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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.

May 30, 2006

Written by C.N.

Politicians Wooing Asian Americans

Although it’s taken a while, there seem to be indications that politicians are starting to take Asian Americans seriously as a political bloc and constituency group. In addition to the gradually increasing numbers of Asian American politicians around the country, we find that more and more politicians are directly vying for the “Asian American” vote, as evidenced in California and New York:

It was only a matter of time, and political fairness, before Asians, who make up 11% of [New York City’s] population, began to claim a seat at the table of power, alongside our black, Latino, Irish, Jewish and Italian communities. That long-overdue time has come, and we can thank Queens Councilman John Liu for it.

Liu (D-Flushing) has been on a tear lately, using old-fashioned ethnic politics as a springboard to influence citywide issues. Liu’s rise is good for the city, reflecting the growing clout of New York’s Asian population. . . .

In a [California] Democratic primary that may be decided by a slender margin, the leading candidates are openly wooing what may be a pivotal voting bloc come June 6 — Asian-Americans. . . . “Asian-Americans are the second-fastest growing population in California, and they’re also the second-fastest growing voter bloc” behind Latinos, said Garry South, Westly’s senior strategist.

In 2002, when South worked for former Gov. Gray Davis, Davis became the first candidate for California governor to run TV ads in Asian languages. Targeting them, “is smart strategy.”

I see this as a positive trend. For the longest time, we as Asian Americans were largely ignored or worse, used and portrayed as “the enemy” by politicians playing off racist fears and xenophobia in order to get (re)elected. Is the tide now finally turning in favor of Asian Americans?

Before I can confidently say yes, I need to get some assurances that once politicians are elected with Asian American votes that they will remember that help and support policies that Asian Americans tend to favor, such as higher immigration quotas, shorter waits to sponsor family and relatives, and strong support for education.

In this context, it would make matters a little simpler if Asian Americans were more unified in terms of political ideology (about two-thirds tend to vote Democratic while one-third votes Republican). But perhaps that will come in time — for now, we need to continue showing the political establishment that we have numbers and dollars and that numbers and dollars mean power.

May 28, 2006

Written by C.N.

Lack of Representation in Police Departments

It’s no secret that Asian Americans have become majorities in many cities and communities all around the U.S. Most of these towns are located in California but there are several in the New York City/northern New Jersey metropolitan area as well. However, their growing numbers are unfortunately not represented in these cities’ police departments:

Over the past 20 years, so many Korean strivers have crossed the Hudson River from New York City enclaves that almost half of the 17,000 residents are Korean-American and 90 percent of the shops are Korean-owned. But while Koreans have transformed Palisades Park, one place where they have had only a marginal impact is its police department.

Of the 42 police and traffic officers, only 3 are Korean. And other New Jersey communities that have had robust influxes of Asians stepping up to the comforts of suburbia, like Fort Lee, Edison, Leonia, Closter and Ridgefield, also have tiny fractions of Asian officers, or none at all. The reason is not principally old-boy-network favoritism or outright discrimination, some New Jersey Asian officers say.

Rather, they say, [few are] applying for police jobs. Often, Asian parents who have high ambitions for their children will tell sons or daughters who aspire to police work that it is not the type of career for which they endured the upheaval of immigration. Then, too, Koreans, Chinese and some other Asians come from societies that look down upon police officers as corrupt, brutal or unlettered.

The article highlights some of the concerns that Asian Americans (particularly parents) tend to have about becoming police officers. It also highlights that some localities, such as the NYPD, have made notable gains. However, it also mentions that mechanism of disadvantage still exist for Asian Americans who want to become police officers.

The benefits of having a police force that mirrors the characteristics of their community should be pretty obvious, especially when it comes to Asian immigrants, many of whom may be reluctant to trust law enforcement officials. So again, the question comes down to whether police departments will walk the walk — instead of just talking the talk — and actively and sincerely recruit Asian police officers.

Or will they just let the status quo and organizational inertia rule the day while the rest of American society passes them by?

May 25, 2006

Written by C.N.

Rash of Family Violence Among Asians

In recent months, there have been several highly-publicized incidents in which Asian men have murdered or attempted to murder family members due to depression and mental anguish set on by financial and other personal difficulties. This has led many Asians and non-Asians to look at what cultural factors may push some Asian men to become so desperate:

Seven deaths within one week in spasms of family violence have plunged this city’s Koreatown into questioning its immigrant culture of stoically bearing the stresses of adjusting to American life. Three Korean-born men allegedly killed spouses or children, and in two cases killed themselves, police reports say.

The killings April 2-9 echo murder-suicides in recent years among immigrant Chinese and Filipinos in California and among Laotian Hmong refugees in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Mental health professionals are searching for explanations. Many say that traditional Asian values of patriarchy and reticence may make these immigrant families more vulnerable to murder and suicide when they encounter setbacks than groups from other countries.

Among fathers emigrating from Asia, “there’s a mentality of, ‘If I’m a failure, I make my whole family look bad, and we’re all in this together, for better or for worse,’ ” says Helen Hsu, a psychologist with Asian Community Mental Health Services in Oakland. “And there’s a huge social stigma in a man seeking help, telling people he’s having family problems or he’s depressed.”

I’ve written before about the incessant drive that many Asians and Asian Americans tend to have for material success, status, and prestige, and how this near-obsession has led many to pay Americans to adopt their children and a few high-profile cases of scientific fraud. Unfortunately, it’s these kinds of high-pressure individual and cultural expectations that are likely behind these incidents of family violence.

As the article points out, these problems are compounded when Asian community leaders deny or minimize the problem, thinking that it will bring more shame onto their community to acknowledge these risks. In fact, the article points to Korean church leaders and ministers in particular as guilt of this kind of denial.

For the sake of all of our communities, let’s hope that more of us will wake up and see that there are limits to this drive for material success and that it will hurt our community more in the short and long run if we turn a blind eye to the problem and deny that it even exists.

If there is one aspect of American society that we as Asian Americans need to adopt immediately is the ability to acknowledge the potentially devastating effects of stress and that mental health is just as important as material status or prestige. In other words, life is not all about money — the health of our family is just one example.

May 23, 2006

Written by C.N.

U.S.’s National Language: English

This past Thursday, the Senate voted to declare English as the “National Language” of the U.S.:

The Senate first voted 63-34 to make English the national language after lawmakers who led the effort said it would promote national unity. But critics argued the move would prevent limited English speakers from getting language assistance required by an executive order enacted under President Clinton.

So the Senate also voted 58-39 to make English the nation’s “common and unifying language.” . . . “We are trying to make an assimilation statement,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. . . . Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., disputed charges that making English the national language was racist or aimed at Spanish speakers. Eleven Democrats voted for his measure.

I suppose this particular piece of legislation is different from previous “Official English” campaigns that would have forbidden government agencies from conducting any aspect of official government business in any other language besides English (i.e., government translators, official documents, voting information, etc.). So on the one hand, there does not appear to be any change in official government policy as a result.

Nonetheless, I am still disappointed that the anti-foreigner (legal and illegal) sentiment that seems to be increasing pervasive in our society continues to gain momentum. Supporters of this legislation will argue that rather than discriminating against non-English speakers, the intention here is to promote assimilation and a common culture.

However, the implicit belief behind official statements like this is that all other languages and national cultures are inherently inferior to American culture and American English. In other words, it is nothing more than another attempt to force a normative standard of what it traditionally means to be an “American” onto others, and that traditional image is implicitly White, Christian, and English-speaking.

The fact is, most immigrants already speak English rather well. Sure, some newer immigrants (particular those who may be illegal immigrants) may not, but they know that in order for them to become successful in American society in any meaningful way, they will need to learn English. Being told that their ancestral language is not welcomed in the U.S. is nothing short of a government-sanctioned slap in the face.

In other words, this is another sign of the growing the backlash against multiculturalism, multilingualism, and racial/ethnic diversity in American society. When any group is power — in this case Whites — begins to feel threatened, moves such as this are inevitable as they try to reassert their cultural power and dominance. Sad to see, but not entirely unexpected.

May 21, 2006

Written by C.N.

Bra Sizes in China Getting Bigger

One of the many stereotypes about Asians (in this case, Asian women) is that they tend to be flat-chested, as opposed to the idealized image of the big-busted American woman. Well, that may be changing, as bra makers are finding that there is a growing demand for larger bra sizes among Chinese women:

Hong Kong-based lingerie firm Embry Group no longer produces A-cups for larger chest circumferences and has increased production of C-, D- and E-cup bras to meet pressing demand. The Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology released a report last week saying the average chest circumference of Chinese women has risen by nearly 1 cm (0.4 inch) to 83.53 cm (32.89 inches) since the early 1990s, the daily said. This phenomenon, it said, was due to women eating more nutritiously and taking part in more sport.

I’m no biologist or nutritionist, but it strikes me as a little strange that women’s chests can grow that much in a relatively short amount of time, due to just better eating habits and more exercise. I may be wrong, but I thought that chest size is almost completely due to genetics.

Whatever the case is, you can be judge about whether this trend is a positive one — that Chinese women are defying age-old stereotypes against them, or that they are increasingly emulating American women.

May 18, 2006

Written by C.N.

China Limiting Foreign Adoptions to Gays

As it currently stands, many (but not all) adoption agencies have no problems with gays/lesbians adopting children. Up to now, neither have foreign countries, including Asian ones. Apparently, that is starting to change as China is starting to limit the number of adoptions by gays/lesbians into the U.S.:

Adoption of babies from China declined by 17 percent in 2004 after several years of increases, the report showed. The data are the most recent available for adoptions in the state, and many agencies say they believe Massachusetts adoptions from China have continued to decline since then.

The decline is largely the result of the Chinese government’s decision to severely limit the number of single people who can adopt, local adoption officials said. They say the Chinese government enforced these rules after being troubled by publicity in the late 1990s over gay parents in the United States raising Chinese babies.

Now, agencies say, Chinese officials allow no more than 8 percent of the country’s children who are adopted to be placed with single people, and requires all applicants to sign statements that they are not gay or lesbian.

The article also speculates that the decline in Chinese adoptions in Massachusetts could also be due to a tight economy and rising adoption fees. Nonetheless, I find this to be a troubling trend. Foreign adoption can be a very emotional issue for many Asian Americans, some of whom worry that too many Asian adoptees grow up in predominantly White families without a real sense of their Asian ethnic identity.

But even beyond that, it seems as though China is increasingly following another trend popularized in America — discriminating against gays and lesbians. Just like capitalist consumerism and unhealthy fast food, homophobic paranoia seems to be the latest export from America pervading Chinese society. Globalization at its best — or worst, depending on how you look at it.

Update: Several adoption agencies are reporting that as of May 1, 2007, China will ban foreign adoptions to those who are over 50, unmarried, gay/lesbian, or obese.

May 16, 2006

Written by C.N.

New Orleans Vietnamese Protest Toxic Landfill

We all know by now that nine months after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans area is still cleaning up and trying to recover. As part of that process, city officials want to create a new landfill for the remains of houses and other debris destroyed by the hurricane. The problem is that this proposed landfill is located right next to a large Vietnamese neighborhood in New Orleans:

More than a thousand Vietnamese-American families live less than two miles from the edge of the new landfill. And they are far from pleased at having the moldering remains of a national disaster plunked down nearby, alongside the canal that flooded their neighborhood when Hurricane Katrina surged through last year.

Environmental groups are also angry, accusing local and federal officials of ignoring or circumventing their own regulations, long after the immediate emergency has ended. The same thing happened after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, they warn, and that dump ended up becoming a Superfund site. . . . State officials say that the new landfill is safe and that they are simply moving quickly to protect public health and the environment. . . .

The state has agreed to do some extra monitoring of groundwater, Dr. Brown said. But it has determined “there’s nothing toxic, nothing hazardous,” he continued. “There will be no impact” on the community, which is sometimes called Versailles. Like so many disputes that have erupted since the hurricane, this one involves some highly charged issues: politics, money, history and race. Not to mention a highly developed distrust of government that almost all Louisianians now seem to share.

I obviously don’t know all the details of this particular issue but at first glance, it seems like it is a clear example of environmental racism — purposely targeting poor and/or minority neighborhoods and areas for toxic dumps, landfills, factories, and other environmentally-dangerous projects. I may be a little cynical, but something tells me that one of the reasons why this particular site was chosen was because officials implicitly felt that its residents were relatively powerless and would not be able to put up much resistance.

It would be really sad if this were true and if the proposed site is finalized, since the Vietnamese of New Orleans were one of the first to return and to rebuild their communities. Yes it would be sad — but not entirely surprising, and that would be most unfortunate part of it all, that once again, government bureaucracy and capitalism trumps basic human dignity and community needs.

May 14, 2006

Written by C.N.

East Asians at Risk for Hepatitis

For whatever reasons, we don’t hear much about the health and well-being of Asian Americans much. Perhaps there is an impression that we are somehow more immune or less likely to get most diseases. However, new data show that among east Asian immigrants in new York City, one out of seven carries the hepatitis B virus:

The condition puts them at far greater risk than other Americans for deadly diseases like liver cancer and cirrhosis. Most of the people tested had no idea that they were infected, a fact that frustrates doctors who know that with proper screening and treatment, the disease can be controlled, if not cured. But three-quarters of the people in the study had no health insurance, and even those who did had trouble getting coverage for screening.

The study, led by researchers at New York University School of Medicine, found that 15 percent of east Asians in New York — as many as 100,000 people — are chronic hepatitis carriers, with the rate highest among immigrants from China. That infection rate is 35 times the rate found in the general population. The New York State cancer registry shows rates of liver cancer among Asian-Americans 6 to 10 times as high as for whites.

Because Hepatitis B is endemic in many Asian countries, growth in the number of Asian immigrants in New York and across the country has made the disease a broad, expensive, emerging health problem.

I thank the New York Times for helping to publicize this issue and I urge all Asian Americans, especially east Asian immigrants, to get tested as soon as possible. For a listing of free and confidential testing clinics in the New York City area, visit the NYC Dept. of Health website.

May 11, 2006

Written by C.N.

Student Protests at Gallaudet University

You may have heard about student and faculty protests over the naming of a new President of Gallaudet University, the world’s only four year liberal arts university that is completely tailored to deaf students and for many, the cultural center of the deaf world.

Some have criticized the new President Jane Fernandes (who was the Provost of the university at the time) for being a weak leader or dissatisfied with her work and administrative style while she was Provost. But the most interesting criticism against her is that she is not deaf enough — she didn’t learn sign language until her early 20s and that no one else in her family is deaf.

The newly chosen president of Gallaudet University, the nation’s only liberal arts college for the deaf, received a no-confidence vote from the faculty Monday in a dispute that she said comes down to whether she is “deaf enough” for the job.

The vote, which passed 93-43, is nonbinding. The fate of Jane K. Fernandes rests with the board of trustees, which has said it will not alter its decision to hire her. . . .

Deaf education has been roiled in recent years by the development of cochlear implants and other technology. Some say such developments threaten sign language and other aspects of what they call deaf culture; others welcome such advances.

Clearly, I am not an expert when it comes to deaf culture or deaf education. As an Asian American myself, I am also very sensitive to the calls for respect, self-determination, and representation by a cultural minority group that is traditionally marginalized in mainstream American society.

At the same time, I am a little taken aback by criticisms that this new President is not “deaf enough.” It is one thing to criticize her because of her academic record and performance as Provost of the university. But it is one thing to reject her based solely or even primarily because she does not embody the absolute ideal picture of a “true” deaf person.

In trying to relate this issue to a field like Asian American Studies, I would also feel that it would be rather unfair to arbitrarily reject, say a Director of an Asian American Studies department or program, just because s/he may not be fluent in his/her ancestral Asian language, or because his/her partner is non-Asian, or s/he may be a multiracial Asian American. In other words, there are many ways to exemplify an Asian American identity.

In the same way that a person does not have to have cancer in order to understand the issues and be genuinely concerned about those who do, I also feel that placing these kinds of “requirements” on leaders can go too far and be rather arbitrary and unfair. As the article notes about the outgoing Gallaudet President, “Jordan, who backed Fernandes’ selection, said the current protest reflects ‘identity politics’ and a refusal to accept change. ‘We are squabbling about what it means to be deaf,’ he said.”

Update: A reader emailed me to point out that although the media has emphasized these criticisms of Fernandes not being “deaf enough,” that is not a true concern among students at all. Instead, the reader emphasized her poor record as Provost as the heart of the criticisms against her.

May 9, 2006

Written by C.N.

New Asian American DC Comics Hero

I just read on that DC Comics has created a new Asian American hero character, a Korean American scientist who becomes the superhero Atom.

New DC Comics character Atom © DC Comics

I’m not a comic book fan, but I had generally believed that if Asian or Asian American characters were included in comic books that they were almost always villains or helpless victims. It’s very nice to finally see that Asian Americans can be superheroes as well.

Now we’ll just have to see whether this new Asian American Atom ends up with the girl as well . . .

May 7, 2006

Written by C.N.

Parental Pressure Leads to Murder

As many of us can tell you, Asian parents can be pretty demanding. Some may even say that the pressure many Asian parents put on their children to succeed may border on obsessive and overbearing. Unfortunately, in the case of 16 year old Esmie Tseng of Kansas, it appears that the pressure she experienced from her mother was more like abuse, and in the end, resulted in her murdering her mother:

Esmie was ranked among the best classical pianists of her age in the state. She got top marks in school. She competed in athletic meetings and was on the debating team. She was – in the words of local father Jacob Horwitz – “a kid any parent would be proud of”. . . . Esmie had for years been wrestling with her feelings for her parents, Chinese immigrants who, she said, held her to impossibly high standards.

They had threatened to sell her piano if she did not win a state-wide competition, she wrote. She said they had grounded her for scoring only 96% in an exam. And, when she disappointed them, she said they had forced her to stand naked in a corner. Like many teenagers with diaries, she had written of her hatred for them, especially her mother. . . .

Ten days later, she stabbed her mother to death with a knife in an incident that apparently took the mother and daughter through several rooms of their home. . . . [Horwitz] was stunned when Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison pushed successfully for Esmie to be tried as an adult rather than a juvenile. Esmie pleaded guilty in an adult court to voluntary manslaughter. Prosecution and defense have agreed to recommend a sentence of 100 months – just under eight-and-a-half years.

This has to be one of the most tragic stories in a long while. Clearly there is no excuse for murder, particularly “hacking someone to death with a butcher knife” as the prosecutor describes. Just like the case of Chai Vang who shot seven White men who are believed to have racially taunted him over a hunting dispute, experiencing abuse is not an acceptable reason for this kind of murderous violence.

At the same time, this sad story hopefully illuminates the toll and damage that overbearing parental pressure and abuse can have on a young person, regardless of race or immigrant status. Unfortunately too many parents (in particular Asian ones) cannot understand or accept that life is not all be about achieving status and material success.

If Asian parents insist on putting so much pressure on their children, there will be consequences, sooner or later. We should all hope that such consequences will not be as extreme or violent as what happened here, but the emotional and psychological toll can be just as damaging for all involved. Another .2 increase in GPA or 200 point different on the SAT just isn’t worth that kind of pain.

In other words, families should be about love, not status.

May 5, 2006

Written by C.N.

Emerging Asian Community in Quincy, MA

As a resident of Massachusetts, I was interested to read about a burgeoning and emerging Asian American community in Quincy, MA. Although Asians now make up about a quarter of the city’s population, the city’s leadership is still comprised of White men:

For years, people have been talking about the changing face of Quincy. The historically white, blue-collar city has a fast-growing Asian population that now makes up almost a quarter of the whole. Almost 30 percent of students in the city’s schools are Asian. There are a growing number of Asian-owned businesses.

But the official face of Quincy is virtually frozen. The nine men who sit on the City Council are white. There are no Asian-Americans on the School Committee. Mayor William Phelan said he respects the Asian presence in the city and maintains good relationships with his Asian constituents. But each year, he confessed, he has to be retaught how to say “Happy New Year” in Chinese.

As sociologists and demographers can tell you, Quincy is not the only city in the U.S. that is undergoing this type of racial/ethnic transition. What these scholars will also tell you that inevitably, there will be some minor and major conflicts in this transition process. We’ll just have to see how Quincy fares as it gradually integrates its Asian American population into the community and its power structure.

Update: On April 30, 2006, four Asian American professionals were arrested and charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct in Quincy. The Quincy police claimed that all four tried to attack the police while the four Asian Americans claimed that they did nothing to warrant being brutalized and sprayed repeatedly with pepper spray. Looks like integrating Asians in Quincy still has a ways to go.