‘Before Bruce Lee, There Were Just No Asian American Heroes’

The PBS series Asian Americans, in the episode titled Good Americans, gives screen time to that legendary actor and martial arts fighter Bruce Lee, highlighting his importance in American culture when he emerged in the 1960s.

Writer Jeff Chang, who is currently at work on a biography about Bruce Lee, had this to say about Lee’s rise to stardom in Episode 3 of Asian Americans:

Jeff Chang: The culture is waiting for this moment to shift on its axis. We needed to have at that particular moment somebody who epitomizes the search for truth, for justice. We needed to have somebody who was going to stand up for us.

Before Bruce Lee, there were just no Asian American heroes. For Asian Americans, there was a sense of, finally. Finally there’s somebody up on the screen who is as strong as we are. Somebody that embodies the kind of power you know that we’re capable of.

The celebrity Randall Park of Fresh Off The Boat surely spoke for millions when he put into words just how much Bruce Lee meant to him growing up:

Randall Park: I first saw a Bruce Lee movie when I was a kid, super young, and I remember just being mesmerized by this guy. And I don’t think it was because he was Asian, because he had an Asian face. It was just because he had so much charisma and confidence. I was obsessed with him. I watched his movies over and over again and afterwards wanted to fight my brother, because I wanted to be him.

You can watch the full (but brief) segment on Bruce Lee at the end of Episode 3, Good Americans, for the PBS series Asian Americans (available only to viewers in the US for free streaming until June 9, 2020):

Filipino, Mexican Farmworkers Marry, Join 1965 Grape Strike in California

The PBS series Asian Americans highlights an unusual marriage in the mid-20th century: A Filipino man and Mexican woman who met in the fields as farmworkers tied the knot. More than a decade later, in 1965, along with their entire family, they joined the Delano Grape Strike.

Lorraine Agtang, daughter of the two, tells the story of her parents and family in Episode 4, Generation Rising, of Asian Americans:

I’m half Filipino, and half Mexican. My father met my mother working in the fields, and he didn’t speak Spanish and she didn’t speak English, and so my father learned how to speak Spanish so that he could get to know her.

I was born in a labor camp a mile and a half from Delano. It was a two-bedroom barrack bunkhouse. We all slept together. There were seven of us, and then my mom and dad.

The bathroom was out back, which we shared with two other families, so, uh, you get to know your neighbors well.

Such a pairing was exceptional at the time among the community of Filipino men who served as farmworkers, as explained in the series:

Narrator: Very few Filipino women were able to immigrate to the US, and Filipino men were barred from marrying white women. As a result, an entire generation is forced to live out their lives as bachelors deprived of family.

But not Lorraine’s father.

Along with her parents and family, Lorraine also took part in the strike, which she recalls in the series:

Lorraine: I remember we were working, when my father says, “Come on, we’re leaving”.

I says, “We’re leaving? It’s ten o’clock in the morning.”

So we left.

And I remember leaving the field, and driving through the, seeing the strikers, the Filipinos.

A page about a collection of materials that Lorraine Agtang has left to the University of California – Davis offers more information about her and her parents:

Lorraine Agtang was born in a labor camp near Delano, California on 1952. Agtang is of Mexican and Filipino descent. Her mother, Lorenza Agtang, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico. Her father, Platon Agtang, was a migrant worker from Cavite Province in the Philippines, who worked at the sugar fields in Hawaii, canneries in Alaska, and the farmworker circuits throughout Central California. Agtang’s exposure to farm labor activism occurred at an early age, as Agtang and her family left the fields of Chamorro Farms in support of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee during the 1965 Delano Grape Strike.

You can view a clip from the PBS series where Lorraine talks about leaving the fields with her family for the strike:

And, if you’re in the US, you can view the entire episode of Generation Rising from Asian Americans on the PBS site (available for free streaming until June 9, 2020):

Note: Featured photo, with a farmworker, is a screenshot from Generation Rising from Asian Americans on the PBS site.

Moksad Ali, Ella Blackman: 1895 Blasian Marriage in New Orleans, USA

While recently watching the new PBS series Asian Americans, which premiered earlier this month, I learned about a fascinating couple — an Indian immigrant to the US named Moksad Ali, who married an African American named Ella Blackman in 1895 in New Orleans, USA.

According to Vivek Bald, an associate professor of writing and digital media at MIT with an interest in the South Asian diaspora in the US, Moksad Ali represents one of the earliest migrations of South Asian immigrants to the East Coast — people who were mainly Muslim men who hailed from the Hooghly region north of Calcutta and worked as silk traders.

As Bald noted in the first episode in the series Asian Americans:

Vivek: The peddler network in some ways has gone under the radar because that group was so transient. The majority of men who were peddling would come during the summer months to New Jersey to the seaside resorts and then make their way south to winter tourist towns. Moksad Ali was one of the earliest to settle in New Orleans.

Moksad Ali and the other peddlers, in order to sell their goods, they played up their South Asian-ness, their Indian-ness. They played to the fantasies of the exotic East that the tourists who they were selling to expected.

At the end of the day, however, they were dark-skinned men in a deeply segregated society. And the places were they were able to live, build homes, marry and begin families were within African American communities.

In this case, Moksad Ali married Ella Blackman, as Bald described in his book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America:

Moksad Ali settled in New Orleans around the same time as Jainal Abdeen and married a local African American woman, Ella Blackman. Ella’s family had come to New Orleans from other parts of the South in the years before and after the Civil War. Her father’s side came from Tennessee, her mother’s from Virginia. Moksad and Ella married in May 1895, when Ella was seven months pregnant with their first child, Monzure. On Monzure’s July 12 birth certificate, Moksad Ali listed his occupation as “silk merchant” and penned a clear but labored signature in Roman/English cursive letters.

In the series Asian Americans, Vivek Bald also builds on the story of Moksad Ali and Ella Blackman by speaking with the descendents of the couple, including in this exchange:

Robin (Descendant): I can recall my grandmother telling me a story about when they were small that her and her dad and mother went to New York on the train. The kids and the father was all allowed to sit up in the front of the train, but my grandmother had to sit in the back and she said, well, it wasn’t that she looked black. It was the fact that they knew she was black.

I said, well that’s odd because some of the kids’ skin complexion is darker than my grandmother’s. So, I thought that was really weird, but…

Vivek: Moksad was darker than your grandmother.

Robin: Right.

Watch a portion of the Moksad Ali-Ella Blackman story in this clip from the PBS series Asian Americans:

Or, view the entire segment on Moksad Ali and Ella Blackman in the first episode of Asian Americans (video only available to viewers in the US):

What do you think about the story of Moksad Ali and Ella Blackman?

I’m Starting to Forget To Wear My Mask: Reopening Adventures in Beijing

This past weekend, we just heard that in Beijing, you no longer need to wear a mask while outdoors. It’s welcome news with the warming weather, which has made wearing a mask outdoors an often sweaty proposal. But it’s also a relief to me for another reason – I’ve started to forget my mask.

Seriously.

In the past month or so, at least once or twice a week I would leave the apartment and then have to turn back when I realized I had walked out of my apartment with a “naked” face.

(Side note: Isn’t it something that nowadays not having a covering over my mouth and nose somehow seems bizarre and even like a form of “indecency” when stepping out?)

Anyhow, if I had to speculate why I seemed to space on wearing a mask, I would guess it’s partly the weather, and partly because people in Beijing are worrying a lot less about the virus.

Now, I don’t take anything for granted when it comes to the coronavirus. China continues to register small handfuls of imported cases every single day, and parts of the country have seen small flare-ups in local cases. I know the virus still remains in our world, and as the experts here continue to caution, we cannot entirely let our guard down.

Still, it’s been over a month since Beijing saw any locally transmitted infections. Businesses are continuing to fling their doors open, schools are gradually welcoming students back, and you see more people out enjoying the blue skies and late spring breezes.

Even my office has eased measures to enter the building. We now need to just flash our QR code showing our health status (green for OK to enter) and pass by an infrared temperature checkpoint that takes only a second. If I can pull up the QR code while walking in, I barely even need to pause. It’s a huge step up from what we once had to do – stop while an attendant checked our temperature, and then sign in on a registration sheet.

Meanwhile, as Beijing is rising from the past ravages of COVID-19, my home country of the US is still very much under siege by the virus. I find myself caught in a kind of “Twilight Zone” existence every time I flick on the international news and get the latest updates about the US, where the people I love most in the world still live. Their lives have been thrown into a turbulence I could never have imagined nor wished for them, as they struggle with everything from furloughs and other employment unknowns to the specter of illness that has settled over their communities as the virus continues to spread.

Not long ago, a comparative immunologist in the Boston area penned a viral post about the risks of getting infected as places open up, which painted a sobering picture.

And yet, the states where my loved ones live — which are still seeing new daily case numbers that either equal or exceed the total number of cases we saw in Beijing — are starting to reopen. It’s stunning, in the worst possible way.

When I go to my office, I don’t really worry that a coworker might be infected with COVID-19. My employer had even asked everyone in the company to stay in Beijing and not travel outside to avoid any potential risk of transmission.

Meanwhile, when my family and friends eventually return to their offices — which might have minimal or no screening measures in place, nor other policies to lower the potential for infection — they may not have the same peace of mind.

And chances are, it’s going to be a long time before they ever forget to wear a mask.

Has your area been reopening? How has it been for you?

8 Adorable Masks For Couples Found on China’s Taobao

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, masks have become an indispensable form of protective gear not only for health care workers but also average people too. Here in China, it’s still mandatory to wear a mask when going out. Yet this essential item has also turned into an opportunity to show off your relationship and fashion sense as a couple when you’re both out and about.

Yes, I’m talking about masks just for couples. And on China’s Taobao platform, you can find a host of adorable options to cover up together with that special someone in your life. So you can say to the world, the couple that wears masks together, not only stays together — but stays safe amid COVID-19.

Here are 8 of the cutest options I found on Taobao:

Wear your heart not only on your sleeve, but also your mask too with these complementary masks, featuring hearts with the same design in different colors.

The mask for him says “Love”, the one for her sports a little kitty-cat face. While I have no idea how they paired these two up, it does make for a darling duo, regardless.

Astrology fans will rejoice with these masks embroidered with each of the 12 zodiac signs. Wear yours as a couple and show off your astrological compatibility. And if you’re single, wear it out to sidestep that annoying “Hey, what’s your sign?” pickup line.

Perfect for the anime lovers, these masks come decorated with cartoon versions of a lovely boy and girl just made for each other.

If it’s true that opposites really do attract, then surely one of you must be naughty and the other nice. Now you could wear your disposition on your face — or fight over who gets to be naughty today. 😉

Pit the fairy (“小仙女”, up top on girl’s mask) against the devil prince (“大魔王”) in this fantasy-inspired pair of masks. Wahahahahaha!

Adorned with the words “Love Story”, one mask features a girl who just released her heart in a bottle out to sea, and the other a boy waiting to receive it. It’s one of the many adorable options from this store that just might have you humming that Taylor Swift song.

You might call it a bicycle design built for two. On hers, a girl rides on two wheels while leaving a trail of hearts behind her. On his, a boy collects every single one. It just might pedal its way into your heart too.

What do you think of these masks? Which one is the most adorable?

Cracking the ‘Hummus Code’ in a Healthy Tradition at Home – Pub’d on China Daily

China Daily recently published my column titled Cracking the ‘hummus code’ in a healthy tradition at home. Here’s an excerpt:

As a longtime vegan enamored with many meat-free Middle Eastern dishes, which are much harder to find in restaurants in China, I made a powerful discovery in my own kitchen recently: I had finally cracked the “hummus code”.

Made of chickpeas, tahini sesame paste, olive oil, lemon juice and minced garlic, hummus is like a kind of high-protein manna from heaven to many vegans, including me. While most people serve it as a dip, often with soft pita bread and raw veggies, you can also add it to your favorite sandwich, dab it on your salad, or even smear it on your morning toast in place of butter. And speaking of butter, some of the best hummus I’ve ever sampled evoked the flavors of this classic spread in a lusciously creamy texture that will have you hooked.

So naturally, as I had been spending more time indoors due to the coronavirus, preferring to cook at home, it was only a matter of time before I started craving what was to me a vegan comfort food.
I just never expected that this time around, I would produce a hummus so smooth and buttery that even my husband Jun, a notoriously finicky eater, would be ooh-ing and aah-ing with every bite.

No doubt I owe some of my success to using a superior recipe this time around (from the blog Cookie and Kate, deservedly dubbed “best hummus recipe”), as well as my kitchen gadgets (pressure cooker and food processor both played pivotal supporting roles in the process). But regardless, the hummus proved a tasty revelation-that with my very own hands, I could actually whip up a version of the dish recalling restaurant offerings.

In this sense, I’m reminded of my mother-in-law in rural Zhejiang, who has over the years created on her own a repertoire of dishes so mouthwatering that I had jokingly christened her dinner table the best restaurant in China.

Read the full column here. And if you like it, share it!

Ditching Beijing Subway for a Chevy: A Tale of Caution Amid Reopening – Pub’d on WWAM BAM

The group blog WWAM BAM just published my post Ditching Beijing Subway for a Chevy: A Tale of Caution Amid Reopening. Here’s an excerpt:

Before the virus, it seemed unimaginable that my colleagues at the office in Beijing would brave the snarl of traffic jams in their own four wheels.

Most of the cars parked at work usually belong to managers or supervisors – people who had put in years there or brought seniority to their position, and were rewarded with a designated space, surely one of the most coveted possessions in Beijing, if not most major Chinese cities.

But just the other day, my colleague – a local who is not a supervisor, manager or anyone with years of seniority – announced that he had ditched the subway for his own Chevy while we were chatting after work.

He used to commute in on the subway before the virus, he admitted. But now his navy-blue sedan ferried him to and from his home on the other side of town – because, in his words, “It’s safer.” The potential risk associated with the subways had kept him away.

He didn’t need to spell out what that risk was. We had all lived the coronavirus since late January, learning to avoid indoor and unventilated spaces crowded with people to steer clear of potential infections. Subways check every box in terms of places you shouldn’t be.

Head over to WWAM BAM to read the full post. And if you like it, share it!

A Cinderella with Blasian Love: Diverse 1997 Disney TV Movie Still Wins Hearts

Yes, Virginia, there’s a Cinderella with blasian love. And this diverse 1997 Disney TV version still wins hearts, and stands as a groundbreaking example of how to adapt fairy tales for modern audiences.

Known as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, the 1997 Disney musical film cast the R&B wonder Brandy, who had shot to stardom early in the decade, in the titular role, with Filipino-American actor Paolo Montalban as Prince Charming.

As we all know, representation matters, and this film exemplifies that idea. In playing Cinderella for this movie, Brandy also was the first-ever black Disney princess, a point hailed by many. You could surely say the same for Paolo Montalban, who had a truly crowning moment as Disney’s first Asian prince in a movie. In both cases, the movie gifted young people of color with actors that looked like them, finally riding off into the sunset on their own happily ever after.

Beyond being the first instance of a black woman playing Cinderella opposite an Asian Prince Charming, it also stands out as one of the first times (if not the very first) that Disney featured interracial love in a fairy tale. (Twice, actually, since Whoopi Goldberg plays the queen and Victor Garber the king.)

Did I mention this also stars Whitney Houston, who dazzles in every sense of the word as the fairy godmother?

I slipped into this movie for an hour and half during the weekend, and emerged feeling noticeably hopeful and lighter, as if that fairy godmother had touched me with some of her magical stardust.

If you love musicals and fairy tales, or perhaps could use a little time to dwell in an onscreen happily every after, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella makes for fine entertainment. You can watch the whole film in its entirety online.

What do you think about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella?

Has Coronavirus Made My Balsamic Vinegar More Expensive?

Balsamic vinegar never cost more than 25 yuan (~$3.50) in my online supermarket. But recently, it left me with a sour aftertaste when I discovered the outlet now selling it for 69 yuan (~$9.80), a more than threefold jump in the price. And I had to wonder, was this because of the coronavirus?

Here in China, balsamic vinegar has always starred among the tantalizing selection of imported foods you can find in supermarkets, particularly those online. If anything, online shopping has made securing this trademark Italian condiment that much easier, because so many sellers have flooded major platforms, like Taobao and JD. We have always relied on our online supermarket, which can deliver as fast as the same day you place an order. Plus, it even boasts not one nor two but three mouthwatering versions of balsamic vinegar.

Over the years, I’ve consistently stuck with the best-selling option, with a price that hovers around 25 yuan. And it has delivered that rich, sweet flavor on just about every creation I’ve ever used it in (with our household favorite surely being my vegan bruschetta, served on crusty homemade wheat bread — yum!).

But now, if I want to enjoy one full bottle I must fork over the cost of what nearly three used to be.

Has coronavirus bumped up the price of balsamic vinegar?

According to a report by HuffPost on March 19, the contagion hasn’t been curbing exports out of Italy to the US, at least:

But is Italy’s crisis impeding shipments of our beloved pastas and balsamic vinegars? Not necessarily.

“The strangest thing is, production and shipping in Italy has not come to a halt,” said Rolando Beramendi, who owns the Oakland and New York-based Italian food import company Manicaretti. “People are still producing and shipping. Every day I’m in close communication with the 38 producers I work with in Italy. They’re fine. The trucks are able to get to the port.”

Still, the article notes that one importer canceled a shipment of cheese, citing “a combination of surge pricing in the air cargo rates and a series of flight cancellations,” which suggests that some exports from Italy may be getting more expensive. Has this happened to the supply chain for China as well?

Meanwhile, a more recent April 29 report on Italy at NPR, titled Italy Considers Permits For Undocumented Migrants To Fill A Big Farmworker Gap, notes the following (emphasis mine):

Seasonal farmworkers usually go to Italy each year from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, but recent lockdowns have kept them home. That’s creating a critical shortage of labor for picking fruits and vegetables needed for food and exports.

As Italy rushes to solve this issue by considering granting work permits to undocumented migrants, the situation itself reflects the inherent uncertainty that can reverberate all the way to our own dinner table. Could that be driving up the price too?

Regardless, like any couple, Jun and I have to eat. And for now, we’d prefer to eat at home, with the kind of gusto that comes from a well-prepared meal. With our preferred ingredients, like balsamic vinegar. So if I can’t find better alternatives, I may just shell out for a pricier bottle.

The things we do for la dolce vita.

What do you think? Have you seen the price of balsamic vinegar rise in your area? Or other Italian imports?

Mugwort Foot Baths Soothed Us Through Worst of COVID-19 Outbreak

mugwort

During the height of the COVID-19 outbreak here in China, we adopted a new habit to counteract the stress of the epidemic – a daily foot bath.

Foot baths have long been a part of Chinese culture, and a constant in my husband’s family household. During long stints where we resided with Jun’s parents, pulling out those plastic washbasins just for cleaning feet was as much of an evening ritual as lining up the toothbrushes and toothpaste as well as the terrycloth towels for your face. Bathing the feet of your elders has also endured as a gesture of filial piety in China, which is perhaps why Jun’s grandmother — who stubbornly refused our gifts or envelopes of RMB, telling us “Don’t waste your money” — never turned down my offers for a soak and massage.

For years, we’ve owned a washbasin made just for foot baths — deeper and sturdier than those typically used for washing up. And at home, we’ve always kept a stash of foot bath powder, usually something made from mugwort (wormwood or Artemisia vulgaris, 艾草), said to have a warming effect on the body. Foot baths weren’t necessarily a nightly ritual for Jun and me, but something we did to stave off the chill of winter evenings and unwind after long days.

But when COVID-19 shook up our lives in late January, as the world around us snapped into a “new normal” and news reports day and night focused on the emerging war with the virus, we found ourselves longing for anything that could offer a respite. On top of it all, being at the office felt more and more like a marathon effort with an unprecedented workload of news stories prompted by the coronavirus outbreak, which left me heavy with fatigue most days after returning home.

The last thing I needed was overexhaustion, which can lower your immunity and leave you more vulnerable to infection. But I remembered we had something in our arsenal of bath products ideal for stress relief — foot baths with mugwort powder.

When I returned home from work every day, we would break out the washbasin, fill it to the brim with steaming water, and add in a couple bags of mugwort powder. It brought some much-needed comfort amid unsettling times, and was so enjoyable that we would repeat it later that evening just before bed, something Jun’s family would definitely approve of.

Adding foot baths to your daily routine can be a soothing way to counteract the stress of a COVID-19 outbreak — and it doesn’t require a pricey “foot spa” or even the same mugwort powder we use. Any plastic receptacle or bucket in your house big enough to hold feet that can also withstand warm water will do. Epsom salts also make for a relaxing foot soak, and you can even build on those to make some cool and inexpensive DIY foot soaks on your own. Don’t have anything on hand specifically for a foot bath? Just sinking your feet into warm water with a few drops of an essential oil or a squirt of your favorite body wash will help wash away your worries for a moment.

If you’re interested in mugwort for foot baths or other Chinese herbal foot baths, you can explore the options on Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog. And wherever you are, stay safe and healthy.

What do you think?

P.S.: The featured photo shows a view of the actual mugwort plant, the base of the powder we used to bathe our feet.