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  Written by
  Kim Sweet

  Imaging by
  Lloyd Degrane

  Text-only
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  FEATURES
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Hyde Park revisited
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Hugo Sonnenschein
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Pan-Asian persuasion

 

 

image: FeaturesWhile food is a tempting and easy way to introduce a different culture, the PanAsia organizers strove for much more nuanced depictions. At Monday night's Pan-Asian Teahouse in the Reynolds Club, families and passers-by came to munch but stayed for the art exhibit curated by Wen-Shing Chou, vice president of the Chinese Undergraduate Students Association (CUSA), which sponsored the teahouse along with the Chinese Students & Scholars Association. Chou, a third-year, was born in Taiwan, has studied in Italy, and lived in Germany. With help from the Chinese Cultural Association at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), she'd thrown the exhibit open to both SAIC and U of C artists, picking about ten works to mount on the wall. Three of the artists weren't Asian at all, but their works still reflected Asian techniques such as anime or delicate brushstrokes, or relevant themes such as the search for identity in a multicultural world. Meanwhile, a video of an American's travels in China played in the background, and in the C-Shop, undergraduates taught all interested comers how to play Chinese chess and other games.

One of the next night's offerings took on a more physical twist. In a martial-arts exhibition in the basement of Ida Noyes, members of the Traditional Karate Club displayed a rainbow hue of belts and skin tones while demonstrating punches, blocks, and kicks to a crowd that started at 50 and continued to grow. The resounding thuds of bodies dropping to the ground drew gasps during some shorinji kempo sparring. And the kendo group, just returned from a tournament at Harvard, did drills--practice strikes at one member's head, wrists, and torso.

image: Graduate student Joseph Pang
Graduate student Joseph Pang and daughter Michelle enjoy Asian art displayed in the Reynolds Club.

Other cultural events spanned the week as well as a range of interests. Stir Friday Night, a professional Asian-American comedy troupe, helped get the opening weekend off to a bright start. The first afternoon of a two-day film festival showcased Japanese anime, a Filipino documentary, and a feature by director Wong Kar-Wai, while the second night's bill featured Asian-American pieces, including The Sixth Sense, directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan. And no U of C conference would be complete without a symposium. During the final two days of PanAsia, graduate students from UCLA and the U of C, in addition to the Universities of Georgia, Michigan, and Montreal, presented papers on 20th-century Chinese art and literature. On the evening of Saturday the 15th, the South Asian Students Association sponsored the closing performance by local dance and performance group Funkadesi, which claims Brazilian and African roots as well as Indian.

At the same time, a speakers schedule of activists and academics ensured that troubling political and social issues had a chance to be aired. For her lecture on yellow power, U of C assistant professor of history Mae Ngai drew on personal experience. Having taken part in the '60s civil-rights movement in the U.S., she recalled to an audience of about 40 listeners her days fighting against both the model minority myth and "yellow peril" bigotry, organizing labor unions, demanding Asian-American studies programs, and protesting the war in Vietnam.

"We realized that the enemy was a people who looked like us," she commented of the war. "American soldiers called their fellow GIs by the same slurs as they called their enemies. The evidence showed that the U.S. continued to view us as foreigners, not as Americans, and saw us as a threat." As she recounted her activism for the students, she advised, "There is a false opposition between the academic profession and community service and orientation. I think you can do both."

After Ngai's account, third-year Jessica Liu, a Chinese American from Youngstown, Ohio, said she'd felt a flash of recognition when Ngai told of being just one of four Asian-American children in school when growing up. Coming from a white suburb, Liu explained, "I never really thought about these issues before I came here." Sometimes people call being too assimilated whitewashing, she says matter-of-factly. At the U of C, she's had the chance to meet many more people who share her heritage. "I'll call home and say, 'Mom, guess what? I made another Asian friend!" she laughs. Sometimes, Liu acknowledged, Asian Americans do tend to hang out in groups that may seem exclusive-but so do students of other ethnicities, she argued. In such groups, "You don't have to explain yourself."

image: Reunion 1998
Fouth-year Elizabeth Han plays the ching, a metal drum representing the moon. The traditional Korean folk music called poongmul also involves dance.

In fact, the political was personal for many people involved with PanAsia. Indonesian commentator Christianto Wibisono, spoke on his country's social and political climate. Professor Arjun Appadurai, AM'73, PhD'76, addressed ethnic violence around the globe, with a focus on India, where the bloody conflict between Hindus and Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir has been going on for years. Campus group South Asia Watch put together a community-service bazaar--offering students the chance to get involved in organizations like Apna Ghar, a social-service agency for domestic-violence victims--as well as a brown-bag lunch with local activists for Asian-American concerns. During Thursday's panel discussion of the May 1980 citizen uprising in Kwangju, South Korea, Monteverde said that he first learned of the unrest and subsequent massacre in a Korean civ class. "All these people were fighting for a basic right to live," he said to an audience of about 30. "That simple fact made me realize why Asians worship their ancestors. Somebody before you gave up everything they knew so that they could find a better way of life, you could have a better way of life. The fact that somebody did all that for me is why Asian-American is different from American."

Two PanAsia events provided students with a chance to give voice to their own opinions and feelings on issues of race and ethnicity--and everything else--in a more creative forum. On Tuesday night, Samahan hosted an open mic featuring Asian-American spoken-word group I Was Born With Two Tongues. As most poetry events do, it started half an hour late. Held in Hutch Commons, the night opened with a poem written by a Caucasian student inspired by his inner "academic brat." An African-American man drew applause for his hip-hop inflected work. With time, students who hadn't come to Hutch for the open mic began to pay attention, and people who'd journeyed from around the city for the event began to show up.

Two Tongues, who've made a name for themselves on the local poetry scene and toured the West Coast this spring, took the stage with bassist Darius Savage after 9 p.m. Two of the four members have U of C ties: Emily Chang is a fourth-year English literature student, while Dennis Kim began his undergraduate career at the U of C. Kim warmed the crowd up by freestyling for several minutes, and then Chang (a Magazine intern) performed her poem "Hyphenation." Meditating on the confusion of having immigrant parents and a hybrid culture, she spoke about being a "long way from home no matter how far we walk." Feeling "stitched together by hyphens," she finished by vowing to "extract the needle from my heart and stitch together my own being." By the end of the set, the crowd had swelled to six times its original size.

Two nights later, MOIM, the U of C Korean poetry translation group (the name means "a gathering of people"), held its annual coffeehouse in the third-floor theater of Ida Noyes. The group invited Loose Roots and the staff of Kilmok, a campus Korean-American literary journal, to join them. Tea lights, chrysanthemums, and daisies graced circular tables where the audience dined on Korean delicacies. Dedicated to sharing the beauty of the Korean language and poetry, MOIM members read in pairs: one to recite a poem in Korean, the next to give the English translation.

Loose Roots served as accompaniment to a military poem. Monteverde says he plays with the Korean group, although he is not Korean, because he identifies with the Korean sentiment of "han," or struggling to make one's way through life. "In many ways, it's analogous to African-American music," he muses, comparing "soul" to han. "It's said that in order to sing or play traditional Korean music properly you have to concentrate all your han and explode it through your vocal chords or through the drums. No matter if the music is upbeat and happy or slow and brings you to tears, there is an underlying sadness of living life as an oppressed person."

Members of Kilmok read their own work as well as that of friends and established writers such as Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee. Second-year Bora Chang read a piece by a male friend of hers who asked why porn flicks never feature Asian men and wondered how he'd learn to get the girl and kill the bad guys without any cultural role models.

No doubt some students left that night--and others--having discovered role models they'd never heard of before. Some decided they really should give karate a try, or campaign for an Asian-American studies program at the U of C. Some had a great time seeing their friends' talents on stage. And others have already signed on to organize PanAsia 2001.

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