A Collective Experience: Don Lee’s Novel explores the world of Asian American art

By Kaitlin Wright

Don Lee’s The Collective is a fictitious story grounded in factual experience. The story follows three liberal arts students from their initial exposure to adulthood through to their post-graduate aspirations and pitfalls. These students, Eric Cho, Jessica Tsai and Joshua Yoon, are, like most college students, trying to find themselves and understand their place in the world. Their Asian American identity adds another layer to this self-discovery expedition. A reviewer from NPR writes, this novel grapples with “the allure of the cultural bond [and] the bristle of the stereotype.” 

We follow the character Eric through the novel. We hear his thoughts and are made to sympathize and connect with his experience. Eric is time and again criticized by his roommate, Joshua for not embracing his Asian heritage. Eric, a third-generation Korean raised in Southern California has never felt his Asian heritage to be a hinderance, but he has also never felt a sense of pride because of it. Eric says, “The problem was, I didn’t feel Korean. I didn’t what it meant to be Korean, or Asian, or Asian American. I only felt American” (84). Eric’s struggle with his American identity brings up a lot questions regarding interracial relationships and showing Asian themes in one’s art. 

What is Asian American Art? Is it art created by an Asian Americans, or is it art about the Asian American experience? One event in Lee’s book describes an Asian American art exhibit that was virtually disconnected in terms of theme or subject across the individual pieces. The only connecting factor was the fact that the artists were all Asian American. The problem presented in this example is that these artists, talented in their various mediums are not selected to be in art shows based on the achievement of their craft, but rather, they are selected because of their identity. This act of segregation is sometimes posited by curators as a way of “honoring” the artists’ heritage, but what it really says is that these artists are not welcome with the other artists. 

This brings us to another topic of Lee’s book. The character of Joshua asserts that Asian Americans need to make their art about what it is like to be Asian American. When Eric writes a story that has white characters, Joshua says, “its tantamount to race betrayal.” There are two sides to this argument. One, as mentioned by Lee in The Collective an artist’s work is often more powerful when an author draws inspiration from their personal experience. No one else has the same authority on the things you have felt and the emotions you have experienced, so these are the things that you have to give to the world. If Asian Americans do not discuss their plight in their art, then who will? If a person of any other race tried to capture such a theme, it would come off as contrived and unauthentic. The other side though, is should Asian Americans be restricted to this on vein of sociopolitical statement art? Perhaps, it cages their creative license to be “forced” into one idea. 

The issues that Lee raises in this novel are very real, and very present. There is no easy, or “right” answer to the questions of race and identity especially in how it manifests in one’s art. This novel, while it can’t possible answer the questions, makes a person think. More thoughtful appreciation of artists and people in general will hopefully begin to dissipate racialized, genderized and sexualized stereotypes. 

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The Collective

Julie Huynh | 46376331

The Collective was one of the few fictional books I’ve been able to read during my college career and could not put down.  What I enjoyed most about reading this novel was the author’s diction and style of writing; very descriptive, graphic, and detailed.  The voice of the narrator was straightforward and I actually liked hearing the way he spoke and digested his world.

My overall feeling after completing this book was one of mild disturbance, because of the characters themselves.  I was still thinking about Noklek’s immolation, trying to piece together exactly why she chose immolation (allusion to Thich Quang Duc) and what her actions meant thematically.  I was also disturbed by Joshua overall as a character, because of the choices he made (such as bringing down Eric and Jessica with him in the chalkboard incident) and the viewpoints he had (non-Asians can’t write about Asians), and his misogynistic attitude! I think that was one of the traits about him that appalled me the most; that not only was this character able to get away with being narcissistic, manipulative, arrogant, and undoubtedly bright, he also had to be misogynistic.  Although I agreed with some of the things he said once in a while, he was also a very unlikeable character who I still felt compelled to try to understand. I feel like months from now I will still be thinking about this character because he is so dynamic.

I had some minor frustrations with the narrator himself as he progressed from college to the real world, where he continued as Joshua’s best friend.  I didn’t understand why he chose to act just like Joshua in the Kathryn Newey incident again towards Esther Xing (besides from his great dislike of her), because I felt that even though he admitted to himself that he agreed with her points, on the outside he is coming off as a narrow-minded jerk who thinks only Asians have rights to Asian culture. It was already disappointing the first time he didn’t speak up to defend Kathryn Newey. I also took issue with how he relapsed with Mirielle during their “platonic” time period, because it was a pretty dumb thing for Mirielle to do — to think it’s okay to see someone while leading Eric on. I want to say his romantic nature brought him into that situation. In the beginning, I suppose it’s safe to say that my impression of Eric was of a pretty spineless guy, until the end in the way that he conducted himself in front of Barboza. I thought that it was good of Eric, to take initiative to track down the man and also tell him what’s up (that public safety hazard line!).

One aspect of this book that affected me the most was the role of family. It was very difficult to read about Eric’s feelings about his treatment towards his mother, because it reminded me of my similar actions to my own as a teenager growing up. How Jessica Tsai’s parents disowned her was also something I could connect to — not because I’ve ever been disowned, but because the whole issue of family honor and filial piety is one that I can identify with very well because I personally struggle with it very much.

The one other theme that provoked me the most was the incident in which Barboza says “little egg rolls” and “bonsai bushes” to the public. My favorite scene in the entire book was when Eric confronts Barboza about this and they have a conversation about creative license. I liked this excerpt because for once, it seems like I’ve come closer to seeing someone (in this case, Eric) call out the perpetrator on his ignorance. It’s a little empowering, to see Eric attempt to explain to someone like that why they’re wrong, especially since it seemed like Barboza was trying to understand at first. Also, I actually agreed with the city’s desire to at least have a warning of sexual material and the like, because at the end of the day, even if it is art, not everyone understands the context and will take it the wrong way and at face-value. One thing that Barboza also said that struck me a little was when he asked Eric, What have you contributed to this society? That actually reminded me to humanize Barboza, because for me, I feel that it’s very easy to pit against the offender in any case that you forget who they also are (a father, etc) outside of the situation that they’re involved in.

Who’s an Asian American artist?

79935303 Daisuke Tohyama

Who’s an Asian American artist?

When I read the Collective, I was surprised that the short book includes many issues such as identity, language barrier, sexuality, model minority myth, authenticity of culture, mental health, parental style, and so on.

In terms of identity, one thing I noticed is that Joshua’s identity comes from multiple factors. In chapter 8, he visits Korea to search his birth parents. However, he feels uncomfortable with being in Korea because he does not speak Korean well. Korean people consider him as a American. Then He starts joining anti-transracial adoption movement to argue that white families who adopted Asian children were selfish. He does not like his foster parents. This scene includes diaspora and model minority myth. Joshua does not belong to Korean group nor American group even though he dreamed Korean was his place because of language barrier. Also, his foster parents may have expect him to be a good Asian boy or studious. However, he chose to be a novelist. He was not fitted to the myth, which may affect his feeling against the parents.

 

 

One of questions I am interested in is what a role of Asian American artists is. When racial insults words are written on the Joshua, Eric, and Jessica’s chalk board, three of them have to decide whether they speak out that they get racial insults with risk which may leads to victimization of themselves. Around at 97 page, they argue about the topic. Joshua says “We go public.” Jessica and Eric say “I don’t know.” (Lee 97) That argument reminds me of Who killed Vincent Chin?. When Asian Americans are targeted at by non-Asian Americans, they would recognize there are racial issues and stand up. I think Joshua tries to tie 3AC together and stand up as an Asian American. Not only this scene, does the book have some ideas that Asian Americans have to speak up.

While Joshua always claims to speak out Asian American racial issues, claiming that Asian Americans are marginalized or victimized will not easily deconstruct reality as history tells you. When Japanese Americans published works about victimized Japanese Americans, they were criticized by mainstream society. Also, this book includes an argument of what topic Asian American artists should talk about. In chapter 13, Esther and Eric argue about whether Asian American artists have to portray or talk about Asian Americans in their piece or not. Speaking out is not the only way to change the world. If Asian American artists get prizes in the mainstream art industry, people would consider them as authentic artists. Authentic artists may have more power than just an artist. The argument also reminds me of culture reference. For example, who are the culture experts? or are there any White Americans more familiar with part of Asian cultures than Asian Americans? This argument also includes diaspora. I have a friend, who is Caucasian and lived in Okinawa in Japan, moved to Taiwan, and then moved to California. She speaks fluent Japanese, Taiwanese, English, German. She knows Okinawan culture even than me.

 

 

Being Asian

Aaron Kim

As Am 115

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Being Asian

Within our readings from Shimizu’s Straitjacket Sexualities, I learned that the Asian people are more highly ridiculed than praised. This is certainly ironic as it is a commonly accepted notion that Asians are the model minorities in American society, and yet they are ridiculed for being just that. It can be safely assumed that there is a natural tendency to have some what of a pride to their own specific race/ethnicity, but that does not give an excuse to ridicule other races/ethnicity. To my understanding, Asians are targeted because they do not respond back. If a white man was to ridicule an African American, there would be a reaction and consequence. Switch the African American with an Asian American, then it is a free ticket for the white man to ridicule as much as he wants without the fear of consequences. If the Asian community took this to heart and let their voices be heard just as the African Americans did, then there’s the solution. This can be a little far fetched to note, but one possible reason why other people ridicule the Asians is because well Asians are better at anything. It is a sense of jealousy if not envy, that sparks the interest to ridicule Asians. 

The reading from Don Lee’s The Collective, only made my point stronger. The novel illustrates the hardships and social differences that an Asian American faces in America. I feel that this novel did a perfect job in setting the reader to be in the narrator’s perspective. Joshua Yoon, in a way, depicts the stereotypical Asian in a very nonchalant way: he identifies himself away from the Asian stereotype. For me, I can relate to Joshua, as he enjoys writing far more than mathematics (the commonly known stereotype that Asians are good at math. I’m not). Joshua in a way symbolizes the Asian student growing up to conform to society, and to ridicule his birth right of being an Asian. In comparison, the narrator Eric emphasizes the Asian(ness) within his narration as well as character analysis of Joshua.

In Shimizu’s Straitjacket Sexualities Epilogue, the first few paragraphs talks about Clint Eastwood’s film Gran Torino. I think Gran Torino is a perfect representation of how the American people viewed the Asian American ‘refugees’. Shimizu talks about the broader sense in the perspective of Clint the main character, and how he treats and feels about the Asian people. In a way, I can see how this can be a conventional excuse for their means of ridicule, but it also shows their notion of white supremacy. Clint viewed his Asian neighbors as people just taking white folk’s jobs, and he even croaks about how the nurse does not pronounce his name correctly. It was through the perspective of little things that make bigger changes. 

In Gran Torino, the scene where Thao, a single Hmong boy, is walking down the street reading a book, where he gets bullied on by a Mexican American gang. Thao does not acknowledge them and just walks away with a smile. Meanwhile, a Hmong gang witnessing the bullying, tries to save him by intimidating the Mexican gang running scared. Thao’s inability or lack of will to participate within a masculine setting of being a part of a gang only embodies his true masculinity of Asian American. He resembles the independence, “fly solo”, strength, and intelligence, than rather barbaric and bellicose lifestyle.

Week 5: Group presentations

Within our respective groups, we were assigned to introduce the class to an unsung hero in Asian American art and then present it through the use of a social media website.  My partner, Alyse and I chose to showcase multimedia artist, Tam Van Tran.  Tam Van Tran was born in the city of Kon Tum, Vietnam in 1966.  Shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, he moved to the United States.  He received a BFA in painting from Pratt Institute in 1990, and later completed the Graduate Film and Television Program at UCLA in 1996.  He works with a variety of materials, many of them unconventional in nature.  He uses common mediums such as clay and paper, but also atypical materials such as beet juice, chlorophyll, beer bottles, and algae.  He has completed a wide range of projects and showcased numerous exhibitions.  My favorite piece made by Tam Van Tran would have to be from his exhibition Adornment of Basic Space, called The Radiance of Awareness IIThe Radiance of Awareness II is created from acrylic and staples on paper, linen, and canvas; it is 86” x 104” x 23” in size.  The massive wall installations he created have the power to leave a lasting impact on the viewer; I would love to one day see his artwork in person and experience the sheer magnitude of these pieces myself.  As an Asian American artist, Tam Van Tran does indeed draw inspiration from his Asian heritage.  In his exhibition Leaves of Ore, Tran uses landscapes of his childhood in Vietnam as a foundation for his pieces.  Tam Van Tran was truly an inspirational artist of unconventional mediums.

All the artists presented by the class were intriguing in their own aspects.  Two that stood out to me were Isamu Noguchi and Just Kidding Films.  Prior to the presentation, I had heard of Isamu Noguchi and had actually visited his California Scenario in Costa Mesa a few years ago.  It was amazing to hear his story and the success he had with his artwork.  Few Asian Americans during the early and middle 20th century were able to garner such popularity and attention to their work like Isamu Noguchi did.  His artwork varies from things such as theater sets to sculpture gardens.  During the Japanese internment, he willingly admitted himself into the camps although he was not required to stay because of his mixed race.  He believed that he could inspire and help others inside the camps with his talent. He was truly an extraordinary man of his time.  The other artists that caught my attention were the Just Kidding Films creators.  Although not conventional artists, they seek to spread Asian American awareness and knowledge through the creation of comedic YouTube videos.   With narratives subtly addressing racial issues, the duo strives to educate the masses with their satirically funny short clips.  Both artist presentations were informative and insightful, and they also contributed to my Asian American artist awareness.

Evelyn Pei — #83257157

Queer API Film and Video in “Bad Asians”

Alyse Blachly

In “Bad Asians: The Sequel,” Eve Oishi talks about the way in which queer API artists’ work is changing. I was particularly interested in this article because it helped me make more sense of the video we watched the previous week (about JJ Chinois) and I was able to relate it to other works we’ve seen in class. First, Oishi compares later works by queer artists of color to more recent works. In the 1980s and 90s, film, video, and art mainly focused on identity politics, mostly out of necessity. Back then, this work was just emerging, and therefore engaged in a more self-conscious identity. However, now queer API artists focus on culture, racial identity, and the body. The focus on the body is the most prominent topic of the videos in Oishi’s essay. They focus on the ways in which the body can transform and be “unfixable” but also how other people’s readings of a person’s body have material consequences. Therefore, in each video limitations and possibilities of the body are expressed in various different ways to “queer” mainstream/popular culture’s presentation of gender, sexuality, race, and body.

In the JJ Chinois analysis, Oishi points out that this video was based on an actual interactive fan page in addition to images of Bruce Lee. She argues that the icons in each are more important than the actual person. For example, for the fan page which is represented by various facts about JJ Chinois, it never clearly states what he does/what makes him so popular, but rather offers a myriad of facts and trivia about him. All of these facts can make it seem like we’re getting to know him, but in reality it’s the thrill of fandom and idolization of the image of the person that makes these details feel important. Lynne Chan, the film maker, plays JJ, who changes appearances in various scenes. In many scenes however, JJ is made to look like Bruce Lee, wearing his iconic sunglasses and hairstyle. This blurs the image of masculinity of Bruce Lee and plays off the popular culture’s way of idolizing figures.

In “We got Moves You Ain’t Even Heard” of by Clover Paek, a similar technique is used, but it uses actual footage from the film it is based on. It takes the boy (Daniel) from the Karate Kid and repositions him as a lesbian icon. While scenes from the actual movie are played, voiceovers and re-enactments of the Daniel character by Paek to reposition meaning and sexuality of various scenes. For example, when the original Daniel embarrasses himself in front of his lover by getting spaghetti sauce on himself, Paek reenacts the scene making the sauce a prop in an action of sexual desire. When we watched this video in class I thought it was very clever, having seen the original Karate Kid. I liked how it not only commented on the repositioning of how body was interpreted, but also how it highlighted the masked Orientalism of the original movie.

Finally, I found the piece about the media’s representations of a queer mixed race serial killer to be very interesting. While his sexuality was immediately targeted in media messages in headings like “Gay Man Kills”, the uneasiness about the way his body looked was present throughout the compilation. They didn’t like that he could be anybody— he could both fit in anywhere but also didn’t fit into any category. Therefore, they decided to label him as white instead of Asian to make people more likely to identify him. This is also based off of the stereotype that all Asians look alike. People wouldn’t look at him and think Asian. Nor would they look at him and think he was extremely feminine or masculine. I really like the ideas brought up in this video piece because it shows an example of why mainstream culture has a history and preference to “other” people deemed unlike themselves. Do they fit into the category of “us” or “them” is the question. And this question can transform your ideas and way of feeling about someone. For example, if you identify with a criminal (not their actions, but what category you think they are in), you may be more likely to understand them vs. someone who you consider other or unlike you. In Gaffney’s other piece about HIV/AIDS he shows how this same concept is present in determining who can benefit from AIDS cocktails/medicines. Certain people can be overlooked in the age of ending AIDS. In both videos he shows how our bodies look and are interpreted can have actual consequences that can offer or limit our opportunities.

Social Memory and Art

Julie Huynh | 46376331

Machida’s third chapter on Trauma, Social Memory, and Art brought to mind my perspective on the preservation of cultural histories, especially once the ethnic group has already been displaced and relocated to another place (in this case, America).

The chapter is about ways in which Asian American artists preserve stories of their people by capturing it in their art. These works of art were created from the gathering of primary sources (oral histories, for example) and they immortalize these events, experiences, and most importantly, memories, within their art.

One of the artists featured in this chapter is Hanh Thi Pham, who creates art in order to express her experience as a Vietnamese immigrant and more. She uses her art as a voice for her racial identity, as well as her sexual and political identities. In our previous lecture about minorities finding agency, this is exactly Hanh Thi Pham’s agency. Her experiences with the American immigration system and racial discrimination speaks through the channels that are her photographs and writing.

The way I can best relate to the concept of living history and art as a communication of such is knowing that organizations such as VAALA (Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association) exist for that very purpose and the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UCI, which preserves oral histories by interviewing Vietnamese Americans in SoCal. I have heard artists using spoken word to verbally express their emotions, while I’ve also seen a great number of documentaries and shorts that serve to inform people of critical events in history that isn’t filtered or whittled down through the American mainstream.

Migration, Mixing and Place

Julie Huynh | 46376331

In Week 4’s reading of Machida’s “Othering” chapter, I found the following quotation worth noting:

Edward Said describes Orientalism as a Western “corporate institution” enfolding a broad swath of practices and discourses historically tied to the West’s exercise of power, which is aimed at “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” (58)

When I came across this statement, I was reminded of my first upper-div Asian American class on Race and Urban Space, in which I learned that racism was a social construction, as well what exactly “institutionalizing” race meant. Before learning about racism in the classroom, I understood what prejudice and discrimination looked like and how it happened; but I never knew or realized that it was more than just a result of people’s ignorances running amok. It’s a completely different concept for me to digest when I realize that racial and social inequality is deliberately constructed and enforced by people in power in this country. People used to tell me “that’s just how it [life] is,” and now that phrase has a whole context behind it; it’s not “just how it is” by human nature like I used to think–it’s how it is because people want it in order to hold onto their power in society.

The first part of the quote describing “practice and discourses” calls to mind the concept of the glass ceiling, in which Asians never seem to be able to reach the highest position of power in America (eg. corporations, board of directors, etc). They might make it to the vice presidential position, but never quite the full CEO position. The glass ceiling, in my eyes, is a practice used to ensure that the power hierarchy stays in the white man’s favor.

The chapter also mentions that the Orient has been the West’s most “powerful cultural contestant and a primary source of extraordinary wealth and knowledge” (57). This is no different from today’s problem where America fears usurpation by China, because the country has a huge fist hold in every area possible: the economy, sports (see Olympics), being everyone’s source for jobs, academics. I feel that this “threat” from a country that tends to phenotypically represent the entire Asian race affects Western people’s treatment and attitude towards Asian people much in the same way as in the past when the American auto industry was being dominated by Japanese cars, or when the Chinese miners were coming during the Gold Rush and competing with American miners, and et cetera. Basically, Westerners feel threatened by the sheer mass of Asians because they are their most “powerful cultural contest,” and in order to curb the competition, Westerns have to exact their authority on their turf that is America.

An article that I would like to bring to light in order to contrast the idea that Westerners have the privilege of power over race in America is one called “Tackling Asian Privilege” from an online blog/magazine. The article basically supposes that Asians have too much privilege in this country and that they’re getting it too easy and all the other races are disadvantaged. The author cites a plethora of examples to show how Asians are power-hungry oppressors of other races. It is unsure whether this article is supposed to be a satire, like Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” because the article gained supporters in favor of this notion that Asians are the ones with the privilege of power.

Queer

Julie Huynh | 46376331

Of the readings for queer discussion last week, the article that was probably the most difficult for me to understand was PIRATED! For me, I believe that I had a hard time through conceptualizing how the different images and visuals in the film (which, at the time, I was only envisioning through text and not because I had already seen the footage) made sense with each other.  While reading it, I wondered why the filmmaker chose to highlight the production of karaoke DVDs and videos or use footage of sailors performing blow jobs. This made better sense in class, when discussing the mentality of a young boy growing up; a boy’s dreams of pirates can be innocent, the age of sexual discovery, as well as the themes behind the repetition of Hoang’s film (the boy in the sea). Bringing up the themes of rebirth and freedom was beneficial in that it allowed me to better understand the reasoning behind this type of film and creates sense among the myriad of seemingly random clips from different sources (Vietnamese music videos, pirates, etc).

Johnathan Ahn’s coming out film was very moving and sad for me because of the theme of family that the film was focused on. Watching Johnathan traverse between his personal and family life made me feel dread as the film kept progressing, because I was already feeling the pain of retaliation and anguish from a disapproving Asian family. I was bracing myself for the part where someone flips out at the discovery that Johnathan was gay, but it never came. Also more disturbing but interesting was that part where John’s dad contentedly remarked something about how it didn’t matter what the baby chose; John had been a dancer and had turned out fine. It sounded like John’s father had known about his son and was fine with it. That was the only change of direction in the film, when everything else seemed like it was built towards the suppression of John’s ability to come out.

The shower scene at the very end was very tender and intimate, which astounded me the most because I wondered how John’s parents must have felt seeing that. I usually generalize Asian families and parents to be very conservative, and I was shocked that he included that footage and I also wonder how that sort of image became understood by his parents.

Week 9 Post: Queering the Frontier

The landscape of the media in today’s time has been slowly starting to publicize gay rights and activism than previous years. Why is this? Because many people had seen that being gay was a taboo and it isn’t seen as something that was acceptable (at least in my eyes). More so recently there has been many more queer media influences in shows and movies we see today. In the Asian American sense there has never been much shown, and if so, they are not popular enough to be shown.

The readings we read in class this week were pretty interesting. Why? I feel that because I identity myself as a gay (queer) Asian American I had a lot more relatable experiences in which some of the things the articles had spoken about and what we had watched in class. When reading the Pirated article I thought it was quite boring, but when actually viewing the video it was very interesting. There were many recurring themes and images that didn’t make sense to me at first, but after discussing it in class, I was thinking of the same things everyone else was thinking. The recurring jumping into the water scene kept replaying in my head and in the clips, I was trying to figure out what it had meant and why was it significant. I had a sense that it had to do with a new beginning and a new birth into life. Water has the symbolic representation in many different religions and culture that signifies rebirth or renewal. So when I seen this recurring image it made me think about how being a queer individual and jumping into the water is like jumping into a new world, where you are born anew. 

In class we had watched a coming out video by Johnathan Ahn (I believe) and I had felt so sad after watching it. In the context of Asian Americans there are not many people that are out of the closet. I believe that it is because it goes against the patriarchal society, where the man has to reproduce and carry the family name. There are many more queer Asian films in Asia than in the United states. One of the many reasons why there might be very little advocacy for queer rights for Asians is because of the fact that there are limited resources and access to equipement, which is a huge factor