On Being Chang

When I was in college, I was given a nickname.


It is not my last name. It is not my “Chinese name” — I neither am Chinese nor carry multiple names, one for Asian and one non-Asian consumption. Rather, this name was bestowed on me by a White acquaintance, and it stuck.

My name-giver did not see this act as racist. She thought it was funny. Satiric. Solidified by the fact that I can do a passable impression of Margaret Cho’s mother. But not racist. And it wasn’t racist to call another woman “Asian X” because we knew a Black woman with the same name — although according to the name-giver, it was unacceptable to call the second woman “Black X” because “that would be racist.”

My point here is not to point fingers at one particularly misguided White liberal college woman. Rather, it is to help provide some context for the incident that launched #CancelColbert, and to help explain why Colbert fans’ outraged screams that Asian-Americans simply don’t understand satire ring particularly false. As Suey Park noted on HuffPost Live before she was cut off by Josh Zepps, racism against Asian and Asian-descendant people in this country is not considered racism. It is considered humor.

Humor can be a powerful tool for attacking racism, and I do believe that is what Stephen Colbert and his writers intended to do. However, for humor or any other artistic medium to start to deconstruct racism, it needs to make the audience engage critically with why racism exists and how our language and actions re-inscribe that racism. Merely making fun of a more racist individual doesn’t serve to advance the conversation. It just makes everyone (read: White liberals) who are “in on the joke” feel better about themselves for not (getting caught) being so explicitly racist.

Colbert et al. would do well to take their cues from the countless comedians of color who use smart humor to drive a real critique of race — if you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a peek at Key and Peele’s Obama “anger translator” or Ken Tanaka’s “What kind of Asian are you?” skit — or if you need to hear what good critical use of humor to critique racism sounds like from a White comedian, how about Louis CK on “the n-word”. In the meantime, maybe Colbert should just steer clear of tired clichés about minorities and the people who humiliate/vilify/don’t give a crap about us.

As for me, I still go by Chang. It’s short. Easy to remember. And it creates a space to have a meaningful dialogue about race every time someone asks me how I got the name. Some folks then continue to use it, some don’t. Am I offended by it any longer? No. There are other things I’d rather focus my attention on. And it’s pretty amusing to watch people address my White father and his White girlfriend as “Mr. and Mrs. Chang.”


Ark Music and the sexualization of little girls

My morning started out pleasantly enough…and then I saw this.

So, aside from the fact that this is a horrific song (“Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday/Today it is Friday, Friday/We we we so excited….” really?!) this is a perfect example of the sexualization of young girls. According to Ms. Black’s Ark Music page, she’s 13 years old. So why are her friends driving and throwing house parties? And the sequin dress that she’s dressed in around 1:40 is pretty darn short.

But this could be an anomaly. Apart from the fact that Ark Music focuses on turning tween girls into pop sensations. Here’s their “star of the month,” Abby Victor.

I know this whole sexualization of little girls things has been going on for a long time but really?! Can we take a moment to call Ark out on this?

Gaga and the politics of Queer

**NOTE:  none of the below comments are intended in any way as anti-queer or anti-freedom-of-sexual-expression**

Gaga, Gaga, Gaga…. *shakes head*

I’ve been trying to give Gaga the benefit of the doubt. I love her music and I think she’s a brilliant artist. But the subliminal messages she (or whoever’s coming up with the video’s) are driving me crazy. In spite of Gaga’s professed support for the LGBTQ movement, she’s not really adding anything (constructive) to the conversation. Sure, the lyrics of “Born this Way” are pretty clearly pro-queer, but her whole schpiel about “Mother Monster” and pure evil is a little…confusing? misleading? And I find it problematic that her “race within the human race, a race which bears no prejudice, no judgement, but boundless freedom” is all just blonde Gaga-look-alikes. My artist roommate reminds me that that’s because they’re all Gaga but….really? Are we actually so post-racial that we can just depict everyone as a member of the Aryan race?

But whatever…if it were one video I’d shut my mouth and enjoy it. But it’s not just one video. In “Telephone,” we learned that queers are mass-murderers. In “Alejandro” we learned that queers are cross-dressing “sexual deviants” (and maybe anti-christs?). And now we’re all born of “Mother Monster”? Thanks, but no thanks Gaga. I don’t want your love or your ally-status and I sure as hell don’t wanna be friends. Let’s talk when you stop sensationalizing queerness and reinforcing what the right wing already thinks.

Cocalero and the Qualities of a Leader (reflections on Bolivia Part III)

So turns out Cocalero is available to watch in segments on youtube. Yay!!! Also just so happens that there’s a really interesting little segment at the end of part 2 of 10 about leadership, and what it takes to be a leader. The context is a meeting of FECAMTROP (Federación Campesina de Mujeres del Trópico), a women’s cocalera (coca farmer) union in Chapare, outside of Cochabamba. It’s election time, and the women have gathered to select a new head of the organization. As the women prepare to cast their votes, a man stands up and gives a brief speech about what does, and what does not, constitute a leader.

Compañeras y compañeros, para ser líder no se necesita estatura. No se necesita ser alto, ni rubio. Para ser líder, ¿hay que ser ingéniero, doctor o abogado? No. Entonces, para ser líder, la cualidad personal no tiene que ver con su formación. Puede haber compañeras y compañeros que por no haber podido ir a la escuela, no escriban bien. Entonces, no necesariamente él que escribe mejor va a ser un buen líder. Cuando vamos a elegir un líder del sindicato, no buscamos nada de esto. Pero si nos fijamos en su honestidad.

Comrades, to be a leader you don’t need height. You don’t have to be tall, or blond. To be a leader, do you have to be an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer? No. So, the personal qualities needed to be a leader have nothing to do with external characteristics (physical or social). There may be comrades who, for want of access to education, do not write well. So the best writer is not necessarily the best leader. When we elect a leader of the union, we don’t look for any of this. But we do focus on honesty.

In Latin America–like in many parts of the world–the more European one appears, the more favorable discrimination one will encounter. The blonds in my exchange program often get stopped or chased down by random Chileans on the street, eager to practice their English or make a gringo friend. Just yesterday, a tall blue-eyed classmate commented that an old woman had seen him the other day, stared for a good several minutes, and then said “Ay…que guapo!!!” although they didn’t know one another. It’s a fairly normal occurrence. The guy is handsome, don’t get me wrong, but one of our Chilean professors commented that these instances have way more to do with the Chilean psyche, and it’s relation to extranjeros than to the actual physical appearance of any of the students. Personally, I’ve noticed that when my (almond-shaped) eyes are covered by sunglasses or the like, I can move through the city without a single stare or comment. As soon as the glasses come off though, I have to steel myself for comments about the appeal of the razas asiáticas. All because with the removal of my “disguise”  I am no longer another short dark-haired/fair-skinned woman on the metro but an exoticized “Other.” To be fair, it’s not all that different from in the U.S.  But to make a long story short, the first several characteristics negated by this fellow in the movie speak specifically to the exaltation of the European (as more civilized, as more intelligent, as more capable), while the following ones speak more to the more subtle sides of imposed Occidental authority, particularly formal education.

Now, this isn’t to say I don’t believe in education and the power/importance of education. However, there are many different types of education and the valorization of one type over another (particularly when there are powerful and unequal determining factors that control access to the most highly-valued form, such as poverty or any of the -isms) converts education from a tool of empowerment to a weapon of oppression.

In the U.S., this is represented by the divide between public and private schools,  often reinforced by racial and socioeconomic disparities. Our society’s over-valorization of book-learning and the ability to regurgitate information onto a standardized multiple-choice test creates an artificial divide that allows us to over-value the successful progeny and producers of this system (private schools) while negating the value of those who don’t (public schools). It permits us to write-off students who don’t do well in this environment as inherent failures–lazy or just plain stupid–and focus on those who do flourish, even though those “smart” individuals may not necessarily be the most “useful” to our society. Case in point: Thomas Edison who was kicked out of school in first grade.

On a global scale, this same ideology allows us to write off entire nations and peoples as lazy or just plain stupid when poverty or other social factors prevent or hinder the uptake  of formal Occidental schooling. We justify political-economic-cultural imperialism on “intelligence” arguments that have little to do with actual intelligence, but a lot to do with the valorization of one cosmovision over another (“intellectual imperialism”). In the case of FECAMTROP, Occidental metrics of intelligence are irrelevant. The ability to read, write, or perform well on a test don’t necessarily equate with the ability to lead a coca-growers union. Here, a more organic metric is needed–honesty–or what in modern business/leadership jargon, one might call “integrity.” So…question of the day…how do we construct a metric for integrity?

A Brief Rant on Ableism

One of my classes here in Chile deals with the joint public-private health system (as opposed to the purely private American system or the purely public British system). In this course, we learn about how the systems work together and visit various hospitals (public system) to get a feel for how healthcare provision works in Chile. Today, I found myself in the Unidad de Tratamiento Intermedio (one step down from Intensive Care for patients in slightly better condition) of one of the hospitals. Among other patients, there was a young man who had been paralyzed from the neck down after he broke his neck in a car accident.

***Spoiler/Warning/Trigger-Alert/whatever sensitive progressives want to call this now: Rant commences here***

Dear Medical Staff and Associated Others:

Yes, it is unfortunate that this young man had this accident and is in the shape he is in. Yes, he is bedridden and his life will never be the same again. Yes, he will likely be ¨confined¨ to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.


This does not mean his life is over, nor does it mean that he should be treated like a member of the living dead, (i.e. those ¨unfortunate¨ enough to have survived a trauma that lives them debilitated). This young man´s inability to walk does not make him any less of a person, nor does it mean he should be treated as such. Yes, it´s ok to be sad, mad, frustrated, etc. (really, that should read ¨It´s ok for him to be sad, mad, frustrated, etc.¨ because as a random person I don´t get the right to feel any of that on his behalf…this is his experience, and I have NO WAY of understanding what he´s going through) but feeling ¨sorry for him¨ is out of the question. Pity in this situation is self-serving and only functions to reinforce my ableism and whatever prejudices I have against people with disabilities (e.g. they´re useless, they can´t do anything, they´d be better off dead, or what have you). Instead of pitying folks with disabilities, why don´t we focus on breaking down and examining why we pity folks with disabilities (ableism) and start using that knowledge to build a world without ableism?

The folks over at ThisAbled are working to do just that (Note: Shameless family plug here…the president and founder of ThisAbled is my uncle). Also, for two great films on kick-ass folks in wheelchairs (with whom I have no relation), check out Darius Goes West and/or Murderball.

Rant over (for the moment).

High-ho, high-ho, it’s off to circumcision camp we go….

We drove out to Ezakheni today to help prepare for a massive, district-wide male circumcision campaign. Although the jury is still out on the degree to which male circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection (with some folks saying it doesn’t help at all and that the correlation noticed is due to other factors like genital ulcers or high-risk behavior), the South African government (traditional as well as modern) has whole-heartedly jumped onto the male circumcision bandwagon.

In Xhosa and Zulu tradition, circumcision is but one part of a coming-of-age ritual for young men (due to a high post-circumcision rate, the Zulu monarchy had suspended the circumcision part of the rite for years and has only recently revived it in light of the HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping the nation). Young men go off to the mountains in groups with a sangoma (traditional healer) to be initiated into the ways of manhood. Part of this includes circumcision and the burial of the foreskin (and thus, of childhood). Since circumcisions have picked up in recent years, so has the infection rate. This winter alone, 40 boys have already died from infections acquired because of circumcisions. So in an effort to prevent the deaths and disfiguring infections, the government has mandated that the public hospitals run these circumcision camps.

In a nod to the tradition of going away to the mountains for the whole process, we set up the clinic in an old technical college in Ezakheni instead of running the campaign out of the hospital which would have been considerably easier (it was supposed to be in a more remote area but the location wouldn’t have been feasible for the medical staff). Some 250 adolescent boys will come through there this weekend, so there were a lot of preparations to be made. Although I definitely think that using the time to teach about HIV infection and safe sex would be more helpful (isn’t manhood about accepting responsibility for your actions and making decisions that will benefit you and your loved ones?), this does seem to be a step in the right direction. I disagree with the whole circumcision thing (genital mutilation is genital mutilation whether practiced on boys or girls), but if it’s going to be done, better in a sanitary setting where there are doctors performing the procedures than out in the bush. At the end of the day, it’s about saving lives, right?

Crepes and Colposcopies

So I didn’t end up making it to Lord Vishnu Temple on Monday because we had dinner with our lovely dietitians, Cristen and Caryn, along with some other medical folk over at Cristen’s place in Winterton (a little town out in the Berg about 20 minutes from where we spent the weekend). Cristen made pancakes for dinner (crepes, to all my American friends…South Africans have “flapjacks” for breakfast) and we all pigged out. Delicious.

Then it was back to Ladysmith for some more work. Today I wandered up to theatre to watch a colposcopy (basically just the removal of pre-cancerous tissue in the cervix). This procedure is the follow-up to an abnormal Pap smear, assuming the results suggest pre-cancerous or cancerous cells. Normally this doesn’t happen until the patient is older, in her fifties or above. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since being in South Africa, it’s that HIV complicates everything. Here, a number of our cervical cancer patients are quite young–in their twenties and thirties. This is because someone who’s HIV positive is less able to mount an effective immune response to an HPV (Human papillomavirus)  infection.

Normally, HPV lies dormant amongst the cervical cells for years before slowly converting normal cells to cancerous ones (this is why the HPV vaccine is so important!!*). Certain strains of HPV also cause genital warts, and the high incidence of those amongst the patients I’ve seen suggests that the immune response to those strains isn’t so good either (don’t worry, the vaccine protects from those too). Normally, the body does a pretty good job fighting this stuff and can even rid the cervix of the pre-cancerous cells by itself, which is why usually women with abnormal Pap smears are told to simply repeat the exam in six months. But if you’re HIV+, especially if you’re CD4 count is low, you can’t fight off the pre-cancerous cells so they have to be removed before they become malignant. Thus…the colposcopy.

I couldn’t see too much during the procedure, but the doctors were kind enough to let me peek in through the machine from time to time. I think I was able to tell which parts of the cervix looked abnormal…

Then it was off to the monthly district morbidity and mortality meeting. Apparently our stats look better than in previous months and improvements have been made since the last quarterly meeting, so it was mostly good news. And then, towards the end of the meeting, we suddenly shifted gears and began to talk about CTOP. No, not the UNC first-year orientation program. In this context, CTOP refers to abortion. Although abortion is legal in South Africa, there are few providers (especially in KZN province). The clinic sisters told us that they were being flooded by women looking for abortion providers and that they had no one to refer these patients to. Many of these women later end up in our Casualty ward as a result of a botched back alley abortion, or an incomplete medical one started by a doctor who was unwilling to do the follow-up work. There has been talk of building an abortion clinic here for two years and it looks like all this work may finally come to fruition, “may” being the key word. There has been a big debate (which continued even today) about the location of the clinic that had basically all the same arguments as one might here in the States. Just a little kick in the pants for me in case I’ve been getting too comfortable in maternity…

*NOTE: HPV has also been implicated in certain anal and penile cancers so guys should really think about the vaccine too, even though it’s only being marketed for girls at the moment. That being said, it’s not even offered here in South Africa’s state hospitals because the government can’t afford to get it for folks. Definitely felt that invisible knapsack of privilege again when I learned that, since I’m one of the lucky ones that has been vaccinated….