Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | tv
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I don't watch "American Idol" ("Dancing with the Stars" is enough reality TV for me), but I've been mildly curious about this 17-year-old kid, Sanjaya Malakar, who managed to squeak through week after week of elimination on "AI" with his breathy singing voice, toothy grin and bizarre variety of hairstyles. Well, he finally got voted off the show last week, but over the weekend he got a consolation prize as a guest at the annual White House Press Correspondents' Dinner, a big deal in DC. Malakar interested me because he's Asian American; his parents immigrated from India, and he identifies himself as an Indian American, hoping to be the "next" Indian pop star in the U.S. (was there a previous Indian pop star in the U.S.?). Unfortunately, Indians don't seem to share his enthusiasm for Sanjaya. The Indian media seemed relieved when he lost last week. One South Asian I know pointed out that the name "Sanjaya" went against Indian convention because ending a name with "a" is a female signifier, and though his name should be "Sanjay."

It's silly, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but Erin and I are addicted to "Dancing with the Stars" this season. We hadn't watched it at all in the past, but began tuning in because 1) it began during the down time for new episodes of "Heroes" on Monday nights and 2) it features dancer/choreographer Carrie Ann Inaba, who's Japanese American, as one of the judges and 3) this season one of the stars featured in the competition is Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, who's also JA.

One of the cool things about traveling to LA is getting to watch KDOC, a local station that unearths old TV shows and airs them. For some reason, whenever I'm in town I get to tune in to old episodes of "Hawaii Five-O." The show is fascinating to me for several reasons. It fit my early attraction for TV action shows ("Dragnet" just didn't cut it) with its tire-squealing car chases and gun fights, and the cool, noir-hero cop Steve McGarrett, played by the square-jawed Jack Lord. It had one of the all-time greatest theme songs, which was recorded by the pioneering instrumental guitar-rock band the Ventures. It's a cultural snapshot of a transitional time in post-war U.S. culture, when the generation gap produced by the baby boom was bulging into college age, and pop style was evolving from '60s mod to '70s avocado and harvest gold. Most of the men still had Brylcreemed hair, and the women had big poofy hairstyles when the show debuted in 1968 (it ran all the way to '80).

We don't have cable TV -- at least, not at the moment -- and don't have a TiVo or other digital video recorder. We also don't watch much broadcast TV. Instead, we catch up on TV series on DVD, thanks to Netflix. We've burned through entire seasons of "24," "Alias," "X-Files," "Smallville," "Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and more in just a few evenings of crazed viewing. That's just the TV shows -- we also watch way too many movies, thanks again to Netflix. OK, so it's not healthy. But it means we control our movie and TV consumption. WE control the remote, not "The Outer Limits." Until now, all this controlled viewing still required a television. Now, there's another way: the PC. My laptop not only plays DVDs, it can also play a number of TV programs, because increasingly, television networks are streaming content on the Internet. I love all this access, because it extends my control, and allows me to watch TV when I want, or when I can. I'm currently catching up on "Heroes," because I've missed a few of the episodes.

Note: The blog I just posted got me to thinking about a column I wrote way back in the day, before blogs were a twinkle in some developer's eye, about Asians on TV. It's posted in the archives of my Nikkeiview site, but I thought I'd re-post it here. I wrote this after seeing the final "Seinfeld" episode. 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.

When “Survivor” announced its just-ended season, I was one of the many critics who thought splitting up the tribes along racial factors was a stupid and potentially harmful idea. After just two episodes, the series mixed the groups. On the season finale that just aired, an Asian American man, Yul Kwon, won. He is the Survivor. How cool is that? In the end, it wasn’t race at all, but his smarts and his determination that helped him outlast the others. It probably didn’t hurt that he’s remarkably hunky, but isn’t everyone on the show? He was quoted eloquently in the Contra Costa Times (and cited by Hyphen Blog): "’I wanted America to see Asian-American men as they truly are,’ he said while speaking about the under-representation of minorities on television. ...’I want to be a very visible spokesman for talking about how we can get more minorities on TV.’"

I guess the upside is that some non-Asians have now learned (we hope) that saying "ching-chong, ching-chong" as a way of mocking Asian languages is offensive to Asian Americans. The downside is that many non-Asians are probably still left thinking that all Asian languages sound alike (they don't). And, Rosie O'Donnell probably skated from any further repercussions from this stupid gaffe by giving her on-camera "non-apology apology." It's just another typical example of someone brushing off responsibility by putting the blame of being offensive on the people who were offended ("I'm sorry you/they were offended"). I wish she'd just said, which she almost did when she admitted she didn't know about Asian Americans growing up hearing "ching-chong" as a racist taunt, that she was sorry she said it, period. Anyway, here's the video, care of YouTube:

Asians traditionally don't speak up about injustices -- it's the "don't bring attention to yourself," "don't complain, it'll cause trouble" syndrome. But more and more, Asian Americans are different. So when Rosie O'Donnell mocked the sound of the Chinese language a week ago on "The View," the Asian American Journalists Association's New York chapter e-mail list began a spirited conversation, with most members outraged and demanding an apology and some cautioning that O'Donnell hadn't gone on a racist "rant" like Michael Richards, and that it was a poor attempt at humor. I wasn't laughing. Like many Asian Americans, I was familiar with that "ching-chong, ching-chong" sound, from when I was taunted by European-American kids telling me to go back where I came from. That sound makes my gut clench as much as a punch. (Click here for the video on YouTube.)