Our Story Is the American Story: A Conversation with Renee Tajima-Peña and Geeta Gandbhir




ON THE NIGHT the PBS documentary Asian Americans was released, I watched the entire five-hour series in one sitting. Never mind the fact that my AP European History exam was early the following morning. I couldn’t pull myself away from the documentary. It was the first time I had heard my community’s story broadcast in such a public and nuanced way. 

Although both my parents came to the United States in the late 20th century, I had never before connected the dots between their immigration story and the role they played, as Asian immigrant tech workers, in aiding the United States’s perpetuation of the “model minority myth.” Before that night, I had only seen Asian American history as collateral, resulting from the intersection between two drastically different cultures. Asian Americans’s careful narration and attention to historical detail proved that, from Asian immigration bans to the conception of the “model minority myth,” Asian American history has always been far too complex to be dismissed as tertiary. Rather, it should be viewed as something multifaceted and interwoven, deserving of attention in its own right. 

I’m not the only one who feels this way about Asian Americans. In the wake of the documentary’s release this past May, many people took to the internet to praise its scope and impact. Noting the unsettling convergence of Asian Pacific American History Month and the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, Japanese American actress Tamlyn Tomita said on Twitter that the show “could not be more timely.”

It’s clear that Asian Americans is unprecedented in its detailed narration of Asian American history. Instead of adopting a standard documentary style, the series spins any notion of traditional structure on its head, opting to focus on firsthand interviews and personal experiences. Asian Americans’s emphasis on personal stories creates a warm and familiar setting — I felt like I was sitting right next to the interviewee, listening to family history, as opposed to watching along as a mere observer.

A main contributing factor to this brilliant storytelling is the fact that the show’s executive filmmaking team was largely made up of Asian American womxn — a kind of representation rarely seen in a world dominated by aspiring Ken Burns types. I had the honor of talking to series producer Renee Tajima-Peña and producer Geeta Gandbhir, two prominent members of the Asian Americans executive filmmaking team, about the project in mid-May. Tajima-Peña is an Academy Award nominee for her documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987), which explores the murder of a Chinese American man who was killed by two auto workers who believed him to be Japanese. Gandbhir, a two-time Emmy Award winner, is also the producer of the award-winning feature-length documentary Budrus (2010), which follows the journey of a Palestinian man who peacefully unites Fatah, Hamas, and Israelis to save his community.

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ANOUK YEH: Historically, whether because of the educational system or the media, people tend to learn about American history and Asian history as two non-intersecting entities. There has never been a project like Asian Americans that speaks specifically to the history of this intersection. Why is that?

RENEE TAJIMA-PEÑA: We haven’t been a part of the larger American story. Toni Morrison said that a master narrative has been written and we didn’t write it. So I think that’s a big reason. This is the first time Asian Americans have been able to tell our own story in this kind of depth and breadth. We know that our story is the American story. It’s not a story apart.

On that note, I think it’s really interesting how the team was composed mostly of Asian American women. How did the demographics of the lead team affect the process and the outcome of the documentary?

GEETA GANDBHIR: I think it was critical to the production process. Documentaries are a traditionally colonial enterprise. They stem from people, usually Caucasians, going into a community of less privileged people and making a film about them. If you do not have a team where key positions are composed of people from within that community, traditionally you end up looking at the community through the lens of a white gaze. You need people on the team who are of the community, who can speak to the integrity of what you’re doing and be sort of a check and balance for you.

For anything that I work on, if it is about a community that is not my own, it is critical to me that I have an equal partner in the community. So, if I’m the director or the producer, there has to be a producer or co-director who is from the community so that I’m held accountable.

As part of the production team of the first large project fighting to shed light on the long-buried truths of Asian American history, was there a lot of pressure associated with having to pick which stories made it into the five-hour runtime and which stories didn’t? Are there any stories that were left out that you wish had made it in?

RTP: We knew we wanted to show the whole diversity of Asian Americans, including Filipinos, South Asians, and Southeast Asians. A lot of our audience are Asian American, but also non-Asians, and we thought that people would be drawn in by personal stories.

In terms of leaving things out, there were so many — I mean, we wanted to do six parts, six hours, and the sixth hour would have been more recent stories about the Asian American community. So, we were disappointed that we weren’t able to do that. As part of the series, we’ve been mentoring emerging young Asian American filmmakers. Hopefully they’ll take up the stories and tell those stories themselves.

GG: The feedback we had been given, and we all internally complained a lot about the same thing too, is that there should have been a sixth hour. This show ends around post-9/11, and it’s been almost 20 years since 9/11. You’ve missed a whole generation growing up.

I think that was the biggest challenge: how do you fit all of this? Even within the stories themselves, there are threads that we couldn’t put into the actual episodes. For example, we had an amazing segment with a young woman named Annie Tan, who is Vincent Chin’s cousin, an activist, and a teacher, and she has been carrying the torch around her cousin’s death. That was a really powerful story. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to put it in. We’ve made the story an extra that’s now streaming on the PBS website for Asian Americans. On there, there are many of these beautiful little extras that tell their own story — but I wish we had another hour.

A common thread in the documentary was the festering anti-Blackness within the Asian American community. Throughout the documentary, it’s really interesting to watch that mindset unfold into something as devastating as the Los Angeles Koreatown riots. Is this mindset still prevalent today? 

RTP: Asian Americans have always been used as a wedge. In the early period, this racial hierarchy was set up with whites at the top, blacks at the bottom, and Asians and Latinos occupying this kind of in-between space. We were and still are today used as this kind of model minority myth — if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be quiet and don’t complain, you can make it in America. In turn, a lot of Asian Americans have internalized that idea of anti-Blackness.

However, on the other hand, there have also been years and years of solidarity. Frederick Douglass, in the 1800s, denounced the Chinese Exclusion Act as a racist immigration law. In the Vincent Chin case, there’s a clip of Jesse Jackson and The Rainbow Coalition, which was to create this diverse political force composed of black, brown, Asian, indigenous, and LGBT peoples, and they were all big supporters of the Justice for Vincent Chin campaign. Those points of solidarity have been hidden and have not been written into the mainstream narrative, but we’re trying to change that.

GG: I think compared to instances like the L.A. Koreatown incident in ’92, there is more hope. There’s definitely a lot of madness happening in today’s world, but I do feel like the advent of the internet has really changed things. There was a time when if you were an Asian person who had immigrated here recently, the only thing that you would see on television would be incredibly racist depictions of African American or Latinx communities, so I think a lot of people’s perceptions were from the media and from white dominant culture and the way the white dominant culture reacted.

I do think, interestingly, that that has changed a bit. When I visit overseas, I notice that popular culture has helped shift that narrative. People now in India and other parts of Asia are watching shows online that speak to the experiences of communities here in a way that is not necessarily as dehumanizing as they were in the ’90s.

Connecting that to the current state that we’re in, what parallels do you see between the events covered in the documentary and the situation that the Asian American community is currently facing?

RTP: Well, I’ll talk about two parallel threads: one good, one bad. The bad thread is that if you look through the fault lines of American history, you’ll see that in times of crisis, we pay a price. In World War II, my family paid the price. They were good American citizens. They went to school, worked, paid taxes, and pledged allegiance every day, but still ended up behind barbed wire for three years.

After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, South Asian Americans and Muslim Asian Americans paid the price. In the documentary, comedian Hari Kondabolu said that as a South Asian, he felt like he was getting it from both sides after 9/11. On one hand, like anyone else he was afraid of terrorism, but on the other hand, he felt like this country hated him. I think that’s how Asian Americans feel today. We’re afraid of the coronavirus, but on the other hand we feel like we’re seen as a virus.

The other thread is that Asian Americans have always spoken out and stood up. In the late 1800s, in the middle of the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was a very young Chinese American named Wong Kim Ark. He was born here and took a visit to China and when he was trying to come back home to the United States, he was barred from reentry because he was Chinese. He didn’t take it sitting down. He went all the way to the US Supreme Court to challenge his denial of reentry. And because of that, he set one of the most important precedents in US constitutional history for birthright citizenship.

GG: A common theme has been this mentality. Not only is this mentality dehumanizing to us as individuals and communities, but it also leads to legislation. Look at the Muslim Ban. Look at the situation we’re in now. It sort of comes from leadership pointing the finger and stoking up hateful rhetoric against China. This is very reminiscent of what happened to Vincent Chin — but history is the precursor for all of it. What’s happening now is not new. It’s the American way to scapegoat and malign certain communities for some event that happens in society.

Finally, what message do you hope that this documentary brings to viewers within and outside of the Asian American community?

GG: The most important thing is that Asian American history is American history. We have been here since the 1800s, and we are not going anywhere. We want to dismantle the perpetual foreigner myth that exists.

I keep quoting a young woman who I interviewed about this topic. She said that her family has been in the United States since the 1800s, but because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, people look at her and see the face of a foreigner.

But look at other immigrant groups such as Irish Americans and Italian Americans. When they came to this country, they were also terribly mistreated and marginalized — but because of white privilege, they were able to assimilate into society in a way that Asian Americans are not. We are the perpetual foreigner, the perpetual other, and that is something that we absolutely have to dismantle.

RTP: One important thing is that it’s not about how Asians became Americans, it’s how Asians have really helped shape America. Another thing about the stories of all these people who were history makers was that they were really young when they left their mark. That’s where the energy is. That’s where the clarity is. It’s in young people. And, in every single era over the 150 years we’ve looked at, that’s where the power has been. That’s another thing I hope the audience takes back — that you’re never too young to start shaking history.

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Anouk Yeh is a 16-year-old writer and organizer from the Bay Area, California, and serves as a delegate for the International Congress of Youth Voices.

 

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