Alphabet City & Gentrification Revisited

45-51 Avenue B between 3rd and 4th Streets in the Alphabet City area of the East Village neighborhood in Manhattan, New York City. — Beyond My Ken

Let’s hit the wayback machine. Here’s a letter I wrote to the Village Voice in August of 1999 regarding a story in the Village Voice about the good ol’ days of Alphabet City in New York. I was living at 2nd Street and Avenue B at the time, and I think you can tell from the tone below that I was a bit defensive about the sort of criticism Norah Vincent was leveling. At the same time, I understood that this threatened lashing out is a reaction to the all-too-familiar trend of gentrification gone mad in New York, which is something I was just beginning to be cognizant of 14 years ago:

Busy B

Re Norah Vincent‘s article “B Is for Bistro” [August 17]: Although I understand the feelings of hostility that gentrification brings about, I was disturbed by the romanticization of the days when Alphabet City was little more than a hellhole. I live at 2nd Street and Avenue B, and I am certainly not a “frat boy” nor do I have that much money. However, I am not a pale, pretentious, heroin-chic wannabe either. It does little good to gloss over the past. Junkies are not cool, and I think it’s irresponsible to lament the previous identity of abuse and poverty— which actually hinders the delivery of the message that poorer residents are being phased out of their own neighborhood.

I probably wouldn’t go on about “pale, pretentious, heroin-chic” wannabes or “junkies” too much if I were to have written this today. Truthfully, it really wouldn’t apply much to the current inhabitants of Avenues A & B. Also, come to think of it, “hellhole” seems a bit harsh. However, I would still say that a war between improving the lot of the economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city and the voracious tide of upscale real-estate expansion rages on. The balance of providing economic justice for long-time locals, while preventing the creeping hand of gentrification that pushes these people further to the margins, is what the city should be struggling with today. Except all too often the real-estate tide just wins out and handily.

If Bill de Blasio can deliver a more equitable New York City in 2014 and onward, I’ll be pleasantly surprised — but really surprised nonetheless.

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No More Free Passes: Calling Out Microaggressions

Recently, I read a guest post at The Scicurious Brain titled ‘Accomodasians don’t make waves‘ by AmasianV, and it struck a nerve with me. I’ve recently begun to look at the stories and research done on ‘microaggressions’, those subtle forms of racism that don’t look so egregious or difficult to handle, but can build up to become problematic for the targets of it over time. What made it difficult for me in reading this account was thinking of my own complicity in this pernicious form of racism. As AmasianV writes:

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in all of this though, is that I’ve never said anything until now. Yes, part of it was certainly the Accommodasian in me. But I can’t say that the power dynamic itself wasn’t an obstacle to speaking up either. Who knows? Maybe if I had addressed these situations earlier it would give pause to a professor about to make a demeaning joke. Or reexamine one-Asian training policies. Or, on a larger scale, contribute to an environment that says, “Calling a person a whore is just not acceptable.”*

* referring to a disgusting incident that occurred to DNLee of The Urban Scientist

Just reading that brings to mind thousands of slights and seemingly innocuous observations made to me, or within earshot of me, throughout my life. I can think about how I gave the comment a pass making post hoc justifications on behalf of the speakers, sometimes laughing along with the milder jokes, or just brushing it off as the price of being considered different in America. And I’m truly beginning to believe that was a huge mistake.

chinesefood

Because, we are still at a point where blatantly racist depictions of people of Asian descent can be passed off as humor or entertainment with little repercussion to the perpetrators of these stereotypes. The historic, and often exaggerated, docility in face of these microaggressions over time didn’t just affect Asian-Americans, who may have felt consistently distrusting of their own instincts due to the seemingly “mild” nature of these slights, but influenced the populace at large. Viral videos such as “Chinese Food” and (the much worse) “Asian Girlz”, and television shows like “Two Broke Girls”, while detracted by loud voices, are themselves defended by equally passionate apologists. Get over it! It’s just a joke! Don’t take things too seriously! Why do you have to be so PC? These are the kinds of remarks that greet anyone who attempts to criticize the egregious stereotyping that, were the details changed a little, wouldn’t fly with more vocal minority groups.

Aside from the usual cacaphonous mob of Internet trolls, you’ll find members of the media themselves downplaying the hurtful nature of these depictions.  Regarding “Chinese Food”, Jeff Yang at the Wall Street Journal seems to err on the side of over-the-top “fairness” based on “intent”, which is hardly a magical salve. When the Spanish Olympic team made headlines for the team photo showing the basketball players pulling their eyes back into a “slant”, the initial storytelling was about this being an international faux pas, but NBC (the network with the most stake in the Olympics) bent over backwards to show how little it affected Chinese nationals. They even interviewed one non-Asian family from Albuquerque, NM. While making minor gestures towards how insulting it might be to Asian-Americans or other East Asians (a distinction I’ll make due to the physical attributes being denigrated) living in non-Asian countries, not a single one of our perspectives were included in quotes. The story ended with George Cook of Albuquerque stating:

“It’s not nice to put something like that in a newspaper or a magazine. It’s disrespectful,” said George Cook, who initially thought the players were pointing to their brains, not their eyes. Cook was attending the Games with his wife and five children.

Was he personally offended or upset?

“Actually, I think it’s kind of funny.”

So there you have it. It’s disrespectful. It shouldn’t be in newspapers or magazines. But it’s still “kind of funny”.

While popular culture’s intransigence on this matter, whether it be through stereotyping or whitewashing, can be facepalm-inducing, it’s those who are often closest to us that end up being the most hurtful. From the cooing over how every mixed-race baby ends up looking so “beautiful”, to the apologetics about getting “thick skin” in the face of “humor”, our friends and colleagues are often the ones that can cause the most pain. Microaggressions: the interminable piling on of small nuggets of poisonous racial bullying, usually unnoticed by the ones doing it and often brushed aside or rationalized by the victims:

There were no burning crosses out there. I didn’t learn the term “microaggressions” until college, but that was what my childhood was full of. Neighborhood kids telling me my house smelled funny or insisting they couldn’t understand what my parents were asking them, even when they were speaking English. A group of classmates in high school asking crazy inappropriate questions like the size of my dad’s genitalia. Even when these kids were being “nice”, they were being assholes. I had a friend who nicknamed me “Pah” — which stood for “Pretty Asian Hair.” I was catcalled by high school boys and called a chink in the same breath.

Theresa Celebra recounts a pretty normal childhood for many an Asian-American. Those of us who get used to out-of-left field questions about our ancestral homelands (for those of us born here, often a difficult question to answer), jokes about the behavior of our parents, our cuisine, nicknames … all the tiny elements of othering that seem so much less than the often violent suffering faced by other marginalized groups, you end up wonder if you ARE being hypersensitive, or even a bit paranoid. Microaggressions almost seem designed that way, to make the sufferer doubt themselves to a great extent, a loose parallel one might draw to “gaslighting“. So, what is it we’re supposed to do about it?

Well, the point of this post is to basically say that, at least for myself, my intention is to let fewer remarks pass. The response of “don’t be so politically correct”, the often facetious attempt to silence marginalized voices, will be no longer considered an acceptable apologetic on its own. This is not to say that I plan on getting into confrontations on a daily basis, or that every slight is worth a defense worthy of the worst forms of racist behavior heaped on other vulnerable populations. Sometimes, however … for example, I had an interesting conversation with a proprietor of a pizza shop just this weekend, an older guy originally from Italy, who ended up saying “you’re Oriental, right? What do you think of Buddhism?” I ended up getting a free pizza and he ended up getting a T-shirt from me, so it was mostly positive. But I keep thinking back on that question. His intent wasn’t to be hurtful, but I just keep thinking I should have said at least a mild something to correct his perception of people like me.

So, I guess I just mean to TRY to trust my own instincts more about what is hurtful to me, and then speak up about it, an act that I find difficult given my own reputation among my friends for being somewhat of a buzzkill already. Despite that, if I let little things slide all the time, perhaps like AmasianV felt, I too might feel that I’m contributing to an even worse environment. If other Asian-Americans wish to follow suit, we can break the myth of the “model minority” and perhaps stop accommodating our own torment.

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Headline Roundup

Just some headlines that I found funny, interesting or ridiculous of late.

 Oreos May Be As Addictive As Cocaine

Well, um, no. Not exactly.

Oreos As Addictive as Cocaine? Not So Fast

Sure, rats are useful for some experimentation, but it’s not a one-to-one comparison. Unless we’re talking about bickering politicians I suppose.

————–

Yes, politics was once friendly

Technically true. But it also used to be settled with pistols, a thrashing with a hickory walking stick, a thrashing with a cane, or just outright brawling. In this political climate, I know folks like to wax nostalgic about the less physically acrimonious period between the turn of the 20th Century and current times. However, it’s not like we’re on the verge of a civil war or anything right now (knock on wood).

————–

Francesa goes on an angry rant

I added this because no one should be reporting on Mike Francesa’s inanity. No one should be listening to Mike Francesa. Mike Francesa should be angrily yelling at an empty room with no recording equipment.

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Sci-Fi Speed Dating Thoughts – NY Comic Con 2013

This has been a long weekend, but I thought I’d get this out of the way. The overall experience for me at the NY Comic Con Sci-Fi Speed Dating ended up being fun and interesting with a few elements I found problematic. Going in on the final day of the convention, I didn’t feel any anxiety or pressure, mostly because I had this moment of clarity after seeing us separated into two lines of men and women as we waited to enter the room. The surreal, eighth-grade-dance moment just made me want to giggle. And, of course, since it was the last day, I wouldn’t have had any awkward run-ins if this program had gone sour.

The women entered first to be seated, and then the men came in to fill in the seats opposite them. I found myself sitting across from a lineup of ‘Sailor Scouts’ from the ‘Sailor Moon’ anime series, which made ME, in my plain burgundy T-shirt, appear out of place. The women were to rotate over a seat every three minutes until time was up, everyone marking down the assigned number badge of the persons you ended up connecting with.

After all was said and done, I didn’t make a connection from the numbers I put down versus the ladies who selected me, but that wasn’t all that disheartening. Since every woman I met during quick, three-minute drills seemed genuinely interesting from their geeky interests, it was disappointing to keep rotating in new people when it felt like, even without any discernible “romantic” attraction, I felt I could chat and listen to these individuals for much longer. No, I don’t mean I could have rambled on like I usually do. I found scientists, engineers, culinary students and graphic designers among the women I met, each of whom I could have listened to for at least more than three minutes.

Also, I have to admit that the “speed” in speed dating was definitely a drawback for someone like myself. I can do an elevator pitch, but apparently I don’t receive them well. I found myself scrambling, as another woman would sit down in front of me, to decide if I should put down the previous person’s number on my index card while in the middle of starting over with an entirely new conversation. It should also be noted, I’m not good with most things that involve “numbers” and “speed”.

Interesting interruptions:

  • Aside from one other woman who left (discussed in ‘Problems’ below), two other women left early to make another panel which was somewhat rude, leaving some gaps in the rotation. The schedule clearly said two hours, ladies! Bill Shatner can wait!
  • An accusation that someone, left anonymous by the host, in the room wasn’t “single” was made. This took up some time, because the host was giving the individual a chance to confess by leaving. I’m not sure what the host could have done anyway since there hadn’t been any kind of vetting before the event started.

Anyway, the part of actually meeting new people felt good, and most of the participants seemed to be taking it with humor and a general “we’re all in this together” vibe. And of course, it was somewhat ego-boosting to know, even if I didn’t return the endorsements (possibly because of my faulty “scoring”), that a few women had selected me on my numbered sheet at the end.

Problems

There were a few things about the event that made me feel a little uncomfortable. First, since the age limit was 18, the group of Sailor Scouts and their other friend dressed as an anime character, turned out to be half my age. Not that age is an all-important factor among consenting adults, when they’re dressed up to look even YOUNGER in Japanese fantasy school girl outfits, I really couldn’t escape the creepiness factor. They were very nice young women, and I chatted amiably with them. But, I still didn’t feel completely at ease with the conversations.

Also, while I understand the host was trying to appeal to the nerdy (and sometimes tense) room of folks, some of his jokes were off-putting, such as one about forcibly sodomizing a dude with a replica lightsaber. He did provide warning, but at least one woman apparently left because of something he said. To the host’s credit, he apologized to her when she did go, and stated that he’d be removing whatever offending joke it was from his bag o’ tricks, but being that this was a “geek” event, it still meant that a lot of gender stereotype cracks one might have found in a generic standup routine went unchallenged. I definitely would like to have just witnessed the LGBT sessions (a friend of mine noted that the transgender part of the acronym is problematic since gender doesn’t define sexuality, and I happen to agree) to see where his brand of humor went.

In fact, that was part of the “prep” as well before the dudes all went in. Volunteers providing tips that sounded far too much like video game instructions. Even the eye-rollingly ridiculous three sentence response to a woman’s displeasure (You’re right. I’m wrong. I’m sorry) made it into this bit. This made me irritated enough to shout down the line, “treat them like humans, and you should do fine!”

Adding to this atmosphere of casual stereotyping was the sponsor itself, Playboy, selling their fragrance line for “him and her”. Half the room had been set up as a photo studio for people who wanted to get a picture taken with a Playboy bunny. I don’t find this that awful in itself, and I understand sponsors make events like this happen at all, but during the “selecting” period, they had already begun shooting, which was weird and added to the rushed feeling I felt at the end. Of course, it doesn’t need to be spelled out that the photo op thing was mostly for “him”.

Also, one douchey guy sitting next to me, who felt the need to add his own riff to the host’s attempts at keeping everyone loose during the process, was “discussing”, in a crude manner, the Sailor Scout cosplayers with some other guys outside the room after the men were done. So there was that.

Conclusion

Despite the issues I felt that were present, I had a good time.  Would I recommend it to fellow nerdlingers looking for a date? If you’re not flummoxed by having rapid fire conversations, you could do worse I suppose. The themed nature of the “Sci-Fi” Speed Dating certainly works in its favor at NY Comic Con. Besides, the people you would meet are likely people you wouldn’t get to interact with at the convention on a normal basis, so if you do it, value the experience of just practicing conversations with your fellow human beings who obsess over pop culture.

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Of Jerk Chicken and Jerks

So, funny thing, I was in a Whole Foods this Wednesday evening. Not my typical haunt, but it passed the time nicely as I was waiting for an event to begin a little later. There are certainly a huge selection of prepared food items to choose from, but I noticed a small kiosk near the salad bar stuff. It was for “Caribbean Tacos”.

I wasn’t actually in the mood, though it did seem enticing (and I love mango salsa). However, another guy comes up to the stand as I’m looking, and decides to say out loud “Caribbean tacos? That’s just wrong!” He shook his head and stared for a bit. Then he decides to say “I’m from the Caribbean and that’s not right,” and, “sorry,” in a sort of smirk-filled apology to the lady behind the counter. She smiled and nodded, of course.

What he said wasn’t that offensive, obviously. Just someone stating a preference for the type of food he’ll eat. But it definitely annoyed me that he had to make a show of it, especially in a store full of mash-ups of ethnic cuisines. I wonder if he does that for every food item he thinks is strange. “Korean burritos?? BARBECUE SUSHI????”

Thus, I decided to order a grilled jerk chicken taco pretty much out of spite toward a stranger who was already gone and probably couldn’t have cared less had he been around. Proof that I let my pet peeves about people’s behavior make rash decisions for me.

But at least in this case, it turned out to be a delicious impulse.

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Asian-American and Atheist

If we are to use some pat labels, I suppose I would describe myself specifically as a Korean-American atheist. It took a while for me to admit I didn’t believe in a god, and I was a Catholic for a good chunk of my young life, only falling away from the rigidity of those beliefs when I was in high school (unsurprisingly, this was when I started to befriend a large number of Jewish kids of varying degrees of belief). I pretty much took on a title of “agnostic” by the time I was in college, while simultaneously holding some partial beliefs in the possibility of the supernatural and mysticism.

The shedding of my belief in the supernatural was a long and sometimes difficult process. Most of my family is religious and/or superstitious in some sense. I’ve even had some heated arguments at times, and such conflicts can leave a member of a close-knit immigrant family feeling pretty alienated, not just from the family or the community, but from the entirety of one’s roots. Add to that living in a nation, while admirable in its acceptance of diversity to an extent, still has its share of issues of racial privilege.

Now, I obviously can’t speak for all “Asian-Americans” on this matter, considering the wide variety of cultures, languages, physical traits and histories covering a huge area of geographical origins. In fact, there are often conflicts about how we define that hyphenated term. But at least in the readings I’ve done and speaking with various individuals who identify (at least on the Census) as Asian-American, I do find many of us share a few things that many earlier immigrant waves (and current ones) to this country have shared: the importance of heritage, the security of a homogeneous community, the hold of our ancestral traditions, the difference-making colors of our skin, and the comfort of family beyond the nuclear ideal extending to a larger clan.

In light of this, and the fact that the milieu of Asian-Americans immigrating to the United States has increased dramatically in recent years, our presence presents both an opportunity and a hazard for the burgeoning communities and organizations of skeptics and secularists in this country.

According to the Pew Forum’s polling on religiosity among Asian-Americans, the percentages show that our population is somewhat less religious compared to the overall population. While this may be somewhat deceptive in that the numbers of nonbelievers or outright atheists vary depending on the breakdown of the specific countries of origin, this is still an encouraging sign.  This presents the opportunity. A greater understanding of and increased effort in producing tailored outreach to already receptive members of these multi-ethnic communities can help improve visibility, thus providing more power for atheists in general. The additional diversity will also help attract even more nonbelievers of all stripes by promoting familiar faces and specified support structures for people who may be leaving behind a rather intense network of support they were already comfortable with.

Asian-American population growth has not gone unnoticed by religious proselytizers, of course. Some Christian colleges have even begun recruiting Chinese students in a manner like that of Ivy League schools. Many language-specific churches have already long existed providing those services and the overall sense of belonging that might entice new arrivals to these shores. This then is the hazard — that gains made for atheist visibility are stalled or reversed because of, somewhat ironically, the free marketplace of ideas. Those who profess to want to deepen the strength of atheists in a country widely known for its religious nature must take note and prioritize outreach, and not just to Asian-Americans of course. The challenge is being welcoming and inclusive to as many marginalized populations as possible, overtly and not just passively (and especially forego hostility).

While atheists have taken some steps over the years to get beyond its image of being largely a white and male clique, there is always room for improvement. And to those who may disagree with improving our sales pitch and expanding the size of the tent, keep in mind, there is actual competition for those “souls”, so to speak.

I’ve felt this absence of outreach keenly enough to start my own Secular Asian Community page and group on Facebook to see if I can find, and help others find, like-minded Asian-Americans and to connect with atheist and skeptical Asians internationally. Hopefully, this might add to the fledgling strength of secularism at large. If this topic interests you, I invite you to take a look.

SAC_profile

Secular Asian Community
https://www.facebook.com/secularasiancommunity

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Upbeat Stuff for Downbeat Unemployment

As I am about to once again take part in the classic downswing of the ups and downs of being a worker bee in the modern economy, I thought I’d look back on some of the good things that came out of the approximately nine times I have been out of work, since I graduated college, in an effort to remain positive. Keep in mind this is not an effort to minimize how difficult it is for the unemployed in the good ol’ US of A, especially for the long term unemployed, or a Pollyanna-ish effort to feed a delusion that everything is hunky-dory in my life. It’s just a little nice time to keep me from ignoring any positives that may come along because I’m too focused on getting back to being a cog among the gears of industry.

New People

Every time I’ve lost out on work, I’ve had to find new opportunities, and each new workplace brought new co-workers. As adults, it can sometimes feel difficult to form new friendships and experience interactions with a variety of individuals. I’ve met some top notch folks (and yes, some less so) each time I made a pit stop in a different working environment. Many of them remain good friends to this day, and I’m sure I’ll meet and keep new friends in the future. I can be pretty affable when I’m not scowling!

Getting out of the bad situations

Sometimes getting laid off or even fired can be the best thing for certain. I found myself in a few places where I knew deep down I didn’t fit into the culture of the place, or the hours themselves were actively murdering me. But, since the first time I received a pink slip, I grew more and more timid about looking for new horizons, especially in the age of bursting bubbles and economic meltdowns. The security blanket of a consistent paycheck is a difficult thing to give up even if you might be terribly unhappy. So, being forced out the door could mean the next thing is just that much better, and I certainly wouldn’t have ended up being a video games journalist for a glorious few months, or returned to “normal” human hours after years stuck on a graveyard shift, if not for getting shown the door by some of my employers.

Not missing out on some fun

Work can get in the way of fun, even if your workplace happens to be fun (if so, good for you — most of the rest of America gnaws their livers in jealousy at your story). There are just some events that happen a bit too late on a weekday, or maybe too early during average work hours, that you have to miss out on because not everything is scheduled on weekends. Opening day at Yankee Stadium and a fun concert by the Dropkick Murphys were made possible by the fact that I didn’t have to mark it on an Outlook calendar that might be erased by a manager needing my services for that time. I think this year will make any guilt about missing out on my wages for New York Comic Con have now been assuaged as well. I suppose I won’t be able to buy much, but I had no plans on splurging anyway.

Getting in shape

Man, there is just a lot of time and not all of it can be filled with searching job sites or talking to agencies. Multiple times I have taken the extra minutes in my day to just go work out at the gym. Considering that recently I made some lifestyle changes while I was still working that have already led me to shed some extra pounds and become healthier overall, I can look forward to catching up on a backlog of podcasts while take out my frustrations on the weights.

Time to write

Yeah, this one should just be a given, and I hope to post regularly on this blog after Sunday, Sept. 29. Plus, I would like to finish up some things that are already in progress or close to completion. Of course, I can tell myself that I’ll get on these lingering projects with my new found free time, but Procrastination is a terrible and ever-present roommate of mine, so we’ll see what happens.

Volunteering

This is more a recent development as I fell out of being active and focal after a few years of just trying to get by. However, as long as I’m careful with my money, I can contribute to the causes and communities I support with greater commitment.

Of course, if I am just deluding myself, and I’m bitter and homeless by next year, I think I might be smart enough to make a go of it in crime.

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