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December 24, 2004

HRL, American Provinciality & The Asian Emergence

I had dinner with my brother Doc, the cop, last night high atop the Magic Johnson Building in downtown LA. We talked about the futility of the ghetto. Doc and I hold up the Right end of family politics here on the Left Coast. The subject drifted, of course, to my growing understanding and perception of things Chinese. What was new this time was the notion of the parallels between the ghetto mentality and the Asian identity crisis.

The what? Asian identity crisis? It's a subject that never was mentioned in America's most intense discussion of Asians which was over the controversy of Affirmative Action. And instantly Doc says, Americans are so provincial. Doc, by the way is narrowing down where to spend the month of March, which he has off. He has picked out a condo on the beach in Rio which goes for 1000/mo. But if I'm in Beijing, he'd love to hang out. This is his dilemma. A nice problem to have. But he's also scratching his head about the factors and forces that have the potential of expanding the Internal Third Worlds in southern LA County. He talks about the fact that crack is now just $5 a hit.

He mentioned that the political victory of southcentral politics has been the unconditional retention of incompetent medical staff at 'Killer King' hospital and rejection of Wal-Mart, the biggest capital investment in the area since the building of the 105 Freeway. How do people get it so twisted? Ghetto Mentality, provinciality. I agree.

You see, looking at Asians strictly in the terms of the battle between blackfolks and whitefolks over Affirmative Action forces them to be the 'model minority'. Most people know that's wrong but have left a great gap in their understanding of where Chinese (for one) are coming from and going to. The confluence of chatter about China now is heading towards another new reaction in the popular mind. A new Yellow Peril attached to the release of import quotas on Chinese textiles. The smart money expects China's market share in clothing the American market to go from about 15 to 50 percent over the next three years.

Doc laments that the American Way is being forgotten, that we have lost the edge of our homesteading and sharecropping forebears. He recently watched a school janitor in upscale South Pasadena belt out the National Anthem with operatic quality. Half the parents in the audience didn't bother to take off their hats. We're forgetting what it is to be American. I say that America is still only an Idea. Whomever lives it, gets it. But sometimes I wonder who is going to fight for us, who is going to volunteer for our volunteer army? (As a tangent, multinational forces and interventions are going to be more necessary in the global future, we may as well be a prime supplier.) I'm not particularly concerned if a large number of middle-class North Americans forget what's up. Events will catch up enough times. We'll feel it. Word will travel fast and we'll pay attention. Nothing sneaks up on the American public, we'll know it.

But what of the American ideal and our provinciality?

What I'm hearing is that Asians in their own countries are turning the corner of emergence. The identity crisis isn't at the individual level so much as it is at the national level. They are asking themselves how did they lose it as a people - just the way Afrocentrists freak when they think about the pyramids and the cradle of civilization. So I see a natural alliance or at least a direct parallel with the black experience. Everyone in the 20th Century assumed that America itself was the future - that the American model was what everyplace had to be recast as. But America has been pushed further than that. We are the laboratory, we are not the finished product, and I think Asians are coming to understand that our talents and resources are for appropriation, not emulation. America such as she stands is not the destiny of the character of global modernization. She is the R&D lab and the showroom. We go through all the iterations and experimentation here - we are spiritually imbalanced, introspective and a bit psychotic. We are the bleeding edge of the leading edge. We are driven to innovate and change to be irreverant and constantly dissatisfied with ourselves. Understand that, and you can make peace with America.

I happen to think that we will retain enough cohesion in a multi-culti America to remain a global destination. In fact, this may be the only place capable of voluntary federation. The fifty states are an amazing diversity in and of themselves. I can't wait to get rich and buy a town in Montana or Alabama. I'll be happy to have Belizians, Uzbeks, Somalis and Hmong living, working and schooling there.

To the title:

HRL is the acronym for Human Relations Lab. At Episcopal Camp Stevens in San Diego County, if you were to be a counselor back in the 70s, you had to endure HRL. HRL was essentially a one week psychological exercise in dealing with the agony of teenage life and insecurity. As prospective camp counselors we were give a few conceptual tools and instructions twice a day, and twice a day we would spend four hours locked in a cabin with 7 of our peers. As you can imagine, we teenagers started to stare each other down and ask questions about each other and bare our itty bitty souls. At the age of 14, for the first time in my life, white people stopped being indifferentiable. I knew what they freaked out about. I understood them better than they understood themselves. At the end of the week I had the kinds of friends you write 10 page letters to. Then again I didn't, because I still lived in LA and for the most part, I never saw them again.

Nevertheless, I still remember Coby, Bob, Gina Del Bene, Gwen, and a bunch of others whose names remain in my Outlook Contacts. I still remember the Jewish girl who was smarter and friendlier but fretted about the shape of her nose and couldn't believe she could possibly be as cool as the others. I still remember the chunky girl with black hair and brown eyes who had a fraternal twin sister who had blonde hair and blue eyes. She watched her sister, with her uncomplicated and merely sweet personality, get all the friends. I remember the boyfriend swapping, the mooning over Coby who played all the girls, Bob's convertable Mustang, the kid who could play 'Stairway to Heaven' on his guitar, Lida the Slut, the Dogtown Stoners, and me being the champion QB in the Roach Bowl.

After HRL, people were no longer mysterious to me, even the fat acne-faced kid who smoked, cursed everybody out and refused to open up. That trailer trash kid who played the role and everyone decided to hate, I understood him too, because he and I were still niggers in our own way. Except that I had already decided that I was going to get in on the fun, and he decided to maintain his cool pose. See, I didn't have a lot of confessions in HRL. I could jump on the bandwagon and say I was jealous of the attention the blonde twin from Newport Beach got, but I couldn't break down and cry about my parents not loving me or getting a divorce. My deep secret was that I was a masturbator and that I believe that I thought too much - that I could too easily withdraw from whatever people actually did and turn reality into another set of concepts to manipulate in my mind. Except these things didn't make me cry.


The provincial discussion is this. We Americans keep going back into the cabins and rehashing the same topics. The black and white dialog dominates, just like all the other familiar topics. These days the red and blue. We don't get to know the fat trailer trash kid who smokes. As Stuart Buck's quote of Chesterton states, there are no uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people. Every subject can have it's rewards for mastery. But America doesn't have to look beyond. We are in such a state of introspection and insecurity that our chaos is creative. We keep making that blonde blue girl the endpoint of all speculation; we keep making that big Negro the endpoint of all speculation. They are bookends of a Universe, overloaded symbols inapplicable to real people. We Americans masturbate and ignore reality for the fun of manipulating the ideas in our minds. We dream a world and remain insecure. Isn't it interesting that I say America's problem and strength are the same as mine? Typical, I suppose, but easy enough to undestand I hope. But the point is that we keep coming back and trying to fit the Universe between those bookends.

I said at Jimi, as he speaks about the Unbearable Whiteness of Being that we don't really want to graduate from HRL and ditch race. We want to keep re-inscribing it. On the one hand we literally shy away from all discussions that lead to the scary questions. But then when we finally get into the scary question and say it we feel like we have got to find another way to imply it. Because, just like in HRL, the real human being shows up, and cries, and bares their soul. But it's not enough. Somebody, somewhere, is still a nigger. Somebody, somewhere is still white trailer trash. Even when everybody else reveals themselves to be quirky individuals with their own hangups which are not racial, it's not enough. We have to get back to that same old tired duality. That's provincial.

For the longest time, I've had a problem with the relative silence of the Asian kid in the room. We do our blackfolks vs whitefolks routine ad infintium as if we're channeling some twisted offspring of Richard Pryor and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And where I've been dialoging to my race man's heart's content, nobody Asian has seemed to have any skin in the game. What I've assumed, with some accuracy I think, is that our volume was too loud anyway. And I've been working off Bryan Hirota. But the idea that's emerging now has a lot to do with what an immigrant can expect. It makes even Dat Phan more sympathetic.

What I know is that in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, there are a hell of a lot of newly minted manufacturing millionaires in China. But there is no professional, 'investor' class. I think it is reasonable to think the same thing of India and much of the rest of Asia. We get the rich kids, scions of those who can afford to send theirs overseas to America for a world class education. And what is to be expected of those Gen X asian kids? Same as the New Jacks whose parents are still Ghetto, minus the cultural currency of the New Jack Swing. The English they speak is Becky English. They don't understand the blackfolks vs whitefolks racial mesh at any appreciable level. They're trying to get theirs in America and not step on anybody's toes. Some end up being twinks. It's inevitable. Not everybody rich enough to get their kids into American schools is Rich. Just like black college kids. Add what? Plane fare from Bangalore and a couple thousand more? Not everybody is bold enough to play the existential braggadocio raps like Boyz from the Hood. Some folks are here on a bounced up house note, with cousins left behind. And I think more than a few of them ain't thinking about going back.

But the Asian emergence means that more MBAs and PhDs, fresh dressed are thinking maybe they don't want to live in North Hollywood. Maybe they see a glass ceiling over here and are thinking maybe now it's time to go back and live large in the old country. So there's the parallel.

The open question is the cultural future of a modernized Asia. And that's the question I want to take to Asians here, most of whom I suspect only speak English, but some of whom with which I will be collaborating in the future.

Posted by mbowen at December 24, 2004 11:15 AM

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And by extension - where do all the different flavors of Hispanics fit into this race and culture thing? PRs and Mejicanos and Panamanians and Peruvians may all speak the same language, but the histories are different and the cultures are different and after a couple of generations things get all mashed up and mixed and confused and Spanglishified anyway.

Damn, Cobb. I love coming here because you make me think about where the country's going, and that stokes the fires of hope. Thanks, and Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Posted by: Kevin at December 24, 2004 05:01 PM