Friday, August 9, 2019

A Heartwarming Tale of Postcolonial Exploitation

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics now less than a year away, the trickle—soon to progress into a torrent as the date draws closer—of maudlin articles presaging its arrival has just begun. Critical analysis of the competition and its attendant feeding trough upon which will gorge—to the detriment of their host cities and even the athletes being cheered on—the elites of the International Olympic Commission, top global retailers, and sporting goods manufacturers, to say nothing of local and international politicians will be effectively unseen in the mainstream media. 

No mention, for example, will be made of the postnational era that Japan is on the cusp of. As tends to occur with those in their twilight years, the country is slowly vanishing into the mists of nostalgia; living in the waking recall of a time when everything appeared fresh and young, the world held potential, and when the Japanese state could actually exercise more than merely token “sovereignty.” Though the Abe Shinzō administration is straining mightily to convince the world otherwise, it is hard to shake off the impression that the next Olympiad, rather than reprising the entrance of a rising economic power (or arrival of a nation within a hair’s breadth of a becoming a superpower), will be a brightly-lit farewell more whimper than bang; a lavish funeral service complete with the icy wonder of 21st century tech gadgetry

Instead, readers will be treated to the kind of saccharine “inspirational” stories which congest the arteries of contemporary journalistic discourse. Artfully glamourising troublesome factual details (when they are not being airbrushed altogether), this sort of writing has become the common currency of a society that traffics in lies, resolutely insistent that one should beam a Soylent-encrusted grin even as the veneer of its dogmatically enforced “reality” begins to crack and fall apart over one’s head. 

“They were making jackets and shoes and even missile covers for the Vietnamese military. By the time I arrived in 1991, the factory had already converted to making garments for export,” said Australian businessman Jef Stokes, who was among the first wave of foreign investors to place orders at X40 after Vietnam opened up Stokes bought the factory in 2006 and transformed it into Maxport Limited, a sportswear manufacturer that now boasts as clients Nike (NKE.N), Asics (7936.T) and a handful of Olympic teams. 

“We outfit quite a few big countries,” Stokes said. “A lot of sports stars: Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal ... these are all under the Nike umbrella that we produce for.”

Surrounded by a sea of concrete, few trees had existed at the factory complex, except for a large banyan tree which, according to a much-repeated legend among the factory workers, was planted by Vietnam’s founding president, Ho Chi Minh.  Stokes planted more than 6,000 trees to form a thick jungle that which engulfed the buildings in rich foliage to create an atmosphere that feels more like a Silicon Valley startup than a Communist-era factory. 

One wonders whether it had also occurred to Mr. Stokes (or his multi-billion dollar clients) that paying his Vietnamese laborers Silicon Valley salaries and benefits would do even more to enhance that “atmosphere.” Then again, there are probably enough work-starved people in Silicon Valley today who would leap at the chance to work for equitable pay at a blue collar job. After all, where better than Silicon Valley to foster a “Silicon Valley atmosphere?” Perhaps Team USA, Nike, and Serena Williams merely forgot to ask him about those details. Certainly it did not cross the mind of the Reuters reporter to ask him. And who could blame them?

Team USA’s great deed in keeping Vietnamese workers busy for pennies on the dollar will surely be remembered in decades to come, even once automation makes Southeast Asian workers redundant, as yet another resplendent chapter in the continuing saga of Anglo-American benevolence.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

“Hook It Up”: The Narrative of Black Victimhood and its Disillusionments

My mother would often tell me about the first time she ever saw a black person in the flesh. “I felt like I was seeing an exotic animal, the kind you only read about in text books,” she would often say about the black people she saw in Van Nuys, whose appearance she no could no longer recall, shortly after touching down in the United States. “I had to take a picture and send it back to my parents. They had only seen black people in American movies.”

For historical reasons peculiar to it, my parents’ home country was spared the large influx of Africans visited upon the rest of the Americas. The sight of a black person in the streets of the old country was a head-turning sight even well into the 1990s. I still recall my first time visiting there as a young boy, and watching people at the cafes and restaurants in a fashionable part of my mother’s hometown craning their heads, eyes goggled, at the sight of a black American tourist casually walking down the street.

I innocently asked my aunt why everyone stared so. “By God!,” she told me. “Imagine how you would feel about seeing a simian out of its cage!”

Latin America, until very recently, had been rather cavalier about ethnic sensitivities. Comedy sketches with performers in blackface, long taboo in American and European media, was a common sight on Spanish-language television until maybe about 15 years ago. No more. Even brown people, it seems, have been instructed to feign guilt for the misfortunes befallen upon their even duskier compatriots. As ever with Latin Americans toadying to their glamorous Anglo neighbors up north, it is monkey see, monkey do. Race-baiting and guilt are in; blackface is definitely “cancelled”.

As it turned out, despite living in Southern California, black people were hardly a fixture of my childhood, too. Even into my adolescence they rarely appeared. I had one music teacher who was black, another who was a young track counselor. That was all. No friends or peers—save for my fifth grade year, there simply were not any to be found. For a brief moment in the early 1990s, the district I was in received a sudden surge of black residents fleeing recently torched South Central Los Angeles. A short time later, they seemingly vanished overnight. My neighborhood, I would learn many years later, had proven inhospitable to its newly arrived black residents. Hispanic street gangs and the Mexican Mafia were still a couple of decades away from achieving “woke” enlightenment.

Despite their rarity in my daily life, concern for black people had been inculcated into me by my schoolteachers from an early age. I was in first grade when the original Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was celebrated, and the weeks leading up to it were filled with all kinds of activities and instructional film strips about him and the 1960s civil rights movement. There was even a song we learned about him and his struggle, though its lyrics are now lost to the oblivion of memory. (Curiously, I still remember its stout, lightly syncopated 4/4 melody in F major, though.) Each year, Black History Month would unleash a cascade of projects, busywork, and reading about black Americans, well-meaning, if often confused in execution. (I recall how my young white 4th grade teacher had our class make cornbread in order to celebrate “African-American cuisine”.) The results were an enduring sympathy for an unjustly downtrodden race that had somehow endured the unendurable, and a burning desire to become what would later be coined as their “ally”.

Nevertheless, it really was not until I had begun working my first job at age 18 that regular interactions with black people became the norm for me. Like many Americans, fast food was the stage of my initial journeyman years, and across that stage walked a broad panoply of humanity. The little shop I worked for then was ensconced within an office building, so the clientèle was mostly professionals. A few blocks away was one of the country’s top universities, a quiet institution not exactly known for partying, so a number of their students and staff also stopped by. Generally speaking, it was a tranquil and happy time, which even grazed my heart with the first singeing of adult love.

During a particularly busy lunch rush a month or so into the job, I was attending to my usual position as cashier: hurriedly ringing people up, taking their money, returning their change, while my co-workers prepared their food. One of my customers that afternoon was a black woman, an office worker of what some would describe as “high yellow” complexion in her 30s. She ordered her meal, presented her money to me, which I then promptly took. A moment later, I placed her change in a money tray, then slipped it over to her, and thanked her for her patronage. As I made my way over to the next customer, her nasal voice suddenly cut towards me.

“Uh-uh—excuse me? Did you just do what I think you just did?”

Confused, I stepped back over to her and asked if there was anything wrong with the sandwich. “No,” she answered, “there’s something wrong with you. Is it because you’re racist?”

The word “racist” suddenly drew the eyes in the busy line at the restaurant towards my direction. I felt as if I were beginning to drown in the collar of my work shirt. Stammering a reply, my lips, now trembling, had only strength enough to issue a timid “what?”

Unbeknownst and unimagined by me, she had taken umbrage at the fact that I had returned her change in the money tray, rather than place it directly in her hand. I apologized, tried explaining that I was simply following my training guidelines, and that not only was no offense intended, but that as an ethnic minority myself, I could not be racist. It would be an understatement to say that I was unprepared for her reply.

“You spics are racists, too. Don’t act like it’s not true.” Turning louder, she began demanding her money back, but to also have her sandwich on the house. I meekly acquiesced to her demand, but even so continued her tirade, loudly berating me in front of staff and customers.

“Give me your corporate number, beaner boy. Because I will let them know. I won’t stand for what you did. And I’m telling all my friends and co-workers not to come here.”

As you may well guess, her huffing and puffing ultimately came to naught. Whether a complaint was lodged or not, I never heard about it. But during that moment, humiliated as I was, that incident left me rattled enough that I felt it necessary to clock out for the day. Why would she say that to me? Why would she accuse me of racism? If only she knew how deeply in solidarity I was with black people.

Over the next few months, there were other incidents that began to puncture my once spotless ideal of blacks. It happened quite often when black customers would ask me to “hook them up” (i.e. add extra toppings and ingredients without extra charge). When I explained that I could not do so without charging them more, they more often than not would reply with some variation of: “Is it because I’m black?”

Another time, a black female customer, incensed that I would not add extra everything to her meal without charge started munching on some potato chips without paying for them. A Mexican co-worker asked her to stop unless she was going to pay, only to have the bag of chips tossed into her face.

“The fuck some wetback bitch like you telling me shit?”

Prior to encountering them in the flesh (one is tempted to say “in the wild”), I had in my mind an idealized black people: dignified, industrious, good at heart, unjustly maligned, and ready to succeed given a fair opportunity to do so.

The reality was, to my profound disappointment, often the extreme opposite: vulgar, violent, and eager to exploit their purported historical disadvantages for petty short-term gains.

As another presidential election looms, the fact that reparations are being seriously discussed by a number of major Democratic Party candidates can only be described as mystifying. Though slavery is regrettable, it no longer exists as living memory. No black person alive today has ever experienced its injustice, nor can any justifiably claim to be even indirectly affected by it. What about reparations for Hispanic immigrants, many who indeed have directly experienced the brute force of American military and diplomatic meddling? What about Asians also displaced by American military and diplomatic, and whose parents and grandparents were incinerated alive in this country’s pointless wars of aggression in the last century? Or Middle Easterners who currently suffer from that cruelty now?

Yet their short-term snubbing may prove to be a long-term gain. Hispanics, Asians, and Middle Easterners are simply too busy working to think about reparations. They may still be too busy working later this century once whites finally decline into a minority, with the power of white guilt waning correspondingly. Blacks, meanwhile, may find themselves needing to beg elsewhere for a “hook up”.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Introduction by Way of a Greater Writer Than Myself

Little needs to be explained about this blog, or what it purports to be. Suffice to say that it exists merely to satisfy my vanity, preserving as it does my scattered impressions and thoughts garnered from my dubious witness of what will retrospectively be considered a transitional historical period of epochal proportions.

I was born and raised in the United States of America, spending most of my life within its borders. Yet, though I was not able to articulate it cogently at the time, much about this country chafed me intensely even as a child: its materialism, worship of avarice, arrogance, treatment of culture as just another marketplace commodity, and conformist collective “individualism”. Paradoxically, I was also sometimes prone to bouts of wild patriotism only a child, the first-born of immigrants to boot, could be capable of, avidly collecting cards commemorating the troops and weaponry of Operation Desert Storm, and being suspended from school for beating up classmates who profaned the national anthem with improvised bawdy lyrics.

Though I “pass” for white (a double-edged sword that) and my English diction bears no trace of the friction, the effortful straining, the residual savor of the ancestral language so often apparent in first generation American children, Spanish shall remain to my dying breath the realm of my innermost thoughts and feelings. Because of this intimacy with a language which was fed to me from earliest consciousness like mother’s milk, a permanent sense of apartness and even estrangement from mainstream American culture was fostered; of being an outsider edging along the periphery, gazing cooly at the panoply of life jostling inside.

Somewhat in the manner of Mahler’s famous “thrice homeless” remark, I have neither ever quite experienced a seamless feeling of “belonging” amongst my immigrant-descent peers. My parents came from a nation with virtually no representation in mainstream America or even within the resident Hispanophone community, thereby creating a distance between myself from the Mexicans and Central Americans ubiquitous in my hometown. Because of my family’s peculiar Spanish dialect—to say nothing of how peculiar I found the dialects of my peers—I was regarded as something of a foreigner among them. At the same time, I pined for my family’s homeland, my ardor stoked ever more so by how distant it was. In the end, that country—my parents’ homeland—no longer exists, probably never did; it remains solely as an ineffable ideal residing within the chambers of my heart. “German culture is wherever I am”, Thomas Mann proudly proclaimed. In my infinitely smaller way, perhaps, I feel that my existence helps to do the same for what once was the cradle of my parents’ youthful dreams.

“You’re not really Latino,” I was told in high school by a flesh globule with a thick, oily ponytail that rested upon one side of a cheap, 1990s imitation guayabera. “Your people are not like ours.” Had he a semblance of a neck, then it may have been possible for him to crook his head in thought and contemplate the root significance of the term “Latino”. Of course, he still would have had to stimulate thought in order to accomplish this, a feat that with or without neck would remain forever elusive.

Some time ago I was startled to discover a diary entry by H. L. Mencken which seemed to speak to me directly from across the chasm of time and space, so profoundly did I sympathize with him:

My grandfather, I believe, made a mistake when he came to this country[...] I believe my chances in Germany would have been at least as good as they have been in America, and maybe a great deal better[...] I have spent my entire 62 years here, but I still find it impossible to fit myself into the accepted patterns of American life and thought. After all these years, I remain a foreigner.

I conserve a small hope that some stray reader may come across my doggerel screeds, discover that their peculiar thoughts were shared by another, and find themselves thinking: “Here, too, is a kindred soul.”

A Heartwarming Tale of Postcolonial Exploitation

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics now less than a year away, the trickle—soon to progress into a torrent as the date draws closer—of maudlin a...