Sunday, June 29, 2014

George Takei: It Got Better

I had wanted to write something for LGBT History Month but it’s the end of the month and I didn’t get my act together. Instead I’ll share a new It Gets Better Project video from a series called It Got Better in which George Takei tells his story from being incarcerated by the US government as a child to figuring out he was different from his straight friends shortly after getting out of camp to Stonewall and coming out to his mom. He talks about meeting Brad and his decision to come out to the general public in 2005 after being upset by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's failure to support equal marriage by vetoing a bill that would have made it legal in California. It’s all stuff he’s talked about before but his narration is intercut with family photos which I hadn't seen before. It's nice to see that context. One thing he talked about that I hadn't heard him discuss was how his career, which he'd been protecting all those years by not discussing his sexuality openly, took off after his public coming out.

George & Brad Takei @ Columbus Pride June 21, 2014
Photo courtesy of Rachel B.

Last weekend, George had the honor of being grand marshal at Columbus Pride. He and his husband, Brad, rode a float along with last year's grand marshals, Stephen and Joshua Snyder-Hill. My friend Rachel sent some photos of George talking to the crowd as he rode by! I wish I could have been there. Note that they are holding signs that say, "Takei Pride Parade" a nod to the time George offered to the people of Tennessee that they could use his last name as a synonym for the word "gay". (In 2012 the Tennessee legislature attempted to pass SB 49 & HB 229 which would have prevented teachers from discussing homosexuality in the classroom. It was nicknamed the "Don't Say 'Gay'" bill.)

In other news, I'd like to officially announce that I'm a contributor to Discover Nikkei, a project of the Japanese American National Museum. They approached me in January after someone on staff found my post about Hawaii Five-0's season 4 episode Ho'onani Makuakane. I didn't announce it then because I wasn't sure if I would become a regular contributor. This month I decided that for pride I would submit my coming out story. They accepted it and it was just posted! I hope to contribute more posts to Discover Nikkei in the coming months.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Film: Documented

So, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve paid virtually no attention to the immigration debate because I didn't think it had anything to do with me. My mom’s parents emigrated from Okinawa to Hawaii before it was even a state, but they did so legally. My dad also came to the US legally. On the Hawaii side of my family, I’m the only one of my generation who wasn’t born in the US, but because my mom was a US citizen and she registered my birth abroad, I am technically not an immigrant - I automatically got US citizenship. I didn't have to do anything for it. I did not realize how privileged that makes me.

After going to see Vincent Who? last month it seems the New England ADL automatically put me on their mailing list and a few weeks ago I got an invitation to a screening of Documented: a film by an illegal immigrant undocumented American. The trailer was captivating and Jose Antonio Vargas, the subject, writer, director, and producer of the film was going to be on hand for a Q&A so I went. I didn’t realize until the opening credits were rolling that Japanese American producer Kevin Iwashina (whose films I keep finding myself watching) co-executive produced the film!

Since Jose is a journalist I had expected a newsy documentary with lots of facts and figures and arguments with his personal story as a backdrop, but instead the film was a deeply personal narrative about how he came to be in the United States illegally and what happened after he found out. When he was 12, his grandfather (who had immigrated to the US legally) arranged for a smuggler to bring him to the US so he could live with his grandparents and have a better life than he could back in the Philippines. When he was taken to the airport, he was told the man was his uncle. It would be another four years before he found out that his documents were fake. After that he found it easier to come out of the gay closet than the undocumented closet and he spent years mostly hiding his immigration status (sharing it with only a few trusted mentors) before eventually coming out in the New York Times Magazine at age 30. At the time he'd been living in the US for 18 years - more than half his life. The Philippines was no longer home. He considered himself an American but he had no papers to back that up. His only paths to citizenship would be to go back to the Philippines, wait ten years, then apply to come back to the US or marry an American, which was complicated by us not having equal marriage in all states and the federal government not recognizing those marriages at the time. Since DOMA was overturned, the federal government has begun to allow people in same gender relationships to sponsor their spouses. Jose told us after the film that he has 16 lawyers and they think that marrying a man might be the solution, but they're not sure.
Jose is in a rare position. So far, ICE hasn't tried to deport him. He acknowledged afterwards that he knows he's the most privileged undocumented person in America. He's educated. He has a lot of support. He has a high profile because he worked as a journalist for many years. He has a lot of connections (not too many undocumented Americans can say they know Marc Zuckerberg). He even won a Pulitzer Prize. He was quick to emphasize that his story is only one of millions, but it was a story he felt he should tell because he's in a position to do so. Much of the film focuses on the difficulties he's had with his mom who was left behind in the Philippines. He hasn't seen her in person since he left and their relationship became strained over the years after Jose learned about her part in sending him here illegally and he was upset that she didn't follow him as promised. He sent a crew to film his mom in the Philippines so you get to see both her perspective and Jose's about what it's been like for them to be separated all these years and the ups and down their relationship has gone through. Jose hoped that people would be able to connect with his story on a human level. Everyone understands family.

I was struck by Jose's path to activism. In the film he talked about watching YouTube videos of young undocumented people who were speaking up as being "undocumented and unafraid". He began to feel guilty. Here were people younger than he risking deportation to try and change things so that they and others in the same boat could get citizenship and stay in the country they call home. It reminded me a lot of why I came out. I watched a lot of It Gets Better videos on YouTube mainly from people younger than I, and I felt guilty. If they could be brave, why couldn't I? During the Q&A Jose said he saw parallels between the battles for LGBT rights and immigrant rights. He thinks immigration reform will go like LGBT rights - state by state. Equal marriage has only been possible because the culture shifted before the politics did. He believes that stories and art have the power to liberate people which is why he made the film. For the past few years he's be traveling the country showing the film and hoping to change the dialogue about illegal immigration, proving it's never too late to become involved.

I wish the Q&A had been longer and better organized. We didn't get to hear much from Jose because questions weren't screened and most of the people who "asked questions" seemed to be more interested in hearing themselves talk than in hearing Jose speak. The last question was really excellent though. A young American man told Jose that his best friend was undocumented. His friend is smart and interested in politics but he's feeling hopeless because right now he doesn't see a way out of his situation or a way to achieve his goals. The young man wanted to know how he could encourage his friend. Jose commended him for being a great ally and said to pass on to his friend, " I just hope you don't say no to yourself."

I would imagine that undocumented Japanese numbers are pretty low these days given overall Japanese immigration numbers which are down (unfortunately I couldn’t find any stats), but certainly not all the issei who came here back in the day came here legally. But that was a long time ago. Why should we care? I found a great piece on Racialicious - Japanese Americans and Immigration: Where We Fit that explains why it's still relevant to Japanese Americans. It was written by yonsei Kristin Fukushima a few years ago when she was Public Policy Coordinator for the Japanese American Citizens League Pacific Southwest District.

Until now Documented has only been shown at private screenings, but if you have cable, you can watch it tomorrow on CNN. They snagged the US distribution rights and the film will have it's television premiere tomorrow, Sunday, June 29th at 9pm ET and will air again at 11pm ET. If you miss it tomorrow CNN will air it again next Saturday, July 5th at 9 and 11pm ET. Details here.

If you're not able to watch the film on CNN, they're currently taking pre-orders for streaming or download on the film's website.
This post has been crossposted at Discover Nikkei, a multi-lingual Nikkei online community. 

From their website: "Discover Nikkei is a community website about Nikkei identity, history and experiences. The goal of this project is to provide an inviting space for the community to share, explore, and connect with each other through diverse Nikkei experiences, culture, and history." Discover Nikkei is coordinated by the Japanese American National Museum and supported by The Nippon Foundation.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

G Yamazawa schooled me on spoken word

The first time I was exposed to spoken word poetry was at my hippie liberal arts college. I didn’t get it. It seemed silly and pretentious. Annoying and boring. I found it embarrassing to watch. Over the years I'd occasionally get invited to a poetry slam or open mic night and I always said no because I thought that spoken word was an art form I just didn’t appreciate. As it turns out, that’s only because I’d never heard any Asian performers so I'd never heard any spoken word that spoke to me, about my life experience.

A few days ago I came across Japanese-North Carolinian spoken word artist, G Yamazawa’s incredibly powerful piece, "Home" via sansei writer Gil Asakawa’s blog, Nikkei View. (There's a less shaky video with better sound quality here if you can't watch shaky videos, but it's a less fiery performance than the one Gil linked to so I recommend listening to the one above.)

Listening to "Home" I felt a tightness in my chest and tears in my eyes as he talks about 3.11 and knowing something was wrong, feeling the 18-wheeler parked in his heart and seeing in his mom's eyes that she wanted to return to Japan (I did too) and about how his mom told him he couldn't understand because he wasn't born there.

She said: ジョージお 分からんと思う、そこで生まれてないから   "Jōji o wakaran to omou, sokode umare tenaikara," which G translates as, "I don’t think you’d understand. You’re not from there." My brain translated it as, "George, you don't understand, you weren't born there," which is a little closer the original. My friend who helped me with the Japanese (Thanks, Stacey!) said a direct translation would be, "I don't think you would understand, George, because you weren't born there."

The funny thing about getting older is that at some point you cross a line and all your teachers stop being older than you. This is the week that 23-year-old nisei G Yamazawa schooled me on spoken word. He may sound like a Southerner but he looks like he could be my cousin and although he's in a different generation both demographically and culturally (he's nisei, I was born in Japan but identify as sansei because my maternal grandparents came to the US in the early 1900s so I have a nisei mom), his experiences resonate. Perhaps growing up as an Asian in the South in the 90s/2000s was similar to growing up as an Asian in the Northeast in the 80s?

Some more of my favorites:


On a local note, I was surprised to learn recently that Cambridge is home to East Meets Words, the longest running Asian American open mic night series in the country. I had no idea we had a thriving Asian American arts community. They've been running since 2005. It happens the second Friday of every month at 8pm at East Meets World (934 Mass Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139), which used to be a Chinese-language bookstore called East Meets West. Next one is this Friday.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Photos: 2014 Japan Festival in Boston @ The Cambridge River Festival

I volunteered at the Tewassa booth at the third annual Japan Festival in Boston last Saturday, which was held in conjuction with The Cambridge River Festival.

I'm not sure that the festival within a festival concept worked all that well. This year's Japan Festival was really lacking in matsuri atmosphere. Although the River Festival had many stages none of the performers were Japanese so there was no Japanese music and due to the River Festival's vendor requirements matsuri games were not permitted (because it's an art festival, not a carnival, apparently). There also didn't seem to be that many Japanese people in attendance, although it could just be that it was hard to tell because so many people were there for the River Festival. I suppose it's better that something happened rather than nothing but I have to say I enjoyed this year's Sakura Matsuri much more even though it was smaller.

Anime Boston and some other Japan Festival booths

I only wandered around a little, although there wasn't much to see in the Japan Festival portion. There were 19 art and community booths, a far cry from what they had the first two years. They did at least cluster the Japanese booths together except for the two food booths which were way down on Sidney Street with the other food. 

Cooking okonomiyaki

The lines for hot food were crazy when I went down there so I didn't bother waiting. There was a booth listed on the website as JREX but they had Itadaki signs on the booth (they're a JREX member). I did spot Kazu Aotani (owner of Snappy Sushi & Snappy Ramen) manning the yakisoba grill so I guess it was a joint effort between JREX members. They were selling yakisoba, okonomiyaki, teriyaki corn, kakigouri (shaved ice), and Ramune.


Next to them was a booth listed on the website as "Cold Udon by Japan Block Fair". The booth was actually selling sōmen and appeared to be staffed by students from Showa Boston.

I thought Yume Wo Katare was not at the festival because they didn't have a food booth but I ran into a pack of Yume staff on the T and found out they had a non-food activity booth listed on the website as "Yume Festival" where they had a tanabata-like activity where people could write their dreams on a white board and have a Polaroid taken then hung up.

Japanese dolls @ Japanese Women's Club of Boston

There did appear to be a lot of activities for children although I didn't get near most of them and there were a lot of beautiful and ridiculously low-priced handmade goods at our booth, the Japanese Women's Club of Boston, and JB Line. JB Line had these adorable miniature macaron-like coin purses that I didn't manage to get a photo of. Apparently they're popular in Japan.

Tenugui @ wuhao newyork

One vendor came up from NYC: wuhao newyork. They primarily sell tenugui, a type of lightweight Japanese towel. They had some really beautiful ones as well as whimsical ones with maneki neko and dinosaurs!

Boston Special Needs was selling artwork by autistic and special needs children. They even had an artist working on site!

I do appreciate the hard work that the Japan Festival organizers put in to making this happen this year at all. I know people must be wondering what the plans are for next year's Japan Festival. I've heard some rumors but haven't confirmed anything yet. I'll post if I hear anything concrete.

Additional photos here.