Recently and on their own initiative, my 11-year old child became interested in Greek mythology. As a single co-parent father continually desperate for reasons to relate to and bond with my child, this delighted me, because by coincidence I became infatuated with Greek myths when I was young. As a broke Vietnamese refugee nerd kid, I’d go to the Franklin library and read up about the messed up Gods, the flawed heroes, the fantastic creatures.
By the time the Power Rangers craze first swept through in the early ’90s, I was just starting college, paying $290 a month in rent for a studio apartment in the Whittier neighborhood of South Minneapolis with a bed that pulled down from a wall, going to see Hong Kong flicks like Swordsman II and The Bride with White Hair Fridays at midnight, organized by Asia Media Access. I was still into nerd shit, but honestly the Power Rangers seemed, to me, corny and commercial. I thought it was funny that the Black Ranger was Black, the Yellow was a Vietnamese woman, and the Pink Ranger was a white woman.
My love of all things nerd grew in Phillips: Minnesota’s largest, poorest, and most racially diverse neighborhood, not all that far from my college apartment. As refugees from war with not a lot of money to spare, I learned to walk to the Franklin Avenue library where reading and checking out books was free. Comic books were less than a dollar, and watching television shows like Robotech and Dungeons and Dragons just meant having the discipline to wake up in time. I had friends of all colors and genders and backgrounds, and bullies of all colors and backgrounds. Things were difficult for us since my family were among that first wave of refugees that became the first large visible concentration of Asian American people in Minnesota. But there was also joy, and love, and friendship to go along with all the pain and conflict.
At a time of great unease and injustice, those of us who are parents of children have a challenge ahead of us. Most of our kids will be exposed to the happenings of the world, and well they should. At the same time, what books can we read to them that will help them understand, and provide tools they will need to survive, thrive, and engage? We reached out to several Minnesota writers with children to compile this list of suggestions. This is by no means definitive, nor complete.
This list was compiled by Kurtis Scaletta, Shannon Gibney, Lana Barkawi, Kathryn Savage, Molly Beth Griffin, Sarah Park Dahlen, Bao Phi, and Lorena Duarte Armstrong.
This essay contains spoilers for both the television series and the comic book.
I don’t have cable. So I usually have to wait until the day after to watch The Walking Dead. As luck would have it, I’m in a cheap hotel with complementary AMC with my daughter when the episode “Thank You” airs. Six years old, my daughter is in the bath and complains about the sound from my television show — the two things that she fears the most, while awake and in her nightmares, are racists and zombies. Our compromise is that I turn the sound down and the captions on. And then I watch one of my favorite characters in pop culture get deluged in zombie claws, teeth, blood and guts.
Years ago, before the TV show existed, a fellow Asian American comic nerd suggested I check out this series called The Walking Dead. I read through the first trade paperbacks and have kept reading, (admittedly begrudgingly the last couple of years) ever since. I was impressed that there was an Asian American male character, Glenn Rhee, a pizza delivery driver and weed dealer who seemed like a good hearted, normal kid.
When the show rolled around, I wasn’t feeling it at first, but I did like the actor they selected for Glenn, Steve Yeun. Of course, anyone paying attention to the show knows by now that Glenn is a fan favorite regardless of race and that the actor, Steve Yeun, is considered a hottie. Those of us Asian Americans on pop culture watch, of course, also appreciate the added layers: Asian American men are seldom portrayed as likeable, desirable guys in Western pop culture.
One of the most serious jobs I have as a father is to get my daughter hooked on books. When I was a little boy, my father taught me how to walk to the Franklin Avenue library and back to our house, which cut down on my begging for toys and the Atari 2600 while keeping me out of gangs and other trouble in our neighborhood. It was in books that I learned that other worlds existed, and indulged (perhaps too much) in fantasizing I was someone else, somewhere else. In my dreams, I often imagined myself as white because all the characters in the books, the myths, the comic books I liked so much were almost always white. They were so unlike myself and my family: poor, alien, shouted at in the streets as Americans of all colors blamed us for the sorrow and hurt of the Vietnam War. So in my dreams I made myself white, too. Handsome, brave, heroic, perfect. Call it a nerd refugee survival mechanism.
I was born in Vietnam shortly before the tanks rolled into Saigon and my family was forced to flee. Raised in South Minneapolis’ largest, poorest, and most racially diverse neighborhood, my father taught me to walk to the library and got me hooked on free books. Later, I would learn to run there, mostly to avoid the myriad groups of bullies wanting to beat me for whatever reason they could conjure that day, and I would read books and comics to take me far away from who I was and where I was. It is safe to say that the majority of my boyhood was spent imagining that I was anything but who I was.
Many of us nerds were bullied as kids, and subsequently we dreamed not of a world without violence, but some sort of payback. Slicing up our tormentors with lightsabers or adamantium claws. Slow motion punching the jock bully in the jaw, hopefully while beautiful women were watching. As we grew older, some of us questioned this desire for retribution, our conditioned response (particularly in straight males) to strike back. But what do we do with these contradictory feelings, our questioning of violence as power against our catharsis when we see the bad guy get his comeuppance?
The Japanese cult classic film Battle Royale looms large in the minds of pop culture nerds ambivalent over our negative reaction to violence and our desire to see stylized versions of it. Battle Royale is almost meta in its questioning of this contradiction: a future Japan is made safe by telecasting, once a year, a brutal contest wherein a random class of young people is set in a trapped zone with weapons, and only one person is allowed to leave alive.
I’m out of town, and there’s a movie theater a block from my hotel. As a father, I don’t get to the moviehouse often unless it’s a kid’s movie. So over the weekend, I figured I’d treat myself to a movie. What’s the worst that can happen? The answer to that question: the theater is only showing Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Around 1987 or ’88, I was in junior high and in a funny stasis where my nerd creativity was beginning to grow out of my bookishness (I routinely wrote awful Dungeons and Dragons-type short stories) but before I collided head first into confronting issues like race, violence, and poverty that was all around my world and in my school (I had no idea that my misplacements in advanced math and ESL had to do with my race). Add this to adolescent hormones and — well, to keep it short, it was rough on many different levels.
I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember. From my dad giving me four quarters — and no more than that — to spend at a video game arcade, to sleepovers at friends to play Atari 2600, to playing text-based adventure games on the Apple IIe, to helping my friend defeat shadow Link, to Doom to Half Life 2 to Knights of the Old Republic to Plants vs. Zombies to the Last of Us… OK, you get the idea. And for most of my early years, I had no problem that, in roughly 99% of the games I played, the protagonist was either a white male or a white elf or a white looking quasi-human.
It didn’t matter to me because it was drilled into my head that being white was the norm. Which is a bit weird because the neighborhood I grew up in was predominantly working class and poor people of color and American Indian. It wasn’t like I was trying to be like everyone around me (that came later), it was like being white was an escape. Escape from where I was, escape from people of all colors blaming families like mine for the Vietnam war, escape from a rainbow of bullies chasing me and calling me chink. And video games are in many ways the ultimate escape. Even more than films or books, you can get lost in lovingly rendered worlds and realities. You can effect a positive outcome and become a great hero or villain if you work hard and you don’t quit. But you better be OK with playing a white man, because you often won’t have a choice.
Many years ago, I watched a bonus feature on a Matrix DVD in which Keanu Reeves seemed to have a bromance with a stuntman and martial arts trainer named Tiger Chen. Slim, petite, and diminutive looking, it was obvious the guy had serious skills. But seeing him next to Reeves, a mixed race, tall and lanky Western movie star, it became apparent that, at least in the West, he’d never be a leading man type. Hollywood likes to train stars and actors in martial arts, not give opportunities to martial artists and stuntmen that don’t fit the Western standard of attractive leading man. Trained martial artists and stuntmen in Hollywood movies, especially the Asian ones, usually get the thankless job of making the lead white actor look really good by acrobatically acting like they’re getting their asses kicked. Tiger looked like the dude who’d be destined to be “Triad Hitman #2” at best. He was, in fact, one of the “vampire” baddies in The Matrix Reloaded.
Fast forward almost a decade, and I see on Facebook that my fellow Nerd of Color Keith posted a trailer for a Keanu Reeves directed(!) martial arts film showcasing his homie Tiger. Yes, directed. And he also stars in the film as the lead antagonist, Donaka Mark. These facts alone will probably scare off the majority of people from seeing the film. Which is too bad, because I finally got to see it this weekend, and there is some enjoyment to be had here.
Needing quarters to take the bus to work, my dad would take me along with him to Thompson’s Arcade to use the change machine. Located on Minnehaha and Lake, it was a dim, small, rectangular room owned by Christians. My dad would slide his dollar bills into the change machine, collect the majority of coins for his bus rides, then hand me two to four quarters to spend on games. Once in a while, some stranger would ask me my ethnicity, then hand me an educational comic in the Vietnamese language about Jesus and sins and what have you. I would politely accept the pamphlet, then go back to shooting demons or jumping over throwing stars.
Fast forward maybe three decades, and we’re here at my grumpy Vietnamese guy’s favorite video games of 2013. This is of course highly subjective, so please — don’t give me any “why isn’t Bioshock Infinite on your list?” (For the record, I played it, and I didn’t like it all that much). I’m a father with a full time job and an arts career to manage, so my play time is sporadic and short. I don’t play online multiplayer at all. My main rubrics were: how many times did I play through? How immersed was I in the game world? How much fun did I have? How did I feel about the characters? How is the overall design of the game and the experience?
And I’m not justifying problematic elements found in these games — I play to get immersed in different worlds, and I usually play one game at a time obsessively until I get bored or frustrated — which means playing games tend to be long slogs for me. I don’t remember 100% everything that happened in each one. And there are slight spoilers found herein.
Many years ago, I was part of a loose band of ne’er-do-wells from Minnesota. We all were women, men, Queer people of color and Native people who are/were nerds. We dubbed ourselves Nerds of Color, or NOCs. I vaguely recall a conversation back then, I don’t even remember with who. It was about how non-white characters always die first in American films. And I remember watching this shitty film called Deep Blue Sea starring LL Cool J, and thinking to myself: whoever made this film is playing with the idea that the Black guy is going to die first.
I originally wrote this as a guest post for Angry Asian Man back in 2010. I rewrote it recently for Nerds of Color with some updates. I still have chosen to write more about The Walking Dead comic than the television series, primarily to avoid confusion.
Miss Saigon is a blockbuster musical in which a virginal underage prostitute falls in love with a white G.I., then shoots herself in the stomach so she can sing one last song with him with the hope that the white man will take their biracial child away from all the evil Vietnamese people to a better life in America. Jeff Yang challenged me to write a Zombie imagining of the characters 20 years after the end of the musical, wherein the Vietnamese woman, Kim, comes back as a zombie — and this short story is what I came up with.
Thanks Keith for creating this site and inviting me! I revised my 2010 Origin Story for 2013. Check it out:
I’ve told this story a million times: when I was young, my father kept me off the streets and saved much needed money buying me the toys I wanted by getting me a library card and teaching me to walk to the Franklin Avenue library, and there began my love of books and stories.
What I’ve written less about is the books I gravitated towards: books about mythological monsters, Greek gods and heroes, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Lord of the Rings, my older sister’s Elfquest collection and X-Men comic books. And the secret of many a nerd of color from the ‘hood: my lifelong devotion with role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, and Vampire: the Masquerade.