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Hot Gway and Obama February 23, 2008

Posted by peterong in Asian American, Lower East Side, racism, Rants.

Time Magazine wrote an article called “Does Obama Have an Asian Problem?” and as I read through this I realized how I felt both a sense of embarrassment as well as relief that some of the issues that it brought out. One part of me felt it like it was an airing of Asian America’s “dirty laundry.” What struck me was the question, “could it be that Asian Americans are not voting for him because he is black?” When I read that, I was caught off guard and not sure what to make of that question from a national publication. Perhaps race does play a part in the way we vote or want to see our leadership but I suspect that the Time article was trying to be provocative and not making a real investigative approach but rather it was a story looking for an issue rather vice versa.

But one quote that got me was this:

Alan Shum, 24, an analyst for an investment fund in New York City, cast his vote for Obama. But he also thinks his elders might have a problem doing the same. “Voting for a black candidate is just not something that would jump out at them,” he says. “Chinese people are really racist at times.” He points to the colloquial Chinese for “white” and “black,” which append both words with “devil.” “The vernacular tells you a little about something,” he says. “Chinese people can be very, very insular as a culture — very superior. We look down upon any race that isn’t Chinese.”

The proverbial “Hot Gway” (Black Ghost) or “Bot Gway” (White Ghost) that we Chinese use so casually. Tonight my wife and I ate at a Chinatown Vietnamese restaurant where an old couple with their daughter were arguing about voting and the father said in Chinese, “You gonna vote for a Hot Gway?” It caught me at an intersection of sadness and anger. In the day where this could be the most significant election we have digressed to these shallow differences. Yet, I remember a few months ago, I shared about the challenges facing many Asian American immigrants in Chinatown, a group of bible college students asked me about how they can best serve Asians (they were mostly black and latino students) and I had to be honest and tell them that perhaps, as an Asian community we were not ready for it because of our race issues towards other minorities. But to partner with an Asian American church, it would show them volumes about the radical call of the body of Christ to serve and love one another. Somehow, the air in the room just collapsed and I knew some of them were just stunned. But one girl spoke to me at the end and said “thank you. because when I was younger, I was in a school with a lot of Asians and they were worse to me than the white kids. Your honesty made me hope in Christ more and I am so thankful you didn’t give the ‘spiritual’ answer.”

I have a lot to move ahead on this issue. I serve at an Asian American church. Most of my 1600+ friends on facebook are Asian and I am convicted by my own sense of security in the familiar. But I also know that I cherish this distinctive of being Asian…while working out the implications of exclusivity that often haunt me. I grew up one block away from the projects and saw the cycle of housing project violence and still remember so many of those kids I grew up with running away from stray bullets, lure of pushing or taking blow. I see how much we as a church has made this “Africa” campaign for AIDS and poverty into a fetish of sorts. I have seen how as a church we don’t know how to deal with the “others” in our communities. When I see the Lower East Side, I see a challenge of so many worlds colliding and yet, I am scared of another lesson of culture I have to learn. But I know I must…not out of a drive towards a gospel correctness. But it is more about the awaiting of redemption of this area of brokenness.

I am not sure if Alan Shum is right, I don’t think we as Chinese want to be better than everyone else. I think it is more that we are scared of anything else and we want to keep things insular. To have our perpetual “keep out” sign, not so much for our superiority but rather with a sense of isolation.

Footnote: One interesting fact from the article is that Barack’s half sister is named Maya Soetoro-Ng and I found her vodcast here and it seems that she is married to an “Ng.” Her husband is Konrad Ng and they have a daughter named Suhaila (according to this article). Also I found this mixed bag of a website called “Asian Americans for Barack Obama.” It should be called C-list Celebrities or Nobodies for Obama. I am sorry but who are these people?



1. Ramey Ko - February 23, 2008

Hi Peter,

I’m Ramey Ko, founder of Asian Americans for Obama. We are indeed a bunch of nobodies – we’re a grassroots organization of supporters and volunteers for Obama. I’m a public interest attorney who works for a legal aid organization in Austin, TX, representing low income clients in housing and domestic violence cases. I first got to know Sen. Obama when he was a professor at my law school. Others in our group include stay at home moms, pharmacists, college and graduate students, people in media and film, community and political activists, and teachers.

Since some of our members work in the film, TV, and publishing industries, more well known folks such as Kelly Hu have worked with our group. We’ve also featured writing from prominent Asian American academics such as Jerry Kang of UCLA. But by and large, we’re just regular folks who have been inspired by Sen. Obama’s candidacy and are working as grassroots volunteers to help get him elected.

We post information on events, issues, and more relevant to the Asian American community or relating to the campaign in general. We work on organizing AAPI oriented events, translating outreach materials, signs, and posters into a variety of Asian languages, and helping connect volunteers and activists all around the country. Our website is by grassroots volunteers for grassroots volunteers. We aren’t even C-List Celebrities. We’re just everyday people trying to make a difference in our communities and our country from the bottom up.

To provide some additional background on Sen. Obama’s family, Maya Soetoro-Ng is Barack’s half-sister, born to Barack’s mother and his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro, a geologist Barack’s mom met at the University of Hawaii (where she also met Barack’s father). Maya is now a school teacher in Honolulu. Her husband Konrad is Chinese and originally from Canada, but is now a US citizen. He is a professor of Asian film at the University of Hawaii.

For those interested in learning more about Sen. Obama, our website is primarily organized in a blog format, with links on the right side of the page to flyers and policy papers about Sen. Obama and his platform. Some of the material is available in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. There is also a sign-up form if you’re interested in volunteering with our organization.

Peter, your ruminations on the issues of race within the Asian American community are very heartfelt. I’m glad there are people out there like you in our community confronting these serious issues.

Ramey Ko
Asian Americans for Obama
(M) 512.577.5729

2. peterong - February 23, 2008

Thank you Ramey Ko for your thoughtful insight on your campaign for Obama. i apologize for my tone and the way I expressed it. It was one of those lapses where I was a bit overwhelmed with this idea of race and politics. I didn’t mean to offend but rather be more “tongue in cheek.” I am wrestling through and quite frankly I don’t know what it means to be “______” for Obama and it didn’t seem like a distinctive. But I am heartened that there is a voice out there for the community. After giving more thought I am thankful for your group for creating a space that is more inclusive and not the rhetoric that I find in the Asian supporters who love the Clinton camp where there is a lot of “….she will help the Asian community…” It borders on tribalism. But I appreciate the tone in which your group is looking for a larger and broader vision that is not only focus on a tribe as a ends but a means to bring a larger contingency to the table of voices.

3. Ramey Ko - February 23, 2008

Hi Peter,

Please don’t feel bad. I’ve made far worse misjudgments, particularly when feeling personally frustrated. Your concern about the nature of race and politics is well placed; it can often be a fine line between trying to highlight issues of genuine concern to a community and soliciting special interest treatment. I definitely agree that politics in general should be less about what can this person give me and more about what does this person inspire me to do for others.

Keep up the good work! Oh, and on a non-candidate oriented note, please check out a great organization of which I am part, Asian Pacific Americans for Progress (www.apaforprogress.org) if you’re interested in learning more about grassroots APA political organizations.


4. Lue-Yee Tsang - February 24, 2008

»The proverbial “Hot Gway” (Black Ghost) or “Bot Gway” (White Ghost) that we Chinese use so casually.«

My parents absolutely hate it when people say “hak gwai” and “baak gwai”. They say, “Hey, they’re people. We as God’s people shouldn’t be calling them devils and ghosts.”

»The proverbial “Hot Gway” (Black Ghost) or “Bot Gway” (White Ghost) that we Chinese use so casually. Tonight my wife and I ate at a Chinatown Vietnamese restaurant where an old couple with their daughter were arguing about voting and the father said in Chinese, “You gonna vote for a Hot Gway?”«

About Obama they say, “His stance on abortion is a huge problem, but what does his being black have to do with anything? His race shouldn’t matter.”

So while my mom has bad memories of being intimidated by blacks decades ago she and my dad both refuse to let it adversely affect their attitude toward black people. It’s really encouraging to me that I have my parents’ example to follow in this, because I know many Chinese believers don’t have this blessing.

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