Friday, March 12, 2010

After The Faire: Thinking about history, intergenerational dialogue, & activism

Last weekend, I went to the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California's Author/Artiste Faire at Katy Geissert Civic Center Library in Torrance. I went to support traci kato-kiriyama, Founder/Director of Tuesday Night Project, but I also went to get a glimpse of an Asian America that I have had little interaction with, despite my time as an organizer in Asian Pacific Student Association at UC Irvine: the community of Asian Americans who are older and who have been in the U.S. for generations.

Growing up as a 1st/2nd (depending on how you count) -generation Khmer American in Southern California, I had little interaction with Asian Americans who have been here for generations. Those few paragraphs in our elementary school history books on Chinese immigrant rail workers never gestated in my mind the understanding that Asians have been in this country for centuries. In Bellflower and Little Saigon, most of my Asian peers were also children of immigrants. I always felt new. Yes, the presence of Southeast Asians in the U.S. is very new, comparatively, but I wish I had gained an awareness of Asian American history much sooner.

When I first met older Asian folks who spoke perfect English late in high school, I was both impressed and bemused. An Asian person over thirty without an accent? Wha? It wasn't until college that I really began to fully grasp it-- the existence, presence, and contribution of Asian Americans in U.S. history. Regretfully, in my haste to graduate with my B.A. in English on time and my work organizing with APSA, Irvine Queers, and the Cross Cultural Center, I never took an Asian American studies class (except for Asian American Performance & Writing with Denise Uyehara, which was a wonderful exploration of interdisciplinary art).

Thus, my knowledge of Asian American history has come primarily through a few workshops at conferences, reading on my own, and, most of all, being around people who know much more about it than I do. I've been out of college for nearly three years now, but my education hasn't stopped. In fact, I feel like it has increased exponentially. A big part of that is due to my involvement in Tuesday Night Project and working with traci and other folks who were actually there in the 1990s working to get Asian American Studies in the university, people who were in the student movement then and took lessons from the activists who came before them in the anti-war movement and civil rights movement in the 1960s and 70s. (traci is, by the way, the first student ever to graduate with a minor in Asian American Studies from Cal State Fullerton.)

As valuable as any Asian American studies literature I might read about the movement is the chance to talk to people who were there, who have been through it, and who are still in the movement, often as teachers.

I was one of the youngest (if not the youngest) person at the JAHSSC Authors/Artists Faire in Torrance. When I looked around, I wondered Where are the young people? Where are the people my age? I looked around and saw books about Japanese American internment experiences, Buddhism in the camps, books about Los Angeles' diverse cultural history. And the people who wrote the books were there, within arms' length (often closer, as it was a packed event), incredibly accessible.

I have this urge to say "Well, it was an event at a public library, and not particularly close to any university, and I mean, the demographic of the attendees doesn't really reflect whether young people are interested and engaged with our predecessors." I want to say that as a sort of disclaimer, but in all honesty, the lack of young people at the event really shook me.

I suppose one of my primary anxieties is the under-valuing of speaking, really speaking, with elders. Not merely respecting them, but listening to them, coaxing out their stories, perspectives, opinions. This comes in part from often feeling disconnected from elders in my own family and from regret that I did not take the opportunity to learn from and talk to my grandmothers as much as I could have when I had the chance.

These personal forces notwithstanding, I still believe that inter-generational dialogue--and not only dialogue, but genuine connection--is utterly necessary to the Movement, whatever specific issue or portion of it we are engaged in (and when I say Movement, I also mean Life and living). Because there is something to learn from what those who came before us know and feel, and there is also something to learn from what they don't.


This is turning out to be a much longer thought than I expected. To be continued.

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