.
Here's what Thym says in a press release about the debut:
Journalism can be a dangerous business. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 735 have been killed so far since Jan. 1, 1992 when the organization began keeping track. Many others are kidnapped or imprisoned while they do their work, covering conflicts and uncovering injustices all over the world.
Sometimes, like in the case of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief who was abducted and killed in Pakistan in 2002, the story has a tragic ending. Sometimes, like with Iranian American reporter Roxana Saberi's arrest and later release by the Iranian government, the story ends well.
We can only hope that Euna Lee and Laura Ling, two Asian American journalists who were arrested and charged with espionage by North Korea back in March and then sentenced to 12 years of hard labor last month, will see a happy ending to their story.
The Denver chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association is hosting a candlelight vigil to support Lee and Ling, and to urge the U.S. government to do everything possible to secure their freedom. The vigil is set for 8:30 pm Friday, July 3 at Civic Center Park, Colfax and Broadway in downtown Denver.
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