May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A rather broad term, Asian/Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands. This month, AMERICA REFRAMED is pleased to offer our UNFILTERED readers insightful essays by our featured filmmakers that explore identity and beyond, all marked with revelatory observations.
In his UNFILTERED blog entry below, Good Luck Soup filmmaker Matthew Hashiguchi recalls having wrestled with his feelings of being Asian and different when he was growing up. Now, as he shares his film with audiences he learns that discussions about identity elicit polarizing reactions.
The lens through which America sees has refocused its attention towards the topic of race and those who have been impacted by the color of their skin have embraced these opportunities for racial discussion. In my documentary, Good Luck Soup, I sought to discuss race because Asian heritage has been a relentless factor in the lives of my family members and me. In 1942, my grandmother, who was born in California, was sent to an internment camp because she was Japanese American. In the 60s and 70s, my father, aunt and uncle were called “chink” and “jap” while growing up in inner city Cleveland, Ohio. And, in the 90s, my siblings and I experienced the same ridicule while growing up in white suburbs of the same city.
Matthew (left) and his siblings, Ellen and Luke, grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Don Hashiguchi.
In making this film, I wanted to understand how my family reacted to the experience of being Asian American in a part of America where there were few Asians. Did they resent their Asian identity and heritage? Did they try to be something else or assimilate into other races or cultures? These were the questions that I wanted to ask, because that’s how I responded to the obstacles that I faced because of my heritage. I tried to be something other than what I was, and being half-white and half-Asian, I had the ability to assimilate.
Matthew Hashiguchi films while at a family event in California. Credit: Gene Hashiguchi.
For Asian Americans, discussing and understanding race is difficult. In the United States, racial dialogue is often limited to black and white perspectives, leaving very little room for Asians (or any other race) in the conversation. As a result, the perception of Asian America is often misunderstood or undefined, not only by mainstream America, but the Asian American population as well. With so few opportunities to discuss race, Asian Americans haven’t been able to form or understand the experiences, issues and definitions of their own community, to the degree that many other communities have.
Being intimate with the subject matter and telling a story about my family created a self-consciousness in my approach as a filmmaker. My background is in journalism, and even though I don’t work for news organizations, my early years as a photojournalist still guide my ethics and decisions as a storyteller. And, knowing the polarization of race, I wanted to avoid racial conversations that were one sided and pushed the same racial view. So, while filming, I was constantly aware of my role within the story and ability to shape any conversations or messages on race. Rather than telling, I wanted to listen.
By listening, I had hoped my film would avoid what so many conversations on race degrade into: a lecture. This wasn’t a diatribe on the victimization of Asian Americans from the white majority. My goal was not to reaffirm anyone’s beliefs on race, or to change minds. It was a journey to understand the Asian American experience in white America. It was an attempt to understand how people like my grandmother, who did experience tragedy and persecution because of race, were able to overcome those obstacles and persevere. It was about listening.
For a family who’s been on the receiving end of American racial slurs and stereotypes for nearly a century, our approach towards discussing race is likely strange. We laugh at racial comments and stereotypes, and quite a bit. Not because we think minorities are weird or funny, but because racial stereotypes, and racism in general, is ridiculous. Somewhere along the line, someone in my family, most likely my grandmother, decided it was not worth her time or energy to find anger in the ignorant actions of others. To cope and overcome hard times or offensive actions, we use laughter, rather than anger.
Eva Hashiguchi celebrates her 88th birthday with her grandchildren. Credit: Matthew Hashiguchi.
In Good Luck Soup, there are a few racially insensitive comments made, but it’s important that the context is understood. We repeat and discuss these things because that’s how people have talked, and continue to talk, to us. And, we discuss them not to perpetuate the belief, but to point them out as absurd. This certainly does not mean all racial humor is funny or permissible, because there are many instances in which I’ve been enraged by racial comments. In these instances, it’s not ignorant words that I’ve found offensive, but rather the ignorance of people. There’s a difference between racial comments and jokes that bring attention to the absurdity of racism, and ones that perpetuate it. In my family, you can say whatever you want about race, so long as one acknowledges its’ horrible, ignorant and naïve nature. Context is important, listen for it.
The responses that I’ve received to the film have been different, depending on the person’s race. Reactions from white people have ranged from disbelief at the Asian American experience, to accusations that I’m making Asians out to be victims. From Asian Americans, I’ve received reactions of understanding, to frustration that I’m not addressing white privilege or the oppression of Asian Americans enough. While I’m glad to hear responses, good and bad, I can’t help but feel that many people are looking for my film to reaffirm their worldview, and are disappointed when it doesn’t. That’s not my goal. Filmmaking and storytelling, at the very least, can allow us to experience the world through the eyes of others, and at the very best, can bring us together. For me, making this film was a way to better understand myself through the stories, perspectives and experiences of my family. And, even though my views are different from those of my family members, listening to them allowed me to understand and grow closer to them.
The Hashiguchi family celebrates Eva Hashiguchi’s 90th birthday. Credit: Matthew Hashiguchi.
With the proliferation of social media, filmmaking and online streaming, you’d think society would be better equipped to understand and communicate with one another. Unfortunately, technology hasn’t made us better listeners, rather, we’re just louder talkers and tend to subscribe to those whose opinions support our own. Being someone who can be considered multiracial, multicultural, a minority, white, Asian, Catholic and a northerner, I can tell you with all certainty that there is not one world order or single way to define society. So, whether you’re white, black, a democrat or republican, I urge you to stop talking and listen. You’d be amazed at what you can learn.
Hear more about Matthew’s journey in this special radio interview on NPR’s On Second Thought from Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Good Luck Soup by Matthew Hashiguchi will have its U.S. television premiere Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 8 p.m. on WORLD Channel (check local listings), as part of the award-winning documentary series AMERICA REFRAMED. The film will be available and free to view online for audiences across the U.S. at www.americareframed.org from May 10 to August 7.