When Curtis Chin (founder of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop) asked me to submit something to an anthology he was putting together about Asian American activism in the 90s, I was very flattered. It had been a while since I’ve attempted to write anything “creatively”. I joke now that the goal was to “sell the film rights, live high on the hog, and go out in a blaze of glory” but back then I was so drunk on my own relevance that I really believed that if I pushed hard enough the doors would open up for me. Now I know that some doors are like Chinese finger traps. Some doors will never open no matter how hard you keep leaning into them. Some doors require finesse. You have to rock them, ease them back and forth until they give. And some other doors you pull instead of push.
If you would have told me all those years ago that I’d be working on Wall Street and living in Manhattan with my wife and kids, I probably would have ignored you and kept on drinking because that’s what I did back then when I didn’t want to deal. But the 90s ended with my own version of the Crossroads Blues. The way I saw it (the way I still see it), I had to chose between two devils and both required sacrifices.
The essay that was published in Local/Express wasn’t the original piece of I submitted. Curtis and I worked on it over the course of weeks. It felt good to be “workshopping” again. I realized only after I finished reading Local/Express that that was what I cherished most about my connections to the Asian American community in the 90s. It wasn’t the activism or the art but the conversations that made the 90s an exciting period in Asian American history. I miss the “workshopping.”
I remember conversations I’ve had with members of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop and others about how we self-identify — Where do we draw the line between individual expression and voicing the opinion of a community? Were we writers first and Asian Americans second? Or vice versa? I remember listening to Curtis agonize over where the apostrophe in “Writers” went. Was it before the “s”, meaning the Workshop would be a personal experience for all Asian American-identifying writers or would it be after the “s” to mean that the Workshop would be a place for all writers who identified as Asian American? Even the term “Asian American” was questionable! Did it mean those who identified culturally with bother Asia and America? Was restricted to those who were ethnically Asian growing up in the US? If a white man grows up in Malaysia and comes to America, would he be Asian American less so than someone like me who is ethnically Asian but grew up here in the US (so culturally American)?
It’s important to remember that we discussed, we argued, and we held our ground against each other in the 90s, but I’d like to believe that despite this we also knew we would see each other at the same events in support of the same broader Asian American causes. I’m glad Jeff Yang mentions the tension between the “generation we modeled ourselves after” and us, “the upstarts in their midst” in his introduction to this anthology. In response to a question posed by Anantha Sudhakar in her piece, “Crafting Community: South Asian American Arts and Activism in 1990s New York City,” DJ Rekha (Malhotra) also points out that “there were tensions aplenty in these community spaces.”
Local/Express provides the reader with a glimpse of Asian American activism in the 90s through personal reflections and creative works from the artists and writers who where there. I consider myself very fortunate to have met many of them at that time and even more fortunate that I am still in touch with many of them. Local/Express is a sentimental journey for me. Beyond its value as a collection of personal narratives documenting Asian American activism in the 90s, it is a memento from a more naive time in my life when I thought we really could cure the ills of the world through love, art, and poetry.