Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, August 11, 2001

Books of Island Interest
Speaking from the heart

By Ann M. Sato

"YELL-Oh Girls!," Edited by Vickie Nam. Quill/HarperCollins, trade paperback, $13
A friend's collection of political pins includes one, picked up at the National Women's Conference in 1977, that says "Lotus Blossom doesn't live here anymore." It is particularly valuable, she says, because there weren't many of the pins, as there weren't many Asian American women at that historic gathering.

What would the pins worn by today's teen and twentysomething Asian American women say? "YELL-Oh Girls!," an anthology by women in this generation suggests a number of answers:

"Lotus Blossom lives wherever she damn well pleases."

"Lotus Blossom was my mother ... and don't be dissin' my mother."

"Lotus Blossom lives within me. ... but so does She-Ra, Princess of Power."

Furthermore, you get the feeling that, if one of these "girls" decided to claim the name, with its stereotypical connotations of Asian woman docility and "exotic" allure, she'd do it. And then have a good laugh, perhaps a pain-filled cynical laugh, at anyone who didn't get the joke.

Throughout this unflinchingly honest collection, the young women — Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, Hmong and multicultural; first- and second-generation nationwide, including Hawai'i — speak their truths.

Editor Vickie Nam, who grew up in upstate New York, serves as the narrator, introducing each of four segments with an essay of her own, explaining how she came to choose these from the 500 she received when she began collecting pieces four years ago via an Asian American site on the Internet. (A free-lance writer and Internet consultant in Los Angeles, she has her own site, www.yellohgirls.com.)

Although Nam's essays sometimes have the breathless tone of someone who believes they've discovered the wheel, it's still impressive that this Wellesley graduate could have conceived the idea when she was an undergraduate, and then accepted a mentor's challenge to pursue the project, even as she was struggling with her own place in the competitive and driven atmosphere of magazine publishing (she has worked at Teen People and Blue Jean Magazine).

Running the gamut

The collection of 80 brief selections is richly layered, ranging from unformed and somewhat shallow reminiscences to poems of considerable literary merit, vignettes with the character of short stories, and the occasional politically charged feminist diatribe.

The common denominator here is "I," "me" and "my." These are people at an age — mid-teens to just legal drinking age — to be just beginning to understand anything or anyone beyond themselves. A number of pieces seemingly occupy the very moment when the writers have figured out that their parents might have something worthwhile to say, might not have been purposely trying to make their lives miserable, might actually be real people.

Some are angry, and rail against racism, misogyny, stereotyping and the cultural, social and political institutions that keep these hated forces in play.

Some are reflective, uncertain of how to claim and reconcile both sides of themselves — that which is tied to their parents' homelands, and their own ethnic identity, and that which played with Barbies and craved pizza. (Food and dolls recur as metaphors throughout the book and there is a great deal as well about skin tone and eyes and noses and hair color and texture — a wrestling with physique as destiny.)

Some are concerned primarily with doing, determined to change the world one assumption-busting act at a time, engaging in everything from conventional community service (18-year-old Leanne Nakamura of Kane'ohe is one example) to founding radical Web sites, engaging in performance art or taking on the Roman Catholic church's stance on same-sex love.

Mature voices

Nam has wisely chosen to include the voices of mature writers in each chapter, offering a confirming counterpoint to the "girls'" work. Among them are two Islanders: Lois-Ann Yamanaka, writing about her sister's decision to pass up eye-fold surgery, in "When Asian Eyes are Smiling," and Nora Okja Keller, who employs her love-loathe relationship with kim chee as a metaphor for self-acceptance in "My Mother's Food."

U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawai'i, and her daughter also share a mentor essay, about political activism.

"I love the idea of creating liaisons between younger and older, accomplished women — these were the women who were influential to me when I was young," Nam said.

Disappointing, but not at all surprising, is the lack of material that explores the Hawai'i Asian American experience, so different from that on the Mainland, so nuanced with the classist plantation mentality, the multicultural rubbings up against other cultures, the existence of a separate pidgin language.

It is puzzling why the rest of the nation, despite its fascination with multiculturalism, never seems to turn for enlightenment to our not-so-melting-pot community, which was multicultural before the word was invented.

One of two pidgin poems by Elena Cabatu, 22, formerly of Hilo and now living in Washington, D.C., comes closest to exploring an Island mind-set, impatiently shrugging off tourist notions of what it means to live in "paradise."

In a phone interview, Cabatu said she never really thought about Asians as "forgotten voices" until she went to a youth conference on the Mainland and found that, of more than 100 delegates, she was the only Asian. "After that," she said, "I knew Hawai'i must be a really special place."

She hopes young people in Hawai'i will pick up the book: "They'll see their language in it and realize there is an Asian identity, that they're part of something bigger."

Indeed they are, and this book is an excellent stepping-off point for thinking and talking about that "something bigger" — in the classroom, in book clubs or writing groups, or just casually among friends.

Advertiser intern Jean Chow of 'Aiea, a Stanford University student who has an essay in "YELL-Oh!," conducted interviews included in this piece.

• • •

Excerpted from "YELL-Oh Girls! Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity and Growing Up Asian American"

I Wanned fo' Try Biore
By Elena Cabatu

Right afta I wen go back school on da mainland in '97,
One pimple remova ting came out on tv called Biore.
Da tv said da pad supposta pull all da pimples outta yoa' nose.
Ween look real fun, I wanned fo' try 'em.
But was kinda shame, especially being in da mainland.
I never like do 'em in fronna my roommates.

Took me one whole yea' fo' try 'em.
One aftanoon da following summa,
Me and my sistah was boa'd, only watching MTV, had Say What? Karaoke.
But dose haoles had call "karaoke" something diff'rent.
Dey tell, "CARRY-O-KEY."
Dey jus' doddo no now how fo' say 'em.

Anyways, my sistah wen fine da Biore in our step-maddah's make-up draw.
Da firs ting we wen do was peel off da pad from da plastic cova an
Put 'em on our nose.
Da ting no was staying,
But you know how anybody can get excited ova dea pimples, especially da one on da nose
So we jus' holin 'em so da ting would stick.
Afta five minutes our aa'm was getting sowa so we wen finally read da box.
Da box said, gotta wet our nose befo' we put 'em on.
No wanda da ting neva stick!
As soon as we wen wet 'em, da ting wen stick real fas'.
Shoulda read da box firs', den we no would get sowa aa'm.

We went wait longtime because we wanned 'em fo' work good, eh?
Laddah on, my sista wen say, "We go take 'em off."
We wen go to da mirrah.
My sistah waz firs'.
We went read, peel from da edges.
When she wen peel 'em,
Ho, her eyes was all waddering an' she was kinda screaming.
Den she wen peel 'em off at da tip a da nose.
Jus' like we wen read 'em on da box.
And guess what?
Na-ting, as my Filipino gramma would say.
Neva get one ting on da pad, only da hea' from on toppa da nose.
Ho, she waz bummed,
But my turn was next.
She tol me, "No fo'get from da tips, eh?"
Peel. Waddah. Scream lillo bi'.
Ah Shit!
Waste time!