Asian America, social media and baby boomers

AARP's TEK team helped elderly Chinese at a senior center in Boston learn to use smartphones, and they were sending texts ad shooting selfies at the end of the session.

AARP’s TEK team helped elderly Chinese at a senior center in Boston learn to use smartphones, and they were sending texts ad shooting selfies at the end of the session.

This was a fun photo booth at the AARP Member Convention in Boston, which promoted an upcoming PBS series about baby boomers sponsored by AARP. Nope, I'm not actually in the series...

This was a fun photo booth at the AARP Member Convention in Boston, which promoted an upcoming PBS series about baby boomers sponsored by AARP. Nope, I’m not actually in the series…

As a journalist, I’ve been really lucky.

I started my career as a music critic and then a reporter, so I’ve always been able to write about pop culture – especially the pop culture of my generation, the baby boomers. Then when the Internet came along, I was able to move over to work almost exclusively in digital media, and these days I work in and speak about social media. And since I started writing my “Nikkei View” column and blog, I’ve been part of a growing chorus of Asian American voices (like the JACL’s Pacific Citizen, which is about to re-launch its website after a two-year hiatus!) covering issues and stories that mainstream media frankly tends to ignore.

So I couldn’t believe my great fortune last month when I was named the 2014 Asian American Journalists Association’s AARP Social Media Fellow.

AARP, if you aren’t familiar with the organization, is the American Association of Retired People, whose members are 50 years old and older. That means that this year, the youngest baby boomers are turning 50 and can join AARP (the baby boom went from 1946 to 1964).
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Godzilla, the world’s most famous Japanese American

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Although Hollywood has been making monster movies since the original 1933 “King Kong,” the monster with the most staying power and screen incarnations didn’t come out of California, but from Tokyo.

Godzilla is back with another cinematic reboot produced by Hollywood featuring the usual array of mega-special effects, including a digitized monster instead of a man in a monster suit.

Whether costumed or computer-generated, Godzilla is the most famous Japanese American in the world. He’s starred in 28 movies, stomping his way through cities on both sides of the Pacific.

Godzilla, or the Japanese pronunciation, “Gojira” (a combination of the words for gorilla, “gorira” and whale, “kujira”) made its first Japanese appearance 60 years ago, in 1954, but the film was edited and scenes inserted starring Raymond Burr as an American journalist for its 1956 release in the U.S. as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!”
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Why Asian Americans hate hearing “Where are you from?”

My brother Gary (on the right) and me at Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan circa 1965.

My brother Gary (on the right) and me at Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan circa 1965.

This has been a good week for sometimes contentious but bracing conversations on Facebook. The latest one started when I posted a link to an excellent Forbes article by Ruchika Tulshyan titled “‘Where Are You From?’ And Other Big Networking Racial Faux Pas

The article raises the oft-aired complaint by Asian Americans that asking “Where are you from?” (sometimes linked to the even more irritating “You speak English so well…”) is a social, racial no-no.

I certainly can’t argue with that. I’ve written plenty about this very topic. I once criticized Martha Stewart for pulling the “Where are you from?” card, and in the post also included the conversation from my book, “Being Japanese American” that so many Asian American are all too familiar with, which starts with “You speak English so well” and veers off into “where are you from?” territory.

The Forbes piece quotes a South Asian news producer making a point that many Asian Americans should learn by heart and recite whenever we’re asked the question:
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Is fake belly dancing a form of cultural appropriation? (Trick question: Of course it is!)

This group performed a combination Middle Eastern belly dance and a Chinese dragon dance together at a festival. No, it was NOT authentic on either count.

This group performed a combination Middle Eastern belly dance and a Chinese dragon dance together at a festival. It was NOT authentic.

I read with interest a recent Salon commentary by novelist Randa Jarrar provocatively titled “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers.” She made the point that the popularity of “belly dancing” in the U.S. often has nothing to do with the rich cultural heritage that “Eastern Dance” has in the Middle East, where she grew up. She calls out “Arab drag” at restaurants and argues with Caucasians who take up Arabic-style dancing.

Jarrar notes the origins of American belly dancing in 1890s “side-show sheikhs” with their harems of exotic dancers.

This history of Arabic cultural appropriation has similar historic parallels in the use of blackface minstrelsy and the introduction of Asian images in the American pop culture of the late 1800s and early 1900s. By today’s standard’s Al Jolson singing “Mammy” or the ghastly fake-Japanese of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” seem ludicrous, but they were common ways that Asians and blacks were portrayed more than a century ago.

You’d think we’ve progressed – and we have, in many ways. But think back just a few months ago to the American Music Awards, and Katy Perry’s ghastly faux-Orientalist performance that featured the proverbial everything-including-the-kitchen-sink array of props that signaled “Japan” and “The Orient” without actually being authentic Japanese or Asian. Just imitation Asian, like the imitation Middle Eastern exoticism of belly dancing.

In recent years a similar discussion has gone on around the origins and current state of yoga, and how far Westerners have taken it from its Hindu spiritual roots to a mere healthy-living fad.

A couple of days after Jarrar’s opinion piece, a response essay came from a white attorney, Eugene Volokh, who blogs for the Washington Post.

His equally provocatively-titled piece, “What would Salon think of an article called, ‘Why I can’t stand Asian musicians who play Beethoven’?” reminded me that people – even smart people — don’t get it.
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