“What Are You?”: Let’s Talk About Asian-American Encounters

This is a bit of an anomalous situation, but once…my sister and I were on a horseback riding tour in Wyoming, and somehow it was just the two of us with the guide. He was a typical white cowboy-type, kind of dashing in his way, until he opened his mouth to say, ‘What are you guys?’ (Humans?) In this situation, where we were literally in the mountain wilderness alone with him, how sassy could I afford to be? So I just replied, ‘We’re Chinese-American.’ He seemed perplexed for a second before relaxing. ‘Cool,’ he replied. ‘I love sweet and sour chicken, I eat that all the time at this place in town.’ Was this a strange flirtation attempt couched in the language of…food? What was I supposed to say, ‘I’ve eaten mayonnaise before and it’s pretty good?’ Here’s a hot tip: don’t treat someone’s ethnicity as something edible. If you have to reach that hard to find something with which to connect, just use, you know, your shared humanity.

by B.C.

[to] customer service guy, fun fact: my race is not a conversation starter and I don’t care that your ‘best mate’ is getting married to an asian girl.

When I posted this status on Facebook about how a customer service rep unnecessarily remarked on my race, I was kind of surprised by how it blew up with ‘likes’ and comments — but also not that surprised. 

Among my friends, including those on social media, it’s pretty common knowledge that these types of comments are unwarranted. But I was reminded that it’s not common knowledge for everyone.

To backtrack, I was at a Verizon store getting a phone upgrade. This guy was helping me along and we were making typical small talk. Then, out of nowhere, he asked if both of my parents were Asian. I was unsure of where he was going with this but answered, yes, only to have him tell me he was surprised I didn’t have an accent.

As those words left his mouth, I felt myself cringing. Really? Did you really say that? I told him, politely, that there are lots of Asian-Americans like me without accents and that his comment was a little offensive.

He seemed taken aback, shocked, even; he immediately apologized and said he didn’t mean offense. Okay, I thought, well good. Glad that’s over. But then he continued the conversation by telling me that his best friend was marrying an Asian girl, as if that were a way to redeem himself.

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As it to convey, hey, I’m a nice guy. I didn’t mean any harm. My best friend likes your people, so I can relate and it was okay of me to say what I said. I wasn’t so much upset as I was flummoxed by his cluelessness. He was only making things worse without even realizing it. Continue reading ““What Are You?”: Let’s Talk About Asian-American Encounters”


Big Sound Saturdays: The Big Heavy

Traditional non-American musics, first recorded in the early 20th century onto 78 RPM discs, were almost never recorded for the reasons we’d want them to’ve been, but I hope that doesn’t mean that we should forget them.

Without either the disposable income of long-lived, financially successful adulthood, or the manly inclination to “understand” by owning, record collecting has always felt like a far-off impossibility for me. I’m grateful to the men—and in the old-time world, they’re men almost exclusively—who perform this kind of labor, and I do think that these recordings couldn’t exist without them. Folk music archives have a fraught history, but thank goodness they have a history to begin with.

Without Deben Bhattacharya, we wouldn’t have “Mahour,” the Iranian folk song I’ve nestled between the Yogyakartan jam “Hai Clum Dong” (almost definitely sung by two very groovy kids) and Elliott Smith’s touching cover of, surprisingly, Hank Williams Jr. (aka “Bocephus,” of this and this reprehensible fame), the lilting “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down.” Without ethnomusicologist, photographer, composer, and artist Jack Body, “Hai Clum Dong” never would’ve been recorded and released. The same for “Sea Lion Woman,” the funky children’s game song performed by Katharine and Christine Shipp (19 and 20 years old, respectively) and recorded by Alan Lomax in 1939. And the same for Hocine Slaoui (“Yamouia Ghanni”), recently reissued by the ethical and aesthetically with-it Dust-to-Digital label in Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM. Even Blind Willie Johnson, who (as I’ve mentioned before is about as famous as a country bluesman can be, and Abner Jay, and Jean Ritchie, are all rooted in the legacy of archival recordings, ethnomusicological desire for American old-time and world music exotica.

My dream is for a music-sphere where we can talk about how exploitative and, often, racist, a lot of these recordings were while still locating them in their context, and understanding the impact that these recordings’ sheer existence have on today’s music. Celebrating the artist, considering the recorder. Sacasas y su Orquesta’s “Rumba Negra” is a full, dense rumba, not possible without the orientalist legacy that helped bring the performing genius Josephine Baker into the spotlight. The Dezurik Sisters, also known as the “Cackle Sisters” for their masterfully synched and disorientingly accurate chicken calls, wouldn’t be singing a song called “Birmingham Jail” if not for the history of blues music that informs the country progression and vice versa. I hope we can keep talking about this, and talking about music should always come second to listening to it. A mix, then, to start us!

In truth, I made this mix for how huge and heavy these songs are, especially next to each other. If my heart could handle listening to Tom Waits’ “Anywhere I Lay My Head” more than two or three times a year, it’d grace these ranks as well. Traditional non-American musics, first recorded in the early 20th century onto 78 RPM discs, were almost never recorded for the reasons we’d want them to’ve been, but I hope that doesn’t mean that we should forget them.

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