On the occasion of the 2006 Asian Pacific Heritage Celebration at Humboldt State university, Andrew Lam, author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora” and NAM editor, was asked to give a keynote speech. The following is the transcript of that speech. May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month.
Sitting by my window in San Francisco where I live, I often hear the faint but distinctive sounds of martial arts coming from the karate dojo down the street. “Aiee! Aiiee!” shouts the blond instructor as he punches the air. “Aiee! Aiiee!” shout his students, punching the air along with him.
It occurred to me this morning that in a way, they were announcing my arrival.
For a long time I had resigned myself to the idea that the public and private cultures in America would never meet. A Vietnamese refugee to California three decades ago, I once believed that incense smoke, gongs, Confucian dramas and pho soup were simply an Asian immigrant's preoccupation. But since then I changed my mind.
Rudyard Kipling's famous line, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," no longer applies in our globalized, high-tech, highly traveled era. East and West have not only met but commingled, and in this country, the East is beginning to lead.
What was once considered proprietary, private culture has spilled irrevocably into the mainstream, changing the American landscape. Three decades ago, who would have thought that sushi – raw fish - would become an indelible part of American cuisine? Or that Vietnamese fish sauce would be found on Aisle 3 of Safeway? Or that acupuncture would be accepted by some health care HMOs? That the art of Feng Shui, arranging furniture and plants to ease the flow of the chi, the energy that flows through all things, would become an architectural practice? Or that, for that matter, Asian writers, especially Chinese and Indian, would play a large and important role in the pantheon of American letters?
American pundits tend to look at the world through a very old prism -- they associate globalization as synonymous with Americanization: i.e., how the United States influences the world. What many tend to overlook, however, in the age of porous borders, is how much the world has changed the United States.
So, while we can’t deny the Americanization process taking place overseas, the reverse is true also: At home, evidence of the Easternization of America is also piling up.
Take movies for instance. American audiences are growing more familiar with movies from China, Japan and now South Korea. Quentin Tarantino is planning a kung fu movie entirely in Mandarin, and Zhang Yimou's stylized martial arts films like "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" were very popular across this country. Hollywood is remaking Japanese blockbusters like "The Ring" and "Shall We Dance?" and increasingly, the Hong Kong film industry – from its stars to its directors and its choreographers - has moved to Hollywood to form a new marriage.
Asian Americans have been featured as stars as well, as in "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" and "Better Luck Tomorrow." And Sandra Oh won SAG and Golden Globe awards. All the while, Vietnamese American Chloe Dao wins Project Runway’s top prize and another, Dat Phan, won Stand up comedy Top Prize: Last Man Standing.
Kung fu fighting, once exotic, has become the norm. At the beginning, learning martial arts was the foreground, the underlying plot. Remember David Carradine in “Kung Fu” in the early 70s, who learned martial arts in China and then went on to search for his father in America? But these days kung fu fighting is so common that it serves as the background to various movies, television shows, video games and ads. Turn on the TV and you’ll see ads like chatnow.com (where a young woman raised her foot menacingly near a man’s head while calmly talking to him) to cartoons like Kim Possible (where martial arts fighting seems like the normal doings for teenage girls) to children’s afternoon shows like the Power Rangers, to cult reruns of Xena the Princess Warrior (who can indeed paralyze someone with a touch of her finger!) to the ABC hit series, Alias, and so on. Charlie’s Angels all know martial arts. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, simply employ their fighting skills to beat each other up as their marriage went awry. Everyone, it seems, is kung fu fighting.
So much has changed since Bruce Lee first flew like an avenging god across the silver screen in his awe-inspiring kick. Lee not only introduced martial arts to the West but redefined cinematic action itself. Gone is the old idea that bigger is better. Swiftness and a precise kick can topple mass. Agility proves superior to brawn. The body in martial arts motion is pure art, a kind of acrobatic dance, endowed with a kind of lethal elegance and grace that had not, up until Bruce Lee, been imagined cinematically with fighting.
Japanese animation too, is a good example. There are more than 20 anime shows on cable channels, ranging from "Sailor Moon" to "Pokemon" to the latest teenage craze, "Kagemusha" a series about a half-human, half-demon warrior on a quest to my nephew’s favorite, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Eastern mythology is now part of his American childhood memories. No wonder Manga comic books and DVDs and videocassettes reached $500 million in the United States last year and continue to rise.
A friend of mine, Sandip Roy, host of a San Francisco radio show called "Up Front" and a film critic, points to the "Bollywoodization" of the United States.
"Deepak Chopra has long been managing the spiritual fortunes of Hollywood's golden people," he says. "Britney Spears' new album has a Bhangra remix of one of her singles. Images from old Indian matchbooks and posters now retail as birthday cards. The vinyl seat covers of Indian rickshaws are turning into tote bags for Manhattan's chic. And yoga is now the new aerobics."
Indeed, in an era where America increasingly relies on the Far East for its source of entertainment and inspiration, my private world, what I used to know living in Vietnam, it seems, is private no longer; Asia exudes her mysticism and America is falling slowly under her spell.
A while back NPR’s All Things Considered called me and asked me how I feel about Campbell making Vietnamese Pho soup? I said, well, how do Italians feel about Pizza Hut? I suppose I’m both proud and yet feel a little odd about it: I never thought I would live to see my mother’s cooking end up in a can but that’s globalization for you. After all, a big part of globalization happens when East and West meet, creating a new hybrid culture. And Vietnamese Pho soup in a Campbell can is allegorical in the ways things change.
Once upon a time Asia was an impossibly far away continent. Leaving home once meant never to see it again. These days - quite suddenly - Beijing, Bombay, Bangkok, Saigon and Tokyo are much closer to the United States than we ever thought possible. The teenager in Kansas is chatting with the Japanese girl in Kyoto. The Chinese businessman in Silicon Valley is talking to his grandmother in Shanghai on the cell, while answering his emails to his business partner in London and Rio de Janeiro. And when a Chinese American friend tells me he’s bicoastal, he doesn’t mean San Francisco and New York. He lives in San Francisco, but summers in Hong Kong.
And in as much as we feel reassured in seeing the Thai teenager in Bangkok wearing his baseball cap backward under the golden arches of McDonald's, Americans have learned to savor the taste of lemongrass in our soup and that tangy burnt chili on our fried fish.
The San Francisco Chronicle the other day had this article on its front page: “America's mean cuisine: More like it hot -- from junk food to ethnic dishes, spicy flavors are the rage.” We want our wasabi. We want chili on our burger. Salsa is eaten more than ketchup in some states, and no one is surprised any longer.
Writer Richard Rodriguez once observed that, "Each new wave of immigrants brings changes as radical as Christopher Columbus did to the Indians." Asia and Asian America are changing America in a radical way too.
Eastern religions represent one of those changes. In Los Angeles, there are more than 300 Buddhist temples. Buddhism, writes Diana Eck, professor of comparative religions at Harvard University, "challenges many Americans at the very core of their thinking about religion -- at least, those of us for whom religion has something to do with one we call God."
How radical is Easternization of the West?
One cannot diligently practice meditation without considering one's psychological transformation and the possibility of enlightenment, of spiritual revelation, of satori waiting at the edge of one's breath, of coming in touch with what Buddha experienced, no matter how fleeting.
Well, one cannot accept that acupuncture works on one's arthritis without considering the essence that lies behind such a healing art, and marveling at what the ancient Taoist priests saw - the flow of the chi, that energy which flows through all things – and at how these ancient seers brilliantly, and effectively, seek to manipulate its flow through the human body with tiny needles. To accept acupuncture is to accept a radically different way of experiencing – of seeing - reality.
On my wall, I once kept two pictures to remind me of the extraordinary ways East and West have changed. One is from a Time magazine issue on Buddhism in the United States. On it, a group of American Buddhists sit serenely in lotus position on a wooden veranda in Malibu contemplating the Pacific Ocean. The other is of the Vietnamese American astronaut Eugene Trinh, who flew on a NASA space shuttle. We have come very far if the Vietnamese man who left his rice-fields only a few decades ago thinks he, too, can reach the moon, while the American is turning inward, trying to approach nirvana.
Tu Weiming, the Confucian scholar at Harvard, said ours is a new "era where various traditions exist side by side for the first time for the picking." Ours is a world full of options and choices. It is an era in which a Westerner, tired of materialism, can turn slowly inward in search of spiritual uplift, while introversion and ego-dissolving are no longer consuming Asian quests. Go to Asia and see America at work, where individual ambition reigns.
East and West, the twain not only met, but are involved in a complex pas de deux.
In this sense, America’s relationship with Asia will only deepen over the next century. The dynamic is increasing not lessening despite our tendency to withdraw into our own shell. Investment in Asia is on the increase. Travel back and forth, too, is on the increase. There are, by the way, more people going through our airports in California each year than the state’s entire population, and many of them go back and forth over the Pacific Ocean, turning it into a little pond under the jet’s wings.
The story of America began, after all, with a vision of the East – it was in search of Cathay and the Indies, their riches, that Columbus sailed West and found America instead. That vision remains alluring. And that epic meeting hasn’t yet come to a conclusion. We’re only approaching the dramatic turning point at the beginning of the 21st century.
So “Aiiee! Aiiee!” Shouts the blond instructor.
And - “Aiiee! Aiiee!” Respond his students.
But look! Look at their faces: The students who chop and kick is America itself. Black, Asian, White, Hispanic, and mixed-race kids. Truck drivers, acne-faced teenagers, grim-faced businessmen and bored housewives. Asian traditions are no longer exclusively for Asians.
This morning, as I write and seep my oolong tea, I find myself growing in confidence. For the stories I seek to tell, too, are the inheritances of both continents, and they envision the once-separated hemispheres as one.