I had to stop watching the news for a few days because of the overwrought handwringing by the press about the Boston Marathon Bombers’ radicalization. They think it’s inconceivable that they could have been radicalized here in the United States and must have been influenced by outside forces despite the lack of evidence to support that theory.
Let me tell you how easy it would be to radicalize an immigrant.
I am not an immigrant. I was born in New York City but I’ve had to endure accusations and insinuations by anyone who longed for the good old days that I am not a real American.
I know how important my citizenship is and how blessed I am to have it. I also know there is a significant percentage of my fellow citizens who will never accept me as one of their fellow countryman… never.
I remember being beat up in elementary school and being forced to apologize for Pearl Harbor even though I had no idea what the older kids were talking about. One of my classmates would taunt me by shouting “Hey Chinese!” and then pull his eyes to slant his lids. When I protested, the teachers said they couldn’t do anything because, indeed, I was Chinese.
I was an exceptional student in high school but some parents complained that the scholarships and awards shouldn’t go to a foreign student and I should be disqualified. I was accused of shouting racial epithets at a high school football game because “our kids wouldn’t do such a thing.” My principal called me a disgrace and that I needed to learn respect since I was “a guest in this country.”
One parent wanted me kicked out of a school production of Oklahoma! because she was inviting agents to see her daughter perform and that it would look like an amateur production with a Chinese cowboy. I ended up wearing so much makeup to hide my ethnicity, I looked like Sasquatch.
My college experience wasn’t much better. Once I wasn’t permitted to register for class because I had presented my U.S. passport as my ID. The registrar said that anyone presenting a passport was required to present a green card as well. By the time we got the matter cleared up nearly all the classes I wanted were full and I ended up taking electives outside my discipline to keep a full course load.
Another time I was refused a spot in a playwriting class because the teacher didn’t accept ESL students. He asked me if I thought in English or Chinese. When I told him I didn’t understand the question he said that was proof I didn’t have enough command of the language to be in his class.
At that time I was training to become an actor. In a program for a play I was acting in my name was misspelled Isaac Ito. When I brought it to the producer’s attention he said it wasn’t a big deal since I was the only Oriental onstage and easy to pick out. He refused to correct the error.
I was turned away from an audition for an amateur production of Pacific Overtures because I was told I would look funny being the only real Oriental on stage.
I signed up for an audition for a school production of Born Yesterday and waited 4 hours while other actors were let in before me. By the time I was allowed in the director was gone and the stage manager was putting away the furniture. When I complained, I was told that I knew there were no parts for someone like me and yet I was willing to waste their time by auditioning so the director felt he needed to teach me a lesson and waste my time.
I was fired from a temp job on my first day because the warehouse guys were uncomfortable telling ethnic jokes while I was around. By then I had learned that it wasn’t prudent to complain about ethnic jokes. Even though I hadn’t said anything my presence was enough to be let go.
I have been asked to recuse or disqualify myself from many discussions involving immigration or minority issues because of my obvious bias being a minority.
I self identify as Asian American which has gotten me in more than a few arguments. That if I call myself Asian American, then I’m not a true American; that I have loyalties to China even though I never lived there. If I want to live in America, then I must forsake all things Chinese despite the fact that the Irish, Italian and German immigrants have no such requirement.
I was called a racist by a creative executive because of a line in one of my scripts where a Chinese immigrant laments that he misses hearing the music of his native tongue; that the sound of Americans speaking English sounded like snorting pigs. Yet when comedians “ching-chong” I’m supposed to lighten up and find that funny.
How many times are you made to profess out loud that you love this country? How many times in a public place are you asked, “What are you doing here?” How many times are you asked to provide your bona fides to prove that you’re supposed to be at this meeting? Often I have to explain that my MFA was from UCLA, not some adjunct school or continuing ed program and that I had to meet the same strict requirements to get in and to graduate as everyone else.
English was by far my weakest subject growing up. I struggled to write even the simplest of essays in high school. Yet when I saw the stereotypical roles that were available to me as an actor (and worse, that I had to fight to get them), I knew that the only way I could effect change was to become a writer and create those roles.
When I first came to Los Angeles I bought the lie that production companies and studios fed me; that a good script was a good script and it didn’t matter what the story was or the ethnicity of the characters. I’ve also heard producers complain through their representatives at diversity panel discussions that they would produce more ethnically based movies if only there were more good ethnic scripts out there.
People with a little bit of power are so afraid to make a wrong decision they mitigate their creative and financial risks. “Dark and edgy” no longer means transgressive and they fall back on the traditional norms of storytelling: Gays are still freaks, immigrants are uneducated, women need men for fulfillment and the mentally ill should be locked up before they become mass murderers. To truly be transgressive would mean including all of the above as welcome Americans deserving of equal rights and treatment.
Too many of my contemporaries place a high value in the validation given by a studio gig or representation by a big agency or just the mere association with a famous actor. That validation has defined their career.
I will admit that the glamor of Hollywood was a factor in my decision to come to L.A. But as a writer, I’ve had to cultivate a functional knowledge in a wide range of topics including Constitutional law, immigration, prejudice, white supremacy, history, chemistry, medicine and Civil rights; topics that have made me a much more informed human being. For me, the knowledge and experience I have accrued is the true validation of my efforts.
Time and again I meet many “average Americans” who believe that because America is the greatest country in the world, there is no need to see anything from anyone else’s point of view. I recently traveled to China with my father and some of my fellow American travelers openly complained that no one spoke English and that they were being fed only Chinese food.
My political activism wasn’t by choice. At the time I broke into the work force, I had no idea why so many doors were closed to me. I couldn’t understand why I was excluded from employment as a stage hand because they didn’t have an Asian American play programmed that year. I couldn’t understand why it was okay to exclude minorities from the audition process and yet it wasn’t okay to exclude whites. I didn’t understand how white characters were considered “universal” while minority characters lacked the ability to be transcendental.
And yet I’m still told by well meaning folks that racism exists only in my mind. That if I really paid attention I’ll notice that it’s only minorities who bring up race issues. That if we just stayed quiet about it, it would all go away.
I hold no illusions that anything I do will bring about the end of racism. But I must believe that what I write will make a difference. That discourse, discussion and reasoning will make a difference along with protests, demonstrations and empathy. Even if it’s an incremental difference, it’s better than the alternative.
It would be so easy for me to consumed by anger and I will admit that that my early creativity was fueled by anger. But I learned quickly enough that if you wanted to be a creative person for the long term, you had to let go of your anger before it consumed and destroyed you. I believe that, despite all their flaws, you have to love the worlds you write about and the characters who inhabit them for them to have any lasting impact.
Once you stop believing; once you lose faith in the power of discourse and creativity, once you lose faith in the level playing field provided by our laws; once you no longer believe your opinion or your vote counts or matters, once you no longer believe fairness exists, that’s when the radicalization begins.