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Sorry for the dearth of posts recently. I’m on a summer road trip, taking in the sights of the Southwest before embarking on my trip to China. Internet access has been hard to come by.
I’m currently enjoying the free WiFi at The Red Garter Bed and Bakery in Williams, Arizona after spending a few days at the Grand Canyon (An apt description from my brother-in-law: “It’s just a really big canyon!”). Up next: Henderson, Nevada; Zion National Park; Bryce Canyon; and Escalante National Monument (there are awesome slot canyons, I’m told).
I’ll try to post a few pictures and ruminations from the trip soon. But understand I might not have any lengthy posts until the end of the week, when I get back to Salt Lake. Until next time: Good night, and good luck.
So why’d you leave your job? I’ve been asked that question hundreds of times since I left msnbc.com last year. I’ve come up with a formulaic answer now, kind of like an athlete answering inane questions during a press conference.
There were — and are — many reasons why I left a desirable job and a great workplace for the great unknown. Perhaps I can share one.
In May I went to the Poynter Institute to participate in the Multiplatform Journalism seminar. Below is the letter I included in my application. While it doesn’t include every reason why I decided to become peripatetic and (somewhat) homeless, it does offer a glimpse of where my head and heart are at in terms of my career.
I’m unemployed, out of a job since December.
How’s that for a direct, provocative lead?
After five years working in online newsrooms — two years at FOXSports.com, two years at ESPN.com and one year at Msnbc.com — I decided I needed to step back, look around and figure out where I was headed as an editor and journalist. Somehow I had lost that fire, each day fighting the malaise and monotony that would shroud my work day like a dark, sinister cloud.
I left Msnbc.com in December (not entirely, however: I’ll be covering the Beijing Olympics for the site in August) to clear the mind — and the soul, as cliche as that sounds — and to ponder the question: Do I want to continue to be a journalist?
After three months — time spent researching for my upcoming trip to China and into my family’s background (I’m a first-generation Chinese American) — I’ve answered my own question, dispelled my own doubts: Yes, yes, yes.
Yes, my passion in journalism — especially in new media — still burns. Yes, I still want to connect with users in a medium that continues to grow, evolve, mutate, surprise, impress. Yes, I want to be on the forefront of journalism 2.0.
At ESPN.com I was one of three front page editors, setting the national sports agenda, prioritizing budgets and reacting to news. What gave me the most thrill, however, was using the limited real estate of the front page — with words, pictures, video — to tell a story, to engage and snare the reader into the site.
When I went to Msnbc.com in 2006 as a senior editor in the sports department, I took on more responsibilities. But what excited me, what make me literally jump out of my cubicle, was being able to collaborate with designers and photo editors to share an interactive project that went beyond the game recap or typical wire story.
After taking a step back, I realized I was still in love with a good story. And that I wanted — needed — more skills to become a better, stronger storyteller and journalist.
The Mutliplatform Journalism seminar resonates with my background and where I want to go. I want to continue to tell stories. The next step is to learn how: how to capture vibrant visuals, incorporate audio and package it all together in a coherent and compelling way. I’m eager to learn and grow.
The skills I’ll learn will undoubtedly help me when I cover the Olympics in August. I’ll be able to approach the Games not only as a reporter, but as a “multiplatform journalist.” And when I do return to the newsroom as an editor or producer, I can be directly engaged in how a story can be molded into something innovative and dynamic. I won’t just be part of the conversation — I’ll help lead it.
I passed through the tiny town of Toppenish on my drive from Seattle to Salt Lake over the weekend. Toppenish, which is about 26 miles south of Yakima, boasts about 70 murals throughout its historic downtown (which also pipes in country music). Sadly, I was minutes late for the horse-drawn carriage tour. But I did take the self-guided walking tour, which lasted about 15 minutes (I decided not to see all 70 … forgive me).
As I was leaving in my car, one mural caught my eye. I quickly snapped a photo through the window.
Why, that’s Irish Dick, a “trapping, hard-drinking shepherd” who had to tame a beer at the local saloon, according to the mural’s description. If you’re a fan of Wes Anderson, you may understand why I did a double take. The mural reminded me of Miguel Calderon’s bizarre and slightly disturbing paintings that were featured in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
Miguel Calderon, by the way, is a genius. So is Wes Anderson.
I’m finishing up “China Road: A Journey Into the Future Of A Rising Power” by Rob Gifford, an NPR correspondent who has been living and traveling throughout China since 1987. His book is about his journey from Shanghai to the border of Kazakhstan on Route 312, a trip that takes 4925 kilometers, or 2998 miles.
It’s a good read, as Gifford exposes a glimpse of daily life beyond cities like Beijing and Shanghai. He gets his hands dirty, hitchhiking in the Gobi desert, riding in crowded red-eye buses and clandestinely visiting a clinic caring for HIV-positive patients. I certainly recommend it to anyone about to travel to China or wants to understand a slice of China before the Olympics.
My only quibble is his how his White Guilt drips through the pages. For example, he visits an archaeological site in northwest China. The caves in Dunhuang had housed many ancient, valuable manuscripts for centuries — before archeologists from Britain (where the author is from), France and Germany descended on the site in the early 20th century and took the precious manuscripts back to their respective countries, never to be returned.
Gifford asks a Chinese woman touring the caves: “Have you forgiven us for doing all this?” Her reply is no. So Gifford tries to “lighten the mood”:
Trying to lighten the mood a little, I tell her that I am about to to London, and perhaps I can have a word with the people at the British Museum and ask them to return the treasured manuscripts.
“Good. You should do that,” she says, her face brightening. “Please do that.”
A theme throughout the book is how badly the Chinese were treated during the 19th and early 20th centuries — by nearly everyone, including their own government. Sure, it’d be nice to see some contrition — especially from Japan over its human rights atrocities — but coming from an individual, it seems forced, inauthentic and ingratiating.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still a wonderful book that deserves to be read and praised. Gifford proves that he’s an Sino-expert and an adept writer, but his personal guilt should’ve been left in the sand dunes of the Gobi desert and out of the book.
Sports Illustrated’s Sign Of The Apocalypse (SOA) is supposed to be fun, a bit facetious, and a little zany. You’re supposed to chuckle over your morning coffee after reading one. You’re supposed to shake your head at the insanity and idiocy of the sports world. You know, laugh at those people who just don’t get it, those people who are precipitating the end of the world as we know it.
I bring this up because I came across this week’s SOA (the issue with Tiger):
More than 4,000 baby boys and girls in China have been named Aoyun, the Chinese word for Olympic Games.
This one, however, didn’t make me guffaw. This week’s SOA shows just how different — and misunderstood — the Chinese culture is with the so-called West. Aoyun is a perfectly fine name in Chinese culture; no one will look down on some one who’s name is Aoyun (although it would be a conversation starter). Yet, in SI, it’s a Sign Of The Apocalypse.
Parents in China — and other Asian countries — go about naming their children differently than Western countries. They name the children after mountains or rivers or revolutions or current events or whatever. A kid could be named Strong Donkey after some beloved ass that belonged to the family. Who knows. The point is that the naming customs are vastly different than the ones in the United States or Europe.
The thing that many people get hung up on are the literal translations back to English. Aoyun sounds comical to them. Who would call their child Olympics? Oh, those silly Chinese. (Olympia Dukakis is probably fine with Aoyun, methinks) What they don’t know is that the child could have been given a Westernized name. Something like Michael or Michelle.
Here’s my own example: My Chinese name, Wu Jia Le, literally means Excellent Happiness. If my parents hadn’t given me a Westernized name, people would call me Jia Le, never really knowing what the words, or characters, meant. I probably wouldn’t have gone with Excellent Happiness Wu, even though it has a nice ring to it. And if they hadn’t named me Sunny, I most likely would have chosen for myself a Westernized name, which many, many Chinese people do.
I don’t want to make this a big deal (because I don’t think it is), but it’s these nuanced misunderstandings in coverage that pop up from time to time that show there’s still a cultural gap that needs to be bridged.
An old friend (in friendship, not in age) gently reminded me after reading the post on Michelle Kwan and Deadspin that the hyphen should be left out of Asian Americans. This was one lesson that had been hammered into his head during his Asian studies class in college. Admittedly, this was a mild surprise for me despite years of membership in the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).
The group’s handbook and guide on media coverage of Asian America states it clearly: the hyphen is banished unless used as an adjective.
Some Asian Americans see pejorative connotation to “Asian-American” with a hyphen, in part because of Theodore Roosevelt’s denunciation early in the 20th century of “hyphenated Americans” who do not join the American mainstream.
The hyphen was never something I contemplated as a larger identity issue (others had, though). I just hyphenated because that’s what I always did, and no one ever called me out on it (and probably because I never wrote about Asian American issues, which is a shame in and of itself).
So I did some simple searching and tried to see who was or wasn’t hyphenating. The Washington Post, Seattle Times and the L.A. Times do not. The Associated Press, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal do.
So are the AP, NYT and WSJ terribly insensitive journalists? Should Asian American journalists approach their respective copy chiefs and demand a change in the stylebook? Should my brothers and sisters and I be offended that we are considered “hyphenated American”? What does it all mean in the whole scheme of things? Not much. In my opinion, the hyphen is just a dash, not some symbol of oppression or discrimination. Honestly, I don’t see it as a big deal as long as organizations are consistent with their style.
The debate, however, touches on a larger issue in the Asian American (I’m ditching the hyphen for now, which you may find ironic after the previous paragraph) community. Many people would argue my stance about the hyphen. The hyphen, they say, represents a barrier to acceptance in American culture and society as a whole. They want to be accepted as Americans, as American as John Smith and Jane Baker.
This was a quote I ran into at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle last week:
One of the paradoxes I see in the Asian American community is their rejection of homogeneity — and a fervent desire to accept it. We speak Chinese at home! We go to dim sum every weekend! We shop at Chinatown! But if anybody wants to know: We eat at P.F. Changs! Our daughter loves emo! Our son dates a white girl! It’s as if the message is: We are unique and different, but not that unique and different.
Numerous terms have been coined to identify the Asian American community, some acceptable, some not: American Born Chinese (ABC), Asian and Pacific Islanders, Pan Asian, HAPA and (a new one I heard just the other day) Amerasian. So just what do I call my nephew who is half-Chinese American (or American of Chinese descent) and half-Caucasian (or simply, the White Man)? It’s as if the community is having an identify crisis trying to find an appropriate label.
Personally I’m still trying to figure it out (just like everything else). I don’t want to call myself simply an “American.” I’m proud of my heritage and background. This blog’s name “Mei Guo Ren” means American in Chinese. I chose this because of the paradoxes I still feel as a first-generation Chinese American. Also, I chose it because of how I’ll be viewed during my trip in China: Chinese, but not really Chinese. American, but not really American.
Ultimately, I don’t think it would be wrong for someone to use the hyphen, as long as they thought it over and was conscious of the fact that some people object. Hyphen Magazine, which doesn’t use the hyphen, explains why they elected to call themselves Hyphen:
… we liked the idea of the hyphen as a connector. As a punctuation mark, the hyphen acts as a bridge between meanings. As a magazine, we aspire to build bridges within and beyond the Asian American community by provoking thought, upending assumptions, and inspiring action We’d like our magazine to serve as a bridge between the diverse populations included in the term “Asian American” and also Asian America and the rest of the world. We’d also like to be a link between people and organizations and ideas.
The hyphen as a bridge and a link, connecting different identities and backgrounds to become one. I like that concept. Perhaps I’ll keep the hyphen after all.
The truck driver might have been too eager to reduce, reuse and recycle today. I encountered this scene on my morning walk on Queen Anne in Seattle.
Good news: the Porsche suffered only a minor scrape on the right side of the rear fender. Better news: the Wicked Witch of the East was flattened and killed.
My maternal grandmother is a remarkable woman with a remarkable life story. She was born in Shanghai in 1916 — five years before the Chinese Communist Party was even formed. She’s survived backbreaking labor as a peasant, the Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II and the CCP takeover in 1949.
Still keen and quick-witted, she easily recalls stories and events that happened nearly a century ago. I’ll share an amusing one she told me recently.
One day, when she was around 9 or 10, my grandmother and several of her cousins went to the local beach. It was where all the locals went to wade in the water and escape the oppressive heat of Shanghai.
They were playing on the beach when they noticed a white family, two parents and three of their children, nearby. Perhaps they had come from the French Concession area to enjoy a lazy day by the Huangpu River. Those days, seeing white people was still a rarity for most Chinese people, especially for those from the countryside (the country had been gradually — then forcibly — opened up to the West in the past several decades) Whenever a white person — gwailo — would appear in a village in those days, my grandma says, kids would rush over to sate their curiosity and gawk.
My grandmother and her cousins noticed the parents pulling food out of their backpack. Intrigued, the kids crept closer. They watched the pair take out slices of something starchy, white and flat. They crept closer. They saw the family pull out a jar filled with grape-colored syrup. They crept closer. Then, the family pulled out something brown and creamy. The kids inched even closer, until they were nearly on top of the family. They had no idea what the family was making — they had never seen white bread, nor jam, nor peanut butter.
But it looked delicious. And they wanted some.
They knelt by the family, no more than two feet away, and stared at the family eating their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My grandmother and her cousins were hoping that the family would share and give them a morsel — just a little bit — of their food.
But the family ignored them. They finished their lunch, packed up and left, without ever acknowledging the handful of children who were ogling their food and licking their lips during the entire meal.
My grandma laughs about it now. Peanut butter and jelly! That’s all it was — but for those kids it was exotic and enchanting. Today, she could have as much peanut butter and jelly as she wants — she did recently when she had an extended stay at the hospital, where they fed her PB&J’s every day, she grumbles — but she dislikes the taste and texture.
She lets out another laugh after finishing her story, shaking her head at the naivete and foolishness of that day like it happened yesterday.