Friday, May 29, 2009

Come celebrate Secret Identities with some Rice Daddies!

What, some might say, does a comic book about Asian American superheroes have to to with fatherhood? The editors of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology might just say, "Everything."

The editors of Secret Identities, which came out last month and is in the middle of a cross-country publicity tour, set out to do more than just tell interesting comics stories with Asian American protagonists and to rectify the dearth of Asian American characters on the page. Remembering both their childhood love for the form and what it would have meant to them, as children, to have seen themselves reflected back in four-color panels, they set out to leave a legacy to their children, and to all our children, so that they don't feel the same lack of fictional role models, of possibilities, of their own places and faces in the potentialities of the fantastic.

In short, they did it because they were dads now. Jeff Yang, our own InstantYang, is the father of two. Keith Chow, our own RakuMon, is the father of one. And Parry Shen, best known for turning the model minority myth on its head in Better Luck Tomorrow, is the father of two (and if we ask nice enough, maybe he'll join us here too!). One of Parry's own stories in the book, Sixteen Miles, was inspired by the superhuman strength displayed by the late James Kim in trying to save his family.

I am honored and proud to play a small part in the book, as author of the one-page introduction to the section that features full-color character treatments of characters created by Asian American celebrities, called "Many Masks." (Which you can find on page 128, in case you were wondering, heh.) And I am happy to be joining the editors and many of my co-contributors at events in Los Angeles this weekend.

The big LA launch party is on Saturday, May 30, at 6:30 p.m., at the Japanese American National Museum, but there are a bunch of readings/signings throughout the weekend and throughout the Southland. (I'll be at the JANM event tomorrow and at Skylight Books in Los Feliz tonight, Friday, May 29, at 7:30.) You can check out the full schedule here and revisit the book blog for updates on upcoming events, including an Asian American comics convention in July at the new Museum of the Chinese in America in New York City. So come pick up a copy for your bookshelf, and for your children's bookshelf, and get it signed and drawn on by some awesome artists!

[And for any new readers surfing in from and DoubleX/Slate, welcome!]

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Little Dragon, Long Shadow

I’m a sucker for Bruce Lee documentaries. Not because I am a kung fu practitioner or even a big fan of his movies. It’s because he took on the stereotypes of the Chinese in Western pop culture and won. The impact his fame has had on my personal life is awe inspiring.

It’s not easy to stand up to Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. Scores of discrimination and biased dramatizations perpetrated by Hollywood (the ruler by which filmmaking and more importantly promotion across the globe are measured) are guaranteed to leave an indelible print on the global social fabric. It is even harder for an actor to have his accomplishments resonate beyond the industry and through time. Bruce Lee managed to do that and more amazingly he managed to do it in a relatively short period of time.

According to the documentary that inspired this post, the History Channel’s How Bruce Lee Changed the World, Bruce Lee only made four movies – and only one of them in English! Bruce Lee as icon, as persona is so ingrained in me that I never considered the particulars of his life and career. He was only 32 when he died.

What was admirable about the History Channel documentary was it attempted to begin a conversation about Bruce Lee’s impact outside of martial arts and the entertainment industry. Margaret Cho, Eddie Griffin, LL Cool J, and RZA were among the people interviewed. RZA segments pepper the film. He makes some interesting statements about Bruce’s social impact and there is a long segment about his producing the soundtrack to Afro Samurai which is like his homage to Bruce.

What I wish the filmmakers would have done is to interview more community organizers and non-celebrities. Though it’s mentioned Bruce Lee inspired Asians and non-Asians alike in a variety of careers, no one outside of the entertainment industry or martial arts was interviewed. Not only would this have been novel but it would have drawn attention to the importance of Bruce Lee as social catalyst.

As an Asian American parent raising two boys in America, Bruce Lee is essential. It’s something Kareem Abdul Jabbar said in a different documentary. He said that Bruce was uniquely American because he drew inspiration from a lot of different cultures and sources. He also said that Bruce Lee stood up for the “little guy.”

As a father I want my boys to be proud of their Asian heritage but also open to the beauty that other cultures and races have to offer. I also want them to be understanding and tolerant of the uglier side of these same cultures. I would like my boys to be willing to stick their neck out to help a stranger. I am a big believer of social ills being viral. It is only a matter of time before you and the ones you love get infected, if you do not do anything to cure the disease.

Bruce Lee as an icon and persona provides my boys with a positive self image of being Asian and male in America. I’m even going to say that his image is more pervasive now than those of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. He took them on and won.

Unlike my generation, my children will not suffer the pervasive images of Asian subservience and impotence. While I am sure those images will always exist in Western culture, my children have the benefit of a very weighty counterbalance in the legacy of Bruce Lee.

But there is a drawback to Bruce’s success and stature. More than once in my life, Bruce’s signature battle cry has been imitated in my presence to mock and devalue me. Black and White alike have attempted to turn Bruce into a negative Asian stereotype.

And for a while it worked. I distanced myself from Bruce Lee as much as I could. In middle school I had the opportunity to study karate and I turned it down despite really wanting to join the class. The taunting I had gotten fueled my desire to adopt what I perceived as unquestionably American as quickly as possible regardless of the costs.

The costs are illiteracy in my parents’ language and a certain disassociation with my extended family. Everyday I struggle with the choices I was allowed as a child and the ones I made when I initially entered adulthood. I have tried several times to rectify my past ignorance but it is hard. I have tried several times to learn to read and write Chinese. Each time foiled by distractions and the responsibilities that come with age. I have even taken a class with Sifu Shi Yan Ming at the US Shaolin Temple. He was among the martial artists interviewed in the History Channel documentary. Again foiled by time and age.

I keep trying though. And that’s how Bruce Lee changed my world. Regardless of my failures and shortcomings as a writer, an educator, and parent. I keep trying. And I believe I am free enough of ego to reflect critically and adjust my actions accordingly in pursuit of the mastery of my craft (parent, writer, educator) just like Bruce.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Homework Daddy

Since the divorce, I've been the primary homework helper. I spend time nearly every day reviewing work with her, checking on her progress, making suggestions on projects, and reading books. I was this way even before the divorce, but it seems to have become more intense after the divorce.

So, for two full school years now, I've had the opportunity to see her develop reading skills, math skills, writing skills, and critical thinking skills. I can see, hear, and intuit learning curves, learning deficits, and learning excellence.

However, there are two things I've noticed over these past two school years.

1. I'm a typical Asian dad with high expectations of success and perfection for my daughter.
2. Homework is getting longer and more complex without much reason.

In the past several years (2000 - current) several books and studies have been published relating to the issue of homework. Japan, the so-called leader of education, has even eliminated homework for elementary school children.

So why are American children seemingly doing more and more? Could it be our school year is shorter? Our classes less intense? Our standards just lower?

I'd probably argue it is a combination of these things, along with the notion that "grades" are the only indicator of success. The failed "No Child Left Behind" system of rewarding grades has completely screwed up any teacher's notion of creativity for younger children. Yes, elementary school kids still get to do fun things and projects and arts and crafts, but in a seemingly illogical way that puts the onus of teaching on the parent, rather than the teacher.

This past week, I helped Noodle create a butterfly habitat. The directions weren't specific, didn't have a "rubric" and didn't seem to indicate anything more than a few questions and a due date.

At first, I wondered what she meant when she said she had to create a butterfly habitat. I thought perhaps I'd have to find a huge water jug, drop in some plants, some water, put on a screen, and find a caterpillar.

However, Noodle informed me that other kids had to make habitats for pandas, cheetahs, and rattlesnakes. I figured those kids wouldn't be bringing in wild animals like that, so I was safe with a fake diorama of a butterfly world.

Anyway, besides making the project (about a two hours), and writing about it (20 minutes), and researching it (10 minutes), and doing the daily writing (10 minutes), Noodle probably put in three hours of work and planning for the diorama.

She's in first grade. While she did learn a lot about butterflies beyond what she already knew from Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the project was complex enough to warrant parental involvement.

And this is where I begin to wonder, what are they teaching in schools these days?

Nevermind that I am a teacher. But, I am wondering what they do in elementary school or even middle school. As a teacher, I am privy to incoming freshmen test scores. You know those entrance exams for placement are also used as indicators of a middle school's success in "teaching" children.

I've seen test scores on reading and writing as low as 19. That's right. 19 out of 100.

I don't mean this is an anomaly, but the low range seems to be between 20 and 40. I've also seen test scores very high, but not as often as I see low scores. Doesn't this seem to indicate that the children who are graduating from "A+" schools aren't actually learning anything beyond taking the state's standardized test? Give them a different type of test and suddenly they can't answer basic questions.

So, what's the solution? Teach "how" to learn, not "what" to learn. For example, if you show a child how they can figure something out, they are more likely to be able to solve similar problems later on. But, again, to what extent and how much?

Does a child need homework? Yes, and no.

Yes, because in American schools, there is very little time to teach everything a child is expected to learn within the single school year. And let's face it, we aren't going to make much change in this standardized testing thing until colleges decide they won't use it as an indicator of entrance.

No, because significant evidence suggests that in young children (K - 5) homework has a near zero affect on end grades on tests. That's right. Near Zero.

If you gave children no homework and kept their daily activities the same, they score virtually the same on tests as they did if you gave them homework. So why do we need to give young children homework?

Work ethic. It actually seems only to serve as early conditioning to value hard work and regular good study habits that can carry them through middle school and high school and beyond. And this is where parental involvement comes back.

I know that if a parent doesn't care, nor do they help with homework or read, the child is more likely to suffer in school. Not only because of a lack of reinforcement of school material, but because the child is "learning" that older people they care about dont "value" education. If a parent isn't involved, how can you expect a child to be involved?

But, if this is the only reason for homework, why assign so much to young children? I know of other teachers at my school with young children who complain that their child had nearly one hour of homework each night. One hour for a 3rd grader seems a bit extreme.

At the same time, I know that without practice, Noodle sometimes falters. And there is where my Asian Dad Syndrome kicks in and I drill her for an additional five minutes on a type of problem, a word, or some other thing.

So, to homework or not to homework? And, wasn't this the most ramblingest blog post from me you've ever seen?

Blog Photos of Noodle's Project