June 27, 2008

The Silent Fight Masters

I saw this article in the NYTimes a few days ago. It's about communities, neighbors, and how American society has become more fragmented throughout the years. The author references one of my favorite books of all time, Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. If you have time, check out some of the comments on the Times article. If you have more time, pick up a copy of Bowling Alone. I can all but guarantee that this book will deepen your understanding of the communal bonds in society that have become increasingly rare in modern living. As far as the article itself, there are probably a thousand ways to read it and a thousand separate lessons that one can glean from thinking about it, but I'd like to relate it to Asian American activism.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Connie Young Yu, a Chinese American historian. I met her through an introduction from my high school English teacher, and I was told that she was one of the pioneers of Asian American activism. My goal was to talk to her about activism, and though I didn't know much about her, I knew that she was part of Lawson Inada, Frank Chin, and Curtis Choy's crew, and I knew that she was instrumental in creating the Asian American cultural movement in the 60's and 70's.

After making an appointment with Connie, I drove to her house, which was located in a rural area just outside of San Francisco. The rain was pouring down that day, and I remember how wet it was, especially as I had to track through the mud in order to get from my car to her house.

Connie looked like any normal Chinese woman. She was of medium height, spoke English with a relaxed and deliberate cadence, and was concerned with what any other host would be concerned with--whether her guest needed something to drink and eat, where to sit, etcetera. She was very friendly and forthcoming, identifying herself primarily as a historian and not an activist, and talking about her long family history. It was clear that family was very important to her.

As the conversation progressed, she began to talk about her role in Asian American culture during the 60's and 70's. She talked about working with several key historical Asian American figures. What came through in the subsequent discussion itself was Connie's sense of confidence in herself, her place in history as a pioneer of Asian American culture, and her knowledge and experience that came from a life well lived. I was starstruck by this small woman who had achieved so much in her lifetime. The experience and strength was evident in her deep knowledge of the times. Connie had chosen to be at the forefront of a new culture, creating it in her own image. Though she and the other activists never achieved mainstream recognition--and Connie herself would probably acknowledge this--they lived authentically. Not many people have the will and strength to do this. The depth of experience coming from an authentic life was palpable.

It's rare to experience this kind of awe in the presence of another human being. An analogy that 44's black belt member Xian used to describe this sense of awe was the martial arts master. There are some masters who have practiced karate or kung fu for decades. They may be older, they may not be as loud or as forceful as they used to be, and they may now be very quiet and soft-spoken, tempered by years of repetition. But when you come into the presence of such a master, there is no mistaking their depth of knowledge. They know everything that you would want to know, plus they know much that you will never be able to know. Their years of study and mastery create an instant aura of respect the moment you meet them. Meeting people of this level of knowledge and experience, as Malcolm X described his first meeting with Elijah Muhammad, is like being in the presence of the sun. The acolyte defers to the master.

I've felt the same kind of awe when talking to other Asian American activists of that generation. When these people started changing the world, there was no unified entity or conception of Asian American culture. Frank championed traditional Chinese culture, Lawson learned from his experiences in the camp, and Connie reported on Chinatown, and they, along with others, helped Asian American activists to reconceptualize their lives, history, and future. The task at hand required an enormous amount of creativity and initiative. It took tremendous strength and thought to create a culture based on truth, when the alternative of relying on stereotypes was such an easy and ready possibility.

The film "What's Wrong With Frank Chin," which Thymos will bring to Portland in two weeks, demonstrates the depth of experience that this generation of activists had. The film has rare footage of Chinese and Japanese American counter-cultural types living during the 1960's, people dressed like hippies, learning freedom, and exploring their culture as people did during the 1960's. This kind of experience was lived forty years ago and will never ever be lived again. Our leaders of the time are the only ones who know the stories of that time, and they are the only ones who can tell it.

Going back to the original Times article and relating it to activism, creating community with people of different experiences transcends anything that we can do on the internet or even by reading. There are amazing analytical minds on the Fighting 44's, but the internet has been a mixed blessing. While it has succeeded in finding and uniting great minds from everywhere who can collaborate on intellectual questions concerning Asian America, it also fragments people, creating "invisible lines" that distract us from the real life communal experiences that allow us to fully understand life. How can you fully know a person without seeing the daily troubles that that person goes through? How can you understand the full depth of a story without hearing from someone who lived it? Reading and writing are great for intellectual ideas, but it can only go so far without being backed by action. When it comes to truly understanding anything that has to do with other people, the task goes beyond mere words. Think about it--would you go to a doctor who only learned medicine from a book? Would you fight the UFC Champion after learning how to throw a left hook from a book? Social activism and life are no different; they require active participation.

Active participation, I think, was the central idea of the Times article as well as the idea of social capital that Robert Putnam describes in Bowling Alone. It's difficult to break the cycle of fragmentation that is endemic to our modern culture, but to truly understand a person or to understand an action, one needs to become an active participant, and one needs to actively engage other people. This is the main reason Thymos is bringing Frank Chin, Lawson Inada, and Curtis Choy to Portland; we want people to see them, to hear their stories, and to know their accomplishments. We want them here in person. We want people to be able to interact with them, and to have the opportunity to ask questions about what they experienced and what they think about the development of culture.

I'll end with a conclusion that is not really a conclusion but more of a beginning. I think everyone who is interested in changing things needs to get out and touch someone. We've seen this before with many analyses of the racial situation--while discussions can be funny and interesting, and while they are no doubt important and necessary, eventually people want to come to a place where they can exert control over their lives. To do so requires human contact. By creating real community, people will be able to learn from the past rather than guess about the past, and hopefully people can work together to create the future.

Special thanks to the Gold Sponsors who are bringing this once-in-a-lifetime event to Portland and who demonstrate true leadership to businesses around the country. Take it from me, a moderately seasoned activist: activist efforts go nowhere without the support of strong government and business leaders, and we in turn need to support government and business leaders who take a stand for what's right. This is something that has been sorely missing from the dialog about activism.

Thymos's Gold Sponsors for the Frank Chin Event are:

OHSU’s Center for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs
Oregon Commission on Asian Affairs
Crowell Ing LLP
Janet and John Jay / Studio J
Diverse Empowered Employees of Portland (DEEP)
Cellar Door Coffee
Korean American Citizens League

Also, see us now on the web at thymos.org and see our complete list of sponsors and program.

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