Emil Guillermo: After the Golden Globes, what is an Asian American anything?
The AALDEF Lunar New Year Gala is coming up on Thursday, March 4 with a difference. You’re going to have to bring your own dinner. It’s an online event, so you’re in charge of your own glam and chow, on your personal sliding scale. You still can see some great awardees on your screen, like the Daily Show’s Ronny Chieng. And see guests like George Takei and B.D. Wong. But you’ve got to supply your own surf and turf, vegan or otherwise. It’s a small price for sparing you the travel costs to NYC. More for AALDEF? Let’s hope.
Usually, I’d write a column the week of the event to create a little dinner conversation in the din of the Chelsea Piers banquet hall.
This year, there’s no shortage of issues that get to the gnawing questions:
What is an Asian American? What is the value of an Asian American life in the U.S. in 2021? Not to mention, where can I get a decent plate of hand-pulled noodles during COVID?
Let’s take the first one first since we’ve just had those Zoomy Golden Globes, where I’m usually excited just when an Asian American shows up. Like Margaret Cho in 2015 when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler first hosted.
Asian Americans have practically made showing up and being represented in American culture a political issue. And while there was some criticism of people of color not being in the Hollywood Foreign Press (there are Asians), there didn’t seem to be a shortage of BIPOC nominees and winners this year.
But especially for Asian Americans, there are issues around the existential question, “What is an Asian American [anything]?” “Minari,” the story about a Korean American family looking to make a home in Arkansas in the 1980s, was great. But it won for “Best Foreign Film.”
Director Lee Isaac Chung–who was born in Denver– held up his daughter for the zoomcast and said he made the movie for her so that she would know the family origin story. A true Asian American story, right? But because less than 50 percent of the movie is in English, with most of the dialogue in Korean, the Globes deemed it a “foreign film.”
Financed and made in America, written by an Asian American, and it’s a foreign film.
Perpetual foreigners, eh? So very 19th century.
Meanwhile, the best film drama, which should have been the appropriate category for “Minari,” was won by another surprise, the one film that is perhaps the most Asian American film of all.
And it has no Asian Americans that I can recall.
“Nomadland” is a mesmerizingly quiet and beautiful film about the search for self and home on the road throughout America and especially in BLM lands (the old style BLM—Bureau of Land Management).
The film was captivating throughout. And yet I don’t remember seeing an Asian face in the movie at all.
But it had the stamp of its director Chloe Zhao, born in Beijing, college-educated in the U.S., with a graduate degree in film from USC.
Zhao won for best director as well, the first female director since Barbara Streisand won in 1983. Adapted from a non-fiction book of the same name, no one can deny it was Zhao’s vision, her sensibility, that made that story.
It was the inner immigrant story made universal, a life of yearning for a sense of place and self on the road.
And many more times in my life, as recounted here on the AALDEF blog.
Zhao’s story spoke to me. Maybe it can be called the modern Asian American style, where the Asian parts are universal.
On the Globes, Jane Fonda spoke the truth as she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award: “Let all of us, including the groups that decide who gets hired and what gets made and who wins awards–let’s all of us make an effort to expand that tent so that everyone rises and everyone’s story has a chance to be seen and heard.”
We just need a path to rise past the gatekeepers to tell all of our stories.
I tell the story of my Father coming to the U.S. in the 1920s. Chung tells the story of his family’s arrival in Arkansas in the 1980s. Zhao depicts a story of coming and going that never ends. It’s both internal and external. Could that be a new modern sense of the Asian American? Where we’re driving the vision, but are never seen? Is being “Asian American” even relevant? Does anyone call a film by Ang Lee (born in Taiwan, but with college and graduate school in the U.S.) an “Asian American” film? Or is one’s artistic sense Asian American enough?
Zhao seems to be headed into that artistic sphere with her next movie Marvel’s “The Eternals,” with Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Selma Hayek, and Richard Madden. Still, congrats to Zhao and Chung. Their wins at the Globes represent a breakthrough with even more headway for an expanded sense of an Asian American story.
It’s not foreign.
THE VALUE OF AN ASIAN AMERICAN LIFE? My second question, “What is the value of an Asian American life?” is almost as tricky.
This past weekend, the previous past president was at the conservative CPAC convention referring to the “China Virus” with a zealous defiance to all his detractors. Do you think he cares that nearly 3,000 Asians Americans of all stripes have been attacked by those who scapegoat us for the virus?
In fact, while the attacks have been reported for a year on this blog and in other ethnic-based outlets, the mainstream has discovered it within the last month after a rash of incidents around the nation, including one death in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Do we count? Do we show up in the media? It matters.
Last week, the New York media noticed that one of my favorite New York spots, Xi-an Famous Foods, is closing earlier than normal because two employees were randomly punched in the face as they went to and from work.
Jason Wang told The New York Times that incidents like that never happened before the pandemic in all his ten years in business. They’re happening now.
As I wrote last week, Angelo Quinto, a Filipino American, died after a police officer in Antioch, California, handcuffed him face to the ground, then put a knee to the back of his neck, reminiscent of George Floyd.
And yet, it was treated merely as a local story, not even as part of a national outcry for more sensitive policing.
What is the value of an Asian American life? It’s a question we are always confronted with. Our value? It’s something more than we’ve gotten. That’s why AALDEF has been fighting to establish the value of Asian Americans in American society for years by advocating for wages for restaurant workers, to fair housing, to voting rights.
Getting our fair share isn’t just handed to us. We’ve got to speak out and fight for it. Since 1974, AALDEF has been there for the community. Celebrate what it’s done for us all at AALDEF"s virtual lunar new year gala this Thursday.
But you’ll have to bring your own special hand-pulled noodles. And Xi’an Famous Foods closes early.
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.