Memorial Day Weekend Profile: Lt. Dan Choi

For Memorial Day Weekend, I’m writing three posts that will profile three awesome Asian American servicemen and veterans of the United States Armed Services. Today’s spotlight: Lt. Dan Choi.

Lt. Dan Choi, at the National Equality March in 2009

Who?

Lt. Dan Choi is a former infantry officer who served in the United States Army for ten years, including two years in Iraq between 2006 and 2007. A graduate from the prestigious West Point Academy, Choi is a Arabic language specialist. In 2009, after a decade of service in the U.S. Army, Choi transferred to the New York National Guard.

Why He’s Awesome?

In March 2009, Choi appeared on The Rachel Maddow show, where he uttered three little words on-air: “I am gay”.

 

Because the act of disclosing your homosexality is a violation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, which was implemented by the Clinton Administration, Lt. Dan Choi received a letter of dismissal from the New York National Guard. Choi fought the decision, and faced a military trial that ultimately again recommended Choi for dismissal for being gay. However, discharge procedures were never finalized, and Choi continues to serve in the New York National Guard to this day. 

Meanwhile, Choi has become one of the most prominent critics of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, a policy that forbids “homosexual conduct” in active servicemen and that disproportionately affects women and minority officers. He has repeatedly urged the Obama Administration to repeal DADT, and he founded “KnightsOut” an advocacy group for LGBT memebers of West Point. Choi was arrested twicethis year for chaining himself to the White House fence in order to raise awareness about DADT’s negative effects on gay military personnel.

Signs are that Choi’s efforts are gaining ground. Although Choi remains in violation of DADT, he was recently invited by his commander to participate in active drills with his National Guard battalion for the first time in over a year. One of President Obama’s primary campaign promises was the repeal of DADT within his first term in office. And, this past week, both the Senate Armed Forces and the House voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.

For their vocal and ardent activism regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, Choi and all the other LGBT APIA servicemen who have taken a brave public stand against DADT definitely deserve recognition this Memorial Day Weekend.

10 Facts You May Not Know About Asian-American History

A lion dance in Seattle's Hing Hay Park, 1975

My most recent blog post over at Change.org is definitely worth a read.

10 Facts You May Not Know About Asian-American History

It’s almost the end of May. Do you know your Asian-American history?

Most of America isn’t aware that May is Asian-American Heritage Month. It’s a celebration that started in 1978, when Congress urged President Jimmy Carter to declare the week of May 4th “Asian-American Heritage Week.” (That date was chosen to coincide with the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843, and with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad — built largely by Chinese laborers — on May 10, 1869.) More recently in 1990, following another vote by Congress, President George H.W. Bush expanded Asian-American Heritage Week to encompass the entire month of May.

Sadly, Asian-American history and heritage is rarely taught in U.S. public schools. So for those of you who’ve missed such curriculum, here’s a list of 10 factoids you may not have known about the history of Asian-Americans in this country:

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Boycotting “The Last Airbender” and “Prince of Persia”

I must have a really juvenile sense of humour, because every time I hear the phrase "airbender", I think about farts.

I don’t know nothun’ ‘bout “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. Seriously. I haven’t seen so much as five seconds of the cartoon. Heck, I generally avoid Nickelodeon products like the plague. Maybe that makes me a bad fangirl. I don’t know. But that’s also why I’m like a year late on blogging about the racial controversy surrounding this movie.

What I do know about Avatar: The Last Airbender is what I read about on Wikipedia. The show sounds a little bit like an updated version of Dragonball. Basically, Avatar is set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world where people are capable of manipulating the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. The main character of the show, named Aang, is an Avatar — which makes him special in a way that the Wikipedia articles fail to adequately explain. From there, it seems as if Aang (who starts out with an Airbending ability), and his animal familiar — a flying… buffalo… — embark on some crazy adventures to learn how to manipulate the remaining three elements and take out a genocidal Fire lord person.

The internal monologue of this creature: "why do I live???"

The point here is that Aang, and many of his friends, are supposed to be clearly Asian. In fact, the Avatar world is based on many East Asian (and particularly Buddhist) concepts of chi, martial arts, and reincarnation. Not having watched Avatar, I was a little skeptical of exactly how obviously Asian the world of Avatar was — until I read that in Season 2, one of the characters learns to manipulate the fifth element: metal. The idea there being a fifth natural element, and that it is metal, is a uniquely East Asian idea. So, colour me convinced — Aang and his friends are Asian.

And as any parent of colour will tell you, finding shows and toys that help reinforce positive racial identification is quintessential. As CNN demonstrated in their updated Doll Test, kids rapidly internalize racial stereotypes of good and bad from TV and movies, particularly when they aren’t exposed to any other explicit discussions of race. When kids see images on television of good, smart kids being overwhelmingly White, while bad, dumb kids are overwhelmingly Black, they make connections between personal attributes and skin colour that alter their perception of the world. Hence, when kids are shown images of identical dolls differing only in skin tone, they will associate lighter skin tone with positive attributes and darker skin tone with negative attributes. This occurs regardless of the child’s own skin colour; in the CNN doll test, even Black children demonstrated preference towards lighter-skinned dolls. What remarkable self-hate these children are learning at the ages of 2 and younger — and all because of the dearth of positive, minority protagonists in children’s shows and toys.

No child of mine is going to grow up thinking that they are ugly or stupid because of their race. If and when I am a parent, my kids will not get blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie dolls for Christmas. I’ll probably be the parent who buys their kids the Jade Bratz or the Quick Kick G.I. Joe. My future children will watch Ni Hao, Kai Lan until their eyes bleed.

I want my kids to think that the original Power Rangers was all about the Yellow Ranger -- all them other Rangers were just backdrop. She got the coolest Zord anyways -- saber-toothed tiger versus a frickin' stegasaurus? No contest.

So, I can only imagine how valuable a show like Avatar: The Last Airbender is to today’s Asian parents, who use shows like these to instill some measure of racial self-esteem in their children.

And I can only imagine their disappointment rage when they learned that the live-action feature film based on the show, called just The Last Airbender (because, of course, the term “Avatar” is now inextricably linked to blue cat-people), was going to star a virtually all-White cast. Both Aang and Katara, the male and female protagonists, are played by unmistakably Caucasian actors (even though Katara is actually brown-skinned in the cartoon). The studios did the same calculus here that they did for other American remakes of classic Asian films (including The Ring, My Sassy Girl, and The Departed): there’s a belief in Hollywood that while Asian stories will sell, Asian faces won’t. These film executives are sending the message: “Asians simply aren’t familiar enough — not “American” enough — for White movie audiences to relate to”.

So you end up with White-washing of Asian movies and the take-home message, yet again, that Asians aren’t good enough to be the heroes. We’re neither good enough to play romantic leads nor are we heroic enough to have elemental energy-balls shooting out of our hands. Is it any wonder that kids are colourstruck?

To add insult to injury, apparently minorities aren’t good enough to play heroes, but we’re totally bad enough to play the villains. Not like I really know anything about Avatar, but from what I’ve read, the Fire Nation = the bad guys. And lo and behold — the folks behind The Last Airbender have no problem casting people of colour in the roles of the evil Fire people. Cliff Curtis, who is of Maori descent, plays the Big Bad Firelord Ozai. Aasif Mandvi and Dev Patel, two Asian Indian actors, play Firelord Ozai’s right-hand man and his son, respectively.

Which means that The Last Airbender is going to be two hours of eye-candy schlock, reinforcing the same tired message to kids: White = good and heroic, and Brown = evil and genocidal. 

The world according to "The Last Airbender"

Not like I was rushing off to pre-purchase my Last Airbender tickets on Fandango, but I’m with Gene Yang on this one: boycott, please!?

And, while we’re on the subjectPrince of Persia (set to hit theatres this Friday) is yet another example of the White-washing of American cinema. I first saw the trailer for this movie in the theaters, and I literally (and I do mean literally — electroman can attest) yelled out to the screen in front of a crowded theatre audience, “What the FUCK?!? Jake Gyllenhaal‘s not Persian!” 

Jake Gyllenhaal has apparently mistaken being Persian with being almost criminally ungroomed. "Defy the future"? How about, "defy all sanity"?

You can’t fake your race with a bottle tan and four weeks of facial hair growth, Jake! Gemma Arterton, who plays the love interest of the Prince of Somwhere-That-Is-Clearly-Not-Persia, is British (although, at least she, unlike Jake Gyllenhaal, uses an accent to sound vaguely… uhm, Persian-ish?). And again, the White-washing of the cast is reserved only for the movie’s protagonists: Ben Kingsley, one of the most famous Asian Indian actors around, plays the primary villain of the movie.  

Really? Way to ruin the first computer game I every played, Disney. Thanks, but no thanks. I think I’ll be boycotting that one, too.  

Dear Jake Gyllenhaal: I think I just learned how to quit you.

Act Now! Join me (and a whole bunch of other angry Asians) in boycotting The Last Airbender when it hits theatres this July 2nd, and in boycotting Prince of Persia this Friday.

Wanted: Queer/Korean Women in the L.A. Area

Yeah, I know. It's a total cliche to put a picture of Margaret Cho on a post about queer Korean women...

 Are you queer? Are you Korean? Are you a woman? Do you live in the L.A. area? Do you want to be in the movies?

If you answered yes to most of the questions above (or, you know someone who would), please read on!

Nina, one of this blog’s readers, is a filmmaker who is hoping to highlight the voices of queer/Korean women in a documentary she is making. In talking about her inspiration, Nina writes:

This project sort of focuses on giving a face/voice to the stories of queer Korean women (obviously, I suppose) through filmed interviews.  

I started working on this project after I realized that this is a part of the queer/Korean community that is oftentimes neglected and repressed, and growing up I found it really hard to find other queer Koreans, like me.  I am hoping to represent/build a community of queer Koreans through this documentary… but the reason why I am making this documentary is also the reason why I can’t seem to find very many to interview!

I’m hoping to find at least ten people to interview (I’m restricting myself to the LA county & surrounding areas) and meet with, and I would like to represent a variety of perspectives.  In particular I am having trouble finding queer Koreans who are much younger (younger than 20), much older, transgender, and mixed– though, of course, I would love to hear from any queer Korean women, even if they are living outside of this area.

Nina hits on an important problem within the APIA community: too often, the voices of queer APIAs are unheard within the larger mainstream of the pan-Asian political identity. The same is often true of the queer community: queer APIAs are either invisible, or dehumanizingly fetishized. We need more media that hope to shine the spotlight on queer APIAs, and let them tell their stories to us, unfettered.

Act Now! So, if you are interested in participating in Nina’s project, or you know someone who would be, please contact her ASAP at aperfectstrang3r@gmail.com. Also, feel free to forward this post to all of your friends and family.

Texas Attack Ad Plays on anti-Asian Stereotypes

Here is my latest post over at Change.org:

Texas Attack Ad Plays on Anti-Asian Stereotypes

Republican Governor Rick Perry of Texas is running in a tight race for re-election this year, with recent polls finding that Perry is just 4 points ahead of his Democratic opponent, Houston mayor Bill White. And as with any heated election, attack ads are flying back and forth across the Texas airwaves. But one ad paid for by the Perry campaign is sowing anger and confusion among the Asian-American community.

In the ad (titled “Man on the Run,” a response to White’s biographical ad called “Man on the Move“), White is criticized for (supposedly) hiding a history of liberal politics. For example, the ad accuses White of “running from his support for Obamacare,” while showing an image of White juxtaposed against a similarly-posed one of President Obama. The ad goes on to accuse White of “running from his shady foreign business deals,” and shows images of him lunching with a group of Middle Eastern businessmen. Such imagery is clearly trying to portray White as untrustworthy and out-of-touch.

And then perhaps the ad’s weirdest moment happens. White is shown standing next to popular Houston Rockets basketball player and Chinese national, Yao Ming. Floating over this screen is the charge that White is “running from his support of cap-and-trade.”

What? How is a photograph taken with Yao Ming supposed to make White appear particularly sinister? And what does such a photo have to do with cap-and-trade?

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