Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"Crossing" Rather Than "Passing" Racial Boundaries

Despite my elementary command of my native language (although I didn't speak English until the age of 5, there are certain sacrifices when you are forced to immerse yourself in another language or flunk) I listen to Vietnamese music and watch Vietnamese music videos with my parents. I hate the newfangled faux Madonna/Britney/Backstreet Boys stuff (we are sometimes late on our interpretations, you can still watch covers of Elvis songs to this day) pop/disco stuff. I like the old-fashioned love songs. The equivalent of the standards--The Great Vietnamese Songbook, often about love, war, and love of country. There's a corollary in American music. You know how every cheesy love song was once a country ballad? Yeah, it's like that. So there are two fiercely competitive video chains that "own" their singers by contract much like the old RKO and MGM studio systems once owned their actors--dictating song choice, hairstyle, dress, etc. with non-competition clauses, I'm sure. One line was, until recently, considered more high-class and elite than the other, is called "Paris By Night." There are at least 90-odd videos now, and I remember watching them with my mother when they ran in the tens I think we own them all from the first to the most current, first on VHS, and now on DVD. The other line is called "Asia"--but don't buy the pan-ethnic sounded name, it's all Vietnamese music. It was mostly the chaff from the wheat at first, the unsigned, mostly untalented young pop-tarts. But now it's getting really good. And they produce thematic discs, kind of like those Time-Life "Greatest Hits" compilations you see advertised on cable. One devoted entirely to war songs. Another to love songs. And Asia started stealing away Paris By Night singers--the really good ones who sing in the old way.

This is a huge market. I live in the largest Vietnamese ethnic enclave outside of Vietnam. These CDs and DVDs rack up huge sales across the U.S. for ex-pats yearning for their homeland and community (but some, like my father, too stubbornly anti-Communist to ever visit it). The DVDs are just recorded concerts (all lip-synched!) with witty emcees and funny comedy skits, but apparently, the audience fills up entire stadiums. For all of you living in states/countries with small or neglible Vietnamese communities, recognize the vast diaspora created by the Vietnam war. We may be scattered or concentrated into enclaves, but we are here. We are your nail salon workers, your doctors, the engineers who work in the next department, and increasingly (I hope!) your fellow law students and lawyers. So now you know what we listen to on our headphones in addition to your Britney and JLo. (I myself have some Vietnamese music on my Ipod in addition to Bob Dylan, Beatles, Diana Krall, and Van Morrison--don't say I don't have good taste in music)

I bring all this up, not only to educate you about the Vietnamese pop landscape (and I'm not even talking about how these CDs/DVDs are banned in communist Vietnam as the work product of traitorous ex-pats or how it's so much better than J-Pop), but also to talk to you of a couple of examples of racial crossing. It's a term I just made up, granted, but bear with me. In the 1980s, there were a few big crossover stars of the Vietnamese music scene (all on Paris By Night): Randy, a black Amerasian, Cong Thanh and his white wife Lynn, and Dalena, pictured above. Dalena has no apparent ties to the Vietnamese race--she grew up white, with white parents, but during high school began to study Chinese, and then Vietnamese language and songs. She is really, really good--a lovely voice, servicing the songs well. I speak with a heavy American accent (hey, I was an English lit major), and my family often says I sound like a child first learning how to speak (ouch!) or else the Vietnamese equivalent of a gringa. But if you listen to Dalena with your eyes closed, you can hardly tell that she's not a native Vietnamese speaker. I, the gringa, certainly can't. These people I remember strongly from my childhood in the 80's, but haven't thought much of since. But Dalena's made a comeback--she's on the most recent Asia video, singing as beautifully as ever.

And she makes me wonder about the implications of race and how some are allowed to "cross-over" their racial categories. Randy was part-Vietnamese--yet to the world and the Vietnamese community, he would be considered primarily "Black." Despite his heritage, there was no way he would "pass" as Vietnamese." But by singing our songs and speaking our language, he became a part of our community. Intermarriage was not as common, nor as accepted as it is today--but Lynn, in marrying Cong Thanh, became a Vietnamese woman by wearing our traditional dress (the beautiful ao dai) and singing romantic duets with her husband. She was as pale as could be, and blond too, and there was no way she'd ever be mistaken for anything other than a white woman--but she became a part of the Vietnamese music community. And Dalena did the same, wearing ao dai and singing the most traditional songs. It's not as though Lynn and Dalena are singing American songs or English versions of Vietnamese songs--no, they are presenting themselves as, and thereby becoming Vietnamese through their adoption of native dress, language, and culture. Thus, I think of them more as "cross-overs" rather than "passers"--they somehow transcended their phenotype and native language and became very successful in what would otherwise be a very limited and insular world.

With all the recent controversies over cross-cultural/ethnic casting, I wonder how many other examples of racial crossing are accepted as welcomingly. Maybe Randy, Lynn, and Dalena were accepted because they were novelties (but their talent was so much more). After all, there was extreme controversy in China about the casting of the Chinese actresses Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, and Gong Li as Japanese geishas in Memoirs of a Geisha. But was there the same uproar when non-Israelite actors like the Australian Eric Bana, the British Daniel Craig, and the French Matthieu Kassovitz were cast in Munich?

Most of the time when we think about "crossover success", we think about music--Enrique Iglesias, Shakira, Selena before she died. But think also about this: Jennifer Lopez is the new Sue Ellen in a new movie version of that old soap opera Dallas. I never watched Dallas--but I know that Linda Gray, the original Sue Ellen, was not from Puerto Rico. And don't forget how often those Brits and Aussies sneak up on us--how many of us have expressed shock to learn that Peter Jennings was Canadian? How often do you watch a movie and see British actors and actresses play at American accents (often successfully) and American actors and actresses play at British accents (oftentimes not so successfully)? The British Hugh Laurie on House and the Australian Anthony LaPaglia and the British Marianne Jean-Baptiste on Without a Trace--sure, these are subtle differencse in accent rather than phenotype, or ethnicity rather than race--but they are no less interesting for considering the possibilities of "cross-over." And this is age-old, this crossing-over business. Remember every contemptible example of blackface/minstrelsy you can think of, Yul Brynner as the King in The King and I, and Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago--not to mention every time you watch a movie set in Russia or Holland you'll get an all-British cast sporting all-British accents. And just last fall, there was much fanfare and critical acclaim over a new production of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, in which Kate Valk, a white woman, plays a Black male character (with the help of what appears to be tar mixed with shoe polish)--this was lauded in the press as being striking and moving, but I couldn't help but feel troubled by the 21st century version of blackface.

Not that I'm not so pure myself--despite mentioning that I'm Vietnamese a lot, the picture in the sidebar is of the white actress Amy Adams. I could put up a picture of myself, but that would ruin the anonymity. I could have no picture, but I like this picture a lot--for one thing, she's holding a bunch of letters (the site is named Law and Letters after all), it's nice and old-school looking (it was from a 1940s-esque photo shoot) and I really liked Amy Adams in Junebug. But am I for all intents and purposes, despite my repeated disclaimers, presenting myself to the world as white? With my high-falutin, French term for "fine literature" moniker, and my stated profession as lawyer and aspiring legal academic, would you all presume I was white if I did not repeatedly tell you my ethnicity and race? Believe me, all the typographical errors are due to sticky keys on a 4 year old laptop with an expired warranty, and late night weariness and laziness that prevents me from spell-checking. I carry no accent on this blog. I present to you the phenotype of a white woman. My profession is still majority white. Perhaps all of my identifying remarks about my ethnicity and cultural heritage are attempts to "cross-back" to my native identity. I have by all accounts, successfully assimilated myself into the American culture. I am an American citizen by birth, and I speak English far better than I do any other language. I even took two quarters of Vietnamese my senior year out of guilt over letting so much of it lapse. I own several volumns of Vietnamese poetry that I buy because I think I should, yet never read, preferring every other British or American author I've read during college. How is it that I connect more with the poems of Jean Toomer than I do with those of my own people? I have so successfully "crossed-over" into the "white" world, that sometimes, I need to "cross-back"--if only out of honesty, belief that it is important to me, and yes, lingering guilt.

I'm not painting this rosy, hands-joining-hands, "we are the world" picture of crossing racial boundaries, nor am I saying that "colorblind casting" is always right--I am still bothered that Renee Zellweger played what should have been a half-Black character in Cold Mountain (not to mention Anthony Hopkins playing the biracial character in The Human Stain) . There are controversies and hostilities surrounding such attempts, which indicates that such boundaries of phenotype, nationality, and ethnicity are still considered by many to be sacred norms that should not be transgressed. Sometimes, examples of crossover success show us that art may allow us to transcend the mundane realities and our national borders. Othertimes, it's an offensive form of neo-colonialism. When is it "I want to become one of your people" and when is it "I just want to exploit your people for entertainment value"? Are the more fluid boundaries of accent/nationality/ethnicity easier to cross than the more rigid ones of phenotype and "race"? Is it important who's doing the crossing over in terms of considering it a "success"--the minority to the majority, versus the majority appropriating the minority? When is it more than blackface, costumery, or parroting--when does it become a demonstration of true respect for and embracing of another's culture? In other words, when is an actor a Dalena, and when is he Al Jolson? Or should we stop thinking either/or, and for one moment, actually be thankful there is a Jennifer Lopez, "we can all be Sue Ellen" alternative to this world?

I don't know the answers to any of this--but it does well to remember that race is but a social constructions, racial categories fluid and flux, and that "crossing over" is sometimes as problematic as "passing."