Buddhist Peace Fellowship board member Funie Hsu hopped on the phone with Arun, cultural critic and creator of the Angry Asian Buddhist blog phenomenon (blognomenon!), to ask him about Orientalism, racism, representation, and other causes and conditions for all the anger.
Asian Buddhist writers are 3 times less likely than white Buddhists to appear in major Western Buddhist publications.
On having “Angry” in the title
There is a stereotype, not just of Buddhists, but of Asians, that we are passive and we don’t really act up, and we sit on fluffy meditation cushions and gaze on our navels, and smile, and do something focused and we’re not angry. So just having this “Angry Asian Buddhist” in the title challenges you to think about what it means to be Asian and Buddhist. And I think that’s important, to have some sort of icon which can counter stereotypes.
On reactions to race commentary
Simply by bringing up the topic of race, some people assume that you’re talking about racism. And in modern Western society, that’s evil. EVIL. It’s so uncomfortable, it’s so taboo. But race exists. Race exists in the way people are treated.
I remember when I was in elementary school, playing on the playground, some people came from the street up to the fence surrounding the playground. They asked about my ethnicity. And I thought, Sweet! I can talk about my family, who I am, all that. And then they started yelling insults at me. And it just stunned me. But that’s just a reality of the world we live in.
Especially for Asian Americans, there’s a stereotype that we’re either like this Oriental monk, this crazy bald guy who wears strange things and speaks in broken English – sort of like Yoda. Or we’re the superstitious immigrant – and when I say the “superstitious immigrant,” I’m imagining like the way people might have talked about my grandmother. Some woman with a weird shrine in her home, and she prays to it to that we all get good SAT scores. Find awesome jobs as doctors, engineers, and physicists.
Personally, I don’t know anyone who’s like that. I know people who have different pieces of that, but there’s so much more to it. Like, we’re normal human beings.
On the pressure to represent your race
There’s a lot that I want to write about, talk about, explore, as an Asian American Buddhist and otherwise. But, over time, as I realize a lot of people are looking at what I say, I’m really not completely at ease with writing. Because it strikes me that whatever I say, a lot of people are going to misinterpret it. So I feel a lot of pressure to write clearly. Which is always an important quality. You should always write clearly. You should never degrade that. But because there’s more pressure, oftentimes we just don’t write.
There’s a story I love, about a bunch of Thai American Buddhists who pulled together to save their temple, Wat Mongkolratanaram in Berkley, CA. The neighborhood of mostly non-Thai residents tried to get their temple food court shut down, and that would’ve cut off a major stream of revenue for the temple. But a bunch of young Thai American Buddhists banded together. I remember reading about it in the Wall Street Journal – and there was this WSJ video of them. One of the organizers, Pahole Sookkasikon, won Hyphen Magazine’s Mr. Hyphen award in 2009. That was a really cool story – I wish that was in Tricycle Magazine or Shambhala Sun. That’s a really cool thing that young Buddhists did, getting together to save their parents’ temple – saving their temple, their community’s temple. When I tried to interview them they were like, “I don’t know if I can talk about this.” They were totally fine with being up in front of the cameras when the temple was on the chopping block, but when it came to talking to other Buddhists about what they did, they were like, “Well, I don’t know.”
And it’s funny because I feel like I’m the same way. When you insult my grandmother, then I’m going to write that flaming internet post. But when it’s like, “I want you to talk about these ideas,”… I don’t know what to talk about, I’m gonna make a fool out of myself… andmy community… and my family. So, it’s a strange dynamic we have.
On meditating as an “Asian” kid
Oh, yeah, Asian-American is such a broad category. I mean if you think about it, Asians are like half the world’s population. Which is potentially a lot of diversity.
I think meditation can exist in so many more ways. I think one of the things I realized: people have different relationships to meditation. I didn’t grow up in a house where everyone was meditating. It wasn’t like we were meditating before dinner. But my mother used to meditate. She didn’t meditate in front of me or anything, but I knew she used to meditate, so it was never really a scary thing for me. In fact, she used to meditate with white people! She had this group and she’d go and she’d meditate with them. So the notion of meditation was always very familiar to me.
There was a time when I was a teenager when I used to think that meditation could be transformative. That it could get rid of these things like self-hatred, or expose my defilements. But I think the most experienced meditators realize that you can’t just give up emotions and make them go away. You learn to connect to and relate with emotions in a different way.
Of course, if I’d heard people saying that when I was younger, I’d have thought What on earth are you talking about? That makes no sense — what do you mean relate to emotions in a different way?
A classic element of Orientalism is that meditation is this “foreign” thing. There’s this notion that meditation has to be repackaged for white people or for mainstream American culture, which is dominated by white Americans. And it’s the sense that anything which isn’t part of this mainstream culture doesn’t belong.
That’s something Asian Americans have to deal with a lot. And the reason why it’s problematic for a piece like the New York Times to engage in this, is that it suggests that Asian Americans and the religions that we brought here with us are not part of America. Like, we can be part of America if we try to be like white people. But when we try to be who we are, we’re not really American.
When we assume that the dominant culture is neutral — isn’t actually culture — that’s a sort of deflection. It reinforces the assumption that there’s no culture here, but there’s unwanted “cultural baggage” that comes with mindfulness from Asia.
In addition, the thing about stereotypes is they’re extremely powerful. And they’re extremely powerful especially for minorities that mainstream white Americans don’t have much interaction with. Most Americans don’t have that much contact with Asian-Americans, or at least not to the extent that I do, or that many other Asian-Americans do. So because of the limited contact, the assumptions about what it means to be Asian-American are screwed up, both by the limited interactions they have, and by what they see in the culture, in the media. So stereotypes hold sway.
A lot of Asian American Buddhists have a sense of feeling alone, because on [one hand] we are the majority of Buddhists of America, and yet there is the sense that we are somewhat isolated.
If you can elevate examples of meditators, examples of Asian-American Buddhists that break free of these stereotypes, it’s going to be very powerful for changing people’s perceptions. But what this article is suggesting is the opposite, trying to break free of the stereotypes by appropriating mindfulness and treating the Asianness as this grime that needs to be wiped off.
Our stories – especially for Asian Americans – are not part of the American mainstream. And this comes after the New York Times article, after some period of discourse around so-called Western Buddhism, it almost becomes that Asian-Americans are erased from history. Someone asks how Buddhism came to America, it’s like “Oh, some White guys went to Asia, they learned meditation, and they brought it back.” And then, you know, my grandparents, our forebears who brought Buddhism here, mainstream Americans say, “Oh, you know, yeah maybe, but it didn’t really do anything.” And sometimes people have written that Asian Americans did not play a significant role in what is “American Buddhism.”
That’s why it’s important to have those narratives.
But I think in some ways, a lot of Buddhists feel that the way the New York Times portrays it is not such a bad thing, because even if it’s unfairly, or in a superficial way, or in a detached way, it’s like the wide end of a funnel: you can get people interested in it, and maybe they’ll go deeper.