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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.
Today is International Womens Day so I would like to use this occasion to reflect a little bit on the state of affairs for Asian and Asian American women by discussing two recent news events. This is not meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive review of the political, economic, and social status of Asian/Asian American women, just only some observations based on a couple of recent news stories.
The first article concerns the success of female figure skaters of Asian descent in the just-concluded Winter Olympics in Vancouver Canada. As the New York Times points out, Asian skaters such Kim Yu-Na and Shizuka Arakawa have elevated the status of the sport significantly in their home countries while and Asian Americans such as Mirai Nagasu try to follow in the legacy of recent Asian American champions Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan:
Skaters of Asian descent, primarily women but also men, have risen to prominence in large numbers both nationally and internationally. The reasons are varied, skaters and coaches say. They have to do with rules changes, body type, hard work and discipline, diet and the emergence over the past two decades of role models like Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan of the United States and Midori Ito of Japan. . . .
Maybe Asians are switching from studying to sports,” said [Mirai] Nagasu. The influx of Asian skaters can be traced in part to the elimination of compulsory school figures, coaches said. . . . Without compulsory figures, skating became more like gymnastics. . . . The key to jumping is to leap high and spin quickly and tightly through two, three or four revolutions before returning to the ice. Asian skaters are often small and willowy, which can be an asset when jumping. . . .
Asian skaters also often adhere to a diet of rice and vegetables and fish, avoiding large quantities of beef and fat, Carroll said. This can make them less vulnerable to weight gain in a sport where five pounds can make a difference between a winning jumper and a struggling one.
Other cultural factors are also at play, coaches said. Discipline at home often transfers to discipline at the rink, Carroll said. Audrey Weisiger, a prominent Chinese-American coach, said: “A lot of Asian families really drive their kids, and I don’t mean in the car. They’re not allowed to be marginal.”
To summarize, the NY Times article cites several potential reasons why Asian American skaters have become so prominent in recent years. For the most part, the factors discussed sound plausible, although there is certainly still a lot of room for exceptions and variations (i.e., taller figure skaters, both male and female, have still achieved success, no physical size isn’t everything).
However, the one factor mentioned in the article that caught my attention was the parental pressure on Asian American figure skaters to succeed. Unfortunately, it seems that wherever you look, Asians and Asian American consistently face these kinds of “model minority” pressures to do well, live up to their parents’ expectations, and to outperform everybody else. This is the case when it comes to academics and apparently, to more “recreational” activities like figure skating as well.
Along the same lines, the next news story focuses on some of the challenges that Asian and Asian American women still face in contemporary society these days. As the Washington Post reports, a recent full-page newspaper advertisement in South Korea illuminates how, despite the rising status of women in the country, numerous working mothers face severe contradictions and in many cases, a no-win situation:
In a full-page newspaper advertisement headlined “I Am a Bad Woman,” Hwang Myoung-eun explained the trauma of being a working mom in South Korea. “I may be a good employee, but to my family I am a failure,” wrote Hwang, a marketing executive and mother of a 6-year-old son. “In their eyes, I am a bad daughter-in-law, bad wife and bad mother.”
The highly unusual ad gave voice to the resentment and repressed anger that are common to working women across South Korea.
In a country where people work more and sleep less than anywhere else in the developed world, women are often elbowed away from rewards in their professional lives. If they have a job, they make 38 percent less money than men, the largest gender gap in the developed world. If they become pregnant, they are pressured at work not to take legally guaranteed maternity leave.
Thanks to gender equality in education, the professional skills and career aspirations of women in South Korea have soared over the past two decades. But those gains are colliding with a corporate culture that often marginalizes mothers at the workplace — or ejects them altogether.
Women who do combine work and family find themselves squeezed between too little time and too much guilt: for neglecting the education of children in a nation obsessed with education, for shirking family obligations as dictated by assertive mothers-in-law, and for failing to attend to the care and feeding of overworked and resentful husbands.
As Hwang complained in two mournful newspaper advertisements she bought last fall in Seoul newspapers: “We work harder than anyone to manage housekeeping and earn wages, so why are we branded as selfish, irresponsible women?”
It seems that in terms of society’s acknowledgment and recognition of the challenges that working mothers face in balancing the demands of work and family, South Korea is very similar to the U.S. That is, despite laws and formal policies in place to provide working mothers with job security, the actual implicit and cultural expectations frequently deter many mothers from taking full advantage of them.
While this situation is slowly changing for the better, in many ways the U.S. is still grappling with both firmly-embedded institutional practices and individual attitudes. With this in mind, unfortunately South Korea is likely to also be dealing with these societal contradictions for some time to come.
Ultimately, International Womens Day gives us a chance to reflect on both the successes, progress, and positives that women around the world have achieved, but also how many barriers still remain in the way toward attaining full equality. Like racial/ethnic relations, in many ways achieving gender equality also seems to be a “two steps forward, one step back” process.
Now that the 2008 Summer Olympics have ended, we all know that China has received plenty of criticism and accolades before and during the Olympic games. Rather than rehashing that chronology, I want to focus on the question of where does China go from here? The Christian Science Monitor offers some interesting observations:
The striking success of the Olympics – burnishing China’s prestige as the world admired its sporting prowess, organizational skills, and dramatically modern urban landscapes – could encourage profound changes in the country, say a range of Chinese and foreign analysts. . . .
One profound change that a number of China-watchers predict, in light of the international respect China has earned: that its leaders and people will trust the rest of the world more readily, and tone down an often aggrieved nationalism. . . .
For more than a hundred years, China’s leaders have set themselves the goal of recovering international respect after humiliation at the hands of Europe and the United States in the 19th century. For more than half a century the ruling Communist party has made “standing up to the world” a key plank in its platform. . . .
If China’s leaders decide that their management of the Olympics has earned the country respect, that “offers an opportunity for the Chinese state and the Chinese people to ditch the nationalist narrative of their identity based on shame and humiliation,” says Professor Shambaugh. “Hopefully they can throw all their aggrieved nationalist baggage away and move on like a normal country.”
It is certainly true that ever since the communists came to power, China has had a “chip on its shoulder+ in terms of proving to the rest of the world that they could overcome their “sick man of Asia” image and instead, use their own brand of communism to once again propel China into the rank of international superpower.
Along the way, one of the tactics used by the Chinese has been an intense and often fierce sense of nationalism — reacting defensively to any perceived slight against their country’s image or policies.
As I’ve written about before, perhaps the most recent and prominent example of this nationalism inside the U.S. was the backlash of Chinese students against “anti-Chinese” media portrayals regarding the Olympic torch relay and pro-Tibet demonstrations.
But now that many people from around the world have seen a brighter and more positive side of China, does it mean that the Chinese can let their defenses down somewhat and capitalize on their “softer” image? We’ll have to wait to see how China handles the issues and criticisms that still exist against it, such as human rights and individual freedoms, environmental conservation, and consumer product safety.
Despite their Olympics success, these criticisms will continue to come China’s way, so the ultimate test will be whether China reverts to reacting defensively and nationalistically — or whether they can build on their newfound confidence and status and react in a more gracious and balanced way.
I sincerely hope that it will be the latter — China has many positives going for it now, and it would be a shame if it squanders this newly-earned goodwill by going back to the same authoritarian ways.
Now that the Olympics have concluded, I just wanted to add my sincere congratulations to some of the Asian American athletes and coaches who achieved success in the games. They include:
Brian Clay: Gold medal in the decathlon. He is half African American and half Japanese American and was raised in Hawai’i
Jenny Lang Ping: coach of the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team who won the silver medal
Liang Chow: coach of Shawn Johnson (women’s gymnastics), who won the gold medal in the balance beam and silver in the individual all-around, team competition, and floor exercise
Raj Bhavsar and Kai Wen (Kevin) Tan: male gymnasts who helped the U.S. team win the bronze medal in the team competition
There were other Asian American athletes who competed but did not medal and I also wanted to send my congratulations and thanks to them as well for representing their country and for competing at the highest level of their sports. In addition to the Olympics, other Asian American athletes also made the news recently:
One of the stated goals of the Chinese Olympic team for these summer games was to surpass the U.S. and capture the most total medals of the games. Barring that, China wanted to at least win the most gold medals. As many have described, this strategy involved focusing on relatively unknown sports that offered many medals, such as canoeing, kayaking, and shooting.
The thinking is that accomplishing this feat would supposedly elevate China above the U.S. in terms of sporting image and status. And we already know how important image is to China. So far, it looks like China’s strategy is working, since they have a sizable lead over the U.S. in gold medals with just two days remaining in the games.
By midweek—even as Chinese athletes drew nearer to their golden goal—domestic media appeared to be counseling modesty. . . . The article argued that gold medals aren’t everything—but that it was OK to expect athletes to win gold so long as they aren’t unduly pressured.
The Global Times added a further cautionary note by quoting Beijing University of Physical Education professor Ren Hai: “Although China’s got a lot of medals, it cannot be counted as a sports power yet.” . . .
Another message from propaganda-meisters is that Chinese athletes aren’t automatons. The Oriental Morning Post, based in Liu’s hometown of Shanghai, compared Liu to the not-quite-invincible Greek hero Achilles and counseled Chinese fans to be more tolerant—and mindful that sports stars are human beings, too. . . .
[Says Chen Gang, Communist secretary in Beijing,] “Gold medals aren’t the most important thing for us in Chaoyang. The most important thing is how much people enjoy the Games—and I mean all people, including our many foreign visitors.” . . .
If China’s gauge of success shifts more toward the enjoyment of the people–and away from the diktat of the state—that would be a welcome new gold standard indeed.
The article focuses more on Chinese authorities wanting its citizens to treat its athletes more like human beings than disposable robots whose only purpose is to bring more medals to China. But the undercurrent here is how China’s obsession with winning the most gold medals affects its larger international image.
On the one hand, it would be easy for Americans to say to China, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” The U.S. is still the recognized “alpha dog” in terms of international athletics so our position at the top is not likely to change any time soon, even if China ends up with more gold medals, or even more total medals.
It would sort of be like for Whites (Americans, European, or otherwise) to say to Asians/Asian Americans, “Hey, don’t take things too seriously — our slanted-eye gesture was meant as a sign of affection. We didn’t mean to reinforce and perpetuate a long-standing racist gesture.”
But for a country like China that is still politically, economically, and culturally developing and still coming to grips with its newly developed status and power, it means a lot to say that they’ve surpassed the most dominant country in the world in such a public way. In the larger “sports” of international superpower games, it is just one battle to win, but image-wise, it would be significant for China.
Having said that, the reality is that there are differences in status when it comes to international athletics — a gold medal in kayaking or shooting does not carry the same cachet as one in swimming, basketball, or track. And many will privately and publicly smirk at China for their strategy of focusing on relatively obscure sports that offer many medals instead of competing with the “big dogs” in “real” sports.
Where do I stand in this debate? Again, at the risk of satisfying no one, I say, let China focus on getting the most gold medals in these games for now (but of course, it can go the other way and China’s image will nosedive if it’s proven that it cheated to get some of those medals). But until then, for a nation on the rise, it would be a much-needed psychological boost and would be well worth the smirks that it may get from other countries.
But four years later when we all meet again in London for the next Summer Olympics, if China still wants to be considered a legitimate sports power like the U.S., it needs to “step up its game” and compete head-to-head with the U.S. in sports that have more reward in terms of status and prestige.
In other words, if China wants to proclaim that it has “arrived,” it needs to show up dressed for the part.
In recent days the Chinese Olympics organizers have admitted to faking the “footprint” fireworks that dazzled television audiences around the world.
And today they conceded that the perfect little girl who stole the show while singing “Ode to the Motherland” wasn’t singing at all. She was lip synching for another little girl who was deemed — for the good of the country — not cute enough for China’s national image. . . .
The [footprint fireworks] were computer generated and were only seen by those watching television. There were actual fireworks in Beijing but viewers didn’t see them. . . . [A] 55-second sequence of steps was digitally recreated because it was impossible to film by helicopter. . . .
[Regarding the girl singing, musical director Chen Qigang said,] “The performer was Lin Miaoke, but the sound was Yang Peiyi. The reason…is this: One was for the benefit of the country. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings, and expression, and Lin Miaoke meets our requirements in those aspects.”
“However, from a sound perspective, our entire team unanimously agreed that Yang Peiyi fulfilled all of our requirements and more. She is the best.”
So the cat is out of the bag — these two specific segments were “visually enhanced.” The question now, what does this mean and how does it reflect on China as a whole?
China’s critics will, and already have, jump all over this and say that this is further proof that China systematically cheats at everything, and that they’re more concerned with outward appearances than authentic, substantive content, whether it relates to its consumer products, its human rights record, or its opening ceremonies.
On the other hand, China’s supporters will argue that lip syncing and using different singers happens all the time in “show business.” After all, the song was sung by a little girl (Yang Peiyi), not an adult professional singer. Further, the “footprint fireworks” did actually take place, but because it was technologically close to impossible to film it using a helicopter, the version that TV viewers saw had them digitally substituted in.
For what’s worth, here’s my take: I can understand digitally enhancing the fireworks for TV viewers because actual footprint fireworks did take place. It would have been a different matter if no real footprint fireworks ever existed and that the producers created them from nowhere. But that’s not the case here.
But regarding the little girl singer, I am less sympathetic to the Chinese here. Plain and simple, I think it was wrong and improper to substitute a “prettier” little girl for the actual one who sang. It was not as though Yang Peiyi looked disfigured or even remotely ugly. The producers should have kept her in there — period.
In the larger scheme of things however, these two “visually enhanced” segments do not negate or diminish the quality and authenticity of the other spectacular scenes and performances that took place. Everything else about the opening ceremonies remains awe-inspiring.
Just as we would not judge an entire community by the acts of one or a few individuals, so too should we remember that these two segments in question (each of which still had their own elements of authenticity, as I noted) were only a small part of a larger whole.
Much has been written and said about China hosting the Summer Olympics and much controversy has been associated with the games based on China’s record on many issues. But little has been said or written about how Chinese Americans see China and its hosting of the Olympics.
With that in mind, the New York Times reports that many Chinese Americans have mixed feelings about China and the communist government’s policies, but that almost universally, they are very proud of, and even overwhelmed, by the Chinese people, how they have put the games together, and what the Olympics mean in general for the country:
Joe Lam . . . who moved to New York 35 years ago from Hong Kong, said he watched the opening ceremony for the Olympics twice on Friday night, the second time with his daughters — ages 18 and 22 — who he said had little overt connection to Asia.
But watching the spectacle, with its blend of China’s ancient grandeur and dazzling modern technology, “was like a religious experience for them,” he said.
Mr. Lam said he was not a fan of the Communist Party, but, like many others, he noted the history that makes these Olympics resonate so deeply: 150 years of invasions and turmoil, from the Opium Wars to the Japanese invasion, civil war and the disastrous policies of Mao, which left China far behind the West.
“Our joy is not for Communists,” Mr. Lam said. “It’s for what hosting the Olympics means to the history of the Chinese people.” . . .
Several Chinese-American leaders also said they thought that the respect China gained from the Olympics would improve the status of Chinese here. Helen Zia, a human rights advocate, author and former executive editor of Ms. magazine, said she surprised herself and many friends when she agreed to carry the Olympic torch in what turned out to be a contentious leg in San Francisco.
She did so in part, she said, because she believes that engagement with the West is helping to liberalize China. But she added: “All those years of China’s humiliation carried over to America, where Chinese kids grew up being taunted and bullied on the playground. Now when we see the home country shown in a positive light, we hope Americans will understand better where Chinese-Americans come from.”
Regardless of where people stand in terms of supporting or criticizing China on various issues, I think there are very few people out there who can honestly dispute that, as one example, the opening ceremonies were one of the most lavish and spectacular displays of human art, choreography, and pageantry in recent history. The work of director Zhang Yimou and his team of 15,000 performers has to go down in the record books as simply, absolutely awesome.
But even more important, beyond the political issues that are inevitably present, China’s hosting of the Olympics does have some very real significance, although I do not see it as China’s “coming out party” as many have described it. Instead, we should remember that prior to the late 1800s, in many ways China was already a superpower and as the NBC commentators even noted during the opening ceremonies, for nine of the past ten centuries, China had the largest economy in the entire world.
It was only after Britain’s colonization in the late 1800s and Japan’s invasion in the 1930s did China acquire the unfortunate nickname of the “sick man” of Asia. But even after the turmoil associated with Mao’s policies, China has rebuilt itself and in a very short amount of time, has become the third-largest economy in the world and in many ways, the most important political, economic, and cultural player on the international stage in the 21st century.
With that in mind, as the NY Times article described, China’s (re)emergence is likely to have some effect on how Chinese Americans are perceived. I certainly hope that as Helen Zia noted, it will improve the image and acceptance of Chinese Americans into mainstream American society.
On the other hand, I can also see how it might hurt Chinese Americans if other Americans see China’s emergence as a threat (along with the effects of globalization in general) and become defensive and as a result, take their frustrations out on Chinese Americans (and by implication, all Asian Americans).
Nonetheless, regardless of what other Americans may think, Chinese Americans and all Asian Americans have a right to feel proud of what China has accomplished. Yes, there are still many issues on which China should be criticized. But everything has a time and a place.
Right now, China is showing the world just how glorious, spectacular, and powerful it can be when it focuses its efforts in a constructive way. I, for one, am very impressed.