Bao Phi

Bao Phi has been a performance poet since 1991. A two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, Bao Phi has appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry, and a poem of his appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology. Read more about Bao Phi.

More Than Meets the Eye

Posted by: Bao Phi Updated: August 23, 2009 - 11:02 PM

Our creaker of a house in Phillips has always needed work over the years.  If I knew that one day I’d have a fixer upper of a house myself, as a kid I’d have paid a lot more attention to my dad when he tried to teach me how to become handy.  Often when dad have to fix up our old house, he would bring me to Menards or Sears (now the site of Midtown Global Market) where he’d tried in vain to teach me about handy things like paint, wood, tools, and galvanized steel, before eventually giving up and letting me hang out in the toy aisle.  My parents were usually too poor to buy me toys - once and a while like on my birthday they’d splurge and get me something, or I’d sulk so much that my poor mom would swallow her pride and get into a Toys for Tots line - so those times I got to hang out in the toy aisle of stores were a joy to me, even if the vast majority of the time I walked away from them empty handed.

Miraculously I didn’t steal or try to bust open packages – instead I’d read the little bio cards on the back of the toy boxes over and over again, memorizing the names of all the evil and heroic Sectaurs, marveling at the origin stories of GI Joes (did you know that Tunnel Rat is Chinese-Trinidadian?),  and of course, comparing the stats on the little graph on the back of the Transformers boxes which detailed firepower, speed, etc. 

Basically they were everything I thought was cool when I was a little kid.  Talking robots?  Check. Transform into cars, jet planes, boom boxes, and, dinosaurs?  Check.  Laser guns?  Check. 

Nowadays of course, Michael Bay has turned those blocky plastic toys from our childhood into a multi-gazillion dollar movie franchise.

As much as I think his movies are lousy (how do you mess up movies about giant transforming robots fighting), I’m not going to claim Michael Bay is destroying my childhood.   Let’s be real, the Transformers were cool to me because they were shape-shifting robot toys with guns.  As much as I have found memories of my times playing with the two Transformers I had (Slag and Sideswipe, if you must know – I was into triceratopses and Lamborghinis), it’s not like they occupy some sacred Miyazaki-esque status of my childhood.  They didn’t have to be deep.  Robots!  That transformed into… cars!

Though I am a big enough nerd to get annoyed at Bay for turning Sideswipe into a Corvette, I’m not knowledgeable enough a Transformers nerd to debate which of the multitude of storylines and universes that Bay should adhere to – comic book, movie, toy mythology?  It’s all very confusing.

But one nagging thing I kept thinking about as I watched both of his Transformers films (besides being annoyed that there were basically no Asians, the jive-talking buck toothed minstrel robots, and the justification of the war in Iraq), was how Bay changed all the good Autobot bodies into American cars.

Back in the day, I woke up early for the cartoon show – and while I watched it for the lasers and the robots, I also found it endearing that these alien robots who had come to earth were here to fight for us, even if humans didn’t understand them or even feared them.  They all had distinct personalities (something else Bay finds unimportant) – and their bodies mimicked cards from all over the world.  Beneath the explosions and wock-wock-wock transforming, it was like a covert if admittedly superficial argument for diversity and understanding.

Remember, this was during the time that there was fierce anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S., when Japan was scapegoated for the fall of the US auto industry and the disenfranchisement of the (white) working class.  Of course, the truth was that American auto industries were building plants in third world countries and exploiting brown people and putting Americans of all colors out of work, but of course ‘Blame the Japanese’ is a much more convenient and palatable lie. This led to a vast array of products to be labeled and branded Made in America.  For non-Asians, wearing or owning things proclaiming Made in the USA was a source of pride – for us Asians, it was basically a sign that said “please don’t beat me up.”  Asian Americans, whether or not we have anything to do with Asia, suffer from whatever anti-Asian sentiment that is popular at the time, and it was all the worse if you were an Asian who owned a Japanese car.  Go back to where you came from is a common taunt that was belted at us, even if we came from, say, Madison or Brooklyn.  It was not uncommon for Asian Americans to suffer racist taunts and in some cases violence due to anti-Japanese hysteria.  To this day people will sneer at rice burners and make jokes about little yellow cars verses big American steel.  This is a very particular type of hate that Asian Americans face.  If you think this is an overstatement, consider the horrible case of Vincent Chin, who was not even Japanese, and the price he paid for simply being Asian American to a pair of out-of-work white autoworkers.  Google him if you want to be depressed and reminded that an Asian American man’s life is apparently not worth much to our society or our justice system.

So it’s more than a little disheartening to see Bay turn these Japanese robot toys into a modern day American car commercial.  Sure it probably wasn’t intentional, and you’re probably thinking right now that I’m making a huge deal out of stupid bang bang robot movies.  But it’s not about whether the film deserves this depth of critique – it’s about the subtext, how these things all overlap and fit into the larger scheme of our society – how small things often add up, who’s perspective is always ignored and what connections are never made.

Oh well, I’ll just go see Last Airbender.  Oh wait, Hollywood made that into a film with a majority white cast too.  Fine, I’ll go see Dragonball – uh oh.  Well, Asians gamble a bunch, and there’s that film 21 based on a bunch of Asian Americans who cheat at cards and… oh.  How about Harry Potter? Cho Chang – yo, isn’t that two last names?  I’ll just rent Last Samurai… oh hell.

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