Learning to Bite the Hand That Feeds Ya or Ya Still Don’t Git It!

2 Jul

By Susan L. Yung

Looking back to “once upon a time” in 1972, I worked for an organization in order to develop a cultural institution for Asian Americans. I had been one of the original proposal writers for the Chinatown History Project and when government money came trickling down, there were many conflicts and issues that developed. Under such circumstances, I directed most of the money to upgrade Chinatown’s community and its environment. I felt that it should no longer be an invisible underdeveloped, underclass community when all the other surrounding communities such as Soho, Little Italy, City Hall and Wall Street were progressing into wealthier communities while the immigrant and urban social problems began to increase due to the 1965 immigration laws which added more people to the already densely populated Chinatown area. Many problems coexisted under this one organization where Mandarins vs. Toisanese vs. Hong Kong vs. ABC vs. Queens College, vs. Hunter, vs. City Universities vs. Harvard Business graduates vs. Princeton vs. foreign students vs. Korean grocers and merchants vs. Filipino vs. “laumpang-laumpan” (Thais) as well as the existences of personal problems such as grieving for a dying, cancerous relative, or owing gambling or investment debts or having cousins involved with gang shoot-outs or getting caught in cross fires or having made visit to the mentally disturbed friend whose psychotic breakdown happened on the same day of another friend’s wedding, or the boss firing the competent or incompetent seamstresses, typists or bookkeepers for wanting to unionize and ask for higher wages; and AIDS infecting various friends can cause many animosities.

In this turmoil, I worked as Basement Workshop’s general administrator and proceeded to the next stage – mobilizing the community that the Black Panthers had exclaimed with fervor and relentless dedication “serve the community.” I willingly worked for less pay (for a minimum salary of $5,000/year). These savings enabled this organization to provide more seed money for various projects like the birth of Asian Americans for Equal Employment (AAFEE). In another incident, when another woman managed to fundraise more money and signed a three–year lease from Zacarro, Inc. for a loft space in Soho, unresolved conflicts arose again. It turned out that all the money got spent on construction supplies and equipment for three years.

After the loft’s renovations, even with the bickering, slandering and character assassinations that dissolved into nothing, the Italian landlord whose wife campaigned for Vice Presidency in 1984, had increased the lease to $3,0000/month. This terminated Basement’s occupation in Soho and the organization returned to Chinatown. The majority of the group disbanded leaving Theodora Yoshikami and Fay Chiang in charge. We never regrouped because the men in their traditional, chauvinistic attitudes could not concede to the women’s ideas and interests. Obviously, we had to fail as a group and become singular entities. I pursued my own individuality and financed my own education in order to write, perform and produce my experiences so that a new generation would be “enlightened” about our human frailties.

…At this age, the only resourceful mainstream alternative is for me to return to the education system and apply for graduate school to get a masters degree in figurative art, and maybe I will get a better–paying job. However, in perusing a high gloss brochure on “how to register and become a marketable artist,” I notice that I must earn 60 credits and pay a nominal fee of $400/credit. The application is very simple and once accepted, I will be taking classes in drawing, painting, and theory techniques in order to render the human anatomy into realistic shapes. Scanning the pages of the faculty list, the teachers are well–known, i.e. Eric Fischl, Alfred Leslie, Jack Beal and Michael Graves. It is an impressive list but they all seem to be Anglos and the curriculum Eurocentric. So where does that leave me, the Asian artist? If I take action and insist on instigating Asian artists to teach Asian classic art, I will be kicked out as a trouble maker and lose all the hard earned investments of getting the graduate degree in the first place.

What does activism have to do with mainstream education? In the First World, nothing, except we, as Asians in America, learn how to become either a marginal outcasts in America, or enjoy indirectly its luxuries in compacted spaces. However, due to my travels and having learned to appreciate third world cultures, I acquired an interest in these differences and started to find alternative programs or workshops relating to these cultures in New York City. Most classes are small because grand masters teach them who are not “western” certified or operate from an established institution but have acquired this knowledge from their homelands and due to persecution or other reasons are willing to teach in the United States. So their workshops are usually recommended through word of mouth from former students, and in the past five years, I found several interesting classes to occupy my days after working 9–5. These classes are economically reasonable for my income bracket. I did not have to join an expensive gym with expensive spandex uniforms to work out on an expensive mechanical horse. Instead, I gained cultural knowledge b developing myself as a whole person wit additional unique talents. These classes rage from learning the Tibetan language and its philosophy to the way of self-protection. The martial arts I study are Arnis–Filipino stick fighting and Pencak–Silat–Indonesian knife and hand fighting. I have also learned the Caribbean and Taiko (Japanese) drumming rhythms and the craft of Chinese knot making. From these classes I learn about the teacher and the student’s dedication …

However, in learning more of the basics of both Asian cultures and Western cultures, there is only the political awareness to tackle. This is where I find myself in the arena of communication and starting over. This past year, I spent filming, editing and promoting two videos: the first is a 60–75 minute video entitled, “Democracies in Chinatown: 1975–1994, making its premiere in 1995. It is a discussion between two women about their political and artistic careers working in an insular patriarchic Asian community in America. The second video is 20 minutes long and entitled “Images From a Neglected Past,” a cultural presentation of four performances accompanied by photographs of my worldly travels, all edited into one performance. The video describes the history of an American sub–culture and hopefully will fill a gap in the struggling amnesiac Asian American identity crises. They also will be a documented legacy of the Asian American experience in the latter half of the 20th century.

printed in A Gathering of the Tribes #6 winter/spring 1995/96

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