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Archive for the ‘essays’ Category

Here is an essay I wrote for the diversity series at  ForeverYoungAdult.com.
(You can check out their website and follow them on Twitter @4everYA for more YA news, tips, and interviews!)

Heck YA, Diversity!: Are ‘Ethnic’ Heroines a Tough Sell?

Author May-lee Chai stops by to discuss the trubs she had with publishing her “ethnic” heroine book, Hapa Girl — and how her following books (Dragon Chica and Tiger Girl) found a home with the YA crowd.

Heck YA, Diversity!: Are ‘Ethnic’ Heroines a Tough Sell?

For this week in Heck YA, Diversity!, we’re pleased to be joined by May-lee Chai, author of Hapa GirlDragon Chica, and the upcoming Tiger Girl, who shares her personal experiences in getting books with “ethnic” heroines published.

Are “Ethnic” Heroines a Tough Sell?
by May-lee Chai

A number of years ago, I was working on a memoir about the violence my family encountered when I was growing up. When I was twelve, we moved from the New York City metropolitan area to rural South Dakota where people used to stop their cars and pickups to stare at us as we walked together on the sidewalk. We were the first mixed-race family with a Chinese father and a white mother that people in that community had ever seen. It was a town of five thousand residents, ten bars, and a university. My parents had assumed because there was a university there, people would be more tolerant. But that wasn’t the case.

My parents had bought a small farm, and men took to driving by our house on the weekends to shout racial slurs at us. As this was the 1980s and the time of Japan-bashing in the media, many of those slurs were “Jap!” or “Japs!” Later men took to shouting at our property and over the years five of our dogs were shot dead in our driveway.

Adults as well as some of my classmates told me to my face that the Good Lord had not intended for the races to mix and that’s why he’d put them on separate continents. (This notion, by the way, was one of the reasons a judge in 1965 ruled that interracial marriage should be illegal.) I was seen as a sign of the End Times, of a coming Apocalypse when Satan would reign on Earth. Mixed-race people like me simply should not exist.

Well, that was a tough environment to grow up in, as you might imagine! But I thought it was very good material for a memoir. I’ve got inherent drama, conflict, and a survival story. Hey!

I’d been working on the manuscript for a while when a literary agent with a list of very famous clients said she wanted to represent the book. I was naturally thrilled. However, I soon discovered her idea of the book was very different from mine. She told me she wanted me to focus on my father and mother’s marriage and to eliminate my brother and me from the book. (I just got removed from my own memoir! I thought. How the hell do I write that? Who’s going to narrate?) Then she said she wanted me to focus on “the good people of South Dakota” (rather than the racists who shot and stared) and write about my parents’ “cultural” differences and how they overcame them.

Well, how exotic, I thought. And I told the agent that I couldn’t re-write the book in that way. It just wasn’t my conception of the story.

The agent’s reaction was so alarming and upsetting to me that I didn’t try to contact another agent. Instead I ended up selling the book myself to an academic press (Temple University Press) who published books about Asian American history. Academic presses and small presses don’t need agents to send manuscripts to their editors; they will work directly with authors. The decision worked out well for me. My memoir, Hapa Girl,  received a great full-page review in the international edition of Time magazine and received a number of literary accolades. It continues to be taught in colleges and universities across America. Eventually, I also found a wonderful agent who understands what I’m writing about and knows how to represent my work.

But part of me wonders how many other writers out there get discouraged from writing the stories they wanted to tell by the same kind of sh*tty “advice” that had been given to me. And how many of these writers don’t persist and find another agent or don’t know how to approach a press on their own? What if they just take the rejection to heart and give up? Or worse, try to write the kind of bland story that they’re told to write?

I think part of the problem is that there are people in the publishing industry who underestimate readers. One of the great things about the YA field is that editors assume readers want a grittier kind of story. Adolescence sucks. It really does. Growing up is hard. School can be brutal. Families and community can let us down. And young adult readers know this. They’re not looking for a pretty, bland story that’s been watered down for mass consumption.

For this reason, I thought my novel Dragon Chica would work for a young adult audience. It’s the story of a young Cambodian girl, Nea Chhim, facing down adversity from poverty to gangsters to family fights as she grows up in the Midwest. I tried to tell the story in a way that the character and her family and their problems felt real to me, and so that the reader could get to know them. Dragon Chica (GemmaMedia) ended up doing very well with YA readers. The YA genre attracts so many people, young and mature, because readers have discovered this is where the gritty books get published.

My next novel Tiger Girl, which continues the story of Nea Chhim in America, is also going to be marketed as YA. In some ways, I think it can be easier to have an “ethnic” heroine in a YA novel than in a book marketed only for the adult literary crowd.

The problem is not readers. I know there are a lot of readers—of all ethnicities!—who want to read interesting stories with interesting characters and strong heroines. Perhaps because of what has historically been sold, perhaps because of what Hollywood continues to mass produce, some people in the industry are indeed afraid of “ethnic” heroines. They worry that they won’t appeal to a mass market. They don’t know how to market them. Then they worry when the heroine doesn’t seem exotic enough.

And bringing in a person of color means we’re also bringing up history and race in America. Those are tough subjects. They are not bland.

Sometimes when we talk about race and racism, (I know because I’m a teacher), people think the r-word means “I hate white people!” and they’re afraid to listen. White people don’t want to get beat up, figuratively or literally, any more than anyone else does. But acknowledging a character’s ethnicity allows us to talk about history and community and how power is constructed and how we have to fight against this power divide if we’re going to survive as individuals and as a nation. We shouldn’t be afraid because we really need to have this talk.

Besides, that’s what the best novels allow us to do: Enter scary terrain and emerge all the stronger for it.

Thanks for stopping by, May-lee! Check out her website or find her on Twitter (@mayleechai).

(originally posted on the Forever Young Adult website: Published June 28, 2013 by )

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I was honored to speak at City College of San Francisco, John Adams Campus, for APA Heritage Month. As part of the “East Meets West” Reading Series, I lectured and read from my newest novel, Dragon Chica on May 5, 2011.

At CCSF with librarians Mary Marsh and Mauro Garcia

Every reading at colleges that I’ve given for Dragon Chica has yielded new and important questions from the students. Today was no exception. One student who is himself originally from Cambodia stood up and asked, “Why did the Khmer Rouge kill?” He explained that he wanted to know what have scholars found out all these years later about why the Communist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to the end of 1978 killed 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodians.

The answer is not simple. And many scholars have debated what the motivations of the Khmer Rouge were. Here are some of the explanations: 1) at first the leadership wanted to eliminate anyone that they felt could threaten their hold over the people, so they wanted to kill anyone who was associated with the previous government and with America and thus possibly with the CIA. They also wanted to kill anyone who could become a leader or voice of dissent against their regime: so that meant killing anyone with an education (even a junior high education was considered dangerous), teachers, Buddhist monks and nuns, professionals like engineers or doctors, etc. Trained artists including singers, dancers, actors, poets, and musicians were also eventually considered a threat.

Since they had no way of knowing who was educated or not after they’d evacuated all the cities and forced everyone in Cambodia to move to work camps in the countryside, soldiers began to use arbitrary methods to determine if someone was educated: if that person wore eyeglasses, had soft hands, had a lighter complexion, if a person understood a foreign language (despite the fact that anyone living in a city might learn some foreign phrases, for example, as a street vendor or a pedicab cyclist), if a person could read and write, if a person used correct grammar when speaking, etc.

2) Secondly, the Khmer Rouge leaders claimed they wanted to re-make society and banish all “un-Cambodian” influences: so they targeted ethnic minorities such as the Cham Muslims, as well as “city people” whom they felt had absorbed influences from foreigners, including the French. As Cambodia had been a “protectorate” under French colonial rule in parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were many French influences in Cambodian cities–from Catholic cathedrals to pastries and other cuisine to the French lycées (high schools) to the pervasive way many French phrases had become part of the Cambodian language.

3) The Khmer Rouge became increasingly paranoid and began killing anyone they thought did not support them 100 percent and then they killed the family members. As a result entire families including babies were slaughtered.

4) Because the Khmer Rouge’s decision to return Cambodia to “Year Zero,” ending all city life, commerce and schooling, Cambodia went from a highly civilized, complex society to a land of primitive slave camps. Famine and illness resulted, killing even more people.

4) Finally, scholars have pointed out that the Khmer Rouge had been hardened during years and years of warfare. Even before they came to power, the Khmer Rouge recruited children and teenagers (many orphaned or displaced after American bombing raids and border fighting with Vietnam), and trained these young people to be obedient soldiers who would kill whomever their commanders deemed the Enemy.

I also showed a clip from the documentary “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” that explained Kissinger’s rationale for the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Cambodia was a neutral country up until 1969’s coup d’état. Technically speaking, President Nixon should have sought authorization from Congress before ordering bombing raids on Cambodia. He did not. Under Kissinger’s policy advice, Nixon ordered “Operation Menu” in which B-52s were sent to drop bombs on Vietnam but then mid-flight their coordinates were changed so that they instead dropped bombs over parts of Cambodia, code-named after menu items: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack. As a result, 3,630 bombing raids were flown over Cambodia during a 14-month period and an estimated 600,000 Cambodians were killed just during this short time period.  (You can read the account by Christopher Hitchens in Harper’s Magazine by clicking on his name). Cambodian civil society was disrupted, people fled from their villages to the cities (straining resources and leading to much upheaval), and the Khmer Rouge–once a fringe group of about 10,000 members–was able to increase its ranks to 200,000 members by recruiting people and even children to fight against this mysterious “Enemy” who was dropping bombs from the sky on Cambodia.

As a result of the disruptions to Cambodian society, after the U.S. forces left Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, the Khmer Rouge were able to take over the government and the country.

Some 150,000 Cambodians came to America as refugees in the 1980s, after having fled Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. Many lived in refugee camps for years, and some Cambodians were even born in refugee camps while their families awaited sponsorship to another country.

In Dragon Chica, I re-create the era when Cambodian refugees first began arriving in America in large numbers in the early 1980s. I want to bear witness to the many struggles Cambodians still faced as they learned to survive in the U.S.

I’m so happy that schools across America celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month so that the history of the many different Asians in America will not be lost and that opportunities for writers like me to speak with students exist.

(With CCSF librarian Maura Garcia and bookstore manager Eden Lee)

For more background information, check this previous blog posts and pdf:

Dragon Chica, Liberation and the Sequel

dragon-chica-book-club-and-classroom-guide (questions for discussion)

Here are a few nonfiction, mostly academic books that provide some useful background on Cambodia:

David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996); J.-P. Dannaud’s  Cambodge (Lausanne: Éditions Clairefontaine, 1956); Wilfred P. Deac’s Road to the Killing Fields: The Cambodian War of 1970-1975 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1997); Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger (NY: Verso, 2001); Ben Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (NY: Harper Perennial, 2003); Dith Pran’s Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors (edited by Kim DePaul, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); William E. Willmott’s The Chinese in Cambodia (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1967).

(This list is far from comprehensive; it is meant simply to be one possible  starting point for students who want to read more background.)

CCSF John Adams Campus library's display for APA Heritage Month

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I was very fortunate to read with three of the contributors to the new anthology, Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost (New World Library, 2011) at the famed independent book store, Book Passage, in Corte Madera, California this past Wednesday, May 4.

It was great to meet essayist Melissa Cistaro, whose essay “Calico” is one of my all-time favorites. It reads like a fantastic short story, full of suspense and unusual characters, about a young girl whose cat is a more reliable emotional companion than her own mother.

Melissa Cistaro

Best-selling novelist Jacqueline Winspear (creator of the Maisie Dobbs psychologist/private investigator series) talked about her essay “My Sal,” about her beloved black Lab.

Jacqueline Winspear

Editor Barbara Abercrombie not only conceived of the book, put together the essays, but also wrote the very moving essay “Winesburg” about her scrappy, globe-trotting kitten.

Barbara Abercrombie

And I wrote the essay “Red the Pig” about my pet pig that I raised when I was growing up on a farm in South Dakota. Here’s a copy of my high-school yearbook photo: Yep, it’s me and my pig!

Me and my pig

I was pleased so many pet lovers came to the reading at Book Passage! Many people shared their stories of pets they loved and lost. But rather than being depressing, we all agreed that the evening felt like a time to honor our special pets and to recognize it’s okay to say we miss them.

And one woman even brought her adorable little dog, a Jack Russell terrier-chihuahua-boxer mix.

I like what Melissa said tonight about contributing an essay to this collection. She says it gave her permission to acknowledge her grief for her pet. (I’m paraphrasing.) I understood immediately what she meant. Until Barbara asked me if I’d like to contribute to Cherished, I’d never written about my pig before. It seemed ridiculous and frivolous of me to mourn his loss. As I write in my essay, “Growing up on a farm, I wasn’t a fool. I knew our animals were destined to become food.” And yet, I did mourn the loss of my pig. I don’t think it’s foolish to admit that we love the animals that have graced our lives.

Signed copies of Cherished can be purchased from Book Passage. (Phone: 1-800-999-7909)

Full list of writers: Carolyn See, Michael Chitwood, Robin Romm, Jane Smiley, Joe Morgenstern, Judith Lewis Mernit, Melissa Cistaro, May-lee Chai, Anne Lamott, Samantha Dunn, Billy Mernit, Barbara Abercrombie, Monica Holloway, Linzi Glass, Jacqueline Winspear, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Victoria Zackheim, Jenny Rough, Sonia Levitin, Thomas McGuane, and Mark Doty, (plus a poem by Ted Kooser).

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The editor of a new anthology CHERISHED: 21 Writers on the Animals They Have Loved and Lost just sent me the first online review. This is certainly a surprise as the book won’t hit stores until April!  My essay “Red the Pig” is mentioned in the review from Tribute Books. FYI, the photo used in the review  is *not* of my pig but just an illustration. My pig looked like this:

Monday, February 7, 2011

 

Barbara Abercrombie – Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost – Giveaway & Review

The loss of a beloved animal is often best commiserated among fellow pet owners. Those who do not have a four-legged family member in their lives often cannot comprehend the inconsolable void that accompanies the death of a pet. When the earthly bond of unconditional love is shattered, only the memory of it remains. That is the empathetic feeling that is captured in the short story collection, Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost edited by Barbara Abercrombie. It is a heartfelt look at bereavement and grief throughout the animal spectrum. There is no defined limitation as to what constitutes a pet, and each of the contributors reflects on the specific losses they have endured. For many, it is the first time they have turned to writing in order to express the emotions that accompanied their final good-byes. 

The standout piece of the anthology is “True Love” by Samantha Dunn concerning her horse, Gabe. In a fitting description, she writes, “I see him again each time I go to a movie theater and the logo for TriStar Pictures appears on the screen – the strong white chest, the thundering legs.” What makes this relationship even more remarkable is that at the time, Samantha was living in a trailer park – not the typical residence of a horse owner. Throughout her teenage years, Samantha enjoyed riding and caring for Gabe. It is not until she returned home during a college break that she learned that her grandmother had sold the elderly equine to a children’s summer camp. Samantha never found out if this story was true, or just something her grandmother told her in order to comfort her about Gabe’s final resting place. Choosing not to uncover the truth, this unresolved ending still affects Samantha to this day.

Another atypical pet revolves around May-lee Chai’s “Red the Pig.” Growing up in the farmlands of South Dakota with a white mother and an Asian father wasn’t easy for May-lee and her brother. In order to fit in, they decided to work together in raising pigs. Red was the biggest of the piglets. May-lee named them by color in order to not get emotionally involved, but it wasn’t long before she was posing with Red for her senior picture. As Red continued to grow, the day arrived when he was destined for the slaughterhouse – something that May-lee could never really accept. After the loss of her pig, she knew she “never wanted to live on a farm again.”

In “Party Girl,” Monica Holloway explores the animal-autism connection between her son, Wills and their shepherd-collie mix, Hallie. Monica shares, “there was a deep love between them, but it was as if Hallie were a protective aunt, standoffish but fiercely protective.” When Wills was 12-years-old, he returned the favor. After Hallie fell into the pool and her arthritic body sank like a stone, it was Wills who jumped in and saved her. Pretty impressive for an autistic boy who didn’t like getting his clothes wet. As the selection comes to an end, Hallie is rapidly approaching her final days. Monica ends with a poignant thought, “Hallie … has been the one constant through the years, completely devoted but asking nothing in return.” It is a fitting summation of love between pets and owners everywhere.

The subject matter of the book may be one that many readers will be afraid to approach. The loss of one’s pet is hard enough without having to endure the blow-by-blow accounts of other owners for over 200 pages. The repeated scenes of physical deterioration and subsequent euthanization do not make for happy reading. The ending of each story is known before diving in. While it can lead to an experience of continual heartbreak, the collection’s intention is to help a pet owner through the grieving process by being able to gain insight from the coping strategies of others. Whether this is a helpful strategy or not is up to the needs of the individual reader.

Overall, these writers share their personal experiences in order to empathize with other grieving pet owners.

Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost by Barbara Abercrombie is available for $14.95 at Amazon.com and at BarbaraAbercrombie.com.

Review copy was provided by New York Journal of Books.

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I recently had the good fortune to meet with Yenly Thach, a contributing editor for Cambodian Alliance for the Arts

Yenly is a fascinating person—an advocate for refugees, writer, grad student at UC-Santa Barbara, and blogger (you can check out her blog here: Curious and Determined).

In so many ways—because of her bubbly outgoing personality, because of her quintessentially So-Cal look: the golden tan, the sun-streaked hair, because she talks fast and she’s both smart and funny—Yenly is the epitome of the Southern California All-American Girl Next Door. She is also herself a former refugee. These identities are not at all contradictory, if you really think about it.

Yenly was born in a Thai refugee camp to a Cambodian mother and Vietnamese father and immigrated to the US with her family when she was 8. After realizing it grew way too cold in winter in Tennessee, the family moved to So Cal where Yenly grew up and went to school.

Yenly said she really didn’t have to question her identity until she joined the Peace Corps and lived in a small village in Costa Rica. Suddenly, like that, her “identity”-–the one that the outside world places on us—changed. At first people wondered if she might be Nicaraguan because of her tan complexion. As she tried to explain that her roots were in SE Asia, people began calling her “Nica-china,” meaning a Nicaraguan Chinese.

“But by the end everyone in my village knew how to find both Vietnam and Cambodia on a map!” Yenly told me. “Now they know the world is bigger than they thought. And I’m proud of that.”

Yenly in Costa Rica

Isn’t it funny how identity can change when we move from one place to the other?

Yenly said because of her dark complexion, people in Costa Rica assumed she was 1) poor 2) unintelligent, and (outside a city once) 3) a prostitute.

I’m glad she can laugh about it. And I’m really glad she showed everyone that they were wrong.

Recently Yenly has been traveling to SE Asia for her Master’s thesis, looking at repatriated refugees, some who return to their home countries by choice and others who were forced to go back by government policies. She’s interviewed 70-80 such repatriated refugees as well as the UN High Commissioner on Refugees in Switzerland, where she lived for three months to study how refugee policy is made and administered. (Yenly was able to complete her work abroad as she is a recipient of the prestigious Boren Fellowship.)

Perhaps most fascinating are her personal discoveries. When she went to Vietnam, she was able to connect to family members, including her grandmother, who survived the war but were not able to emigrate. And she also discovered a whole new facet to her identity: she is in fact considered to be “an indigenous person,” a member of an ethnic minority in Vietnam (Khmer Krom, according to Yenly’s blog). Before she met her grandmother, she’d had no idea.

Meantime in Cambodia, despite her fluency in Khmer and her physical appearance (which to most Cambodians seemed more Cambodian than Vietnamese, she said), she was definitely seen first and foremost as an American by her professor at the university where she studied.

Yenly in Cambodia

“I was too outspoken! I’m used to talking about my opinions and politics, but in Cambodia that was considered dangerous,” Yenly said. Her professor at one point asked her if she’d be willing to do an independent study because he feared that her outspokenness in class would get him in trouble, and even her relatives in the US worried about her safety.

But Yenly persevered and completed her fieldwork.

Now as she finishes her Master’s degree in Global and International Studies, she also volunteers to help refugees of various backgrounds in Southern California. “Sometimes people just need a guide, someone to show them the path.” Yenly was referring to the Burmese family she’s helping to find employment, but she could be talking about any of us. We can’t predict what will happen in any of our lives. Thus I find it reassuring to meet someone convinced that we should be willing to help each other. (Sometimes in the media I feel there’s only talk about how much we’re supposed to be afraid of each other these days!)

Yenly says her goals are to educate the public about refugees’ struggles in the US and overseas. I have no doubt she will succeed.

This video was shot by Yenly’s husband and posted by Yenly on Youtube for Cambodian Alliance for the Arts.

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I wanted to write about some fantastic Chinese documentaries I’ve seen over the past year, but instead I’m going to have to write about the debate raging over Amy Chua, of Tiger Mother infamy.

I’ve received enough emails from people wondering if her approach is really typical of “Chinese” parenting or my own upbringing (God forbid!) that I want to reply once and for all here, and then I’ll refer everyone to this blog entry.

First, Chua’s super-controlling style of parenting is not “traditional Chinese” for many reasons, most obviously the fact that most Chinese have had no opportunity to parent the way Chua does. She takes one grain of truth–that Chinese traditionally have emphasized the importance of education–and then manages to conflate that with her own hyperbole to promote her book. Controversy sells. But let’s get a few facts clear. Chua is American. Her parents were ethnic Chinese from the Philippines. (I guess the title “Battle-hymn of the Imelda Marcos Mother” just didn’t have the same ka-ching to it.) However, Chua is exploiting current fears of a rising China,  stereotypes about Chinese (and “Westerners”), the “model minority” stereotype, and almost every mother’s own conflicted feelings about her parenting in order to sell books.

Secondly, there’s been a lot written already about the harmful effects Chua’s abusive language and control-freak style may actually have on children. I will refer everyone to several of the myriad articles about this subject, including this CNN report showing that Asian American females, ages 15-24, have the highest suicide rate of anyone in the U.S. in that age group. This beautiful essay,  \”My Life as the Child of a Tiger Mother\”,by memoirist Lac Su, explains how he would give up all his current success if he only he could erase the psychic scars caused by his parents’ abusive behavior, which in some ways dovetails with Chua’s name calling. This article written by Betty Ming Liu, Parents like Amy Chua Are the Reason Why Asian Americans Like Me Are in Therapy, describes her critique humorously while this Quora post by Christine Lu explores how her older sister’s efforts to fulfill the pressure to be  “perfect” and “successful” resulted in her sister’s suicide. (Meanwhile, a good round-up of bloggers critiques as well as thoughtful analysis is provided by Cynthia Liu.)

Finally, I’d like to address the fundamental problem with Chua’s thesis: she oversimplifies a complex issue with a simple binary of Western indulgent v. Chinese strict.

In fact, this issue is about class not ethnicity. How many people can afford the nannies, tutors, special camps, private schools, etc. that Chua and her husband have paid for? Yet Chua’s book and PR do not emphasize this class privilege or all the people who have contributed to her children’s academic successes. No one woman could do everything, or seriously spend as much time as Chua claims that she did micromanaging her children’s every rehearsal and lives, as Janet Maslin points out in her review in the New York Times.

Chua’s parents were from very wealthy families. (See Chua’s first book, World on Fire, for anecdotes about her relative’s stash of solid gold bars.) Chua is also extremely wealthy. (For example, her daughters attend the private Hopkins School, which charges $30,000+ per year for tuition for grades 7-12.)

Money buys many wonderful opportunities. For example, want your kids to have a recital at Carnegie Hall, too? Anyone can pay to rent one of Carnegie Hall’s many venues. Current cost for a recital at the smallest of the halls (capacity 268, Weill Recital Hall) is about $4,500 for a weekend evening or Sunday afternoon. How do I know? I emailed Carnegie Hall\’s \”Hall Rental\” page on its website and asked.

So what’s wrong with spending a ton of money to raise your kids to have a great education and a lot of special opportunities? Nothing, in and of itself…if you’ve got the money. But it’s alarming that the issue of money and privilege is being obscured in this debate, and the focus in the media is solely on the efforts of one person–the mother–as though it doesn’t take a village (or an incredibly wealthy community) to raise a child.

This refusal to acknowledge privilege and the greater role of community in helping to raise successful children reminds me of The Atlantic‘s cover story, The Rise of the New Global Elite, about the new wealthy who relate to each other around the world but feel little to no obligations to the societies in which they grew up.  (See especially pp. 6-7.) According to the article, the new elite believe that solely through their own hard work and merit did they rise to the top. They don’t recognize the privileges of growing up in a largely middle-class society without crime to worry about, with good schools, and with access to jobs. They do not acknowledge the role of luck in their own success or being in the right place at the right time in history. For example, most of the American elites featured grew up in an era that did not have a universal draft, which would otherwise have required them to serve in America’s two ongoing wars, rather than continue their educations uninterrupted and to travel freely to make money for themselves and their companies. The fact that others–generally poorer and less educated– make these sacrifices of going to war for the nation, and thus for them, does not apparently translate to gratitude.

We used to recognize in America that having a strong middle class made us a strong nation. But according to The Atlantic article, we are creating an entitled class (yes, they are smart, they go to good schools, they work hard, but they also have the opportunity to do so) and an underclass, who cannot get ahead no matter how hard they work because they simply do not have access to the best education, connections, and opportunities that the elite enjoy. This divide is dangerous.

We as a nation need to look for real solutions that will help ALL OF US as a society, not just a few of us. We need to stop blaming “indulgent Western parents” or unions or teachers or such-and-such ethnic group, and look at the lack of opportunity that a society increasingly segregated by class leads to as well as the declining state of our public school systems, for example. If you can put your kids in a $30,000/year private school, then of course the kids can get a good education and meet many children of influential people who will help them later in life.

But most parents who are working two full-time jobs just to get by do not have the time, which Chua claims somehow that she has, to self-tutor their children. Nor do most families have hundreds of thousands of dollars to use just to put their kid through a private junior high and high school.

Some parents are truly neglectful of their children, of course, but the problems we see in our education system and economy are not simply issues of bad parenting…or “lax Western parenting” to borrow the publicity’s inflammatory rhetoric.

But notice how the debate raging in our media now is solely about parenting styles and not about the class issues or real solutions to the greater gap in educational opportunities in America for poorer or middle-class people.

Perhaps the elite who are able to take advantage of their opportunities and make the most of them feel that’s enough. Perhaps they feel no obligations to the greater good of their societies. Perhaps it’s enough to grab a bigger piece of the pie for themselves. And maybe they truly can convince themselves that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans deserve to have more collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent (Kristof, 1-1-2011). But if they’re wrong, and we really do need a thriving middle class to prevent most of America from sliding into a permanent underclass, if we need a thriving middle class to keep our country stable, to help lift the poor, to nurture people who will think outside the box rather than think merely how to preserve their own privilege, to innovate for the greater good, then we are all in trouble.

I wish the American media would recognize that we need real solutions and a real examination of our growing societal inequity, not stereotypes.

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Today I heard two stories, one sad and one heartening. Both relate to the media and stereotypes that lead to violence.

Sometimes when I see a particularly noxious person on the news receive a lot of acclaim and money for trafficking in the worst kind of race-baiting and  fear-mongering stereotypes, I feel completely disheartened. How can we fight against these forces that would have us turn off our minds and react like Pavlov’s dog? BE AFRAID OF SUCH-AND-SUCH! Shout it once and I might wonder, Why are you shouting? Shout it enough from a big enough bully pulpit and it might permeate my subconscious, as much as I might hope that it won’t.

Often these days I feel too exhausted by the negative media barrage to muster the energy and will to fight back against the lies.

So what am I talking about? Here are the two stories. You’ll see why one is discouraging, one encouraging. Both show that we mustn’t give up. We have to speak up against racist stereotypes, again and again and again.

1) a sad story from a friend, who is a very well-known and bestselling author. Today he received a package in the mail from some jerk, who called him all kinds of racial slurs, blamed my friend for inciting violence on the U.S.-Mexico border, and then enclosed a bunch of loony and nasty DVDs. My friend is one of the sweetest people I know…and the least violent. His books are not about promoting violence, as you might have guessed, but because my friend is Mexican-American, this crazy person who wrote him felt as though my friend embodies all the negative stereotypes ever reported about Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

Caution: Stereotypes Can Hurt

Although my friend also received much support from his fans, this episode clearly hurts his heart. I understand. It hurts. It will always hurt.

2) But then there are also moments that are completely unexpectedly wonderful. Today I also received a letter from a reader about my book Hapa Girl. And he understood exactly what I was trying to get across! That makes me happy. It makes the years of writing and re-writing worth it. Here’s the letter:

*****

Sent: Mon, Jan 10, 2011 11:29 pm

Subject: hapa girl

I just finished reading your memoir, Hapa Girl, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was especially moving and relevant for me because I am an Asian man married to a blonde girl. We have two children, a girl and a boy. It’s also funny that I grew up in New Jersey, and now we happen to live 10 minutes from Redlands, in California. As I read your memoir, I often thought of my daughter and the world she will grow up in as a biracial girl. I’ve always told my wife that I have fantasies about one day moving to a place in middle America, like […], and buying a farm and “living off the land.” Your memoir showed me a different side of that idea!

I would hope that we live in a different era now.

I am glad for the sections which included some historical, economic, and political context to the racism that you encountered while growing up. It would have been too easy to just portray those people as evil ignorant hicks. I thought it was important that you tried to show that racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Thank you for a great read! My wife also read it and enjoyed it.

btw we bought your book as an e-book from B&N

***

[And here’s my response:]

Dear J—,

Thank you very much for your kind and thoughtful letter!

The Redlands-New Jersey connections and similarities in our families are indeed interesting! (And as you know, families such as ours are not considered “weird” in Redlands, Ca. or New Jersey.)

My goal in writing Hapa Girl was very much to put what we experienced into a historical and media context as I know that the media’s fear-mongering doesn’t fall on deaf ears. Back in the 80s, all the hateful stories about Japan’s rise and the Native American civil rights movement created an atmosphere conducive to violence. And I think that while our type of family isn’t targeted in the media today, the heated rhetoric in the media is having ill effects yet again.

Today I worry about the anti-Muslim statements, anti-immigrant movements, fear-mongering over the state of a rising China, and the extreme anti-government rhetoric. I know from experience that fear mongering works: it produces both fear and big ratings. Maybe the bigwigs on TV and the pundits won’t feel it, but the rest of us will have to deal with the fallout sadly enough.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with me and for telling me a bit about your family. I appreciate knowing that somebody liked my book, and also I’m very happy to know that you liked my efforts to put the racism into a context. I agree with you 100 percent. Racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum!

Best wishes to you and your family for a Happy 2011 and a Happy Year of the Rabbit!

May-lee

(P.S. Cool to know Hapa Girl is now available in e-book form!)

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