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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.

August 31, 2007

Written by C.N.

Fake Diploma Scandal in South Korea

You might recall that last year, a South Korean scientist was disgraced after he admitted that he fabricated some breakthrough stem cell research. As it turns out, that particular incident was only the beginning — as the Associated Press/ reports, there’s been a recent wave of scandals involving fabricated diplomas and other educational credentials among prominent South Koreans:

The scandal[s are] also prompting a renewed look at South Korea’s obsession with titles rather than merit, and the difficulties faced by a society rapidly modernizing while still steeped in Confucian values of scholarship and hierarchy. . . .

Cheong So-bok, author of a recent book examining contemporary Korean society, blames conflicts between tradition and speedy development. “Rapid modernization in recent decades clashing with traditions and Confucian beliefs has created an ethical void that fails to identify individuals as themselves — only by their labels,” he said.

Chung Jin-Soo, a theater professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, said the problem shows South Koreans need to focus more on merit. “We need a set of fair-game rules that prevent academic credentials from being the sole judging criteria,” he said. “The vanity pervasive in Korean society leading to individuals exaggerating their academic credentials — this must stop.”

As I wrote back then regarding Hwang Woo-suk’s fabricated stem cell research, and as was eluded to in the article above, incidents like this highlight the almost-obsessive drive among many South Koreans and many Asian Americans in general for materialistic forms of success, accomplishment, and status.

As I and other Asian Americans have noticed about members of our racial group, in many instances Asian Americans seem to be the most status-conscious group of people on earth. This drive for materialism and status goes too far when it compels people to be dishonest to themselves and to others.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with materialistic success. If people want to devote their lives to being able to buy big-ticket luxury items, that’s their prerogative. It only needs to be accomplished through valid and legitimate means, not through fabricated credentials.

August 29, 2007

Written by C.N.

Race to Space Between China and Japan

The historical rivalry between China and Japan has existed for centuries, perhaps even millennia, whether it relates to military power back in feudal times or political and economic superiority today in the 21st century. Now, as the Associated Press/ reports, their rivalry has literally been taken to a new level as both countries compete to launch space missions to the moon:

With Asia’s biggest powers set to launch their first unmanned lunar missions — possibly as early as next month — the countdown has begun in the hottest space race since the United States beat the Soviet Union to the moon nearly four decades ago. . . .

Officials have tried to play down the importance of beating each other off the pad, but their regional rivalry is never far below the surface. “I don’t want to make this an issue of win or lose. But I believe whoever launches first, Japan’s mission is technologically superior,” said Yasunori Motogawa, an executive at JAXA, Japan’s space agency. “We’ll see which mission leads to the scientific breakthroughs.” . . .

Regional powers India, South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan all have satellites in orbit. North Korea says it sent one up with its 1998 ballistic missile launch. . . . [Japan’s moon mission] involves placing a main satellite in orbit around the moon and deploying two smaller satellites in polar orbits to study the moon’s origin and evolution. . . . China’s Chang’e 1 orbiter will use stereo cameras and X-ray spectrometers to map three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and study its dust.

This competition to reach the moon first should not be a surprise to anyone who knows something about the relationship between China and Japan. They are two economic and political superpowers (and in China’s case, also a military power) who now also want to be known as a superpower in space exploration.

Like two brothers constantly trying to outdo the other, rather than stopping at the moon, these space missions are only the beginning — or the continuation — of their long-established rivalry to gain more status and prestige over the other.

August 27, 2007

Written by C.N.

Bush’s Vietnam-Iraq Analogy

You may have heard that President Bush recently tried to use the legacy of the Viet Nam to his advantage by saying that if the U.S. would have stayed in the Viet Nam War longer then it perhaps could have even won or at least prevented the rise of communist regimes such as the Khmer Rouge. Clearly this is his attempt to counter his critics who are increasingly comparing the U.S.’s involvement in Iraq to that in Viet Nam. Not surprisingly, his critics here in the U.S. and in Viet Nam have jumped on this analogy as another sign that Bush is completely out of touch with reality:

People in Vietnam . . . said Thursday that Mr. Bush drew the wrong conclusions from the long, bloody Southeast Asian conflict. “Doesn’t he realize that if the U.S. had stayed in Vietnam longer, they would have killed more people?” said Vu Huy Trieu of Hanoi, a veteran of the communist forces that fought American troops in Vietnam. “Nobody regrets that the Vietnam War wasn’t prolonged except Bush.” . . .

Ton Nu Thi Ninh, former chairwoman of the National Assembly’s committee on foreign affairs, said Mr. Bush was unwise to stir up sensitive memories of the Vietnam War. “The price we, the Vietnamese people on both sides, paid during the war was due to the fact that the Americans went into Vietnam in the first place,” Ninh said.

Mr. Bush’s comments drew criticism from politicians and historians who claimed he did not understand the lessons of the Vietnam War or was using the wrong historical lessons to sell our military’s continued presence in Iraq. . . .

“The president emphasized the violence in the wake of American withdrawal from Vietnam. But this happened because the United States left too late, not too early,” said Steven Simon, a Mideast expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It was the expansion of the war that opened the door to (Khmer Rouge leader) Pol Pot and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. The longer you stay, the worse it gets.”

I don’t even know where to begin here. First of all, it’s rather ironic that Bush is lecturing us on the Viet Nam War since he purposely did everything he could to avoid serving his country and joining the military at the time. Second, I will leave it up to his critics who can much more eloquently explain the logical fallacies of his argument that the U.S. should have stayed longer, other than to say that this is the same logic he’s been using to keep doing the same old, same old stuff in Iraq.

Ultimately, I think the larger question is, would I, my family, and the entire Vietnamese American community have been better off if the U.S. would have stayed out of Viet Nam altogether? My answer is, to be perfectly honest, if there would have been no U.S. involvement in the Viet Nam War, I don’t think I would be here living in the U.S.

In fact, I am confident that in absolute and relative terms, my life would be worse off today if the U.S. never got involved (I might even say I may have never even been born since my parents met each other when they were both working for the U.S. military in Saigon).

As I have said repeatedly, I am eternally thankful for the U.S. in giving me and about a million other Vietnamese Americans the chance to start a new life here where we have basic individual freedoms that billions of people around the world do not have.

My quarrel is not with American society — it’s with politicians like Bush who try to rewrite history to fit their political agenda.

August 23, 2007

Written by C.N.

Controversy Over Martin Luther King Memorial

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year or so, you know that China is all over the news lately. And almost all of that media and public attention has not been flattering. To add more fuel to the fire, the Washington Post has an article describing the controversy surrounding the upcoming memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. to be placed in Washington DC — the sculptor is from China:

Yixin Lei and his sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr.

For China’s artists, the selection of [Yixin] Lei as the lead sculptor for the project, to be unveiled in 2009 on the Mall, is a triumphant moment. It is a recognition of how rapidly their status has progressed in the generation that has grown up since the repressive years of the Cultural Revolution.

Not everyone feels this way. Atlanta resident Lea Winfrey Young says the “outsourcing” by U.S. companies and organizations to China has gone too far this time. She and her husband, Gilbert Young, a painter, are leading a group of critics who argue that an African American — or any American — should have been picked for such an important project.

“Dr. King’s statue is to be shipped here in a crate that supposedly says ‘Made in China.’ That’s just obscene,” Winfrey Young says. By awarding the contract to a Chinese artist, the foundation financing the project has touched on sensitivities at the core of U.S.-Sino relations: nationalism, racism and worries about what China’s emergence as an economic and cultural world power means for America. . . .

In Lei’s home town of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, talk of the controversy in the United States draws not anger but bewilderment. Wasn’t it King’s dream to end all racism? Lei asked. “He has always dreamed that people from all over the world will not be judged by the color of their skin — that we would all be brothers and sisters and enjoy equal opportunity. Now I have the luck to get this opportunity,” he said.

To be fair, I can see where the criticisms on the choice of sculptor come from. The Civil Rights Movement was a defining moment not only for American society and history, but particularly for the African American community. It was a proud and shining moment in which they collectively showed their strength, determination, and pride. Their most important leader of course, was Martin Luther King Jr.

Since he was the most visible public figure from such a socially significant time period and represents an almost God-like hero to the entire African American community, I can see why Blacks feel insulted that the sculptor for a monument to their leader was not “one of them.” There are parallels to the Asian American community, such as in the examples of “yellowface” where White actors are cast to portray Asian characters, the most recent example of which was Brian Dennehy playing Kublai Khan.

At the same time, Lei’s supporters are absolutely right when they say that one of Dr. King’s most enduring legacies is that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. In this case, the sculptor was chosen for the quality and impact of his creative work. It just so happened that he is Chinese.

In recent incidents about the sub-par and even dangerous quality of goods made in China, Americans certainly have a right to complain and to be wary of such Chinese “products.” But in this case, Dr. King’s memorial is not being “outsourced” overseas like it is some kind of t-shirt or toothpaste or running shoe. It is being created by a world-renown artist who happens to be Chinese.

If we recall, the some of the same criticisms were leveled at Maya Lin when she won the competition to design the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC. Many veterans were insulted and offended that the lead designer was not “one of them,” otherwise phrased as a White male, or at least someone who more accurately fit the conventional picture of an “American.”

But as it turned out, the Viet Nam War Memorial is the most popular attraction in Washington DC and Maya Lin’s simple, elegant, and poignant design has proved incredibly moving and healing to millions of Americans from all backgrounds.

I would like to ask the African American community to give Yixin Lei the same opportunity to come through with an equally impressive tribute.

August 21, 2007

Written by C.N.

Asian Intermarriage Patterns in Britain

All around the Internet, the topic of interracial dating and marriage among Asian Americans is a hotly-debated topic. There are lots of strong opinions on both sides and discussions on blogs and message boards can get pretty hot rather quickly on this topic. Within this context, as a sociologist, I try to contribute valid and reliable research and data that will hopefully help people understand the phenomenon in a slightly more objective way. Toward that end, Asian News in Britain has an article that looks at interracial dating and marriage patterns among British Asians:

Whilst 87 per cent of white people would consider a mixed race marriage, just over half of Asians felt the same. Only 53 per cent of Asians would consider dating someone who is white and 44 per cent of Asians would consider dating someone who is black. Twice as many young white people would go out with a black person as would a young Asian whilst just 44 per cent of Asians would do so.

Young Asians appear to have a very different attitude to homosexuality compared to whites. Under half of young Asians think homosexuality is immoral compared to eight per cent of young white people.

The picture here seems to suggest that in contrast to Asian Americans and to British Whites, British Asians are less likely to consider interracial dating and marriage — they are more likely to prefer to stay with their own racial/ethnic group.

Overall, I guess I’m not surprised because I have heard informally that British Asians are not as assimilated into mainstream British society as Asian Americans are assimilated into mainstream American society. I am not sure what is the reason for that, however. It may be that British Asians (most of whom tend to be Indian if I’m correct) choose to stay socially separate from mainstream British, or that mainstream British are perhaps less welcoming of Asians than their American counterparts.

As always, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

August 19, 2007

Written by C.N.

New Movie Connects Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans

As another interesting example of my recent focus on new forms of assimilation, in which Asian Americans increasingly combine elements of mainstream American society with their traditional ethnic culture in an transnational and globalized context, New American Media has an article about a new movie that includes this theme and connects Vietnamese with Vietnamese Americans:

In the movie, Cuong (Johnny Nguyen), a French-educated Vietnamese seduces Thuy (Van Ngo), the French fighting daughter of a famous rebellion leader, and follows her back to her father’s village hideout in order to arrest him. Not far behind them is the evil Sy (Dustin Nguyen – 21 Jump Street, V.I.P.), a mixed race Vietnamese-French attack dog with powerful martial art skills and a small army — all to make sure that Cuong obeys his orders.

What ensues is Cuong’s internal conflict and a series of dazzling Vietnamese-style martial arts fights. . . . The Rebel is a breakthrough because it’s the first martial arts movie of its kind made in Vietnam, and it manages to find a common ground for an otherwise politically diverse population. . .

It was why both in Vietnam and in Little Saigon in Orange County, where the largest and most influential population of Vietnamese living abroad resides, and where protest against the Vietnamese government is as regular as clockwork, the responses to the movie were equally enthusiastic. . . .

But international cooperation has paved the way for a series of important cooperative film projects, providing much-needed foreign capital and expertise to the Vietnamese film industry. Now with local talents emerging and Vietnamese Americans like Johnny Nguyen, Tony Bui, Dustin Nguyen, and Ham Tran, all with Hollywood experiences, poised to make movies in Vietnam, the country suddenly has a bona fide film industry.

I hope that The Rebel will be showing in my neck of the woods, otherwise I’ll have to wait for it to come out on DVD, just like I’m waiting for Journey from the Fall to come out on DVD. From what it sounds like, both movies will be worth the wait.

Until then, kudos to everyone involved and keep up the good work.

August 17, 2007

Written by C.N.

Podcast on Korean American Novel

A reader from KQED Public Broadcasting in San Francisco emailed me to let me know that their station has a regular reading series called “The Writers’ Block” that showcases writers and performers reading the latest short fiction, non-fiction, theater and poetry. A recent podcast features author Min Jin Lee reading from Free Food for Millionaires, a novel about a young Korean-American woman navigating post-college America.

If you’d like to check it out, the link is I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, so I can’t necessarily endorse its contents at the moment, but wanted to pass the word along for those who are interested.

August 15, 2007

Written by C.N.

China as a Political Issue

As almost everyone knows by know, China has been in the news a lot recently, for many different reasons — unsafe goods imported into the U.S., continuing economic growth and competition with the U.S., and its upcoming hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, to name just a few. Not surprisingly, within this context, such issues involving China have become hot political topics as well. As the Associated Press/ reports, all of the Presidential candidates are staking out their positions on what to do about China:

Candidates have been raising, in debates and campaign stops, what they see as China’s failure to live up to its duties as an emerging global superpower. But they also recognize that the U.S. needs China, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, to secure punishment for Iran’s nuclear program and to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. . . .

Many of the comments, however, have been complaints, as candidates work to connect with voters increasingly worried about China’s huge military buildup, its flood of goods into the U.S., its ability to influence violence in Sudan’s Darfur region, its repression of minorities, dissidents and journalists.

Michael Green, President Bush’s former chief adviser on Asia, said that regardless of any harsh words candidates direct toward China, the next president will likely embrace the same measured U.S. policies endorsed by past administrations. Bashing China might win votes, the reasoning goes, but newly elected presidents soon realize that a more careful tone is needed to deal with the complex U.S.-China relationship.

As I’ve written before in my previous posts about the various political, economic, and cultural issues surrounding China, the Chinese government certainly deserves much of the blame regarding their record on human rights abuses, censorship and lack of individual liberties, unsafe food and other products, etc. China may still be in the process of modernizing and industrializing, but if it claims to be an emerging superpower, these very public failings should not be such an embarrassing issue for them.

On the other hand, my fear is that this “China bashing” is going to be a repeat of the “Japan bashing” days of the 1980s, when it was socially and politically trendy for the American public in general, but politicians in particular, to blast Japan for its perceived economic “invasion” of the U.S. This Japan-bashing episode set the stage for some Americans to act on their racial prejudices against Japanese and Japanese Americans — and by implication Asian Americans, with the murder of Vincent Chin being one of the most tragic examples.

With that in mind, I am not keen on seeing this type of episode repeated against Chinese, Chinese Americans, or Asian Americans. The political and economic framework is eerily similar in both cases — an imminent changing of presidential administrations, volatile economic times, middle class families struggling to make ends meet, the U.S. economy being challenged by an Asian upstart, etc.

I hope all the Presidential candidates, and the American public as well, will keep the lessons of recent history in mind and be fair about their criticisms of China but also understand that what they say and how they act has an influence over how many Americans of Chinese and Asian ancestry are ultimately treated inside the U.S.

August 14, 2007

Written by C.N.

Chinese American Beauty Pageant

The New York Times has an interesting article about the recently concluded Miss New York Chinese Beauty Pageant. The article illustrates on the individual level many of the sociological issues involved in the process of assimilation and community influences on one’s ethnic identity:

As one contestant put it, “The Chinese pageant is the perfect combination of East and West.” . . . Later, as the contestants exchanged beauty advice about the best whitening lotion and eyelid tape, some of the girls cringed at the extent to which their competitors seemed to idealize Caucasian features. . . .

Many of the girls vying for the title seem to lead double lives. Finalists have included investment bankers, accountants and Ivy League students who secretly harbor beauty queen dreams.

While some parents balk at the idea of their daughters putting their professional goals on hold to pursue careers in modeling and acting, others consider their very entry into the Miss New York Chinese pageant to be a crowning achievement — a little piece of the American dream, Mandarin flavored. . . .

“It’s like proof of my own success as a mother,” Ms. Xie said through Shirley Hon, a translator and ever-present chaperone. Her eyes brimming with tears, Ms. Xie added, in English: “I only have one daughter. I want to take her good life.”

As a parent myself, I certainly understand that parents — Asian American and otherwise — obviously should feel proud of their children and their accomplishments. However, I had to cringe when I read Ms. Xie’s statement of her daughter’s participation in the pageant: “It’s like proof of my own success as a mother.”

I’ve written before about how parental expectations and pressures on their children to “succeed” can go too far and lead to depression, social withdrawal, and in extreme cases, violence and suicide. As many Asian Americans, young and old, can attest to, this parental pressure is very real and can be very stressful.

In this case, I’m not saying that any of the beauty pageant contestants were pressured into participating by their parents, but I am a little uneasy about what their parents/mothers will think of them if they are among those who did not win the title or any of the other awards — will their mothers think that this result also reflects on them?

Ultimately, I think that ideally that assimilation should be a two-way process, between both the individual as s/he incorporates elements of mainstream society, and the mainstream society itself, as it incorporates cultural elements from the individuals themselves.

But it should also be a two-way process between parents and their children — the children get a better understanding of their parents experiences and how they’ve influenced their parenting styles, and by the parents themselves who hopefully come to understand that their success as a parent does not entirely depend on the “success” or “failures” of their children.

August 10, 2007

Written by C.N.

The Downside of Diversity

Demographers tell us that it is an indisputable fact that American society is becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. In fact, current projections state that if current patterns continue, somewhere around the year 2050, Whites will cease to be a numerical majority in this country — that for the first time since the Native American Indian population gave way to European settlers and their descendants, there will be more non-Whites than Whites in the U.S.

Of course, Whites will still be the largest racial/ethnic group in the country, they just won’t constitute a numerical majority. Further, in many metropolitan areas, counties, and even a few states around the country, Whites are already a minority. Within this context, liberal scholars and activists — yes that includes me I suppose — have consistently maintained that this racial/ethnic/cultural diversity represents a strength, rather than a liability, for American society as a whole.

That is, the assumption is that multiculturalism and diversity bring people in closer contact with each other and according to the “contact hypothesis” (one of the core principles in the sociology of race and ethnicity) more interpersonal contact with people from different backgrounds will lead to greater communication, understanding, mutual respect, and social harmony. Combined with the inevitable globalization of the world in general, it is ultimately good for American society that we are becoming so culturally diverse.

However, a new study has come out that fundamentally challenges this basic assumption about the benefits of living in a culturally diverse society. As the Boston Globe reports, Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam has released the results of a comprehensive survey of over 30,000 respondents around the country and has found some rather sobering, perhaps even shocking results:

[Putnam’s study] found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings. . . .

Putnam knew he had provocative findings on his hands. He worried about coming under some of the same liberal attacks that greeted Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s landmark 1965 report on the social costs associated with the breakdown of the black family. There is always the risk of being pilloried as the bearer of “an inconvenient truth,” says Putnam.

After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time “kicking the tires really hard” to be sure the study had it right. Putnam realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents — all factors that could depress social capital independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have. “People would say, ‘I bet you forgot about X,'” Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. “There were 20 or 30 X’s.”

But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to “distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

I have not read the study yet, nor do I know anything about Prof. Putnam’s work or career. But as an academic myself and given the descriptions of his credentials, I will presume for now that Prof. Putnam’s study is indeed methodologically sound and that its results are scientifically valid. The question then becomes, what do they mean?

After reading the Boston Globe article and after getting over the initial shock of it, I sat back and reflected on what it means for American society in general and me in particular as one of many who has sincerely believed all along that cultural diversity does indeed produce more benefits than costs for American society.

In trying to understand and explain these findings, one quote kept coming to mind and struck me as a profound rebuttal to the study’s results — Audre Lourde’s famous quote “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

In other words, as applied to this particular study, I think part of the answer to the question of how would diversity harm American society is to say that the respondents in this study may not have been reacting to high levels of racial/ethnic diversity per se, but rather, to the political and social climate that have and continue to frame such demographic changes.

That is to say, I believe that the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq, diminishing individual liberties, volatile economic times, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses around the world have all created a perfect storm of factors that have made Americans more fearful, uncertain, pessimistic, defensive, and/or distrustful of many things, not just increasing racial/ethnic diversity. You might think of it in terms of the basic animal instinct of recoiling and withdrawing when they feel threatened — the “fight or flight” instinct.

People can get that way as well. So within that context, when you add racial/ethnic diversity into that mix, it is understandable if humans retreat into the basic primordial, “homo-social” tendency of feeling more secure and comfortable around others who look like them, or as translated into the American racial vernacular, people who belong to the same racial-cultural group that they belong to.

I believe that this would explain why people living in racially homogeneous communities would probably not feel as threatened with the state of the world’s affairs as would people in racially diverse communities — in racially homogeneous communities, they feel more socially supported and integrated into their social environment — a finding that I’m sure Prof. Putnam’s research confirms.

This is also why I feel that if we were to take away or improve the present political and social climate and all of those factors I mentioned that make us feel threatened, racial/ethnic diversity would not bother the vast majority of Americans nearly as much. In other words, it is this political and social climate that has made it much more difficult for us as a society to recognize, accept, and celebrate our racial/ethnic differences, as Audre Lourde observed.

Therefore, for us to make racial/ethnic diversity a benefit once again for American society, we need to take a holistic approach and recognize that there is a larger political and social context that frames and influences how we see others around us, for good and for bad.

August 8, 2007

Written by C.N.

Newest Ethnic Enclave: Cambodia Town

As my article on Asian American Ethnic Communities and Enclaves describes, predominantly Asian neighborhoods in the U.S. referred to as Chinatown, Little Tokyo/Japantown, Koreatown, Little India, Little Saigon, and Filipinotown/Little Manila have been around for a long time and offer many benefits to not just the Asians and Asian Americans who live or work there, but also to surrounding non-Asian communities and American society in general. I’ve also recently written about how the nature of such ethnic enclaves are evolving and likely to change in the future.

As another example of this evolving ethnic urban landscape, the Los Angeles Times reports that a neighborhood in Long Beach, CA has just been officially designated as Cambodia Town, the first Cambodian ethnic enclave to be recognized in the U.S. (thanks to for publicizing this story first):

City and community leaders say the designation not only will recognize the contributions of Cambodians, but also will help revitalize the neighborhood by attracting more businesses, visitors and tourists to the area. San and others are making plans to put up Cambodia Town signs and set up a business improvement district and are considering building a community center and a memorial to those who died under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. . . .

The drive to get a Cambodia Town began in 2001, when a few community members began meeting to talk about the possibility. The leaders brought the issue to the City Council last year. Some critics expressed concerns that the designation could lure more gangs to the area and that it would exclude Latinos and African Americans.

But Cambodian leaders argued that the title would help the entire city by making the street safer and cleaner and by developing the neighborhood into a regional destination. Naming the area Cambodia Town would also highlight immigrants’ cultural heritage and encourage youths to get involved helping their community, San said.

Congratulations and kudos to all those involved in making this official designation a reality. As the article notes, this kind of designation is not about dividing or “Balkanizing” a community or city. Instead, it’s about acknowledging the unique historical experiences and cultural contributions of a geographically-concentrated ethnic group and attracting more businesses and visitors.

But perhaps most of all, it’s about recognizing that “Americans” these days can come from many different backgrounds and have different physical appearances, but who all share the goal of contributing to the strength, vitality, and growth of American society as it moves forward in the 21st century.

August 6, 2007

Written by C.N.

Making Vietnamese Food Mainstream

One of the consistent themes of this particular blog is how elements of traditional Asian culture are increasingly becoming integrated into mainstream American culture. As New American Media report, the latest example of this is the increasing popularity of Vietnamese food around the country:

[W]hen my family arrived in America in 1975, when fish sauce wasn’t on any mainstream supermarket shelves. Nowadays, the discussion among foodies is which brand of nuoc mam is best. Bold, spicy flavors from all over the globe are in and the cuisine of Vietnam is hot. In fact, people I meet often proclaim, “I LOVE Vietnamese food!” and go on to describe it as fresh, delicious, and healthy — different than Chinese, Japanese, and Thai.

Chowhound and eGullet, two popular online forums, are peppered with opinions on Vietnamese pho noodle soup, banh mi sandwiches, and goi cuon rice paper hand rolls. Sriracha chili sauce, developed by a Vietnamese-American, is not just ubiquitous at Vietnamese restaurants in the States, but it is also sold any many markets. I recently encountered it alongside Heinz ketchup and Grey Poupon mustard at a popular surfer’s café in Santa Cruz, Calif., my hometown. . . .

Tran sees a great resurgence in Viet food in America. “The older generation [of Vietnamese cooks] doesn’t want to be in the kitchen anymore. They’re tired,” she says. “Now there’s a new generation that is going to cooking school, going back to their roots and then creating modern dishes like spring rolls filled with raw tuna. We have a whole new cycle.”

In the last ten years, more Vietnamese-Americans have been opening crossover restaurants outside of Little Saigon enclaves. The Vietnamese culinary diaspora translates into hip joints in trendy neighborhoods like Silver Lake in Los Angeles. Hardcore Viet food fans debate how “real” the food is at such establishments, and there inevitably are flavor adjustments. Nevertheless, plenty of diners appreciate having greater access to Vietnamese flavors.

As the last quoted paragraph notes, inevitably, as the popularity of Vietnamese food continues to increase and as more non-Vietnamese becomes customers, the “old timers” are likely to debate the authenticity of new culinary creations that are designed to appeal to non-Vietnamese tastes.

In fact, this debate is not new at all — it happens whenever any particular aspect of an ethnic culture starts of become assimilated into the mainstream surrounding culture. This debate about “authenticity” has also been applied to Vietnamese Americans themselves.

That is, as the younger 1.5 and U.S.-born generation of Vietnamese Americans grows up and increasingly adopts more “mainstream American” attitudes, beliefs, norms, clothing, and language, they are frequently questioned by the older generation about whether they are “real” Vietnamese. As someone who has undergone that type of scrutiny myself, it can be a jarring and disconcerting feeling to know that your identity is being questioned by your own community.

But in the end, in keeping with the theme of my previous post on New Forms of Assimilation, more and more Vietnamese Americans — and other children of immigrants from all ethnicities — are becoming more comfortable in forging their own identity, one that incorporates elements from both their ancestral traditions and mainstream American culture. In this sense, these new forms of Vietnamese cuisine fit in quite well in that context.

In other words, you don’t have to be either Vietnamese or American — you can be both at the same time.