The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
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.
As I’m sure almost everybody has heard about, these past few months have not been good for Toyota. Due to a variety of quality control issues, accident reports, and several fatalities involving many of their models, Toyota has recalled over 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, one of the largest mass automotive recall in history. With each passing day, new media scrutiny, and every piece of bad publicity, Toyota’s reputation continues to plummet.
In looking at the larger sociological context of Toyota’s struggles, there are a couple of questions that come up. First, as many observers have wondered, to what extent are Toyota’s problems due to them basically becoming too arrogant and viewing themselves and their products as invincible? That is, Toyota (along with several other Asian automakers) have weathered the current recession and in fact, the past several years, much better than U.S. automakers such as General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford, mainly by producing many high-quality, fuel-efficient cars. But did Toyota’s success make them complacent? As one example of this criticism, AutoBlog reports:
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has absolutely blasted the Japanese giant, calling it “a little safety deaf” and noting he was upset that NHTSA officials had to fly to Japan “to remind Toyota management about its legal obligations.” That’s just the tip of the spear stuff, too. Check out the shaft:
Since questions were first raised about possible safety defects, we have been pushing Toyota to take measures to protect consumers. While Toyota is taking responsible action now, it unfortunately took an enormous effort to get to this point. We’re not finished with Toyota and are continuing to review possible defects and monitor the implementation of the recalls.
In fact, as MSNBC reports, Toyota’s apparent initial lack of urgency to respond to the growing criticisms may be characteristic of many large Japanese who have also risen to the top of their industries, only to find that when you’re on top, there’s only one way to go — down:
Toyota is the latest Japanese corporate icon making headlines for all the wrong reasons. News of the automaker’s massive vehicle recalls over faulty gas pedals in the U.S. came just days after Japan Airlines, a once proud flag carrier, filed for bankruptcy, saddled with billions in debt.
Sony has lost its lead in consumer gadgets to the likes of Apple Inc. and has suffered its own quality mishaps. Honda, Japan’s No. 2 automaker, is recalling 646,000 cars worldwide because of a faulty window switch. . . . Taken together, Japan Inc.’s stellar reputation for quality has taken a hit — just as China is about to overtake it as the world’s No. 2 economy and rising South Korean companies compete ever more aggressively.
What went wrong with the economic giant that arose from the ashes of World War II? The problems that confront Toyota, Sony and JAL differ, but experts say their struggles have some common themes: the perils of global expansion, a tendency to embrace the status quo, and smugness bred from success or a too-big-to-fail mentality.
“Arrogance and some complacency came into play, driven by the idea that their ranking as No. 1 producer of quality goods wasn’t at risk,” said Kirby Daley [chief strategist at Newedge Group]. . . . The global economic crisis helped to expose weaknesses, he said. “There was nowhere to hide.”
Clearly, Toyota has a lot of work to do in order to regain customers’ trust and to rebuild their image for making safe and reliable cars. But beyond that, does Toyota’s recent problems affect Asian Americans?
In my classes, I often use Toyota as an analogy and metaphor for the Asian American community as a whole — both have been in the U.S. for a while but early on, were looked upon with curiosity, derision, and even hostility. Toyota and Asian Americans as a whole were seen as strange foreigners who probably had no future in the U.S. and pesky nuisances to “traditional” Americans.
Nonetheless, both were persistent and determined and after years of mostly quiet hard work, were able to eventually establish themselves as mainstream Americans and in many ways, outperform their “traditional” American counterparts. Nowadays, both Toyota and Asian Americans are poised to make unique contributions to American society and its economy as globalization continues to evolve in the 21st century.
Inevitably, I suppose there will be some Americans with that kind of mentality and motivation. It’s also likely that Toyota’s sales will take a while to rebound, both as a result of this particular crisis and because of the recession in general. But ultimately, and perhaps in contrast to some of my past pessimistic posts about racial/ethnic relations in the near future, I predict that Toyota will recover and become even stronger, just like the recent history and successes of Asian Americans as a community.
To put Toyota’s situation into further perspective, Toyota is firmly established in the U.S. as an American company — it currently employs around 150,000 American workers in their factories, offices, and dealerships. If Toyota were to fail, so would many American workers, families, and communities. Finally, part of Toyota’s culture is built around a collective mindset that focuses on long-term progress and shared participation that has resulted in sustained growth and prosperity through the years.
In other words, Toyota — like Asian Americans as a whole — has accomplished too much to give up now. As a metaphor for Asian Americans, I expect Toyota to learn from their mistakes, overcome the difficulties they face, be patient and aggressive in pushing forward, and continue their long record of success. They still have much to contribute to American society and we as Americans still have much to gain from them in many ways.
Earlier this month, my family and I attended the annual Family Retreat at the Deer Park Monastery. The monastery was founded by the well-known but sometimes controversial Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and is set in the hills and desert just outside of Escondido, California. Some of our friends in the Los Angeles have attended this retreat for yours and this was the second year that we attended.
Overall, we really enjoyed the retreat and its nature-centered activities and sessions of relaxed meditation and discussions on being mindful in our daily lives, geared towards adults, children, and both together. We also enjoy being able to camp with other families (dorms are also available) and socializing with like-minded friends and newly-made friends. It’s a nice and much more relaxed change of pace from the more traditional and strict Vipassana Meditation Center that we also participate in.
Modern Buddhism seems to be an increasingly popular and multicultural practice among many Americans and around the world, particularly forms related to the less formal Mahayana version (as opposed to the stricter monastic Theravada version). As a reflection of such, this retreat was truly a multicultural and multiracial event — of the 120-150 or so people in attendance (from babies to grandparents), about 40% were Asian/Asian American, 40% were White, and the rest were African American, Latino, and other races/ethnicities.
With this in mind, it was truly gratifying to see everyone interacting with each other in a very mindful, mutually-respectful, and genuinely peaceful way throughout the event, in contrast to some of the sad examples of racial hostility that still exists in other parts of American society. Within this environment, I and my family felt very comfortable and refreshed and certainly, this is one of the main reasons why we plan on attending in future years.
At the same time, there were a couple of incidents that again highlighted for me the nature of racial differences that still pervade American society, even within the confines of a insulated and “conscious” environment like this. Both of these incidents are not significant or upsetting enough for me to stop attending — it’s only because I am a sociologist that I focus on them.
The first involved a group of families visiting from Viet Nam (as distinguished from Vietnamese American), about 20 individuals in all. For the most part, they were indistinguishable from the rest of the attendees and in fact, as a Vietnamese American, I was very pleased to see them participating in the retreat (although I regret that because of my lack of fluency in Vietnamese that I couldn’t really personally communicate with them).
Unfortunately, their “foreignness” became apparent at the end of each day’s events.
Each day’s activities generally concluded around 9pm, after which attendees would prepare to go to sleep, either in their tents in the campground area or in the dorm area. At 9:30pm, the guidelines called for “noble silence” when everyone is expected to stay quiet for the night.
For whatever reason, this group of Vietnamese families did not understand these guidelines or chose to ignore them because each night, almost everyone could hear them staying up and being quite loud in both the dorm and tent areas. This involved not just talking, but often included shouting, yelling, and arguing very loudly and disruptively well into the night.
Needless to say, this made getting a good night’s sleep rather difficult for many of us. The other part of these incidents were that even though many of us talked to the monks about this situation, for whatever reasons, it continued every night until the end of the retreat.
This leads me to wonder whether the monks (who were about 80% Vietnamese American and the rest were White) felt shy in confronting the Vietnamese group, perhaps fearful that they (and perhaps by implication, the rest of us as attendees) were being too harsh or authoritarian towards them as foreigners visiting the U.S. Symbolized by Barack Obama as our President, these days many Americans are more mindful not to come across as judgmental and “superior” towards others around the world.
But on the other hand, the Vietnamese group’s behavior may have reinforced the notion of them as loud and crude foreigners and “outsiders” to the rest of the attendees. As such, failing to confront their behavior could have caused more harm than good in terms of helping to bridge social divisions and dispel lingering cultural stereotypes toward non-Whites and/or foreigners.
For me personally, this is a complicated issue that highlights some of the ironies and contradictions involved in being Asian American, as I wrote about earlier in regards to a similar incident in an airport security line — standing up for and defending Asians in racial solidarity, but also being embarrassed and even annoyed by their “foreignness” as an American myself.
In contrast, the second “racial” incident at the retreat does not involve much ambiguity at all.
Specifically, during the retreat, families were assigned to different “service meditation” work groups, helping the monks with different tasks involved with running the retreat, such as cleaning bathrooms, setting up the meditation hall, etc. Our family was assigned to one of three teams who helped to clean up, wash, and dry plates, pots, and utensils after one meal each day.
My family and I actually enjoyed this work as it allowed us to give something back to, or at least directly help in the mundane, behind-the-scenes operation of the retreat — a sense of ownership perhaps. We also felt a sense of community in working as a team within not just our family, but with the other families in our group, each of us doing our part to contribute to the larger purpose and becoming closer to each other in the process.
However, after the last meal (lunch) on the last day of the retreat, there were no teams assigned to clean up afterward and instead, the monks asked for volunteers to stay a little bit to wash dishes, etc. Our family was not in a rush to leave so we joined in the effort.
As it turned out, of the 15 or so people who stayed to help clean up, all but one was a person of color — there was just one White person who helped in the cleanup.
In particular, I took notice of one young White couple who came to the morning activities (apparently on the last day of the retreat, the monastery invites those from the surrounding community to come in and participate in a group walk and lunch). During lunch, this couple actually raised their hands when the monks asked for volunteers to stay and clean up, but for whatever reasons, just walked away and left once they finished their lunch.
I hate to say it, but the actions of this particular couple and the White attendees present at this last lunch seem to be a microcosm of the White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor.
These two incidents go to show that even at an event that shows us the peace, harmony, and mindfulness that exists in American society and among people from all kinds of backgrounds, in many ways, American society is still quite racialized, even if most of us may be completely oblivious to such dynamics.
I mentioned in my last post that like many people, my family and I were traveling over the holidays to visit relatives out of state. In these travels, one relatively minor incident in the airport security lines illustrated for me just how complex — and in some ways even contradictory — an Asian American identity is for many of us.
Fortunately, this particular incident did not involve any type of racial profiling against us or somebody else in our presence that made national news, as at least one Muslim American family unfortunately had to endure over the holidays. Instead, this incident was rather ordinary, even mundane, and probably a common occurrence in the lives of many Asian Americans.
Here’s the scene: we were at the St. Louis airport going through the airport security x-ray machines on our way to catch our flight back home to Massachusetts. A few people ahead of us were a relatively young Chinese husband and wife. Perhaps it was their first time traveling through an American airport because they were clearly “unprepared” — their luggage was too big to go through the x-ray machines and should have been checked baggage and they had not separated out their liquids into the standard three ounce containers and baggie.
As a result of this, the airport security workers were trying to explain to them that they were out of compliance with the regulations and what they needed to do to correct the situation. The airport workers were actually polite and understanding but the Chinese couple, perhaps complicated by the fact that their English wasn’t perfect, were understandably a little flustered.
The result of this was that they were holding up the other travelers behind them in line, including my family and I. Initially, everyone was patient but after a few minutes, it was clear that some were getting a little frustrated. Nobody said anything the whole time we were all waiting but there were the inevitably sighs and rolling eyes as the Chinese couple and the airport workers tried to clear everything up.
Initially, that included me as well. My first reaction was also to get a little annoyed and soon thoughts such as “Come one, haven’t ever been through an airport security line before?” and “It would help if you knew English a little better” floated through my mind. I will presume that the other people in line probably had similar sentiments as well. In other words, this was a typical reaction from Americans towards foreigners in such a situation.
But after a while, I caught myself and consciously took a step back from my initial reactions and tried to apply a little sociological thinking to the situation. In doing so, I came to have a little more sympathy for the Chinese couple. First, I kept in mind that for all Americans, each of our ancestors were foreigners to this country at one time or another. And for me personally as a Vietnamese American, that included my own parents.
I remembered that my own parents went through similar incidents in the past, especially in the early part of our resettlement into the U.S. as they tried to assimilate into American society after leaving Viet Nam. Perhaps not in an airport security line, but my parents almost certainly encountered such cultural embarrassments checking out at a supermarket, talking with a teller at the bank, ordering at a restaurant, and probably many other situations in which they were just trying to become mainstream Americans.
Along with that, even today as an Asian American, I still encounter situations in which even though I am thoroughly Americanized and speak English perfectly, other Americans automatically assume that I’m a foreigner just by looking at me, based on the persistent stereotype that all Asians are foreigners. As Asian American scholars and any average Asian American would confirm, this lingering bias is still a big hurdle for many Asian Americans to overcome as we try to live our lives here in the U.S.
Secondly, I tried to personalize the Chinese couple’s situation by asking myself, How well would I do if I were trying to navigate through a foreign airport for the first time and had to understand its specific regulations and customs, formal and informal, whether it be in China, Brazil, Russia, or any other foreign country that did not speak my native language?
Based on these thoughts in which I indirectly sympathized with the Chinese couple’s situation, I contrasted them with my initial reaction of annoyance at them and came to realize that this was a perfect illustration of just how complicated and even contradictory an Asian American identity is for many of us.
In other words, as Asian Americans, were may feel implicitly obligated to sympathize and be in solidarity with our fellow Asians (foreign and American), either for political purposes or because of our direct ties to our family, relatives, and ancestors from afar. But on the other hand, as a “typical” American, it’s hard to escape sentiments that lead us to feel aggravated when others cause us inconvenience (however brief) or run afoul of our American customs and practices that we ourselves have already internalized into our lives in our own quest to be “mainstream” Americans.
There is no easy answer here. There is no “right” or “correct” way for Asian Americans to react to or handle incidents like this that involve other Asians who are simultaneously similar to and different from us.
Nonetheless, as I reflect on this incident and my initial and secondary thoughts about it, I also see that I’m really glad that I’m a sociologist who has learned the tools to make sense of the multiple levels of factors and the intersections of so many different issues that come into play in situations like this.
That is, as I tell the students in my classes, sociology teaches you to do two seemingly contradictory things — to personalize and depersonalize things at the same time. Being able to personalize and depersonalize an issue or idea then allows you to understand that there are multiple levels of analysis for that issue/idea — the individual level, group level, and institutional level. In a nutshell, this is the first lesson of Sociology 101.
To personalize something is look at a particular idea or situation and to say something like, “Yeah ok, I see how that theory or example can apply to my personal experiences. I can relate to that.” On the other hand, to depersonalize something would be to say something like, “Hmmm, that particular theory or example doesn’t really apply to my personal experiences, but I can see how other people might look at it in that way.”
I also tell my students that the basic foundation of virtually all instances of disagreement, conflict, and even hostility around a race/ethnicity-related issue such as affirmative action, undocumented immigration, etc., is when people can’t properly personalize or depersonalize the issue and unfortunately, end up talking at each other from different levels of analysis (i.e., one person is expressing their opinion from an individual level while the other is coming at it from an institutional level).
In this instance, I personalized the Chinese couple’s situation by relating it to how I would fare in a foreign airport for the first time and by remembering my own parents’ struggles to fit into American society. I also depersonalized the situation by recalling that all of our ancestors were foreigners to this country at one time and that Americans from all backgrounds share a common set of behaviors and that it upsets our sense of a collective identity when a “foreigner” violates such customs.
In the end, I think the lessons here are (1) for anybody in general but Asian Americans in particular, it’s natural and inevitable to have complicated or even contradictory feelings about one’s identity as an “Asian” and how to relate to other Asians and (2) when such contradictions and confusion arise, there are ways to make sense of them — by knowing when to personalize and when to depersonalize and understanding that there are multiple levels of analysis to any issue.
In other words, there are many ways to “do sociology” in our everyday lives.