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Cambodian deportees on their lives in a country they've never called home

Featuring Bing Liu, director, Minding the Gap

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HEY SAN FRANCISCO: We're in town! On February 6, our own Andrew Hsieh will be moderating a panel after Lauren Yee's new play, KING OF THE YEES. And it's a great lineup, including:

  • Thi Bui, illustrator, The Best We Could Do
  • Vanessa Hua, journalist and novelist, A River of Stars
  • Karen Mok, co-founder, The Cosmos
  • Angela Yip, social justice director, AAMPLIFY

Tickets are on sale now, and you can get $10 off by using our promo code, SLANT10. (Remember the CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND hype last year? Better get tix quick ...) Check out the Facebook event here!

Re-hula-bilitation  

Dance class at a prison might seem odd by itself, but at San Quentin State Prison, inmates do more than square dance: they’re learning hula.

And it’s not just recreation, but also a spiritual practice. In fact, it’s been a critical and transformational part of prisoners’ rehabilitation: a springboard for connecting the growing number of Native Hawaiian inmates in particular with their ancestors and culture.

Not just the figure on your dashboard

Lilo & Stitch taught us hula’s a big tourism draw, but it’s also a catalog of ancestors, legends, genealogies and traditions of the Hawaiian culture. Each gesture, movement and pose represents people, plants, water and other elements, linking humans to nature.

Early on, hula was a form of worship, honoring native deities under a kahuna. But once Hawaii was imperialized, hula began to die out. Called a heathen practice, hula was looked down upon, even banned by missionaries in the 1820s.

Righting wrongs

Centuries later, in a small step in making up for some of the ways the U.S. wronged indigenous people, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act came into law.

That granted indigenous peoples the right to access traditional religious rights and cultural practices without government interference. In this case, hula’s fighting toxic masculinity in prison, offering a new masculinity tempered with humility and respect for others.

San Quentin even classifies hula as a spiritual practice rather than a dance: a big win for a once-banned tradition.

Natalie Bui, editor, who does want to remind how people how groundbreaking Lilo & Stich was for its time

126 years since the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai'i

NOW PLAYING: This weekend, I’ll be in Seattle for PodCon, figuring out how to tell better stories for The Slant and catching up on interesting podcasts like this week’s feature: author Mary H.K. Choi’s “Hey, Cool Life!”.

A micropod about mental health and creativity, it’s one I’ve been enjoying, if only because there’s no artifice: it’s Choi speaking into her phone using the Anchor app, discussing burnout, communication barriers, processing emotions, and more. Choi, who's found success in writing novels, comics, and more, is just good at this: it's like she's sending personal voice mails right through your podcast app.

Clocking in at around 15 minutes, “Hey, Cool Life!” fits in neatly into shorter commutes, and I’m probably going to listen to a few eps during my flight. You might want to, too!

Andrew Hsieh, editor-in-chief, adding even more podcasts to his queue

Girls rule, boys drool?

Unlike their white peers, Asian American boys and girls seem to perform equally as well as one another in school—until adolescence strikes, that is.

While in general girls tend to outperform boys beginning as early as in kindergarten, Asian American boys keep up with their female peers. But by the 9th grade, boys start falling behind by about a third of a letter grade.

Brawn vs. brains

A study published by the Journal of Sociological Science shows that it’s not natural ability that prevents boys from keeping up—rather, the study points to environmental influences that impact boys' relationships with achievement in school.

According to the study, as boys mature, environmental messages affirm and encourage stereotypical masculine traits like physical strength and toughness. To appear diligent, hard-working, or overly concerned with academic success contradicts these environmental expectations. In comparison, girls are affirmed for having a conscientious and careful attitude—skills that further support their academic success.

On top of these expectations, Asian American boys can be highly conscious of the model minority myth and their particular role within the stereotype. Being viewed as a nerdy Asian male is precisely the opposite of what society appears to value, which makes it doubly hard for Asian American boys to feel confident about their identity and put in the hard work at school.

Closing the gap

These findings point to the reality that boys’ success in school is much more closely tied to environmental influence rather than innate ability.

Which means an emphasis on practice over natural skill, embracing a full range of traits that aren’t limited by gender roles, and reinforcing high expectations could close the gender achievement gap for all students, not just Asian American boys.

Chery Sutjahjo, editor, who definitely hit the books hard as a kid and didn’t even think twice

A disadvantaged start hurts boys more than girls

Bing Liu’s quiet confidence and powerful vision have led him to the Oscars’ front door

NATASHA CHAN

If you don’t know the name Bing Liu yet, get ready — because this is his year. Since debuting his film Minding the Gap at Sundance in 2018, he has already collected 28 awards, including the festival’s “Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking.”

Growing up in the small town of Rockford, IL, Bing began filming his childhood friends doing what they love most — skateboarding. Over the years, he captured some of their most painful and intimate moments, melding them into a breathtaking and powerful narrative on race, class, and what it means to be a man in today’s America.

On the horizon now? The Oscars. While official nominations will not be released until January 22nd, Minding the Gap has made it onto the shortlist of films competing for Best Documentary Feature

* * *

Throughout the film, you’re often referred to as quiet or introverted by others, and in interviews you’ve talked about how strange it’s been coming out from behind the camera and into the spotlight. How do you go about finding and making friends with groups of people who are so drastically different from you on the outside, and how do you build enough trust with them to answer direct and personal questions with such vulnerability? 

I was lucky enough to grow up in a really diverse community and because I began skateboarding at an early age, I was able to get outside of those defined spaces for interaction when you grow up as an adolescent — I was out on the streets. I was running into people in the neighborhood, and people came from all walks of life. And through [skating], which wasn’t that popular at the time, we were able to form a bond.

And in terms of getting at the really vulnerable, emotional spaces… to me, introverted doesn’t equate to being shy. It just means that I’m more intuitive and introspective. I do really enjoy talking to people, though. Part of the film is about what it means to have sensitivity and emotion in your life, but no outlet to utilize it or let it blossom. Exercise it in a way. That’s what I felt like I experienced in my everyday life.

So whenever I had a chance to try to have conversations that made me feel emotionally engaged, it was nice. So over the years, I’ve just found ways to get people into those spaces, and to feel safe talking about things with me. 

You asked some pretty hard-hitting questions to your friends and your family. To Zach, a very young father, “Do you ever worry that your son is gonna grow up messed up?” And to your mother, “Do you remember the first time you were hit?” Are you ever afraid to ask these questions or worried about how they will affect your relationships? 

Yeah, definitely. I mean I didn’t plan on being in the film. I think later on, I was asking harder-hitting questions because I had decided to be in it, in response to this really difficult private revelation when Nina revealed that Zach was being abusive with her. I think I was most worried about whether this was a film I could even keep doing. Like, how could I ethically move forward?

Eventually the solution ended up being to let the audience understand [my] history, background, and relationship to this community, as well as [my] connection to this situation that Nina and Zach were facing, given what was happening at home with my mom. Later when I showed them the film, they could see that, “hey, Bing went through this too, he’s not just drafting it and then blindly asking these questions.”

I was aware that the audience might feel [my] nervousness asking those questions in a way, so that was in the back of my head. It’s difficult to put yourself in your own film, because the filmmaker has all the control, but vulnerability is about lack of control. 

In a recent interview, you also talk about how you tried to blot out your Asian identity growing up to really try to assimilate, but as you’ve gotten older it’s made you wonder what you lost in the process in order to do that. You’ve said that you’ve landed on something new, and you’re not fully Asian but you’re not fully American either.

This is a sentiment shared by so many of the people we’ve interviewed, and something we discuss frequently amongst our own Slant team. Being “Asian American” is a very confusing place to be. So what does this mean to you exactly — to be Asian American? 

I think about it in terms of stories about the Asian American experience. I think the ones that work for me don’t try to carve out the Asian American experience in a vacuum. It can only exist in relation to other cultures and other races. 

Movies like Columbus really speak to me — this is more true to my experience of being Asian American rather than someone growing up in the enclave of a Chinatown. So yeah, I think it’s become part of the building of Asian American adolescence. 

You try to blot out that part of your identity, being Asian. Then you come to realize that it doesn’t matter how much I try to blot it out, the world is still going to respond and react to me in a certain way.

Bing Liu also asked that we thank his crew and cast for all their work, dedication, and energy poured into this film. He couldn’t have done it without them.

Minding the Gap is now streaming on Hulu. You can also catch the film live on its world tour — if you’re lucky, you might even catch Liu in-person. On Monday, January 21st, he will be celebrating the anniversary of his Sundance debut at a special screening in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre. Tickets are now available.

Read the full interview

This weekend ... 📅

  • GET A SELF-GUIDED MASTERS. After working as a data scientist for a few years, Slant reader Carl Shan turned down a scholarship to go to grad school at CMU. Instead, Shan created what he and his friends call the Self-Guided Education Masters (SGEM): a journey away from formal education, though supplemented with a list of books, capstone projects and other topics. For Shan and his fellow SGEM students, SGEM was a path toward authenticity in education: learning to learn, not just for the credential. You can find out more on Shan’s website and his personal reflection blog post.

  • RAISE YOUR EYEBROWS SO HIGH THEY FLY OFF YOUR FACE. US Representative Ed Case from Hawai’i called himself an “Asian trapped in a white body” earlier this week, and, well, we won’t say much more than this, mostly because we need to go find our eyebrows. You can read the story here.

  • GIVE RESTAURANT MUSIC SOME THOUGHT. I don’t think I’ve ever paid that much attention to background music, but Ryuichi Sakamoto of Yellow Magic Orchestra sure does. That’s why Sakamoto told a restaurant he juuuust didn’t like their music … and proceeded to create a playlist that reflected its food and ambience just a little better. Hey, if Ryuichi Sakamoto told me my playlist was bad, I’d want him to change it, too.

  • READ VIET THANH NGUYEN’S LATEST. I’m a simple man: I see Viet Thanh Nguyen, I click it and read it. Then I read it again and again and again. With a title like “Why We Struggle to Say ‘I Love You,’” Nguyen’s most recent piece begs careful reading, with breaks for silent, lip-biting contemplation. Take a sip of coffee, breathe in, and read.

This week’s stories were curated by Andrew Hsieh, editor-in-chief. Got a tip, or just want to share? E-mail us at news@slant.email.

The Slant is brought to you by:

Brian Hsieh, Marina Cheung, Billy Huang, Kevin Lin, Paulina Dao, Delwin Lau, AJ Grey, Michelle Pal, Mandy Diec, Carl Shan, Lloyd Lee, Patrick Trinh, Emily Chi, Naomi Iwata, Kyla Hsia, Gloria Lin, Matt Young, Cat Xia, Crystal Shei, Sooyun Choi, Yi Cao, Meher Kohli, Ryan Ikeda, Jerome Finuliar, Abby Wang, Curtis Leung, Tracey Mantilla, Mika Kennedy, James Boo, Chris Moe, Eve Asher, Alexander Quion, Diane Lee, Angela Yang, Katherine Chin, Paul Kerr, Talisa Chang, Claire Tran, Sara Mitchell, and Jeffrey Wang, who are diamonddssssss innnn the rouuuuuugh.

Join them in supporting The Slant on Patreon.

“Painting is not a result, but a way of thinking. Making art is not about saying something. If people felt that museums were places that were always teaching you, very few people would visit them.”

— N.S. Harsha, artist, "The Universe on a Canvas"

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