Monday, June 07, 2010

Penn Masala and other joys

Sometimes when I'm studying, I'll click over to YouTube for background music. Admittedly I listen to very little music in general and my music collection is abysmally small, which is why I always ask friends to burn me a mix as a present [seriously, one of my favorite presents] and which is also why YouTube is pretty much the sole source of music in my life. Today I got on an oldies kick ... KC and Jojo, mostly, which reminded me of some of the randomer songs I listened to in college, amongst them songs by the a capella group Penn Masala. Based at Penn State, I think, they blend South Asian influences with American pop, like so [ignore the video and just listen to the song]:

A "Desi" is like a "person" so "ABCD" is "American Born Confused Desi," akin to the "ABC" of the Chinese-American population [American Born Chinese ... though we're probably equally as confused :-P]. One of the things I love about that song is the way they both speak to and subvert stereotypes about South Indian culture. There's so much diversity within each immigrant group, distinctions which can be easy to miss if you're not part of that group yet which can feel of vital importance within the group. But at the same time, they're taking something distinctly American - a Backstreet Boys hit, in this case - and making it their own.

I've been thinking about that second to last point a lot in the past couple weeks (about distinctions within a group), in part because that was a huge part of my experience in college. I was both exploring more about what it meant to be Chinese and Chinese-American, and feeling very keenly how I fell outside the 'prototypical' Chinese-American experience, if you could really argue for a prototypical experience for any immigrant group. So even though I felt a little wrong singing along to a song that parodies racial stereotypes about a group that is not my own racial group (you know how it feels different to poke fun at yourself versus when others poke fun at you), I also loved how this song both challenged and celebrated the notion of a prototypical immigrant experience.

[Another song of theirs that I like]

Why bring this up now? Well, I've recently been working on a personal essay about college, for one thing. I've decided that it really is finally time to get serious about writing. Ever since I was in middle school I've wanted to write some sort of book about the Chinese-American experience, one different from the world that Amy Tan portrays because frankly, although Chinese-American literature owes her a debt, her Chinese America is not mine and it is not something that I can relate to very well. I love the diversity within groups, the humanity of each person's experience. And I loved China and being there and how it changed me. So. I'll just throw out to the world that yes, I am going to try that incredibly daunting task of writing a book, and I've arbitrarily set myself a deadline of finishing by the time I turn 28. This gives me 15.5 months to pull together scattered blog posts, notes scratched out in the margins of notebooks, and journals littered across both coasts. And holy crap do I have no clue what I'm doing. But that's OK. It may never go anywhere but I'd love for my children to understand why mommy has 'sisters' from Taiwan and Singapore and a 'ghetto' 'little brother' from her days working at a youth center serving the Chinese community, or why she is so adamant they learn Chinese and understand where they come from. I'd love for them to know a little slice of 'my' China ... there are a thousand Chinas, each one different, just as there are a thousand different Americas and within those, a thousand Chinese Americas.

I have signed up for Ali's sew along and the current plan is to devote one week each month to intensive sewing. A sort of creative 'filling of the well,' if you will. And I'll continue taking photographs of course, and I'm sure I'll pop in regularly with handknit items [goodness I never knit so much as when I have something that I need to write]. So you know, things around here are not going to change terribly much. But one of the things I've promised myself is that I will be better about putting my dreams out to the world. This particular one's only taken me 15 years to start, but sometimes that first step is the hardest one to take.


Sigrid said...

This is exciting news. From your writing here I can see that you are thoughtful writer and your posts experiment with your personal perspective on craft so you already have some practice writing that book. I can't wait to read your book someday and be able to say, "I've been reading her for ages."

Ali said...

Beautiful post, Jessica. Storytelling is our most natural inclination and there are a million stories, and there's room for yours, too. :) Writing (any act of creation, if I may be so pretentious) is an act of courage. I wish you luck on this wonderful journey.

The American immigrant experience is so, so fascinating to me, given the history of both this country and the various countries of origin, mixed in with class and pop culture and globalization. As a hapa girl, I don't fit into a singular experience, either (unless there's a prototypical hapa experience?). This semester I taught Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (a heartbreaking novel) and one of my students passed on this phenomenal lecture by the young Nigerian writer (she probably wrote it at about your age):

The Danger of the Single Story

No pressure of course, but it might be right up your alley. :)