Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Amy Chua: The Tiger Monster

 Amy Chua's recent article in the Wall Street Journal has sparked much controversy and angry outbursts from the blogosphere, Asian-American and non-AAPA. Her snarky essay, entitled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," was an explanation of "how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids." And here is how she did it. It's a shocker...
"Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin."
I'm not sure what's worse, her treatment of her daughters, the fact that her daughters accept this sort of dictatorship, her snooty, higher-than-thou attitude, or the fact that she states that this method is exclusively for Chinese parents. This, in her twisted mind, is the right way, the "real Chinese way" to raise robots (whoops, I mean children). The "real" Chinese way? Amy Chua states that she "[knows] some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise." Meaning that because my mom (and probably lots of other Chinese mommies) didn't raise me the same way Chua raised her offspring, my mom is not Chinese? Um...
Amy Chua is totally buying into the model minority stereotype by saying that "A lot of people... wonder what these [Chinese] parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it." She embodies this stereotype and, most horrifyingly, is proud of it, stating that "the Chinese strategy (of parenting) produces a virtuous circle" whereas the "Western parents tend to give up" and that they "can only ask their kids to try their best." She praises the (in her mind) distinctly and only Chinese work ethic, saying that is where the "math whizzes and music prodigies" come from. At the same time, she belittles the Western parenting style as being not strict enough and too "concerned about their children's psyches." (Because everyone knows that the emotional stability of your child isn't worth crap next to academic excellency...) Chua turns the model minority on its head by essentially saying that Chinese kids aren't inherently gifted - it's the parents that push their children into being gifted and brilliant. It's the "Chinese way" of having high expectations that gets them so far in academics. Chua, making another grand, arrogant statement, proclaims, "If a Chinese child gets a B - which would never happen - there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A." So really, she, as the all-powerful "mother," should be praised for the successes of her children. Chua called her daughter, Luisa, self-indulgent when she was having trouble learning a musical piece - if anything, the way Chua screams for attention and praise for her parenting style is more self-indulgent than her daughter ever was. 

The title that Chua slapped on her parenting method (The Chinese Way) is also concerning. The damages from this newly named parenting style will be enormous and hard to get rid of. Chua's "Confucian filial piety" method on steroids is, so far, the only example of an ethnicity-based method that is at the forefront of everyone's consciousness. The fact that it is so tied to being Chua's interpretation of "Chinese" makes the horrific treatment of the children even worse. This is not an issue of raising children a newfangled way - it's the issue of raising them the (specifically) Chinese way. For people who have never met an Asian person (let alone someone of Chinese descent) or cannot even begin to fathom the existence of this type of dictatorship (sorry, parenting), this title becomes synonymous with Chinese people and therefore, Chinese parents. It may prompt people to think that "those Chinese parents are horrible people who have no love for their children" or something along those lines. It prompts me to think that Any Chua ought to be excommunicated from the Asian-American community. 
Those poor girls...
The dangers of an article like this one is that there are no other Asian American women with that level of fame who are mothers who could contradict her. Sure, there are other Asian American women out there in the media and whatnot, but they aren't mothers or they aren't recognized for being mothers. We're now left with only one representative of an Asian mother, and it's this Mom-zilla who is "happy to be the one hated (by her children)" and resorts to "[using] every weapon and tactic [she] could think of" in order to make her daughter learn one measly piano piece. Even more depressingly, this article was published in the Wall Street Journal, which, last time I checked, was a pretty widespread newspaper. Any rebuttals to her frankly horrifying methods of "raising" children are only showing up in blogs that may or may not have as big an audience as the Wall Street Journal. Therefore the damage that this article has done will be even harder to rectify, and all the work we've done to diminish the model minority stereotype is going down the drain and into the unfathomable bowels of hopelessness. 
This woman is a monstrosity. A smarmy, self-serving, arrogant "mother" with Machiavellian "ends-justify-the-means" and "extreme tough love bordering on abuse" parenting techniques. Ironically, she mentions "all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids' true interests." Was that a shameless, self-indulgent plug for her own book, Battle Hymn for the Tiger Monster? Oops, I mean "Mother." 

Check the comments section below for further discussion!
An elegant rebuttal to Chua's techniques and the psychological damages to children that her methods will have.
More links all over the web - Especially this one.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sherlock: The Blind Banker

Sherlock, a modern day adaptation of the awesome books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is a fast-paced, funny series (with three episodes), produced and written by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (writers for Doctor Who). It's a BBC program that debuted on PBS' Masterpiece Mystery in October and many wonderful blurbs have been written about it. I really really enjoy this show (understatement - I'm ever so slightly addicted to it) except for this episode, entitled The Blind Banker

Adapted from the original stories of The Valley of Fear and The Adventure of the Dancing Men, this story involves a Chinese smuggling gang, a China Doll/Lotus Blossom, a Dragon Lady, an ancient form of Chinese writing, Chinese acrobatics and a tea ceremony. Oh yeah, and two white people get murdered. 
Is it any wonder that I was more than slightly offended while watching this?
My Complaints:
1. Soo Lin Yao (played by Gemma Chan) - The China Doll. She's pretty and innocent-looking, all wide-eyed and silky black hair and a non-whore-y, British Suzie Wong. She works at some museum in London where she performs a tea ceremony for tourists, spewing silly aphorisms about tea and shiny teapots. She escaped from China after being orphaned and joining a gang (called The Black Lotus - cringe) and smuggling drugs. Off she goes to London to a new life where she can do cute little tea ceremonies and have dorky little English boys try to ask her out. But alas! She is not safe! The Black Lotus catches up to her and BANG! She's shot dead by her own brother. Soo Lin Yao is pathetic and lacking in a backbone. 
2. The Black Lotus Gang - Also referred to as a tong*. The gang, posing as a Chinese circus troupe, threatens their victims by spray painting yellow characters as part of a mysterious cipher onto a surface close to their victims. Then they track down their targets, kill them, and then plant a black origami (which is Japanese, people...) lotus somewhere on their body. The yellow paint is a clear indicator of the sickening racism embedded in the fetishized "Oriental" aspects of the story. Yellow? Can you get any more obvious? The origami lotuses are another indicator of ignorance and dismissiveness. Origami is Japanese. While there were forms of paper folding arts in other places in the world (even China), the art of origami remains a specifically Japanese art form. It is this sort of mixing of the two cultures without research that is increasingly annoying and offensive. The fetishization of the lotus flower doesn't help either. 
3. "The One They Call 'Shan!'" (not even listed in the Casting Credits - the indignity!) - The Dragon Lady. She controls The Black Lotus. She tortures John Watson. She wields a gun. She speaks with an awful, exaggerated accent, with her l's and her r's getting mixed up all over the place. She is ruthless. She dons a traditional-looking Chinese opera outfit and facilitates "death-defying acts from the Yangtze River!" She doesn't seduce anybody (Thank goodness) but she does watch Sherlock and John Watson do their mystery-solving from behind shady (pun intended) black glasses with an evil warlord-esque smirk on her face. She's the female Fu Manchu, with Sherlock playing the role of the great good white knight out to save the day and prevent "The One They Call 'Shan!'" 
4. The Villain of Indeterminate Race But is Obviously Not White - This character makes a brief appearance in the very beginning of the show as a samurai-sword-brandishing, turbaned, long-robed assassin enters 221B and attacks Sherlock! But, with Sherlock being the great white knight, this Assassin of Indeterminate Race is no match for our white-as-white-can-be hero (no slights on Benedict Cumberbatch intended), who easily defeats him with no weapons at all. For starters, the samurai sword being wielded by the man dressed in Berber-esque clothing? Mishmash of cultures, even a culture that deserves its very own independent study. Uncool, making that mishmash of cultures into the villain. And even worse, the bits of Sherlock versus Villain of Color and interspersed with John trying and failing to do the self-checkout line at the grocery store, so that the entire opening sequence really comes off as slapstick. All in all, it's a slapstick Unnamed Villain of Color versus White Knight Sherlock. Come on, we can do better than that, BBC!
5. The Dangerous Mystique of London's Chinatown - I don't think there was a single shot that was located in this setting that didn't scream, "This is a creepy, shadowy, mysterious place full of shady people who may or may not be assassins, and who knows? Maybe you'll find an opium den if you look hard enough!" Not only that, but Sherlock and John decide to go into the "Lucky Cat Emporium" to look for clues, where an old lady tells them, "You buy Rucky Cat? Onry ten pound! Your wife, she will rike!" In the "Lucky Cat Emporium," an old Chinese lady tries to sell a "Rucky Cat" to John, which he politely refuses. I am not joking. Do I even need to explain the incredibly blatant racism in that one little bit of a scene?
6. The Code! - There's a cipher code thing used to communicate with other members of the Black Lotus, and the code starts with a series of numbers that refer to page numbers in a certain book and then the first word on that page. The numbers are written in Suzhou (mistakenly called "Hangzhou" by Sherlock - tsk, tsk, writer of the script, do some research!), which then refer to the book "London A to Z." Again, more mysteriousness for shading dealings of drugs and other goods... Sneaky sneaky. 
7. The Music - The Sherlock theme and the usual background suspenseful music is stellar. But whenever Soo Lin Yao or The One They Call Shan showed up on screen, there was a sudden bout of Zen-like flute and some atmospheric zithers to accompany it (Thankfully, no obscenely loud gongs a la Long Duk Dong). I'm getting sick of zithers. And when Unnamed Indeterminate Race Villain of Color made his dastardly appearance there was - you guessed it - some funky funky sitar sounds. It was painful. 

It's really frightening that this slipped under the noses, maybe even was applauded, by the producers of the show. But is it because it was made in Britain? Is being Asian different over there? Would all the things I found offensive be considered offensive in the UK, or all over the world? Should I just start lowering my expectations for media that features either a token Asian or some sort of Asian-themed thing? Who knows?

Predictable and degrading stereotypes aside, the most frustrating this is that the original plot of The Dancing Men does not involve a Chinese gang at all, nor does The Valley of Fear. The Dancing Men has an American criminal chasing down an old flame and the Valley of Fear has no foreign criminal involvement at all. So why incorporate a Chinese crime ring involved in smuggling drugs and other goods around the world? That decision seemed to come completely out of left field with no real reason for it other than the fact that it would provide cheap entertainment and mystique to a story that would have been just as exciting as if it didn't have that "Oriental" vibe going on. 

I can only hope that next season doesn't feature stuff like this again. 
*The word "tong" has come to have unfortunate connotations because of its association with the term "tong war," referring to armed conflicts between rival Chinese groups seeking to control illegal activities such as gambling, opium smoking, and prostitution. "Tong" actually means "hall" or "parlor," in the sense of a society or association, and most Chinese tongs were men's fraternal or social organizations that existed to provide benevolent services to their members. (From
A super great review of the Blind Banker, please read for more insight on the topics above!