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All posts copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le.
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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.

January 31, 2006

Written by C.N.

Revisionist India History in the U.S.

The Christian Science Monitor has a very interesting story about about an emerging academic and cultural controversy regarding Asian Indian history — nationalist (some would even call right wing) Hindu groups are trying to literally rewrite textbooks books to more positively reflect on Indian history and cultural achievements:

The foes – who include established historians and Hindu nationalist revisionists – are familiar to each other in India. But America may increasingly become their new battlefield as other US states follow California in rewriting their own textbooks to bone up on Asian history.

At stake, say scholars who include some of the most elite historians on India, may be a truthful picture of one of the world’s emerging powers – one arrived at by academic standards of proof rather than assertions of national or religious pride. . . . Here in India, Hindu nationalists have pushed forcefully for revisionism after what they see as centuries of cultural domination by the British Raj and Muslim Mogul Empire. . . .

This year, as California’s Board of Education commissioned and put up for review textbooks to be used in its 6th-grade classrooms, these two groups came forward with demands for substantial changes. . . . The hottest debate centered on when Indian civilization began, and by whom.

The article goes on to describe that the nationalist Hindu groups want to change textbooks to note that new research suggests that Hinduism (and the foundation of Indian history) actually originated within India, rather than from Aryan groups who migrated into India., although this theory has not been widely accepted by historians.

I’m certainly not an expert on Indian history, but this story should serve as a reminder that “history” is not a static phenomenon. In other words, it is not simply a collection of “facts” that stand by themselves for all eternity. Instead, as this story illustrates, “history” is constantly being modified, renegotiated, and fought over as a tool for political purposes.

And as the saying goes, “The victors get to write history.”

January 29, 2006

Written by C.N.

Vietnamese American Entrepreneurship

The New York Times has an article about the emergence of entrepreneurship among Vietnamese Americans, perhaps best symbolized by the opening of the first two banks owned by Vietnamese Americans in the U.S., both of which are located in Little Saigon, Orange County, CA:

[Until recently] the banking needs of the immigrant companies were served by major institutions, like the Bank of America and Wells Fargo, or by Chinese and Korean banks. But now, two new banks with investors and owners from the Vietnamese community have opened, indicating the rising prosperity of Vietnamese businesses in America and growing economic connections with a vibrant entrepreneurial sector back in Vietnam.

First Vietnamese American Bank raised more than $11 million in capital and opened in May. More than pride is at stake for ethnic groups in having banks of their own, said John J. Kennedy, president of the other new institution, Saigon National Bank, which opened in November. . . . Mr. Kennedy was hired to get Saigon National going by its founding investors, led by Kiem D. Nguyen, owner of one of the largest supermarkets in Little Saigon.

The article goes on to describe several other examples of Vietnamese American entrepreneurs who have opened businesses that have the ability to operate transnationally, in the U.S. and Viet Nam. In addition to banks that specialize in handling remittances (immigrants sending money back to family and relatives in Viet Nam), they include travel agencies, clothing and apparel import/export, software development and computer engineering, telecommunications, food processing, etc.

This is a positive development for Vietnamese Americans and American society in general in a lot of ways. Clearly the most obvious benefit is that as Vietnamese American entrepreneurship burgeons and businesses such as these prosper, it helps the American economy and the Vietnamese American economy.

But one indirect benefit that’s likely to result is that as more Vietnamese Americans do businesses with the government of Viet Nam, hopefully old tensions and hostilities between the two sides will gradually fade into the background. Instead, the spirit of commerce and capitalism will be paramount, which will hopefully benefit the Vietnamese American entrepreneurs but also improve the standard of living among the citizens of Viet Nam.

This entrepreneurial phenomenon is still in its infancy of course, but it definitely shows potential. Who would have thought that rather than dividing people up, capitalism is poised to bring people closer together in this case?

January 26, 2006

Written by C.N.

The Future of Outsourcing

As part of their feature on emerging trends in corporate outsourcing, BusinessWeek Magazine has one particular article entitled “Angling to be the Next Bangalore” that summarizes how rising wages, a growing shortage of skilled workers, and desires by companies to diversify their outsourcing options are all likely to lead to a decline in India’s share of the total outsourcing pie. With that in mind, several countries are positioning themselves to be viable outsourcing options in the future:

China leads the pack, thanks to its huge human resources and success attracting manufacturing work. Already a force in writing software built into other products, China is now chasing India’s lucrative IT and business services work. Russia, Brazil, and Mexico are likewise piling in, offering costs and skills often on par with India’s, plus advantages such as closer proximity to U.S. and European markets.

Even tiny countries such as Nicaragua, Botswana, and Sri Lanka are trying to grab the brass ring. To lure clients, they’re sending trade missions to outsourcing expos, subsidizing training and office parks, and offering tax breaks. . . . To compete, countries often must improve their telecoms, airports, and even business laws — moves that pay long-term dividends. Clean, well-paying service jobs boost demand for educated workers, an impetus to improving schools and training. . . .

Egypt is selling itself as a low-cost specialist in European language call centers. Singapore and Dubai say their safety and legal systems give them an edge in handling high-security and business-continuity services. The Philippines, a former U.S. colony, draws on long-standing cultural ties and solid English skills to snare Anglophone call-center work. And Central and South American countries use their Spanish skills to grab call-center contracts for the Hispanic market in the U.S.

You should definitely read the article to get the full story — it’s very descriptive and easy to digest. I don’t have too much to add here except to say that although India is likely to lose some of its luster as the international king of outsourcing, I think this trend toward greater outsourcing options is a positive development — in one key aspect. That is, as more countries get outsourced labor, the hostility and anger that many Americans have toward Indians who they accuse of “taking over their jobs” is likely to decline.

In other words, the “blame” will be spread around the world more uniformly, instead of being almost solely concentrated on India, as is the case now. Being the anti-capitalist liberal that I am, I’m still not a big fan of outsourcing in general. But if any good is coming out of these trends, hopefully it will make Americans see that their jobs are being outsourced to plenty of other countries, not just India.

January 24, 2006

Written by C.N.

Withdrawaling from Society in Japan

The New York Times has an article that describes an emerging phenomenon in many Asian countries, but particularly prominent in Japan — hikikomori — or withdrawaling oneself from any social interaction and shutting oneself in one’s house for months or even years on end:

Some hikikomori do occasionally emerge from their rooms for meals with their parents, late-night runs to convenience stores or, in Takeshi’s case, once-a-month trips to buy CD’s. And though female hikikomori exist and may be undercounted, experts estimate that about 80 percent of the hikikomori are male, some as young as 13 or 14 and some who live in their rooms for 15 years or more.

South Korea and Taiwan have reported a scattering of hikikomori, and isolated cases may have always existed in Japan. But only in the last decade and only in Japan has hikikomori become a social phenomenon. Like anorexia, which has been largely limited to Western cultures, hikikomori is a culturebound syndrome that thrives in one particular country during a particular moment in its history.

As the problem has become more widespread in Japan, an industry has sprung up around it. There are support groups for parents, psychologists who specialize in it (including one who counsels shut-ins via the Internet) and several halfway programs like New Start, offering dorms and job training.

For all the attention, though, hikikomori remains confounding. The Japanese public has blamed everything from smothering mothers to absent, overworked fathers, from school bullying to the lackluster economy, from academic pressure to video games.

The article goes on to emphasize the economic factors and pressures to be economically successful that may lead to hikikomori — how many Japanese feel that their value as a Japanese society is entirely dependent on their academic and job/ salary achievements and how that leads to an overwhelming sense of anxiety, alienation, and/or rejection of such prevailing norms.

The article also stresses that Japanese parents may be a primary contributor to the problem by first putting too much pressure on the child, along with not giving him enough affection and validation, then being too lax in allowing this phenomenon to go unaddressed.

Whatever the causes are, it’s a pretty sad phenomenon. Plus it does not bode well for Japan’s future. The article implies that the causes result from norms and customs that are fundamental embedded into the fabric of Japanese society and that are now clashing with postindustrial and globalized 21st century reality. In other words, don’t be surprised if this hikikomori phenomenon gets worse before it gets better.

January 22, 2006

Written by C.N.

Growing Up Asian American

Time Magazine has an article that summarizes many of the trials and tribulations young Asian Americans experience as they grow up Asian in America. These common experiences that many of them share include growing up in predominantly- or all-White neighborhoods and schools, enduring racial taunts from classmates, rejecting their Asian roots and culture so that they can fit into their surroundings, then reacquiring their Asian identity during college, and then forging a new Asian American identity that incorporates elements from both cultures:

Jack Tchen, director of Asian/Pacific/American Studies at N.Y.U., says these second-generation immigrants are beginning to find a middle ground and to “define a new modern form of Asian modernity, not necessarily the same as American modernity.” That is what sociologists call identity building, and for the second generation, it is based not on a common ethnicity, faith or language (except English) but on shared experience.

Which is what the six around the New York City table are discovering. For nearly three hours, they tell stories about their families, their work, their heartaches, their joys. They discuss their Asian identities and American habits. And they confess how hard it has been to walk an often lonely path. . . .

The talk about themselves provides some insights about their parents too. Rob Ragasa, 31, a Filipino-American high school teacher raised in New Jersey, reflects on his parents. “They had to come here and struggle. They had to be the first,” he says, then pauses for a moment. “Maybe we are like our parents,” he adds finally. “We are going to be pioneers too.”

It almost seems like a rite of passage to experience this form of assimilation by Asian Americans — rejection, rediscovery, then rebuilding. I’ve gone through it, almost all of my Asian American colleagues have gone through it, and many of my Asian American students are currently going through it.

It just goes to show that even though a young Asian American in this situation may feel that s/he is alone and isolated, s/he is actually going through what thousands, even millions of others have already gone through. Perhaps it can be a source of comfort to know that a seemingly personal process such as assimilation is also quite communal.

A perfect example of sociology in action, in fact.

January 19, 2006

Written by C.N.

Michelle Wie Update

You may remember that Michelle Wie is the 16 year old Korean American phenom who is predicted to set the golf world on fire and become the female equivalent of Tiger Woods. Despite only turning pro recently, she has played in several men’s tournaments, including this past weekend’s Sony Open. Unfortunately, this past weekend, similar to all other men’s tournaments in which she’s played, she again failed to make the cut. This had led some to say that her star is starting to wane a little bit:

Although the 16-year-old Honolulu schoolgirl is one of the most exciting drawcards in the game, whether playing well or badly, the novelty factor is likely to run out soon. . . . Australia’s Adam Scott, widely tipped as a future world number one, expressed mixed feelings at the Sony Open.

“I think it’s a good thing for golf at the moment,” he said. “It’s a big story in the game. I think we need all of the exposure we can get and the media hype. “If she starts making the cuts (in men’s events), then I think she can play in as many as she wants, as many as she can get into. “But I think it wears a bit thin on everyone if she were to keep missing all the cuts. There’s no doubt, though, she’s good enough to make the cut.”

Let’s keep this in perspective here — she is only 16 years old! She has her entire career ahead of her. How many 16 year old newly-professional women golfers have played in so many men’s tournaments? She may not yet have made the cut, but neither did she finish dead last in any of these tournaments. Along the way, she has played better than many seasoned male golfers.

In other words, it’s only a matter of “when,” not “if,” that Michelle claims the title of most exciting golfer in the world.

January 17, 2006

Written by C.N.

Changing Names Among Asian Americans

The Daily Northwestern college newspaper has an article that discusses a very common phenomenon among Asian Americans: changing one’s original name to an “American” name that should be easier for non-Asians to pronounce:

Whether they immigrate to the U.S. or have parents from other countries, some students adopt more traditional American names for a host of reasons. . . . Adopting a more traditional American name has a long history, [NU, Associate Director of the Asian American Studies Program Ji-Yeon Yuh] said. Ellis Island officials used to Americanize many immigrants’ names to make them easier to pronounce. . . .

“(There is) a long tradition of making fun of Asian names as nothing but grunts,” Yuh said. “It’s a racist tradition.” . . . But students with American and Asian names said they didn’t feel disconnected from their culture. Instead, they said there are advantages to having two names.

“I have both a Korean and American identity,” Han said. “Having an American and Korean name helps to kind of represent both of the cultures that I embody.”

Along with many other Asian Americans, I can personally relate to this story, since I also went by an American name for a while. Up until the 9th grade, I went by just my first name, Cuong. However, everybody pronounced it “Quong.” I got tired of that and because I wanted to just “fit in” like everyone else — another common theme across Asian America — from 9th grade until I graduate from college, I went by the American name “Sean.”

But after I started studying political science and sociology in college and learned that being Vietnamese and Asian American wasn’t a source of embarrassment or shame but of strength and inspiration, I decided that “Sean” didn’t reflect my rediscovered ethnic identity and pride anymore. I really wanted to go back to using “Cuong” but I didn’t want everybody constantly mispronouncing it, so I compromised and now go by my first and middle initials. Hence, C.N. Le.

I can appreciate that many Asian Americans don’t want to put up with the frequent embarrassment and humiliation of having their Asian names constantly mispronounced by others. At the same time, I hope that young Asian Americans out there eventually come to realize that part of being Asian American means asserting your own sense of identity that incorporates both Asian and American aspects.

In other words, I hope that, in the process of becoming American, they don’t forget that they are still Asian as well.

January 15, 2006

Written by C.N.

Western Culture Brings Obesity

The New York Times has an interesting article about Asian Americans — particularly recent immigrants — who, upon arrival into the U.S., are quickly assimilating into a particular unhealthy trend — eating too much junk food and putting themselves at greater risk for obesity and diabetes:

Asians, especially those from Far Eastern nations like China, Korea and Japan, are acutely susceptible to Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease and the subject of this series. They develop it at far lower weights than people of other races, studies show; at any weight, they are 60 percent more likely to get the disease than whites.

And that peril is compounded by recent immigrants’ sudden collision with American culture. Many of them left places where factory and field work was strenuous, televisions were rare and advertising was limited. They may speak little English and have poor access to medical care. . . .

Many recent Chinese immigrants have come from places where food was scarce, and experts say some view fat as a trophy of wealth and status. Their children try to fit into their new country by embracing its foods and its sedentary pastimes.

Alas, the march of American capitalism and its consumerist culture continues unabated. It is especially interesting — and rather discouraging — to see a healthy lifestyle that’s been predominant for thousands of years get abandoned and destroyed within a matter of minutes as Asian immigrants come to the U.S., or as more American fast food companies set up business in Asian countries.

Clearly, this is one aspect of American society that should not be incorporated into Asian culture. It will be really sad if this trend becomes part of the assimilation process for Asian immigrants — come to the U.S., learn English, get a good job, buy a house, get fat, and develop diabetes.

January 12, 2006

Written by C.N.

Japanese Again Defy Whaling Bans

What is up with Japan these days? Everywhere I look, I come across more and more examples that the Japanese are intent on deliberately antagonizing and alienating its Asian neighbors and the international community on various social issues. First, it’s the Japanese Prime Minister’s ongoing visits to a war shrine to honor Japanese war criminals during World War II. Then it’s the apparent rise of right-wing Japanese nationalism and xenophobia against South Korea and China.

And the latest news item is Japan’s continuing defiance of international bans on the hunting of whales. As reported by AFB/Yahoo News, Japanese whaling ships are currently skirmishing with Greenpeace boats that are trying to prevent them from completing their whaling mission:

The Arctic Sunrise and another Greenpeace ship, Esperanza, have been shadowing the Japanese whaling fleet since December 21, attempting to disrupt the hunt by putting activists in small inflatables between the harpooners and the whales.

The International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 but Japan has continued hunting for what it calls scientific research — a claim rejected by critics. Despite international protests, Japan has this year more than doubled its planned catch of minke whales to 935 and added 10 endangered fin whales, with plans to eventually lift the number to 50, along with 50 rare humpback whales.

It is curious why at a time when other Asian countries are increasingly integrating themselves into the international mainstream and opening themselves up — albeit very gradually — to cross-cultural and cross-ethnic relations and influences, with its neighbors, Japan seems to be the only country that is doing the exact opposite — increasingly alienating, antagonizing, and shunning its neighbors and the international community.

If I didn’t know better, I might say that Japan is increasingly acting like the U.S. . . .

January 11, 2006

Written by C.N.

Humans Originated in Asia?

As reported in National Geographic, based on evidence from two European archaeologists, there is increasing speculation that the human species may have originated not in Africa — as the scientific consensus has accepted — but in Asia:

Robin Dennell, of the University of Sheffield in England, and Wil Roebroeks, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, describe their ideas in the December 22 issue of Nature. They believe that early-human fossil discoveries over the past ten years suggest very different conclusions about where humans, or humanlike beings, first walked the Earth.

New Asian finds are significant, they say, especially the 1.75 million-year-old small-brained early-human fossils found in Dmanisi, Georgia, and the 18,000-year-old “hobbit” fossils (Homo floresiensis) discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Such finds suggest that Asia’s earliest human ancestors may be older by hundreds of thousands of years than previously believed, the scientists say.

Dennell and Roebroeks get support for their proposal from other experts. “I think this is an interesting and constructively provocative paper,” said Chris Stringer, a researcher in the department of palaeontology at London’s Natural History Museum.

“Evidence of humans in the Caucasus [region of Asia], China, and Java more than 1.6 million years ago implies either a very rapid spread from Africa after about 1.8 millions years ago, or that such populations were established outside Africa earlier than present evidence suggests,” he said. “I certainly think we should keep an open mind about the big picture.”

Clearly, there needs to be a lot more research in order to positively substantiate this new theory. But the evidence seems to be compelling. Ultimately, if this new theory about humans originating in Asia gains momentum and widespread acceptance, I hope that it doesn’t lead to a cultural backlash of Blacks against Asians, presuming that some Blacks may feel slighted that their ancestral land is no longer considered to be the birthplace of humanity.

This “backlash scenario” is all speculation of course. But above all else, this theory will hopefully only reinforce the obvious but often overlooked fact that we are all part of the human race — there may be cultural and ethnic differences, but we all originated from one original place. Whether that was Africa or Asia, it almost doesn’t really matter in my mind.

January 8, 2006

Written by C.N.

Asian Barbie Dolls

The holidays are obviously over now, but in my regular reading of AngryAsianMan, I came across these two “collector” Barbie dolls: Geisha Barbie and Chinese New Year Barbie.

Geisha BarbieChinese New Year Barbie

You can make up your own mind about whether or not this is a good thing. For me, it’s a little complicated because on several occasions, I’ve read how many Asian American cultural critics have lamented that there is no Asian American Barbie dolls for Asian American girls to play with as a reflection of their themselves. Now that they have Asian Barbies, we should feel satisfied, right?

Not necessarily, because you will notice that these Barbie dolls are based on Asian culture, not Asian American culture. As I keep telling my students, being Asian and being Asian American are not the same thing. On a certain level, it’s nice that the all-American Barbie line of dolls now includes those from other countries and cultures. But the vast majority of children who will be playing with these dolls do not live in Asia — they live in the U.S.

Therefore, in my mind, until there are Asian American Barbie dolls, the criticism will still continue.

January 4, 2006

Written by C.N.

South Korean Culture Influence in China

The New York Times reports that as China continues to modernize and forge its own path toward being an economic (and political) international superpower, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, much of its youth culture is actually influenced by South Korea:

From clothes to hairstyle, music to television dramas, South Korea has been defining the tastes of many Chinese and other Asians for the past half decade. As part of what the Chinese call the Korean Wave of pop culture, a television drama about a royal cook, “The Jewel in the Palace,” is garnering record ratings throughout Asia, and Rain, a 23-year-old singer from Seoul, drew more than 40,000 fans to a sold-out concert at a sports stadium here in October.

But South Korea’s “soft power” also extends to the material and spiritual spheres. Samsung’s cellphones and televisions are symbols of a coveted consumerism for many Chinese. Christianity, in the evangelical form championed by Korean missionaries deployed throughout China, is finding Chinese converts despite Beijing’s efforts to rein in the spread of the religion. South Korea acts as a filter for Western values, experts say, making them more palatable to Chinese and other Asians.

The article goes on to describe that American culture still has strong influences in China as well, but many Chinese still see American society as too foreign or far-removed from their own lives. In that sense, South Korean culture is more akin to Chinese culture and therefore its influences is more easily integrated into the lives of many Chinese.

The article also notes that as a reflection of China’s continuing tensions with Japan, most forms of Japanese culture are not as easily accepted and in fact, are frowned upon because of the ongoing unease that many Chinese have with Japan, resulting from its legacy of injustice and cruelty during World War II.

As a reflection of the idealistic goal of promoting a pan-Asian American identity in the U.S., I think it is a positive development that China is being influenced by other Asian cultures, in this case, South Korea. Perhaps this is a sign that Asian countries are becoming more open to influences from their Asian neighbors.

However, we should note that this is not always the case. As I posted earlier, this trend apparently isn’t valid inside Japan, where conservatives and nationalists are increasingly speaking out against various forms of Chinese and Korean culture. It is indeed sad to see that for various reasons, Japan is apparently set on further isolating itself and alienating its Asian neighbors even though it is Japan and Japanese society that is largely at fault for these tensions.

The other potential implication that I see arising from this trend toward more pan-Asian cultural influence is from the U.S. That is, will Americans see this trend toward more pan-Asian cultural integration as a sign that Asian countries are “uniting,” with the further implication being that once united, that Asian countries will “gang up” on the U.S. and become a more prominent threat, culturally, politically, economically, or even militarily?

That sounds like a rather implausible and far-fetched scenario, but at times like this where all non-Americans are seen as potential enemies by the current administration, I would not be surprised to see the U.S. move in that direction. More drastic changes in American policy have already taken place.