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The Aloha Brouhaha

A lot of casting Asians to play Asian roles controversy has come up in the last year. When I saw the poster for Aloha and saw blonde hair blue eyed movie stars standing in front of the Hawaiian landscape pleading with their eyes for us to all give a shit about their romantic mishaps and misunderstandings I rolled my eyes and thought about how another opportunity to put beautiful brown people got eaten up by the machine. Then people started freaking about how a character in there played by Emma Stone (blonde/blue) is actually called Allison Ng is part chinese and reps Hawaiian culture. They bitched about it so much that Cameron Crowe said whoops my bad then pointed to all the native Hawaiians he gave jobs by shooting there. It reminds me of british colonials saying how grateful the Indians were that they had jobs being their servants. It also reminded me of people in turn of the century france and En saying where is MY all American and they are not wrong.  But Hollywood is a business. They look at numbers As I said on facebook:

gland putting on chinesey looking dresses and decorating with enamels and that beginning the orientalist craze. The brouhaha about casting is also about just generally feeling unseen. If I describe the cast of Aloha as typically “all American” the Asian americans who have been paying taxes and buying movie tickets and getting fat off fast food just like everyone else are

“Just as banks are a business. a bank doesn't care if you achieve your life's dream to own a house with a white picket fence. They care about fees bonuses and their personal portfolios. Hollywood does not care about your dream to be represented or have your story told. They care about selling tickets and the way they do that is by making you "aspire" to something (something more beautiful than your humdrum life somemething more noble, rich, etc.) Once in a while by accident an artist peeps through with a story that "matters" but mostly its a cash proposition. Emma stone did not audition for the role of Allison Ng. It's a lead. It was an offer and the conversation was like "who can we get on this list who will sell tickets." And by the way the foreign sale, the sale of the american dream to all the ticket buyers overseas is an Abercrombie and Fitch type play-- the utopian white unattainable romantic white america. You think my relatives in indonesia care if the cast of the movie looks like them? Nope they WANT to see white people because they have been taught for decades that THAT is beautiful and desirable. so listen all ye outraged artists and activists. You want to see more roles for asians? You want Hollywood to expand its terribly narrow view of what is beautiful START COMING TO SEE MY SHOWS. START GOING TO SEE ASIAN PLAYS IN GENERAL. BUY TICKETS TO MOVIES STARRING ASIANS. GO SEE GEORGE TAKEI ON BROADWAY. HIT LIKE ON MY SLANTY EYED MAMA FACEBOOK PAGE. HIT LIKE ON ANY ASIAN ARTISTS PAGE. VOTE FOR THE ASIAN CONTESTANTS ON THE VOICE. STAND THE FUCK UP AND VOTE WITH YOUR DOLLARS. this is America. Money talks bullshit walks. Get involved by supporting writers who write asian stories. DO IT

The NAKED WHITE GUY on campus controversy at Wellesley College 

So Wellesley College is a women's college, (except for the M born F who are now straddling the gender divide and creating space for themselves there) Hilary Rodham Clinton went there and Madeline Albright and Nora Ephron and lots of rad people went there. And it's a private college. These are all important context for the story of the naked white guy sleepwalking in tighty whities on the side of the road on the way to the Pendelton building where we played a concert the other night. Tony Matelli who created the piece, was surprised by the stir it caused. Tears, girls protesting, angry letters the whole I'M OFFENDED as a core identifier amongst the emotional throngs of undergrads who told me their reactions were "frightened, triggered, offended, angry" and a host of other negatory feelings of infringement.

Here is what I asked the girls, "Would your reaction be different if it were a sculpture of a white woman sleepwalking in panties" (they didnt need to answer that one, I could predict similar reactions of outrage and rancor, "What if it were a black man, would it be a perceived as a racist sculpture? What if it were an asian woman? a small child? A St. Bernard? all in various stages of undress?" "What if a Christian group saw this thing would they react differently? What if a group of muslims saw it or black activists or old Harry Potter fans?"

This is where the act of art occurs on something like this. In the reaction. In the perceptions and the point of view of the audience. I don't even think the artist knew what he had created. Because honestly it's a dude sleepwalking. In underpants. It's a kind of blank canvas if you remove your own politics or feelings, or herstory, or ideological stance. It's a dude. Walking. He isnt even naked.  His nudity is implied, his sameness his state of vulnerability, asleep undressed, implied.  A world of reactions dresses him up alternately as racist, homophobe, rapist, colonizer.

I did point out that since it is a private college, technically the girls deserved an open discussion forum, a chance to react since their tuition in part pays for the campus projects. But if this had been a city street outside a gallery, the same brouhaha would likely erupt, with different argument points. It is good they protested and belly ached. That's their right as the audience.

I hope, despite all the feelings of "offended" (a mighty uncreative place from which to work btw and silencing and shut down) nonetheless i hope they enjoyed it, this beautiful intersection of artist and audience showcasing the way we really all paint our own canvases, we really co create each piece of art as the audience. A magnificent dialogue and opportunity for self examination.

Asian America: What's Our Brand? 

Today I was on a very interesting panel at the first ever National Asian American Summit on Media images, stereotypes and  represent-asian held at the center for democracy/Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles. We were the final panel, on new directions for Asian America, what's next and what's up in the arts and popular culture. My wheelhouse so to speak. And I was asked one question in particular that distills a lot of the cultural thinking we are all doing about the actual A/Pi identity in the media and in the personal realm and in terms of the community activist and otherwise. What is the Brand of Asian America and what does it mean? Is it a good one or a bad one.

I spent the last decade as a freelance brand consultant for various corporations and institutions. I also worked at a great company called Siegel and Gale which is one of Omnicom's finest branding firms in New York City for some pretty major clients. When asked why I, juilliard trained actor, stand up comedian and playwright and entertainment producer would spend so much time in the branding world my answer is simple-- I like the art side of business and the business side of art. Branding is really the art side of business. When you are building a brand you are considering what message you want out in the marketplace, what audience you are targeting and all about that audience, and the messages about your brand that already exist.

For Asian Americans this is a very complex question-- what is the brand of Asian America. At countless college summits and Asian heritage months and symposia where I have been the keynote speaker we address this question under a multitude of titles and nuanced perspectives: What is Asian America? Is there an Asian American community? What are its attributes? What is the direction of community building in Asian America? What makes you an Asian American? (that last one is literally a branding question.) 

There is no easy answer.  And here’s why. Asian America is still a term that really umbrellas a diaspora of distinct cultures under one title. Chinese Americans and Thai Americans and Japanese Americans etc are all bicultural in their inherent connection to the cultural mores of their Asian motherlands in juxtaposition with their lives as Americans. We Asian americans actually have a tri cultural experience: Our American-ness, our culturally/family specific ethnic mores and histories, AND our Asian American-ness. This last element of the triptych is the most difficult to define. And it is made more complex by the continual influx of immigrants in waves, and different waves from different countries at different times to boot. A 4th generation Japanese American is going to have a very different relationship to the words Asian American than a 2ndgeneration Cambodian. Fact. And as new people show up and become americans it’s a groundhog’s day of laying down the roots of “what is Asian America?” because the answer changes every time someone new gets here and has their experience added to the pile.

Part of brand is how we are perceived. Like I said when building or re-imagining a brand you look at what the marketplace already thinks of it—how it is perceived, what stereotypes exist, what expectations exist. So that is where Asian America, unfortunately has the strongest brand identity. In the often unflattering eyes of the media which is where stereotypes become such a hot topic of discourse. Which is why everyone is freaking out. Especially American born AP/I’s who cant relate AT ALL to the pidgin speaking noodle sucking nerd boy dragon lady sex kitten king fu master math genius wily suspicious clown like lampooned characters we see still very much alive and well in popular culture.

Obviously that is not at all our total brand package. We do have Jeremy Lins we do have Kate Riggs we do have John Chos we do have Lisa Lings. But they are still pretty few and far between.

So here’s what I said to the group today. This is America. Money talks bullshit walks. We have a duty as Asian Americans who are raising consciousness and fighting for the kids in college and high schools around the nation still paralyzed between the pressure of being Asian and the pressure to be cool, slash assimilate slash separate themselves from words like chink and geek and whatever else subtly or not so subtly makes them outsiders in their own nation. We have a duty to support the few voices that are breaking through. With cash money. That means you buy not one but two tickets the next time a movie like Better Luck Tomorrow comes out. That means you go see that play or listen to that record and pay for a download or buy a ticket to see an Asian Comedy tour. You vote with your dollars.

What are you voting for? The self esteem of millions of Americans just like you. Why is self esteem and all this academic chit chat about representation in the media important?

Because every single time without exception that I tour a college and do some oral history interviews with Asian students, EVERY SINGLE TIME, I hear a suicide attempt story. Yes that is right. A suicide story. Inspired by the thankless, voiceless, relentless experience of feeling unwelcome every where you turn. By your Asian family who want you to act more Asian. And by your non Asian colleagues who deep down don’t get it and treat you like a foreigner, or just want you to assimilate much harder than you can.

We need an Asian American brand and we need it now. So thanks Jeremy Lin and thanks Lisa Ling. But also thanks everyone who is attending summits and being brave and living with grace and joy and looking for connections to both Asians and all the other Americans. And to those who are artists and media makers who are trying to execute direct change along the chain of information we consume. Keep talking keep thinking. Our brand is under construction. But for right now at this point in history i borrow from my own motherland for our Brand tagline: Unity In Diversity.

Still feeling LIN-sane 

I am still wearing my Jeremy Lin jersey (actually I have two NBA Knicks Lin Jerseys and one tshirt) all over town with the insane pride that against all odds Jeremy Lin just stuck at what he does and kept doing it and doing it and kicked so much butt last season on the Knicks. (somewhere his asian mom is saying "why didn't you kick TWO butts?") You gotta wear the colors when someone from an under-represented demographic proves all the stereotypes and the predjudices and the exlusionary politics wrong. In case you need a lexicon:
Asian men suffer in this country from, amongst other things, the perception that they are:
Not athletic
Un sexy
Sort of gay
Un cool
Easily dismissed
Second bananas.
Hardly the stuff that American role models are made of. So when a guy like Jeremy Lin kicks butt in an Arena So unused to seeing Asian Americans prevailing, and surrounded by his sterotypically higher status race-as-athletes, it is a moment to hang on to. Tiger Woods is part of that too and I am so glad he calls himself Cablinasian no matter what anyone else says. And that scandal, well once in a while, seeing an Asian man as a skirt chasing Lothario who makes the girls swoon, that aint such a bad thing for the rest of the guys out there. Self esteem = the ability to get up in the morning, try, strive for your dreams. We are crippled without it. So Jeremy Lin, I am wearing your Jersey to remind everyone that WE ROCK.

A/PI directors make white people movies for Sundance 

Well what can I tell ya. I went to Sundance with a movie I was in.My first time at the festival and it was delicious and gorgeous. After a year trapped in a cubicle (ok 6 months but it feels like ten fucking years) I was gratified to be in an artistic environment where new thoughts are encouraged, independent spirit applauded, badasses given a voice and people open to sharing ideas and their work. Everyone was very vulnerable and very confident at the same time which is how art really flourishes.

I made sure to see two features by A/PI director/writers. I feel like we are at a time where every ticket sale counts, every bit of support we can offer matters. There was also a short by a Korean director about two gay dudes going to a "Dol" (first birthday partner) that was shot in LA and made me happy at the SAG brunch to see the cast milling around proudly repping. But I digress. So these two films, feature length, to some degree supported, fund raised for, entered in the competition and showcasing young A/PI artists lacked something really significant, 2 things actually. Asian actors and Asian American stories.

I was shocked in the talk back periods to hear that both scripts were based on the auteur's actual families. Can you imagine a black director setting his film in whitey white whiteville, based on his own family. Can you imagine a Latino American writing a story about making it in America but using a lens of an Ohio farm fed whitebread family to do it? I was so very sad. And mad. Not at the film makers. I get it. We all want hollywood to look at us and say "You belong. Your voice is interesting and relateable and you are a good director" etc. I also get that Asian America is still very very culturally no man's land, with a diaspora of distinct national identities (Chinese American, Filipino American) etc riding out in front of our shared identity as Asian Americans. That is because generation to generation, culture to culture we all have different stories about how we got here, and our experiences in America lack the kind of cohesion, history or shared mores that African Americans and to some degree Latin Americans can share in unify around. However. Whether or not you are from Hawaii, or a daughter of a Japanese immigrant, or a FIlipino living in Queens NY, you are an American. And your stories matter. To all of us.

I guess we are looking for some common cultural experience to express asian-american-ness. I personally am reacting to the self effacement and refusal to take a distinct place at the American table that many Asian americans eschew in order to fit in, feel accepted, be heard. The part of me that was outraged quickly turned into inspired. We have to write stories, fearlessly. We have to give asian actors a chance to be expressive. We have to represent whatever part of Asian America is true to us. Nobody else will. We belong here. You dont have to write me a movie about a white guy searching for his identity through alternative rock music to show me that you are an american. You don't have to align yourself with the majority to be heard. There are kids all over america WAITING for movies and stories and plays and music that speaks to them. Trust me. I have been to colleges all over this great nation, and I have heard the pain of feeling unseen and I have participated in the talk backs enough to know that now is the time. NOW.

I am encouraging all Asian American writers and directors to get courageous. Look at the messages you have internalized both from the "man" and from your own parents that tell you that American succes=white. I cant tell you how many times my mom said "Why cant you be more like Gwyneth Paltrow" to me while I was studying at Juilliard. And I know we all feel it, because unless we are telling the story of some chinese fishing village or three generations of asian women weaving their family tree into a silk fan, nobody wants to listen. Make them listen. Be brave. We are all behind you.