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Posts Tagged ‘identity’

Right: A Jewish wedding in Aleppo, Syria, 1914. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Our racial politics, like so much else, is often framed as a dichotomy. Activists seek intersectional solidarity and allyship with all people of color (PoC), a giant category that seems to include everyone under the sun except whites. Or, alternatively, activists address African-American and Hispanic/Latino issues and overlook everyone else. This manifests in the diversity rhetoric of university rhetoric and countless other places, and of course it does so in different ways in different cases – life is complicated, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. After all, the idea that this is complicated, that diversity and identity are not a dichotomy, not even a spectrum arranged unidirectionally from white to non-white, but rather a complex mess of factors, is key to the topic of this post: do Mizrahi Jews count as “People of Color”?

The Forward – one of the oldest and most major Yiddish newspapers in America, now published in English too – had a great opinion piece this past August, written by Sigal Samuel. I really love the nuance and complexity Samuel brings to this issue; the author’s journey, wondering whether she counts as a “person of color,” and getting very different answers from people she speaks to, points to the problematic nature of our dichotomous conceptions of race.

Okay, terminology time. Mizrahi Jews are those who themselves, or their relatively recent ancestors, come from the Middle East. The Jews currently fleeing persecution in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq are Mizrahi Jews. They are as Middle Eastern, as non-European, as any (other) Arab. If Ashkenazi Jews – those of Eastern European descent – are arguably to be considered something other than just plain “white,” then surely Mizrahi Jews, and Sephardic Jews – those of Mediterranean heritage, largely descended from those who moved to Italy, Greece, or elsewhere after being kicked out of Spain in 1492 – should count as “people of color” as well, right? But, of course, it’s not that simple.

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Left: Sigal Samuel. Image from the Forward.

Samuel’s piece isn’t very long, so I don’t want to risk writing a blog post about it that repeats the entire thing, or that takes longer than her piece itself, though there are many excellent choice bits. I invite you to go read the whole thing, but, in a nutshell, Samuel writes that she, her family, and many members of her community, based both on their own feelings about their heritage (their self-sense of identity) and on the way they are treated in society, generally feel themselves to be something other than white. And yet, when she asks around, various people – including an African-American Jewish acquaintance and a (presumably Ashkenazi) Jewish professor of Middle Eastern Studies – tell her in no uncertain terms that she is not a person of color, because her people have never experienced such discrimination in the US as Asians and blacks. Further, with Ashkenazi being the dominant type of Jews (at least in a great many communities in the US), and with Ashkenazis having come to be considered white, “Jewish” as a category, as a whole, has likewise come to be considered white, separating Samuel from others of Arab or Indian descent, in many people’s eyes.

What I really like about this piece is that it not only illustrates these contradictions, and the failures of our black-white concept of race to accommodate the diversity of real human experience, but that it also highlights the ways in which identity is political. This is not simply about empirical categorizing – coming up with definitive determining factors and categorizing everyone “correctly” according to who they really are, or where they really belong. It is about the personal and political motivations, purposes, and (dis)advantages, in claiming a particular identity. This is why, for example, many Okinawans assert an “indigenous” identity, while Koreans and Tibetans, from rather similar historical circumstances, do not – for political purposes, and because of some sense of cultural affinity with Hawaiians and certain other groups.

Identity in our society is highly political, or politicized. As Samuel writes,

“Was I, a woman who sometimes gets read as white and therefore benefits from white privilege, wrongly co-opting the “of color” label in everything from internal monologues to health insurance forms?”

And in the end, she identifies her choice to identify as a person of color as a choice, and as a political one, not one for which there is a definitive correct answer. She writes:

Claiming the Jew of color identity, then, was not only a way to express my authentic feeling of moving through the world as a perpetual Other — it was also an attempt to destabilize [the idea that Jewish = white, and that Jewishness is opposed to Arab identity]. But was that, you know, kosher? Or did that performative aspect give my story some uncomfortable Rachel Dolezal-ish undertones?

She asks herself “Is there any sense in claiming an “of color” identity?” She decides that within the context of the history of race & discrimination in the United States, claiming a POC identity does not make sense for her, “But if you’re asking, “Does claiming a POC identity have a point, a practical purpose?” then, I thought, the answer might be yes.”

I love the way this piece highlights the complexities of race and identity. Many people seem to feel quite self-assured and self-righteous in policing who does and does not count, even as their own liberal-progressive discourses emphasize self-determination (see: gender identity, gender pronouns, who counts as indigenous?, who counts as black?). And yet, the world is more complicated than that. People – their experiences, their heritage – are more complicated than that.

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My interest in Ryukyu/Okinawa has begun to pull me towards a stronger interest in Korea and Taiwan… or, perhaps it is an interest in the less-central, less-discussed, which brings me to all three.

A couple weeks ago I got to sit in on a class in Taiwanese “humanities”, as a guest speaker, T.Y. Wang from Illinois State University, gave an interesting talk on Taiwanese identity. It comes as no surprise to me to learn that over the last decade or two, the percentage of people who identify as “Taiwanese” has grown dramatically, while the proportion of people in Taiwan who identify as “Chinese” has shrunk to single digit percentage points. The vast majority (around 80% according to Wang’s numbers) support independence if it can be obtained without war, and similar numbers (70-75%) support what is called “Double Renunciation,” having Taiwan renounce any intentions to push for official de jure independence, in exchange for the PRC renouncing the use of military force against Taiwan – in other words, more solidly & officially reinforcing the status quo. (My sincere apologies, by the way, if I mistake or misrepresent any of this – I know this is a sensitive issue, and I am only just beginning to learn about it; so please do correct me.)

From the 1940s-80s, Taiwan was under the martial law of the KMT, a Mainland Chinese political party which in the 228 Incident of 1947, and the forty-year White Terror period which followed, imprisoned, “disappeared,” and on occasions even massacred Taiwanese elites who opposed their rule, or who were suspected of Communist leanings. Though Mainlanders (Han Chinese) make up only about 12% of the Taiwanese population today (I suspect numbers were similar in the past), with 10% Hakka and 77% Minnan, throughout this period they were the dominant group, inspiring much ethnic political tensions.

Authoritarian rule came to an end in the 1990s and was replaced by truer, freer democracy, resentment by Minnan and Hakka people about being ruled by Mainlanders (those who came with the KMT in 1949 or before or afterwards, and were closely associated with the party) was replaced by a stronger feeling of equality, and according to Prof. Wang, ethnic divisions are not nearly as much a source of tension as they once were. Furthermore, with the de-Sinicization policies of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2000-2008 came an even stronger collective notion of “Taiwanese” identity, regardless of Han, Minnan, or Hakka background. This Taiwanese identity, support for independence, and a distancing from, or drop-off of, Chinese identity, is buoyed all the more by bullying from Beijing; while Beijing may think it is punishing a rebel province, or using isolation and sanctions to drive Taiwan to have no choice but to return to Chinese control, such bullying has only hardened the resistance. One student in the class even spoke passionately about fears, especially among the younger Taiwanese generation such as himself, that China’s policy of economic integration with Taiwan is in fact a Trojan Horse – as it leads to Taiwanese businessmen who enjoy good business interactions with China, and indeed whose business success and personal livelihoods rely on good relations with China, gaining in economic and then political influence in Taiwan, a very valid concern, I think, given the excessive political influence of wealthy individuals, and of corporate special interests, in our own country.

The streets of Jiufen, Taiwan. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

These are pretty much the highlights of the talk. And there’s a lot in there; a lot that gets me thinking about Okinawa, and about other places around the world. The comparisons are quite intriguing, though in most cases it’s more of a contrast, coming at similar issues from opposite directions. Taiwan is, of course, in a particularly special position in the world, being de facto independent, perhaps one of the most strongly and long-lastingly de facto independent states in the world without having much official recognition. By contrast, Okinawa used to be properly independent, and is no longer, having been annexed, colonized, assimilated by Japan. Okinawans are historically, traditionally, a separate people from the Japanese, in terms of language, culture, historical political association & structure, even genetically. But, the idea of people throughout the island chain, from Yonaguni up through Okinawa Island, considering themselves “Ryukyuan” or “Okinawan” is a relatively new concept, as under the Kingdom, people of each island would have associated far more strongly with their island, and many may have even seen the Okinawans as conquerors, foreign interlopers, occupiers; the languages are certainly different enough. It is only in the modern era (since the late 19th century), as a result of the formation of Okinawa Prefecture, and the administrative, economic, and political constructions of that, along with assimilationist public education curricula, I would wager, that people in Miyako and Yaeyama began to consider themselves “Okinawan,” and all the more so as an identity in solidarity with the people of Okinawa Island, against the Japanese colonial overlords. Here too, in Okinawa as in Taiwan, identity is contingent upon how people perceive themselves to be treated by the metropole (Tokyo), and here, too, particularly explicitly in recent weeks and months, there is a case of the metropole government bullying, or punishing, a distant province (prefecture) for acting up, or acting out, against national interests. (See Shingetsu News’ tweet from Jan 10 2015: “Abe govt official tells Jiji that Okinawa budget cuts are because “it is necessary to reward good conduct and punish bad.””)1

The Ryukyus, as seen on a Pacific map at Pearl Harbor. Photo my own.

But, bringing it back to Taiwan, one of the things I find so fascinating about Taiwanese identity is that we can practically see a new ethnic identity forming before our eyes – and thus serving as a stark example of how ethnicity isn’t necessarily really tied to genetic/racial origins, but is more complicated than that. For many people, “Taiwanese” may be purely a nationalistic, political identity, but I have no doubt (though I also have no surveys or studies immediately at hand) that for many others, they see their cultural identity as different enough from “Chinese” that they really consider themselves members of a different people entirely.

Prof. Wang is a political scientist, and so it comes as no surprise that his survey data about “Chinese” identity pertains to asking people whether they consider themselves 「中国人」 (Zhongguoren), “people of China.” It is certainly interesting to see the shrinking proportion of people who still think of Taiwan as the “Republic of China,” and/or as the legitimate government of all of China, and to consider how this plays out conceptually – if one thinks of Taiwan not as the “Republic of China,” not as “China” at all, then, yeah, your conception of being (politically) Chinese is going to diminish, and a sense of being “Taiwanese” is going to emerge. But, I was sad to see that he did not in today’s talk delve much at all into the nuances and meanings of the ways in which people do or do not still consider themselves culturally or ethnically Chinese. The question about being 「中国人」 is an interesting one, but I would have liked to also see the data for “do you consider yourself 「中華人」, and what does that mean to you?” I’m sure there’s all kinds of nuance I’m failing to grasp, or even if I am grasping it, I may be failing to express it properly, so forgive me, but as I understand it, 「中華」 (Zhonghua) means, roughly, “Chinese culture” or “Chinese civilization,” in a sort of trans-historical or solely tied-to-tradition sort of way, divorced from the connotations of today’s post-1911 or post-1949 political context. Essentially, it’s a word closely related to the concept of the Chinese diaspora – a diaspora which has existed in Singapore, Malaysia, and much of the rest of Southeast Asia since the Ming Dynasty, if not earlier; we’re not talking only about late 19th-21st century immigration to Hawaii, North America, Europe, and so forth. Anyway, my question is, for a Taiwanese who identifies as Zhonghuaren (or whatever the appropriate term may be), or for a Taiwanese who rejects such associations, what does Zhonghua mean to them? And for the Taiwanese who rejects such associations, what does being “Taiwanese” mean to them? The idea of being “culturally Chinese” or associating oneself with “Chinese culture” may seem simple on the surface, but drawing upon my knowledge of East Asian history & culture, and my own personal thoughts on my identity as a Jew, I would hazard that there are several different parts, or different categories to this. First, there is the folk culture, folk practice, everyday lifestyle culture aspect of a cultural identity. There are presumably many Taiwanese who, by virtue of the fact that they speak Chinese, read/write Chinese, use chopsticks, eat Chinese food, follow (at least some version of) Confucian ethics, and so forth, consider themselves to have some connection to Chinese culture, or Chinese identity. And there are likely those who consider their Taiwanese dialect/language, Taiwanese food, and so forth to be different enough from Standard Mandarin and from either Shanghai or Beijing food and culture that they see Taiwanese culture as a distinctive thing. And, to be sure, for those who might point to fashion, cafés & teahouses, 7-11, boba tea, honey toast, and Taiwanese shaved ice, and other aspects of postmodern contemporary streetlife culture, not to mention various aspects of Japanese influence, etc., I wouldn’t blame them for seeing something distinctive about Taiwanese culture.

Trailer for “Cape No. 7,” the second highest-grossing film in Taiwanese history; it brings together Chinese, Japanese, traditional, modern, histories and culture and shows Taiwan’s unique (different from mainland China) history and culture.

I wonder to what extent people think about, or identify by virtue of, being Minnan or Hakka rather than Han (or, conversely, to what extent they consider themselves Han even if of Minnan or Hakka background), or how strongly the idea of their family, their lineage being in Taiwan since the Qing, or since the Ming, figures into all of this. … Coming back around, I said First is folk culture.

But, then there is high culture. I wonder, to what extent, even for those who do see their folk culture and their pop culture as being distinctive enough, separate enough, to consider it Taiwanese, and combining this with a strong political association with being Taiwanese, and not Chinese, to what extent do these people also see themselves as claiming no relation or connection to the greatness of Chinese civilization? This is something Prof. Wang began to hint at. Zhongguo (中国, “China”) does not only mean the People’s Republic of China, or the Republic of China. It also means a historical China. He didn’t get into it at all, to my disappointment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some people who, even while completely rejecting any association with the PRC, might still see themselves as descended from, or having some association with, the culture of the Han, Tang, Song, Ming, Qing; the culture which claims a history stretching back over 4,000 years; a culture which produced such great poetry, painting, calligraphy, music, architecture, drama; a culture which invented paper, the compass, and so much else besides; a country which, historically, was the greatest, wealthiest, most powerful country in the world for centuries and centuries. I know it sounds like I’m building up to something, but I promise I do not mean to. I am neither critical nor disbelieving of those who might articulate their Taiwanese/Chinese identity differently – I just find it a very interesting question. To truly sever oneself from those things, to truly identify oneself with Taiwan and only with Taiwan, is to take up an identity that is at its most fundamental core something very different. Not bad, not inferior – just different. And, then, what is that Taiwanese identity that one takes up? Is it an “island country” (島国) identity akin to that of the Okinawans and the Japanese? Is it one that has some particular relationship to the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, who today represent less than 2% of the population of the island? Indigenous peoples aside, Taiwan has only about 400, not 4000, years of history. It’s an interesting history, with Dutch and Portuguese trading bases, which were driven out by Ming loyalists who were also active pirates and who were the dominant power on the island for quite a few decades until the Qing drove them out, after which the island was controlled by the Qing for over 200 years and inhabited by a mix of Chinese peoples who settled there at various times across the generations, and then by the Japanese for about 50, before becoming the home of the KMT government in exile in 1949. It’s an interesting history, but it’s also a short one. Films by Wei Te-Sheng, such as Cape No. 7 (trailer above), Seediq Bale, and the 2014 film KANO (dir. by Umin Boya, a member of the Seediq tribe), show that very vibrant, multi-cultural, complex history, or rather, one view of it, one perspective on it. It’s a complex topic, to be sure… I look forward eagerly to visiting Taiwan some day, and to learning more about their history otherwise.

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1) At the risk of incurring trolling or flamewar by bringing up Israel, here too, with some parallels to Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing, we have a case of a democratic country where a great many of the citizens have been put on the defensive, their resolve hardened, and their inclination to vote more conservative/right-wing, both by pressure from international diplomatic action (e.g. UN resolutions, EU resolutions) and by independent movements and protests such as the despicable Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and by terrorist attacks. I very much appreciate what supporters of BDS, Hamas, and these UN & EU resolutions think they are doing, “punishing bad [conduct],” to paraphrase Shinzô Abe; showing their disapproval and putting pressure on an oppressive regime. But, counter to their desires, and truly to no one’s benefit at all, such pressure has only hardened the resolve of Israel’s right-wingers. This is not the way to bring peace to the Middle East, my friends. The only way to do that is elimination of the terrorists.

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An image from the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, depicting “French Jews.” Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hila Hershkoviz posted an interesting op-ed/blog post in the Times of Israel recently, arguing that Ashkenazi Jews (i.e. of Eastern European, rather than Mediterranean or Middle Eastern descent) are not white, and should stop self-identifying as such.

(This, in response to a Haaretz article on the somewhat separate but also powerfully important subject of “Jews, white privilege and the fight against racism in America” – in short, why Jews as white elites aren’t as active as we should be in continuing to fight racism, oppression, and discrimination against others, esp. as it pertains to Ferguson protests & systematic racism against blacks in our law enforcement & justice systems.)

I’m not sure I agree with everything Hershkoviz says here – in the end, I think the answer is more complicated than a simple white/non-white binary – but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

*First, let me begin with two critiques, or critical thoughts. One, while who we self-identify as is important, who others identify us as is equally powerful, if not more so, operating upon our conception of ourselves, and upon our interactions and position in society in different ways, on different planes. Regardless of how I identify, with whatever nuance I might use to describe my own identity to others, so long as others perceive me as “white” in a myriad of everyday interactions and systematic ways, I will benefit from, and be accused of, white privilege. White privilege is real, and I have genuinely benefited from it, both in my socio-economic status, and in how people regard me in everyday interactions.

It doesn’t matter if I carry around a copy of Hershkoviz’s article to show people. It doesn’t matter – and I say this genuinely, and not sarcastically or by way of complaint – that my grandparents were survivors of one of the worst attempted genocides in world history explicitly because they were not “white.” It doesn’t matter that no one in my family was in the US before 1900, and that I have no direct familial/ancestral ties to any of the whites who were responsible for the worst parts of our country’s history (e.g. seizing of Native American lands, black slavery, etc.). What matters is the fact that I’m here now, and that for three generations, my family has benefited from others perceiving us as white, in everything from bank loans to how we’re treated in the classroom. It doesn’t matter if “white” is an artificial category, which changes over time, and which cannot necessarily be too easily defined. This has real impacts in our society. Even if I’m not “really” white, as articulated by Hershkoviz, for all intents and purposes in our racialized society, I might as well be; or, to put it another way, since race is socially constructed, so long as society sees me as white, I /am/ white – that is the identity category that society places me in.

Two, Hershkoviz’s assertions about who we really are as Jews, compelling though these narratives may be, are ultimately problematic. Identity is constructed and constantly being renegotiated. It’s tempting to want to look back across centuries or even millenia of history and think, this is who we are, this is who we have always been. To think that we are a “tribe,” as Hershkoviz asserts, following certain ideas of identity and membership millenia old. But is Hershkoviz’s idea of tribal identity, what it means and how it works, only a 21st century idea? Would the Zionists of pre-1948 Palestine have agreed? Would Herzl? How would Maimonides describe his identity, in terms of religion, ethnicity, nation, or tribe? Seven, eight hundred years ago, the dominant idea in Western Europe as to identity was not race, ethnicity, or nationality, but religion. Europe was “Christendom,” more so than it was anything else, and while the Europeans certainly also saw themselves as Franks, and the Muslims as “Turks,” “Saracens,” or by a variety of other names which might be said to be ethnic identifiers, the dominant worldview was still one of religious spheres, not one of nations or ethnicities. A few hundred years later, even as national identities (e.g. French, Dutch, English, Spanish) began to emerge more solidly, identity as part of the Catholic world or of the Prostestant world, remained extremely powerful. Today, there are countless groups around the world reimagining, reasserting, their identities in various ways – indigenous groups, new nation-states… In short, how we identify – and what the relevant categories are – changes over time. In all times, we assert that our identities are true, stretching back centuries. But in all times, these identities are constructed more by the needs, and the terminologies, of a given time, than by the past. Just as Japanese look to defeat in World War II and the subsequent turn to pacifism of their nation, among many other things, as key to how they define their identity today; just as the Hawaiians look to the overthrow of their kingdom and the current illegal US occupation of their land as fundamental to their identity; so too do we as 21st century Jews look to the Holocaust, the state of Israel, worldwide anti-Semitism, and our personal or familial experiences of immigration and diaspora, for our constructions of identity, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise – we shouldn’t pretend that our identity as Jews is just as it has always been, stretching back unaltered, as if none of these more recent events/experiences, nor the needs & desires of our contemporary political situation, have any impact.

That said, I think there are a lot of intriguing and thought-provoking aspects of this article.

*I find Hershkoviz’ idea that we need to “decolonize our minds” intriguing. Like Okinawans raised in the Japanese education system (I know it’s an odd example to choose, but it’s one I know better than most), we Ashkenazi Jews are similarly raised in the US (and I would imagine the same goes in Western Europe and many other places, with variation) to think of England, and to only a slightly lesser degree France, Spain, Italy, Holland, and Germany, as the source of our heritage. Now, granted, there is an argument to be made that the United States /is/ founded upon Western European ideas and culture, that that is the majority culture into which we have assimilated, and that it is a major part of who we are as Americans regardless of where we come from – and that while you get your American education in public school (and from peers, media, and so on), you can still get your Jewish identity, heritage, and education from your parents, and from synagogue, Hebrew school, etc. I imagine much the same could be said for Vietnamese-, Indian-, and African-Americans, not to mention just about everyone else – even the Irish- and Italian-Americans get some different identity from their parents, church, etc. in addition to and separate from the public education “American” identity.

But, at the same time, I think there’s something valuable and interesting in the idea that we need to remind ourselves that we do indeed come from a different heritage, that we are immigrants to this land, and that in a sense, really, we Eastern European Jews, descendants of Kiev, Lvov, and Krakow, have no more connection to the heritage of London, Paris, and Rome than do the Asian-Americans. I have no doubt that the latter have no trouble understanding this.

Roger Shimomura’s “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware.”

*Identity and history is complex, and this issue of us being not a religion, not a race, but a Tribe, and having particular ideas of identity and membership as a result, brings up a much broader issue – broader beyond the topic of the Jewish people – which is that in our ever-increasingly globalized world, how much else has been homogenized into global/modern conceptions and categories? How much cultural diversity has been erased by those categories, even as we use those categories to celebrate diversity? We take it for granted today that the hundreds of national flags represent a great diversity of nations in our world. But where does the idea that a nation must have a flag, and that it must be rectangular, come from? What about all the many traditions and histories in which national identity was expressed otherwise? Here too we have homogeneity masquerading as diversity. There are thousands of languages on this planet, hundreds of countries. Does everyone, from the French to the Saudis to the Hawaiians, from the Catholics to the Sikhs to the Quechua, have the same ideas of what it means to be(long to) a religion, a nation, an ethnicity? Surely we Jews are not the only people who assert an identity that does not neatly fall into the global/modern categories of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality.

Of course, there is a need for globally agreed-upon notions, to a certain extent, for the sake of passports and treaties and national representation in the UN, census statistics, and all sorts of things. But, imagine if we more consciously and explicitly acknowledged a wider diversity of ways of thinking about identity, and didn’t insist to other people that their own identity categories don’t make sense, or aren’t real. Imagine if we didn’t force all people all around the world to conform to /our/ conceptions of how identity works. What a world that would be.

Flags at the United Nations, New York. Photo my own.

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Sometimes you write a post thinking you’re really sort of contributing something to a conversation… and then afterwards, you read it over and the whole thing seems so atari-mae, so obvious, like it really goes without saying. Hm… But, given how many articles I see every week emphasizing career prospects and monetary earning, maybe there is some value in stating what I think should be a rather common sense idea.

An article in TIME magazine from this week asks “What Colleges Will Teach in 2025.”

This is just the latest in a slew of articles on the subject of what colleges should be teaching, what the purpose of college is, what the end goal of attending college is, and how we should be evaluating academic quality or success.

In addressing these questions, countless commentators focus on professional training, and monetary success following graduation. Another major thread focuses on creative thinking skills. I cannot fault either of these, and of course agree that both of these are of great importance. However, recently, increasingly, I have come to believe that college needs to pick up the slack and take up the role once associated chiefly with high school – namely, turning out informed citizens.

I don’t know how much high school curricula have changed in the last (nearly) 15 years since I completed high school, but in my personal experience, there is so much I have learned in college and in graduate school about identity politics, race, (post)colonialism, and feminism and gender relations, and indeed about law, politics, and economics (in short, “civics”) that I never learned in high school.

There is a logic, an underlying reasoning, behind public education in general, and behind the teaching of civics, of US history, world religions, etc. at the high school level in particular, that speaks to the great importance of having our neighbors, our countrymen, ourselves, be informed members of society. Critical thinking skills are a big part of this, but so too are historical/cultural knowledge, among other subjects. I can certainly appreciate why World Religions, for example, might be seen by students, and by many commentators, as somewhat frivolous, as somewhat extra, as not essential for someone’s professional training into being a scientist, lawyer, doctor, or whathaveyou. The classic argument of “when am I going to use this?” The answer: every day.

I could write an entire post on just the value of being able to question your own religious beliefs in order to have a more meaningful relationship with your own upbringing, identity, tradition, and values. But, even putting that aside, if the type of education students receive in a World Religions class were more privileged, more emphasized – that is, if more college graduates, more members of our society, knew more about Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism, than fewer people on our streets would get attacked for some perceived association with “terrorism.” Imagine where race relations could be today if more people in our society had taken more classes in Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian-American Studies, Indigenous Studies. And if students took more courses in History (or certain other fields, certain other departments), especially non-Western history, then, in their everyday lives, in speaking with one another, in writing opinion pieces, in voting for politicians or voting for policies, they could speak and act in a more informed, less misguided, manner, on a myriad of topics, from the war in Syria to atrocities in Africa to the perceived economic threat of China.

The potential topics are nearly endless. Stereotypes and misbeliefs abound in our society, as they do in all societies. Mistaken beliefs about what the Constitution says and what it means. Mistaken beliefs about the history and impact today of colonialism/imperialism. Mistaken beliefs about whites, blacks, Asians, Indians, Arabs, and Hispanics. Mistaken beliefs about Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Mistaken beliefs about gender and sex. Mistaken beliefs about the place of America in the world. The list goes on and on.

Of course, I want students to be financially successful, and to be successful in pursuing their career ambitions. And, of course, I want students to be able to think for themselves. And, I suppose that the idea of doing research, taking the initiative to learn about something, to analyze it critically, to choose to want to become informed, and then to do so, could all be included under the rubric of a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking. But, that research, and the informed opinions that result, are essential; they are absolutely crucial, I believe, beyond the mere condition of being open-minded, and asking questions.

There are a multitude of things I do not understand, the fine intricacies of contemporary American politics, economics, law, health insurance policies, etc. certainly being among them. But, learning what I have in the last ten or so years about East Asian history, about Asian-American history, about Hawaiian/Pacific history, about colonialism/imperialism, about race/ethnicity/identity discourses, about media discourse, and about gender performance, has absolutely opened my eyes to all kinds of things in the world that are profoundly important to my being a more informed member of society – in how I see myself, and how I interact with other people, as well as in how I view political issues and how I act upon those views – and I have come to believe, more and more, that these kinds of things are truly crucial, essential, in the education of our next generation.

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I didn’t realize that I had so much to say about this exhibit, especially since I said so much already before even seeing the exhibition. But, since the review I posted yesterday ended up being so long, I broke it off and am now writing a Part Two, focusing on prominent Japanese-American artist Roger Shimomura.

Shimomura is, of course, one of the real stars of the show. Or, at least, it is to me, as I’ve heard of him before and really like his work. Much of the media for this show focuses on his piece Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, and I have already discussed it myself, too, so I’ll keep it limited. But, just two things about it that make that piece even more incredible than I thought originally – one, that the silhouette of the original piece (George Washington and friends, in their boat) can be seen in the background, a seemingly minor detail, perhaps, which actually alters the narrative of the piece fairly dramatically. Shimomura is not replacing Washington, after all, but only upstaging him. Throughout American history, Asian-Americans have been, essentially, also-rans, or footnotes. Here, Shimomura places himself in the forefront and in the spotlight, implying something about a narrative of American history in which Washington and his ilk are still present, and still play out their important and influential historical roles, but in which Asian-Americans are shown to be Americans as well, to be present in the narrative. On a second note, I really like that Shimomura made his piece on roughly the same scale as the original now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum. It gives his piece grandeur, power, and impact, and also, if we want to read into it, says something about his piece, himself, and Japanese-Americans, Asian-Americans in general, not being smaller or lesser.


In some of the other pieces included in the exhibition, Shimomura addresses American stereotypes of Japanese, along two different lines. In American Hello Kitty and American Pikachu, Shimomura incorporates a self-portrait into the iconic cartoon characters, commenting, I guess, on American associations of Japan with anime (above all else). Frankly, I’m not quite sure exactly what he’s going for here. Is it meant to be a criticism? Is it a bad thing to associate Japan primarily/chiefly with anime? The Japanese government has been actively pushing quote-unquote “Cool Japan” for the last several years, as part of a concerted effort to expand Japanese soft power, and to thereby increase pro-Japan sentiments. Would Shimomura prefer that we associate Japan instead with negative things? That is, unless Shimomura’s whole point is not about Japan, but is instead about how we associate Japanese-Americans with Japanese culture rather than with American identity. If that’s it, that makes a lot more sense… especially in consideration of the themes of his other works.


Another set of works, titled American vs Japs and American vs Japs 2 depict Shimomura, painted relatively realistically, punching and kicking cartoonish stereotypical “Japs” drawn in the style of 1940s American propaganda. My kneejerk reaction is to see this as a terribly outdated battle. It’s not the 1940s anymore, and depictions of Japan in US mass media today doesn’t resemble this propaganda at all. Yet, on second thought, I realize that there are far too many in this country who, sadly, have not gotten the memo, and still hold onto completely outdated notions of anti-Japanese hatred. Comments of “that was for Pearl Harbor” and the like, as well as much worse vitriol, have appeared in disgustingly vast numbers on Internet forums and the like during US-Japan sporting events, and, perhaps most upsettingly of all, during the 3/11 disaster. Is this what Shimomura is fighting against? Actually, I kind of doubt it. Perhaps he’s more fighting that he (and other Americans) be the target of these attitudes, moreso than actually fighting against those attitudes existing. This is just my guess, based on his personal history of having been imprisoned in the WWII-era Internment Camps, and all the surrounding issues of Japanese-Americans as loyal Americans, being continually seen as not American enough, or as still foreign. I don’t know how much Shimomura has any real connections with Japan… from what little I know about him and his work, he’s much more focused on Japanese-American issues.

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I posted a while ago about an exhibition of Asian-American art being held at the National Portrait Gallery in DC, and lamented that I wasn’t going to be around during the two months it was going to be showing. Well, it turns out that I misread the dates – Portraiture Now! Asian American Portraits of Encounter” didn’t run for two months; it runs for a year and two months, closing Oct 14, 2012.

So, when I walked into the National Portrait Gallery / American Art Museum a week ago to see the Art of Video Games exhibition, I was extremely pleasantly surprised that I was going to get to see this great Asian-American art show. Sadly, I once again have no photos to share with you; but, even if I did, as is so often the case with artworks, there are significant elements of the experience of seeing the works in-person that just cannot be captured on digital film. Some of the pieces, such as Roger Shimomura’s Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, are quite large, and so have quite an impact by their size and scale. Others, such as Shizu Saldamando’s works, painted on bare wood, are so much more beautiful and intriguing when their varied textures are seen in person. There is something cooly beautiful about plain, bare wood, and as smooth as it may be, contrast with the sleek shine of oil paints and gold leaf brings out the slightly rough and matte texture of the wood.


Zhang Chun Hong, who I don’t believe I mentioned in my previous post on the exhibit, is represented by a series of works in charcoal on paper hanging scrolls. Each depicts the long, flowing tresses of an Asian(-American) woman, combining the aesthetics of traditional Chinese ink painting with an astonishing idealized realism, in the individual fine strands of hair, and careful attention to how light reflects off of it. One of these pieces, titled My Life Strands, is meant to suggest the twists of one’s hair as symbol or metaphor for the twisting path one takes through life, from youth into adulthood. Another is titled Cyclone, a reference to Hong’s current base of operations in Lawrence, Kansas; though we may joke about Kansas being the middle of nowhere, the University of Kansas, based in that same town of Lawrence, along with its on-campus museum, are actually known as a major center for studying Asian art. In fact, Roger Shimomura, another artist featured in this exhibit, is also based in Lawrence (and teaches at U of K).

A massive series of photos by Korean-American artist CYJO takes up the entirety of the corridor (for the length of the exhibit; other exhibits lay beyond). Her KYOPO Project consists of over 200 photographs, each depicting a Korean-American individual, simply standing in front of a plain, simple background. Each is accompanied by a short statement, excerpted from interviews with the individual, commenting on their personal relationship with their identity as “Korean-American” or “Korean & American.” Each photo individually is a rather plain piece, but in aggregate they provide a fascinating glimpse into the incredible diversity of the Korean-American community(ies) and complexity of individuals’ identities. And, of course, as one might expect, what these people relate is perfectly translatable to the experience of any one of us. It’s about the specifics of the Korean / Korean-American circumstance, sure, but nearly everything here is equally applicable whether you’re Greek-American, Vietnamese-American, or Armenian-American. All of us have a side to our identity that’s “American,” that makes us feel at home within an American cultural context, i.e. when surrounded by other Americans, yet which sets us apart as different when in the land (or culture) of our ancestors, whether it be Peru, France, or Korea. And all of us have a side of ourselves that sets us apart from other Americans, and which makes us feel at home within the specific cultural context of our heritage, whether that be in Chinatown, at a Russian Orthodox Church, at a Japan Society event, or at a relative’s quinceañera.

There was a time when my biggest wish was to be as “American” as I could. When looking different first became a source of rejection, in some ways I rejected my heritage. But now that I’ve grown and started to raise my own family, I feel an undeniable sense of gratitude to my parents and the values they worked so hard to instill in me, values shaped by a country half a world away. I’ll always be grateful to America for being a place where part of what it means to be a proud American is the ability to be openly proud of being Korean.

I wish I had taken more notes about individuals’ lives and messages, but I remember some of the general trends. I read about people who felt extremely close to their Korean identity, and others with more or less no connection to Korea. Many resented their parents for not being able to speak better English, and had little interest in Korean culture when they were young, thinking it strange, embarrassing, old-fashioned, or just plain lame insofar as that American popular culture was the very definition of “cool”; it was only when they were older that they came to appreciate the Korean side of their heritage and identity. Many regretted not speaking Korean more fluently, or lamented how being Korean-American means always being thought of as “Korean” when among [non-Korean-]Americans, being seen as “American” when in Korea, and never really fitting in in either place. These are stories that I think many of us can relate to; the stories of the many people pictured share many common threads, collectively weaving together a colorful picture of the Korean-American experience. But, there was great diversity as well. Some were blond; some were adopted. One gentleman was, if I remember correctly, African-American, but adopted and raised by white parents in Korea, making him, actually, much closer to Korea as his home and as his culture than many of the Americans of Korean descent raised in the United States. Korean-American Esther Park Goodhart is a comedian, and Hebrew teacher at four different schools, and describes herself in her statement as “Queen of the Jews.” And Jun Choi spoke about being elected mayor of Edison, NJ, a beautiful example of the diversity and ideals of America, in how a young Korean-American man can be elected mayor in a primarily white/black/Hispanic city with no sizable Korean community. (Edison was 1.63% Korean according to the 2000 Census.) I imagine that if I were more involved and connected with Korean-American communities, I might recognize more prominent figures amongst those featured here, but as is I was excited to see Greg Pak and Daniel Dae Kim.

CYJO’s installation reminds me of a video on display at the Center for Jewish History here in New York as part of an exhibition on the history of Jews in New York (until Dec 31, 2012). In it, we see interviews with a handful of members of the community sharing their thoughts on what it means to be a New York Jew. Personally, I thought this video, and indeed the whole exhibit, fascinating, though I wonder how many others would. Korean-Americans are perpetually seen as different, as immigrants, and while that in itself is a problem that I believe many of the artists in “Portraiture Now!” address, I do think that this makes the Korean-American experience an interesting one for many people. I don’t want to get into the discourses of the “model minority,” or the touchy political complexities of how Koreans might be viewed (in general / stereotypically) in American society, i.e. those things that make Korean-Americans, perhaps, a perfect group to show in this exhibition. But, I really wonder, if this series of photographs depicted Jewish-Americans rather than Korean-Americans, what kind of attention would the (Jewish-American) artist receive? What kind of response would the exhibit receive? Would it even be shown? This may be controversial, but I have a sense that people think the Jewish story has already been told, or that because we are (most of us) white, that our story doesn’t matter, or that we don’t have a story, or that purely by virtue of being white we are either not immigrants, or that we are part of the privileged minority and thus can’t be considered a “minority.” Then, too, of course, there are all the complexities added in by the political controversies regarding Israel, and the complex of anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews having too much power, too much money, too much influence. I don’t know how far anti-Korean sentiment might go here in the US, but I do know that there are whole swaths of society that would react negatively to the suggestion of anything asking them to identify with Jews, or to think the Jewish story worth hearing, or to think the Jewish story an integral part of the American story. … I see the connections. I look at Korean-American stories and think of my own stories. But as much as I would love to see an exhibition addressing the diversity of Jewish-American identity in this same way, I don’t think it can, or would, be shown, or would receive as positive (or at worst, neutral) a response as it being done with Korean-Americans, as part of an exhibit of Asian-American art. What do you think?

“Portraiture Now! Asian American Portraits of Encounter” shows at the National Portrait Gallery at Washington DC’s Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro stop until October 14, 2012. Admission is free.
More about this exhibit, here, within the next couple days.

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When I was in London, I came across a lot of amusing or interesting placenames. Thinking it funny that this says “Old Jewry,” and very clearly not “Old Jewelery” (or “jewelry”), and that it’s right around the corner from a street named “Poultry” (not Poultry St, or Poultry Ave, but just Poultry), I took a photo of it. And forgot about it.

Then I came across the photo again, today, and decided to look into it a little. Not much, I must admit; I haven’t exactly done my research here, and for that I apologize. But, according to Wikipedia (woo… boo… whatever), this was in fact the center of the medieval Jewish ghetto in London. I knew that the Jews were expelled from England at some point (turns out it was 1290, under Edward I), and not formally allowed, let alone invited, to return until centuries later (1657, apparently, under Cromwell). But I guess I never gave too much thought, or just never knew, when it was that Jews came to settle in England in the first place, or to what extent.

Wikipedia tells us that there are no solid records of a Jewish presence prior to the Norman Conquest, though many scholars believe it likely that Jews may have entered England with the Romans. Following his Conquest of England, William of Normandy apparently invited Jews to come and settle in England, and went further, granting them freedom to move about the country, to buy and own and sell property, to swear oaths on a Hebrew Bible rather than a Christian one, and certain other freedoms and powers.

It would seem that a so-called “ghetto” in the area around Old Jewry was the chief Jewish neighborhood in London in early medieval times. Other streets / place-names in the area bear similar Jewish-related nomenclatures. It is believed that a burial ground on/near the nearby Jewen Street was the only one the Jewish community was permitted to maintain as a Jewish burial ground; ironically, a few Christian churches in the area take their names from the streets, and thus come to have names like St Lawrence Jewry.

Though I may focus on Japanese history most of the time, I of course cannot help but be curious about, and intrigued by, the histories of my own people. An exhibition at the Center for Jewish History here in New York, on the history of Jews in New York City, was also quite interesting. The small exhibition began with some incredible artifacts from colonial & Revolutionary-era New York, including a printed & handwritten bill for the costs of construction of a Jewish synagogue, Shearith Israel. The Spanish/Portuguese Shearith Israel still operates today. The exhibition leads briefly through the 19th and 20th centuries, and ends with a series of videos in which different members of the community answer the question “what makes a New York Jew?”

We very rarely hear about Jews in mainstream history classes (and not without good reason – you can’t cover each and every minority in every period of history in every part of the world), and it is easy to grow up thinking that maybe there weren’t any Jews at all in medieval England, or Revolutionary-era New York, but there were. And in countless other times and places besides, each with their own sometimes quite fascinating stories.

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