“Where are you from” and other questions

In the U.S., ‘Where are you from’ can be a loaded question. It took me a while to realize this. It could range  from : a) genuine curiosity about your origins b) ignorance  about who you are  OR c) An arrogant assumption that you are an ‘outsider,’ even if you are more ‘native’ than the person who asked you this question. The question also is an exercise of power – especially when the question is posed to someone who seems ( apparently, at least) is member of an ethnic or racial minority group. Roger Shimomura’s talk at the National Portrait Gallery last night brought to fore this question. As someone who is interested in ethnic identity issues, I was curious to hear what Shimomura had to say.

Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. Photo credit : rshim.com
Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. Photo credit : rshim.com
photo credit : rshim.com
photo credit : rshim.com

Shimomura is an artist who spent his early childhood in a Japanese internment camp and this experience, more than any other seems to have shaped his thinking. As a consummate collector, he seems to have collected not only items – which he introduced us to – but also experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant. The paraphrenalia that he collected, ranging from salt and pepper shakers to miniature shoes and also mannequins, one of which adorned his bathroom all seemed to introduce us to the mind of an eccentric artist; who is not afraid of being ‘himself.’

Shimomura recounted several anecdotes but one stood out in my memory. This involved a stranger approaching him in Lawrence, Kansas and asking him ‘Where are you from,’ to which he replied ‘Seattle.’ Not to be undone by this innocuous answer, the stranger again asked him ‘No! That is not I meant, what I meant was, ‘Where are your parents from.” To this query, Shimomura replied ‘Seattle’ again, given that his parents were second generation Japanese-Americans and he was a ‘Naesae’ Japanese, a third-generation one. His grand-mother arrived to the U.S. in the beginning of the twentieth century, as a ‘picture’ bride and she, more than anyone seems to have instilled in him the need for documenting one’s identity and personal narrative. Speaking of the line of questioning of this stranger, Shimomura pointed out that no matter how long one lives in the U.S., sometimes, one is always  a stranger – particularly, if one is a minority – or Asian American in his case. This persistent ‘othering’ is a phenomenon that seems to be at the heart of his work.Whether it is kicking the mickey-mouse characters or donning the Superman suit, Shimomura’s art has it all.

All of his work seems to challenge our stereotypes of what it means to be an Asian, an American and also how one can break away from this ‘framing.’ While he did not talk much about how one can move away from such framing, that is imposed by others; he did allude to the exoticization of one’s identity and the need to challenge it. One example he offered is that of ‘Yellow Rat Bastard,‘ brand of clothing. This slang term was used during WWII to refer to the Japanese, at the height of suspicion about Japanese-Americans’ loyalty to America. This term has stuck and it is surprising that the most avid consumers of this brand of clothing in NYC are Japanese tourists, mused Shimomura. Ironic? Perhaps so, or is it just that racism, when made to appear ‘cool’ seems to take on life of its own.

One of the more subversive one of his paintings is titled ‘Shimomura crossing the Delaware,’ based on George Washington’s famous crossing the river. Speaking of the original painting of the founding father, Shimomora asked “How might American history have been different, if it was the Japanese who were founding fathers of the U.S. or if those accompanying Washington were Japanese?”.

Shimomora’s oeuvre seems to have a strong message of battling stereotypes. Whether it is the plays/ performances based on his grandmom’s diaries or his own art-work that is very strongly reminiscent of Andy Warhol – improvizational, eclectic and very pop culture inspired, this artist forces us to re-look at the images and stereotypes that we hold in our minds.

I came away with a few ideas and a better appreciation for the Japanese-American experience and also a more nuanced understanding of what identity really means. As an immigrant myself and also as the husband of a first-generation Mexican-American woman, ideas of ethnicity and identity are constantly making the rounds in my mind. Shimomora added a dash of color and style to these perspectives and I am glad we went to his talk. More importantly, I will perhaps stop asking ‘Where are you from,’ unless it is absolutely necessary. That question, as I learnt last night, carries more power than we realize.

Should We Get Rid Of The ‘Southern Mystique’?

There’s an old joke I heard in India, that the Southerners tell about the Northerners (I am a Southerner, from the city of Bangalore) and it goes: The only culture up North is ‘Agri’ culture.

Photo credit : www.art-prints-on-demand.com -
Photo credit : http://www.art-prints-on-demand.com

While seemingly innocuous and said as light-hearted banter, it does capture the stereotypes South Indians have about the Northerners. The Northerners have their own versions of this joke, some are more blatant. I see this phenomenon in the U.S. as well. While there is no history of a Civil War in India, as in the U.S., these stereotypes run deep. There is a bloody history in the U.S, that perpetuates some of the stereotypes and antagonisms that exist between the regions in this country. I will focus on the U.S. in this short article and try to answer the following question: In the U.S., should we learn to speak of each other in a different way and go beyond this ‘Southern mystique’? This ‘Southern Mystique’ often paints the American South as an exotic land, full of violence and sensuality and is patently a creation. One could go so far as to say that this is similar to the Orientalist portrayal of the former colonies in Asia and Africa. While historical facts do support many of the assertions of violence, racial hatred and bigotry, the exoticization of the South in literature, as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams have done is arguably just that – an exotic fantasy of a land and people who are subject to similar, if not the same forces that the ‘Northerners’ are subject to.

Howard Zinn in his short book The Southern Mystique (1964) argues against this continuation of the ‘Southern mystique’. The key argument of his book is that this ‘Southern Mystique’ can be gotten rid of. What is needed is not new legislation, but new conditions, where the White and Blacks interact and deal with one another more. Also, coupled with this, there must be realization that people are motivated by current circumstances, values that they hold dear and also economic incentives. While one of these values is racial attitudes and sometimes, superiority of the white race, this can be changed, over a period of time. I would suggest, taking this a step further that perhaps we can start by how we talk about the South. While this in itself may not solve anything, it is a good start.

A recent incident in Blacksburg, though minor, demonstrates the continuing differences that exist in the popular imagination in the South. I went for a haircut just the other day and witnessed something strange. Well, almost hilarious, if it were not for the tension that was inbuilt into the narrative. The incident I witnessed involved a roughly 40 year old man getting a haircut and giving some advice to the young man, who was cutting his hair about the banality of education, how ignorant almost all professors are etc. “Most of these professors are like politicians, I tell ya. They just talk because they can, I bet no one ever listens to them.” To this the young man nodded and kept cutting his hair. Sitting next to this gentleman was another young man, who was conversing with the lady, who was cutting his hair – conversation is a very Southern thing I am learning, and I am completely for it. While he mentioned that he was from the North, this older gent remarked “Oh yeah, this town is now flooded with them Yankees. Not sure what they’re doing down here.” While this could be seen as just blabbering from a not-so-intelligent person, it does capture some of the tensions in popular imagination that Southerners have for those in the North. Radical groups such as the Tea Party have and continue to exploit these differences and historical narratives that pit the North against the South.

This narrative of South vs. North could be considered a popular culture version of the ‘culture wars’, a phenomenon that comes up time and again. While very present in popular discourse, if not in Confederate Flag raising incidents such as this, or the debate about the ‘overstretching’ mandate of the Federal government. The sentiment against big government is pretty high in the South, as most people would be aware. The underlying factor that drives all of this seems to be fear. The fear of unknown, known and the anxiety to preserve what little there is left of the privilege that the ‘old order’ provided. As this NY Times Op-Ed points out, “The potential for multiracial coalitions to address these issues (poverty and lack of economic opportunities) is made less likely by the rightward drift of white Southerners and their aversion to potential African-American partners.” Ms.Dowe, the author of the Op-Ed further argues that “Historically, the racialized social order of the South has granted whites what Peggy McIntosh called the “invisible package of unearned assets” of privilege. This package included economic advancement, social esteem and access to better occupations and opportunities. After the Civil Rights movement extended these privileges to African-Americans, whites sought other means of privilege.” This shift to the political Right seems to be working against their own interest, as the Republican Party has consistently worked to undermine Social Security and other welfare programs such as the Food Assistance program, which benefit the poor – irrespective of race. There is data that shows that there are more poor white folks in the South than African Americans.

The American South does have a reputation for being more insular, closed off to rest of the country and prone to more racism. While the first two accusations seem quite prevalent, the allegation of racism prevailing is quite an egregious one to make. Yes, there has been a strong history of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups operating out of the Southern states and they still do. This notwithstanding, as with other ways of thinking of the ‘other’, can we use this logic to think of the nation – the Union as one, instead of dividing and mentally dissecting the country into North and South? Or is this too much to ask for? The North is not a race-free haven. The challenges of racism, ethnocentricity and religious bigotry exists in New York too. It is the degree that matters. While political points can be scored by keeping up these divisions, it may actually be a prudent move to address these issues for what they are – deep insecurities and political wranglings going hand in hand.

The pride, the focus on community and rootedness of many of the people in the South are truly admirable. The anger, hurt and misplaced rhetoric of ‘othering’ anyone not from their local communities should be placed in this context. Poverty, a focus on history that places the Southerners as the ones who lost and a perpetual sense of deprivation are some of the root causes of this continued ambivalence that the Southerners feel for the Yankees.

Zinn advocates a strategy that it lead by strong leadership and economic plans that ensure that those actions that facilitate integration bet incentivized. He says: “ But the specialness of the Southern mystique vanishes when one sees that whites and negroes behave like human beings, that the South is but a distorted mirror image of the North and that we are powerful today, and free enough to retain only as much of the past as we want. We are all magicians. We created the mystery of the South and we can dissolve it.” These differences are false dichotomies, propped up by those interested in keeping a certain history alive. These are also tied to certain relations of power, as a discourse analyst would say. While keeping one’s heritage is all well and good, remembering the defeats, humiliation and subjugation of the past – the Civil War in this case- and interpreting it as a continuation of the struggle is not only counter-productive, but seems to be ludicrous.