Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Where the First Asian American Head Coach Happens

If MetroDad is the resident baseball expert—with Soccer Dad reppin’…er…soccer—I guess that leaves me as the sole NBA enthusiast at Rice Daddies. (By the way, that Lakers-Celtics Finals everyone’s salivating for isn’t looking too good right about now.)

Anyway, today’s a big day for Rice Daddies with an affinity for professional basketball. As expected all season, Miami Heat head coach Pat Riley resigned yesterday after a disastrous 15-win season. Assistant coach Erik Spoelestra has been hired to replace Riley on the bench. (That's him on the left, next to J-Will). Why is this significant to Rice Daddies? Well, Filipino American Spoelestra is the NBA’s first Asian American head coach. And, if I’m not mistaken, the first Asian American to lead a major professional team in any of the big four sports (NBA, NFL, MLB, or NHL). Interestingly, I don’t see this fact getting much play in the sports world.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this historic moment will allow me to actively cheer the Heat as long as they're in the same division as the Wiz, unless of course, Miami is able to trade for Yao Ming or Yi Jianlian. That said, I still wish Coach Spo and the Heat well next season. Represent!

Monday, April 21, 2008

So why should RiceDaddies care about Mainstream Hollywood?

After reading RakuMon's post, some of you may have wondered okay, so what does this have to do with being a RiceDaddy? After all, mainstream Hollywood is all about fluff, fantasy and fiction, while we RiceDaddies concern ourselves with parenting within the context of Asian culture and tradition, right?

Well, since many of us are Asian-American dads, RakuMon's post is especially relevant to our experience because it's important to know how mainstream American media affect our children, and their relationships with their peers.

It's an undeniable fact that as a modern component of culture, the media play a primary role in shaping Americans’ perception of who exists within and outside of the human, and thus the moral realm. We are eight years into the 21st Century, but the lack of meaningful portrayals of Asian-Americans still relegates us to the periphery of the American experience. It is this cultural exclusion that makes it difficult for our peers to relate to us as human beings, let alone fellow Americans.

So, considering the fact that the psychosocial causes of bigotry and genocide are rooted in the process of moral exclusion, is there any wonder why a group of teenagers thought it was acceptable to assault Filipina student Marie Stefanie Martinez on a New York City bus simply because she “looked Chinese?” Is there any wonder why Kwok Po Lui was beaten with brass knuckles by classmates who exclaimed, "Hitting Chinese is very fun?"

As red-blooded American fathers, we RiceDaddies want our children to be seen as they truly are: multifaceted, three-dimensional human beings, capable of experiencing the same joys and sorrows as every other red-blooded American. We want their non-Asian peers to see them as Americans to whom they can relate, and not as perpetual foreigners in the land of their birth.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Lou and Lou Safety Patrol

As a rice daddy, I'm sure I'm not the first to find some ethnic pride in seeing "Lou and Lou's Safety Patrol." Lou and Louise are twin Asian American children whose sole function on Playhouse Disney is to educate about child "safety" in less than five minute snippets. I've always appreciated the non-over accentuated Asian eyes and their lack of accent.

But after watching my third different episode, I'm now beginning to wonder if they're a positive representation of Asian American children. In a cynical way, they're annoying tattle-tales who create a huge scene over the most nitpicky "rule" violation. For example, in a museum visit episode, they blow whistles, narc and call museum security on the black girl who went crushed velvet rope line for one second. Dude, who would want them for friends in school? I'd like that to say that's not a fair representation of Asian American children but the more I think about, the more I can see Asian American faces from childhood in exactly the same role (myself included.)

Part of it may come from the cultural respect for authority, but I think part stems from the hatred of the rule breakers who recognize social standing comes from the breaking of some rules: the unspoken rules of social power that seem to cripple some otherwise incredibly successful and hard working Asian Americans who do all the right things but somehow fall short.

One final question, if Lou and Lou are really suppose to be intelligent, then why do they rely so much on their stoner cop friend?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Asian Americans and Mainstream Hollywood: 21, Forbidden Kingdom, and Harold & Kumar

[Crossed posted here.]

I’ve wanted to write this for a while now, so what better time than the opening day of the long awaited Jet Li vs. Jackie Chan duel, The Forbidden Kingdom? All opening within a month of one another, three movies (21, The Forbidden Kingdom, and Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay) have significant relevance to Hollywood’s current ideas about Asian American actors and audiences. One movie is a true story about Asian American MIT students. Another features two icons of Hong Kong cinema facing off for the first time. And the third is the big budget sequel to a cult hit about a couple Asian American stoners. The studios’ approaches to—and audiences’ expectations of—these films are quite telling about the current state of Asian Americans in mainstream Hollywood.

The impetus for writing this post was actually driven by seeing TV spots for the Chan/Li actioner. The film, which is a quasi-sequel/follow up to the classic Journey to the West, has been anticipated with bated breath by both of Jackie’s and Jet’s legions of fans. I had followed some of the news about the movie ever since it was announced last year and was disappointed to learn that a major plot point in the flick involves a white teenager (with a kung fu fetish, of course) being transported back to ancient China. On the one hand, I can understand the premise of the time travel conceit: modern audiences need a readily identifiable character to help navigate the “exotic” fantasyland of China (which is problematic in its own right, but that’s for another post). This is a typical storytelling technique that can be found in Alice in Wonderland, The Neverending Story, and The Matrix. My issue isn’t with the framing of the film in these terms. What I find troubling is the notion that said teenager had to be Caucasian. Here’s the plot synopsis according to IMDB:

In Forbidden Kingdom, American teenager Jason (Michael Angarano), who is obsessed with Hong Kong cinema and kungfu classics, finds an antique Chinese staff in a pawn shop: the legendary stick weapon of the Chinese sage and warrior, the Monkey King (Jet Li). With the lost relic in hand, Jason unexpectedly finds himself transported back to ancient China.

There, he meets the drunken kungfu master, Lu Yan (Jackie Chan); an enigmatic and skillful Silent Monk (Jet Li); and a vengeance-bent kungfu beauty, Golden Sparrow (Crystal Liu Yi Fei), who lead him on his quest to return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King - imprisoned in stone by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) for five hundred years. Along the way, while attempting to outmaneuver scores of Jade Warriors, Cult Killers and the deadly White Hair Demoness, Ni Chang (Li Bing Bing), Jason learns about honor, loyalty and friendship, and the true meaning of kungfu, and thus frees himself.

The decision to cast a Michael Angarano as Jason is part of the Hollywood tradition to—as The Cinematical’s Peter Martin puts it, “experience an exotic locale peopled entirely by "others" through the eyes of a Caucasian character.” As I said earlier, I have no issue with the “fish out of water” premise. However, I think the producers of the film would have been smarter to make the role of Jason an Asian American character. Not only would that have given an opportunity to a young Asian American actor to star in a surefire hit, it might have given the movie a more nuanced message. Again, Martin:

If the producers had dared to cast an Asian, Asian-American, or African-American, that could have opened up all kinds of interesting twists: the young Asian not acquainted with his own cultural history, the Asian-American torn between two cultures, the African-American similarly -- but differently -- torn.

From a marketing standpoint, many execs still believe that audiences won’t flock to a movie unless the lead is white (more on that later). They’d argue that money, not political correctness, is the motivating factor when casting roles that could otherwise go to actors of color. After all, it’s said that the only color Hollywood sees is green. Therefore, making Jason a Caucasian is viewed solely as a financial decision. Even if that were true, which is debatable, it’s interesting to note that much of the marketing materials for Forbidden Kingdom make little or no mention of Angarano’s participation in the film. Instead, many of the TV spots I’ve seen, as well as the film’s one-sheet, play up the martial arts aspect and focus on the iconography of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. So if shoehorning a Caucasian teenager into the plotline is necessary to attract that demographic to the theaters, why leave him out of the marketing? Well, probably because “Jackie Chan Fights Jet Li—For the First Time!” kinda sells itself. Which brings me back to my original point: how unnecessary it is to make Jason’s character Caucasian, and thus, denying an Asian American actor a plum part in a big film.

Alas, at least Jason is a fictional character; which can’t be said for 21, another movie with ramifications in the Asian American community. Based on Ben Mezrich’s 2003 book Bringing Down the House, the movie follows a group of MIT students as they use their indomitable math skills to take Vegas casinos for millions. In Mezrich’s book, the students were a multicultural bunch whose leader was revealed to be an Asian American named Jeff Ma. In fact, one of the plot points in the book dealt with how the group used ethnic stereotypes as part of their cover when suckering dealers at the blackjack tables. Apparently, the studio thought a true story about Asian American MIT students would not appeal to mainstream (read: Caucasian) audiences unless the leads were white. Therefore, rather than find a hot, young Asian American actor to portray Jeff’s character, Columbia Pictures cast British Across the Universe star Jim Sturgess. In an article published in 2005, Mezrich discussed the studio’s thought process when casting the movie:

During the talk, Mezrich mentioned the stereotypical Hollywood casting process--though most of the actual blackjack team was composed of Asian males, a studio executive involved in the casting process said that most of the film's actors would be white, with perhaps an Asian female. Even as Asian actors are entering more mainstream films, such as "Better Luck Tomorrow" and the upcoming "Memoirs of a Geisha," these stereotypes still exist, Mezrich said.

Like the casting of Forbidden Kingdom, Hollywood’s conventional wisdom is that Asians—and more specifically Asian Americans—cannot open big at the box office. This self-fulfilling prophecy, in a strange way, is reinforced by 21’s actual success at the box office (opening at #1 and so far earning over $70 million). Due to the movie’s success, star Jim Sturgess is Hollywood’s latest it-boy and is seeing his star on the rise. Even Jeff Ma, the basis for Sturgess’ character, sees nothing inherently wrong with his story being trans-racialized for the movies. In an interview with AICN, Ma revealed:

For me it wasn’t a big deal, because for about three years people had been asking me who I wanted to play me in a movie and I never was saying like “John Cho” or “Chow Yun-Fat” or “Jackie Chan…” I really wasn’t and I mean if I asked you who you would want to play you in a movie, you wouldn’t be thinking “I want the most similar person,” but you would be thinking ”Who’s cool?” or who do you think would personify your personality or who is a good actor or who is talented, so as much as I think people like to look at it at face value like that, the reality is if you ask anyone who they wanted to play you, it wouldn’t necessarily be “Who’s the most ethnically tied to me?”

It’s telling that Ma, as many Hollywood execs are wont to do, conflates Asian actors (Chow and Chan) with an Asian American actor (Cho). Since 21 is designed to be a star-making vehicle for its leads, it makes sense that Columbia would want a “cool” actor for the role. The assumption, though, is that there isn’t any “cool” Asian American actor (other than John Cho, of course) capable of playing Jeff on screen. Never mind actors such as Masi Oka, Parry Shen, Dante Basco, Roger Fan, Sung Kang, Ken Leung, or James Kyson Lee, just to name a few. Not to mention the thousands of up and coming actors of Asian descent who are still waiting for that big break. (It must be said, though, that 21 features two Asian Americans—Aaron Yoo and Lisa Lapira—in the cast. However, their parts are minor at best, and according to EW.com's Youyoung Lee, “buffoonish” at worst.) If any of the above mentioned actors had been cast as the lead in 21, it’d be safe to say that the myth of Asian Americans being unable to open a movie would be officially rendered moot; which brings me to Harold & Kumar.

The 2004 stoner flick, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, was a modest success in theaters. Grossing over $23 million worldwide, more than doubling its production budget, White Castle went on to make millions more on DVD, in the process, becoming an instant cult hit and ultimately leading to the buzzed-about sequel that’s set to open on April 25. The revolutionary thing about Harold & Kumar was its ability to portray its Asian American leads as real, complex individuals—who happen to really love pot. John Cho, in an interview with Angry Asian Man, summed it up thusly:

I think there's something, from a racial standpoint, an attitude that feels accurate... And I think it might be the fact that it addresses race as we do--as people of color do--that we're aware of it, that we live with it, but it doesn't consume us. And sometimes, white media thinks that we're obsessed with it, and then Asian American films... we make films that obsess over her our race. It's an hour and a half of people talking about what it means to be Asian.

But Harold and Kumar addresses it, then doesn't, then addresses it, then kind of addresses it, then laughs at it... and then somebody smokes pot.

To New Line Cinema’s credit, the studio bet against Hollywood conventional wisdom and backed the movie with a significant marketing push and theater saturation. And while the stoner comedy as a genre is known for featuring people of color (see “Up in Smoke” and “Friday”), Harold & Kumar proved a major motion picture starring charismatic Asian American leads could be successful. Thanks in large part to the film’s success, which by all accounts entered the pop cultural zeitgeist on a speeding cheetah, Cho and co-star Kal Penn became household names able to translate their popularity into mainstream success. Since White Castle, Penn has starred on the TV hit House M.D. and Cho recently landed the coveted role of Sulu in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot.

All three of these films demonstrate in different ways where mainstream Hollywood is in regards to Asian Americans, and where it still needs to go. With Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay poised to out-gross (in more ways than one, natch) its predecessor, the hope remains that Hollywood’s ill-conceived perception about Asian Americans will change. Though I’m not holding my breath.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Field of Dreams: My All Asian Fantasy Baseball Team

As I've discussed on these pages before, two of my greatest passions in life are (1) being a proud Asian-American man, and (2) baseball. 
So it's only natural that I have a special place in my heart for any MLB baseball players of Asian descent (even if they do play for those dreaded Yankees.) Part of it has to do with the inherent pride when we see people who look like us achieve success in any field. However, a big part of my love and admiration for Asian baseball players has to do with the fact that they are our greatest weapons in battling mainstream media's perception of the emasculated Asian male. 
Look at some of the Asian baseball players in MLB today. Future Hall-of-Famer and perennial All-Star Ichiro Suzuki, with his matinee idol good looks, has modeled for the cover of GQ while making a strong argument for being one of the best hitters to ever play the game. Hideki Matsui is a modern-day Paul Bunyon who strikes fear in opposing pitchers by putting up some of the game's most awesome power numbers. And rookie sensation Kosuke Fukudome is already being hailed as the savior who will lead the Cubs to their first World Series title in 100 years.
Back when I was a young child playing Little League and dreaming of being the starting shortstop for the NY Mets, there were NO Asian players in Major League Baseball. Although the legendary Masanori Murakami briefly pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964-1965, it wasn't until Chan Ho Park made his debut with the Dodgers thirty years later that we saw another MLB player of Asian descent. 
It makes me extremely proud to look around the clubhouses of Major League Baseball now and see such a wide array of Asians playing virtually every position. I was thinking about this recently and I began wondering whether there were actually now enough Asian baseball players in MLB for me to draft an All-Asian Fantasy Baseball team. And how would that team stack up against the rest of baseball?
Let's take a look:
CF Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners)
2B Tad Iguchi (Chicago White Sox)
RF Kosuke Fukudome (Chicago Cubs)
LF Jideki Matsui (NY Yankees)
3B Akinori Iwamura (Tampa Bay Devilrays)
C Kenji Johjima (Seattl Mariners)
SS Chin-Lung Hu (Los Angeles Dodgers)
1B Kaz Matsui (Houston Astros)
DH Johnny Damon (NY Yankees)

SP Daisuke Matsuzaka (Boston Red Sox)
SP Chien-Ming Wang (NY Yankees)
SP Hiroki Kuroda (Los Angeles Dodgers)
SP Akinori Otsuka (Texas Rangers)
SP Kei Igawa (NY Yankees)

RP Hideki Okajima (Boston Red Sox)
RP Chan Ho Park (Los Angeles Dodgers)
RP Cha Seung Baek (Seattle Mariners)
RP Takashi Saito (Los Angeles Dodgers)

Few notes: 
(1) I put Kaz Matsui at 1st base because there currently no Asian 1st basemen in MLB. I figured he was well-suited because of his slick glove. He's lost some arm strength over the years and Chin-Lung Hu is more of a natural shortstop. 
(2) Yes, Johnny Damon is half-Asian. His mother is Thai. You didn't know that?
So how does my All-Asian Fantasy Team measure up?
Actually, I think we look pretty damn good. We've got a nice blend of veteran leadership and young players. We've got a good mix of guys who can get on base and guys who can hit for power. Our defense is solid but nothing spectacular. Ichiro is probably the sole Golden Glover. 
Our pitching staff is led by D-Mat and Chien-Ming Wang. I'll put those two pitchers up against any 1-2 combo in baseball. Kuroda was a freaking stud in Japan and could have a monster year for the Dodgers this year. Otsuka and Igawa should be more than serviceable filling out the back end of the rotation. 
As for the bullpen, it might be a little weak. Saito is a decent enough closer. Probably better than most others in MLB right now. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how much we'll get out of Okajima, Park, and Baek. The plus side is that our starting pitchers tend to eat up a lot of innings so a top-notch bullpen might not be as important. 
You know what? This is a pretty damn good team. I'll bet they could win 80-90 games. Put them in the National League and they might end up making it to the World Series. How great would that be?

Thursday, April 03, 2008


odd man in?

I caught this very, very interesting story on NPR yesterday: "Male Birth Rate Among Asian Americans Studied".

Here's the short version: Columbia Univ. economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund studied the 2000 Census and found that, for Chinese, Korean and Asian Indian American parents, those with two daughters (as their first two children) were 50% more likely to have a son for their third child. This simply isn't naturally possible, suggesting that there is some kind of sex selection going on though the researchers have been very careful not to draw conclusions as to what form said selection takes since they didn't collect data on that part of the question.

Here's the personal anecdote: I've known at least two Asian American families growing up where the parents had four daughters. Not that I ever asked the parents but you just assume, in those cases, they're trying for that son and finally gave up.

Here's getting back to Almond/Edlund's study. I took a look at the summary version of their research (warning: you need to be logged into a university system to access) which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some findings worth sharing:

  • The son-biased ratio (SBR) is apparently new - there was no evidence of such a bias in the 1990 Census. This suggests one of two things (at least): sex selection was less popular then (unlikely) or sex selection technology is more popular now (more likely).

  • The 1.5:1 SBR at third parity (i.e. after two daughters) is actually higher than what it is in India (1:39:1) though still lower than China in 1990 (2:25 : 1) though the restrictions put on by the one-child rule in China goes a long, long way to explaining how ridiculously out-of-whack their SBR tends towards. However, the fact that it's higher here compared to India (and I think South Korea as well) could also bolster the argument that sex selection methods and technology are more readily available/accessible in the U.S. than elsewhere.

  • The study compares Asian Americans to Whites (Whites show no statistically significant bias one gender or another) though I'd be curious to see what it looks like compared with African American and Latino American populations. I would still expect that the Asian American SBR to be higher, regardless, 1) because I think patriarchal preference for sons is more entrenched and 2) I think sex selection is less ethically challenging for Asian Americans compared to say, Catholic-raised Latinos (this presumes abortion is one primary method of sex selection).

  • "Male bias...was true irrespective of the mother's citizenship status" - which suggests that it may not just be immigrant families, but also American-raised families who exhibit a SBR.

  • "SBR were found despite the absence of many of the factors advanced to rationalize son bias in [Asia] such as China's one-child policy, high dowry payments (India), patrilocal marriage patterns (all three countires) or reliance on children for old age support and physical security." In other words, the SBR in the U.S. makes even less sense here than it does elsewhere in the world. But then again, it's not like patriarchy has ever required much rationalization to assert itself.

  • It should be noted that in families where a first-born son is present, there's no subsequent SBR with future children, meaning that one could read this finding as suggesting that what Asian Americans really want is at least one son but past that, they're fine with daughters. But they really want that son.

  • Small aside, but the study claims that Chinese, Koreans and Indians, collectively, make up less than 2% of the overall U.S. population. Accepting that the study is leaving out the second biggest Asian ethnic group (Filipinos), I think their math is wrong. Check it yourself: those three populations - not even accounting for people of mixed-Chinese/Korean/Indian descent - would still be over 2% of the total U.S. population, according to Census 2000 figures.

    So what does this all mean?

    For starters, let's just ask the unspoken question here: are Asian Americans more likely to use abortion as a means for sex selection? Given the wide availability and affordability of prenatal sex testing and abortion (compared to ineffective or more expensive means of sex selection), it's a rational economic argument that, if you were going to sex select, testing + abortion would be the way to go.

    I was looking at the CDC's abortion surveillance stats but given that 1) I'm not a quant guy and 2) it's past midnight, I'm not sure if these tell us anything meaningful since, 1) Asian American women are aggregated with Native Americans and others under the always-popular "Other" category so it's impossible to parse the numbers down just for Asian Americans, let alone just Chinese/Korean/Indian. 2) Table 14 suggests that Other women (presumably including Asian Americans) over the age of 30 are more likely to pursue an abortion relative to White and Blacks in the same respective age group but since Table 14 measures overall abortions rather than per capita, I'm not sure one can read the chart as suggesting that the abortion rates are actually higher within those populations vis a vis others. Maybe someone who is more stat-trained and/or awake than I can crunch that.

    Even taking the abortion angle off the table - and I noticed a pro-life group is already using the study to suggest that Asian Americans are abortion-crazy - the study confirms something that most of "us" already knew: Asian American society has a patriarchal slant (pun intended), at least when it comes to prioritizing sons. If someone else has a counter-read to this conclusion, I'd be curious to hear what it is.

    Lingering questions: First of all, I find it interesting that among my circle of Asian American couples, everyone wanted daughters - not necessarily exclusively, but most certainly at least one, if not the only child they'd ever have. That was certainly true for Sharon and I and we feel pretty lucky we ended up with a daughter (albeit a daughter who doesn't always eat her veggies and is in the middle of a worrisome princess phase but that's another story). But I was struck by how common this seemed to be with other people we know. This could suggest that, given a generation or so, the SBR might fade within Asian America, at least among 2nd and 3rd generation APIs (something, quite notably, the study doesn't parse but perhaps they didn't have access to the necessary data to do so).

    Second, and this is a bit of an aside, but the study notes that the biological norm for male/female is 1.05 sons born for every daughter. I'm no evolutionary scholar (but if you are, chime in!) but wouldn't it make sense for that to go the other way? Wouldn't, from an evolutionary point of view, having a higher ratio of women being born be more advantageous, especially since most women only bear one child at a time, with a long gestation period? I don't see the benefit in producing an excess of men when it's really women you need to propagate the species.
  • Wednesday, April 02, 2008

    Commemorating The Day

    Just wanted to mark this marvelous day. Maceo dropped his first legitimate deuce in the potty.

    How did I feel?