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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

December 28, 2005

Written by C.N.

Ang Lee and his Thoughts

Many of you have probably heard about Chinese American director Ang Lee’s latest movie Brokeback Mountain, a story about two cowboy ranch hands who have a gay love affair. In a recent issue of AsianWeek Magazine, Ang Lee discusses his thoughts on what Asians, gays, and cowboys share:

Question: Cowboys are not known for openly expressing their emotions. Asians share a similar stereotype. Do you see any parallels between Asians and cowboys in how they deal with taboo sexual subjects such as homosexuality?

Ang Lee: I see the themes of repression in Brokeback Mountain as being universal regardless of culture. However, it is true that Eastern culture and the nature of cowboys share a certain indirectness, quiet nature, and use of body language to communicate that are quite similar. There are similarities in the art of the two cultures as well –– they both emphasize feelings of sadness, melancholy, and expansive space through various media.

The difference is that Western culture is more macho, whereas Eastern culture is –– more lunar and feminine in nature. Thus, when it comes to attitudes about homosexuality, my personal theory is that Eastern culture is more relaxed than in the West. This stems from a difference in why a culture perceives homosexuality to be wrong –– in Western culture, it stems from religion, and you are condemned if you are gay.

Eastern culture seems more, flexible –– and being gay is more of a social issue than a religious one; there is no deity to offend.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Ang Lee’s movies, you’ve got to admire him for achieving success on his own terms and not being afraid to do what he wants, whether it relates to portrayals of Asians or gay cowboys. Keep up the good work, Ang.

December 26, 2005

Written by C.N.

Fabricated Stem Cell Research in Korea

As you may have heard and as many news organizations such as CBS News have reported, South Korea medical scientist Hwang Woo-suk has recently resigned from his university position after it was revealed that his research, which was initially touted as a breakthrough success in the area of stem cell research, was mostly if not entirely fabricated:

In a May paper published in the journal Science, Hwang claimed to have created 11 stem-cell lines matched to patients in an achievement that raised hopes of creating tailored therapies for hard-to-treat diseases. But one of his former collaborators last week said nine of the 11 cell lines were faked, prompting reviews by the journal and an expert panel at Seoul National University, where Hwang works as a professor. . . .

The university panel of investigators said Hwang’s fabrication was a deliberate deception that has undermined the credibility of science. The university’s announcement of results so far in its investigation into Hwang’s work were the first confirmation of allegations that have cast a shadow over all of his purported breakthroughs in cloning and stem-cell technology. . . .

The South Korean government, which had strongly supported Hwang and designated him the country’s first “top scientist,” said Friday it was “miserable” over the reported results of the investigation and will start its own probe over ethics breaches.

As an academic myself, of course I strongly condemn his dishonesty as an affront to the rest of us who are doing legitimate academic research. But just as important, as an Asian American, I also condemn his dishonesty for several reasons. First, his actions are likely to damage the scientific work of other Asian and Asian American researchers, who unfortunately, will be seen as potentially suspicious, merely by association as a fellow Asian.

In other words, just as virtually all Chinese Americans — and by implication all Asian Americans — were seen as potential spies several years ago due to the alleged actions of a few (later to be acquitted of virtually all charges), the same scenario is likely to be repeated here as the honesty and integrity of Asian and Asian American scientists may get called into question.

Unfortunately, I see Hwang’s actions as another unfortunate example of the unending drive for status and material forms of “success” and recognition that is all too common among Asians and Asian Americans. In many ways, I sometimes feel that Asians and Asian Americans are frequently the most status-conscious group of people on earth. If this drive helps to inspire many of us to become legitimately successful, that’s one thing.

But in cases like this, I also see it leading some to go beyond the bounds of professionalism, integrity, and legitimacy, all in a desperate effort to try to prove that we’re just as good or even better than others — especially other races of people. I hope we all learn from this unfortunate episode that the drive for status and recognition has to have it limits.

December 21, 2005

Written by C.N.

Vietnamese Americans and Catholicism

The York Times has an interesting article that described how many young Catholics are increasingly reluctant to enter the priesthood, but that Vietnamese Americans are the exception. Apparently, many young Vietnamese Americans are eager to become Roman Catholic priests:

At a time when fewer American Catholics are expressing interest in the priesthood, Vietnamese-American men are an anomaly. They are now the second-largest minority ethnic group in seminaries, only slightly behind Hispanics, who account for a far larger percentage of the general population.

While church experts and priests say that some Catholics frown upon their sons’ joining the priesthood and are even embarrassed by it in the wake of the sex abuse scandals among members of the clergy, Vietnamese Catholics continue to hold the priesthood in high regard. They say that the sex scandal marred individual clergymen but not the vocation itself. . . .

Asians and Pacific Islanders constitute about 1 percent of American Catholics, but they account for 12 percent of seminarians; a vast majority of them are of Vietnamese heritage, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. . . . That such a small group of American Catholics is able to deliver so many new priests reveals the grip tradition, family and faith still have on many Vietnamese-Americans.

As I and other scholars have noted, for many reasons, the Vietnamese American community seems to have the highest levels of ethnic and familial solidarity among all Asian American ethnic groups. This assertion is partly reflected in the fact that U.S.-raised Vietnamese Americans tend to have the lowest levels of intermarriage among major Asian groups, and in this case, the highest levels of Catholic seminary participation as well.

Although towards the end the article notes that as many U.S.-born Vietnamese become more assimilated and secularized, the numbers wanting to enter the priesthood is likely to decline, my impression is that the level of ethnic solidarity among Vietnamese is still likely to stay rather high. Vietnamese parents will still have a lot of influence over what career their children enter.

Therefore, my guess is that the future of this trend will largely lie with the parents — if they want their sons to enter the priesthood, many will. But if they are likely many other Asian parents who want their children to become doctors or engineers, this trend will eventually dissipate. Stay tuned . . .

December 20, 2005

Written by C.N.

Reduced Posting Schedule

I just wanted to let you know that now that the semester is over and I am on winter break and will be traveling through the holidays, I will be on a reduced posting schedule until after the new year. I hope to post a new article every few days for the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I wish you peace and happiness in the new year.

December 18, 2005

Written by C.N.

India: More Rural Migrating to Cities

The New York Times has an article that describes an increasing common phenomenon in developing Asian countries, in this case India: in the era of globalization and infrastructural improvements, more and more rural villagers are moving to cities and other urban destinations to find a better life for them and their families:

Compared with China, whose rural population is also moving, India’s urbanization has been a saunter, not a sprint – slower, looser and more haphazard. That is partly because some of India’s economic policies have served to constrict its cities’ possibilities. Decisions made during and even after four decades of quasi socialism have crimped the kind of manufacturing that has spurred China’s urban growth.

Good jobs or not, India’s migrants still come. Their presence is creating new challenges: battles for land, competition for jobs, strained resources and religious and political tensions. So diverse is Surat’s population that the municipal corporation now runs schools in eight languages.

And when the migrants return home, they bring new views and aspirations with them. Their perspectives are combining with the improved highways to open up, and out, the closed worlds of India’s villages.

But as history has consistently shown, with urbanization there inevitably follows stratification between the newly rich and the increasingly poor. Is this the inevitable price that countries such as India and China have to pay in order to modernize? I suppose that the odds aren’t great that these industrializing Asian countries can escape having the gap between the rich and the poor widen as they continue toward modernization.

But then again, maybe they’ll surprise us. We’ll just have to check back in about five or ten years to see how they’re doing. . . .

December 16, 2005

Written by C.N.

The End for Import Sports Tuner Compacts?

One of my favorite reads, AutoWeek Magazine, has an article that asks whether import sports tuner compact cars are going out of style among automotive enthusiasts. You might recognize these as Honda Accords and Civics, Acura Integras, Mazda RX-7s, Subaru WRXs, etc. that have been modified (many rather garishly) for greater performance, aesthetic appeal, and/or attention-grabbing features.

They’ve been a fixture in the automotive world for more than a decade now and as I describe in my article on Import Sports Compacts, a phenomenon that — at least initially — has been heavily identified with Asian Americans, as exemplified by the slang term of people “ricing” their cars — modifying their cars in overly flashy, gaudy, tasteless, and otherwise ridiculous ways.

[Many aftermarket experts] think the wave of sport compact tuning that washed over America in the past decade may have crested and is receding from its high water mark. Yes, Honda is back. It is reclaiming lost ground with a new Civic that should help Honda secure it as the darling of the tuner world. . . .

But the distant—and growing—rumble that is drawing everyone’s attention is nothing less than the resurgence of modernized muscle cars. At SEMA, plenty of mainstream examples were on hand, such as the latest Shelby Mustangs from Unique Performance, and manufacturer entries such as the Pontiac GTO and Solstice, Ford Mustang and GT500, and Dodge Charger that signal a return to muscle.

Like virtually all cultural fads and fashion trends, the import sports compact phenomenon will inevitably give way to the next major trend, and so on and so on. This has been clearly and consistently reflected in the automotive world as the muscle cars of the 1960s gave way to the mini-trucks of the 1980s, and then to the import sports compacts in the 1990s.

If their popularity is indeed waning, I just hope that those who welcome their demise don’t turn it into a racial issues — that somehow if American cars are becoming more popular than Asian imports that it means that American culture is superior to Asian culture.

December 15, 2005

Written by C.N.

Outsourcing Video Game Playing to China

First, Americans outsourced manufacturing and factory jobs overseas to countries like Mexico and China. Then in recent years, Americans have increasingly outsourced white-collar professional jobs like customer service, computer programming, and engineering to China, Indian, the Philippines, etc. Now here’s the latest trend: the New York Times reports that affluent Americans who are also video game enthusiasts but who don’t have the time are now outsourcing video game playing to the Chinese:

The people working at this clandestine locale are “gold farmers.” They “play” computer games by killing onscreen monsters and winning battles, harvesting artificial gold coins and other virtual goods as rewards that can be transformed into real cash. From Seoul to San Francisco, affluent online gamers who lack the time and patience to work their way up to the higher levels of gamedom are willing to pay the young Chinese here to play the early rounds for them. . . . .

Many online gaming factories have come to resemble the thousands of textile mills and toy factories that have moved here from Taiwan, Hong Kong and other parts of the world to take advantage of China’s vast pool of cheap labor.

But gold farming is controversial. Many hard-core gamers say the factories are distorting the games. What is more, the big gaming companies say the factories are violating the terms of use of the games, which forbid players to sell their virtual goods for real money. They have vowed to crack down on those suspected of being small businesses rather than individual gamers. . . .

On eBay, for example, 100 grams of World of Warcraft gold is available for $9.99 or two über characters from EverQuest for $35.50. It costs $269 to be transported to Level 60 in Warcraft, and it typically takes 15 days to get the account back at the higher level. In fact, the trading of virtual property is so lucrative that some big online gaming companies have jumped into the business, creating their own online marketplaces.

Capitalism’s relentless march goes on and on. Not only are Americans willing to outsource their work, but now they’re apparently willing to outsource their leisure as well by paying foreigners to play video games for them. I wonder if Jay Leno would use one of his “How fat and lazy are we getting in America when we have to outsource your video game playing overseas?” jokes here, since it certainly applies.

It just makes me wonder what’s next in line to be outsourced — playing online poker? Skiing? Bungee jumping? Life???

December 14, 2005

Written by C.N.

Secret Blogs in China

The New York Times has an article that mentions the personal blog of a woman in China who goes by the name “Mu Mu” and who describes herself as a “dance girl and [communist] party member.” However, the article focuses more generally on how her blog represents a new wave of personal blogs that are pushing the limits of freedom of expression in China:

Chinese Web logs have existed since early in this decade, but the form has exploded in recent months, challenging China’s ever vigilant online censors and giving flesh to the kind of free-spoken civil society whose emergence the government has long been determined to prevent or at least tightly control. . . .

So far, Chinese authorities have mostly relied on Internet service providers to police the Web logs. Commentary that is too provocative or directly critical of the government is often blocked by the provider. Sometimes the sites are swamped by opposing comment — many believe by official censors — that is more favorable to the government. Blogs are sometimes shut down altogether, temporarily or permanently. . . .

The new wave of blogging took off earlier this year. In the past, a few pioneers of the form stood out, but now huge communities of bloggers are springing up around the country, with many of them promoting one another’s online offerings, books, music or, as in Mu Mu’s case, a running, highly ironic commentary about sexuality, intellect and political identity.

China’s government may think that it is currently possible to control and censor blogs like this, and they may be right — for now. But one — or any government entity — can only control freedom of expression for so long. I predict that the envelope of democratic expression will be pushed further and further, until something will have to give.

Will the Information Age and the Internet produce another Tianamen Square-style government crackdown in the virtual world? Stay tuned to find out . . .

December 13, 2005

Written by C.N.

Japanese Manga Comics in the U.S.

As another example of Asian culture continuing to influence American society, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that many U.S. newspapers will include Japanese manga-style comic strips in their comics sections very soon, all in an effort to attract a younger readership circulation:

“Doonesbury” and “Peanuts,” make way for “manga.” Come January, the Sunday funnies of several major North American newspapers will have doe-eyed women in frilly outfits, effeminate long-haired heroes and other trademark images of the Japanese comic style. The reason? Newspaper editors want to attract more young readers.

A study released earlier this year by the Carnegie Corporation put the age of newspaper readers at 53 and climbing – hardly a recipe for circulation growth. . . . The U.S. newspaper debut is a bit of a landmark for manga – a product of Japanese pop culture that has never been quite mainstream in the United States, although it’s long been a hit with the younger generation that grew up on Pokemon, Hello Kitty and Japanese animation movies – or “anime” for short.

The article describes that this inclusion of more manga-style comics involves English translations of existing manga comics or newly-developed comics inspired and influenced by manga. Either way, it looks like the march of Asian culture into the American mainstream continues to gather steam. Now if we can translate this influence into more political power, fewer incidents of discrimination, etc. . . .

December 12, 2005

Written by C.N.

War on Terrorism Legislation

I received the following notice from the North American South Asian Bar Association regarding recent legislation pertaining to the administration’s “war on terrorism” and how it affects many Asian Americans:

NASABA Denounces Graham-Levin Amendment with Letter to U.S. Congress: Emerging Legal Organization Attacks Bill That Targets Many South Asian American Detainees

WASHINGTON, DC — The North American South Asian Bar Association (NASABA) submitted a letter to the Chairs and Ranking members of the Senate and House Judiciary and Armed Services Committees, urging Congress to reject the Graham-Levin Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. In the letter, NASABA condemned the Amendment as an “an affront to the core democratic principles for which the United States stands.”

The Graham-Levin Amendment was passed as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act in the Senate on November 15, 2005, and significantly limits the right of habeas corpus review for detainees, many of whom are of South Asian decent,at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp.

“Prior to this amendment the detainees had the right to challenge before a court whether they were properly imprisoned, with a full review of their status and circumstances,” says Ami Gadhia, Chair of NASABA’s Human Rights Committee. “Under this Amendment, however, the only thing that can be reviewed by a court is whether the Combatant Status Review Tribunal followed its own procedures, and whether subjecting an ‘alien enemy’ to the procedures is consistent with the Constitution.”

Supporters of the Amendment have claimed that the writ of habeas corpus should not be available to terrorists. “But they make a huge assumption that all of the detainees at Guantanamo are in fact terrorists,” responds Gadhia. According to the Wall Street Journal, 70 percent of the detainees there may be wrongfully imprisoned.

NASABA has a growing record of advocacy on behalf of the South Asian community. Recently, the organization has helped obtain Temporary Protected Status for tsunami and earthquake-affected nationals from South Asia. The organization has seen an increase in chapter growth and membership as many more South Asian American Attorneys are getting involved across the US to strengthen their professional development and betterment of the community.

The North American South Asian Bar Association advocates for the South Asian community; promotes alliances between South-Asian legal professionals in the US and Canada; helps law students and those interested in the law develop contacts with practitioners; and provides an avenue for professionals and other community leaders to take an interest in matters of concern to the South-Asian community.

December 11, 2005

Written by C.N.

More Pan-Asian Couples

East-West Magazine has an article in its latest issue that describes the increasing popularity and prominence of inter-ethnic/pan-Asian couples in recent years. In fact, they relied on a very authoritative source to describe their findings:

C.N. Le, chairman of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says he too has noticed a rise in inter-Asian dating. Using census data, he has found that about 10 percent of all married Asian Americans have a pan-Asian/inter-Asian spouse. Le’s research also shows that those who are in pan-Asian/inter-Asian marriages tend to be highly educated and have very high levels of socioeconomic achievement.

“So in a lot of ways, these inter-Asian couples are emerging as a notable part of the entire Asian American community,” he explains. Several factors may be contributing to this rise in inter-Asian relationships, Le says, including the increasing ethnic diversity in colleges and the growing Asian American population.

“I think another reason might be that young Asian Americans feel more free to explore all the marriage options available to them – endogamous (same ethnicity) spouse, white spouse or pan-Asian/inter-Asian spouse,” Le says. “Maybe some Asian Americans experimented with having a white boy/girlfriend and are now ready for something a little different.

Combined with the gradually improving portrayals of Asian Americans (especially men) in American society, they may see a pan-Asian/inter-Asian relationship as a fresh and new experience worth exploring.”

I sound rather authoritative, don’t I? Or not . . .

At any rate, my colleague J.J. Huang has done some tabulations using 2004 Census data that also confirms this trend toward more inter-ethnic/pan-Asian relationships. He finds that for some Asian groups (especially U.S.-raised women), they rates of marrying Whites has actually gone down in recent years while their rates for marring inter-ethnically have gone up.

This is an exciting trend that can potentially have significant consequences for the development and strengthening of a true pan-Asian American racial identity in years and decades to come.

December 9, 2005

Written by C.N.

Latest Asian American TV Roles Reports

As Reuters reports, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition has released its annual report on the representation of Asian Americans in primetime television shows on the four major networks. This year, the organization concludes that progress has been mixed with failures:

Progress has been “very mixed” for Asian Americans, said Karen Karasaki, chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition. “There has been some improvement, (but) in many areas the progress has slowed and, in some cases, is going backwards,” she said. . . . To the Asian groups, only ABC has shown consistent improvement, earning it the highest grade of the four networks. ABC was credited with making a long-term investment in pushing for more diversity at the network.

CBS was said to be showing modest results in terms of hiring Asian writers and directors, but it was not enough to get them out of last place. In fact, it was said that CBS has fewer Asians in regular roles than when the diversity initiative began five years ago. Fox was credited with including more Asians in their reality shows as well as using more Asian directors.

NBC’s robust talent diversity initiatives were noted, but its grade was ultimately lowered by the cancellation of several shows that featured Asian actors, the group said. “The cancellations also point out the fragility of diversity initiatives in the face of what it takes to make a show a commercial success,” the Asian media coalition said.

Unfortunately, this report is not terribly surprising. There may be some high-profile Asian American actors and directors (i.e., Ang Lee, John Woo, Justin Lin) out there, but taken as a whole, as the report describes, Asian Americans still lag far behind other racial groups in terms of representation behind and in front of the TV cameras.