Cultural Sensitivity, Schmultural Sensitivity

October 24, 2004

In his essay "Pidgin Contest on the I-5" (which you can find in Bulletproof Buddhists) Chin redefines "PC" as a "pidgin contest," a contest among speakers of many different native languages using a single, marketplace lingua franca that belongs to no one and therefore to everyone. The contest is to see both who can come up with the best insults, and who can be most civil--which is defined by the best use of language.

I like to think that HYPHEN is stepping up as a contestant in the pidgin contest. But what if the only other contenders are already on our team? This particular round of agonizing was brought to you by my recent argument with a HYPHEN supporter (white, male, dating an AsAm woman) who told me--apropos of almost nothing--that Asian American film festivals are no longer necessary, since there's so much Asian American film out there now. What? Out Where? Of course I immediately took offense, but on second thought, maybe he said this because he was speaking from the center of the whirlwind, where every film he sees is Asian American, every conversation is PC, every face is yellow. (On the other hand, he did also say that he "wasn't PC", in the same voice that urban hoochies with cell phones and sex lives say that they're "not a feminist".)

But p'raps it's true, perhaps here in AsianAmericaLandâ„¢ we're too sheltered. We've created the simulacrum of a Happy Society: one in which our circle overlaps others, and isn't just the margin ring of concentricity. Of course, AsianAmericaLandâ„¢ contains only about five thousand people nationwide (the majority of whom are unmarried, childless, and under 40) but since it only takes 150 to max out a community (and unmarried, childless and under 40 is skinny and hot) we're pretty Happy. Inside, we never have to hear people ask us where we're from much less tell us to go back there; Inside, all the Asian boys date Asian girls and largely vice versa and they do it both out of love (young, skinny, hot) and out of politics; Inside everybody is crafty and Makes Things, like purses and dolls and films and magazines and fascist idioms.

But Inside is also wealthy and educated. We never have to leave to get dirtyfilthy jobs or send our nonexistent kids to substandard schools. Indeed, Hairdo, what is the point of the work we're doing if we're still only preaching to the silk-clad choir? What if everybody else refuses to learn pidgin? Even while we were releasing our politics issue, the very New York Times verily dedicated a feature story to a Korean adoptee call-girl madam. Do we presume that this is a new cultural trend and not that we love stories about Asian whores? Do we chorus "foul" yet again to deaf ears or do we let this one go?

Or how about this?: none of the reportage on the recent findings that the westernization of Asian American women--measured by their English speaking ability--was linked to an increased smoking rate could resist headlining that speaking English is bad for Asian women's health. Asian American immigrant women constitute one of the most economically and socially vulnerable groups in the country. How much cultural sensitivity does it take to not imply that a skill (English speaking) that increases their political, economic, and social empowerment is causing them cancer? Seriously, am I just being a shrill PC bitch here?

I have no answer, but so as not to end on a down note here, I have to say that I find a lot of hope in the fact that half the "Asian American" news items on the web are pieces from the lifestyle sections of small-town papers discovering that they, too, have an Asian American community. This week's favorite is from Bristol, Tennessee, which now boasts a 300-family Indian American community. The between-two-worlds paradigm may be ho-hum to us As Am Studies graduates in sophisticate DeCentralLand, but it's still news in da provinces. If we can't get excited about this exploding plastic inevitable, then we are too sheltered.