Regarding the Bartertown #muraldebate

UPDATE: MLive’s Troy Reimink put together a recap of the #muraldebate. This email was sent independently of the mural debate and just happened to coincide with the day that the mural debate began.

I feel compelled to share my email to Ryan yesterday regarding the Bartertown mural. The #muraldebate on Twitter is lively, but I’m afraid that people think the issue starts and ends with Che—that Che is the litmus, and if Che has a valid spot on that wall, then the same goes for the other 75% of that mural. Ryan responded in a more personalized version of point number one in Bartertown’s official statement and offered to chat, something I fully intend to take him up on.

Hi, Ryan—

I admire your efforts to establish a vegan eatery that’s both accessible and cozy. I came down to Bartertown for the first time during Wake Up Weekend. To be blunt, I was stunned to see Mao leading the charge with a ladle, cultural revolutionaries dishing out saucers, hoisting signs and cradling an allusion to that iconic red book.

The only reason I could imagine that you reappropriated this historical event for your walls is because of the association with socialism. But honestly, as a Chinese American, I couldn’t understand why you would choose this scene any more than you would have pulled a chapter out of Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. Although it’s still hotly debated—hundreds of thousands or millions—a horrifying number of political dissidents, ethnic minorities and wrongly accused innocents in China were persecuted, tortured, raped and killed during Mao’s reign. All of it in the name of the proletariat.

One of my operational underpinnings is “From each according to his[/her] abilities, to each according to his[/her] needs.” I can sympathize with the philosophy of socialism, but I don’t see the sound logic in choosing that historical scene to capture it.

I’m not claiming to speak for all Chinese and Chinese Americans. I also can’t assume that someone else has pointed out to you just how thunderstruck a person of that ethnic heritage might find the mural. I believe in the concepts behind what you’re doing and want to frequent Bartertown, but as a member of this community, I feel the responsibility to point out how uncomfortable this and other portrayals could make your potential patrons.

Denise Cheng.


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Carnival of Journalism – First-generation youth and context

Recommendation 12: Engage young people in developing the digital information and communication capacities of local communities

This is probably one that’s closest to my heart, and the most organic entry point for me.

In the full description of the recommendation, the Knight Foundation sets the scene for a “Geek Corps” that assigns post-college volunteers to public institutions to help them leverage digital media technologies. There already exists something like this, a program of which I proudly call myself an alum: the Digital Arts Service Corps (formerly the CTC VISTA Project).

But when I first read the recommendation, my mind gravitated toward youth rather than young adults. More specifically, first-generation youth in minority communities. Most of my experience in media has been imagining how to leverage everyday tools for media creation by sources that are not traditionally seen as information providers. This has ranged from mobile media creation by immigrant communities and Millennials to my current position as the citizen journalism coordinator for The Rapidian, a hyperlocal news site for Grand Rapids, Mich.

When we look at the purpose of information, it’s to acquaint communities with the intricacies of issues and phenomena that have a direct effect on them. There are patches of media that serve youth, that serve immigrants but there is a whole swath that straddles the line between cultures, and youth has proven to be a volatile time across the board.

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Common ground

I don’t think I talk enough about how important language is to me.

When I was young, my mom would tell me that at night, I traveled in my dreams. You went to Korea, she’d say. And Venezuela, and Israel and made a quick stop in Australia. Next, off to Mongolia. I would wake up in a cocoon of sheets, hanging off the farthest tip of the bed.

When I was young, I made a list of languages I wanted to learn. I rearranged it every year. First, it was Korean, Hebrew, French, Japanese, Cantonese, Urdu and sign language. Then it was Pidgin, German, Korean, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Thai. I never counted less than seven languages at a time. I wanted to talk with the world.

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Chinese matryoshka dolls

To my mom, my blog entries are complete gobbledygook. She understands not a word. Mom rarely makes her way to my little web patch, so I feel pretty safe about sharing my plans.

As a CTC Vista, I’m hardly raking in large sums right now, at least not enough to get my mom a sumptuous birthday present. Besides that, she regifts most of the presents I buy anyhow. With these facts in mind, I’ve decided to make her next birthday gift: customized nesting dolls, starting with my great grandmother.


Mom was the second born in a six-kid line-up, but she was the eldest daughter. She was very close to her mother, who died at a relatively young golden age of lung cancer (she was in her early 60s; I was 14 at the time). What I remember of puo-puo was something of a social butterfly, generosity, and internalizing the pain from her eldest daughter’s failed marriage (divorce was still unusual in Chinese society), 15 hours apart and nearly 7,000 miles away.

Mom in her late 20s. Her favorite descriptors for herself—loosely translated—are "carried herself well" and "Jennifer-full-of-grace."

Unfortunately, there are very few likenesses of my great grandmother, photo shoots being cost prohibitive at the time. However, there are many of my fashion maven grandmother. My favorite’s resolution is too low for my project, but I want to celebrate it anyway:

Grandmas in the foreground. Im not sure how old she was in this photo. Mom likes to describe grandma as having a dignified beauty.

Grandma's in the foreground. I'm not sure how old she was in this photo. Mom likes to describe grandma as having a dignified beauty.

You may have realized by now there are five nesting dolls and I am one of four women. But don’t worry—I am not fool enough to give my mom a reason to start nagging about a granddaughter. To sidestep this suggestive fifth figure, I am cutting out a photo of my childhood bear, who still goes everywhere I go today.

Me & my Cosby.

Taken shortly after my stint with Peace Corps. Me & my Cosby.

I know this is just coincidental, but I really like that my puo-puo, mom and I are all the second-born of our families. Now that I think about it, too, the two generations before me were technically immigrant generations. My grandparents are from Shanghai and fled to Taipei prior to the communist revolution. My mom was the first of her direct family to move to the States, her older brother taking suit almost 20 years later to Canada. While I’m not an immigrant, my mom laments how I’m always trying to move away from her: Ithaca, NY; Oxford, Ohio; Urbino, Italy; Chicago, Ill.; Menkhoaneng, Lesotho; Portland, Ore.; and, in July, Grand Rapids, MI. And from my travels, I’ve come to sympathize very much with issues of assimilation, identity, community and shared culture.

Remember: Mum’s the word.

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Brain surgery ≠ American citizenship

I woke up this morning to OPB‘s Think Out Loud. Host Emily Harris was broaching the DREAM Act, in which undocumented immigrants under 35 who have been schooled primarily in the States could pay in-state college tuition and eventually be granted citizenship amnesty. The percentage of these undocumented immigrants going on to four-year universities currently is minuscule and the majority of them have no memory of their parents’ countries; they were raised in the United States.

The guests on the show ranged from an undocumented immigrant smuggled into the US at seven weeks to the president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform. Although this post is not meant to spawn a debate on the legitimacy of the DREAM Act, it is a response to some of the infuriating and illogical comments made by Jim Ludwick, president of OIR. The part that really got me rankled came at about 35:50 in the episode:

New Yorker Cartoon by J.B. Handelsman
New Yorker cartoon by J.B. Handelsman

“I keep hearing this term ‘undocumented’ thrown around, but that’s an intellectually dishonest term … In addition, it creates this attitude of, man if I just had this document, everything would be all right. Well, a document is more than a piece of paper. It’s a signal that somebody’s done something, accomplished something. It would be like me saying, I’m a brain surgeonput a sign up on the wall that says ‘Jim Ludwick, Brain Surgeon’I am not a brain surgeon. A piece of paper is meaningless unless it shows something.”

What kind of equivocation is that? Becoming a brain surgeon is a result of effort. Being born a citizen of the United States is a result of circumstance.

As I continued to listen, I heard arguments that legalizing the DREAM Act is the equivalent of endorsing a brain drain from third world countries, legal Oregonians would be subsidizing undocumented immigrants’ educations, their admission would reduce college slots for legal students and increase the tuition.

The fact is, even if you are an illegal immigrant, chances are you pay taxes. You cannot vote, but you can be called up for combat duty. If anything, it’s more likely that illegal immigrants are the ones subsidizing Oregonians’ benefits. In regards to education, the admissions process for colleges are also separate from their financial process. Universities send out acceptances to students who meet their standards with little regard to geographical boundaries. They do this knowing they won’t have a 1:1 return on registrations.

In my personal opinion, holding children responsible for a choice their parents made is a return to serfdom. As “Jennifer” said on air to Portland State University’s College Republican president at about 18:33, “The difference [between you and me] is seven weeks.” Claiming that undocumented kids who grew up their whole lives in the U.S. are causing a brain drain from their parents’ country of origin is like saying to an American-born-and-bred visible minority, “go back to your country.”

The whole thing is infuriating because of the lack of sophistication to Ludwick’s arguments. By sophistication, I mean making sound arguments that are based on facts rather than using red herrings, tangents, appealing to emotion and many other logical fallacies. It is an affront to public intelligence for Ludwick to be “intellectually dishonest.”

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Web 3.0

I’m slightly frustrated right now. I just came from a session entitled Emerging Trends of Mobile Technology, where the launching pad started with smartphones. Throughout the session, the emphasis was on how we use old technology in combination with new ones to form an innovative tool. For example, image recognition to create augmented realities and find cut-throat product prices, &c.
Most people in the room seemed to be developers or designers of some sort, and many of the questions were based on cutting edge technology, the next wave, “web 3.0.” But while everyone was drooling over their next money-generating app, a question was left out: What are the moral implications of this technology?
I’m not saying none of these things should be created, but with the rat-race to create the next best app, who’s thinking about what we’re potentially institutionalizing? Image recognition of the Coke brand that takes you directly to the site. Bar codes that show you product prices for the 10 closest competitors. Existing technology that might be creatively wielded via phones to discern race, sex, &c. through image recognition.
I mention these because they were the suggestions I took greatest issue with. I should give full disclosure at this point that I do not own a smart phone. The most cutting edge technology on my phone is T9. My impressions of how these phones (esp the iPhone) behave were primarily informed by the videos playing on screen.
Using specific examples, I’m going to illustrate what I mean, piece by piece.

  1. Brand recognition that leads you to a specific site: I don’t expect this feature to stay the same (or at least hope not), but the video illustrated a smart phone snapping shots of a coke can. After processing the image, the phone landed the user on Coke’s home page. The problem with this is probably apparent. It’s a marketer’s dream. But if phones are programmed to take users to specific product pages, what about commentary on those products? Those become secondary, and the user must take extra steps to find that content. An implication is made by this type of user landing. It makes it hard to find relevant commentary (i.e.: At one point, Coke bought to intercept users).
  2. Barcodes and competition: I’ve seen the Google phone do this, where it will recognize a barcode and immediately pull up prices from nearby and online competitors. One person asked the panel about how this affects local businesses. The response was something along the lines of capitalism’s goal is the end user’s satisfaction. If businesses can’t keep up with that, then they must come up with a more competitive strategy. Honestly, I disagree with this. Here are two thoughts.
    • There is such a thing as a loss leader. One store’s prices are sometimes cheaper than its competitor because other prices within the store make up for the loss.
    • Some things have a cost that is not immediately clear. I posted a video of Ira Glass a couple of weeks ago in which he explained one of his convoluted stories. His point was that in order for us to eat better, Mexicans eat worse so we can get year-round tomatoes grown on their land. This parallels other issues as well: environmental effects, health hazards, &c.
  3. Profiling by leveraging existing technology: This was by far the most disturbing. The panelSXSW women's t-shirtists mentioned there was existing technology already used by law enforcement to capture criminals by recognizing race, gender and many other features. What if this could be leveraged online to direct users to relevant suggestions and material? We are far from being beyond the constructions of race and gender. Why is it so important for demographic questionnaires to further subdivide”‘white” into “white/non-Hispanic” or “Hispanic?” The classification has more to do with U.S. immigration than universal truth; every country defines race differently.
    • In a recent example of institutionalizing race, SXSW offered a t-shirt with a white woman listening to her iPod. This was the only t-shirt they sold with any human figure on it, and instead of leaving the skin tone blank, they colored it in with a soft peach. “White” has become the new racelessness.
  4. As far as gender and sex is concerned, which would image recognition be trying to identify? So many problems with gender and sex come from their dichotomies. Many contemporary human rights movements are trying to move beyond that. How might this technology reinforce what we’re trying to leave behind?

I acknowledge that these were merely suggestions of a possible web 3.0 future and none of them might come true. However, what concerns me is the gravity of this brainstorm. At the very least, it is indicative of what’s to come and should caution us about what could happen if profit and recognition spearhead innovation rather than improved service.

I spy with my little eye… Something odd about this popular music video.

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Some cibo

I’ve been chewing on some random thoughts lately and thought I’d put it out there and see what other people think.

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My Portland romance

It took a big hit the other day, my romance with Portland. I’ve been here about a year now, and for the first time ever, I really understood how Portland’s progressiveness might be a tall tale.

It was Valentine’s Day, and Charlie and I took a bus ride to SE 82nd and Division. We were going to have dim sum at Wong’s King Seafood Restaurant, something I’ve been trying to organize for the last two weeks–since Chinese New Years started–but have been incredibly unsuccessful with. I was itching to see this part of Portland. When my mom visited in November, she had asked around to figure out where the real Chinatown was, and the resounding answer was this far-off intersection. There were less bikers and pedestrians as the street numbers climbed while increasingly more restaurants and schools flew multilingual banners: Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese and English.

The bus warp-sped through a wormhole between 57th and 85th streets. In that 30-block span, the greenery, the foot traffic–all of it disappeared. The quaint, early 20th century houses faded into 70’s architecture and sprawl. We were dropped off in a literal concrete jungle with debris instead of sidewalks and crosswalks every three blocks.

We had a 40-minute wait for Wong’s, so Charlie and I decided to take a walk in search of the fabled Fubonn Supermarket. But instead of taking a left at 82nd, we took a right and passed countless car dealerships. I watched people dodge traffic to avoid walking a couple endless blocks to the nearest crosswalk. It was an unpleasant street to be on, so we tried the backstreets on our return to Wong’s. Where there should have been asphalt, the streets had been ground into gravel. No sidewalks. No grid pattern. Just dead ends pointing to poor urban planning.

I was stunned. Where was Portland? This “neighborhood” was as good as being in the suburbs, and yet it’s still well within the city limits. Everything we celebrate about Portland–great public transportation, walkability, bikability–none of it applied. Many Chinese and other ethnic groups had been pushed out to the edges due to rising costs of living in inner-Portland, but this was ridiculous. Biking might be a fresh choice in Portland, but it’s also one of the oldest, most common-sense economic options anywhere. On SE 82nd and Division, it was not an option. The streets had clearly been unpaved for years, and it was an unnavigable and dangerously car-saturated area.

Was this racism? Classism? Assuming the Chinese weren’t there till recently, where was the City when the roads began to blister and crack? And assuming the Chinese had been there for a while, did the City presume that this immigrant group preferred the ubiquitous expense of cars over walkability? Even though the majority of people in Asia’s most population-choked cities walk and utilize public transportation? It was an outrage. Where everything great about Portland would have made the best sense, it didn’t exist in one of the areas that needed it the most.

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Digital storytelling: The wonders never cease

Crossposted from my Portland Community Media Center blog. Read comments on the original post

I’ve had the privilege of being part of two digital storytelling workshops at Portland Community Media: once as sort of a teacher’s aide and the second time as a participant.

I first heard of digital storytelling in 2006 as I was rounding the corner to my last semester in college. I was home for winter break and decided to take advantage of my locale to learn about media centers in the San Francisco Bay Area. I met Theeba Soundararajan of Third World Majority (TWM) and Jessica McCoy, who was the CTC Vista for Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) at the time.

Both were storytelling organizations with slightly differing missions. They’re media centers focused on expression, but TWM was more focused on giving minorities and immigrant communities the media tools that have traditionally been used to ignore, suppress or misrepresent them.

Theeba opened my eyes to digital storytelling as a tool for those who have been sidestepped and wrongly represented on the local and national scene. As a person who has trained in journalism, I’ve seen much of this and even experienced it, which can be very jolting for someone who plays on both sides.

I’ve had a couple of experiences now, but the most shocking was after returning from Lesotho as a Peace Corps volunteer and hearing an NPR Marketplace broadcast entitled Chinese businesses rile Lesotho locals. To establish the scene, there’s a lot of resentment against the Chinese by Basotho becaMade in South Africause the Chinese have been economically successful there while the Basotho are cementing themselves in poverty. As a Chinese American, I experienced a hefty amount of misdirected discrimination. The Marketplace broadcast seemed to side with the idea that the Chinese were snatching up every economic opportunity, leaving nothing for the Basotho. Granted, there are sketchy business decisions that some Chinese have made, but the Basotho are in their particular position most of all because of lack of entrepreneurial spirit (my official title as a PCV was “Small Business Advisor”). It was disturbing to hear the NPR report not because I share a physical appearance with the Chinese, but because I had experienced both sides and could not believe the lopsided situation an NPR show represented. Talk about a group that’s exploited Lesotho’s economy, where was any mention of South Africa and their complete infiltration into Basotho commodities and cultural goods? In many ways, Marketplace legitimized the discrimination against Lesotho’s Chinese community. I still haven’t heard a peep after writing a letter to the editor, not even acknowledgement of receipt.

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