Deborah Jiang Stein was born in prison to a mother addicted to drugs and later adopted into a loving Jewish family. Her story is not a typical Asian American story and that’s exactly why it’s so interesting. It’s all here in her new book Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus.
The story of a woman whose gift for finding purpose in life drives her to help others change their lives even as she struggles to accept and overcome her own past, born heroin addicted to a mother in prison. Her story proves we’re more than the sum of our parts, and there’s always a chance for redemption.
Sometimes, it takes a dive over the edge to find your center. Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus is about the courage and curiosity to create an authentic life with purpose and resilience, and what it takes to hold onto this courage.
Today Deborah tours women’s prisons to plant seeds of possibility and hope for others, and little by little, fulfilling her mission to change attitudes of secrecy and shame.
Her interview is here, Up Close and Personal:
1) You have one of the most fascinating backgrounds! And I thought Anthony Bourdain (host of No Reservations and ex-chef author) had some history! What made you rebel? And what was the turning point for you?
Thank you, Mia, for your interest in my story and work. I’m honored you’re including me on your blog, especially because I live between several worlds with mixed Asian American one of my identities. I’m still finding out the mix.
Which turning point spun me into rebellion, I’m not sure. The first turning point might’ve entered my life before birth, when I sensed the insecurity of my birth circumstance, about to pop out into a prison.
One point of no return framed the early part of my life after I learned about my birth in prison from a letter I discovered buried in my mother’s dresser. I was twelve and from that day on I carried the secret, and the stigma, with a vengeance against the world.
2) You show remarkable fortitude and resiliency. Where does this come from? What traits can you attribute to your birth parents? And what to the parents who raised you?
I’ll never know for sure where nurture balances against my nature. How does anyone know this? There’s much I don’t know. I can say I have a higher threshold of risk than anyone in my family and I suspect this comes from my birthmother.
On the other hand, much of my make-up today as a creative, curious woman, most likely sprouted from my upbringing.
Maybe we’re all a nature/nurture combo, an age-old debate that will go on and on and cycle through the same question and back again to ask, “Which drives us the most, nature or nurture?”
About fortitude and resilience, what’s the choice? Either plow through a challenge, or not. I don’t know any other way but to push ahead. It’s not as easy for me as some people think but most of all, I’m not one to give up until by instinct I sense it’s time to move on, at which point say to myself, “I’ve done all I can, done my best.”
3) Was there an epiphany that caused you to start The unPrison Project or an “a ha” moment? What do you hope to accomplish? What do you need help with?
Thanks for this opportunity to shamelessly plug my nonprofit. I’m thrilled about the future of The unPrison Project and what we can give back to incarcerated women and their children. Last year we received our 501c3 nonprofit status so all donations are now tax deductible.
My first return visits to my birthplace, the Alderson prison in West Virginia, inspired me to use what I was given in life to reach out and give back. The unPrison Project works in four directions right now: 1) To educate people outside prison about the needs of women in prisons and their children; 2) To provide a Goals Journal for each woman in prison we reach custom printed so they can track their goals in education, parenting (if they have children,) drug and alcohol rehab counseling, and life skills development; and 3) To provide resources and motivation for women on the inside to pursue their education, and follow-through on rehab and mental health counseling; and 4) College scholarship foundation we’re establishing for high school daughters of women in prison, with the Alderson Prison as the pilot program.
The travel to reach prisons across the country, and workshop materials, all need funding. While some prisons contribute, their budgets don’t allow for the kind of support this work requires.
We need seed money for each of the four programs. If anyone’s moved to donate, please do so here.
4) Is there anything in your past that you regret or that you’d do over?
I lament some things, but not regret. I wish I’d been kinder to my mother, I wish I’d spoken up for myself more as a girl, a few other “I wish…” But in everything past, it’s gone and I don’t spend time focusing on what could have been. I’d drive myself crazy if I did this.
5) What lessons would you want to impart to young people including your own children?
My two daughters, ages 12 and 16, know three things from me, for sure. At least I hope so. Kindness, respect, and curiosity, these matter most, I believe, for all ages—to respect ourselves and respect others. Imagine if this were universal?
6) What are your goals and aspirations today?
Beyond writing, my goals and aspirations focus on The unPrison Project and reaching as many women in prisons as possible with a message of hope from someone they’ve never met with the kind of story and skills I bring, added to clear-cut outcomes about education and rehab for substance abuse, which is one main contributor to incarceration.
I’m working on a second memoir, and also a YA novel, and a collection of short stories. I yearn for more do-nothing time, preferably on a beach, cooked under the sun and barefoot in sand.
To contact Deborah, email: email@example.com.
The Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature honor and recognize individual works about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritage with exceptional literary and artistic merit. The awards are given in five categories, including Adult Fiction, Adult Non-Fiction, Children’s Literature, Young Adult Literature and Picture Book.
Amy Waldman imagines the fallout when a Muslim American of Indian descent, Mohammad “Mo” Khan, wins an anonymous competition for a 9/11 memorial just two years after the World Trade Center tragedy. Waldman treats her large ensemble of characters with understanding and sympathy. Through the experiences of two very different Asian American, Muslim characters—disenfranchised and privileged, immigrant and second generation—“The Submission” interrogates the definition of America.
Leche by R. Zamora Linmark was selected as the Honor Book in the Adult Fiction category.
The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond the Rape of Nanking – A Memoir by Ying-Ying Chang won the Adult Non-Fiction award.
Ying-Ying Chang had the unfortunate task of writing her own daughter’s memoir after her tragic death. This moving memoir takes the reader into the world of Iris Chang, journalist and author of “The Rape of Nanking” (Basic Books, 1997), following her childhood imagination, creative writing, triumphs, motherhood, depression and suicide. Ying-Ying Chang did what she thought was important; to share the story of Iris’s illustrious as well as obscure life, which makes for a touching and poignant tribute to her daughter.
The Bangladeshi Diaspora in the United States after 9/11: From Obscurity to High Visibility by Shafiqur Rahman was selected as the Honor Book in the Adult Non-Fiction category.
Twelve-year old Lucy is going to have the best year yet: she will be a sixth grader, be the captain of her basketball team and have a bedroom all to herself. Her plans change, however, when her Yi Po (great aunt) visits from China and Lucy has to share her room with Yi Po for a few months. This is a hilarious first children’s book for Shang, with a serious undertone as she explores the complexities of racial identity in a Chinese-American family with traditional parents and American-born children.
Vanished by Sheela Chari was selected as the Honor Book in the Children’s Literature Category.
Kanako Goldberg wants nothing more than to spend the summer with her friends in New York, but the loss of her classmate Ruth changes everything, and her parents believe that the best thing for Kanako to do is to be shipped off to her grandparents’ mikan orange farm in Shizuoka, Japan. Written entirely in verse, Kana’s intimate narrative captures the reader as she not only grapples with the death of a friend, but also navigating a place that is not entirely familiar, even if it is a part of her.
Level Up by Gene Luen Yang was selected as the Honor Book in the Young Adult Literature category.
The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young won the Picture Book award.
Fragments of artist Ed Young’s childhood are gathered in this memoir, displayed in a variety of hand drawn images, paintings and collages of cut paper and personal photographs. While addressing the issues of World War II and their effect on China, much emphasis is placed on warm vignettes of small, personal moments that all readers can relate to.
Hot Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min was selected as the Honor Book in the Picture Book category.
Special thanks to the APALA Literature Awards Committee, including Jury Chair Dora Ho; Adult Fiction Chair Michelle Baildon and members Suhasini L. Kumar, Karen Fernandez, Eileen Bosch and Jerry Dear; Adult Non-Fiction Chair Buenaventura “Ven” Basco and members Eugenia Beh, Samanthi Hewakapuge, Monica Shin and Yumi Ohira; Children’s Literature Chair Ngoc-Yen Tran and members Shu-Hsien Chen, Tamiye T. Meehan, Laksamee Putnam, Katrina Nye and Maria Pontillas; Young Adult Literature Chair Lana Adlawan and members Jade Alburo, Lessa Pelayo-Lozada, Karla Lucht and Candice A. Mack and Picture Book Chair Susan Hoang and members Jeannie Chen, Kate Vo-Thi Beard, Amber Painter and Danielle Date Kaprelian.
An affiliate of the American Library Association (ALA), the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) was founded in 1980 by librarians of diverse Asian/Pacific ancestries committed to working together toward a common goal: to create an organization that would address the needs of Asian/Pacific American librarians and those who serve Asian/Pacific American communities. For more information about APALA, visit www.apalaweb.org.
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If you’re like most Asian Americans, you grew up in an immigrant family. Your mother and father struggled to make ends meet. They raised you. They relied on you for English. Maybe you were a reader, but it never occurred to you that you should be able to recognize them and yourself in the movies you watch and the novels you read. Maybe you thought you could become a writer and tell that story. You thought that studying in school and working hard on your manuscript were enough to get you published, but you didn’t realize that writing is the easy part of being a writer.
You could turn to local arts groups for support, but these organizations get their financial support and programmatic priorities from foundations, grantmakers and large donors. Did you know that three-fourths of the top 100 foundations have zero Asian Americans board members? In fact, none of the top 100 foundations employ an Asian American executive director, president, or CEO.
Did you know that less than half of 1% of philanthropic dollars goes to Asian Americans—even though Asian Americans comprise one in 20 Americans and more than one in ten New Yorkers? Those that do fund Asian American groups almost entirely focus on direct service organizations. Almost no philanthropic dollars are invested in the infrastructure of Asian American arts.
Our culture is losing the majority of the stories and ideas of the fastest growing ethnic group in America—Asian Americans. Here’s where you come in. Where foundations and publishing houses have failed, you can step in and make an investment that says that, like us, you believe that the Asian American story deserves to be told. Please donate.
What nationality do you think Lisa See is? Would you be shocked if I said she’s Asian American?
I went to Lisa See’s book signing last week with two work friends, Nat and Annie, both Asian. Confession: none of us had read her books but we’ve all heard of them and even were planning to read them someday. We were a tad late so we had to sit in the aisle on stools because the room was chock full of Empty-Nester aged women, some who seemed to have traveled a great distance to see Lisa See. An introduction was made and Lisa See stepped out. We all did a double-take … WTF? Lisa See is not what we expected to see. Described as an Asian American author, she didn’t look Asian at all. Furiously typing into our iPhones, we Googled her nationality. Yes, she is indeed 1/8 Asian (and we calculated: so that means a great-grand parent is Asian), and then, over our initial shock, we settled down to listen to her speak.
She’s fascinating and lovely. And in fact, more Asian than I am though I am 50% Chinese and 50% Chinese (and married to a Korean). She grew up in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. That alone makes her more Chinese than I am. I grew up driving one hour once a month to eat and shop there. (I wonder if we ate at the same restaurants??) She spent 5 years learning and speaking Mandarin. I spent one tortured year studying Chinese from a group of cold calling Tiger Moms and remember nothing.
OK, we’re the same. Lisa claims to retain nothing as well. I don’t believe her. She does speak her family’s dialect which I didn’t catch. I don’t. In fact, I don’t know what dialect my father’s town speaks. She knows an amazing amount of Chinese history. I studied Japanese history in college because it was a shorter period of time.
She may not look Asian but she’s definitely more Asian than I am!
My friend Nat found more fascinating information about Lisa See’s ethnic heritage in this interview: Stuck in the Middle (Time Magazine) by Lisa See
In 1871 my great-grandfather Fong See, an illiterate peasant, left his village in southern China for Sacramento, California, in search of his father, who had disappeared during the building of the transcontinental railroad. At about the same time, Letticie Pruett’s family crossed America in a covered wagon and homesteaded in Oregon. By the late 1890s, after years of manual labor, Fong See owned the Curiosity Bizarre, which manufactured underwear for brothels. Letticie had run away from home and ended up in Sacramento. When no one would hire a single, uneducated woman, she drifted into Chinatown and the Curiosity Bizarre, where she begged Fong See for a job. He hired her, one thing led to another, and they decided to get married.
It was against the law in California and many other states for Chinese and Caucasians to marry. It was also against the law for Chinese to own property in California, and unlawful at the federal level for Chinese to become naturalized citizens. These laws had grown out of the so-called “Driving Out,” when Chinese had literally been driven from Western towns�when they weren’t hung, shot, burned or stabbed by members of the white community, who had no fear of retribution because Chinese could not testify in court against Caucasians. What started as informal harassment was formalized with the Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the immigration of Chinese laborers and led to even more institutionalized racism.
But with a contract marriage drawn up by a lawyer, my great-grandparents set out to achieve the American Dream. Fong See and Letticie raised five mixed-race children and ran five antique stores in southern California. Fong See became the patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. He was the first Chinese in the U.S. to own an automobile and was one of the few Chinese to do business with the white community by selling props to the nascent film industry and antiques to customers like Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite these successes, Fong See’s four sons — all American-born citizens — had to go to Mexico to marry their Caucasian fiances.
Drop down another two generations. I am only one-eighth Chinese, with red hair and freckles. People often ask me where I fit in and how I define myself. My answer has to do with where I grew up and what I saw around me. Fong See had four wives, as Chinese traditional codes dictate for men with great wealth and prowess, so the Chinese side of my family in Los Angeles numbers close to 400, with only a handful that look like me. It’s been 130 years since my great-great-grandfather left China, and we’ve become educated, changed our way of dress and lost our Cantonese. But there’s a deep core that connects to our peasant ancestors.
Many small rituals in my daily life mirror what I experienced as a child. I tell my sons to put only what they’re going to eat on their plates, and I still pick at their discarded chicken bones. When they want comfort food, I cook them rice. (Shortly after going to college, my older son called to announce happily that the girls next door had a rice cooker.) When my younger son boasted that he’d told his chemistry teacher to stop checking her e-mail during class, I made him go back the next day with a gift of a perfect orange and an apology.
I do look different, and nothing will ever change that or people’s reactions. At my baby shower, some friends mistook my father, a professor, for a Chinese waiter. I’ve had Chinese Americans and Chinese-in-China talk about me as though I weren’t there: “I had a cousin from the south who looked like her, but her hair is disgusting.” On book tours, Caucasians will often ask point-blank, “Why would you choose to be Chinese when you have all the privileges of being white?” Given my family and the era in which I grew up, I don’t know that I had a choice.
The last of America’s miscegenation laws were overturned in 1965. Intermarriage is common, and if you walk into a classroom today, it’s impossible to tell a child’s exact race, or what race or ethnicity he or she may identify with. You certainly can’t with my own sons, who are only one-sixteenth Chinese and otherwise Irish, English, Scottish, Spanish, Russian, German, Austrian and Polish. I tell them it’s up to them to choose their own identities just so long as they marry nice Chinese girls. They think I’m kidding. I’m not, really. Who, I wonder, is going to cook them their rice?
The ambiguity in which she grew up — Asian American but looking Caucasian — gives her a unique perspective reflected in her writing:
“At first glance, Lisa See would not seem to be a likely candidate for literary voice of Chinese-American women. With her flaming red hair and freckled complexion, she hardly adheres to any stereotypical conceptions of what an Asian-American woman should look like, however, her familial background has given her roots in Chinese culture that have fueled her eloquent, elegant, and exciting body of work.
See grew up in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Although she is only 1/8 Chinese, her upbringing provided her with a powerful connection to that fraction of herself. “I really grew up in this very traditional, old Chinese family,” she revealed in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com. “It was very traditional, but also quite magical in a lot of ways, because I really was in a very different culture then how I looked.”
See’s Chinese background was not the only aspect of her family that affected the course her life has taken. She also comes from a long line of writers and novelists. Her somewhat morose relatives initially led her to believe that writing must be the result of suffering and pain, which turned her off from literary pursuits at first. Ironically, despite her strong family roots, See only decided to try her hand at writing as a means of embarking on a lifestyle without roots. “I knew three things,” See said, “I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. How am I gonna do it? And I was really thinking about it, and then one morning, I woke up, and it was truly like a light bulb went off — ‘Oh, I could be a writer!’ Many, many years later, here I am, married, I have children, [and] I am a writer.” Barnes and Nobles
Lisa See wasn’t at her book signing to talk about her ethnicity though she did touch upon it. In fact, she had a more interesting story to tell. It seems her oldest son upon graduating from Stanford, no less, was having a meltdown during a family vacation because he felt that his life had peaked. The more she comforted her son, the more depressed she became. When did she have her “moment?” Her family concurred, “Nope, you never had one.” This is despite having published four critically acclaimed novels and birthed AND raised two children!
Her epiphany was that, indeed, she did NOT have her moment and was going to dig deep for her next book. Her friends, agents, publishers, and family all agreed: “No one is going to want to read your new book about a friendship between two women set in China.” But she did not care and forged forward, going to dark and sad places that she had not had the courage to explore before.
The end result of this personal internal journey is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, now out as a movie.
Have you seen the movie? What do you think? Did you read the book? She says the movie is very different than the book with a new modern story of the descendents of Snow Flower and Peony overlaid and woven through the story in her book. A kind of Julie and Julia twist, I suppose.
Her latest book is Dreams of Joy and the reviews are raves:
“One of those hard-to-put down-until-four in-the-morning books . . . With each new novel, Lisa See gets better and better.”—Los Angeles Times
“Once again, See’s research feels impeccable, and she has created an authentic, visually arresting world.”—The Washington Post
“A stunningly researched epic about revolutionary-era China.”—Los Angeles
“See is a gifted historical novelist. She illuminates a turning point in Chinese history when people still remembered the inequities of the feudal caste system, and in some cases embodied them. . . . See is unflinching in her willingness to describe it all.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“See’s fans will be glad to read more about Pearl, May and Joy, and See’s recurring themes of unbreakable family bonds and strong-willed women.”—The Oregonian
p.s. I didn’t realize that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan‘s producers are none other than Asian Trophy Wives Wendi Murdoch and Florance Sloan. I just read a great interview in Harper’s Bazaar here. And by “Asian Trophy Wives,” I mean that in the most flattering way: beautiful, smart and accomplished Asian women seem to be sought after by media moguls these days. I have a post on that here. Wendi Murdoch is mentioned in that article on Asian Trophy Wives though if you read the Harper’s article, she comes across as smart, accomplished and very, very together.
p.p.s Yes, this is the same Wendi Murdoch with the fast reflexes who deflected the shaving cream pie that was aimed for her husband, Rupert Murdoch. She may have clocked the assailant in the process, but, hey, he deserved it! Here’s a slow motion video of her.
Book Suggestions from Readers Along the Lines of Lisa See
Thank you to I Wu from her book suggestions.
Hi Mia-loved JadeLuckClub post on Lisa See! Suggest books:
1. Chinese novel Clear Sky + Serenity about local woman’s extraordinary journey pre-/post-Japan attack on China through Hong Kong, Taiwan to US, touching war, history, women in STEM, career/family balance, child/eldercare, immigration, multicultural themes.
2. How to Break the Glass Ceiling Without a Hammer: Career Strategies for Women Edited by Linda Ellis Eastman
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My Mom Friend, Nazli Kibria, from my middle daughter’s class turns out to be an expert on sociology who studies immigration issues particularly those of Asians. She teaches at Boston University and I’ve asked her for permission to repost some of her articles and she was kind enough to give me permission. This article goes hand in hand with tomorrow’s post on Bangladesh. While tomorrow’s post is an armchair travel “kid book club” and includes children’s literature, crafts and a recipe, her article gives more background on what appears to be an invisible immigrant group: the Bangadeshi.
I would really love to explore what it means to be “Asian in America,” which of course, is not a one size fits all description by any means. I hope that this essay on Bangladeshi immigrants helps us all to understand this group better.
Please feel free to leave any questions or comments. I can always ask Nazli to do a follow up post on this topic or on any of her other books.
For example, I was going to loan her Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom book and have her comment based on her book Becoming American: Second-Generation Chinese and Koreans (i.e. based on her research, is this extreme or typical parenting for Second-Generation Chinese or Korean Americans?). Just askin’.
This versus this for another blog post?!
Kibria book finds immigrants face ignorance, misperceptions
BY SUSAN SELIGSON
For Bangladeshis in the United States, the unfavorable image of their country as one of poor, starving people is hurtful to their sense of national pride and distressing in its simplification, says Nazli Kibria, a CAS associate professor of sociology.
Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
As a Bangladeshi born in the United States to a family that divided its time between the eastern world and the West, Nazli Kibria has long been privy to Americans’ perceptions of her native country. Most of these perceptions, though not necessarily malicious, are wildly off the mark, she says.
In her new book, Muslims in Motion, Kibria, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of sociology, examines the Bangladeshi diaspora, telling the stories of challenges faced by Bangladeshis in the United States, Great Britain, the Gulf states of the Middle East, and Malaysia. Her study gives voice to cab drivers and university professors, shopkeepers and restaurant workers, and those who toil almost anonymously as part of the immigrant contract labor force to the world’s wealthiest states.
For Bangladeshis in the United States, the unfavorable image of their country solely as one of “poor, starving people, floods and famines” is hurtful “not only to their sense of national pride, but distressing in its simplification, in its ability to reduce the rich and complex realities of a country they know so well to a one-dimensional stereotype,” says Kibria.
Published by Rutgers University Press, Muslims in Motion is Kibria’s third book. She has previously written about Asian immigrants in Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans, and Becoming Asian American: Second-Generation Chinese and Korean Americans. Any author proceeds from Kibria’s new book, subtitled Islam and National Identity in the Bangladeshi Diaspora, will go to the Shah AMS Kibria Bangladesh-U.S. Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation established in memory of her father, a politician, economist, and opposition activist who was killed in a grenade attack in Dhaka in 2005. Though a group of men were charged in the killing, they were never brought to justice. Kibria believes the charges were false, the result of a government cover-up.
Kibria has been met with this and other equally ignorant remarks. “Bangladesh is kind of invisible in the U.S.,” says Kibria, who, like many of her fellow Bangladeshis, is sometimes mistaken for Hispanic. Or, in the eyes of many Westerners, Bangladeshis inhabit a limbo between East Indians and Pakistanis. Kibria has found that, culturally, Bangladeshis who mix with other South Asians tend to take on Indian tastes such as Bollywood, which is seen as frivolous in Bangladesh, or gravitate in another direction, toward Muslim communities. “They start to identify primarily as Muslims,” says Kibria. “But nationality, not religion, is most important to a Bangladeshi.” The now-embattled secularism of Bangladesh was initially laid out in its 1972 constitution, a year after the nation, formerly East Bengal, gained its independence from Pakistan.
Today, the low-lying, flood-prone nation—the size of New York state—has a population of 150 million, making it the eighth most populous country in the world, as well as the nation with the largest Muslim majority after Indonesia and Pakistan. But Kibria says that the predominantly Sunni culture of her homeland is laced with indigenous rituals, as well as Hindu and Buddhist belief, lending it the feel of a “folk” religion.
Kibria researched her book from 2001 to 2007, during which she interviewed 200 Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants and their families. Her subjects spoke about the impact of their migration on their family and community life, religious practice, and political views. Whenever possible Kibria attended community and family gatherings. In her book, which includes interviews with Bangladeshis in the Boston area, Kibria considers Bangladeshis’ place in the post-9/11 world, which has sparked greater interest in, and suspicion of, Islam.
“Even Bangladeshis who haven’t been here see the world as pre-9/11 and post-9/11,” says Kibria, who believes the national mood in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks raised stress levels of new Bangladeshi immigrants and those who were living here at the time.But Bangladeshis still choose to come, for one reason only: the dream of an American education for their children. “A lot of people don’t realize that America’s biggest resource is education,” says Kibria, who also points to an increase in Bangladeshi migration to other English-speaking nations such as Australia and Canada.
Kibria cites U.S. census figures showing that there were 5,800 foreign-born Bangladeshis here in 1980. That number steadily climbed, to 92, 237 in 2000. In 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, nearly 7,000 Bangladeshis became U.S. citizens, with the largest concentration in New York, followed by California, Florida, and Texas. While about 2,000 work in the professions, a large number of Bangladeshi immigrants are overqualified, notes Kibria. “I know a doctor from Bangladesh who now works as a hotel clerk,” she says. While many immigrants get stuck in low-wage jobs, they remain here in the belief that their children will prosper. The downward class mobility Bangladeshis are likely to face in the United States takes its toll, causing depression and health problems, says Kibria. Americans aren’t likely to grasp the odd, split existence of many Bangladeshis, who live like paupers here and “like kings” when they return for periods to Bangladesh, she says.
While the Bangladesh economy is steadily growing, the country has faced periodic violence and unending political woes since it gained independence in 1971. In the ensuing decades Bangladesh has suffered the assassination of its first prime minister, devastating famine, a succession of military coups, and a gradual transition from secular to Islamic rule.
In her book, Kibria points to a new generation of what Kibria calls “Muslim-first”Bangladeshi immigrants, the children of “Bangladeshi-first” parents. But those who rush to stereotype this younger generation will learn from Kibria’s research that, as she writes, a “great variety of religious approach and experience prevails” among these Bangladeshis, whose devotion to Islam, far from being extremist, is more about adding meaning and purpose to their lives, in a way that works for them as individuals. “I believe in Allah and I try to live by the basic principles of honesty and compassion for people who are less fortunate…but I don’t cover my head,” says Tanya, a Bangladeshi American in her early twenties, who was interviewed in Kibria’s book and who lives among the large Asian immigrant population in New York’s Queens.
In her travels, Kibria found that Islam was the common thread among Bangladeshi migrants as diverse as the upper-middle class bank employee in the United States or the United Kingdom and the impoverished rural Bangladeshi who goes to Saudi Arabia on a labor contract. She hopes that those reading Muslims in Motion will gain a better understanding of Bangladeshis abroad in light of their young nation’s religion and tumultuous history.
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I had posted on my parenting blog, PragmaticMom: Education Matters, about A Race to Nowhere and on my reaction to Amy Chua/TigerMom/Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, when I realized that these two hot buttons are actually very similar. Amy Chua’s extreme parenting style, a.k.a. Tiger Mom, is a result of her own lack of emotional intelligence and self actualization; deficiencies that are products of a parenting style that stresses obedience, perfection and hard work without being able to make choices, learn from mistakes, or figure out who you are vis á vis relationships with friends. But what is perplexing and disturbing to me is that she would want to replicate this parenting style for her own children. I mean, really, is there not an iota of rebellion in her?! That is strange, right?!
When I discussed Tiger Mom parenting with my mom friends including Capability:Mom, we all were shocked that Amy Chua would NOT realize she’d get a strong and negative reaction to her book (i.e. death threats). It seems as if she didn’t get any feedback from her mom friends to soften the harsh edges of her messages. That is also strange to me and would indicate that maybe she doesn’t have a Mom Friend network to bounce her ideas off of. Her inability to communicate the nuances of her message (i.e. I am NOT a psycho mom) is very telling about her own emotional intelligence. There is book smart and people smart. She’s just book smart.
In the excerpt below, I was also surprised to find that, in fact, a law career does not fill her heart with joy and that she seems to have gone on this career path for reasons that do not include passion, interest and self-fulfillment. And yet, she would dictate to her own children the pursuits they were to devote their childhood to, at least until one of her children had the backbone to rebel against her. The gene for rebellion appears to be recessive in her family DNA.
I guess my takeaway is to encourage self actualization. Yes, it’s true that Asian parents all want their children to be “resumé” impressive, but the path to career fulfillment is through self actualization, a process that requires trial and error, with emphasis on the error. But it is well worth it.
They say, after all, “if you love what you do you will never work a day in your life.” Amy Chua has been unhappily slogging since she was born. And that is a Race to Nowhere.
“If something seems unfair at school, just prove yourself by working twice as hard and being twice as good.”
In the book, Chua portrays her distaste for corporate law, which she practiced before going into academe. “My entire three years at the firm, I always felt like I was playacting, ridiculous in my suit,” she writes. This malaise extended even earlier, to her time as a student. “I didn’t care about the rights of criminals the way others did, and I froze whenever a professor called on me. I also wasn’t naturally skeptical and questioning; I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it.”
At the AASA gathering at Yale, Chua made the connection between her upbringing and her adult dissatisfaction. “My parents didn’t sit around talking about politics and philosophy at the dinner table,” she told the students. Even after she had escaped from corporate law and made it onto a law faculty, “I was kind of lost. I just didn’t feel the passion.” Eventually, she made a name for herself as the author of popular books about foreign policy and became an award-winning teacher. But it’s plain that she was no better prepared for legal scholarship than she had been for corporate law. “It took me a long, long time,” she said. “And I went through lots and lots of rejection.” She recalled her extended search for an academic post, in which she was “just not able to do a good interview, just not able to present myself well.”
In other words, Battle Hymn provides all the material needed to refute the very cultural polemic for which it was made to stand. Chua’s Chinese education had gotten her through an elite schooling, but it left her unprepared for the real world. She does not hide any of this. She had set out, she explained, to write a memoir that was “defiantly self-incriminating”—and the result was a messy jumble of conflicting impulses, part provocation, part self-critique. Western readers rode roughshod over this paradox and made of Chua a kind of Asian minstrel figure. But more than anything else, Battle Hymn is a very American project—one no traditional Chinese person would think to undertake. “Even if you hate the book,” Chua pointed out, “the one thing it is not is meek.”
“The loudest duck gets shot” is a Chinese proverb. “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is a Japanese one. Its Western correlative: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Chua had told her story and been hammered down. Yet here she was, fresh from her hammering, completely unbowed.
There is something salutary in that proud defiance. And though the debate she sparked about Asian-American life has been of questionable value, we will need more people with the same kind of defiance, willing to push themselves into the spotlight and to make some noise, to beat people up, to seduce women, to make mistakes, to become entrepreneurs, to stop doggedly pursuing official paper emblems attesting to their worthiness, to stop thinking those scraps of paper will secure anyone’s happiness, and to dare to be interesting.
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“Evocative and moving. Ru Freeman is a marvelous storyteller who sees deeply into the complex layers of compassion and love, of sorrow and betrayal. An amazing first novel.” — Ursula Hegi, New York Times bestselling author of The Worst Thing I’ve Done and Stones from the River
“A thrilling debut: Ru Freeman has given us a wonderfully bold and determined protagonist in a richly drawn, complex, fascinating story. I loved it.” — Lynn Freed, author of The Servant’s Quarters
“A heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting novel that celebrates our ability to transcend tragedy.” — Rishi Reddi, author of Karma and Other Stories and winner of the L. L. Winship/PEN Awar
Ru Freeman was born into a family of writers and many boys in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After a year of informal study at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, she arrived in the United States with a Parker ink pen and a box of Staedler pencils to attend Bates College in Maine.
p.s. I will actually track down this book and read it to continue this post. Have any of you read this book? What do you think of it? It sounds intriguing!
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Is it just me or do I just really like this guy but don’t really know why? He’s everywhere but I only knew that he’s a cool dude from the heyday of Apple and does cool stuff like following me back on Twitter. So who is the ubiquitous, mysterious Guy Kawasaki anyway?! Well… here are my favorite bits from his bio:
After Stanford, I attended the law school at U.C. Davis because, like all Asian-American parents, my folks wanted me to be a “doctor, lawyer, or dentist.” I only lasted one week because I couldn’t deal with the law school teachers telling me that I was crap and that they were going to remake me.
The following year I entered the MBA program at UCLA. I liked this curriculum much better. While there, I worked for a fine-jewelry manufacturer called Nova Stylings; hence, my first real job was literally counting diamonds. From Nova, its CEO Marty Gruber, and my Jewish colleagues in the jewelry business, I learned how to sell, and this skill was vital to my entire career.
[Who knew? We went to the same business school! He would be appalled to learn that John Scully was very unimpressive when he spoke in 1992 at the bschool at UCLA. He talked about the “paperless office” and his presentation was actually on overhead film. I kid you not. And it was in black and white! As if he did it himself on Powerpoint but was very inept at it.]
… My Stanford roommate, Mike Boich, got me a job at Apple; for giving me my chance at Apple, I owe Mike a great debt. When I saw what a Macintosh could do, the clouds parted and the angels started singing. For four years I evangelized Macintosh to software and hardware developers and led the charge against world-wide domination by IBM. I also met my wife Beth at Apple during this timeframe—Apple has been very good to me.
If you’d like to stay on top of my writing, the best places are the American Express Open Forum and my Twitter account. You can also follow my adventures on my Facebook fan page.
What I really like about Guy Kawasaki is that he’s not your typical Venture Capitalist who stays under the radar. The attitude is “if you can’t even find a way to reach me, clearly you have no business being an entrepreneur.” Guy seems like both a nice guy and a straight shooter. You can actually contact him and I suspect he will even get back to you (if your idea is good enough). Anyway, have any of you reached out to him? Did he return your email or respond to a tweet? Please tell!
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It came as big surprise to me to learn that there is, indeed, an Asian American Children’s and Young Adult Lit Award. It was Faye Bi from Little Brown who kindly pointed it out to me. I am pretty surprised because I spent the last year tracking Google Alert words “Children’s Book Award” in search of award winning children’s books. I also googled “Asian American Children’s Book Award” and this award did not come up on the first page so maybe they just need help getting the word out. I’m happy to help.
The winners of the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature from APALA (Asian Pacific American Librarians Association) were announced on March 25, 2011. The prizes promote Asian/Pacific American culture and heritage and are awarded based on literary and artistic merit. Past winners from 2005 and onward are here. I’m glad it exists and I hope that it becomes more widely known! Thanks Faye!
I am excited to learn about these authors and books; most are new to me. I know Mitali Perkins because we live in the same town and she graciously came to my daughter’s book club to speak about The Rickshaw Girl. She is a fabulous and wonderful person and I will feature her soon on my blog. I have The Heart of a Samurai on my bedside table to read. Unfortunately, there’s a stack of books there waiting to be read. My fifth grader tried it out and rejected it but I am not sure why.
How about you? Have you read any of these books or authors and what did you think of them?