Tuesday, December 30, 2008


How do we respond to human suffering and devastation? What do we do in the face of hundreds dying in Gaza, and over a thousand injured?

When I encounter suffering, it naturally brings up—mostly unconscious–memories of my own suffering. This is the root of empathy: connecting my pain to yours, and understanding that we bear pain for each other. But how do I respond next?

When I see photos of bombing victims, I may want to retreat to the litany of my own victim stories. I joined a Facebook group which suggests we turn our profile photos black to protest the current assault on Gaza, and I invited all my Facebook friends to participate. Not surprisingly, an acquaintance questioned this group, asking whether they also protest violence against non-Arabs, listing numerous Arab offenses over the years.

She’s completely right to question all forms of violence. But if I give in to the hobgoblin of equivalence when it comes to suffering and violence, I come that much closer to the mindset of tit for tat, eye for an eye. If I engulf myself in my own stories of victimhood, it enables the cycle of violence to continue.

It’s tempting to chant the mantra of victimhood. We have all been traumatized, to different degrees. While some have suffered far more than others, others may carry the legacy of trauma through stories told, retold, or denied and buried by parents and grandparents.
When I bury myself in my own suffering, I close myself off to the suffering of others. I buy into my own victim stories, I invest myself in them, and I seek balance and redress. I justify revenge.

The respective victim stories dominate Israel/Palestine. Over the past few generations, the Palestinians, after living under occupation for decades, now identify with their victimhood to the same degree as the Israelis, which creates desperation, hatred, and hunger for revenge, promoting conditions ripe for suicide bombers and recruitment into militant groups.
Not until we can lay down our own suffering and attend to the suffering of others will violence stop. Compassion and love are big enough to swallow up pain. Compassion for the other needs to outweigh our own victim stories.

Gandhi taught his followers to bear pain, to not run away from it, and above all not to retaliate in the face of pain. I cannot wait for the other to lay down their arms or for the tally to even out; I have to set the precedent. Through the path of nonviolent resistance, I strive to evoke empathy rather than anger.

Will I suffer? Likely. Will I be killed? Maybe. But since January, 2000, when the current Intifada began,
1173 Palestinian children have been killed, as well as 123 Israeli youth. How can we ask children to offer their lives if we’re not willing to offer our own? The path of nonviolence is not painless.

However, in addition to
changing the circumstances that provoke violence–dismantling the settlements, restoring all rights–nonviolence is the only way to create lasting harmony. We continually work for justice, but even if justice is slow to come, we can apply the principles of nonviolence and strive to live them out.

I use my practice of yoga asanas to learn how to relate to pain. Without abdicating awareness, I learn to be dispassionate toward the temporary sensations of muscles stretching and contracting. I learn to be with pain and not fear it, taking homeopathic doses of pain. Through this work, I break down the layers of trauma, personal and ancestral.

What is my victim story anyway? As a victim, I identify with a part of myself which is illusory, temporary, and superficial. I mistake myself for the actor playing me on stage. In reality, I constantly shift, evolve, and transform as iterations and expressions of a universal spirit. I am the Korean American woman in Milwaukee, and I am the Israeli child, the Palestinian child.

Meanwhile, I sit cozily at my desk in my heated room. My belly is full, no bombs land near my riverside bungalow. I send emails and make phone calls to our president and State Department, but I’m not on a plane to Gaza to serve as a human shield or bandage wounds. And what of the suffering in Congo, Afghanistan, Darfur, Iraq? Not to mention the homeless in my own city, gun violence and the overwhelming violence of poverty? All I have this moment are these few words, my yoga practice and a constant prayer: open, open open my eyes, open my heart.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Racial Getting Married

We took a family outing to the Downer Theatre on Thanksgiving weekend to see “Rachel Getting Married.” While I loved many things about the film, it also troubled me. My response has nothing to do with the much-discussed style of the Dogma 95 film-making, but with its little-discussed portrayal of race.

Here are some things I’m wondering:
Did Jenny Lumet write Sidney as black?
Were the black characters meant to be stereotypes?
Why is there no acknowledgement of race in any of the dialogue?
How might this film be different if it was directed by a black filmmaker?
Or a woman filmmaker?
Why samba dancers?
Finally, what’s with the saris?

It turns out screenwriter Jenny Lumet did not write Sidney as black. As a mixed race woman (the granddaughter of Lena Horne), she said “the only time I ever thought about the race issue when writing the script was when I thought about making the characters of Rachel and Kym the children of an interracial couple. But I decided not to because I was afraid people would say that that was the reason Kym became a crazy drug person.” (http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2008/10/04/in_family_screenwriter_sees_true_colors_of_connection)

Her only consideration of race was her fear of it being used as an unflattering stereotype. The casting choices were made by director Jonathan Demme. He initially chose a white actor to play Sidney, but that actor declined because of another project. Demme says he chose Tunde Adebimpe for being likable, for his “rock and roll allure….[and] I was excited by the fact that it made for an interracial marriage because that moves me.”

Now, ask any person of color if they’ve ever been selected for these reasons. We all know certain people of color are “likable,” cool with a “rock and roll allure,” and others are scary or geeky or too “ethnic.” One of the most common ways to describe Asian women is “nice,” as in “Oh, I know so and so. She’s soooo nice.” We are prized for our likability. That’s why we make such good nannies and maids and concubines. People of color can also be ingenious and daring and complex, but those movie roles are fewer.

And how many times have we been chosen because it makes the white people around us “excited” and moved? At one conference on multiculturalism, one well-meaning white friend approached me, her eyes nearly welling with tears, to thank me, with heart-felt sincerity, for being part of her community. OK, you’re welcome, but why do I feel vaguely colonized?

The casting of Adebimpe pleased me, except the script didn’t refer to his race at all, the same way the saris worn by the bride and bridesmaids was never explained or addressed. I did notice that all the really grounded characters, the caretakers, the organizers, the kind but firm rehab nurse, the soldier, were people of color. Even the toasts to Sidney were about how dependable and stable he was. Which is to say that the brown characters were idealized, not three-dimensional. Even flattering stereotypes diminish us. “I thought all Koreans were smart,” someone commented when I did something goofy. Demme could afford to make Sidney black, because he was flat. Basically they were all bit roles to give the movie a certain look and feel, like we see in advertising.

The filmmaker and writer claim the interracial marriage is not worthy of mention. They have friends of every race and know interracial couples and they don’t sit around talking about race. Does this remind you of the Obama campaign? After Obama’s lauded speech encouraging us to have a national dialogue on race, his campaign made no more mention of race until the acceptance speech. The only voices on the media addressing race were ones insisting that it didn’t matter at all. But to me it all felt like denial.

It’s OK to be colored, runs the subtext; it’s even super cool and desirable to be colored, as long as we can pretend not to notice. As long as we don’t have to, God forbid, talk about it.

Not noticing stuff and living in denial is after all a theme of “Rachel Getting Married,” a movie about a dysfunctional family. The problem is the filmmakers didn’t see their multi-culti paste-ons that way. The filmmakers created the film in a cloud of denial like the one their characters live in.

Demme set out to portray “the best, best, best wedding ever.” At the altar, Sidney sings a worshipful love-at-first-sight Neil Young song to Rachel. That felt odd to me, until I realized, oh yeah, Sidney was written as white. Lumet commented that the song in the script was by AC/DC but the rights to the song were outrageously expensive. Demme called on his friend, Neil Young, who accepted a pittance for the use of his song. In fact, Demme invited all his musician friends to the backyard barbeque. The party was a checklist of cultural appropriation and exoticizing. Those black people, aren’t they fabulous entertainers? Oh, look, a token Asian couple! But just one is plenty. And aren’t those dark-skinned dancers in their thongs gorgeous!

Where is the boundary between appropriation and assimilation? When can I wear a sari without being Indian? Not long ago in America, Italians were considered people of color, and Italian food was spicy and exotic. Now, we all eat Italian food weekly if not daily, while Italian-Americans are included in every sector of mainstream society. But Italians are European, and many are fair-skinned. Have Mexicans benefitted from the same process of assimilation? Have the Chinese or other Asians?

Do we live in the world that Lumet and Demme have created? Are we welcome at this wedding party? Are we beyond race? Am I a racist for asking these questions?

Let’s repair the racial harm we’ve done, stop profiting from exploitation of people of color, give immigrants rights, create real equality, and then and only then, can we dance samba in our saris.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Here is a new recipe we tried out at Thanksgiving. Unfortunately we baked it last minute and didn't get to refrigerate it. However, the next day, it was fabulous. It's vegan if you use dairy-free chocolate chips, sugar-free, and can be gluten-free as well. Everyone can eat it!

Chocolate-Pecan Pudding Pie with Nut Crust
adapted from Bryant Terry’s recipe at http://www.theroot.com/id/48938

1 cup almonds
1 cup pecans
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour or gluten-free flour
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup dry unsweetened coconut
8 large dates, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup coconut oil

· Preheat oven to 325°F.
· Combine the almonds, pecans, flour and salt in a food processor with a fitted metal blade, and grind to a fine meal. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and add the coconut. Place the dates and coconut oil in the food processor and mix until the dates form into a gooey mass, about 1 minute. Add the dry ingredients back into the food processor and process until all ingredients are mixed well and starts to form into dough.
· Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie tin. With clean hands, knead for a minute or so to ensure that the oil is evenly distributed. Press the dough into the pan, making sure that the bottom, sides and rim are covered. (The sides should be slightly thicker than the rest of the tin.) With a fork, prick several holes into the bottom of the crust. Set aside.

For the filling:
3/4 cup soy milk
1/4 cup arrowroot
1/2 banana
3/4 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup coconut oil
1 1/2 cups pecans, chopped
1/2 cup dry unsweetened coconut

· In a blender, combine the soy milk and arrowroot and purée for 30 seconds. Add the banana and purée for 15 seconds. Set aside.
· Place a mixing bowl over a small pot of simmering water to melt the chocolate chips and coconut oil (solid under 76 degrees). Pour in the blender contents, maple syrup, vanilla, pecans and coconut. Mix well. Scrape into the crust with a rubber spatula and spread evenly.
· Place the pie on a cookie sheet. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until filling jiggles only slightly. Cool, then refrigerate at least two hours.