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I was very happy to learn that a class of students at San Francisco State University were reading my book, Hapa Girl, this semester. English Department instructor Sheryl Fairchild invited me to her class this week to meet with her students and discuss the book.

The students had prepared great questions and observations about Hapa Girl, and we discussed the impact of fear mongering in the media on communities and individual lives, ongoing fear of interracial marriage (including the case of the Kentucky church that recently voted to ban interracial couples!), the current atmosphere of hostility against Muslims and Mexican immigrants compared with the anti-Japanese fears of the 1980s, and the need to speak up in the face of injustice.

I was impressed with all the students’ intelligent comments, questions, and conversation. Whenever I meet a great class, I know I’m also witnessing the work of a great teacher who has taken a lot of time and thought to put together her curriculum (in this case students read literature on social justice themes), and then teaches it well. Brava to Sheryl Fairchild!

(You can see Sheryl in this photo–she’s second from the right, leaning forward:)

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ImaginAsian organizer Kate Agathon of Purdue University asked me to post my “inspiration” for my book, GLAMOROUS ASIANS, which is featured in the ImaginAsian exhibit, opening April 9th. So here goes.

GLAMOROUS ASIANS is a collection of short stories and essays that describe anything but glamorous lives. Rather, most of the people in the stories are living quiet lives, the kind that are often overlooked. The characters often feel alone or simply lonely.

Questions inspire!

Sometimes questions I can’t answer inspired me. For example, the protagonist in “Nai-Nai’s Last Words” is trying to understand what it means to love someone after that person has died, which results in a series of encounters with the living and the dead that raise many questions.  Can you ever have loved someone enough? Can words express love? What if actions seem to go unnoticed? What if a loved one returned from the dead and tried to tell you something and you had no idea what that person was saying?

Celestial Dancers, Angkor Wat

The opening story, “The Dancing Girl’s Story,” is about an Apsaras, one of the supposedly mythical Cambodian dancing girls carved into the stones of Angkor Wat. After being accidentally picked up by a Coast Guard boat, she is interrogated about her life by uncomprehending I.N.S. agents. After I read that Haitian asylum seekers caught on the open sea were given only 20 minutes to plead their case before their fate was decided by the INS, I decided to write a story that could be read aloud in less than 20 minutes, and I wanted to create a character so powerful that she didn’t need to worry about the INS. Instead, she would give them a story that was at once real and myth, impossible for them to comprehend. Isn’t this the life story of all refugees seeking asylum in a strange land?

My story “Easter” is about a mixed-race girl growing up on a chicken farm in Nebraska. Her Filipina show-girl mother has died in a car accident, and now she and her brother are growing up with their white father, trying to feel as though they belong in their small town, while everyone’s stares tell them they don’t. My inspiration was to explore what it means to be a family.

Crane base in origami

I was inspired by the art of origami to write “Your Grandmother, the War Criminal,” in which an origami lesson turns into a history lesson about the Japanese American internment. The narrator shows how a wrong fold or a sloppy crease can turn a paper crane into merely crumpled paper. Similarly, in history, what’s considered right or wrong can be as arbitrary as your surname or your grandparents’ birthplace. Yet learn to fold with care and a flat sheet of paper becomes a beautiful flower. The flat sheets of history can be rendered three-dimensional by the stories of the people who lived through these events. It’s all in the folding and unfolding.

The title, GLAMOROUS ASIANS, is taken from an essay about my own search for glamorous Asian images when I was a child and my frustration at not finding any. Yet as I grew older and continued my search, following with interest the Miss Chinatown pageant in San Francisco one year and later the 2000 Miss America pageant where an Asian American, Stanford-educated medical student almost becomes Miss America, I realized that glamour is highly subjective. Can’t all Asians be glamorous in our own eyes?

ImaginAsian: Glamorous Asians

There are more stories and another essay in the collection, but I think these examples give you a good sense of my various points of inspiration in writing GLAMOROUS ASIANS.

The ImaginAsian exhibit runs April 2-May 9, 2010 at the Tippecanoe Arts Federation located at 638 North Street in Lafayette, IN. Opening reception is April 9, 2010 from 6 to 8 p.m.

For more information, check out the Purdue University ImaginAsian website:

ImaginAsian Exhibit, Purdue University website info.

The amazing and tireless Kate Agathon organized this event in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Other contributors include writer Maxine Hong Kingston, poet Bao Phi, memoirist Lac Su, director Michael Kang, author and newspaper columnist Jeff Yang, DC comics artist Bernard Chang, spoken word poet Edward Hong, actor Parry Shen, veteran Lt. Dan Choi, and many, many others!

Check out the site online if you can’t make it to Indiana!  You can also join the ImaginAsian Facebook Fan Page ImaginAsian FB Fan Page 🙂

Note: The crane base illustration is ©Toyoaki Kawai, 1970, 1998, from ORIGAMI (Tokyo: Hoikusha Press).

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My publisher requested that I come up with a list of questions that could be used by teachers and students discussing my book GLAMOROUS ASIANS: SHORT STORIES & ESSAYS.

I’ve put the questions  here in case readers are interested. I’m also going to include a pdf file for teachers that will be easy to download (I hope!).

Reader’s Guide for GLAMOROUS ASIANS
1. In the first story, a Cambodian goddess (Apsaras) is being interrogated by the
I.N.S. after she is mistakenly fished out of the sea. In the story, Chai mixes various Asian mythologies and philosophies. How many of the  different elements can you identify?
2. The Khmer Rouge began a genocidal campaign from 1975-1978 to “cleanse”
Cambodian society of all non-Khmer cultural elements.   How does the mixture of
cultural elements in “The Dancing Girl’s Story” counter the Khmer Rouge’s view of
Cambodian society?
Although time is compressed in the story, can you identify when these various
elements were present in Cambodia’s history? (For example, the Chinese magistrate represents the actual Zhou Daguan who is credited with writing the world’s first account of Cambodian society in the 15th century.)

3. In “Mr. Chu Returns to his Sleeping Wife” and “Nai-Nai’s Last Words,” describe the themes of lost opportunities to communicate with one‘s family and loved ones.

4. In “Easter,” the narrator Shannon describes her mother this way: “It always surprised me how she could almost understand how things were supposed to be done, then just miss doing them that way.” (p. 15) How does this line also embody many of the themes of dislocation and cultural difference in this story?

5.  In “Saving Sourdi,” the author chose to tell the story from the point of view of Nea, the younger sister, even though Nea often does not understand the other characters’ motivations. How would the story have been different if it had been told from Sourdi’s point of view?

6. In the title essay, what is Chai’s attitude towards the American beauty industry?

7. In “Yellow Peril,” the author’s father and the Boston Globe reporter are depicted as working on two competing narratives. Compare and contrast how the father views his life in America versus the reporter’s suspicious questions.

8. Compare the interviews in the first story “The Dancing Girl’s Story” and the  essay “Yellow Peril.” What is similar about them? What is different?  What is the author’s apparent view of the ability to communicate one’s history to an interrogator?

9. Although the book is titled, GLAMOROUS ASIANS, are there elements in the book that are universal to non-Asians as well?  What are these elements?

10.  Why do you think the author chose the title GLAMOROUS ASIANS when most of the stories do not in fact depict glamorous lives at all?

Glamorous Asians Study Guide

Blog post on inspiration for GLAMOROUS ASIANS

Glamorous Asians book cover

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