Hi friends! If you don’t see any new posts on this site since the last time you visited, check out my pieces for HuffPost, which just a couple of months ago invited me to join as a contributor! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my reflections as a feminist dad blogger and an Asian dad blogger.
A Gap I Mind
I have a hidden talent: I can name all 45 American presidents in chronological order.
Unimpressed? Well, then get this: I can name them, in chronological order, going forwards and backwards.
Yup, uh-huh, you may now erupt in oooohs and aaaahs.
Okay, so it’s not exactly a talent, and it’s hardly even useful. But as a political geek ever since elementary school – in the 3rd grade, my life ambition was to one day become POTUS – I’ve invested an abnormal amount of energy, for someone without a poli sci graduate degree, in reading up on governmental goings-on.
Among the things that helped me to learn the order of the presidents were presidential posters. Such visual aids are affixed to the walls of many American classrooms, and they more or less look like this:
I LOVED to stare at these in my youth. (Like I said, geeeeeeky.)
In more recent years, though, I’ve avoided looking at them. It pains me to see that every president has been male, and all but one white. I know those presidential portraits will diversify; there will eventually be women as well as men, and there will be more people of color.
But unless a woman wins the White House in either 2020 or 2024, my daughters will go through their entire K-12 schooling without seeing a female POTUS on those posters. And I’d hate for that to happen. With all the discouraging sexism my girls are bound to experience as they grow older, I want them to see a woman on those posters as proof that in America, girls can truly be anything they aspire to be. Despite the misogyny that still pervades our society, I want them to feel in their bones that nothing, even the “highest, hardest glass ceiling,” still stands in their way.
But those presidential posters, though they accurately reflect history, convey the opposite. The absence of a woman subtly tells my daughters and all girls that when it comes to the highest positions of power in America, women need not apply.
I don’t believe I’m overstating this. In the outstanding documentary Miss Representation, my friend Dr. Caroline Heldman, a political science prof at Occidental College, says:
“Little boys and little girls in equal numbers, when they’re seven years old, want to be president of the United States when they grow up. But then you ask the same questions when they’re 15 … and you see this massive gap emerging.”
That’s just completely unacceptable to me – for my daughters, and for anyone else’s. And it underscores the importance of female role models, sheroes that girls can point to and say, “If they can do it, I can, too!”
One of the nonprofits that is shattering glass ceilings, in politics and in fields across the board, is Los Angeles-based CAUSE, the Center for Asian Americans United for Self-Empowerment. For almost a quarter-century it’s been working to increase Asian American participation in civic life. Among its many activities, CAUSE conducts voting drives and educates citizens on important matters in their communities.
But CAUSE is also doing much to empower women. Though its mission statement does not explicitly say so, and a great majority of its current board members are men, CAUSE has been quite intentional about inspiring, connecting, and equipping women for political and social impact.
I mentioned this to CAUSE Director of Programs Lindsey Horowitz at the organization’s recent Women in Power Networking Reception at downtown L.A.’s Omni Hotel. She pointed out that the current executive director, Kim Yamasaki, is far from the first woman to serve in that post, and that these women have done a lot to make CAUSE such a woman-affirming organization.
Other strong, gifted Asian American women have noticed and joined up. The vast majority of CAUSE’s current staffers are women, as are 13 out of its 15 summer Leadership Academy interns.
Highly accomplished and recognized Asian women have noticed, too, and lended their support. Recent speakers at CAUSE events have included Rep. Judy Chu, journalist Lisa Ling, Sen. Mazie Hirono, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (at the time the Assistant Secretary of Veteran Affairs), and Sen. Kamala Harris (at the time the Attorney General of California).
The presence of these women at these events has been a powerful statement, providing potential role models from which other women in attendance can draw inspiration and wisdom. And the June 1 Women in Power reception featured its own slate of highly accomplished female Asian speakers, each bringing a message of encouragement and empowerment.
Getting things started was Cyndie Chang, the youngest female Asian American office managing partner at a top 100 U.S. law firm, and the current president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. She revealed that the last time she spoke at a CAUSE event, she was nine months pregnant and gave birth just two days afterward! But she had followed through with her speaking commitment, determined to show that women don’t need to give up on professional advancement when having a family.
She also related that she had only just been promoted to office managing partner when her baby came. But she still took a full maternity leave, refusing to bow to anyone’s unspoken expectation that her new position meant she had to sacrifice family time. “Why do women need to change? Why not male-dominated industries?” she asked rhetorically. “Be yourself.”
The evening’s second speaker was Mariko Carpenter, Nielsen’s Vice President for Strategic Community Alliances. She reminded the audience of the rapid growth and purchasing power of Asian Americans as a demographic. She cited recent ways in which Asian Americans have influenced corporate behavior, including Mattel’s production of the first Korean American doll, “Z” Yang, for its iconic American Girl brand (something that we’ve much discussed on this blog, both here and here)!
Among the things she encouraged the audience to do was to advocate for one another. “Use your influence to celebrate and support Asian American progress,” she said, explaining that such influence could take the form of something as small as a tweet or social media post. She added, “Take advantage of your shared identities and values. Don’t be shy to ask for help, likewise … don’t refrain from giving AAPI women the advantage.”
Actress Kelly Hu, known for her many roles in television and film, concluded the reception’s formal programming. She recalled how her mother discouraged her uniqueness as a child, saying things like, “Don’t be too loud,” and “Don’t stick out.” Kelly said she understands that her mom was trying to protect her, but it stifled her personality.
Her mother also encouraged her to take up a traditionally valued vocation like those in medicine, engineering, and law, but that just wasn’t her. In 1985, she became the first Asian American to win the Miss Teen USA pageant, boosting her budding career as a model and actress. Her closing question for the reception audience reflected her life journey: “What is the story you are creating for yourself?”
All of this reminds me of what Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis often says: “If she can see it, she can be it.” Geena believes that so strongly, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which has done incredible, even high-tech work on the disparities between male and female characters in television and film.
We may still be awaiting our first female POTUS. But as CAUSE shows, there are many female role models for girls like mine to see and believe that they can also push past the sexist limits of our society. For that matter, boys and men should endeavor to follow their examples, too!
I’ll conclude by asking a question, and I invite you to answer on social media. Who is an Asian American woman that has been an example, mentor, inspiration, or role model for you?
Perhaps it’s one of the women I mentioned earlier in this post. Or maybe it’s your mom or someone who’s been like a mom to you. I’d love to hear your responses.
One Asian American woman who has inspired me, and whom I’ve talked about with my daughters, is the late Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawai’i. She’s best known as the first woman of color to serve in the United States Congress. But she’s also known for spearheading the civil rights legislation we call Title IX.
My daughters have been familiar with Title IX for a couple of years already; they first read about it in (of course) the American Girl books based on the character of Julie Albright, Ivy Ling’s BFF. I’ve explained to them that an Asian American woman, Patsy Mink, led the charge for that law, and that she blazed a trail for women in government in other ways as well.
In a way, CAUSE empowers women to follow in Patsy’s footsteps! I certainly hope my daughters do, regardless of the vocations they choose when they’re grown. I’ll try to emulate her in my own life, too.
Again, who is an Asian American woman that has been an example, mentor, inspiration, or role model for you? Let me know on Twitter at @eughung, on the Feminist Asian Dad Facebook page, or on Instagram by tagging me (@eughung) in your posts.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Learn more about CAUSE at its website. And don’t miss its Women in Power Annual Leadership Conference, taking place on Friday, July 21, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at L.A.’s Millennium Biltmore Hotel! Registration details will be forthcoming on the CAUSE website and on the CAUSE Facebook page.
UPDATED! I asked, “Who is an Asian American woman that has been an example, mentor, inspiration, or role model for you?”
You’ve given great responses! (I’ve edited them slightly for clarity.)
One African American friend of mine from high school, who worked as a congressional staffer, also names Patsy Mink. He says, “She was still in the House the first time I worked in Congress, and she was amazing to watch. She was fearless and tenacious, and I wish we had more people like her in the world …. I worked with her office a lot. She was active in the Progressive Caucus and the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus (APIC). I used to try to get the Congressional Black Caucus, the APIC, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to work together on stuff more often. Her office was always one of the first to support efforts to promote intersectionality, and that was 20 years ago.
Other responses you’ve given include:
- Maya Lin – “For her artistic vision. She has been asking important questions about our humanity from a very young age and continues to amaze me.”
- Helen Zia – “She was the first Asian Pacific American (APA) advocate I saw on TV at a time when the only … APAs were in laundry commercials.”
- Michelle Kwan – “I was so inspired by her as a little girl. I never skated, but I’m a yoga teacher now, and I will have my foot behind my head one day, just like her!”
- Wendy Shiba – “One of the first and the few APA women general counsels. I’m proud to call her my mentor and my friend.”
- Mom – “She married my dad when interracial marriage in the U.S. was illegal. She faced down a town full of judgmental people for love.”
- Jean Wakatsuki Houston – “She wrote the book Farewell to Manzanar about living through Japanese internment and losing everything.”
- Mrs. Aioki – “My second grade teacher. She greatly helped me, a very insecure dyslexic boy.”
- Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs – “Civil rights warriors and all around badasses!”
- Mazie Hirono – “The first APA woman senator. I had the privilege of serving on the board of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association with her.”
- Chi Nguyen – “Of the White Ribbon Campaign and Parker P. Consulting. She is brilliant!”
- Yumi Hogan – “The first lady of Maryland.”
- Tani Cantil-Sakauye – California chief justice
- Lisa Ling – award-winning journalist
- Mom – “Who raised us in Hawai’i so we could have a better future. After my dad passed away, she took us back to Japan for a year, but came back for our sakes. Never learned English.”
#Hashtags – #LoveEmOrHateEm?
As for me, I don’t completely despise words preceded by TEFKATNAPS (The-Emblem-Formerly-Known-As-The-Number-And-Pound-Signs). They can be useful, especially on Twitter. Mostly, though, they feel like visual clutter.
Nevertheless, I’ve come up with a few hashtags of my own over the years. My current favorite is #NewsThatDoesntSuck, because there’s been a lot of national news over the last several months that has definitely sucked.
To put it plainly, I started using #NewsThatDoesntSuck because of Donald Trump.
His election has turned out to be as much of a disaster as many of us thought it would be. And every day has brought news related to the Trump Administration that has shown something of its:
- Callousness toward struggling and marginalized people
- Lack of respect for humanity’s responsibility to steward the Creator’s world
- Brazen and unconstitutional exploitation of political power for personal financial gain
- Psychological inability to accept unpleasant realities
- Extreme dishonesty, even for politicians
- Governmental incompetence
- Slapdash policymaking
- Pro-life hypocrisy, pursuing policies hazardous to the lives of millions
Just writing this list makes my blood boil with a (hopefully) righteous anger, because so many of these things are antithetical to Christian biblical values. And being a news junkie, with a habit of reading and listening to multiple updates a day, I’ve experienced such boiling events quite frequently since the election. As a result, news that sucks has become at times overwhelming emotionally and spiritually.
I know many of you have experienced something similar in the aftermath of Trump’s election. And from our conversations, it sounds like you’ve also had to figure out how to step away from the news and your activism to catch your breath, take care of yourself, arrest your slide toward burnout, and renew your spirit.
My first step came in early March, when I decided that on some days, I just had to turn off the news and limit the number of times I checked for updates. Into that quieter space entered a bit of K-pop.
Lovely, Lo-Lovely Fox
I can’t recall exactly how I stumbled across the song “Fox” by longtime popular K-pop (short for Korean pop) artist Kwon Bo-Ah, better known by her stage name BoA. It may have started through a suggested video that popped up on the right side of my YouTube screen. That itself was highly unusual, since I’m not a K-pop fan. Until a few weeks ago, I could only have named three K-pop songs, one of them being the track everyone knows, rapper PSY’s ground-breaking 2012 song “Gangnam Style.”
Regardless, I found “Fox” to be so incredibly catchy. Full of joy and energy, it bounced around in my head for almost a week. In fact, I hadn’t had a song stuck in my head for that long since Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” It quickly became the song I played most often in the car and at home.
Several weeks later, it’s still the song I listen to the most. And that’s despite the fact I don’t know Korean, and that the only English lyrics are:
Like a lovely, lo-lovely fox
I’m so into you, babe
A translation of the song reveals that BoA’s singing about a dude she’s attracted to, and that he’s charming like a fox. I don’t get it, but maybe it makes sense to some of you; if so, please explain it to me. But the important point here is that the song makes me feel happy! Even though I don’t really understand it, “Fox” has been a tonic for me against recent sucky news.
Here, you try it:
There are also a couple of videos online that use a shortened version of the song. One shows BoA performing before a studio audience:
Another shows Lia Kim, the song’s official choreographer, demonstrating the steps with students from her dance studio:
Not only is the song a happy, feel-good one, but the dancers look like they’re having a good time! And that’s infectious! It sounds absurd, but it’s true: “Fox” has helped me to deal with Donald Trump’s presidency.
And actually, I’ve curated an entire list of songs that are also saving me from Donald Trump, beginning with the versions of “Fox” I just mentioned. Most of them aren’t particularly deep in meaning, but they’re also fun, and I hope they help you, too! Visit my YouTube playlist called “When the News Sucks,” or look these up indvidually:
17. U2’s “Vertigo”
I’ve also gone hiking more often to deal with my #TrumpStress, as well as maintained frequent prayer times for the people affected by the president’s words and decisions. How about you? If you’ve found yourself often stressed/depressed/infuriated/scared by the news coming from the Trump Administration, what have you done to take care of your own emotional and spiritual well-being? Please let me know on social media (see buttons on this page).
Three years after Mattel’s American Girl brand retired its only Asian American historical doll, Ivy Ling, it has introduced another, Suzanne Yang, who’s better known by her nickname, “Z”! Z Yang represents the latest effort in American Girl’s intentional push for greater diversity in its characters, something I wrote about in my previous post.
Of course, with American Girl, a named character is never introduced as a doll and its associated toys alone, and Z is no exception. A serious vlogger, Z has a special area called the Z. Crew on the real American Girl website; it shows stop-motion videos that the character has made. There’s also an Amazon.com special premiering June 9, American Girl: Summer Camp – Friends for Life, in which Z is the lead character.
And as always, there are books! The first is entitled The Real Z, and it’s really good! I truly enjoyed it, and more importantly, my daughters enjoyed it as well, devouring it in one day each!
The author of The Real Z, Jen Calonita, is a best-selling novelist whose popular middle grade and young adult fictional works include the Fairy Tale Reform School series and the Secrets of My Hollywood Life series. She was very kind to take the time to correspond with me about The Real Z and the work that went into writing the story! I’m privileged to share our conversation here, very slightly edited for clarity.
F.A.D.: You’re a best-selling writer who has written 18 novels previously. What was different about writing for an iconic brand like American Girl?
JEN: It’s funny because I have two boys and my sister has two girls, and out of the two of us, I can be the real girly girl! So when it came time for her two girls to have their first American Girl experience, my sister let me take the girls to the store in New York City to have lunch and pick out their first dolls. I loved every minute of it! I love American Girl’s message of empowerment, and I always tell my nieces they can do anything they put their minds to. So when I was asked to work on the American Girl project, I felt like I won the Lotto. I feel so proud to get to work with them. They have a very clear vision of what they want for their characters, and it was fun to see Z’s first book come together.
F.A.D.: Z is 13 years old, making her older than most other American Girl characters, who are usually no older than 10 when readers first meet them. Do you feel like it was easier or harder to write the story with an older set of child characters?
JEN: For myself, I write middle grade characters that hover around 12 or 13, and my son is 13, so I have a lot of girls in my life at this age. I feel like I live 13 every day! So for me, I enjoyed getting to write about a 13 year old.
F.A.D.: There’s quite a bit of expectation for Z Yang among Asian American fans of American Girl, given that she is the first Asian American doll with a definitive story line since Ivy Ling (controversially retired in 2014). Did this create any additional sense of pressure for you?
JEN: Of course, but it was definitely pressure I put on myself. American Girl knows their characters’ backstories inside and out, and have such a well-thought out plan for their dolls and their book series, so that really put me at ease. Plus, I made sure to talk to a lot of American Girl book fans and girls that are Z’s age to make sure I was hitting her friendship struggles the right way and handling her relationships appropriately. Z puts a lot of pressure on herself as she’s working on her project, and I think that’s true of most girls – and adults! – when they are working on a project they love.
F.A.D.: In the book, you refer several times to things that many Asian Americans, especially those of Korean heritage, appreciate as a part of regular life – kimchi, chocolate Pocky, bubble tea, bossam, and bulgogi, for instance. What has helped you to become more familiar with Asian American culture?
JEN: I wanted to make sure I was familiar with Asian American culture when I sat down to write Z’s story, whether certain aspects ever came into play or not, so I interviewed several Asian American families, teachers, moms, and kids before I wrote the story. Several Korean American tweens and I texted when I ran into questions. A lot of the time I had questions about snacks! I made sure to try them when I could find them, too. My boys are now obsessed with bubble tea and I love chocolate Pocky, and we found a bubble tea shop near our house so I went in several times to talk to the teens who worked there about things as well. My eight year old would ask me, “Do we need to buy more snacks to try? Because I will.” He was very helpful!
F.A.D.: Z’s friends are quite a diverse bunch! Her closest two friends are Caucasian and Latina, while one of her vlogging friends has a disability and another is British and lives overseas. How do you think kids benefit when they have a diverse group of friends?
JEN: I loved hearing about Z’s friends when I was working on the project. Some of her friends are ones that have appeared in Z’s YouTube American Girl videos, and others are new. I think it’s so important for kids and adults to be open to new experiences and meet people from all walks of life and all over the map, so they can learn more about the world around them. Every time I visit a new city and meet school children, I’m amazed at how different their school experiences can be compared to my own or that of my children. I love that Z has so many wonderful friends – both the ones she’s met online and the ones in her everyday life. My mom always pushed me to make friends outside school. I remember her purposefully not letting me go to the dance school in town! She drove me to another area so I’d be forced to meet new people, and I look back on that and am so thankful that my circle opened up because I wasn’t in my familiar surroundings. I try to do the same thing with my own boys now.
F.A.D.: Like many tweens and teens, Z often uses technology and social media to communicate with friends and family. What benefits and limitations do you see to the frequent usage of these tools?
JEN: Insert audible groan here! As someone whose oldest just got his first cell phone, I find it’s a constant struggle between what he wants to do online and what’s appropriate for him to do online at age 12. There are several apps his friends have that I don’t feel comfortable letting him use. It’s tough because kids want to be part of a crowd, but there are many things available online that aren’t right for their age. We talk a lot about how once a picture or video is online, it’s up there FOREVER. So we had constant discussions about what Z and her friends could do online, what was appropriate, and what wasn’t. We made sure that even though Z is a filmmaker, her films have to be shown to her parents before she posts anything, and that’s something really important for kids to understand. Parents are there to have their back, and Z’s really do in this story.
F.A.D.: The city of Seattle is such a big part of the story. How did you become so familiar with its landmarks?
JEN: I’d been to Seattle once on a book tour, and I fell in love with the city. I’ve always hoped to take my family back. I’m somewhat familiar with the big landmarks because I’ve visited them, but I knew I needed to do more, so I did a lot of travel research and looked at a lot of pictures. When it came to the area Z would live in, my editor and I spoke with friends who live in Seattle and asked them about the neighborhoods, so we could figure out the best place for Z to live where she could be near school and shopping but also have a somewhat suburban neighborhood as well.
F.A.D.: To me, The Real Z‘s most poignant scenes take place when the characters are showing vulnerability, whether that’s through their attempts to reconcile or through their admissions of their fears and insecurities. What would you like for readers to take away from these parts of the story?
JEN: When Z’s project comes together, and she creates the “Real Z” hashtag, I felt really proud of her and all the girls who would read this story. Connecting with friends and realizing that others have the same insecurities and fears as you do is important at this age – at any age really – and sometimes the tween years can be confusing. I hope they see how Z and her friends come together and, through their honesty, their friendship grows even stronger.
F.A.D.: My favorite line from the book is “Life isn’t perfect. Why should we pretend it is online?” Do you have a favorite line from The Real Z?
JEN: I think you found it! It’s something I say to my 12 year old all the time. We didn’t have social media when I was his age, so I’m constantly telling him that not everything in life has to be put online – it shouldn’t be – and some of what you read and see online is this small, perfect-moment window that doesn’t really reflect real life. I actually posted a picture of the brownies I baked for the church bake sale recently – smashed and ruined when they fell in the car – because that was REAL. And I think that’s a struggle Z faces in the book. How can she be true to herself and true to her film, while still making it shine?
F.A.D.: In its promotional materials, American Girl emphasizes that its products and books are designed to help girls connect with each other and to empower them to confidently be the best they can be. How does The Real Z try to help girls in those areas?
JEN: I believe girls will relate to Z’s struggles when it comes to friendship and wanting to succeed at something they’re passionate about. When Z tries to be someone else with her film, it doesn’t feel authentic. I think we all do that sometimes. We’re afraid to show people who we truly are. When Z and her friends learn to open up to each other, it makes her film come together and it makes their friendship even stronger. Being truthful is tough but so rewarding, and Z sees that in her story. I hope girls will connect with Z the way I did. I can’t wait to see what she’s up to next.
Scooby, Scooby-Doo, Can’t See You
When I was in the third grade, my mom gave me some devastating news:
Son, you are going back to Chinese School!
I was shocked. Incredulous, I asked if she was kidding. But she was totally serious. Our church, an ethnic Chinese Christian church, was launching its own Chinese School, and I was going to be a student.
I broke down crying, on the spot.
That’s because I had just escaped, months before, from my previous Chinese School, without any thought that I’d ever have to go back. Not literally escaped, of course; Chinese School wasn’t actually a prison, though to me as a suburban eight-year-old Chinese American boy, it felt as much like a sentence to hard labor as anything I’d known.
That’s because my Chinese School had meant a weekly hour-and-a-half to two hours reading, writing, and repeatedly drilling Chinese words and phonetics, using textbooks with pictures that seemed decades old and completely foreign. It meant additional homework and test prep on top of my daily regular school homework and piano practice time.
It also meant having to hear over and over again, ad nauseam, lectures from grown-ups on why it was important for me as an ethnic Chinese kid to know the language of my people, and that I’d appreciate it all when I got older. Worst of all, it meant that I had to miss Saturday morning cartoons, like new episodes of Scooby-Doo, in an era that predated VCRs (which my younger readers may not know stands for Video Cassette Recorders – and I hope I don’t have to explain to you what a cassette is).
And now, my parents were putting me back into dreaded Chinese School.
Girl in the Balance
An American Girl Story – Ivy and Julie 1976: A Happy Balance shows a similar struggle for its central character, Ivy Ling, a ten-year-old Chinese American girl living in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. Like me, and like almost every Chinese American kid I’ve ever known, she can’t stand Chinese School. The first time we see her in class, she’s sneaking peeks at a gymnastics magazine, because that’s where her heart really is, with her local gymnastics club preparing for an all-city competition. Her disdain for Chinese School grows only stronger as she misses the extra practice sessions she desperately needs before All-City; ironically, those are scheduled at exactly the same time as her Chinese School classes.
Early in Ivy and Julie, we also hear Ivy express her weariness at having to eat Chinese food every day, and we witness her quiet embarrassment when her mother speaks Cantonese to her in front of her gymnastics teammates. Watching the special, the adult in me felt like she was being kind of whiny up to that point, but simultaneously, I could absolutely see myself in her and empathize.
It’s been thirty-five years since I was her age, but I very clearly remember the intensity of those sorts of feelings. It’s surprising that those emotions feel quite near to me even now.
Ivy’s own angst becomes overwhelming when she realizes that the big gymnastics meet takes place at the exact same time as the mother-of-all-Ling-Family-Chinese-New-Year dinners, a banquet her parents definitely expect her to attend. As in the book on which the special is based, Lisa Yee’s AG novel Good Luck, Ivy, our heroine faces what, to her, seems an impossible choice – All-City or the family banquet.
Really, Ivy is dealing with more than just a decision between those two options. Even at a young age, she’s wrestling, albeit unconsciously, with the question, “What does it mean for me to be an American?”
It’s a struggle familiar to so many of us who are people of color and/or the descendants of recent immigrants. How much do we embrace good, ol’-fashioned American values and traditions, which we non-whites often identify with white American culture? And how much do we retain the beliefs and practices of our ancestors from distant lands?
This dynamic gives rise to the special’s subtitle: A Happy Balance. Yes, Ivy is working intensely to nail her routine on the balance beam. But on top of that, she’s trying very hard to reconcile, or to balance, her Western values (“All-City is really important to me”) and her Chinese, Confucian values (“the family takes precedence over the individual”).
Played winsomely and with a lot of range by Nina Lu (Bunk’d), Ivy deals with these existential questions with the help of her best bud Julie Albright, portrayed with calm confidence by Hannah Nordberg (Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors). Their on-screen BFF-ship captures the warm, easy bond that the characters share in the AG books depicting their adventures.
Yet Ivy finds a lot of added support in her mom, which is somewhat surprising given the conflicts they have. Gwendoline Yeo (Grey’s Anatomy, American Crime) hits all the right notes as mother Marilyn Ling. In fact, her character’s story is similar to Ivy’s in that Marilyn felt compelled to go to law school, which meant an end to her years of helping at her parents’ Chinese restaurant. Her own choice was not all that different from the one Ivy faces.
Notable encouragement also comes Ivy’s way from those restaurant-owning grandparents, whom she calls Po-Po and Gung-Gung. They’re played laugh-out-loud delightfully by veteran actors Elizabeth Sung (Pali Road, Front Cover) and Tzi Ma (Arrival, The Man in the High Castle).
It is very, very cool to me – “groovy” would be the word that Ivy and Julie use, perhaps while munching on Jiffy Pop popcorn, talking on their corded phones, or listening to records – that this AG special is the first one I’ve seen that really delves into what it means to be an American girl. I haven’t seen all of the AG specials or the lengthier films, but the several that I have seen don’t show their protagonists trying to make sense of how they can be both fully American and fully _____ (fill in the blank). Their identity as Americans is just assumed.
But that’s not the case with Ivy and Julie, which makes it a terrific conversation starter between parents and kids on issues of culture, ethnicity, and nationality. At 44 minutes in length, it even works well for elementary school teachers wanting to engage their students on such topics. And though the story is set in 1976, it can definitely spark discussions, quite timely given our current political scene, about immigrants, why they come to America, and what they contribute to our nation.
This special is a winner on several other fronts, too. For one thing, Ivy and Julie continues AG’s long tradition of excellence in storytelling. Yes, the dolls can be expensive. But the books and videos show us girl characters that are the empowered, resourceful, and compassionate heroines of their own stories. These materials are notable as well for their superb depictions of the historical backdrops against which the stories are set.
In addition, Ivy and Julie continues AG’s increased emphasis on diverse characters. It’s a shift that seems at least partly a response to the huge outcry raised by Asian American families and activists a few years ago, when the Ivy Ling doll was “archived,” or retired. (I traced some of that history last September in this blog post.)
This recent emphasis is most clearly seen among its dolls. I mentioned previously on this blog the new WellieWishers line of five smaller and more affordable dolls. Three of these are dolls of color, including the Asian character, Emerson. (She’s my younger daughter’s favorite.)
Last year, AG also added a second African American doll to its BeForever historical line. Melody Ellison’s story is set in Detroit during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement; it was produced with significant input from African American community leaders and educators, including the late Julian Bond. Subsequently, Amazon released the first of its AG specials, with Marsai Martin (Black-ish) as Melody.
AG’s new dolls for 2017 keep building on the trend. The current Girl of the Year is Gabriela McBride, the first African American doll to receive that honor. Later this year, AG will release a Korean American doll, Suzanne Yang, who’ll go by “Z” for short, as well as Nanea Mitchell, a Native Hawai’ian doll whose story will be set in World War 2-era Hawai’i Territory.
But not only do the newer dolls demonstrate how the iconic brand values diverse American girls, Ivy and Julie does, too! I really appreciate how AG went out of its way to make this program, and I have to think that it’s because AG’s execs truly heard the deep disappointment from Asian Americans at Ivy’s retirement.
Here’s why I believe that: This special is the only feature-length AG video production released when its main character was in the archives. Plus, it’s the first AG special or movie that is not centered on either a main historical doll (Ivy was always Julie’s sidekick) or a Girl of the Year character.
It’s even significant that Ivy gets top billing in the title. It’s Ivy and Julie, not Julie and Ivy, and not even just Julie, which is what I would have expected from an AG story that included the much-beloved Julie Albright character.
You might wonder why any of this is actually important, especially because it’s “just a movie” or “just entertainment.” Why fuss over all this stuff? If my girls liked it, which they very much did, and my wife and I were able to enjoy it with them, then that should be enough, right?
But it’s not enough! It’s vitally important that my daughters and all Asian American girls get to see and read stories that affirm both their Asian-ness and their American-ness. It fortifies their self-esteem and self-confidence to witness their uniquely Asian American struggles depicted as normal and common. And it boosts their resilience and ambition to identify with someone who looks like them, someone who is the heroine of her own adventure, and not simply the sidekick or supporting cast.
There’s a scene in Ivy and Julie where the two girls are looking through a teen magazine, imagining which hairstyle Ivy would want from among the celebrities pictured. After a few pages, after seeing only photos of white and Black folks, Ivy looks at Julie and sighs, “None of these people look like me.”
It’s a moment that just about every Asian American girl experiences at some point, and likely at many points, as she grows up. It really doesn’t have to be that way, and it really shouldn’t.
Dear American Girl, thank you so much for what you’re doing to ensure that it isn’t that way! This feminist Asian dad is extremely grateful.
And my dear readers, please see the special here; my family and I very much recommend it! You’ll need an Amazon Prime membership, but if you don’t have one, you can sign up for a free one-month trial.
It’s one of the most powerful moments in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s brilliant play Fairly Traceable:
Erin, a young Native American environmental lawyer, explains to her also-Native ex-boyfriend why she must one day have children.
Earlier, she had argued in court that the oil industry should be liable for its role in the global warming that energized Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, storms that set records for their destruction and power in 2005. It’s an intensely personal matter for her. She’s a descendant of the Chitimacha Indians and a member of the small Pointe-au-Chien tribe, which experienced devastating losses when those storms smashed into coastal Louisiana.
Speaking with her ex Randy, Erin invokes the long history of American oppression against indigenous peoples:
Climate change isn’t the reason I can’t have kids. It’s the reason I have to have them. If I, as a Chitimacha woman, if I decide to not have kids, well, I’m just helping the United States government finish what it couldn’t quite complete a hundred years ago.
It hit me as an audience member, through my tears and sniffles, that for Erin, having and raising Pointe-au-Chien children would be an act of defiance. As I sat with my own thoughts the next day, it hit me that this scene very much speaks to my being a dad during the Trump administration. It tells me that raising children can be an act of resistance.
Many of us who are deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s ascent to the most humanly powerful position in the world have spoken of resistance a lot since Election Day. We’ve especially used the term when discussing how we can respond to his administration’s numerous inhumane, racially scapegoating, financially self-serving, blatantly unchristian, and just plain bizarre actions, proposals, and statements.
We’ve also, naturally, created a hashtag, #resist, which has found a corollary, #persist, thanks to Mitch McConnell’s infamous quashing of Elizabeth Warren’s speech in the U.S. Senate. And some of us have even adopted the symbol of the Resistance, the good guys in the new series of Star Wars films.
Of course, when it comes to resisting, the stakes are much greater for real-life Natives than they are for me. As an ethnic Han Chinese, I am one of 1.3 billion of my people. The Pointe-au-Chien, on the other hand, number in the hundreds. Resisting societal and institutional injustice is for them a matter of survival, as it is for many Native tribes.
After all, the genocide of Native peoples never really ended. It is just less overt than it used to be.
The long-term nature of the suffering of Native peoples and other marginalized groups points to the value of raising kids to resist and persist as activists and allies. To succeed, the battle against injustice has to outlive us. So through our influence on the next generation, we can help to sustain movements that insist on treating all human beings with the dignity, respect, empathy, and love that Creator says they deserve.
This is a comfort to me. Like many folks engaged in social justice work, I have bouts of what I’ll call “activist’s guilt.” That’s the nagging sense that even after I’ve taken one, two, or more steps of action on a particular issue, I still haven’t done enough.
Sometimes, that’s true; I haven’t done enough. But other times, I have to recognize that I can only do my part, and I’ll have to count on others to do theirs, too. Repeatedly giving in to “activist’s guilt” leads to rapid burnout for many who engage in advocacy.
A recent example of my “activist’s guilt” centered on the women’s marches the day after Inauguration Day. Due to some family commitments, I wasn’t able to participate. I felt like I was doing something wrong by not going. A graphic that made the rounds on social media at the time captured my feelings:
That moment when you’re about to join the revolution and you realize you’d promised to take the kids to the park. pic.twitter.com/T8Z53TcfNZ
— Medieval Problems (@Medieval_Probs) December 28, 2016
Erin in Fairly Traceable reminds me that along with directly serving people who are facing oppression, and marching, organizing, and speaking out as an ally, my work as a parent can very much be an activist endeavor as well. Resisting and persisting happens as I educate my girls about discrimination, nurture their capacity for empathy, and help them determine ways to take action.
It seems like it’s paying off so far. My ten year old is passionate about many areas of social justice, and a couple of years ago, when her teacher asked her class members to name what they wanted to be when they grew up, she said an activist. (You bet your right and left pant legs that I was proud!) Later that year, when they were assigned to do first-person biographical reports on historical figures, my daughter departed from the standard list and decided on Maria Tallchief, America’s first world-famous ballerina, both because she loves dance and because Ms. Tallchief was a member of the Osage Nation.
When the time came for the California rite of passage known as the fourth grade missions project, she chose the mission that seemed to her the most liberal-minded toward Natives, San Luis Rey de Francia, while recognizing that the Spanish colonial project there was still tantamount to slavery. And a few weeks ago, when her fifth-grade class went to the school media room to watch Trump’s inauguration on TV, she asked to be exempted! (I did tell her afterward that I totally would have been okay if she had gone to see it, given the educational value of the occasion.)
My seven year old is passionate about environmental issues. At home, she monitors the rest of our family’s water usage because California is in the midst of a drought; she has drawn and posted reminders in both of our apartment’s bathrooms. If we’re driving around after dark, she points out neighborhoods and establishments that are causing excessive light pollution. When I referred to climate change recently in her hearing, she offered, “I hate climate change.” And a few weeks ago, when she saw #noDAPL painted on a car in our neighborhood, she exclaimed, “The Dakota pipeline!”
Trying to raise my daughters to be activists and allies makes my child-rearing an attempted act of resistance. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t also take other steps of action, but it does mean that how I parent is just as important as the rest of my advocacy work.
I trust that Fairly Traceable will speak to you in a profound way, just as it did to me. The phrase “fairly traceable” is actually legal terminology from the pen of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. It appears in his 1992 majority opinion for Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife.
But if you feel skittish about seeing a play that explores legal doctrine, let me assure you that this work isn’t dry or overly intellectual at all. Ms. Nagle has an uncanny ability, as both a playwright and law firm partner, to take issues of law and present them in ways that are not just educational, but entertaining and compelling. Her masterful play Sliver of a Full Moon does the same thing with the legislative process. In Sliver, she’s able to present the work of congressional coalition-building for the Violence Against Women Act as the pressure-packed, high-stakes drama that it really was for Native tribes.
Three days after seeing Fairly Traceable – and I’d love to see it again – I still feel like there’s more I need to process. That’s probably because the play taps into so many themes with deep human resonance. Heritage and ancestry, race and culture, romance and loss, family and faith, oppression and struggle, science and law, and life and death all intersect meaningfully during the two-hour performance, which includes a brief intermission. Experiencing Fairly Traceable was like going on a powerful journey during which I laughed a lot, cried some, and left hopeful.
The play is clearly a labor of love for Native America, the environment, the state of Louisiana, and humanity as a whole. Ms. Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, was a student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans when Katrina hit, much like the lead characters Randy, played by Jason Grasl (Blackfeet), and Erin, played by Kyla Garcia (Taíno). Jennifer Bobiwash (Ojibway), Kinsale Hueston (Navajo-Diné), Chris Jorie, Shyla Marlin (Choctaw), and John Nielsen complete the outstanding cast, each of whom hits all the right notes with his or her character.
I rarely say that something is must-see, but Fairly Traceable is! It’s playing in Los Angeles at the Autry Museum’s Wells Fargo Theater through March 26. It’s recommended for ages 13 and up. See specific times and get tickets here.
What are you waiting for?
For my previous posts about being an ally for my Native brothers and sisters, visit my old blog, Raising Asian American Daughters:
I’m excited to share that I’ve been published in print for the first time! I’ve guest blogged for Christians for Biblical Equality before, but this time, they’ve honored me by inviting, then printing, an article of mine in their quarterly Mutuality Magazine. You can read my piece, “Defending My Daughters Against Rape Culture,” in the March 2017 issue on fatherhood, both on paper and online.
Special thanks to my editor Tim Krueger, a new dad himself!