Saying Bye to Aloha’s Whitewashing

aloha

photo credit: columbia pictures

Why Hollywood continues to think it’s a good idea to cast white people to play the role of Asians and Asian Americans is confounding. I mean, I’m glad that Emma Stone’s character in Aloha, Allison Ng, shares my last name. At least people will finally get a chance to learn how to pronounce it (if you’re wondering, Stone’s character apparently helps here: “It’s ring without the r”). But that withstanding, have we really progressed so little, Hollywood? Did the offensiveness of Charlie Chan not catch your ears decades before?

To his credit, Director Cameron Crowe has issued an apology to the litany of responses regarding his casting choice of Emma Stone to play the character, Allison Ng. I only wish he arrived at his cultural ah-ha moment earlier. It would have saved him the bad PR and several critical reviews of his movie.

Asian American history is nuanced yet powerfully compelling, sometimes subtle but always worth discovering and retelling. Our history gives voice to the experiences of immigration, identity and cultural adaptation and preservation. It includes the stories of global icons, like the Filipino boy who rose from abject poverty to success in the international boxing scene. It also resides in the lives of lesser-known individuals who live in our midst, like the Chinese-American grandmother I met last year who grew up in Tennessee and navigated her ambiguity during the largely black-white polemic of the Civil Rights Era (she also happens to have one of the thickest southern accents I’ve ever heard). The more recent emergence of hapa voices add to the diversity and richness of what constitutes Asian America, reminding us to safeguard ourselves from making others into “Others.” This brings me to why I am so disappointed at Aloha.

Cultural research cannot fix the screaming omission of a people. While I admire Crowe’s willingness to learn about Hawaiian culture and history and applaud him for partnering with Hawaiian communities, no amount of research can replace representation. Through its actors, a movie always take on a certain form, regardless of motivation. Iron Man would not be the same if comedian Jim Carrey played Tony Stark. He just doesn’t fit the part. Carrey could try to play the role against the backdrop of meticulous, director-driven research, but he would still not be the right fit for Iron Man’s comic book persona coming to the big screen. So also Emma Stone, a white actress, cannot convincingly play the part of Allison Ng, a hapa who is 1/4 Hawaiian, 1/4 Chinese and 1/2 Swedish. Form matters. And so do people.

Casting aside, some say Crowe has done a respectable job of representing aspects of Hawaii (caveat: I probably will never fully know since I have no plans to see the movie). I believe he falls woefully short. If representing Hawaii was what he was after, choosing a nearly all white cast did not position him well for achieving that goal. Instead, Crowe reinforced the practices of whitewashing in Hollywood that continue to ignore the multi-ethnic America we live in.

Save the $12 friends. We don’t just need better story-telling, we need better forms of story-telling. We need more accurate depictions of our experiences, our cultures and our peoples. And Disney if you’re wondering, we don’t want a white Mulan.

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Why I’m not a Fan of Mother’s Day

2009

One of my favorite adult moments with my mom when I pranked her with paper clip earrings on Christmas.

I am not a fan of Mother’s Day. At least not the way it is typically done. Don’t get me wrong – I love my mom and will be forever grateful for her. On Sunday, I will still call her and celebrate her. You should, too. But Mother’s Day is not high up on my list of favorite holidays for a couple of reasons:

  • The Other: Aside from my distaste for its commercialized veneer (yes, I know I need to spend $ in some way, but how are you going to charge me an extra $24.99 on top of your regular delivery fee for a bouquet of flowers?!), I know that Mother’s Day can be difficult for many people who have lost mothers or experienced emptiness or abandonment. These realities, of course, do not mean that Mother’s Day needs to be scrapped. Instead, it must be reimagined. There are so many incredible mothers around the world and in our lives, and they should be thanked and joyfully celebrated.  But we also need to recognize that this day can bring up memories of pain and suffering for others. I think of friends who have lost their mom or their grandma this year or grew up without a mother. How can we honor those who have experienced loss, barrenness and motherlessness, even as we express our heartfelt gratitude to our mothers? In many of our settings, it may not feel appropriate to take the time to acknowledge these other narratives on Mother’s Day. And yet it is absolutely needed if each of us is to fully participate in community. Our call and our example to engage in other-ing comes from no one else but our God, who radically “others” when he sends Christ into our world and pursues you and me. What might it look like to put on Christ during Mother’s Day?  Giving voice to the other side of Mother’s Day honors the multi-faceted experiences of our humanity while also celebrating our moms.
  • Crutch: On a personal note, I am also discovering that Mother’s Day has become somewhat of a crutch for me, an easy calendar item to leverage as a means to express my love and appreciation for my mom. I don’t know about you, but I can tend to rely on Mother’s Day as one of the few days throughout the year when I intentionally serve and love my mom. And that’s only scratching the surface of my heart issues. If I were to pry a little bit deeper, I would find that on certain years, even mailing a card to my mom has been a perfunctory exercise: go to the store, fight the crowds congregating at the card section, select something sentimental, and then write my heart out, ending with a classic line like: “I hope on this day and every day, you feel celebrated for being the wonderful mom you are.” Hallmark and mom, cry your hearts out…. We need to love and celebrate our moms more regularly.

Uncovering My Story: At the risk of potentially sounding like someone who is being too hard on himself, I’ll be straight-up and say that I know I am not always the greatest son.

Simply put, I have recognized two things:1) My mom is one of the most gracious women I know and 2) I am really great at taking advantage of her grace. There are countless stories of how I’ve seen both of these realities. Here’s a more recent experience: One of my mom’s only requests over the past several years is that I call her once a week to say hi. Regrettably, I don’t have a great track record with her. When I make 1 phone call to her in a month, I feel like I’ve accomplished something significant . 2 or 3 phone calls, and I feel like I’m verging on the miraculous….and I only hit this number with my wife reminding me. Yet despite my slow progress over the years, my mom has always continued to believe in the best of me. She’s given me space, continued to pray for me and my wife and displayed an undeserved kindness and understanding towards me. But I should be clear here – my mom is no pushover. She will still get in a playful verbal jab at me once in a while (“lei mm gai dut ngo!”/you forgot about me), in which case, my heart will momentarily crumble with shame, only to be redeemed again when we come back around to share a laugh over our now familiar exchanges.

My mom is a picture of God’s incredible grace. As an immigrant to the United States, she has sacrificed more than I will ever know to raise me and my brother. Leaving the familiarity of her home, her language and her culture, she chose to bless our family in the most extraordinary ways. On this Mother’s Day, I am grateful for my mom! Thank you for embodying Christ to me.

I am also aware that many do not share the same types of feelings and memories I have described regarding their mom or their experiences. To those who have suffered loss associated with a mom or motherhood, my prayers go out to you. You are seen and acknowledged, and more than anything else, God meets you in the midst of your own experiences.

Identifying Blind Spots and the Asian American Letter to the Church

AAletter

Two Caveats:

  1. I don’t like to be in the limelight. It’s not my natural inclination to engage in dicey conversations or involve myself in conflicts. Yet if I’ve learned anything over my short 28 years of life, it’s that there are some things where you just need to step in. Not doing so would only perpetuate further misunderstanding, brokenness and disunity with all parties involved.
  2. I cannot begin to express my admiration of Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, the two women who originally organized the open letter (Kathy is both a friend and a colleague). I am thankful for their leadership and their willingness to raise awareness for the sake of the church’s unity. It’s been encouraging to see what God is already doing. However, I also recognize that for some, certain parts of the letter have been difficult. More on this below.

Why this post?

It’s been a little over a week since this open letter went out. Before I keep going, let me put this out there: it is not the perfect letter, and it never will be. Connotations, tone, authorial intent and personal interpretation are a part of language, and these ensure that there will always be a level of subjectivity when it comes to writing and reading.

As a staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who serves Asian Americans, I added my signature early on. Since signing, I’ve wondered whether writing anything would be worthwhile. As I’ve followed many of the thoughts and questions that have proliferated since the letter’s release, it’s been apparent that there is no lack of public and personal opinion. My hope is not to add more stories or share about my own experiences as an Asian American to somehow either bolster the points the letter raises or argue against them. Instead, I write because this is an opportunity for us, the people of God, to grow together in Christ as one body with many different parts.

I didn’t sign up to bash Rick Warren. And it’s not even really about him:

I’ll be short and sweet here. This isn’t about Rick Warren. This is about a call for reconciliation and greater cultural sensitivity. Yes, Rick Warren slipped up with the image he posted. WIthout a doubt, his apology left some wanting. But he did own up to what he calls “my insensitivity.” Let’s not miss that in the midst of deconstructing the inner meanings of if-ology (which I admit has its very valid points; my wife seems to agree wholeheartedly). Are there places where I think more dialogue and reconciliation can happen between him and others who have emailed him personally? Yes. Can we all extend grace more abundantly to each other? Yes. Does it start and end with Rick Warren? No. His now deleted facebook posts represents a need for growth, but it’s not an isolated incident by itself. As the letter cites, there have been independent incidents that have happened in the recent past that signify a need for respectful dialogue in the Church – both locally and nationally, privately and publicly. As the Church, we are not culturally well-versed, and we cannot ignore this reality. To overlook cultural insensitivity is to refuse the invitation to respect and honor one another as one body united in Christ.

I signed up for reconciliation, dialogue and grace.

On the other side of conflict is the peace of God. The Gospel calls for peace, and that is why I’m in this mix. Christ calls each of us to live in grace with each other, even as we navigate something that can turn messy (and in some ways, already has) before it gets better. But real peace and unity are where Christ is leading us. So, while the letter’s language may not perfectly express my sentiments in every way, I do believe that it accurately conveys a need for the American Evangelical Church, of which Asian Americans are a part, to reconcile as we dialogue and grow together.

I’ve been thankful for conversations that I’ve been having recently. They’ve been revelatory, challenging and grace-filled. One of those conversations occurred last night when I spoke with Kevan after reading his thoughtful post. It was a very honest and reconciling conversation, and in the end, it was encouraging to know that we both desired to see reconciliation happen.

The open letter is a call for reconciliation on all sides, and that includes those who may disagree with the form, content or tone of the letter. It is a call to forgive and reconcile. It is a call to identify blind spots. Rather than perpetuating the same cultural miscues and mistakes, we must learn how to appreciate, respect and celebrate the different ways God has created each of us. Throughout this process, people on all sides, Asian Americans included, will need to listen and learn with humility and grace.

Cultural blind spots abound in all of us. Let’s help each other identify and shed them. Here are a few that have popped up in my interactions:

Blind Spot #1: Cultural Insensitivity and Us vs. Them

Ironically, this was one of my own blind spots, and I didn’t recognize it until I started talking with others.

“Lastly, in many of these occurrences of cultural insensitivity, we have seen a tendency amongst white Christians to point out that they know Asian Americans who weren’t at all offended by what they did. So, the argument goes, this must mean that any Asian American who is upset is being overly sensitive.” (Open Letter)

In Christ, we are all united as one. As a signatory, I personally own that these few sentences could have been framed in a more culturally sensitive way to our white brothers and sisters. While I cannot speak for anyone else, I can see why some have been pushed away because of these words (which accurately describe the reactions of some white Christians – and other ethnicities, I might add – but certainly not all). I apologize, especially to my white brothers and sisters, for how this, even in context, was a generalized statement that unfairly lumped white American Christians together. Many of you have embraced multi-ethnicity and even stood with us. I ask for your forgiveness and your grace as the Asian American communities navigate how to talk about our experiences in constructive, gracious and Christ-centered ways. I know that the letter’s intention is to welcome dialogue and reconciliation as we raise awareness about things that need to change. As the letter clearly demonstrates, there is real hurt and pain; the cultural insensitivity in the Church and in the world cannot and should not continue. So if you haven’t already, I ask for you to join us in solidarity. Doing so acknowledges that we collectively need to learn to respect each other more on every side. As we navigate current and future conversations, let’s pray for greater cultural sensitivity and grow in mutual respect for each other in Christ.

Blind Spot #2: References to the Civil Rights Movement and MLK

Our narrative is different from the Civil Rights.

It’s fine for us to refer to certain aspects of history. I don’t have any problem with that. But one thing needs to made abundantly clear. Now and then are not the same. We are not talking about civil rights, hate crimes and the ugliness of calculated actions against Asian American communities. Our levels of experience are not the same as African Americans during that era, and we would do well to acknowledge this. As of now, I haven’t really seen anything overt in terms of a direct analogy, but as we continue talking, let’s make an effort to be wise and clear in our communication. MLK fought against intentional offenses and systemic establishments of inequality. Many of the initial miscues Asian Americans have experienced represent unintentional offenses and systemic blind spots. That means that people either didn’t know or weren’t culturally aware. Of course, this does not make everything okay, which is part of the reason for the letter. But the call for grace (and wisdom) remains.

What we do need to tackle are the subsequent responses (or lack thereof). These are very intentional, and they have been mixed between sincerity and dismissiveness, solidarity and insensitivity. (See Blind Spot #4)

Blind Spot #3: Private vs. Public

I recognize that there is a temptation here to dig our heels into the place that feels most comfortable and confine our “dialogue” to only the blogosphere, the private conversations or the public forms. But we cannot afford to relegate our conversations to only one space. The cultural insensitivities have happened on all levels, and like it or not, they are being talked about in public and private spaces. As a united Church, let’s press in together to grow in personal and corporate reconciliation. If you’ve only had conversation in one particular space, I would encourage you to go beyond it, and invite others to do so, too.

Dialogue on these levels are often not one-time, quick fix conversations. Inevitably, in the coming weeks and months, it can appear as if parts of the Church are bashing one another or living without forgiveness. For some, that may actually be true, and if that’s you, don’t settle in a no man’s land of bitterness. Rather, let’s value others above ourselves in Christ (Philippians 2). Let’s forgive freely and live full of grace. Let’s believe that we are for each other in Christ. And let’s remember: growth will take time, patience and effort from all who are involved.

Blind Spot #4: Forgiveness and Reconciliation are Different

Let’s not confuse these two things.

Forgiveness is a gift we offer freely to others in Christ. We do so because Christ has freely forgiven us and calls us to do likewise (The Lord’s Prayer). It does not mean that we overlook the offense, or somehow downplay our hurt. Instead, forgiveness looks at the offense and chooses to love and accept the person unconditionally in Christ. When we choose to forgive, something beautiful happens. We not only free the one who offended us from our anger and desire to enact justice ourselves, but we also free ourselves from bitterness, self-righteousness and pride. We free ourselves from self-destruction. Or rather, Christ frees us. Regardless of any apology, forgiveness is God’s call for us. Sometimes, we may not be ready to forgive. More conversations may be needed before forgiveness happens. That’s okay. Yet, in the same breath, needing time and space does not change the fact that we are all called to forgive each other in Christ (Matthew 18).

Reconciliation is not forgiveness. Reconciliation includes forgiveness, but it’s not the same thing. Reconciliation is the process through which two or more individuals/communities progress towards renewed relationship, trust and understanding of each other. Reconciliation does not happen overnight, and often times, it can take months, even years for it to be fully realized. Forgiveness and reconciliation are the places where I pray we are going. May we, the Church, be people who have freely forgiven because of God’s forgiveness, but also people who are making every effort to pursue real peace and reconciliation through ongoing dialogue. As the people of God, we need to learn from each other. We need to listen. It’s a slow journey, but it’s always a worthwhile one.

Last Thoughts:

As a brother in Christ, I’ve forgiven those who have been culturally insensitive. And just to err on the side of clarity, I was never angry or bitter towards anyone. As I’ve reflected on what’s happened in the recent past, I do not believe the videos, the facebook post and the Deadly Viper book were ill-intentioned. They were products of insensitivity or low cultural awareness.  I understand that some of us cannot accept the apologies offered at this point, and ultimately that is your decision. But apology accepted or not, we are still called to forgive, just as Christ has forgiven us. We also need to raise awareness and graciously share our stories so that we can be understood – even as we come to understand others. Otherwise, nothing changes.

Forgiveness is not the final chapter; it points to reconciliation. So now, as the Church continues to dialogue, the process of reconciliation can begin. And it is happening! Our American Evangelical Church is growing in Christ because of how this letter is raising awareness and inviting dialogue. Together with the writers of the letter, I am hopeful. We can debate the forum and public nature of the letter, but the truth is we are seeing Christ renew his Church. Even if you may disagree with the method of the open letter, please don’t miss what Christ is doing in all of our communities.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me. Would love to talk and grow together with you more!