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.

My First Protest: Asian Americans and Activism, Part 2

Posted by: Bao Phi Updated: December 2, 2009 - 2:39 PM

For my last entry, I tried something  new for this blog: I reached out to several local and national Asian American activists and asked them to write about their first protest.  Protest could be broadly defined as an action to stand up for what you believe in, and did not necessarily mean picketing or marching. 

 

The responses were varied – as to be expected for any blog, especially one that concerns activism and community action.  Looking at the responses, however, indicates that this idea is a necessary one: even the detractors indicate  the idea of Asian American activists is offensive or ridiculous. Which just proves how important it is to create this space, in opposition to the idea that Asian Americans are not a people, do not have a voice, do not take action and stand up for their communities.

 

And of course, thanks to those who wrote in positive notes encouraging future installments!  I’m glad you liked reading those stories as much as I did.  I also hope the existence of this space and these stories continue to be interesting and useful to our communities.  Here, 5 more local and national Asian American community folks write, in their own words, their story.

 

 

 

Just a few weeks into my college years, planes smashed into buildings on the Atlantic coast, and a few weeks after that was my first protest.

 

The energy behind it was all desperation and no strategy, but we were mourning and we were terrified, and that was all we could come up with. Early October of 2001 was a very intimidating time to be speaking out about anything, although the ‘issues’—the ‘War on Terror’ and plans to invade and occupy Afghanistan—begged to be articulated and resisted.  Three days before the first bombings, forty people gathered on the college campus, marched on the sidewalks of residential Tacoma, lined up on a prominent thoroughfare for a candlelight vigil, and then headed home.  The event was polite and inconsequential; as I was in it, walking awkwardly with a placard over my head, it felt daring and risky.  I tapped into a confidence and determination I wasn’t aware I had.

 

Of course, the bombings happened, as did the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and simultaneously there developed an anti-war movement that had many huge mobilizations but not much teeth.  That was a formative time for me; it was the first time I felt genuinely caught in the sweep of history, attempting to answer its many demands.  I was a timid and antisocial person going into college, so my evolution to a primary activism ‘hub’ on the campus—attending meetings every day, posting flyers between classes, writing outraged newsletters, sounding off chants at the head of a march—was very exciting and powerful, if unexpected.

 

Over the years that followed, my investment in protest faded, and a number of recent experiences—controversial tenure decisions at my college, relief work in post-Katrina New Orleans, working through loss and trauma following acts of personal violence—have made me critically rethink how change and struggle happen in communities.  I focus a lot less on ‘protest’ today and more on other political expressions: writing, art, direct action, inquiry and reflection, visioning, and movement-building projects.  I can get quite embarrassed, in an amused way, about my rudimentary understanding of protest back in the day—that is, practicing visibility and noise and deciding that was enough.  But I also know that those experiences opened up something that got me to where I am now.  I’ve learned that protest seldom yields victories, change, or justice, but for those of us engaged in struggle, it has the potential to grab onto an unsuspecting person’s spirit, shake it, and burst open entirely new terrains of the possible.

 

-Stevie Peace is a writer and organizer out of Shoreview, Minnesota, now living in St. Paul.

 

 

 

In August, 2007 in Seoul, Korea just down the hill from the Samsung-owned, grand Shilla hotel, I participated in the 1st public protest/demonstration against Korea’s continued, systematic practice of exporting Korean citizens to western countries.  Today, these citizens are being taken away from their families against their will and are currently being exported at the rate of 2,000 per year and upwards of $30,000 each, most of them being sent to the US.  And this is a completely legal practice which the governments of not only Korea but also the US and several other western countries have endorsed and supported for over half a century.  This practice has enabled Korea to continue its underdeveloped social welfare program despite being described as a “high-income economy” by the World Bank and an “advanced economy” by the IMF and CIA.  And contrary to public perception, the majority of the Korean citizens that are being sent away today are not orphans.  They have families and most families would like to remain in tact.  Family preservation is preferred.  This protest was an historic event which brought together overseas adopted Koreans with Korean nationals.  Dongguk University subway station, orange line 3, served as the site for the protest.  We stood at the entrance and ticket turnstile with signs in both English and Korean making strong and clear statements about the human rights of all Korean citizens:  birth mothers and fatherless children.  Wearing bright yellow shirts stating “Product of Korea – Do Not Export,” our goal was to raise awareness around an issue on which a number of Korean nationals have limited vocabulary.  Standing in solidarity with Korean birthmothers to give public voice to a cause that has not received appropriate attention was one significant event in the journey to bringing this global atrocity to an end.  Despite the efforts of this demonstration and the 2005 public statement by Kim Geun Tae, then Minister of Health and Welfare, that Korea would discontinue its inter-country adoption program in 2010, it is uncertain whether or not Korean citizens will be able to live without the fear of being sent away from their own families and country, losing their Korean names, citizenship, language and heritage.  Has Korea taken the necessary steps to ensure a comprehensive social welfare system that come 2010 all Koreans will be able to raise their own children rather than entrusting foreigners to raise them?  On November 10, 2009 the Korean National Assembly held a public hearing on the revisions of the Special Adoption Law in Korea.  A number of the August, 2007 protest participants attended and participated in the hearing.  Revisions to the law would include a focus on family preservation and ethical adoption procedures.  Which revisions become law remain to be seen and once made into law, there must be integrity in the oversight to ensure the law is upheld.  (Footage from the August, 2007 protest has been included in the newly released documentary "Resilience" www.resiliencefilm.com.) 

 

-Eun Jin Lee, registered voter and human rights activist.

 

 

 

The first protest I ever went to was against the Gulf War when I was in 7th grade. The thing is – I didn’t actually go.

 

The kids in my class had organized a walk out of school – it was during Ms Downes’s social studies class – through a daisy chain the night before. I knew of their plans, and it never once crossed my mind to actually go. Yes, I was vaguely aware that war was being waged for less than noble causes, and that real lives were being affected. I would not have considered myself completely ambivalent to politics.

 

In fact, that president had inspired a lot of political expression in me; my first political campaign event was to support Dukakis in the 5th grade, and the first time I wrote a letter to a politician was to Bush I during the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

 

But there was something about this walk out that felt inauthentic, which is part of why I chose not to go. Plus, it felt like a "cool kids" thing to do - and at my school, I wasn't one of the folks who felt comfortable among them.  It may have been part of why the only kids left in school seemed to be all the ones who weren’t white. It’s as though we had looked 10 years into the future and found out our kind is much more often tokenized than valued at public demonstrations, and just decided to skip that whole mess from the get-go.

 

Of course in the intervening years, I’ve been a part of countless protests, some beautiful, and some terribly ugly; some peaceful, and some that turned violent; some powerful, and some – I hate to say it – pointless.

 

But on that day, I turned down the chance to stomp my boots through concrete because I didn’t understand the point. Moreover, I didn't feel wholly welcome. It's part of the reason why I later learned we should never be shy to lead our own demonstrations, or more than that - our own delegations in larger demonstrations.

 

- Giles Li is a Chinese American spoken word performer and arts educator in the Boston area; he currently serves as a special topics instructor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.  gilesli.com/blog

 

 

 

I had left home, Minnesota to California back into 2003 after I came out to my family as a lesbian and they denied me of who I am and my rights. 

For four years, I lived in a small city, Concord, and within that escape it didn’t release me of my internal struggles with identities. It wasn’t until Fall 2007 at Diablo Valley College that I started to educate myself of Womyn’s issues, suffrages and struggles. Because of a Womyn’s History course, it engulfed me to critically study my identities as a Womyn, Hmong and Queer person. I began to explore and understand my oppressions, struggles and where I stood in society.

 

My first public activism action happened around that time as well, via online the social network Myspace.com with a well known Cali Rapper, Plucky Xiong. He had created and sold a t-shirt that promoted humor by degrading Hmong females: How to Court a Hmong Girl. He deemed this idea to be OK, because he wasn’t good looking, as if that was an excuse to find joy in the history of Hmong Womyn’s suffrage. The words and visuals on his t-shirt included three steps: 1 and 2 were to play two commonly known instruments to the Hmong people for courtship which were a piece of leaf, nplooj and a wooden mouth harp piece, ncas. If those two steps should fail to win her heart, the last step should definitely work with the help of his friends; take her against her will or in Hmong, zij kiag. This kidnapping of a Hmong female where marriage would follow, can be interpreted in different ways in where the two individuals agrees to stage this act, because their parents oppose their relationship or worst, taking her against her will.    

 

I expressed concerns to his photo where he proudly sports the t-shirt and in caption: no offense ladies. He messaged, saying he understands me and he is pro-Hmong too, but he’s doing it from a different approach, which clearly defeats his Pro-Hmong claim. 

 

While this t-shirt promotion was happening, heated news was circulating about the Hmong community regarding exposed events that had taken place in Laos with Secret War and continuous Hmong genocide. Online, secretly taped videos posted aftermaths of raped, mutilated and dead Hmong girls and Womyn caused by the communist Pathet Laos Army. Along with those, Hmong Womyn telling their stories of being taken against their will, stripped of their pride and raped from army base to army base. I was real upset and saddened to see the effect Plucky created in many replies in support of this degrading Hmong Womyn message and opposing replies to me from both Hmong males and females. One of the Hmong male supporters said that this was the humor of today’s era. Whether Plucky physically takes a Hmong Womyn against her will or not, he has mentally taken Hmong males and females against their consciousness. As “Pro-Hmong” or “Hmong Activists”… how conscious and aware are we?

 

-Linda Her, Artist Activist using Art as a Social Changing Tool.

 

 

"If you're gonna dream, dream big.  It's free."  Azzam Alwash, Iraqi Engineer struggling to restore the environment in Iraq.

 

" 'Power yields nothing without a struggle', but how one struggles is now a very challenging question."  Grace Lee Boggs, Asian American Activist.

 

This is dedicated to my friend Bao Phi's newborn child, and all children, because my first protests were in childhood.  When I was about six, I protested Halloween candy.  I really hated candy, and didn't see the point of trying to collect something I didn't want.  So I decided to dress up and collect money for UNICEF instead.  I didn't have a special jar or anything, just my plastic pumpkin - so I was met with a bit of resistance and disbelief.  I fought back with sincerity and smiles in my Batman costume, and managed to shake down the neighborhood for a great bit of change, which surprised my mother, who helped me count it out and wrote a check for the equivalent.  My second protest was equally well-intentioned, but went nowhere.  In the fourth grade, a Black classmate of mine tried to kiss a white girl while we were waiting in line for something.  This was frowned upon in Nashville in general, and by the girl in particular.  She shrieked, and the teacher pulled him out of line for a paddling.  I sprang into action and leapt between them.  "YOU CANNOT HURT MY BROTHER!" I announced.  I must have just watched a special on Martin Luther King, jr. or something.  Everyone was silent for a moment.  Then my black friend pushed me out of the way.  "Man, you ain't mah brothah.  Get out the way and lemme get my whoopin'.  Jez don' try to kiss any white girls."

 

There were other, more serious and impassioned protests in college - to fight for expanded curricula for the histories of people of color and a more diverse teacher population, to protest nuclear weapons, war and militarism, against sexual harassment in medical school, and so forth, but just like those first protests, these began with idealism, 

something which children have in abundance, if we'd only listen.

 

Protests are an expression of ideals and principles, and a hoped for connection to the ideals and principles of others.  I'm so glad to be an American - to live in a country where dissent is tolerated, and at its best, welcomed.  Protest is part of the dialogue, a balance to authority and power, which can corrupt and ignore divergent points of view.  I welcome and await the voices of those younger than me, the voice of Bao's baby girl and others of her generation.  The voices of the young, or really anyone who protests out of idealism and connection to causes bigger than themselves, are transformative and vital.

 

-Ravi Chandra, M.D.

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