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In a sea of Southeast Asians on campus, I am a minority. I am underrepresented. I am Laotian.

Oftentimes, people misidentify me as Vietnamese. While I do not find that to be an insult, it functions as a reminder that I am not able to relate or identify with a cultural group on campus.

Laos is located in Southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam. My parents, like most of the Lao population in the United States, sought refuge in America from the war over communism. I am a first-generation college student in my family and according to the Center of American Progress Asian American Pacific Islander data, one of the 13 percent of Laotians pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

Within the Southeast Asian community, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong individuals are less likely to be financially successful. According to The Washington Post, “the experience of refugee populations such as Hmong, Lao, Cambodian and Khmer groups continue to fall below standard markers of achievement.” The reasons for this ranges from lack of personal motivation and familial support to complete higher education to gang involvement and traditional values that apply patriarchal beliefs.

There are plenty of APIDA student clubs and organizations at UCLA—Vietnamese Student Union, Association of Chinese Americans, Hanoolim (Korean Cultural Awareness group) and even the Association of Hmong Students and United Khmer Students of UCLA—but not one exclusively established for the Laotian community.

Imagine my shock, coming from San Diego—a culturally diverse city with a large Lao population—to UCLA. Approximately 31.2% of undergraduate students identify within the  APIDA community as of Fall 2016, but this campus still lacks a Lao student organization. Which brings me to the question—where is our representation?   

College seemed like a place for me to bridge the gap between my identity and heritage because as a teenager, I neglected to fully embrace my culture.

Participating in every religious ceremony and regularly attending temple allowed me to possess an adequate understanding of both Buddhism and Lao customs. However, I long to be more immersed and enlightened.

I regret not appreciating my culture throughout high school and did not realize how much of an impact my lack of traditional involvement and understanding had on me until the college application period of my life. Months of self-reflection for personal statements led me to realize that my perception of my own identity was unstable due to a deficiency in Asian American representation in the media and culture that I was exposed to.

A few months at UCLA did not solve my internal conflicts, but directed me towards valuable resources. For instance, I involved myself with  an APIDA Newsmagazine called Pacific Ties that allows me to be part of the news media presence that I wish I had growing up. In addition, my involvement in Southeast Asian Campus Learning Education and Retention (SEA CLEAR) connected me with two amazing Lao graduate students at UCLA, one of which includes my current mentor. Although I am still in the process of getting to know both of these individuals, I already feel supported, understood and a lot less alone.

However, I cannot help but imagine how wonderful it would be to have more cultural clubs and organizations centered around the minority groups of the minority groups. It is crucial to establish more clubs that emulate SEA CLEAR’s mission to “increase graduation and retention rates” and “nurture students to embrace their identity by exploring Southeast Asian history, culture, and politics.” Adopting these crucial principles will provide a safe space for students who identify as minorities of a minority group, as well as provide outreach opportunities to their ethnic communities to encourage Southeast Asian high school students to pursue higher education at UCLA.

With this representation, we can disillusion the Asian stereotypes that continues to overlook the struggles of the minorities within the community. Creating more cultural clubs and organizations on UCLA’s campus would grant the ethnic groups a chance to both genuinely represent themselves and to strengthen their community.

We’re all tired of whitewashing.

We’ve seen it before, and we’re seeing it today. From John Wayne’s portrayal of Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” (1956) to Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko in “Ghost in the Shell” (2017), we are not strangers to the common practice of Asian and Asian American roles being handed to white actors/actresses.

Despite the minimal Asian American representation in Hollywood and in movies in general, Asian Americans receive an even shorter end of the stick in another medium: video games.

In 2016, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), an annual conference showcasing the latest and upcoming video games, revealed billion-dollar hits, such as “Battlefield 1” and “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition,” but many lacked the presence of Asian Americans.

Even highly anticipated games, like “Horizon Zero Dawn” and “Death Stranding,” predominantly cast white actors and actresses as the lead and supporting roles.

This does not mean we should immediately boycott game companies. We should recognize some of their efforts, including the award-winning games “Mirror’s Edge” and “Sleeping Dogs.”

“Mirror’s Edge” is a first-person parkour game starring Faith Connors (Jules de Jongh), a half-Japanese, half-British female. The game was published by Electronic Arts, one of the more prominent publishers in the industry.

“Sleeping Dogs,” which was published by Square Enix, another prominent company in the video game industry, starred Wei Shen (Will Yun Lee). The game was praised for its near-accurate depictions of Hong Kong, Cantonese voice acting, and dynamic portrayal of Wei Shen, according to reviews by Imagine Games Network and GamesRadar.

What about the “Final Fantasy” series? And “Street Fighter?” Those have many Asian and Asian American characters.

Yes, they do, but many of these characters are heavily stereotyped. “Street Fighter” characters are only known for their martial arts. They are bland, flat characters. “Final Fantasy” characters are not necessarily stereotyped, but they are portrayed as more white. They possess pale complexions, sharp jaw lines, and natural non-black hair.

final fantasy
Photo courtesy of Flickr.
street fighter
Photo courtesy of Flickr.

So, what does this mean for us and big video game companies?

Well, video game companies should start casting more Asian Americans in lead roles. Bethesda Softworks, the company responsible for publishing “Fallout 4” and “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” is already taking the lead by starring the character Morgan Wu in the highly anticipated “Prey” (2017). Other companies like Electronic Arts and Bungie should follow suit.

As for us, we should continue lobbying for representation as usual. We need to fight for accurate representation and dynamic portrayal of Asian and Asian American characters not only in films but also in video games, as well as any type of medium in which any category of people is represented at all. We are a diverse community, and, at the least, we should be seen as such.

In four short weeks, America has undergone a drastic change. To some, these four weeks have been an overwhelming wakeup call and to others, just a numb notice of what they already knew was going to happen. Either way, the majority of Americans are now taking part in what I’m calling the “Cheeto Nazi Resistance”. For those of you who are feeling helpless in a time when support is so desperately needed, here is a list of things you can do right now to take part in fighting back, as well as various ways to practice self care.

  1. Donate to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Council on American Islamic Relations, NAACP or Everytown for Gun Safety (Here is a complete and thorough list of other places you can donate).
  2. GO to Planned Parenthood and get your yearly physical done or birth control. Take care of your body! Available for men and women!
  3. Boycott certain products and stores.
  4. But also remember to treat yo’ self to a shopping spree if that’s what you’re into.
  5. If you really haven’t done so already, register to vote and then ACTUALLY go vote. Project Vote Smart and Vote 411 are great places to get bipartisan information on candidates and ballot propositions.
  6. Meet likeminded people and volunteer at a local campaign. There will be special elections across the country for certain public offices in 2017. Find a campaign to work on here and here.
  7. Sick of seeing his face? Download this chrome extension that will replace pictures of him with cute kittens.
  8. Donate old books you may have lying around to the Prison Book Program.
  9. Get out of the bubble and take a hike or explore a national park near you.
  10. Stay informed and download BBC News or NY Times on your phone and allow notifications for news alerts.
  11. Adopt or foster an animal; they need love during these times too!
  12. Write an Op-Ed for your local newspaper, or newsmagazine.
  13. Be a millennial and learn which photos you should share.
  14. Participate in a local march and show solidarity for the issue at hand.
  15. Don’t completely spiral — keep a sense of humor. Luckily the internet is the best place for that.
  16. Run for office. No seriously, there are tons of local elections that will be coming up and the best place to make change is at that level.
  17. Find your Zen and try some yoga to take care of your mind and body. Many studios offer free trials.
  18. Attend town meetings of your local representative or senator! Not sure who your rep is? Find them here.
  19. After you do that, make sure to sign up for their email list so you can stay informed on what they’re doing in Congress as well as upcoming events where they will be present.
  20. Pretend to be Picasso and dabble in some adult coloring books.
  21. Protect our access to free press and give to National Public Radio.
  22. Remember that change happens at a local level, so stay informed of your State Legislature. Track what bills are being brought up. Support the ones you want, and fight the ones you don’t!
  23. Unplug from social media and delete your most addicting apps for a day or two (Yes, scary but 100% possible).
  24. Make sure you’re carrying a government issued photo I.D. with you at all times.
  25. Keep your calendar cleared for April 15 and be prepared to march.
  26. Remind yourself that this won’t last forever.

 

Netflix released a trailer and a sneak peek for its upcoming “Iron Fist” series last week, sending Marvel fans into a frenzy. While the trailer introduced viewers to the show’s plot and characters, the sneak peek focused on Colleen Wing.

Wing, played by Jessica Henwick, is a gifted martial artist who appears to work with Danny Rand, played by Finn Jones.

Of the three notable Asian characters in the show, Wing is the only one so far who seems to not be evil. Lewis Tan’s Zhou Cheng and Wai Ching Ho’s Gao seem to be villains. In a show that uses Asian cultures as its starting point, this is especially frustrating. Marvel has not only ignored calls for Danny Rand to be Asian American but also purposefully placed Asian actors in villainous roles – in November, Tan revealed that he “almost” played the main hero, but was instead made into one of the bad guys.

“Iron Fist” perpetuates a narrative that Asian peoples do not own our own cultures; rather, our cultures are backdrops to make white characters more interesting, relatable, or “exotic.” This narrative is not only Orientalist but also racist and harmful, even if it seems harmless.

Journalist Hoai-Tran Bui explained the harm in an article for USA Today last year: “Insert a white male protagonist in a foreign story to make his journey more relatable, while appropriating the more attractive parts of their culture … it’s also a way of taking away Asians’ place in pop culture, by emasculating them and replacing them with a whiter, more capable face.”

The suggestion that white people are more “capable” or “better” than people of color is a facet of white supremacy. In this way, one could argue that “Iron Fist” perpetuates racism.

At the same time, “Iron Fist” has given jobs to Asian actors – so how do we move forward? Should we boycott the series, as activists pushed for regarding “Dr. Strange”? Or do we support three Asian actors and try to ignore the harmful and Orientalist narrative that “Iron Fist” perpetuates?

One potential middle ground between boycotting the series and ignoring its negative impact is media literacy. Media literacy emphasizes thinking analytically about and evaluating the media that we consume. Through media literacy, we can also examine shows like “Iron Fist” with a critical lens that takes into account race, class, gender, ability, and other markers of marginalization.

But while we watch and think analytically about shows like “Iron Fist,” we still contribute to the coffers of people who refused to change the show’s Orientalist origin story. Does the economic impact of deciding to watch the show negate our critical thinking?

Even while we cheer on the three Asian actors in “Iron Fist,” we can look at the need for representation as a marker of racism: that even having three Asian actors is seen as an impressive feat and that there is a need to support these actors. Until Asian and Asian American representation is commonplace, this demand for support will continue. Until Asians and Asian Americans are seen as universally human, we will feel like we have to support one another.

This is not to say that all our decisions reinforce white supremacy. However, it is important to consider the limitations of consumer activism. Putting our money where our mouth is only goes so far.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive “right” or “wrong” answer to how to move forward with “Iron Fist.” Oppression is complex and multifaceted, and our responses to oppression might be, too. If anything, the way “Iron Fist” places Asians and Asian Americans between a rock and a hard place has demonstrated just how complex our responses can be.

The past two months have been a great time for movies. With all of the winter blockbusters and the Sundance Film Festival wrapping up this past weekend, I thought I’d compile a short list of movies with positive APIDA representation that I either enjoyed or am looking forward to.

 

A film that’s a joy to watch: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a refreshingly diverse prequel-extension of the eminent space series that delivers not only action and thrills, but great representation for APIDA community.

As members of our staff gleefully noted, “There are three Asian characters in this film! Three!” Not to mention, they are all prominent characters in the ensemble cast, each with thoroughly developed motivations and personalities. But these torchbearers are not exactly new Asian American talents.

Jiang Wen, who plays Rebel warrior Baze Malbus in the film, is already internationally-known as a Chinese actor and filmmaker. Some of his most critically acclaimed works are “Devils on the Doorstep” and “Let the Bullets Fly.”

Donnie Yen, playing warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe, has enjoyed global renown as a Hong Kong actor and martial artist for over 20 years. Some of his work includes Guillermo del Toro’s “Blade II” and the extremely successful “Ip Man” series, in which he has the titular role.

Finally, British actor Riz Ahmed, who plays fan-favorite pilot defector Bodhi Rook, got his big break and plenty of nominations from “Nightcrawler.” Since then, he’s starred in the gritty HBO miniseries “The Night Of and the fifth installment of the popular “Jason Bourne” series.

In short, these actors have no problem selling seats. But a little extra(terrestrial) buzz never hurt.

 

A film that inspires me: “Moana”

“Moana” started with a pitch for a movie about the Polynesian demigod, Maui. John Lasseter, the chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation, demanded that the creators start researching.

This began a five-year long journey that resulted in the creation of both this film and the Oceanic Trust, an interdisciplinary collection of experts who are consulted on almost everything in the movie, from the designs of Maui’s character to the usage of coconuts. Even aspects that may have gone completely unnoticed by the casual, non-PI viewer were scrutinized.

An example that the creators cite is the wayfinding scene: they imagined Moana’s ancestors wearing traditional Papua New Guinean clothing, accessories, and face paint while navigating the seas, and the Trust strictly vetoed the idea as illogical as wearing “a tuxedo in the middle of the ocean.”

Despite all the effort that went into making the film culturally accurate, it’s been criticized for an over-simplified representation of Pacific Islanders, among other issues.

Still, knowing that Pacific Islanders were heavily consulted for their knowledge – on top of the color scheme, animation, and storyline – is hopefully a sign that filmmakers will become more considerate of APIDAs in their work.

The story feels like myth, in that forces of nature seem to be conspiring to help Moana achieve her goal of saving her island, but also emphasizes very human qualities, like agency, resourcefulness, persistence, and teamwork.

To me, “Moana” is a reminder that we have to choose to go for what we really want, but not making the choice that we thought we wanted, choosing to go in another direction instead? That’s okay too.

 

A film that I hope gets made: “Dana Dana”

This could be the most important film on this list, given the ban that was initiated in the U.S. this past week on Muslim refugees from seven countries, Iraq among them.

“Dana Dana” tells the story of a young Iraqi musician named Mohamed who is forced to flee from his home country and ends up seeking asylum in Great Britain.

Mohamed faces a great deal of pressure and hardship, between worries for his family’s safety, adjusting to his new life, and attempting to attain refugee status.

Eventually, he turns to a life of busking, but his new life in music is challenged when the meeting that could secure his future as a refugee conflicts with his shot at British radio.

The movie is still in progress, but it was advertised at the 2016 Asian American International Film Festival, so keep an eye out if you’re interested.

Content warning for issues of depression and suicide.

 

A film that I want to watch that critics at Sundance seemed to love: “Band Aid”

This movie might be cheating a little bit because it centers on a non-Asian couple; however, there are four Asian cast members (out of fifteen), it has a fairly female-heavy cast, and it carries the distinction of an entirely female crew, so I think it deserves a mention.

Anna and Ben, played by Zoe Lister-Jones (writer and director) and Adam Pally, respectively, are a married couple with issues. The dryly hilarious clip above is 90 seconds of them trying to list their Top 12 Worst Fights, resulting in them just tossing gripes back and forth dispassionately. To help resolve these issues, they form a rock band, featuring original songs by the cast based on all of the fights they’ve had.

The film is packed with TV stars of color, including Jesse Williams of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Jamie Chung of “The Real World” and “Once Upon a Time,” Hannah Simone of “New Girl,” and Retta of “Parks and Rec.” The film also stars three Jewish actors, including the director. There was a lot of discussion about movie musicals after the critically acclaimed “La La Land” debuted this winter, and I hope that this movie is able to affirm that yes, movie musicals can be good, and yes, they can also be diverse.

Content warning: Possible mention of/reference to miscarriage.

 

A short-form episodic series: Strangers

Trailer: http://www.tracking-board.com/strangers-trailer-meredith-hagner-zoe-chao/

If you’re like me, possibly the first (and only) thing that comes to mind when you think of queerness and Asian women is “The Legend of Korra.” I love animated TV, but sometimes I’m looking for a little less “intensity” and “world-saving” and a little more “’Girls-with-at-least-one-non-White-character.”

“Strangers,” a passion project helmed by Mia Lidofsky and starring Zoe Chao, tells the story of Isobel, a woman in her late twenties/early thirties who rents her apartment out through Airbnb.

With the help of her best friend and the various strangers who end up being her roommates, Isobel navigates her way through a series of ongoing professional, sexuality, and post-breakup crises.

The film/series takes inspiration from director Lidofsky’s own life and experiences renting out her NYC studio apartment to strangers on Airbnb, and promises to be a celebration of “life and love and the intricacies of human connection”. It also promises to have at least one, probably two, queer women who are main characters.

The first three episodes of this project aired at the Sundance film festival this past week, so here’s hoping it will soon premiere to the general public.         

 

Ashley Beteta was always interested in Korean culture. In high school, she started a Korean culture club. She would research facts about Korea and present them to her classmates at weekly meetings. When she came to UCLA, she decided to study political science with a concentration in international relations.

However, the major and focus was not enough, so she searched for a Korean cultural club. Now as a second-year student, Beteta is the historian for Hanoolim – UCLA’s only Korean cultural organization dedicated to spreading cultural awareness.

Hanoolim, established in 1990, was originally a political organization aimed to raise awareness to Korean immigration and discrimination issues. Through poongmul, or traditional Korean drumming, the student-run organization participated in demonstrations and protests, standing at the battlefront especially when the Los Angeles riots struck Koreatown in 1992.

The student group helped lead a march through Koreatown during the riots, performing poongmul while the crowd followed and cheered on, according to a 1992 Daily Bruin article.

 

Hanoolim 1990_ la riots
Photo courtesy of Hanoolim KCAG.

“We need to show support. We need to show that students care about the community,” said Raphael Hong, a member of Hanoolim then, in the article.

After 24 years, though much less politically oriented, Hanoolim still maintains close ties with its community. Every year Hanoolim participates in the annual Koreatown Ji Shin Balp Ki (JSBK), a Lunar New Year tradition to remove evil spirits and to bring good luck to residences and stores. The poongmul team, along with UCI’s and USC’s, would go from door to door and perform the traditional Korean art.

The experience is “just amazing. Lot of older adults (are) so touched by the sight of us playing and that young people are celebrating traditional Korean holidays,” recalled Sally Oh, external vice president of Hanoolim and a third-year student, when she led the poongmul team at JSBK last year.

Besides serving its community, Hanoolim also shares the arts and traditions of Korea to the UCLA community. Just recently, Hanoolim hosted its annual Korean Culture Festival at Bruin Plaza, showcasing Korean food and hanbok, a traditional festive attire, to name a few.

Photo courtesy of Hanoolim KCAG.
Photo courtesy of Hanoolim KCAG.

First-year student and Hanoolim member Minsoo Kim said when the festival was nearing its conclusion, a woman asked him the names of all the Korean food that was served so the next time she was at a Korean restaurant, she would know what to order.

“People seemed pretty excited to go and play” the traditional games, added Kim.

It was “fun for me to see people play traditional Korean games, put on traditional clothing,” said Beteta. “(I) felt so much pride to showcase.”

Near the end of the academic year, Hanoolim additionally hosts the annual Korean Culture Night, a collaborative event that emphasizes the arts and dances of Korea. One particular art emphasized is none other than poongmul.

Poongmul is very tied to our traditional culture. It was the music used by the more common people back in history,” described Hyeri Choi, a fourth-year student and current lead poongmul coordinator.

Photo courtesy of Hanoolim.
Photo courtesy of Hanoolim KCAG.

And just like the commoners in ancient Korea, the lead coordinators upheld the oral nature of the art, passing the music down to new members verbally. There is neither script nor sheet music for reference.

“This is the way it’s done, the only way it could be done,” said Choi.

Despite it being a hundreds-year-old art, other members of the poongmul team find no contention with the practice.

“I do appreciate how there is an effort to keep the tradition alive,” said Kim who is also a member of the team.

Alli Kang, a first-year student and member, expressed, “I’m really proud that I’m able to connect to my culture in an ancient way … Why did I not do this earlier?”

Whether it be because of the traditional drumming, community outreach or people, Hanoolim truly establishes itself as a cultural group and a community.

“One major thing is that our club has the word cultural in its name,” said YooJeong Han, a second-year student and the event coordinator for Hanoolim. “The majority of clubs that I saw … were all focused on (Korean people), whereas our club is getting everybody and doing something Korean with them.”

“Hanoolim gives you a lot of opportunities to be not only a part of the Korean community but also the UCLA community. (You can) be part of something bigger, get opportunities to either perform or run (a) show,” mentioned Oh.

“It really (is an) incredibly inclusive and welcoming community,” noted Choi.

Sharon Lee, a third-year student and president of Hanoolim, said, “Doesn’t matter (who) you are. We accept everybody.”

 

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