Friday, October 26, 2012

Gangnam Style - Asian Role Models

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Oct 26 2012.

I am excited, stunned, and nervous about the almost overnight rise to fame of South Korean rapper/ pop artist Psy and his hit "Gangnam Style." If you haven't seen the video yet, please YouTube it right away. Part of the huge appeal here comes from Psy's quirky, fun and catchy dance moves. My husband dances them. My Japanese immigrant mother-in-law dances them. My 3 year old son dances them. I'm sure, at this point, there is barely an Asian worldwide that doesn't know about this K-pop phenomenon.

It was the Internet that propelled Psy to musical fame unmatched by any Asian pop artist in history. And whether you like the song/video or not, that is exactly what's happening here. History is being made. Though it originally debuted on July 15 and went viral in August of this year, "Gangnam Style" is now also a chart success. In August, Psy became the first Korean artist to ever be number one on iTunes. At the beginning of October, he became the first South Korean to make it to number one in the UK. On October 11, he also became the first Korean artist to top China's Baidu Top 500 music chart. As of the time of writing, "Gangnam Style" is number two on the US Billboard Hot 100, edged minimally out of the number one spot by Maroon 5. It has held this spot for four consecutive weeks. It is currently the fourth most watched video of all time on YouTube with over half a billion views. And on October 23, it was announced that Psy will be the first Korean ever to perform at the MTV Europe Music Awards. Likely his fame will continue to grow until it fizzes out, like so many pop stars.

Asians have not yet had much prominence in the U.S. public eye. But as our world has grown, as technology continues to evolve our isolated regional cultures into a massive global culture, the invisibility of Asians in America was bound to change. I watch my son gleefully dance "Gangnam Style" and I know, whether I approve or not, he is looking up to this man who has features he recognizes and massive worldwide recognition.

I'm excited. because I can't remember, in my lifetime, ever seeing an Asian pop artist so highly decorated. I'm excited because now there's one more thing society will "let" my son be other than quiet, docile, good at math, and a doctor. I'm stunned because I turned on top 40 radio the other day and heard a language I didn't know. "Gangnam Style," other than having a few words in English, is entirely in Korean. Having grown up with an immigrant father who spoke English as a second language, I'm not used to America being anything other than annoyed at Asian languages. And I'm nervous. Because any time a person of color achieves national or global fame, it seems to open up entire races of people to attack.

Jeremy Lin
Take for instance, Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese-American whose father immigrated here in 1977. A New York Knicks player, he went from barely known to one of the most famous athletes in America in a single game. There have been Asian players in the NBA before, but Lin is the first American in the league of Chinese or Taiwanese descent and this, it turns out, has been a difficult concept for some to grasp. At a game against the Sacramento Kings in February, MSG Network cameras aired a spectator-made poster. It depicted Jeremy Lin's face above a fortune cookie with the slogan "The Knicks Good Fortune." In the same month, Ben & Jerry's attempted to honor the athlete with a lychee fruit and fortune cookie "Lin-Sanity" flavor. When the Knicks lost a recent game, ESPN covered the loss twice with the catchphrase "Chink in the armor."

Indeed, the severity of racism against Asians is woefully underacknowledged in this country. I have run across statistics during my study that have made my heart stop. A survey last year found that Asian American teenagers suffered far more bullying at school than any other demographic: 54% of Asian American teenagers reported being bullied compared with 31.3% of White teens and 38.4% of Black ones. And what does that mean for our multiethnic multiracial Asian children? I'm afraid not the progressive acceptance many of us assumed they would inspire. At the turn of the century, the Bureau of National Crime Victimization Survey showed that multiracial women are significantly more likely to be victims of rape or attempted rape - at a rate nearly double that of Caucasian women and nearly five times that of monoracial Asian women.

I want my son to believe he can be anything he wants to be. Pop sensation, NBA star. Maybe even some day President of the United States. Right? It could happen. But I shudder when I see the outpouring of racial slurs and stereotypes. And then I don't know what to do. Then I want to protect him. Hold him close. Tell him, nevermind. Fly under the radar. Don't rock the boat. Don't get hurt.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Having A "Different" Name

© Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Oct 24 2012. 

My son and I went to his best friend's birthday party last weekend. Of six children, my son was the only child of color. Of nine adults, myself and one other man were the only grownups of color. He had a noticeable non-American accent so I feel fairly confident in writing that English is likely his second language. Other than this observation, I try to make no assumptions here about his heritage. He stopped me at one point and asked what my son's name is. "Kazuo," I answered. He was profoundly confused. He tried to repeat, "O Cosmo. That's cool." I sighed inwardly.

"Cosmo" is the most common mispronunciation of my son's name. My husband and I felt strongly about picking a Japanese name for our child before he was born. His middle and surnames are American English. We wanted his Asian heritage to be strongly present. Being very aware of the difficulties growing up with a non-English name in this society, we tried to pick a name we thought most native American English speakers would pronounce easily. To our surprise and deep frustration, "Kazuo" (pronounced KAH-zoo-oh), has confounded person after person after person. We both grew up with extensive exposure to Japanese. My husband, because he is half Japanese. Myself, because my father grew up in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation. The pronunciation of "Kazuo" seemed straightforward. To us. But we realized after the fact that "u-o" doesn't really occur in the English language. Strangers either repeat a name back that's familiar (like Cosmo), stumble and mumble over it trying to quickly find some convenient nickname, or avert their eyes and refuse to even try. Also because of the English word "kazoo," native English speakers - if they can even say the name at all - frequently default to placing the emphasis on the second syllable (kah-ZOO-oh) which sounds absurd to me and my husband.

I attempted to help the man, "No. It's KAH-zoo-oh." He tried to repeat again with no success. As I frequently need to do, I finally offered the spelling, "No Kazuo. K-A-Z-U-O." The man tried again, this time with limited success. Looking distressed, irritated and maybe even a little angry, he exclaimed loudly, "Jesus!" We then launched quickly into some stupid conversation about how Kazuo could go by nicknames if he "needed" to. The man offered me several unsolicited suggestions, like "Kaz" or "K." And in some attempt to make him feel better and more comfortable, I also shared Kazuo's common middle name, "James," explaining my son had an easy English alternative if he ever wanted it. The man seemed relieved to hear this.

Later in the party, the kids were all sitting around a table waiting to eat cake. The adults stood behind watching. A loud White woman (whom I had found out minutes before is an early childhood research psychologist with a PhD in Infant Psychology) tried to help Kazuo. "Cosmo, you're doing such a good job waiting," she encouraged him. "Cosmo needs a piece of cake," she turned loudly on the cake-cutter, "Cosmo's been waiting so patiently. He needs a piece of cake." Over and over and over she said his name wrong. Every mispronunciation felt like a gut punch to me. A loud voice resounded in my mind, you need to stop her. Just tap her on the shoulder and tell her excuse me you're saying my son's name wrong. But, completely intimidated by her volume, the size of her spiritual presence, her impressive academic credentials, and by a large audience - I said nothing. And, I might add, none of the other adults in the room who knew how to say my son's name (including the hosts of the party), said anything either. As far as I know, the woman still thinks my son's name is Cosmo.

Three days later, my shame, hurt and anger surrounding this incident are palpable and continue to grow. I could see my son sitting there across from me, looking in my eyes, absorbing every word. And I didn't defend him. I made excuses or didn't say anything at all. I wonder what he took away from that party. Does he already hate his Japanese name? Does he already feel different? None of the other White kids had non-English names. When he sees his own mother struggling to defend a personal, beautiful choice rooted in family heritage, does it make him want to reject being Asian? I shared the story with my husband and we have both been edgy and volcanic since. Why? Because it's not just about a name. It's about so much more. It's about a society that has never welcomed immigrants with open arms. It's about a society that still, to this day, expects everyone who lives here should speak English. Interestingly, in his Mandarin class earlier that morning, I heard a White mother say to her mixed race Asian child that the teacher was speaking Chinese and "English is the language we speak in this country." And unfortunately, yes, it continues to be about race. Let's be honest, it's hard - maybe impossible - to separate race and ethnicity. My son is English, Welsh, French Canadian, German, Slovakian, Taiwanese and Japanese. Within the walls of our home he is everything, he is gorgeous and he is perfect.

But at that party he was Asian, different and not White.