Monday, September 22, 2008

Saying Goodbye (I wrote this in a fit of inspiration, in one sitting)

Yesterday morning (Sunday) I woke up deciding that I would finally be an adult and cut off all my nails. These were nails I had nurtured and maintained with bi-weekly salon visits for the last couple years. Nails I had prioritized so much, they became the outfit and my clothing became the accessories. But as much they were a part of my character, they weren't a necessity in my life. Sure they became such a center for attraction every time I used my hands (which was a lot and I did have long fingers), but they started becoming a task. I stopped feeling inspired for new nail designs, and one day as I sat and waited for my manicure to dry I wondered what else I could be doing with my time instead. I told myself it was time to cut them all off, and once I said it out loud I wasn't that sad anymore. After this brief moment of epiphany I felt a sudden urge to rid my self of the clothes I had harbored for so long, starting with my sneakers. I could tell just by looking at them all laid out in their collective glory which ones would go first and which ones would stay. It was the start of a new day.

And then in that same instant I received message from an ex-boyfriend, telling me that he had started seeing someone new and that we had to "chill" on the texts. What. The. Fuck. We only broke up less than a month ago. What was this shit? How dare he decide the fate of our friendship by the presence of some girl? He didn’t even call her his girlfriend, just someone he started seeing. How did someone he meet 15 minutes ago get precedence over our 4-year history? And why did she get to decide that our only form of communication should stop? Texting was my only contact with him. Sure I knew where he lived, had his email, was his friend on Myspace and Facebook, but we had grown apart to the point where text messages was best for both of us. And now, that was an obsolete too. And what exactly did he mean by "chill"? I never texted anything remotely close a romantic rekindling (maybe that first week after the break up, but that was it really), nothing inappropriate in a manner that would raise suspicion or cause any alarm. Exes can still be friends, if both parties know where they stand. Where did stand, or better yet where did I cross the line? Was there some boundary I wasn't aware of? Texting was probably the most impersonal, un-deep way to keep it short and simple. It was the anti-conversation, how could I go wrong? He never told me before he started seeing anyone so how the hell was I supposed to be aware I was interrupting anything? How did it go from you can text me anytime to someone doesn't like when we do that so we shouldn't anymore? Was this another goodbye to add to my list?

It bothered me a lot. Not because he had moved on but that he was already settled on making sacrifices to make her happy. It weakened my opinion of what I thought his character was. And worst, because he was my exboyfriend after all, he was a reflection of my character and it weakened what I thought of myself. I wanted to not think of it anymore so I headed on down to the nail salon. Fortunately I lived in Chinatown so the nearest one was only 4 blocks away and charged only $3 for cutting nails down. As soon as I walked in a 30-something year-old Vietnamese guy greeted me with a "Hi, hello, what can I do for you?" in a very used-car salesman way, but chipper nonetheless. He didn't introduce himself but I wanted to name him Tony, because he just looked like a Tony. I explained that I only wanted them cut and he suggested I get a polish change to make it all look cleaner, and I agreed. He was already working on a another woman's manicure, a Trinidadian lady who was getting long white square tips, so he asked me to sit in the booth next to his and that shortly someone would be out to help me. "Don't worry, I'll make sure I take care of you baby", he added. I smiled. Guys in the nail salon usually got the girls going with their heterosexual charm, but "Tony" added the "baby" as if he knew the woman he had been talking to his whole life and that’s what he always called her. A Vietnamese woman with a burn mark on her bridge sat down in front of me and began taking the odd polish off. Tony watched through his peripheral, keeping his focus on his Trini customer, as the 4-color tiger-stripe designs that used to adorn my nails soon became washed away into a rainbow mishmash on the cotton ball. “You like those crazy designs? If you ever want crazy designs like that, tic-tac-toe with different colors squares, anything you wanted hand-drawn on your nail, I could do it” he offered me. “Just let me know, I’ll take care of you baby”. Well it’s too late for all that I told him, but next time. He was content with my answer and went back to making small talk with the Trini lady, telling her about his own Jamaican and Trinidadian friends and how he couldn’t tell the difference between the two. By then the Vietnamese woman had started filing my nail bed down and when she got a little too close to a nerve I shrieked in pain and pulled back. Tony looked over and they briefly exchanged words. Apparently she thought I was just trimming my nails short and getting a refill too, so Tony got permission from his Trini Lady to take care of me for a quick second. He worked with such voracity, filing my nails down like a carpenter taking a chainsaw to unwanted wood. He was too busy making sure the motorized filer that he now had cranked up to high speed wouldn’t shave my fingers off, that he hadn’t noticed the flying chunks of acrylic, glue and nail hitting my face and hair. I knew there wasn't a better way to get it done efficiently, so I didn’t complain. Sure he could’ve been gentle, and hand-filed it to perfection but then I would have been there all day, and this procedure was about letting go, as quick and painless as possible. I think Tony knew that too, seeing that my real nails nearly matched the long of their wildly colored acrylic overcoat, now reduced to a stubby short mess. He knew when I told him just to cut, no refills, no designs, just cut them all off, this wasn't a regular follow-up appointment, but rather the end of an old habit.

When all the nails were short I was able to make a fist. As Burn Victim manicurist came back to smooth them down and paint them over, I became occupied thinking of all the things I’d have to relearn that I hadn’t noticed the drama unfolding next to me. Apparently Trini Lady was a con artist. She liked to come in, get her nails done, and halfway through complain about it so she wouldn’t have to pay full price. But Tony wasn’t having it this time. “Listen if you’re not gonna let me do what I wanna do, then you can go somewhere else”, he told her softly. She called his bluff, picked up her plastic bag of random stuff with her now fully tipped and painted fingernails and told them she’d never come back again. “Before you leave let me cut your nails”, he said, his hand out waiting for her to oblige. She did not. “I can cut them myself” she replied in an indistinct Island accent. That’s when Tony flipped. “Give me your fucking hand!” he screamed. “You did this shit last time, but you not gonna get away with it, not me, I ain’t the one.” Wow, Tony had hood in him, and heart. “You ain’t gonna walk out of here with my nails” he continued. The Trini Lady was twice his size, and what Tony lacked in weight and height he had in speed. Just as Trini Lady announced she would be calling the cops, Tony urged her, go head, then lunged forward and went for her plastic bag of randoms. Standing behind the table he held them up as if to tease her, told her that now she couldn’t leave and to go ahead and call the cops. Tony was neither scared of big-boned black women nor police enforcement. Perhaps he was in a gang when he was younger, I wondered. Trini Lady picked up her cell phone and started the conversation with the 911 operator with “Hello I’m at a Nail Salon and the guy here is going crazy, he’s asking to cut my hand, cursing at me and he took my bag and he wont let me leave.” I think Tony knew what the cops knew, nail salon drama doesn’t require much back-up. Even after my third coat of polish and three pushes of the air fan dryer, no one showed up. I left, not wanting to be a reporting witness, in case anyone did.

The scenario in the nail salon reminded me that I should try to occupy my down time with some entertainment. Responsible entertainment I should say. Maybe it was receiving that text message from my newly pussy-whipped exboyfriend that I didn't want those bad feelings lingering on me, I decided to get a book. Reading a book I could emerge myself further than say, watching a movie. I loved reading when I was much younger, I even wrote an essay in the 6th grade about what I would do if I won a million dollars and I said I would buy books, read them all and end up smart (you believed those kinds of things when you’re in the 6th grade). You could say that didn’t help win any friends but I had my books anyway. That was until puberty came along, then boys, then fashion, and finally term papers with their technicalities and footnotes and bibliographies, and that was that. I walked a couple blocks to Borders and bought a copy of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I had been eyeing that book for some time but for reasons that I can't remember now I never got around to getting it. I had other books on my mind too, from established authors like Ayn Rand and Salman Rushdie. But for some reason I felt an urgency to read Oscar Wao first. Maybe it was the name, for a long time (before I Googled it) I thought Wao was Asian. And then I discovered it was Dominicano, and that the author had taken the liberty of making parts of the text in Spanish. I was intrigued, I loved reading literature that included ethnic terms because it made whatever original language the terms were from seemed too superior to be translated into whatever language the book had been written in. That was why Wild Meat and the Bully burgers by Lois-Ann Yamanaka was one of my favorite books, because for her to keep the island pidgin in its original form - even if some people didn’t recognize it as a language, even if some people considered it Hawaiian ebonics - her keeping it in the text was far more important than trying to translate it into something that may or may not be its equivalent in meaning. I was excited for this new book; I was excited to learn Spanish this way. I was excited to be reading again. And when I found out it was a New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer, that was it for me. I got home, and wanting the first reading to be comfortable, I took a shower first.

When I was finally all settled in, I took in the book like it was a five-course meal that was meant to be consumed in a day. And boy did I love every minute of it. Footnotes about DR history read like post-it notes from your really smart but really suave Dominican friend. I finally recognized the proper spelling of pendeja, and preferred to used my fill-in-the-blank thinking to deduce Spanish words instead of stopping to look them up. I enjoyed seeing literature that used words like “mad” as an adverb for other adjectives like East Coast slang, and reading “swagger” and “fucking” and “bitches” among SAT flash words and still feeling I was taking in rich literature. It was like reading a book written by a peer, and not someone dead, dying or formerly in hiding. Every now and then I’d find a quote I really liked, and tried to repeat the line so I could remember it instead of having to mark its place. I was only on Chapter 3 but I already knew this was an immaculate piece of work. Still, something was bothering me. Every time I stopped reading I kept thinking about ----------- and his dumbass text message. He fucking had the nerve to text me at 9:28 on a Sunday morning. It was then I knew that everything I was doing to distract myself from the anger I felt was making it worse. Here I was liberated from my high maintenance manicured nails and reading a Pulitzer prize book, and this motherfucker was ruining it for me.

So I put the book down and did what came naturally. I started writing a story about a girl who once admired her independently responsible and practical exboyfriend but lost all respect for him once she realized he was a pussy for pussy. It was such a release, such a relief. I hadn’t noticed how much I had typed and how much easier it became by the 4th page. It was odd having to adjust to feeling of keyboard with my fingertips for the first time after years of meticulously working out ways to type with just nail tips. I had to remember that the keys my fingertips rested on were the right keys and not the one above it. I realized then that by saying goodbye to one superficially satisfying distraction, I had re-welcomed another, my writing.

Thank you, Tony, Junot and Fuckface.

Sincerely Catzie.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Revisiting "Dear Senator McCain"

"I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live."
-John McCain, February 17, 2000

"I will call any interrogator that tortured me, a gook. I can't believe that
anybody doesn't believe these interrogators and prison guards were cruel
and sadistic people who deserve the worst appellations possible. Gook is
the kindest appellation I can give."
-John McCain, February 17, 2000

'Cause we soft spoken, doesn't mean that we've forgotten
Your bootie smells rotten and one day you will be gotten
-Lauryn Hill, "Family Business," The Fugees' The Score

John McCain's people have deftly flippt the script on Barack Obama over the last 2 weeks. They've told us that The Maverick is back in full effect--the original straight talker. Behold our very own Greatest American Hero--the true agent of change for the American people. After all, they reminded us as McCain was introduced at the RNC before giving his acceptance speech, "When you've lived in a box, you put your people first."

And so it began: the narrative being sold to us about McCain--a narrative dominated almost exclusively by his time as a POW during the Vietnam War. It's been shoved in our faces so much we can recite the story by heart: McCain shot down on a bombing mission over North Vietnam. McCain pulled from his wrecked plane by North Vietnamese soldiers, both arms broken. McCain taken to "Hanoi Hilton" where he and other POWs were interrogated and tortured. Etc. Etc. Etc.

I read somewhere on the internet that McCain's acceptance speech contained 43 sentences about his POW experience while only 8 recounted his 25 years on Capitol Hill. And so, for me, if McCain wants us to swallow this War Hero narrative as the fodder for his character and his qualification for the Presidency, then let us really open it up to scrutiny. And that means us gooks are coming back to haunt him.

I don't care that he made his gook reference 8 years ago and that he claimed he meant it specifically for his interrogators. I don't care that he apologized for it under political pressure and a concern for a potential APIA swing vote in the CA primary while running for President in 2000. If currently he is continuously going to invoke his POW years and thrust before us images of his and America's enemy, and in doing so transplant Vietnamese faces to embody the word "enemy," then he is opening himself up to a resuscitated examination of his use of the word gook in referring to this enemy. Because what we should care about in helping us decide if this experience indeed makes him fit to be President is his initial, honest, straight-talker response when reporters first called him on it back in 2000: "I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live."

I could rehash the criticisms from the APIA community at the time about McCain's blatant insensitivity and ignorance in his use/defense of a broadly racist term for Asian Americans; I could compare it to the word "nigger" and other racial epithets and complain that he wouldn't have been let off so easy if he had offended black people or other racial minority groups--all of these points are still valid (and can be readily found on the internet), and the whole incident still pisses me off. But in revisiting this word gook, what I really want to do is put McCain's statements in a context with current political issues and consider what it may reveal about how he would handle foreign affairs, military operations, and the war in Iraq.

It bothers me that McCain's POW years have become so commodified by his campaign. If you visit his website, the homepage opens up with 2 back-to-back videos chronicling his POW experience and lauding his heroism. The narrative highlights his sacrifices and dedication to his country, fighting for American freedom, and having a brave heart "to never surrender." Military images abound. Pictures of Vietnamese people situate them in no uncertain terms as the enemy--both John McCain's enemy and America's enemy.

The forgotten narrative of the Vietnam War is that of innocent Vietnamese civilians--their suffering, their loss. It is convenient that America's nostalgia for war, especially those that involve Asian people and countries, becomes one that forgets the desperate, pained Asian faces that the U.S. military/government purported to protect and save but actually ended up being complicitous in harming whether, in Vietnam specifically, through directly executed or coordinated napalm attacks, mass murders of civilians (My Lai), gang rapes of young Vietnamese girls, or the abandonment of thousands of babies fathered by U.S. military personnel. And as U.S. soldiers torture and humiliate prisoners at Abu Ghraib, kill innocent Iraqi civilians including women and children, bomb civilians in Afghanistan, fail to locate and catch Osama bin Laden, and become exhausted and bitter through several tours of duty away from family and friends, I am not reassured that these neglected narratives can be revised under John McCain. who finds such personal/political meaning and comfort in his "Look-at-Me-the Tortured-War-Hero" story.

I cannot trust a man who has proudly insisted "I hate the gooks" to lead us out of Iraq to peace when he's ready to stay there for 100 years or however long it takes to "win." I cannot trust this man, John McCain, to responsibly address the U.S. government's oversight of CIA interrogation techniques, i.e. torture, or prevent another Abu Ghraib when in February 2008 he voted against an anti-torture bill and supported Bush's veto of the bill after it was passed by the Senate. I cannot trust John McCain not to take Western/American, fundamentalist Christian-Judeo war-mongering to Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, or North Korea. Precisely because of his personal Tortured-War-Hero-POW narrative, I do not trust John McCain.

Most troubling to me about McCain's declaration and defense of his using the word gook is his unapologetic insensitivity to how it both completely conflates and demonizes all Vietnamese people--which can very easily be extended to all people of Asian descent. His vehement hatred towards "the gooks" bothers me too. In using such a hatefully racist term to talk about his North Vietnamese captors, I cannot believe this is a man who would work successfully with the diverse peoples and cultures of the Middle East or will make the effort to bridge the divide between Christianity, Islam, and other religious beliefs practiced around the world. War and hatred; fear and loathing; fighting and survival; Gook and Terrorist/Muslim/Other; America vs. Vietnam/Iraq; Hero vs. Enemy--how can the dominant personal/political narrative of such a man give us confidence that he can take us in a direction of progress and change and, ultimately, peace both at home and abroad as President of the United States? But then again, isn't that the point--to keep us at war indefinitely until all America's real and imagined enemies are crushed?

In his poem "Dear Senator McCain," Bao Phi seizes McCain's POW/gook narrative and spits it back in his face, holding him accountable for his hypocrisy and insensitivity. Bao is a Vietnamese American spoken word poet from Minneapolis, and he wrote this poem after the gook-word incident 8 years ago, but it is relevant to our present political discussion for all the ways that I have already outlined. Full of irony and sarcasm, "Dear Senator McCain" exposes the inherent racism of McCain's statement, situates McCain's comments in the contentious American militarist discourse that surrounds the Vietnam War and all of America's war narratives from Asia, and demands that he take responsibility for his wholesale demonization of a group of people that crosses generations, continents, soldiers, civilians, refugees, immigrants, citizens. What hope are we to have with such a man representing the American people to the rest of the world? How can we read Bao's poem and not think about the current war narrative being constructed of Muslims--the conflation of "Muslim" and "Arab" and "Middle Eastern" with "enemy" and "terrorist" and "evil"?

We cannot let such narratives dictate history and determine our lives. We must reclaim our narratives, humanizing them so that the fuller story is told and calling out those which demonize. And we can set off this corrected retelling with Bao Phi's scathing "Dear Senator McCain."

Many thanks to Bao Phi for giving me permission to reprint his poem on our blog. Thanks to all of you who have read my long-winded set up of Bao's poem.

Always love and peace,

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

By Bao Phi

Dear Senator McCain

I write this letter on jungle leaves
and the skin of a white man.

I am a gook, a jungle spook,
a steamed apparition
of piss and foot rot
building torture devices from old rotary phones
and the rusted hulks of American cars

I am that gook, when you turn on the light
I scramble away and if you see me
you know there’s ten more
where I came from
catching tracer bullets like fireflies
in my teeth
my language like malaria
sweating itself into your brain

I am a gook, riding on top of water buffaloes,
waving welfare checks like a white flag of surrender
but shot in the back by your finest when they thought
I was standing in a martial arts stance

I am a gook, miscellaneous bomb bait,
agent orange evolved primate
creeping thru cashmoney colored jungles
and masturbating neon onto Wall Street
slit eyes fixed on white women
fingers like 10 long drips of grease

I am that villain in a white lab coat
trading bomb secrets for red cash
stashing code in surgery folded eyelids

I am gook, no speak no Engleesh
too much headache, tell me go back to my country,
motherfuck you eh?

I am indeed a gook, polished gold yellow
at Yale, driving my Ferrari horse-powered dick
deep into your spread-legged streets
while Miss America screams out an orgasmic “There goes the neighborhood!”

I am gook
that gook waiting in that nightmare jungle
that gook in front of you with 17 items in the 10 items or less lane at the supermarket
that gook born with a grenade in his head
that gook that got a better grade in your shop class
that gook uppity enuf to stand with his brothers and sisters and demand an apology
that gook who patted you on the back and said "That’s okay--I hate gooks too."

I am that gook who stole your bomb secrets,
that gook that held you hostage,

that gook whose culture your daughter robbed for her tattoos, trinkets and t-shirts
that gook whose language your son attempts to speak so he can crack some nookie
from the fortune cookie

I am the gook who blazed you
the gook who saved you

I am gook, chink, slope, slanteye, victor, charlie, chan, suzie wong, dickless rice picker, model minority, binder of feet, your favorite sushi waitress, piss colored devil, nip, jap, snow falling on cedars, miss saigon, memoir of a geisha, joy luck club, ally mcbeal,

I am gook,
I ate your motherfuckin cat

I am that gook who will hang himself on Nike shoelaces
so your sons and daughters can play pickup or NCdoubleA final four,
I am that 14 cents an hour gook whose ghosts paint those Gap commercials white,
I am that gook that took over your pool hall and your roller skating rink,
I am this gook, I am that gook, I am your gook,I am my gook
I am that gook, popping out of a motherfuckin bowl of rice
to ask:
what’s the difference
between an Asian
and a gook
to you?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

My Interview on Bakka Magazine and Beyond the Other Side of The Eye

I recently did an interview with Bryan Thao Warra, author of The Other Side of The Eye for Bakka Magazine. Check it out here when you get a chance.

Also, Bryan is putting together a call for submission by artists who have been inspired by TOSOTE for it's one-year anniversary and calling the exhibit Beyond The Other Side of The Eye. Below is a repost for anybody's who's interested.

I'm now announcing that to celebrate the 2nd anniversary in 2009, we're going back to where it all started with a very special art exhibit and a series of special events at the J&S Bean Factory at 1342 Thomas Ave. in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Between 2005-2007, I wrote and organized the final elements that would ultimately become On The Other Side Of The Eye, the first full-length book of Laotian American speculative poetry in the world. It's a great space in the Midway area of St. Paul.

The exhibit, Beyond The Other Side Of The Eye, will feature the work of several artists who were inspired by the book, in both photography, illustration and painting, as well as poems and other mediums. There will also be readings and workshops throughout the month to celebrate!

There are still a few spaces open for artists who are interested in participating in the exhibit! If you're interested drop a line to me at thaoworra@gmail. com and we can discuss the additional details!

Yes, there's still time to create additional work. The deadline for submission is July 1st, 2009. I look forward to seeing what you come up with! :)

Thanks Bryan. And if you haven't read the book yet, you're missing out! Order one today! Support your Laotian talent!

- Catzie

I met Russell Peters!

While I was out in Vegas, I ran into Russell Peters! It was so random, he wasn't in town for a show or anything just hanging out at the casino.

I'm normally not so fan-stalkerish about celebrities, let alone comedians. But I loooooove Russell Peters. After being told about his skits by the students at Memphis College last year, I looked him up on Youtube and discovered his Comedy Now skits. What attracted me to Russell's brand of comedy, beside being a South Asian, was that he talked about race and culture without it embarrassing other people. Usually this is hard to achieve because well, many comedians believe that in order to get a laugh, somebody's got to be the butt of the joke. Especially in many shows where there's the pick-on-someone-from the crowd routine, and the person getting picked on is the only white person, Asian person etc. Personally I think it's a cheap shot when comedians take advantage of degrading someone just becuase they're all by themselves. But Russell keeps it moving. Sure he makes jokes about everybody from Italians, Jamaicans, Chinese even his own Indian background but he doesn't make anybody feel stupid about who they are and wanna leave the auditorium. He even takes jabs at the same people who mock Indian accents, and makes fun of those who can't tell that an Indian person is still an Asian person. But my favorite jokes are the ones with the Chinese seller and his dad. Take a looksy, the quality's not that great but it's still audible enough to get the jokes.

- Catzie