The coronavirus has turned everyone’s lives upside down, but at the same time Covid-19 threatens us all, Asian Americans have been subjected to another dangerous epidemic: racism. Since news of the novel coronavirus began to spread in the U.S., Asian Americans have been the victims of hate crimes, verbal and physical abuse, and have even had to hear President Donald Trump insultingly call the deadly bug the “China virus” in official White House Press briefings. The targeted prejudice comes at the same time many people of Asian descent are risking their own lives on the medical frontlines to save patients with Covid-19. This week, Asian American foreign policy experts, joined by many others in their community, sounded the alarm about the rising wave of attacks they were facing, writing:
Within the past couple of weeks alone, an acid attack against a woman in Brooklyn caused her to suffer severe burns, and a man in Texas has been charged with attempted murder after attacking an Asian American family. Such stories have become disturbingly frequent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the FBI has warned that this trend may continue.
We, the undersigned, are alarmed by the severity of such hate crimes and race-based harassment against people of Asian descent in the United States — assaults that endanger the safety, well-being, dignity and livelihoods of all those targeted. We are not alone. On March 20, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights expressed concern over violent attacks against people of Asian descent. Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) leaders and organizations have condemned such bigotry and mobilized important resources and initiatives to counter racism and xenophobia.
In this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” host Robert Scheer speaks with Janet Yang, the legendary film producer of “The Joy Luck Club” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” among many other films, about the appalling onslaught of racism people of Asian descent are currently facing. Yang, who was born in the U.S. and has experienced discrimination since her childhood, notes the different between what she faced her whole life and the terrifying shape racism is taking today amid the unprecedented crisis.
“It is shocking to me that at this age, in my many decades after I [was taunted as a child] on the school bus, for the first time in my life I have to worry about [going outside],” laments Yang.
The Chinese American producer, who pioneered the connection between Hollywood and the Chinese film industry, comments on how in a recent article for The Hollywood Reporter, she celebrated how far Asians and Asian Americans had come in Hollywood, noting the popularity of films such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Farewell” and the Oscar-winning Korean film “Parasite.” And yet within a matter of months, it seemed that the very same respect and adulation transformed into suspicion and animosity, even violence.
“I should not be surprised, perhaps,” Yang tells Scheer, “I have seen this incredible seesaw effect. We can go back to the turn of the century, when Chinese were the only people to be legally excluded from this country because people were so fearful of the jobs they were taking.
“That was seemingly a place that we would never go to any more, that level of vitriol,” she goes on. “We’ve seen it, though, in waves since then: World War II, we had an Asian enemy; Korean War, we had an Asian enemy; Vietnam War, we had an Asian enemy. And then we had Asian enemies that were economic in nature.”
Scheer points out that it seems that regardless of the political conditions in China, throughout American history people with Chinese ancestry have been discriminated against, just as we’re seeing now.
“The dominant culture in the U.S. has disrespected the Chinese,” says the “Scheer Intelligence” host, “whether they represented a feudal society to be exploited, whether they represented a nascent, democratic capitalist society before the communists, whether they represented communism at a certain point, whether they represent capitalism now–because they are actually the most successful center of capitalist inventiveness and so forth in the world now.
“It doesn’t seem to matter,” he continues. “What matters seems to be the need for an enemy. And even if you have a virus that you’re describing, it is convenient to that narrative to define the virus as having some kind of alien national identity.”
In response to this vilification, former 2020 Democratic candidate Andrew Yang wrote a controversial op-ed in the Washington Post encouraging members of his community to lean in to their “American-ness” to show their value to the country as they faced virulent attacks. The Hollywood producer comments that while she’s sure he was well-intentioned, that is exactly the wrong way to approach this problem.
“[What Yang wrote] sounded a little Uncle Tom-ish: bow your head and just keep doing good, and wear red, white, and blue,” she tells Scheer, “I don’t think that’s the solution anymore.
“Quite the contrary,” adds Yang. “It is time to speak up. […] Sometimes it takes a crisis for us to come together even more strongly as a community and be able to speak as one voice. Because what is happening seems almost unspeakable, and we must speak of it.”
Listen to the full conversation between Yang and Scheer as the two trace the history of Asian Americans in the U.S., the waves of racism the community has faced, and the many accomplishments and contributions they’ve made to the U.S. and the rest of the world. Credits
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. We’re doing it during the pandemic, so the quality might not be there. I’m talking to Janet Yang, a very famous film producer and figure in Hollywood. She’s a governor of the Academy of Motion Picture [Arts and Sciences]; she’s won Emmys and Golden Globes and so forth. But she’s principally known for having to try to get Hollywood to have a more sophisticated, humane attitude towards Chinese people, Asian people, in this country and the world. And she was responsible as producer for bringing The Joy Luck Club to the screen–probably to this day the only serious look at Chinese Americans outside of the stereotypes of Hollywood. She started out very early, I believe in the 1980s, working with Steven Spielberg and others, trying to bring American films to China, to have connection. And she’s continued to this day; she’s active with the Committee of 100, she’s a member of, which is a rather elite group of Chinese Americans trying to improve relations.
So, Janet, I’m bringing you on because we’re at a rare moment in terms of fear in the world, and the exploitation of fear, once again, in relation to the “yellow hoard,” the “red ants of China,” the use of China and Chinese as the object of vilification. And it gets down to–I know you’ve even experienced it personally–hostility even on the streets now, when our president has blamed or named “the Chinese virus,” as if the virus speaks a language and has a country of birth. So take it from there.
JY: Thank you, Bob. Do you remember this ditty? “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.” This is something that I used to say to myself when I was walking down the aisle of a school bus, and the bullies in the back would taunt me with “ching-chang-chong Chinese,” or on the playground, and they were calling me “chink.” And I comforted myself with those words. And I thought, OK, that makes sense: Words cannot harm me. However, I am now finding that to not be true. Words are very harmful. In fact, right now, we are in a war of words. This is a virus as well. The anti-Asian attacks are the result of words. Words do matter–and perhaps because in this age of social media words spread very fast, like a virus, and they do affect how things are seen and perceived, how we are seen and perceived.
It is shocking to me that at this age, in my many decades after I got those taunts on the school bus, that for the first time in my life I have to worry about [going outside]. I have not been physically attacked; I have had weird stares and comments. I have had friends, though, right here in Los Angeles, who have gotten spat on, who have been called really, really nasty things. And there are numerous examples across the country of people being physically violated. A family with young children was shot at in Texas. This is unprecedented in our lifetimes–and we thought we made progress. Mere months ago, I wrote an article for The Hollywood Reporter where I was celebrating the numerous achievements that the Asian American community had made over these years. It was very, very evident from movies like Crazy Rich Asians, which became a huge blockbuster even though it had an all-Asian cast, the first time since Joy Luck Club. It became apparent with a smaller movie like The Farewell, which was a quiet movie set entirely in China, and largely in Chinese. This movie was embraced by audiences across America; it was playing well in theaters. This was also evidenced in the Oscar, the best picture Oscar going to a Korean-language movie called Parasite, which also garnered awards for its director and its writer.
This is extraordinary, how quickly things can flip. And yet I should not be surprised, perhaps. I have seen this incredible seesaw effect. We can go back to the turn of the century, when Chinese were the only people to be legally excluded from this country, because people were so fearful of the jobs they were taking. How they expected the railroads to be built, I don’t know–not to mention their clothes getting cleaned, or restaurants that were sprouting up everywhere. That was seemingly a place that we would never go to any more, that level of vitriol. We’ve seen it, though, in waves since then: World War II, we had an Asian enemy; Korean War, we had an Asian enemy; Vietnam War, we had an Asian enemy. And then we had Asian enemies that were economic in nature.
And what I realized with these sudden and just devastating, heartbreaking attacks that seem to come out of the blue, is that they’re probably tapping into a long-held suspicion that people have been harboring all this time. There’s something latent. And so many of us are crying out like–oh, when is this going to stop? Will this ever stop? Will we ever belong? Will we ever truly belong? Do we have to keep proving ourselves?
RS: You know, it’s interesting. You are a member of this elite group, the Committee of 100, and you should talk about that a little bit. Because these are people, Chinese Americans, who made it–as architects, as scientists, as moviemakers in your case. And yet their legitimacy is still questioned, no matter their success, no matter the success of the country that they’re supposed to be identified with. China has obviously, during the last centuries of American involvement with China, gone through different incarnations. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s feudal, to be divided by Western imperialism, or whether it’s an aspiring national republic democracy under, you know, different regimes after the emperor’s. Or whether it’s communist, and then communist capitalist, and enormously successful at capitalism, as it has been for the last 30, 40 years. It doesn’t matter. The Chinese are still the target–a favorite, maybe the favorite scapegoating target for all that ails us. And being a member of this Committee of 100, maybe you could talk a little bit about the perception of people now who have made it, run universities and so forth, and yet their insecurity.
JY: Well, I can certainly do that. First, I want to say that the Committee of 100 is one. I can start mentioning other organizations. One thing about Asians is that we like communities, we like groups. I am part of many different organizations or groups of people. And we’ve been going crazy, just texting each other and emailing. And we’re kind of at a strange inflection point, because I do feel–first of all, the committee was formed at a time of crisis. It was formed in 1989, when the Tiananmen incident occurred, and many Chinese Americans felt adrift, like–what are we doing? And how do we prove that we’re actually American and we shouldn’t be associated with that–but also, how can we help? How can we help because of our bridges to China?
So we’re walking a very fine line. And it seems to me lately that even the term “Chinese American” is too subtle for people. It reminds me a little bit of when I went to live in Beijing in the early eighties. I grew up, as you know, Bob, in America in a completely white neighborhood, and I didn’t have a consciousness about being Chinese until I first visited China in 1972, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. And I met relatives for the first time, tons of them. And that’s when it really hit me that–oh, I am Chinese, and I was almost raised in China. Nevertheless, when I went to live in Beijing in the early eighties, people in China–because they had been isolated for so long–they saw my face and they immediately assumed I was local. So I was carrying around my American passport everywhere, saying no, no, no, I can go into the Friendship Store. I can go into the Peking Hotel. Please, I’m American. But they–that subtlety was lost. That was the only time in my life where I felt that subtlety was lost–and it’s not even so subtle–except now. Now, they see a face–you’re immediately from China. Never mind that I actually have relatives in Wuhan; I’m not broadcasting that, or I guess I am right now. But we cannot–on a visceral level, people still have not accepted that we could be born and raised here, or come over here at a young age, or in some cases been here for many generations, and we are still seen as the other. And that is very, very distressing. Because China in the early eighties was one thing; it was isolated, there were–people had not traveled abroad. But this is America! This is the home of immigrants. This is a place where people from all over the world want to come. And to be confronted with this is shocking.
So in the meantime, over these decades, yes, Asians and many Chinese Americans have gone on to do incredible things that affect people’s daily lives. We are currently maybe not on a Zoom call, but I’m sure you’ve been on many; I’ve been on multiple Zoom calls every day. The founder and CEO of Zoom, everyone, is Eric Yuan from China. Do you want to dismiss him? When was the last time you ordered from DoorDash? Did you know that that app was created by four Asian students from Berkeley? Do you know how everything that you touch has probably had some component in China? How are we going to live like this, where we try to inflict these borders? So the Committee of 100 is just one example of just amazingly achieved, high-achieving individuals. For instance, somebody that’s been speaking a lot lately is Dr. David Ho. He happens to have been Time Man of the Year for his contributions to discovering the AIDS cocktail. Do we want to embrace him? I think so. I think he’s a virus expert. I think that’s incredible. How about the fact that Andrew Cherng, who started the whole Panda Express franchise, just gave $2 million to buy PPE for people here, for hospitals in need here. How about that the committee within one week or so raised almost a million dollars, and now it’s topped a million dollars, to buy equipment–giant, giant shipments of masks and other needed equipment are being distributed as we speak.
There are many other examples. I am–I have co-founded another organization called Gold House, which is a lot of people in culture and entertainment, fashion, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who have come together. And we were literally on a high for the last couple years, because we were promoting Asian films. We had so many gatherings where we got to share our camaraderie, and just having so much fun in the celebration of how far we’ve come, that we could now see ourselves on the big screen and the little screen. There was just one piece of good news after another, one after another, and then this. So we are also starting a movement that will be announced later this week called All Americans. How about the fact that another committee member, Li Lu, who himself was involved in the Tiananmen incident in China, has also started another foundation, GoA Foundation, that is creating masks and other PPE for hospitals. I mean, we organize. And for many of us…you know, we are very close to struggle. It’s not that long ago that our parents or our grandparents lived through wars, or lived through depression, or lived through refugee situations. It is really not that long. My own parents, who were well educated, they got stranded here. Not only did they live through wars, where they had to keep moving inland as the Japanese were invading, and then they come here and they have to start all over from scratch. So this is not news to us. We are, we have had to be very adaptable and very flexible. And we have had to find ways to fit in and make ourselves acceptable. And that was kind of the mantra that our parents told us: like, don’t raise, you know, don’t make waves. Don’t make waves, don’t draw too much attention to yourself. And the promise was that if we just kind of did a good job, and didn’t harm other people, then we would be thoroughly embraced, and we would be able to make contributions. I think something has changed now. I don’t think this is the message that we any longer want to deliver to our children. I think we do have to make waves. Everybody else is making waves; we have to make waves.
There was a lot of controversy–bless his heart, Andrew Yang, he has great intentions. But he wrote that op-ed piece in the Washington Post where it sounded a little Uncle Tom-ish: bow your head and just keep doing good, and wear red, white, and blue. I don’t think that’s the solution anymore. I think we have to–not so much in, you know, in–I still believe in the words of Martin Luther King. We remain very peaceful. But the words matter. The worst matter, and lately I’ve been incredibly inspired by two writers. One is Jiayang Fan, who I’ve been following forever in the New Yorker. She’s a very, very, very brave writer. And she was interviewed by the New York Times about an incident that occurred to her personally, which had left her really shaken in New York City. The other writer is Cathy–[omission] she’s a Korean American writer named–
RS: Oh, I read that piece in the New York Times magazine section.
JY: Yes. She– Cathy Park Hong, excuse me, another writer that I admire named Cathy Park Hong. So the good news is that we have voices now, articulate voices. We have platforms that are reaching everyone, that are clearly–we’re no longer sequestered, and no longer in a bubble where we just have to make ourselves less seen or less heard. Quite the contrary: It is time to speak up. Quiet no more. And sometimes it takes a crisis for us to come together even more strongly as a community and be able to speak as one voice. Because what is happening seems almost unspeakable, and we must speak of it.
RS: You know, it’s interesting, because in a way you’re saying, well, it’s the victim community, the afflicted, that have to have new strategies–which is true. And that’s the history of racism and jingoism, you know; the victims have to organize and demand their rights. But that doesn’t let the majority society off the hook. On the contrary, what we continuously see is the mythology of the melting pot in America. The melting pot worked splendidly for people who were white, basically from Northern Europe; interchanged, could get rid of their accent and pass as all one and the same. It never worked for people of color, and it never worked for people coming from very different cultures than the Northern European one. And the history of the Chinese Americans exemplifies that. It just doesn’t matter what China was like that they left. In the case of your parents, they were trapped here because the communists took power, right?
JY: That’s true.
RS: They were working at the UN. So they were on our side [Laughs], if we can use that language, right, in the Cold War. You were raised in that atmosphere: “Do well and believe in your country.” You were born here. But the fact is, the country always has these limitations. It always has this prejudice, this need for jingoism. And it’s something that unfortunately the industry you’re connected with, Hollywood, never really explored in an important way. Why did we have racism, for example, anti-Semitism, anti-Asian, anti-Chinese caricatures? And it may go not to the fault of–it doesn’t go to the fault of any of these groups. Because we’ve detested–“we” being the dominant culture–has disrespected the Chinese whether they represented a feudal society to be exploited, whether they represented a nascent, democratic capitalist society before the communists, whether they represented communism at a certain point, whether they represent capitalism now–because they are actually the most successful center of capitalist inventiveness and so forth in the world now. It doesn’t seem to matter. What matters seems to be the need for an enemy. And even if you have a virus that you’re describing, it is convenient to that narrative to define the virus as having some kind of alien national identity. And that’s what Donald Trump did with the “Chinese virus.” You know, and that’s what people are falling for. And the story you mentioned, you know, the blaming the eating habits of the Chinese or their culture or so forth, as if the virus only exists because of that, or primarily. I mean, it’s–I’m just getting at, isn’t it really the lesson here that somehow our country has something wrong with it at its heart, and that goes to the myth of assimilation?
JY: I don’t know if it’s more true in America than in other countries. I haven’t done that research. I do know that there have been at least 1,000 cases of reported racist attacks. But what I do know is that in times of fear, people become very black-and-white. They’re looking for an enemy. And it’s not enough to have an enemy that is invisible, because usually the enemy is very visible. It’s very concrete. And so I think people have been flailing around to look for the enemy, and we’ve become the enemy. And it’s frightening. And it’s–you know, you mentioned Hollywood, and it’s true, it’s almost like a Hollywood trope, the good guys versus the bad guys. It is like a John Wayne movie, kill off the Native Americans. And that becomes a very, very simplistic and maybe lowest common denominator way of looking at the world. But I thought we had gone beyond that. And, again, we were celebrating–we were celebrating the fact that Asians on screen had finally become somewhat humanized, that we finally had portrayals where we’re just people doing things that people do, and it wasn’t like we were doing them because we’re Asian. You know, a romantic comedy like Crazy Rich Asians, or The Farewell, a woman who is, you know, told not to tell her grandmother that she’s dying. These are totally human stories. Or a poor family that manages to infiltrate a rich one. This is not– that movie Parasite won because it was relatable to anyone who’s seen the incredible economic inequality in their own countries, not because it was Korean.
So I guess this is a plea for people to look at a more transcendent view of the world, and not rely on their most base reptilian instincts, the fight-or-flight instinct, and–yes.
RS: But they’re also relying on a notion of American exceptionalism, the purity of some kind of original American experiment that keeps getting polluted or destroyed by outside influences. And the fact of the matter is, if we look at this particular pandemic, frightening as it is, the Chinese experience with it has turned out to provide models of dealing with it that seem quite sane. At first we derided it, and there I want to rely on your knowledge about China. [omission] You know, when you were born to these parents who basically were here as political refugees, because there had been this communism in China–you were born into the Cold War, and during a period maybe when you were about 12 or something years old, I was studying about China as a fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies at Berkeley. And then we had a very stark stereotype of China: they could never develop, land was too poor, they were overpopulated. They had between 400-500 million people. Now they’ve got almost a billion more. The land hasn’t gotten any more fertile. They still haven’t discovered any serious petroleum or anything. But nonetheless, we had an image that was very bleak, and they were our major enemy in the Cold War, and we had to fight them in Vietnam and elsewhere. Then we had, as we always get China wrong, we totally underestimated their potential for change, their embrace of capitalism, their ability to produce all of the gadgets, the headgear I’m using now to do this, the laptop I’m using, the technology, everything. They’re deeply involved in it, four of the biggest internet companies are Chinese, and so forth.
And so a new stereotype developed: oh, they’re communists still, but they’re vicious capitalists and they steal secrets and they take advantage and everything. And then this illness comes along. And then the first new thing about it was, oh, because they’re authoritarian or totalitarian, they can tell their citizens to shelter at home, and they monitor their movements. Well, now the whole world practically is following that. And the criticism here in the United States is maybe we didn’t follow it early enough, and we’re not doing it completely enough. So what you have in this scapegoating is somehow informed by an American exceptionalism, that we wouldn’t have problems were it not for the outsider, for the foreign. And the Chinese make the most fearsome outsiders.
And what I want to get at is in your role as a filmmaker, you traveled to China very early on. You studied at Brown and Columbia, and I guess Harvard to learn the language. You were involved with people like Steven Spielberg in one stage of China, and then you’ve been there quite recently. You’ve spent your life really dealing with China as a complex society. And it’s that complexity that our jingoism always wants to obscure. They’re inscrutable, or they’re treacherous, or they’re cheaters, or something. So really, inform us. Why do we have so much trouble grasping that China is at least as complex and interesting, and deep and profound a society as any in the world, if not more so because of its long history?
JY: In every way, China challenges the fundamental precepts of America.Not that long ago, I remember thinking I shouldreally be wearing a mask going out. But I thought if I wore a mask, people would think that I had the virus. They didn’t see it as a prophylactic measure, they saw it as like, oh my god, she has it and therefore she needs to wear the mask. Because we’ve all seen pictures of a lot of people in China wearing masks. They were wearing masks even before the virus because of the pollution. So there are these really, really deeply embedded images, and we as Asian Americans–because people can’t tell us apart anyway–we’re constantly having to detect, OK, what’s the latest? How is this going to look to others? So I foolishly didn’t wear a mask, because I didn’t want people to think I had the virus. Now, of course, we’re all wearing masks. That was a little late. And many of my friends felt the same way.
Why is China so challenging for us to understand? By the way, as a Chinese American, I’ve never felt so conflicted. I find myself defending America when China criticizes America unfairly, and I find myself probably more often defending China when the Western media characterizes China poorly.It’s a no-win situation sometimes, because you’re–I’m not apologizing or defending everything that China does. Nor with America. Clearly, there have been missteps on both sides. I cannot wholly endorse on a governmental level everything that’s being done. Yes, I wish we had someone like the prime minister of New Zealand every now and then, who just seems to do things right and in a humane way. We are large countries, and there’s a lot of ramifications for everything that the leaders in the two countries say.
But let us look at the facts. We have more deaths and more cases of the virus than China had. And look at the difference in population size. We are a fraction, a fraction of the sizeofChina’s population. How is it that we have even more, numerically more deaths than China? Clearly something is not happening right, and it was probably more virulent in China, because that’s where it started. Nobody argues with that. But for people to think that anybody who looks like us is bringing the virus over–I even have a little sympathy. I feel for everyone during this time, I feel for everyone. But it’s just important for people to know that, once again, here we are. This feeling of, oh my god, we’re just never, ever going to be embraced. It’s, we will become, as you said, the scapegoat.
So, the complexity of China–obviously, the political system is very challenging. But the political system is part of a larger and longer civilization. And there are things–I have many friends, Westerners who’ve gone to live in China, who are even probablybetter than I am at talking about what they love about China. And what they inevitably talk about is this sense of community, this warmth, this feeling that you are embraced, that it’s–people don’t want to leave China to come back to a place that feels actually very cold because of our emphasis on individualism. You basically make it on your own; it’s very existential, you make or break your life. There isn’t a feeling that, oh, we’re kind of in this together. In China, and in most parts of Asia, that is the case.
There’s a book that I highly recommend, calledThe Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently. And the Western society was built on Greek philosophers who felt that it was–every individual has implicit value. And so the emphasis–and when the Greeks were writing about this, they knew, because Greecewas just a bunch of islands and they were coming into contact with many kinds of people that were very different. They knew that most people were different from them. So they wanted to try to debate them to show that they were superior, and also really examined the individual qualities that set people apart from others. And as a result of this, we tend to love geniuses. We love Albert Einstein, we love Steve Jobs, we think those people are different and better, because they have some extra gene in their brains or something that makes them superior. So we’re always putting people up on a pedestal. And you see it in the Greek art, the amazing, you know,celebration of the human body. It’s beautiful, in a way. But this kind of thinking can become very extreme and damaging, because then we rely–it’s not only pressure on the individual, but we’re relying for that magic person to come along.
In China, the Chinese philosophers believed that we’re all part of a huge cosmic system. And we are here to maintain harmony and balance, and the gods and people on earth–and everyone in between, which includes the emperor in those days–was here to maintain balance. So, it is really hard to describe, so it sounds kind of corny when I talk about it. But there is this immediate feeling that you have of we’re–we’re somehow connected. We really are connected. And I think many philosophers, and many even scientists are now leaning more towards this feeling of the connection that we all have, as opposed to this separation. Do we want to look at our differences? Or do we want to look at our similarities?
I think the virus is fantastic in terms of an even playing field. Because we are all the same now. We are all more or less vulnerable. We are all thinking about survival, we’re thinking about food and housing, and shelter and safety, and health. We are all becoming very, very aware of the importance of our health. And that is, you know, at this moment in time, not too many people are thinking, oh, I have a nicer car than my neighbor. They’re not thinking, oh, well I’m going to, you know, to whatever Caribbean island while you’re just going to Florida, or whatever. You know, the status, those things that seem really silly to us now. So it does have an equalizing effect. And I think that there’s something about Asian culture that is more embracing and immediately recognized. It’s not even discussed, it’s immediately recognized that we are kind of in all this together.
There’s also other qualities that I’ve noticed have really come out. I save plastic bags. I’ve been doing that ever since I was a child, because that’s what my parents did. We don’t waste. I save plastic bags, I save the little packets of soy sauce that I get from the Japanese restaurant, and they come in handy. All these–the frugality, and this feeling like we may not know where our next meal comes from, you know. We are closer somehow to this feeling of survival and having to adapt, and knowing that change is always in the air. Some people are better at responding to change. And Westerners, I think, have been comfortable; a lot of people in America have been comfortable. They just want things to go back the way they were. They feel like life was really good, and now it’s changed and it’s our fault, so it should just go back to how things were, if they just got rid of all of us.
RS: Let me put a last question to you. I know you’ve spent much of your, you know, the last what, 60–well, yeah, 60 years trying to understand China. You’ve gone back and forth from Hollywood to Beijing. And when you’ve spoken at USC, where you sometimes do work with Chinese students–we have 6,000 Chinese students, from China, not Chinese American. And after, you know, three, four months, let alone four or five years in the case of graduate students on campus, they’re really kind of indistinguishable. They come, first of all, wired into the same kind of internet world that we are. They all seem to know how to do the workarounds around any government restrictions, just as our students do, whether it’s downloading movies or, you know, expressing their thoughts about politics or anything else. What is your appraisal of the impact of the internet on China, and this wired world, this world of globalization? What are the distinctions? Is it really so different in China?
JY: It’s a very, very difficult time to be one of those what we call third-culture individuals. Meaning that I do keep a foot, or at least a few toes, in China. And in my world, so many people have that, not just with China, but with other countries–maybe Korea, maybe [in] Europe. Where there’s a strong connection, you feel at home in that other place–or maybe not, but you’ve spent a good amount of time there, or you were born there and then came over. Maybe you were two, maybe you were five, maybe you were 10, maybe you were 15, maybe it was just last year, you were 30, or whatever. And each of those experiences influences people in different ways.
But the point is that we’re absorbing, not from just one culture, one belief system, one way of looking at things, but from multiple ways of looking at things. And this, I have felt for so long, for decades now, was a positive thing. When I grew up on a Jewish community, you know, in a Jewish community in Long Island, I didn’t have that luxury, that privilege of being able to tap into different cultures that felt more me than the one I was surrounded with. But these days, it is so much more possible. And I can’t tell you the feeling of celebration. And again, it doesn’t have to be Chinese. I know many people who have had this experience. You can be a more fuller individual when you are able to absorb some things from another culture that are part of you. And learning Chinese and being able to speak to my parents in their native language, and then making friends over there, people who–it was in China that I discovered Chinese cinema. That’s where I fell in love with Chinese cinema, because I never saw anything growing up in this country that remotely was something relatable. No Asian faces. So I just assumed we were not allowed to make movies, and we were not allowed, certainly, to be in them.
But it was China that gave me that amazing epiphany that anything was possible. And once you realize that those borders can crumble, so many other things open up, your mind just explodes with possibilities. And making The Joy Luck Club was one such incident of like, oh, it is actually possible to make movies with people that kind of looked like me, telling stories that I can relate to. That was huge for me at the time. It didn’t quite create the trend that we were hoping for, but I felt like it was really happening now with all the streaming services. And so it is–I can’t–it’s hard to describe how heartbreaking it is when you suddenly find yourself, as we do now, back in a completely antiquated way of thinking. You know, just when we thought we were making some progress.
And as I said from the beginning, words do matter. So the war of words that’s been going on between the politicians of America and China, it doesn’t relate to us directly, but it does. The effects are very palpable, because they resonate in other people’s minds. I find myself frequently wanting not so much to defend China, but to try to balance the scales a little bit when I read articles about China that do not at all reverberate with my experience there, or the experience of so many other people that I know. It’s not that what’s being written is incorrect, it’s that it doesn’t give a picture of what it’s like to be there.
And I can’t tell you how many friends of mine, Westerners from all over the country who have gone to China, who have fallen in love with China because they feel its warmth. They love it for, believe it or not, its freedom. What does that mean? It means that there aren’t quite as many rules and regulations and laws. If you want to open up a restaurant, you don’t necessarily have to comply with so many things. It’s just burgeoning. This feeling of excitement and adventure that people often feel in China, the discovery of new talent. It’s exhilarating to be there, on many levels. I’m not saying that’s the whole picture, but that is a big part of it. People go there, I’ve taken many people to China for the first time, actors and business people. And they’re almost always delighted and surprised at how colorful and how lively it is. Because their impression, based on the media, is that everybody’s in quote unquote lockdown all the time, that it’s run with this kind of militaristic precision, and people only say groupthink words. And it’s very, very different; it’s actually very, very large, a little bit chaotic. It’s–there’s so much bubbling to the surface all the time, and therefore the government has to sometimes take what the Western media loves to call draconian measures. You know, and I’m not even talking about the virus, I’m talking about everything. They love to talk about this as if this is bearing down. And I’m not saying that isn’t true, but it’s not the feeling that you get at all when you’re in China. And based on that, I think it’s been very damaging. The same would go for, if the Chinese media were reporting about America. I just want everyone to be more humanized.
And the stereotypes that, again, are emerging now, that we fought for so long–you know, you probably know that in 2016 there was the year of #OscarsSoWhite, and there was this feeling that we should not just be promoting white movies and male movies. And so there was this excitement about this year of the Oscars, where there was more racial sensitivity, and then they made jokes against Asians. And it was like, oh no, here we go again. But a positive thing came from that, as I think a positive thing will come from this. The positive thing that came from that was that a group of us who I had known, but kind of tangentially, maybe–we found each other. All the Asians that were in the academy found each other, and we said, oh, we’ve got to do something. And we wrote a letter of protest, and we ended up having meetings with the academy leadership. And we became part of the change, the 2020 change, which was to double the number of women and people of color. And we became very, very active members of the academy. And we were able to feel like, oh, because of that crisis, more good things are going to happen.
I’m really hoping that in this time, this period, what I would call a crisis–not just from the virus of Covid-19, but the virus of hatred and of racist outbursts, that we again can come together as a community and change the narrative. That we have to find a way for us to continue being humanized, for all people to be humanized. Because in fact, that is what is happening. We are all on the same side. We are all on the same side, and we are fighting together, and we must. And we need China, and everyone–we all need each other, we need to share information, we need to find out what’s worked in some places and not worked in others. And I feel that we’re equipped to do that, and I’m hoping this situation will help fortify our community.
RS: Yeah, but we won’t share and we won’t learn if we don’t, to use your word, humanize. And if we don’t see the people of China and the culture as complex, contradictory, pushing in different tendencies, just as American culture. And even in the debates, the political debates, you’ll hear it on–you know, Bill Maher the other night just gave this incendiary attack on the totalitarian state, and why don’t they just ban this and do that. And it seems to me what you’re offering is a reality check by someone who was raised in American culture, didn’t know the language, didn’t even know Cantonese, and certainly not Mandarin. And this has been an exploration.
And what I’m trying to get at–and this would be a good way to close. Because the question is, what can we learn? If we just think of the Chinese as robots that are ordered about and programmed, then we don’t learn anything. We’re not them. But the fact of the matter is, the lessons that are coming out about dealing with this pandemic is you are going to use your cell phone. You are going to have a record of your medical history. You are going to trace people’s contacts. And hopefully, you do that in a way that is not destructive of private freedom.
But the fact of the matter is, the whole world is now wrestling with a basic question: What price security? What price intrusion? What price freedom? And those are lessons that I’m sure are being struggled with in China just as they are in the United States. Because at the end, we all want the same thing. We want to live, we don’t want our children to die, we don’t want to suffer, and we want to find a way to have security in a real meaningful sense, without surrendering our freedom. It is interesting that people from Wuhan–and you say you have relatives there, but when they got to leave that constricted area, they did want to shop. And not just for necessities; they wanted to explore, you know, even in a consumerist sense. So maybe that would be an optimistic point on which to end. That we are all driven by this complexity of need.
JY: That’s really true. And it’s a pyramid of needs, right? Right now, many of us are living with the most basic needs, and then as we’re given more freedom we kind of move up the chain a little bit. And part of the shopping experience, I have to believe, for many is just wanting to be around other people, and feeling like you’re part. I still feel that the need to belong–and I know personally this has definitely been a factor that I’ve looked at very, very closely in my own life. I spent my entire childhood trying to fit in. This need to belong, and what’s so gratifying that has happened in recent years that many people, like me, who felt really ostracized in the community they grew up in, we have built our own communities, so we feel like we belong. And now I feel like I belong almost anywhere. It’s not like that’s the only community I belong in. I feel like I can go anywhere in the world and find a sense of belonging, because we are human.
And that’s what I’m hoping will come of this, is that if we just look at our similarities and not our differences, we will all have a feeling of belonging. And we cannot–we cannot pinpoint a certain race of people. I mean, the whole point about this virus is that it does not discriminate. When was the last time we could actually say there was something that was unifying us, something that knows no boundaries? Whether it comes to race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or income level. This is probably the first in my lifetime that I can think of that is so incredibly, such an equalizing force.
So let’s look at it that way. Let’s look at it that way, and let’s hope that this war of words that’s going on between our two countries will abate. We must, we must demand it. There’s a petition going around that Grace Meng of New York has introduced, which is to introduce a congressional statement about this racism. And it applies to everything. We have been–you know, there was a time where Russians were the bad guys in all the movies, and now Mideasterners don’t have it very good. You know, so we have got to learn to embrace. And there is no more message, I think, from this. It’s a test. I feel like we are being tested as a people: Can we step up? Can we step up? And so this is the plea to step up.
RS: And it’s a plea that comes from Janet Yang, probably the most famous producer, person in Hollywood who has spent most of her life trying to understand China and convey the complexity of that society to an American audience, beginning with The Joy Luck Club, but more recent movies, and doing business in China. So I want to thank you for sharing that complex, but promising history. I want to thank Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who is the editor of Scheer Intelligence and prepares the overview. Christopher Ho at KCRW, who posts these things on our host site. And Joshua Scheer, the producer of Scheer Intelligence. Be back next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. Thank you, Janet Yang. Thank you, audience, for listening.