Tag Archives: Bao Phi

My late and messy reaction to this whole ‘Chinese Mothers Are Superior’ Hubbub

by Guest Contributor Bao Phi

Father and Child

I was going to work on an essay in response to Ms. Chua’s article. I had several pages of notes, and was going to take the two or three hours it took to condense those notes into some type of narrative. Since I have a guest spot on the Strib’s blog, I was thinking about posting it there, just because I think alternative perspectives from Asian Americans need to exist – but I was also a bit wary about the energy it would take to endure the hateful comments that were sure to be leveled at me. As a parent, these days I have little time and even less patience for stupidity.

Part of me was trying to talk myself out of it. Plenty of Asian American bloggers have responded, covering such issues as whether or not the controversial Wall Street Journal excerpt really did justice to her book (see Jeff Yang’s excellent article on that subject), to whether or not raising a child in this fashion is really a good idea.

So, why should I write anything at all? This is not my fight, I said to myself. Even though there seems to be some conflation of Chinese with Asian American, and you have some Chinese blood in you besides, why throw down and risk a flame war over this? It has nothing to do with you. It’s not like Ms. Chua cares what you think – after all, it’s clear that people like me are not her target audience.

But then, don’t Asian Americans like Ms. Chua, who have a large mass market platform to express themselves, have some power over how the perceptions of me, and my family, are shaped? And if so, shouldn’t I use my own platforms to express an alternative perspective?

Damn, it’s recycling night though. It just snowed and I still gotta shovel the walk. And tonight is my partner’s night to have writing time while I watch baby…

Okay, let’s do this.

In this essay, I was going to be careful to point out that my feelings and opinions were not an attack on Ms. Chua, as she has the right to write about whatever she wants. As I have the right not to read her book, a right I fully intend to exercise.

I was going to be careful to say that my critiques had more to do with representation, rather than a debate on parenting. Ms. Chua’s reality is her reality – this is not an attack on her authenticity. I am more interested in the reaction, from Asians and non-Asians alike. There seems to be an acceptance that there is some true essential “Chinese” (and “Asian”) way to raise your kids and some “Western” way, and by “Western” it seems the author means straight upper middle class white male, and no one seems to be talking about the problematics of such assumptions. That no one is talking about how these assumptions play into very specific consumptions of Asian Americans – culture without politics, as if we live in a vacuum devoid of things like race, class, gender, sexuality. At this point in my essay, I’d take my partner’s advice and say that the idea that there is an essential, Western (male) and Eastern (female) way to raise children, and the idea that the melding of the individualist male West and the feminine East as some sort of liberating, uplifting redemption narrative is a colonialist social construct straight out of Said’s book Orientalism

Aw man, I really don’t want to write this.

Then I was going to talk about my own upbringing. How my parents literally saved my life, as a baby, as they shielded me from harm in their arms, bombs shaking the shelter we hid in with other Vietnamese families as the Communist Party tried to kill us and prevent our escape. How I grew up in America trying to understand contradiction: that people said this was the greatest country to live in, while as refugees we lived in a neighborhood made up of mostly impoverished and disenfranchised Native Americans, African Americans, Southeast Asians, and Chicano/as. How my parents wanted me to know my culture but lie about my ethnicity and tell everyone I was Chinese because they felt Americans would blame us for the war and hated Vietnamese people.

These struggles that my mom and dad (YES, my dad, America! Asian men and Asian fathers DO EXIST) faced. How my father sewed designer labels onto handmade clothes so we could pretend we were more well-off than we really were. How a group of kids stood on one end of a block for an entire hour and relentlessly shouted racial slurs and taunts at my mother as she worked outside of our house, knowing she could do nothing to them, knowing she did not have the words to shout back. How my father had to deal with the contradictions of being a war veteran invisible because of his race, and see two of his sons enlist in the American military.

And yes, those dynamics, combined with my parents’ own personalities, effected how we were raised. There were days I was scared of my parents, days I felt guilty that I disappointed them, days when I had no idea what they wanted from me, days I tried to run away from home and days I wanted to kill myself. Continue reading

Props: William Hung

by Guest Contributor Bao Phi, originally published at the Star-Tribune’s Your Voices

William Hung

Let me tell you, I have an almost supernatural (some would say neurotic) capacity for remembering the most embarrassing moments in my life.  Walking into a women’s bathroom by mistake when I was about 7 years old and lost at the mall, crying for mommy. Bursting into tears of hunger at Taste of Minnesota when I was 10.  In 4th grade I sat next to one of the few other Asians I saw at a class assembly because I thought she was so friendly, cool, and cute – then being told I couldn’t sit there because it was for student council members only.  I can’t remember my own parents’ birthdays, or which days to put out the recycling.  But that time I walked face-first into a brick pillar in broad daylight on a busy shopping day?  Yep.

My extreme discomfort towards public embarrassment is why I avoid reality television like the plague.  I don’t get any pleasure or joy from watching humiliating public spectacle, even when it doesn’t involve me.  Shame is something I have in spades, but is not something I enjoy.

Shows like American Idol are horrifying to me.  Because if someone embarrasses themselves or does poorly, I feel terrible for them.  However, I’ve been watching the pop phenomenon in recent years because my partner, who doesn’t enjoy reality television either, happens to enjoy watching American Idol: not to laugh at people, but because there’s always a chance that someone unique, and with genuine talent (hello Adam Lambert) will make it on the show.  I’ve been trying to watch it with her.  It’s only fair.  If I ask her to watch trash like Ninja Assassin and Iron Man, I can suffer through some bad singers and mangled songs with her.

Someone I always think about when I watch American Idol is William Hung.  A Berkeley student, Hung auditioned in 2004 with a pretty terrible rendition of Ricky Martin’s She Bangs. Even though I wasn’t watching much television at all during that time, I couldn’t escape the notoriety of this pop culture disaster. Continue reading

Final Fantasy XIII: New game, same colors?

by Guest Contributor Bao Phi, originally published at Your Voices

Final Fantasy Cast

This is not a review.  This is a blog entry where I explore issues of race and representation in pop culture, in this case, video games.

I’ve been hooked on videogames since the days of the Atari 2600, though my family was too poor to have one.  When I was young, I am ashamed to say that any kid who had an Atari had a good chance of being my best friend, as long as I got to come over to play Atari during slumber parties or birthdays.  In grade school at Anderson, some of the ‘problem’ kids, if they were good, got to choose a friend to take 5 minutes and play Atari as a reward – I was always thrilled when I got that chance.

Through the years, if a system was able to play a video game, I’d play it.  I’d torture myself with text-based games on the Apple IIe, playing them over and over again even if I kept dying or failing in the same place.  I was obsessed with the Smurfs game on the Colecovision, got yelled at by my moms for playing too much Kid Icarus on the NES, and one of my proudest gaming moments was when a friend of mine brought over Zelda II: the Adventure of Link, telling me he just could not beat shadow link – and how he jumped into the air when I did it for him.  I lost my temper way too easily when I lost at Mortal Combat or Street Fighter 2 in the arcades. When Civilization came out, I mercilessly hung out at my friend’s apartment and played on his computer all night, like some shameless video game scrub.  When my dad needed quarters to take the bus to work, we’d go and use the change machines in Thompson’s Arcade, and my dad would give me exactly two quarters to play (it was also there where a white man once asked me my ethnicity, and when I told him I was Viet, he gave me a brochure translated into Vietnamese trying to convince me to convert to Christianity, and the irony is, I probably would have read more of that brochure if it was in English).  In college I saw a guy in my computer lab playing some 3-D game where he went around blasting demons, and he taught me how to type in the sentence on the computer that would allow me to play Doom.  After a strenuous test or big paper was due in college, I’d drive to Mall of America and blow $10 of quarters on this arcade game where you got to hold this big garish plastic machine gun and shoot things.  During my mid-20’s I was a terror to my roommates and their friends in Goldeneye.

You get the picture.  I’m still gaming today, just got my second red ring of death for my Xbox 360, and my partner has asked me to please stow my Master Chief helmet in a place where our guests can’t see it.  Not only do I game, but I’ve also written about racial representation, especially regarding Asians and Asian Americans, in video games, and also read a lot of online reviews and discussions regarding this hobby that I have grown up with.

Anyone who’s played games has heard of the Final Fantasy series of games.  I was a big fan of Final Fantasy on the SNES, particularly FF III, I think.  It gets a little confusing since Final Fantasy is a Japanese series, not all of which makes it overseas to American audiences, and thus get numbered differently.  So basically, Final Fantasy III in the U.S. might be Final Fantasy VI in Japan.

Recently, Final Fantasy XIII has come out, and following the previews, reviews, screenshots, and looking at the concept art, it reminds me of a question that is provocative but seems to be ignored – why do Japanese game companies create so many games where the protagonists all look European or white?  Sure, Final Fantasy XIII has one Black character, but then it makes it all the more compelling to ask, why aren’t there any Asian characters?

Continue reading

NOCs (Nerds of Color)[Essay]

By Guest Contributor Bao Phi, originally posted at the Star Tribune Your Voices Blog

I’ve told this story a million times: when I was young, my father kept me off the streets and saved much needed money buying me the toys I wanted by getting me a library card and teaching me to walk to the Franklin Avenue library, and there began my love of books and stories.

What I’ve written less about is the books I gravitated towards: books about mythological monsters, Greek gods and heroes, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Lord of the Rings, my older sister’s Elfquest collection and X-men comic books.  And the secret of many a nerd of color from the ‘hood: my lifelong devotion with role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, and Vampire: the Masquerade (making vampire fixations embarrassing long before Stephanie Meyer).

Although I had friends in and out of the neighborhood who were also nerds, it definitely wasn’t typical.  I remember one of my fellow nerds of color inviting me to a Rifts game in a tough tone of voice as if he was initiating me into a gang, all the while looking around nervously as if his street cred would be in serious jeopardy if anyone overheard him talking about how much SDC a Glitterboy had.

Nowadays of course, being a nerd can mean big money.  Everything from Tolkien to comic books to video games is finding its way into mainstream America’s fast food blood stream.  Along with it seems to be the rebellious streak that goes along with being the kid who gets picked on for knowing how to write in Tolkien’s Dwarven – a certain righteousness about being the odd person out, the strange smug martyrdom that comes from knowing that painting miniatures and possessing a dice bag marked you as being a freak and an outsider.

But then how do nerds of color like me fit in, and how do we deal with fellow nerds who don’t want to talk about things like race and class in comic books, video games, role playing games, and movies?   I’ll be the first to admit, I got into all of that stuff for the escapism it allowed.  It was invaluable to me, as a refugee from a war growing up in an economically poor urban area, to fantasize that I was someone else, somewhere else.  I’d rather be a paladin with a war horse riding to battle a chimera than be the Vietnamese ghetto refugee nerd running from the dudes on my block who tried to jump me on my way to and from CUHCC clinic to get my teeth cleaned.

Continue reading

Quoted: Bao Phi on Grappling with Race

One of the insidious benefits of being a person of color raised in Minnesota is to be acutely aware of how race impacts you on several different levels.  The fact that I have to explain much of my story before people can even accept that I have the right to call myself a Minnesotan is telling in and of itself.  I can’t tell you the number of times that artists who have moved here from other cities have been considered Minnesotan or honored with trailblazer status before me, even if I’ve spent all but about 6 months of my life being raised in Phillips, and even if I’ve been a performer right here in Minneapolis since 1991.  Because I’m seen as Asian, not American, I can excel at things but I can never be considered a creator.  And then I’m told by people of all races that Asian Americans are the most privileged of all minorities and in fact most people don’t even consider us people of color, and in order to be down, we have to show solidarity with other communities (who are never pressured to show solidarity to Asians).  Even if we have proof that overwhelmingly shows that these are false assumptions, they are still believed to be the truth even amongst those who would pride themselves on being leftists and community organizers.

Throughout my development, I have felt that pressure, to conform or assimilate to a population more visible, more respected, more feared and envied than mine.  And in the past, I have.  I dissed my own communities for my own gain, and dealt with the immense wells of self-loathing I harbored for myself and my people.  And that temptation, to submit, still exists in me, because really, who wants to be hated for bringing up that loathsome specter called race?  Especially for a group of people who are continually told that we have no right to complain, that we should be thankful for what we have?

A friend of mine just emailed me about this strange phenomenon we face, that we are intensely scrutinized while remaining completely invisible.  People talk about us, hate us, and we aren’t expected to ever talk back, fight back.  We belong nowhere.  We have no rights to anything.  Our bodies are not ours, and we have no voices.

— Bao Phi, the Blaog at StarTribune.com

(Thanks to Leah for the tip!)

(Image Credit: Hyphen Magazine)