Hawai’i and Racial Diversity

NY Times journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff wrote a thoughtful article about race in Hawai’i, specifically about mixed-race people.  Regardless of the headline “Want to Be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii” (New York Times, June 28, 2019), Velasquez-Manoff does not paint Hawai’i as any utopia free of racial bias nor suggests that anyone should move there.

This discussion of mixed race people and multiracial identities is especially timely and instructive. He reminds readers that race is a “social construct,” a fabrication by humans, not nature, for the purpose of categorization, which then determines behavior between groups. Racism establishes hierarchy to promote economic and political self-interest, advantage, and power. These are important concepts to keep in mind as Americans battles over diversity vs homogeneity. 

NYTimes articleHawai’i is a reminder about the value of diversity. And its people reflect this. In the islands, people are likely to refer to President Barack Obama as mixed race instead of African American. This acknowledges his dual heritage and genetics in both White and Black cultures. In contrast, most Americans want to categorize people as if a single label can define the whole person.

In my memoir, I face this American mindset and struggle with how to define myself. Chinese or American or Hawaiian? These are the cultures that impacted and defined me. I felt pressed to choose one of these labels to conform to American ideals and reject the others.

Consequently, mixed race people present a conundrum in American society. The blurring of recognizable physical markers in many mixed race people seriously subverts racist attitudes. However, questions like “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” are often tainted since White people don’t generally ask such questions of each other. 

While the aloha spirit contributes to an ethos of racial harmony in the islands, equally important is the Hawaiian value of aloha ‘āina, or love of the land. People and land, including natural resources, are connected. If people take care of the land, the land will take care of them. This belief in mutual reciprocity is both simple and profound. Resources may seem unlimited, but they aren’t, especially in island communities.

This is where Hawaiian and local island cultural values diverge from White cultural values—American capitalism that privileges White males and justified colonialism. By no means are Hawai’i’s local communities devoid of conflict; wherever humans cohabitate, there will be conflict. However, island people may be more conscious about the need for conflict resolution. There are incentives, or a “geographic motivation” since islands are generally small.

Velasquez-Manoff has done his research to begin an important conversation. Hawai’i  is special to many people. Their racial diversity and acceptance of mixed race people offer additional reasons for why this is so.

Reader responses to this article can be found at this link: Opinion | Is Hawaii’s Racial Harmony a Myth?

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Year of the Pig

Whether you call it Year of the Pig (a more gentle animal) or Year of the Boar (a wild animal with sharp tusks), this animal marks the end of 12-year cycle in Chinese astrology. A new cycle starts next year with the Year of the Rat.

The Lunar New Year began on February 5 with friends and family getting gathering for dinners to celebrate a new beginning. I appreciate having another chance for a fresh start. I celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1, then I celebrate the Lunar New Year whenever it falls according to the Chinese calendar. Being Chinese American, I can draw on both cultures for multiple celebrations!

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We in the Pacific NW will not likely forget the first few weeks of this lunar year. It’s unusual snow and freezing weather kept most of us indoors and off the roads for several days. I will remember it as the year of the “Snow Pig.”

When I was growing up in Honolulu, Dad had a store in Chinatown, Yuen Chong Co., Ltd. Because it was a retail and wholesale business, Chinese New Year was very busy, with sales to both store customers and Chinese restaurants. Crowds thronged the stores and sidewalks in Chinatown to shop for gifts, buy prepared food from various temporary stalls set up in the streets by various Chinese family associations, and be part of the festivities. Thousands of firecrackers were burned for good luck at each business, creating clouds of acrid smoke in the streets.

Here’s a brief excerpt from my memoir The Lava Never Sleeps that recalls the excitement of this holiday.

One of the busiest times was Chinese New Year. The Chinese community purchased ingredients for special holiday dishes, firecrackers, and presents, while restaurants increased their orders to prepare for New Year dinner parties. Our entire family descended on the store to witness the community celebration and absorb all the good luck and excitement floating through Chinatown. At night, streets filled with people waiting for the many-legged lion amid a cacophony of firecrackers, gongs, and drums that accompanied the dancing lion, which stopped at each business. Both were essential for good luck in the Lunar New Year. All the activity excited and frightened me. The smoke from the firecrackers burned my throat and eyes. The lion was huge, flapping its large gaping mouth and directing its large eyes at me. I had to be carried to see above everyone’s heads, but when the lion looked at me, I covered my eyes. Even though the black slacks of the teenage boys and girls, who brought this mythical creature to life, were visible, the wagging lion’s head seemed enormous and all-too-real.

Happy Lunar New Year to all! May the year bring good health and prosperity to you!

Crazy Successful!

If you haven’t yet seen the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians, what are you waiting for??

A surprise box office smash when it first came out in August, it’s still playing in theaters. The Huffington Post reports that it is currently the highest-grossing romantic comedy in ten years: almost $166 million as of this weekend, Sept. 29-30.

There’s much to like about it: good acting (many were unfamiliar to me, but I’m definitely a long-time fan of veteran Michelle Yeoh), clean humor (not raunchy or juvenile), an exotic location (Singapore), beautiful people, good music (performed by Asian musicians in Chinese), great production value (loved the social media scene in the beginning). Yes, yes, it’s an all Asian cast, and much has been made about this in the media. But the story will appeal to most film lovers in our global community. This is movie entertainment at its best.

For those like me with an Asian background, we so appreciate seeing the Chinese (people and culture) honestly represented and contemporary characters who look like us. Watching this movie was an emotional experience. I teared up several times, both in laughter and happiness, mostly happiness that “I am seen,” not invisible like so often happens to many marginalized people.

cr-asians.jpgMost Asians are far from being crazy rich for sure. And this is a good reminder to non-Asians that Asians come from diverse backgrounds. Still, there are some cultural touches in the film that ring true for many Asians, like Rachel’s mother providing food in Tupperware for their international flight (food is family) and the deference to elders, especially the cool relationship between daughter-in-law and mother-in law. Also, how Asian Americans are considered different from Asian Asians. The food scenes are also emblematic of Asian cultures, so the film offers lots of “eye candy” for foodies.

Based on Kevin Kwan‘s novel, which is back on best-seller lists and on my to-read list, the movie is in the genre of rom-com with Rachel Chu, an Asian American economics professor, going to meet her boyfriend’s family in Singapore. Little does she know that Nick’s family is crazy rich and live like royalty. It’s a setup for conflict on several levels.

Lots of discussions and reviews are available online. One of my favorites is in The Atlantic featuring the reactions and comments of four female staff members. This movie has sparked much discussion because it marks a cultural moment, not just in Hollywood and pop culture, but also in our larger American culture. We’ve seen best-sellers by and about people of color for many years now, why did Hollywood take so long to produce another movie with a cast of mostly Asian actors? Where have they been? Hopefully they now get that movies with non-white leading actors and casts (the only white actors were the hotel employees in the opening scene and some in crowd scenes at the bachelor’s party) can be successful. Crazy successful!

Even when cultural details are not fully explained, audiences can enjoy and understand the film because this is a very human story. Those with Asian backgrounds will have more visceral appreciation for many scenes, but this doesn’t take anything away from non-Asians.

For me, the best line of this movie (and perhaps any movie) is when Astrid tells her cheating husband, “My job is not to make you feel like a man.”

Wow! For any woman to say this, but especially for an Asian woman, this is seismic!

So, this is another reason this movie was so powerful for me. Although the main characters are undeniably Rachel and Nick, female relationships are very central to the story. Friendships as well as competitive meanness. Power struggles between Nick’s mother (Eleanor Young) and grandmother and between Rachel and Mrs. Young. And the mother-daughter relationship between Rachel and her mom. As in life, women’s stories are important.

I kept waiting for Nick’s dad to show up. Never happens. Instead of patriarchal power, we have one that is matriarchal. The best scene is the mahjongg game between Rachel and Mrs. Young when Rachel tells Nick’s mother why she is leaving and that she understands the importance of family. She is not defeated and demonstrates she is just as powerful and strong as the older woman. For an Asian story and stories in general, I am cheering for strong female characters.

The female gaze is also apparent in the film. Most movies focus on the male gaze, but here we have men’s bodies (those abs!) on display for the delight of the women in the movie and in the audience.

I love this film! Thank you, author Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu and kudos to all the wonderful actors and crew. I’m looking forward to the sequels and more films featuring talented and beautiful people of color.

Stand By Me

Just want to affirm the love expressed in this blog posting by Ann Hedreen in “therestlessnest.” With so much negativity, violence, and hate in our world, the royal wedding was a good reminder on the power of love. I also feel confident that Meghan is already a change agent in the royal family and look forward to seeing how her personality and perspectives will shake things up. The wedding ceremony certainly was not all white–a reflection of the real world that contributed animation and beauty to the widely-viewed, very formal wedding ceremony.

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_101664541_053e2d0f-a05b-4c6e-bb13-349acf2c705dOn May 19, 2019, I did something I have never done before: I watched an entire royal wedding. Not live: better than live! In an act of pure selfless devotion, my husband remembered that I had said something about “recording the wedding” and actually set the TV to record it before we went to bed. He himself could not be less interested. But he knew I was.

After grieving my way through the morning papers—school shooting in Texas, misery in Gaza and Venezuela, tension brewing again in Korea—I was more than ready for the diversion of a royal pageant. Coffee in one hand and remote in the other, I fast-forwarded through the three hours of buildup and blather until, at last, I got to the main course: Meghan Markle getting out of the Rolls Royce at St. George’s Chapel. Time to get this fancy shindig started.

When Charles and Diana…

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