Popular and funny MetroDad, a blogger whose work I usually enjoy, wrote a post some time ago called “Use Your Words: How We’re Raising a Nation of Pussies!”–and I respectfully disagree. After reading his post, I thought, hmm, definitely a big city dad’s point of view on what’s best for his DAUGHTER. But I’m here to give a feminist woman’s response to what’s best for my SON. And I don’t think you can use the same guidelines for boys and girls. Most girls need to be encouraged to be more physical in asserting themselves, as their socialization tends to inhibit them; most boys could probably use some curbing of their socialization to use physical means to solve their problems, and more encouragement of verbal and connected ways of resolving conflict.
Here’s a post I wrote on LA Moms Blog that answers MetroDad in part. (The rest I’ll say later on in this post.) In it I talk about my love for gory kung fu movies in which women as well as men kick ass, and how I struggle with this apparent contradiction as a peace-loving feminist raising her Asian American son. To excerpt myself:
[My parents] shrugged at murder mystery books…and made exceptions for a certain kind of violence onscreen, and you know why? Because they thought it was more important that I retain my Chinese language ability, and the way we did that was to go to subtitled kung fu movies. I listened in Mandarin Chinese and followed the hilariously misspelled English subtitles. The year my dad was on sabbatical at a university on Long Island, we drove in every weekend to the theatre in New York’s Chinatown right next to an elevated portion of train track. We’d bring takeout, and eat it during a double feature. Kids would be running around, grandmas getting up at the most inconvenient times in the middle of a plot point to visit the ladies room, people would talk occasionally, and every ten minutes a train would rattle the whole theatre. The theatre owners turned up the volume, all the better so we could appreciate the grunts, screams, and groans as evil Tang dynasty villains who were inevitably the minions of the emperor fought in exhausting combat with the humble villagers who were avenging the wrongs committed against their peasant families. This wasn’t the arty, prettified Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon version of kung fu movies Ang Lee made. These were down and dirty Run Run Shaw old school epics. Grindhouse flicks fanboy Quentin Tarantino would approve of. (He WISHES he lived my childhood.)
I still recall how, at ten years old, I’d watch the cartoonishly graphic eye-gougings, impalings, garroting, limb-chopping (complete with giant shooting geyser of red blood!), blood-vomiting from kidney-punching, and brutally long kung fu action set pieces that went on for ten minutes at a time. Anything could become a weapon: a braid of a woman’s hair, a pitchfork, a walking stick, a flute that shoots deadly hairpins/blowdarts. It wasn’t only men who fought, it was women so fierce they beat up, and were beaten by, men. The point of all this violence, I guess, was to show how important it was to fight unto death 1) people who would oppress you, 2) people who messed with your family. And women were equally expected to fight in the resistance against the corrupt emperor and avenge their families.
My favorites were the Shaolin monks who were supposed to be Buddhist vegetarians but snuck meat, were supposed to be teetotalers but got drunk when the head monk wasn’t looking, and “only” fought when attacked (but that seemed to be quite often). Those ripped (and “celibate”) Shaolin monks…one of whom broke out of kung fu movies and became known as Jet Li. But I digress.
The point is that the lofty kung fu ethos–fight only in defense, the smartest one is the one who anticipates the fight and deflects it, that brawling is for losers and losers need to be thumped–clashes hard against the need to tell a great visual story. One where the dazzling mastery of martial artists, truly an amazing sight, can be shown off. And also that the last word is for movies: peaceful monks are also the ones who can get most medieval on your ass; yet, even so, they have to keep proving the point to the next wave of bad guys who come over the hill. Contradictions abound: for all their warring, the Chinese haven’t really ever colonized anybody. (Recently. Um.)
Now, given that this is part of my heritage, I would like to pass on my appreciation of Bruce Lee, and kung fu movies in all their athletic vigor, to my son. But maybe when he’s older. When he can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. When he won’t try to “fly” with his kung fu powers from the ground to the tiled roof of a house, like the actors do with the aid of wire work. When he understands that “use your words” aren’t the last resort of a wuss, but the first defense of a Chris Rock (who seems to be doing all right with a tongue like a stiletto), or a Jon Stewart (who also seems to be doing all right with a brain that works and a sense of humor), or even the shrewd, silver-tongued Barack Obama (who you could say is a righteous dude and no pushover as well). Obama, who, for his own reasons, won’t be baited into losing his dignity and will still prevail.
Because believe it or not, after all that amped-up, violent, sometimes gruesome, way-of-the-fist moviewatching, I turned out a pacifist. I wouldn’t want my son or anyone else’s child to go to a real war, and be cannon fodder. I just don’t trust any politician that much. And the last thing I’d want my son to believe is that fighting is how you solve problems. The way of the fist gets trumped by the way of the gun; but the way of the tongue trumps them all, from what I can see.
I’m hoping there are new models of masculinity, and strength. I look around at the battles being fought everywhere, over things I can hardly keep track of any more, and I think, it doesn’t seem to be working very well. There’s got to be a better way than an eye for an eye. That way lies ethnic infighting, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and vendettas so ancient their origins are lost in the mists of time.
So it looks like my son will be demonstrating crane, viper, mantis, tiger, dragon, and monkey for his class [to introduce something he knows and appreciates about being Asian American]. And talking about pandas. Cuddly pandas that can kick butt, when they need to. But only if all other ways of being a peaceful person have failed.
So, what’s my problem with MetroDad’s views in what I call the School of Ultimate Whupass philosophy? I don’t, for the record, have a problem with raising resilient, tough, self-contained, emotionally self-sufficient kids. It’s what I hope I’m doing, even as I encourage my son to feel his feelings (and not stuff them–here’s what can happen when Asian men stuff their feelings).
But here are my misgivings about the School of Ultimate Whupass:
- what kind of masculinity are you teaching your son if you say that fighting is a reasonable way to solve problems? Shoving back at the sandbox is one thing. Getting into fights as an adult is another.
- if you don’t allow siblings to fight each other ’til one emerges the victor to solve problems, why is it okay to hit other people you’re not related to?
- can you really make your kid responsible for fighting back when most schools have a zero-tolerance policy for fighting in school, with both kids usually being given suspension? The problem gets thrown back to you whether you planned to deal with it or not. It’s not so easy to say, “Kid, you have to deal with the consequences life just dealt you.” It’s your problem too as a parent. The principal will make it your problem. And expect YOU to come up with a solution.
- can you really assume your kid didn’t start it first?
- even if your kid didn’t start it first, do you really get the last word by throwing the last punch in a world that’s so fucked up, it doesn’t even see the legitimacy in why you fought back?
Take this example of the last point, some of which is redeeming (the actions of the kid’s anti-racist friends), and some of which is really appalling (the comments to the article, saying, “where’s the racism?”): when a racist schoolmate use racial epithets to taunt, then hit an Asian kid, the Asian kid, a black belt in martial arts, defended himself and broke the racist kid’s nose. The Asian kid was suspended. He may face expulsion and has criminal charges filed against him, but the kid who made racial taunts was only suspended.
HB was so disturbed, he emailed the newspaper article to me. We’ve been talking about it a lot, and I’m sure as HiroP gets older, it’ll be something always lurking in the back of our minds.
There’s a lot going in the article. First of all, the racist kid hit first and drew blood. But when the Asian kid defended himself (part of me says approvingly, You broke his nose, goooooooood), he got the book thrown at him. He might face expulsion, and was charged with assault. The racist kid? He was suspended for starting the fight in front of lots of other kids who were witnesses, but aside from that–nothing.
Now we all know there’s prejudice. I’m female and yet I’ve heard my share of “chink” and what-have-you over time. But there’s one-on-one racism and then there’s the racism institutionalized throughout a community.
Having grown up in a tiny northern town similar to Keswick, ONT (in fact, just across Lake Ontario in upstate New York), I know all about small town racism. First of all, everyone’s related to everyone else. The principal is probably the racist kid’s second cousin’s aunt by marriage. If not the principal, then a police officer on the scene is the nephew of the racist kid’s mother’s grandmother. Or something like that. Small towns don’t absorb outsiders easily. They’re often insular and cliquish. An incident like this will cause everyone to circle the wagons and make bullshit excuses, “The racist kid’s not a bad kid, boys will be boys…” And the Asian kid and his family have only been living in Keswick since 2004.
So here we have an example of a kid who was provoked into fighting, threw the last punch, and now is having the brunt of legal and administrative punishment bear down on him instead of the boy who shit-started.
Everyone wants to believe the movie myth that you can crush your attacker with one definitive fight. It’s seductive fantasy. For boys, “you crush that bully for once and for all, and are crowned new king of the playground” is the equivalent of girls’ “you win the prince’s affections and live happily ever after.” I think the incident described above proves that myth is more KARATE KID than truth. Real life is seldom so neat. In fact, real life continues on in messy, unresolved, sometimes unsatisfactory ways past a clean narrative conclusion. There aren’t convenient endings to life where the credits scroll up and we leave that episode tied up in a boy scout knot.
What happened in this instance is that the community closed ranks against the outsider: the Asian kid and his family.
From the May 2, 2009 Toronto Globe and Mail, which was c&p here:
For the moment, both students are suspended from Keswick High School, but the Asian student’s parents have been told he could be expelled and forced to find a new school.
They are shocked and saddened by the ordeal.
The day after the fight, an older cousin of their son’s antagonist approached him in the school cafeteria and uttered a similar slur, compounding their sense of despair.
“He said, ‘You punched my cousin you Chinese ****,’ ” the 15-year-old said. That student was overheard by a teacher and suspended.
His father explains that the easiest course would be to move somewhere else and get a fresh start for his son. But he can’t do it.
“I don’t want to run away. If another Asian kid comes to this school, what happens to him? Will he run into problems? Will they think they can just kick him out? I don’t want to set that example,” he said.
“Personally, for my kid, I should move. But as a Canadian I cannot move.”
Some might say, that’s a small podunk town in rural Canada. No one would do that in big cities in New York or California, where people are more cosmopolitan. I say maybe, maybe not. What California has going for it is real and sizeable Asian Pacific American communities. But to imagine that racists who pick fights with Asians have disappeared is naive and unrealistic. And to believe that every single principal in every school is enlightened and a passionate advocate for anti-racism is also unrealistic.
Now what doesn’t help the Asian kid, and is different from how HB and I would handle things, is the immigrant parents’ approach to things. Sweeping generalization: immigrants tend to accept the authority of principals, the police, the school board, and other authority figures. (I think of my parents. They had unhelpful advice for me such as, “Ignore them,” or even less helpful, “You come from a culture that’s 5,000 years old and America is barely 300 years old…”)
To give these particular immigrant parents credit, the mom pushed for more anti-racist curriculum at the school. She was rebuffed. In small, otherwise homogeneous towns, immigrant Asians may be isolated from other Asians, and have no community other than whites sympathetic to their plight. Perhaps that’s also why my parents took the “cultural superiority” approach that they did–they didn’t have many other cards to play and certainly no community to speak of to turn to. And maybe that explains the predicament these Asian Canadian parents find themselves in.
Clearly the 400 kids at the school stood up for their friend the Asian kid. But apparently, none of the adults who matter in that town have stood up for what’s right/the Asian kid.
If what happened to this kid happened to HiroP, HB and I would scream bloody murder. We would be on the phone SO FAST to the school board, the superintendent, the local media, the other kids’ parents, our mayor, congressman, the police chief, the city attorney, a damn good lawyer–whoever it took for our kid to get a fair shake. (I doubt it would happen for a number of reasons, mostly because we chose our community very carefully for its reputation for diversity, progressivism, and tolerance, etc.) As American Born Chinese (ABCs) we know how to work the system. We know that volunteering at the school in ways big and small is a way to make sure our kid’s learning what he needs to and not being hassled. We’d feel obliged to take a high profile stand and fight on behalf of our son, instead of turning inward. We’d find allies. We’d call the racist kid’s parents and say, “What the fuck?” We’d raise holy hell. Because we understand how the system works. We understand what the levers of power are and will use them. Most importantly, we improved the chances that nothing like that would ever happen to our son by living in a metropolitan area with a large Asian American community.
Most importantly, we’re trying to raise a son who’s deft at navigating all these minefields involving masculinity. We want him to develop a strong core sense of confidence in himself, the self-knowledge to know what he’s capable of, the ability to make allies, and the perspective to understand that the actions of a racist person trying to victimize him do not define him.
But we DON’T want him to overcompensate for some perceived lack of “masculinity” by growing a huge chip on his shoulder that can only be addressed by proving himself again and again, sadly, ON OTHER PEOPLE’S TERMS.
And we’re fully cognizant that you can be the strongest, most resilient person in the world, and someone can come along and use racism to shit all over you. That’s the point–racism is a blunt force tactic to take away your humanity and dignity regardless of what you did, said, or how you live.
The family of the Asian boy in Canada has chosen to be quietly defiant. From my view, the lack of support from adults in that community has caused them to internalize the insult that was added to the original injury. And I’m not sure that’s helping the boy overturn the assault charges or see that the racist kid gets his due.
Here’s what I take away from all of this:
- sometimes fighting back physically/in an uncontrolled way is a sucker’s game. (Again, I cite Obama. Weren’t Republicans hoping to tease and provoke Mr. Cool into blowing his top and being “the crazy/scary black man run amok” that they wish he was? Luckily, Obama was too smart for that.)
- use your judgment. Get a little Sun Tzu on your adversary’s ass. In the case of the Asian Canadian boy, I think he was right to hit back and good for him that he was a black belt. But individual retribution falls apart when there’s a disconnect between the parent’s actions on behalf of their son, and the community’s actions.
- I disagree with mainstream parenting that posits “reality” and “practicality” as center-right constructs and Darwinism as a given. Might makes right is the ethos of a culture IF YOU LET IT BE the ethos of a culture. The racist kid’s parents need to seriously check what they’re teaching their kid about people, and get with the anti-racist program. They need to be compelled to do it. The school needs to be compelled to do it.
- words are powerful. Use them.
- humor is powerful. Use it.
So MetroDad, wondering if you’re altering your position a little? I think your post was entertaining and fun, but maybe not so suited to the details of actually raising peace-loving sons in a culture that pushes for boys to front a machismo that does them, and others, little to no good. This Asian Canadian kid lived by his martial arts-dad’s teachings to use force only in self-defense, because he’s a peaceful person. His punch was effective in the short run, but now he needs some help “using his words.”
I know you’re a smart, funny Asian American man who’s made a good living by working harder and smarter. Deep in your childhood, you may have some stories about growing up an Asian American boy in a time and a part of the country that may not have had a place for that. (HB, who’s also Asian American, certainly has his battle scars from growing up in the midwest.) I’m guessing you use your words to get ahead.
That’s why it was so counter-intuitive to hear you dismiss teaching kids to “use your words.” See, sometimes when we teach our kids, we reinforce the lesson for ourselves as well. That young man needs to find his tongue; helping his parents find theirs could help him too.
In the end I’m guessing we both want the same thing: to grow the next generation of wonderful Asian American boys into successful, confident, feminist men. Tossing aside strong ways of asserting yourself, like “using your words,” doesn’t help.
With that, I’d like to reach out and propose a blog action in support of that poor Asian kid in Keswick, ONT. Why isn’t there anti-racism training added to the curriculm? Will he have to face a judge and have an undeserved criminal blot on his record? Let’s be that kid’s missing Asian North American community. Let’s shine a spotlight on the people in that town, and force them to confront the unfairness of their approach. Let’s blog, call it out, whatever makes the most sense.
York School District Race Relations Advisory Meeting, May 14, 2009
York Region District School Board
The Education Centre – Aurora
60 Wellington Street West, Box 40
Let’s use our words–to make sure there’s sunlight on this case, and to make sure justice is done.