Allen Gee
For Whom?

In the spring of 1995, I suddenly found myself spun by the Buddha
right off the wheel of life, down to New York City, where I was a jooksing,
an American born Chinese. Who knew what the heavenly one’s
purpose was for this, but I had to adjust to my new life. I’d already lived
two previous existences that I could remember—running a pressing machine
day and night at a laundry to put two sons through college, and I’d
been a child prodigy playing the violin to magnificent applauding crowds
at Carnegie Hall—so I knew about being a model minority. However,
what else there was to learn about being Asian in America, I couldn’t
yet say.
And for reasons unknown to me, one
evening that first month, as the television
beamed out the CBS logo of the western
round eye, I sat waiting breathlessly on a
pillowed couch, struggling to be comfy
with my feet up and shoes off, letting the
air flow between my tired toes. I was twenty-three years old and working
at The Gap, and of all things, as the six o’clock news flickered onto the
screen in beautiful many-pixelled Technicolor, my eyes gazed longingly,
waiting with great anticipation for the woman who was now the goddess
of my rife imagination: Connie Chung.
Yes, I couldn’t say why, but in my mind and heart Connie was my
dark-haired beauty, my treasure, my China doll. Her porcelain smooth
rounded face rivaled any woman’s as far as I was concerned, my ears listened
intently for the playful lilt of her adorable cute voice, and don’t
forget the perkiness of her smile or her beautiful almond-shaped eyes.
To me she was such a media icon and high glamour woman, so why
shouldn’t I, like Maury Povich, desire her for my very own?
For those of you deep in the Asian American know, forget about how
Connie had been avoiding the AAJA (Asian American Journalists’ Association)
for several years. She’d simply been busy getting to the top of the
news heap and staying there. You should also recall how she was only the
second anchor woman in all of network history, though I rated her first,
far ahead of Barbara Walters, of course. Yes, at her peak Connie had power,
money, fame, her voice an integral part of the daily news spotlight of
our nation. So on the evening I’ve been telling you about, as I sat waiting
for the news hour, my eyes desperately needed to be soothed.
Connie didn’t appear, though, and my heart began to ache. Perhaps
she was on assignment at some far–off locale, questioning the President
or other heads of state, or she might have suddenly caught strep throat or
the flu, or been caught in a traffic tangle. Needless to say, I grabbed the
telephone directory and posthaste called the local CBS affiliate, WCBS.
“Can you tell me,” I asked, “if anything’s happened to Connie Chung?”
“There’s nothing wrong, but haven’t you heard?”a secretary asked in
first-rate nasal Brooklyn accent.
My entire body instantly trembled. “Heard what?”
“The bombing in Oklahoma City. She’s headed there. Watch the late
night news.”
“Thank you,” I said, but the secretary had already hung up.
That fateful day of April 19, I watched the initial late night news accounts
from Oklahoma City, and the reports of the fatalities and the pictures
of grieving parents and relatives made me feel awful. Who would
commit such a crime? Why would they? I gripped the arm of my couch
like I was belted into a rocket and taking off and suddenly thought of
how other bombs might be about to explode. Why wasn’t Dan Rather
taking the assignment? “Oh, my God!” I exclaimed. “Oh, my Connie!”
But later that night she materialized upon my Sony Trinitron screen,
vivid and beautiful, hastening back and forth among a sea of vans, trucks,
satellite dishes and Winnebagos, talking with the families of the victims
or interviewing city officials, medical workers, and agents from the
F.B.I. Sometimes Connie grimaced, bit her lip, or at other moments she
scowled, because she wasn’t merely sympathetic; no, she was upset, taking
the disaster personally, as if the whole event had revived her hard-hitting
uncompromising, get-to-the-truth journalistic instincts. It was, after all,
the same unflinching seriousness that had first launched her reporting
career. “Are you worried,” she asked a police official, “that crime might
be rampant elsewhere in Oklahoma City while all the rescue teams are
downtown? Is your municipality prepared for this kind of crisis?”
I knew instinctively how Connie’s concern and care for all of us provoked
her severe line of questioning. She didn’t want any more harm
done. Not there or in any other unsecure metropolis. But the people of
Oklahoma City believed she was unfairly impugning the police, and that
while doing so she was just plain getting in the way. Some self-righteous
clod remarked on camera that she shouldn’t be critiquing the auhorities
while everyone else was still focused on searching for survivors or just beginning
the ordeal of mourning for the dead. By the next morning, I saw
photographs in The New York Times of outraged Oklahomans wearing
“WHO THE HELL IS CONNIE CHUNG?” T-shirts.
As if that controversy wasn’t enough, Connie had apparently burrowed
under Dan Rather’s collar too, because he was on the scene now,
stoic, grim-faced, reporting for CBS instead, speaking with eloquent
compassion for the community of Oklahoma City and the security of all
the free world. He’d been on vacation, but this—now this was news—and
clearly it had to be his news.
Two days later, Connie and Dan returned to studio headquarters in
New York, and any of you could see the harsh fate of Chung-Rather in
the making. When Connie read the headlines from the teleprompter,
Dan appeared dismissive, barely interested; like a married couple sinking
towards divorce, the spark was gone—they had no on-air dynamic or
verbal chemistry anymore—and gossip soon leaked out that Connie had
been told to hurry to the blast site while Dan had been told not to go.
The New York Post reported that he’d given management a stern tongue
lashing afterwards, saying, “We have to work something out so that we
don’t have this situation develop again. If something like that breaks, I
want to be in on it.”
The jealous backstabber, I thought. He’s killing her. And with all my
being, I wanted to whisk myself there, to protect her and at least give
her a hug. But I didn’t act, and one evening toward the end of that May
I tuned in and discovered, to my horror, that CBS had removed Connie
from the broadcast entirely. The ungrateful news executive buffoons had
relegated her, of all things, to weekend anchor, designating her as Rather’s
substitute anchor.
“It’s not right!” I hollered, feeling despondent, if not obliterated. away?”
“How can they shine the spotlight on her, and then just yank it The
only person I knew away from work was Monique, a young woman
whose hair was cut in a bob, her green eyes as pretty as jade—she lived
in the apartment directly across the hall—and she must have heard my
raised voice, because she knocked on my door, asking, “Are you alright?”
The interruption startled me, but so did looking at Monique; she was
a stick-thin model with the longest legs and most delicate arms, who always
appeared to be starving herself. She wore the shortest skirt, and her
silk blouse was seductively unbuttoned down to the wisps of her cleavage.
“I’m fine,” I said, trying to be brave and strong, “but how are you?”
“Let me know if you need anything, or if you ever want to go
out for a drink,” she said, winked at me, and began to back away, as if
the invitation somehow almost exceeded her own flirtatious boundaries.
“Thanks,” I said, but gently closed the door.
I thought Monique was—well, nice—but Connie remained the only
woman for me, and since she was still gone from the airwaves, in no time
my mood swung low. Through the subsequent days, I felt weak, my eyes
growing dim, nausea often enveloping me, and strange unfamiliar desperate
feelings of hunger and need rived my body and mind. It was as if
I’d been seized by a curse or a spell, and when I worked at The Gap the
feelings of hunger and need increased, growing out of control, burgeoning
like dandelions proliferating across a meadow.
Yes, Connie’s absence was rough, becoming increasingly difficult, and
one evening that same week upon finishing my shift at the cash register,
without Connie to return home to, my entire being felt abandoned, if
not hopelessly lost. Depressed, heartsick, I sat in my Honda Accord, and
for some reason gently removed my contact lenses and withdrew from
the glove box my spare pair of black, thick-framed glasses with heavy
lenses. Once I put them on, after turning the key and starting the engine,
I laughed for the first time in weeks, pulled out to merge with the dizzying
swarms of vile Manhattan traffic, and cut someone off, but didn’t
care. At the first intersection as the light turned yellow, when my foot hit
the brake pedal to be cautious, tires screeched behind me, and someone
yelled, “You Goddam jerk! Learn how to drive!”
Not knowing where the words stemmed from, I hissed, “I’ll show you
some bad driving.”
As the light turned green, the cursing driver sped by and gave me the
finger, but I gunned the accelerator, flew by him, and shot him the finger
back. In the next moment a compass within my mind guided my hands
where to steer; an irresistible urge compelled me to cut someone off, so
I wrenched the steering wheel and swerved into the far left lane, nearly
colliding with a Mazda Miata. “You asshole!” the driver shouted, but I
laughed, veered far right, and my front bumper scraped against a parked
BMW. A siren wailed behind me—I imagined being pulled over and
beaten like Rodney King, but thought, not this time—and took a hard
left down a one-way street into oncoming traffic. After dodging six oncoming
cars, then making another left and burning rubber down a back
street, I no longer heard anyone pursuing me.
Now I smelled something familiar and drove another block. I smiled,
realizing my hunger had been for Chinese food. The restaurant appeared,
a little joint called General Tso’s—you know the cheap kind of place—
and oh yes, this place had a bright red and green neon sign advertising
take out and an all-you-can-eat buffet.
My parallel parking dented fenders ahead of and behind me, but
laughing, faster than an Olympian sprinter, I entered the restaurant. The
aroma of hot cooking oil and stir-fried vegetables and beef wafted heavily
from the kitchen, arousing my senses. “I’ll have the buffet, please,” I
said and paid at the counter. Walking the buffet line, careful not to singe
my eyebrows on the orange heat lamps, I piled spare ribs, fried rice, sweet
and sour chicken, chow mein and chop suey on my plate, the food reaching
high like a Tibetan mountain. My craving for this Chinese junk food
felt endless, despite my knowing how such fare would never be cooked
or served so in China. Seated alone at a small square table, I stuffed
myself like an opossum storing fat for the longest, most dreadful winter,
and swallowing a piece of pineapple from the sweet and sour—it was
probably Dole, from Hawaii—I still felt the strange desperate feelings
of need. I didn’t know why, or what lesson I was supposed to be learning,
but I asked myself, how is this type of eating like being drawn to Connie?
What do the two desires have in common?
Interrupting my contemplation, a gray-shirted waiter walked
over to the table. Since he didn’t speak English, he sounded unintelligible,
but as if volume would help, I spoke louder than normal and asked:
“WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?”
He made a pouring motion then mimicked drinking. “I’LL HAVE
TEA!” I replied.
The waiter hurried off like immigration agents had to be chasing after
him, or like he couldn’t possibly be a citizen or possess a green card.
Eventually, he returned with a silver metal teapot, and in spite of how
much I proceeded to eat and drink, the strange desperate feelings of need
persisted like a mysterious problem with no end in sight.
After the meal, the waiter presented the American–invented ritual
fortune cookie, so my fingers tore the cellophane wrapper off greedily.
Reading the fortune, “Many delights await you,” like it was a sacred text,
I added the words “in bed,” and laughed hysterically—as if I were so
superior—at my appropriation of American wit, then waddled out of
the restaurant believing how in only a few hours hunger would strike
me again.
The sun was fading now, as evening shrouded the city, I couldn’t say
why the idea of driving home fell perilous and ill-advised. A growl emanated
from someplace within me, and wanting to know where it originated
from, and why, and still missing Connie, I drove for blocks and
blocks until a lit marquee in Mid-town caught my eye. After my foot
jammed on the brake pedal again, I swerved to the curb and stared at
the theatre, a formerly glamorous nightspot, where dead center on the
marquee the revered words, ENTER THE DRAGON, were displayed
in huge red-block letters. The movie title spoke deeply to some part of
me, urging me inside. The allure felt ominous, somehow misleading, but
I shut off the engine and hopped out of my car. Quicker than a spinning
kick, I bought a ticket, raced into the dark, sat down, slouched back in
a tattered maroon velvet seat, and started watching the man, the master,
Bruce Lee.
The plot of Enter The Dragon is this: Bruce is asked by his superiors
to travel for the good of his country to a mysterious island where—surprise—
a grand martial arts tournament is being held. A white man who
murdered Bruce’s sister also happens to be one of the combatants. So
the movie promised to be as cathartic as therapy, but all through the film
as Bruce heroically destroyed each opponent in one glorious fight scene
after another to restore the equilibrium of justice, the same growl that I’d
heard earlier persisted within me. What did watching such a cinematic
classic have to do with Connie? I wondered.
Once the movie ended, as if my unexplained feelings of need and the
strange growling weren’t enough, when I exited the theatre the street
appeared empty except for several sinister figures leaning against my
Honda, putting their greasy hands on the windows and doors and hood.
Suddenly we weren’t in New York anymore; we stood surrounded by
flower gardens in the middle of a huge courtyard, and the scent of lotus
blossoms clogged my nose. A sprawling palace with a pagoda-style roof
loomed ominously in the background, and as the loud striking of a gong
filled the air the vibrations penetrated to my bones. Instantly my shirt
and nerdy glasses disappeared, so I stood there bare-chested in black
cloth-soled shoes, and as if on cue my muscles rippled out. Not just my
biceps and pectorals, but muscles in places where I hadn’t known there
could be muscles.
The men who’d been leaning on my Honda surrounded me. Issuing
guttural cries, leaping, kicking, I flew through the air, and my feet struck
jaws, abdomens, groins, and snapped a leg or two. No one could so much
as land a blow against me, and using my invincible fists, I needed only
a few punches to subdue each attacker. As if I had eyes like a fly’s, no
one snuck up from behind, and when more attackers appeared, I did
back flips, tumbled forward, and escaped anyone’s grasp until only one
attacker remained. He was a colossus with no neck who looked as if he’d
been raised on steroids or locked up forever in a World’s Gym. He glared
at me now, no doubt wanting to rip my arms, legs and head off, but my
fists shot through space so rapidly I struck him ten times before he could
lift a finger. He fell to the ground and groaned, and I turned my back,
mercifully sparing his life.
Something told me not to trust him, though. I knew he would probably
pull himself up and rush towards me. After a few seconds, he did.
But then a growl came from within me—primal, savage, unbridled—and
escaped loudly from my mouth because it was the death yell, formerly
issued straight from Bruce Lee’s mouth. I’d seen it in the movie, yet now
it was embraced by me, embodying me, utterly alive and thriving in me,
and within seconds all of my spiritual and physical energy and all of the
forces of honor were unleashed through my fists in one incomparable
punch. I sent the colossus to the ground again; he fell harder than a
redwood tree struck by a final axe blow, and blood gushed from his lips.
As I surveyed all of the attackers who had died trying to defeat me, I felt
no remorse. Each and every one of them, I realized, should have known
better, because don’t all Asians know the martial arts?
My muscles unrippled, and I stepped back into the Honda. New
York’s streets materialized for me to drive down again, and my hand
switched on the radio from which no songs played, and I heard only one
voice, identical to my own, like a haunting refrain, asking, “For whom?
For Connie Chung?”
The longing to return home flooded my emotions, but where I lived
remained a mystery to my brain. Driving south, I sideswiped a Cadillac,
next a Volvo, and before realizing how far I’d traveled I reached Mott
Street, the Asian landmark of landmarks, in the very heart of Chinatown.
This was America’s cinematic depiction of Chinatown, the streets dark,
shadowy, with rats and monkeys racing across the sidewalks, and Tongs,
the oriental Mafia, were waging a hatchet war. But I parked the Honda,
climbed out, and my eyes peered through walls and saw men lounging
in a room smoking glass opium pipes, and gazing through the pavement,
I discerned a room far below where men stood crammed shoulder to
shoulder at gambling tables, risking every cent they’d ever earned.
Further down the sidewalk a golden door opened by itself, inviting
me in. I entered, passed through beaded curtains, proceeded down a long
hallway and waited between rice paper walls until someone ushered me
into a small room. Roland Winters, the white actor with taped eyebrows,
stood playing Charlie Chan with an inscrutable expression, withholding
the solution to a heinous crime. Bald-headed Shao Lin priests instructed
David Carradine how to speak slowly and appear curious for his starring
role in Kung Fu. Pat Morita was uttering the most famous yet meaningless
line of his career, “Wax on, wax off,” for The Karate Kid, and soon I
overheard the actor Victor Sea Yung as Hop Sing on Bonanza, quarreling
with Bruce Lee as Kato on The Green Hornet and George Takei as
Sulu on Star Trek, saying, “Mistah Cahtright, he say Hop Sing a bettah
second banana than you or you!”
Across the room, B.D. Wong as Dr. George Huang of Law & Order:
SVU, Special Victims Unit, pleaded in the softest, most untraditionally
masculine voice, “Detective Munch, if you’ll just listen, I’ll give you the
best psychological profile you’ve ever heard.”
But Robert Ito, Dr. Sam Fugiyama of Quincy, the coroner show,
shook his head back and forth like he could win any worst sidekick contest
without trying, because Jack Klugman stood behind him whining,
“Come on, Sam. I’ve got a date, and you don’t. So cut that body now!
Hurry! I need those tissue samples right away!”
I wanted to be sick, but at the end of the room a slim man sat behind
a polished mahogany empire desk, his face partially hidden in the dark.
“Don’t I know you?” I said.
“Yes,” the man answered. “I’ve been on television for years and years,
as well as in countless movies.” He leaned forward, and I saw he had
silver hair, but his face was a younger man’s, and he wore a black linen tailored
suit, then flowing silk robes. A cigarette materialized in his mouth,
and evil shone in his eyes. An episode of The X-Files in which poor Chinese
men had gambled using their internal organs as collateral flashed
through my mind—yes, I’d seen him there too. His name, I suddenly
realized, was James Hong; he was the most ubiquitous Asian American
character actor of all time, always the criminal mastermind, always the
mysterious shadowy figure plotting away behind the scenes, the one who
forever sternly commanded, “Kill him.”
“Goodbye, Chinese Godfather,” I said, turning to leave, because my
body couldn’t stop trembling.
“You could stay here, you know,” he offered. “I could?”
“You don’t have to go, because no matter what happens, I’ll be with
you through eternity. And it won’t matter if there are Chinese, Japanese,
Vietnamese, Korean, or Pilipino actors, or any other race from the East.
I’ll be there, playing each and every one of them, and it will last forever.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “Everyone on the other side has thought of it at
one time or another. Because all Asians look the same!” He laughed like
the epitome of evil, and the haunting sound of his cruel string of laughter
lingered in my ears, so I felt as if a camera had been rolling, capturing us
on film, and I was afraid the scene might somehow be repeated in my
mind incessantly, like a form of brainwashing or mind control, in the
same way that television episodes are aired again and again.
I felt distraught, uncertain. What else was I supposed to learn now?
For what purpose? Part of my thoughts asked, Why, Buddha? Why? Unable
to stay in the room with Hong for another second, I dashed back
onto Mott Street. The hour was very late, prompting me to worry about
being on time at The Gap the next morning, and since the location of my
apartment was no longer a mystery to my brain, I stepped back into the
Honda and started to drive.
If only that had been the last night of my missing Connie so badly.
But enlightenment wasn’t mine yet, and within days Connie accused
CBS of sexism, so in retaliation, Eric Ober, President of the News Division,
adamantly insisted that the two person anchor concept simply
hadn’t worked. Connie refused to take a smaller role, boldly stating, “It’s
inappropriate for the only woman on the three major network news programs
to have anything less than coequal status!”
“This is not, and was not, a gender issue,” Dan Rather replied, his
voice as droll and pathetic as ever.
But in my eyes, Connie’s demotion was all about chauvinism and misogyny.
Who was there but Rather at CBS, Jennings at ABC, and Brokaw
at NBC? Connie’s on-screen presence might be near its permanent
end, but I backed her all the way when she demanded, “I want a mutually
agreeable separation from the network.”
Still, for days—foolishly, secretly—I held onto the slender hope that
somehow CBS might reconsider. “Connie,” they needed to declare, “we’re
wrong! We need you!” But as life turned out, without her on the air that
month, the news ratings plummeted. Ober didn’t rehire her, though, because
to do so would have amounted to an admission of guilt.
I found myself crying incessantly but challenged myself, asking, is this
what Connie would do?
Standing tall, I marched in front of CBS headquarters, holding up a
sign that proclaimed: BRING BACK CONNIE CHUNG! My protest
stretched into days, and then weeks, and although deserving at least
a photo and a caption in The Star, or some footage on local news, the
only person who seemed to notice me was my neighbor, Monique. She
brought sandwiches and coffee, telling me I was brave. But the only result
of the was my being fired from The Gap, due to excessive absences.
Then on June 20th, 1995, I woke to discover in T.V. Guide that Connie
would not be returning to any network. At least not soon. She and Maury
Povich—that lucky dog—had adopted a baby and named him Matthew
Jay Povich. They appeared to be the happiest people on earth, joy prevalent
upon their smiling, blissful faces, while my life only felt like it was
deteriorating, crumbling apart like a sand dune being struck by a storm
tide. That following week, my sense of abandonment was the worst, and
I tried to tell myself that loneliness could become my good close friend,
but without Connie I simply couldn’t bear the waking hours or the evening
news. At night I wailed, “How could you leave me?” And as the pain
of withdrawal intensified, I tried to cope by watching Kristi Yamaguchi
ice skate her way to peerless Asian American artistry and perfection, but
she wasn’t enough. No, she wasn’t the same, not even close, and also the
urges to drive badly and eat at General Tso’s or practice the martial arts
or return to Chinatown entered my mind, but none of it seemed comparable
to Connie.
I pulled the shades down and sat for weeks on end in front of my television,
always ending up on the floor, weeping, curled tightly into a fetal
position. Why, Buddha! Why? I began sleeping long hours, venturing out
only to buy groceries, and ignored anyone knocking at the door. Stacks
of bills quickly began to accumulate, so I began working from my apartment,
freelance writing for a midwest greeting card company. They raved
about my poignant Valentine’s Day inscriptions like: “Darling, I’ll love
only you forever,” and “No one makes me feel like you do in my heart.”
Of course, Connie was my muse, inspiring each and every line.
Two years of solitude passed, and Connie’s absence from the airwaves
felt more awful than death. I wondered even more about the purpose of
my existence in this life. But one evening I heard on Entertainment Tonight
that she was returning front and center for ABC News. I couldn’t
believe it; I felt elated. The show was 20/20, and sure enough, when I first
saw her on the screen she looked ravishing, pure gorgeous, and for a brief
interlude it seemed as if she’d never left. Her comeback made me want to
buy new clothes and dine out and dance until all hours, to make the scene
and be seen, but the smallest part of me was wary, somehow knowing
better, having already become so deeply depressed and hurt by her prior
dismissal. So I reserved my feelings and held myself back, not returning
to public life. I left that burden to Connie.
She lived up to it, staying with ABC for five years, so like a betrayed
lover learning to trust again, I contemplated a comeback of my own.
Monique’s door opened once as I darted out to buy groceries; she stood
there, thinner and as revealing as ever, wearing designer jeans and a cashmere
sweater, and she exclaimed, “I haven’t seen you in ages! Why don’t
you drop by for a drink?”
I accepted, because I didn’t want to be rude, and because maybe what
I did need was more real human contact. But a few hours later, that
evening, as I sat down on her couch, she snuggled closer to me and whispered
something I would never forget, “You know, I’ve always wanted to
be with you. I have this thing. It’s a fetish. For Asian guys.”
A fetish? I didn’t know what she meant. But at that moment, the word
felt strange, and Monique looked at me with all too much lust in her
eyes, like I was a trophy or something to be won, like I wasn’t a feeling
person and she didn’t want to know me for me. I sprang from the couch,
bolted from her apartment like a gazelle trying to outrun a lunging tiger,
inferring that she truly would have eaten me alive.
That very same week, Connie began hosting her own show on CNN,
Connie Chung Tonight. I could see her struggling to return to form, wanting
to be investigative and hard-hitting again, like during her youthful
days, but the producers wouldn’t allow it. As a result she floundered—it’s
never her fault; some insipid paper-pushing moron always has it in for
her—so within weeks, she was fired again, let go, my lamb once more at
the mercy of the world’s wolves.
To lose her twice felt like too much, and for a long while I only saw
her on an episode of The View (the show that can never keep an Asian
sister). But in January of 2006 she began appearing regularly on Weekends
With Maury and Connie. Could Weekends be enough? Another executive
moron cancelled Weekends, though, and in April of 2006 the news broke
that Katie Couric was leaving The Today Show to join CBS and anchor
the network evening newscast alone. It should have been Connie! She
paved the way! Not little miss blue-eyed Katie Couric! Was there no
decency left? Didn’t anyone care about the world?
Sobbing, facing the television that evening, I felt forced by the announcement
to sit and contemplate who I had become. What was my
purpose? What lesson had the Buddha hoped for me to learn? I paced,
stared in the mirror for hours, wrote my thoughts down day and night
in a leather-bound, key-locking black Moleskine journal, and despite
how all the introspection felt more arduous than working at The Gap,
I sensed the truth awaited me. Why, I asked myself one morning, was
I so connected to Connie? Why did I yearn for her so badly? The only
person who had shown me any admiration was Monique, and now her
words about her having a fetish for me echoed in my brain. I sought out
a dictionary, and after finding one in a desk drawer, sat and read that a
fetish was: “an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion; or an
object or bodily part whose real or fantasized presence is psychologically
necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the
extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression.”
I stood considering the words, their meanings, and to my horror, realizing
how Monique’s affections towards me resembled my affections
for Connie, I screamed. No, this couldn’t be. But oh, yes. Monique had
a fetish, and I had a fetish. That’s what it was. And my fetish, I gleaned,
was an Asian fetish, too.
I felt deeply ashamed. Perhaps I might have remained that way, but
understanding that part or consequence of being Asian in America, I
divined, was what the Buddha had intended for me to learn. And once I
admitted to myself how foolish my own longings had been, I felt calmer,
then nearly at peace. I opened my apartment door, wanting to share with
Monique the knowledge I had gained, to try and heal her, as well. But
at that moment, because the Buddha must have deemed it so, I began to
fade, stepping once more out of one life, and into another.

Allen Gee
Asians in the Library

In March of 2011 I watched what has become the now-infamous
video by Alexandra Wallace, a third-year political science major who
shamelessly posted a YouTube rant about Asians in the Library at
UCLA during finals week. Her video instantly provoked an internet
contagion. Millions logged on and reacted with tolerance-based horror
to her bashing monologue. Thousands of responses proliferated, some
dissenters distinguishing themselves by being more eloquent than others,
and the most noteworthy voice—I think, because of its artfulness—was
the satiric “Ching Chong Asians in the Library Song” sung by Jimmy
Wong, which as of today has drawn over
4,094, 967 viewers. Wallace’s rant left me
angry, so as I listened to Wong’s song I was
hoping that my emotions would be soothed
and that I would at some point be able to
move on to other significant matters.
But for the past year my mind has continued to circle back and dwell
on the dialogue between Wallace and Wong. Why did Wallace’s words
and her complaints create such a backlash of online activity that hasn’t
ceased? Why has Jimmy Wong’s sensitive yet humorous crooning received
so much attention? And why did I feel almost personally invested
in what has been happening?
Alexandra Wallace’s rant lasts a brief two minutes and fifty-two seconds,
about the time it takes me to run a brisk half mile. She speaks from
a dorm room, wearing a scanty taut pink-trimmed top, inciting objection
within moments by saying, “The problem is these hordes of Asian people
that UCLA accepts into our school every single year, which is fine, but if
you’re going to come to UCLA then use American manners.”
Any listener instantly knows that Wallace is out-of-step, not part of
the tolerant, more-enlightened generation she’s supposed to belong to,
while for a middle-aged Chinese-American like me, the word “hordes”
and then the words “our school” bring to mind the anti-Chinese immigration
laws and the exclusion mentality of California racial politics
from the 1860s. Wallace also made me think of the evolving history of
enrollment policies at UCLA. Since Proposition 209 in California in
1996 banned state entities from using affirmative action, or since the
admissions playing field was “leveled” by becoming based upon standardized
test scores alone, Asian-Americans have emerged as frontrunners
in West coast academia. UC Berkley’s Asian population jumped from
37.3% in 1995 to 48.6% today, and at UCLA, Asians are now a majority
at 37.12%. Wallace’s old-school centrist view assumes that UCLA
should be white. This was the reason why Caucasians protested affirmative
action to begin with, but they had no idea that the policy’s removal
would lead to Asians being admitted in vast numbers.
Wallace’s litany of complaint only moves on like a filibuster:
. . .all the Asian people that live in all the apartments around me,
their moms and their brothers and their sisters and their grandmas
and their grandpas and their cousins and everybody that they
know that they’ve brought from Asia with them, comes here on
the weekends to do their laundry, buy their groceries and cook
their food for the week. It’s seriously, without fail. You will always
see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every
weekend. That’s what they do. They don’t teach their kids to
fend for themselves.
I felt astonished that Wallace was striking down a core value of
Asian-America, critiquing family togetherness. She was also inverting
a major Asian route to gain independence by criticizing high scholastic
achievement with the support of one’s family, completely misunderstanding
the reason for close-knit, multi-generational behavior.
What follows is the emotional center of Wallace’s rant for she remarks
with an annoying whine that has the impact of trauma, commenting
snidely about Asians talking on their cell phones in the library:
I’ll be in, like deep into my studying, into my political science
theories and arguments and all that stuff, getting it all down, like
typing away furiously—blah blah blah—and then all of a sudden
when I’m about to, like, reach an epiphany, over here from somewhere,
‘Ooohh, ching chong ling long ting tong, ooohh.’
There is the underlying comic irony that Wallace will never be able
to escape from now—the doubt of whether she’s even capable of having
a real epiphany because she’s ignorant enough to be so openly racist—
and then there’s her rendition of Chinese speech, which otherizes an
entire race, casting it aside, for all purposes dismissing it, and in so doing
she attains the level of Roland Barthes’ definition in Mythologies of
what otherizing is, which ultimately is to conquer or destroy. At the same
time Wallace is simplifying what is actually a complex tonal language by
trying to parody it with an old sing-song rhyme, and this type of broad
stroke harks back to stereotypical portrayals of Asians that used to dominate
racist Hollywood movies. A viewer has to ask, when was
Wallace born? What planet has she been living on? Was she raised in
the 1950s?
Still Wallace presses the issue further, exclaiming about one Asian
talking on a cell phone:
Are you freaking kidding me? In the middle of finals week? So
being the polite, nice American girl that my momma raised me to
be, I kinda just give him what anybody else would do, that kinda,
like, (she puts her index finger up to her lips in a ‘ssshh’ motion)
you know, it’s a library, like, we’re trying to study. Thanks! And
then it’s the same thing five minutes later. But it’s somebody else,
you know. I swear they’re going through their whole families, just
checking on everybody from the tsunami thing.
By this point I could only wonder, how can this woman possibly be
speaking openly like this? Not only was she assuming some far-flung
superiority because she’d been raised by a white mother, but the idea
of her being an exclusively American girl, or that her type of behavior
must remain as the upheld standard for everyone, struck me not only
as outlandish but as disturbing. Could anyone really be so self-involved
and insensitive toward the plight of families of tsunami victims, not to
mention her confusing what occurred in Japan with the predominantly
Chinese student body at UCLA? But this is life according to Alexandra
Wallace, a former wannabe swimsuit model, lacking any civilized awareness,
without any greater concern for the shrinking “postmodern” planet
that we’re all supposedly citizens of; no, she couldn’t refrain from speaking
with her sense of entitlement to target Asians in the Library. And
what other building or space on a college campus is more necessary to
scholarly upward mobility, too achieving the American dream? Yet without
a moment of regret or reservation, she goes on to thank everyone for
listening, and closes with a smug, “and have a nice day.”
Although loathing Alexandra Wallace’s sense of privilege and her assumption
of ownership of the library, I still think that she wasn’t capable
of anticipating the furor that she would cause. She can certainly be
viewed as one of Asian America’s strongest indications that having the
first African-American President, Barrack Obama does not—on so many
levels—signify that we are now part of an entirely enlightened post-racial
nation. African-Americans have already been quite aware that deep
faults remain throughout the nation and that for many Martin Luther
King Jr.’s dream of racial equality is still nowhere near to being a reality;
this was confirmed by the July 16, 2009 arrest of the nation’s pre-eminent
African-American scholar, Henry Louis Gates, who teaches at Harvard
but was detained by police under suspicion of burglary while trying to
enter his own Cambridge home. For me, Wallace’s rant parallels the
treatment Gates was subjected to; she reminds us that no matter how
much another race believes it has attained, or no matter much how it
believes it has progressed, there is still always the dominant status quo
that will question one’s right to belong.
What Wallace also proved, unfortunately, is that not only is racism
still to be feared, stemming from law enforcement officers who profile,
or Klu Klux Klansmen, or skinheads, but now racism can blatantly arise
from what has traditionally been perceived as the innocuous supposedly
good girl who invokes how she was raised by her mother. Isn’t this the
girl who far too many in America are conditioned by media forces to
want to desire or want to marry? Think Marilyn Monroe in her billowing
white dress, posed classically forever now above a subway grate, or
picture Farrah Fawcett with her dazzling white smile and red swimsuit,
poster-emblazoned in the American consciousness for eternity. Remember
the bombshells Jayne Mansfield or Kim Novak, and recent heightened
blondeness via Heidi Klum, Jessica Simpson, Jessica Alba, Britney
Spears, and Kate Upton. Alexandra Wallace, of all things, raises the question,
wasn’t “blonde” supposed to have meant the locus of desire, or be
associated with wholesome youth, vitality, and sexuality? Wasn’t America
saying before that to be with a blonde was like a prize or a reward, something
only those more masculine or wealthy or fortunate than others
could attain?
I have thought back, and what I have remembered is that from 1982
to 1983, during my sophomore and junior years at the University of New
Hampshire, I ensconced myself until closing each night on the uppermost
floor of the Diamond Library, reading English Literature—the Bronte
sisters for one course—as well as classic American novels for another: As
I Lay Dying, The Country of the Pointed Firs, The Great Gatsby, My Antonia,
and A Farewell to Arms. The library became a refuge, a sanctum from
roommates and parties, and since I had been an athlete in high school
(running crosscountry, playing basketball, and running track) which demanded
every extra hour, now my mind was compensating, catching up
for what I felt like were mental deficiencies. And I have remembered
that since my older brother was a child prodigy, a classical pianist, there
was always music resounding throughout the house, the volume at times
deafening, never conducive to reading, so there in the library I was also
learning about quiet and where silence can lead one’s mind and thoughts.
I discovered the far-reaching realm of literature in the library, contemplating
who I was by comparing myself to the characters in the worlds
created by each novel’s author, and as it was I could have stayed long past
closing time, and I can not imagine how I would have felt if someone
like Alexandra Wallace had told me I shouldn’t be there or had to leave.
Jimmy Wong’s video response to Alexandra Wallace features him
singing solo with an acoustic guitar, sometimes utilizing four concurrent
screens to show images of him singing lead, signing his own backup chorus,
hand clapping, or rhythm shaking. When interviewed on NPR’s All
Things Considered by Melissa Block, he speaks of needing a couple of days
to write the “Ching Chong Asians in the Library Song”, which from the
start is a mock seduction.
Wong’s song opens with nerdy fictive self-deprecation; he pretends
not to speak English well, laying on a thick heavy accent, satirizing Wallace’s
characterization of Asians. He becomes, to a heightened degree,
the Asian other she makes the Asians in the Library out to be. His eyes
appear serious and he bows his head, but the real humor commences
when he starts to speak enticingly:
Oh, Alexandra Wallace. Damn, girl. You so feisty. You so feisty
they should call you Alexandra Great Wall Ace. And don’t pretend
I didn’t see you watching me talking on my phone yesterday
all sexy—ching chong wing wong. Baby, it’s all just code. It’s the
way I tell the ladies it’s time to get funky.
Underlying all of this is the ingenious subtext of hearing an Asian
man speak provocatively to a blonde white woman, which I can not recall
hearing or seeing at any time recently on television or at the movies. Here
Wong is not the typically emasculated Asian male, but a young man restructuring
any perceived hierarchy of gender or racial desire; his speaking
out, satire or not, is a form of rebellion. What appeals most to me is
how he mocks how he’s supposed to want Wallace, while it’s righteously
overt that he doesn’t really want her. He rejects American’s elevation of
blonde beauty. Wong launches into singing the first verse without an
accent, sometimes lifting his eyebrows dramatically, and Wallace remains
the object of seduction:
I hope one day you can meet my mother, brothers, sisters,
grandmothers, grandpas, and cousins, oh, cuz
what they’re really doing on those Friday nights
is showing me how to cook and dress, cuz baby
I want to take you out and blow your freaking mind.
The chorus follows, laced with its own insults to contradict Wallace’s
rant, “And underneath the pounds of makeup and your baby blue eyes, I
know there’s a lot of pain and hurt, for such a big brain to spend all night
studying poly sci.”
The rest of the chorus is Wong’s revisionist interpretation of what her
racist portrayal of Chinese speech means to him; he takes the standard of
racial debasement that she derives from Chinese language, and appropriates
it for his own riff of mocking humor:
I pick up my phone and sing:
Ching chong, it means I love you
Ling long, I really want you
Ting tong, I don’t actually know what that means.
Ching chong, it’s never ending
Ling long, my head is spinning
Ting tong, still don’t know what that means.
Wong’s accentuating Wallace’s crude imitation of Asian speech in the
chorus—her “ching chong ling long ting tong”—also prompts Melissa
Block in her NPR interview to speculate whether ching chong ling long
ting tong might “become part of our cultural lexicon” or like “a shorthand”
for something. As Block suggests, the words have become part of
our language; you can now find ching chong ling long being reshaped in
a myriad of online postings and even printed on T-shirts being sold for
tsunami relief.
Wong maintains the high level of inverse satire, for his song returns
to spoken word verse and becomes humorously seductive again: “Oohh,
Alex. I just want to take my phone out and talk dirty to you all day
long. But I know you’re busy cramming all those big hard theories and
arguments.” He gives the camera a sly wink, and then the second verse
commences:
You ain’t that polite, nice American girl
that your momma raised you to be
so when you reach that epiphany
—wait, are you freaking kidding me?—
if you have an epiphany every single time you study
that probably means you’re doing something wrong
but I like it when you’re wrong.
The song unleashes racial protest here, as well as irritation directed
at Wallace’s assumed authority and intelligence, and then the chorus is
repeated before Wong speaks enticingly for one last time, amplifying the
seduction with phallic sexual humor:
It’s alright, Alexandra, I know you know nothing about tsunamis
I just want to make sure you know that it’s not a type of sushi
but I came here to say that I’m actually Chinese
and that’s a whole ‘nother country, and it’s bigger
yeah, way bigger, but when it comes to love, Alexandra
there are no boundaries.
To close, Wong says, “Thank you” in the formal Chinglish voice of the
opening, faintly echoing Wallace’s “and have a nice day.” During his NPR
interview, he describes his song as containing “sharp wit” but downplays
his reaction to Wallace by remarking, “I was pretty offended at first, but
then I realized this is just someone going on a rant, and we’ve all done
that before.” He adds that his song, like Wallace’s rant, is never really
hostile, and claims that he would “love to meet her for coffee and give
her a big hug.”
While praising Wong’s non-violent creative response, however, reporter
Dave Pell on NPR’s Technology Blog links Wallace to cyber bullies,
reminding us “just how easy it is to spread hate in the internet age.”
And overall, for me there is a discernible element of tragedy beneath
Wong’s having to use satire to respond to Wallace, the feeling of laughing
and crying at the same time, which I think this is the most significant aspect
contributing to why the song has drawn and captivated so many listeners.
Wallace’s rant does sadden our emotional human landscape. And
while the insulting lyrics in Wong’s song are payback or barbs for Wong’s
being part of the intended audience for Wallace’s derogatory generalizations,
why shouldn’t he just admit his irritation and feel justified?
In the aftermath of Alexandra Wallace’s online rant, in her real dayto-
day life, she and her family received death threats. So she soon issued
an apology, stating: “I cannot explain what possessed me to approach the
subject as I did, and if I could undo it, I would. . . For those who can
not find it within them to accept my apology, I understand.” She simultaneously
announced her withdrawal from UCLA. One recent article
suggests her video was a publicity stunt because her career as a political
science major apparently held no more promise than Sarah Palin’s infamous
Bridge to Nowhere. A glimpse at Wallace’s bathing suit modeling
photos, which are posted prominently online, shows what appears to be
fearless self-promotion; Wallace stares down the camera like she knows
what she’s doing and thrives upon it, like she possesses great self awareness.
If her rant was for publicity, however, it certainly backfired, because
she branded herself with a “racist” label, and what racists do we know of
who have managed full career comebacks?
Examining Greek history, we can find that Wallace is akin to Julian
the Apostate, who, after the reign of Constantine, reinstated the pagan
religion of Rome as the state religion, and so the protection of minority
Christians—like any security Asian Americans might have felt at
UCLA—was nullified. We could view her symbolically, then, as a sign
of one historical tradition stubbornly refusing to give way to another. If
I apply a more contemporary lens, she reminds me of the late Governor
George Wallace of Alabama, who was the face of modern Southern segregation.
One of the more horrific quotes attached to him is: “Segregation
now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” When he recanted
later in life, history certainly didn’t lessen its judgment of how awful he
was.
While we can clearly recognize that Alexandra Wallace’s rant was a
clear overestimation of her own power, what her actions ultimately tell
me is that not only can racism stem now from what American popular
culture has repeatedly tried to tell us is the simplest, most desirable iconic
identity—the attractive blonde female—but also that the assumed privilege
of white America, its once clearly dominant unjust advantage, is becoming
diluted, fractured and strained, possibly nearing a breaking point.
Thanks to Alexandra Wallace, America must acknowledge that the
wholesome blonde California girl in the white swimsuit may no longer
represent good vibrations, while Asian America’s empowered voice
is found in thousands of responses and millions of hits for the clever
crooner, Jimmy Wong, the face of a race in retaliation, one that is no
longer the silent minority that many of the status quo would like it to
remain. Wallace probably wasn’t the last innocuous blonde to protest
Asian success by trying to subvert an entire ethnic group’s version of
the American dream. So we should caution our mother, brothers, sisters,
grandmothers, grandpas, and cousins, because Wallace’s rant is the
portent of more Asian-vilifying times ahead. As for me, I’ll be doing my
part by reading in coffee shops, parks, museums, airports, on trains, and
in libraries, forever staying visible.