Holt Uncensored

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by Pat Holt

Friday, August 17, 2001


  Model Minority or 'Forever Foreign'?
  From Connie Chung to Judge Ito
  Wen Ho Lee Understood



Imagine the horror, followed soon after by delight, that journalist Bill Wong must have felt when his son got a little carried away introducing President Bill Clinton.

Wong's 13-year-old, Sam, was given the honor of presenting one of those great symbolic gifts that children can make so festive - in this case an artistic "bridge to the future" that represented Clinton's campaign slogan of "Building a bridge to the 21st century."

Sam did that, but instead of leaving the stage, he "seized the microphone when he wasn't supposed to," Wong recalls.

"I have a few things to say," Sam told the startled audience. "How many of you want President Clinton for four more years?" Some people yelled affirmatively. "I can't hear you!" Sam shouted. The crowd now "responded with a louder roar," Wong recalls.

That did it. Turning to Clinton with a thumbs-up gesture, Sam announced, "Rock on, Mr. President!" and as Clinton laughed and took the mike, he said, "Hey kid. You're good at this. You should keep it up."

It was a moment that would inspire pride in any beaming dad, as Wong writes in his book, "Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America" (Temple University Press; 272 pages; $22.95).

But since Bill Wong has spent his adult life writing about the contradictions that face Asian Americans every day, he knew the risk his son had taken on that stage - and the breakthrough he made - far more than most people.

Model Minority or 'Forever Foreign'?

The contradictions, fascinating and tragic, go like this: On the one hand, Asian Americans are collectively seen as America's "model minority." They are perceived as quiet, hard-working, family-oriented, education-loving, disciplined and respectful people who don't take to the streets, don't protest, always vote and pay their taxes.

But make one slip or take one step out of that stereotype - "seize the microphone" as Bill's son did or xerox the wrong manuscript as Wen Ho Lee did (see below), and you risk triggering a reaction in which the patronizing image becomes a an out-and-out stigma.

At that point, Asian Americans are seen as "forever foreign," remote and inscrutable, potentially disloyal, "unassimilable," scheming, gang-ridden, nerdy, full of the "yellow peril" and Far East "evil empire" on our shores.

It doesn't matter that Asian Americans come from many different countries with many different histories and heritages, or that their 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th-generation numbers are just as "American" as anybody in the mainstream.

What matters is that these stereotypes can be so whimsically imposed from the outside, as Wong shows us, yet so impressively - even magnificently - endured by Asian Americans who have been seeking and reaching the American dream and its crazy legacy, on their own, for generations.

What I love about Wong's book is the way he matches that awful cavalier attitude of American society toward Asian Americans with a playfulness of his own - calling himself a "Yellow Journalist" is an intriguing start.

At the same time he is a pro from the old school, meticulous in his research and objective in his coverage of the human story behind such events as swastikas painted on Asian American retail stores or Al Gore made to look like a Buddhist monk on the cover of National Review.

From Connie Chung to Judge Ito

Starting out as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Cleveland during the 1970s, Wong made "Asian America" his beat for more than 16 years at the Oakland Tribune and later as a contributor to Salon.com, Asian Week, East-West News, San Francisco Chronicle, Filipinas and The PBS-TV News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

The most striking of Wong's articles have been collected in "Yellow Journalist," and because Bill writes in an immensely accessible conversational style, issues that would seem remote or difficult to unravel for mainstream audiences go down like cream here.

It's refreshing and enlightening at once, for example, to watch Wong clarify such issues as the Latino/Asian context surrounding Kathie Lee Gifford's sweatshop scandal, what was at stake when Connie Chung got fired, and how strange it was that O.J. Simpson's "dream team" ridiculed Judge Ito and criminalist Dennis Fung.

I put the celebrity stuff up front (Bill mixes 'em in) only because it shows that Bill can entertain as well as inform.

What is harder to get across is the easy authority with which he also grapples with the tougher stories - conflicts between Koreans and African Americans in New York; the movement to demand reparations from Japan for atrocities during World War II; Asian American attitudes about bilingual education, affirmative action, John McCain's infamous "gook" reference; why there are no Asian American men as TV news anchors (think about it); the concept of "Yellow Chic" (sushi, Jackie Chan movies, wok cooking) and the reverse (why Margaret Cho's TV show was cancelled). And that's just for starters.

Wen Ho Lee Understood

How I wish Bill's piece about Wen Ho Lee had appeared nationally when Lee, the computer scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was first accused of giving missile secrets to the Chinese government in 1999.

While much of American media leaped on this story for the sensational possibility that Chinese spies are thriving at high levels, Bill Wong tagged it for the "racial hysteria" it would later prove to be.

Bill certainly had the experience and background to know. Years before, he had been invited to Los Alamos to speak at an Asian Pacific American Heritage observance and had talked extensively and informally with many Los Alamos employees ("most of them ethnic Chinese"). So he knew this scene cold.

His article, "Scientific Scapegoat," written for the San Francisco Examiner in March of 1999, is as important and as eye-opening today as when he wrote it the week of Lee's dismissal.

For one thing, Wong spells out the fears that have cropped up in government and in American culture since the Chinese Exclusion Laws were enforced a century ago. For another, he describes how "subtle institutional racism" can block the advancement of Chinese scientists "despite excellent credentials, qualifications and experience, to say nothing of demonstrated loyalty to the United States."

He points out that "when one is so publicly fired from a sensitive job, as Wen Ho Lee was, the tendency is to assume he is guilty." Asking readers to "withhold judgment," he notes with sorrow that "prominent Republicans and the Washington media elite have all but convicted Lee" long before the evidence is in. Let's be objective, says Wong. Let's be open and patient.

All this was written one week after Wen Ho Lee was fired, eight months before the government indicted Lee on 59 counts, and nearly a year before Lee decided to plead guilty to only one count (of mishandling classified data) and was freed. The judge apologized for the way government prosecutors "embarrassed our entire nation."

Of course, the newsy events surrounding Wen Ho Lee were covered by the mainstream. But Bill Wong told us the hard part, the deeper issues that Asian Americans face every time something like this happens. Through Wong we learned why Chinese Americans winced as well as rooted for Wen Ho Lee; what we could expect "in a rational world, [where] one would not assume scientists of the same or similar background might also be disloyal"; and how profoundly race relations are affected "when such explosive allegations roar out of Washington" without explanation or reason.

More next time when Bill Wong asks the not-so-musical question, Why AREN'T Asian American men selected as TV news anchors?



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I've always wondered what motivates editors to toil endlessly on improving others' work, while receiving little or no recognition for their efforts. Authors owe good editors an incalculable debt.

And then there are the editors who are also talented writers. Yesterday, Robert S. Jones, editor in chief of HarperCollins, died of cancer at the age of 47. Unless you pressed him, Robert would never mention that he was the author of two fine novels, "Force of Gravity" and "Walking on Air." Robert's devotion to craft and dark subject matter insured that he would not be prolific or commercial enough to make a living writing fiction.

This is all the more reason why Robert's passion for other writers, and even the business of publishing, was so impressive and moving. Robert was not above interest in marketing, yet as David Kirkpatrick mentions in his fine obituary in Tuesday's New York Times, (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/14/obituaries/14JONE.html?searchpv=nytTo day), he "was known to leave messages for agents at 4 a.m., telling them he was obsessed with an author's new manuscript."

Robert was particularly generous with junior staff, and was beloved at HC for his sly humor. I can only imagine what a loss Robert's death is for his authors and colleagues at HarperCollins, not to mention his partner Lewis Brindle and his large family. Robert's career is a reminder of why many folks go into the publishing business, and how much one person can achieve by writing, editing, and nurturing coworkers.

Dave Feldman

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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