by Walter Chaw I'm statistically past the midway point, alive for more years than I will be alive for again, and I've spent most of my time denying, being embarrassed by, often hating, who I am. I was born in Colorado in 1973, raised in downtown Golden in a Norman Rockwell postcard of an existence. I walked to school, walked to the little silversmith store my dad owned when it was over, earned pennies at the barbershop on the corner where the mayor, Frank, operated the first chair. I got my money shining shoes and catching flies in the little plastic bags my dad used to put little gems in for his customers.
I would learn, too, that I was going to be the only Asian in the vast majority of classrooms I found myself in here in the heart of suburban Denver. Learning to speak English as a child ostracized by other children for my inability to speak English gave me a crippling stutter. The irony of learning the language in my head but not being able to demonstrate it to my classmates was not lost on me, even then. The word my parents used for my impediment, I was to find out later, did not mean "stutter"--it meant something like "tied in knots." I was. I was tied in knots. I watched a lot of movies, read a lot of books, listened to a lot of records--all of them bought by my parents from some garage sale. I don't know why. Sometimes, I'll use a word like "flapjacks" to describe "pancakes," and my wife will look at me like I came from outer space or a Jack London novel. Those books were, after all, how I acquired my vocabulary.
I would learn, after I stopped stuttering all of a sudden in sixth grade, that I was still ostracized by other children sometimes and, because I was desperate to fit in, I stopped doing things that made me different. I refused to pack lunches my peers would find disgusting; I refused to speak Chinese anymore and regret to this day that I sound like a sixth grader when I try. (My stutter moved there from here.) I only wanted to date white girls and to make white boys my friends and role models. I learned how to play and talk sports. I got heavy into this culture. I turned my back on my parents, which was unbelievably painful for them--and they let me know it, every single day. It was painful for me, too. When I got much older, I learned that this was called "divorce," as in divorcing oneself from one's culture, and not unique to Chinese born in America.
I hope it's more a long separation with, eventually, a wary reconciliation.
When Brian Hu of San Diego's Pacific Arts Movement reached out to me to see if I wanted to sit on the Jury of their Asian Film Festival, I was scared. After all, I've only been Asian for about twenty years and a reluctant Asian at that, more times than not. I was good at the self-deprecating joke, the racial sell-out that would earn me laughs and then, I hoped, invisibility. Writing about film and occasionally about race was the dangerous thing I sometimes did behind a keyboard--but this was different. I was being asked to judge an Asian festival where, should I accept, I would be surrounded by Asian academics who could see exactly who and what I am.
So I said "yes" and flew out and sat in a room, for the first time in my life, with Asian cultural academics. And for the first time in my professional life, I was understood and accepted. The process was painless. We screened movies in contention for the festival's major awards and, over a long, lovely SoCal afternoon, we talked them over with one another. We wrote blurbs together for the winning films for the program and the awards ceremony--and afterwards, Brian, Christina Ree, and Ada Tseng took me out to eat dumplings at a joint in downtown San Diego, where they made a stuffed scallion pancake my dad used to make (and that I make now and again), which I have never seen anywhere else. I cried when I ate it. I don't think they noticed.
I'm tied in knots because I always saw the alternative to that as unravelling, but there are other options for the rest of the time I have left. One of them is accepting who I am now that I have less than half my life left to live. Another is, once accepting, liking who I am. I'm growing for my kids, so they don't carry on the self-loathing, but they do carry on the pride that they are Americans and that Americans are an idea, not a race or a religion. They won't have much of a material inheritance, I'm afraid, but they will have this.
This is my first year covering the San Diego Asian Film Festival--a fest expansive in its breadth, featuring a wealth of exactly the kind of movies I always wished had existed in the Hollywood mainstream. I have learned that my ignorance of this fest, now in its 20th year, has everything to do with my divorce from my parents' culture--with my shame and fear of exclusion. Ironic, you know, because it's only with my wife and kids, my friends, now here, that I've ever had any relief from that fear. The festival's line-up is huge and impressive. Under the stewardship of Hu, Ree, and his small-but-crackerjack team at PacArts, it's an essential voice, the more so now that Asian representation is moving into the popular conversation. It only took 46 years, but I'm finally unravelling.
Okay. Let's go.