MOSF 17.8: From Bad Axe to Chinatown to Hong Kong, Let Freedom Ring!

Memoirs of a Superfan, Vol. 17.8: From Bad Axe to Chinatown to Hong Kong, Let Freedom Ring!

By Ravi Chandra
May 16. 2022

Three films at CAAMFest this weekend brought home the central conflict of our times: social dominance orientation vs. what I call relational-cultural-contextual orientation. The latter is central to Asian and Asian American psychology, as well as other non-individualistic Black and Brown societies, feminine consciousness, and on a deeper level, our common humanity and compassion itself. To my knowledge, our times have not been analyzed this way, particularly in the Asian American community, and this might represent a potential paradigm shift that could fuel growth and change on our journeys of identity, belonging, wellness and meaning. In the end, we do have to fight for and affirm our human dignity, as well as affirm the human dignity of others.

Jaclyn Siev, in a scene from “Bad Axe” by David Siev

David Siev’s outstanding documentary Bad Axe (receiving a well-deserved “Honorable Mention” in this year’s CAAMFest jury competition) is an intense American family drama set against the backdrop of the small, predominantly White and conservative town of Bad Axe, Michigan during the turbulent last few years of COVID, BLM protests, and the 2020 elections.

The Siev family has to survive and run their restaurant in the roil of the twin pandemics of racism and COVID-19. The film pushed all my buttons. I had intense thoughts of wanting to be there to help them and their community, alongside rage against the aggression they faced, and also thoughts of “I’m sure glad I don’t live there.” But I kinda do. We kinda all do.

Be sure to watch it when it comes out, and let it push all your buttons too. To treat our trauma we must go through cycles of repeating, remembering and working through to come to new levels of wholeness and depth. Through this process we can transform racial and other trauma, instead of simply transmitting them or becoming mired in the suffering they produce.

The only slightly dissatisfying note for me in the film was the lack of psychological and historical insight offered in this manifestation of the seemingly intractable challenge of racism. For this, we have to complete the movie in our minds and lives. The Siev family works through their traumatic experience, but there is still the looming trauma of American racism and disconnection outside their doors, unresolved, menacing, and frequently cataclysmic.

There are casualties.

The same day I saw the film, 13 people were shot (11 of them Black, 10 of them murdered), in Buffalo, New York by an 18-year old White male in a live-streamed shooting rampage apparently modeled on the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand in 2019. His purported manifesto was described as being copy-pasted from the Christchurch murderer’s manifesto, which were likely copy-pasted from some stark, raving, insane foxhole-turned-black-hole of an internet gone mad and thoroughly disconnected from reality, yet capable of placing hands on the wheel of reality’s ship. Men who have no idea how to deal with the distresses and challenges of the modern day turn to hero/warrior myths and addictive, dumb and destructive junk food creeds penned by the hand of hate. They say they fear elimination, but what they really fear is not being centered in the emergent global culture of belonging.

There are historical, cultural and political forces at play in Bad Axe, but it’s clear that Donald Trump channeled and inflamed a dangerous aspect of the White American psyche that continues to rage. The infantile refusal to follow expert advice about masking, coupled with the hypermasculine Hyper-Whiteness in denying the rights and realities of Black Americans and anyone who supports them shares a salient though bastardized through line with America’s founding principles.

Chun Siev, in a scene from “Bad Axe” by David Siev

America was founded in the spirit of overturning colonialism and monarchy on these shores, and establishing a previously unrealized ideal of equality, liberty and independence. However, it also fell into the trap of “social dominance orientation.” Wealthy landowning White males were placed at the top of the hierarchy – because the ancestry of this particular group of Whites had been on the outs in the British Isles, and needed to establish hegemony in the new world. They were not about to be threatened again by the discrimination they and their forebears had felt. So they set out to dominate, kill and enslave others for their own profit and misbegotten “safety.”

So this idea that White males should embody total unruly and unruled independence and that their “rights” and identities should be revered above all others is an implied “social dominance contract” of our American founding. When demographic and economic change threatens the perceived status of Whites, many don’t have the relationships, skills, mindset or values to adapt and adjust. They simply become entrenched. They turn their rabbit holes into fox holes.

To offset this social dominance orientation we need to strengthen relational-cultural-contextual orientation. In other words, we need to strengthen our relationships.

The rabbit has to be grounded. Life is not lived in a cave, and reality is not found in the shadows thrown by the cave fires of isolated men or factions of men.

The Siev’s demonstrate the profound resilience that comes from relationship to family and the values of reason, justice, and compassion. The two older women in the family, the daughter Jaclyn and mother Rachel, in particular play critical roles in both challenging injustice and also staying true to the principles of relationship. Father Chun transforms under their influence and through the strength of his own deep love for them. As a result, the whole family is able to come through the storm to a new level of solidarity, joy and love. But they go through some intense arguing and potentially dangerous predicaments. I imagine that the fact that brother David was filming everything played a role in how things developed.

All I can say is “Thank God for Good Eggs in Bad Axe!”

“Thank God for Good Eggs in Bad Axe!”

I’ll be sure to have the Siev’s Special Omelette when I visit their restaurant someday. Those good eggs can do the body of America good.

***

A historical re-enactment scene from “Blue Island” by Chan Tze-woon

Blue Island (directed by Chan Tze-woon and produced by Peter Yoon) won CAAMFest40’s Jury prize for Best Documentary. This is a story of Hong Kong and Hong Kongers, seen in historical context of their relationships with the UK, China, and each other, struggling to create an identity of their own in the shadow of aggressive and abusive power that threatens erasure. Whatever new contexts, relationships and identities emerge, there is also loss, memory, and trauma. What will become of these? Who will receive their transmission?

What does it take to be a person in this world? Sometimes I think you just have to “fuck around and find out.” Hong Kongers have been fucked around with and have themselves fucked around with colossal forces and found out that becoming a person is frequently painful and seemingly futile. I’ve heard some comment that Hong Kong has always been a lost cause, that the umbrella protesters were stupid to even try.

I mean, Goliath is a giant after all, someone must have said to David.

And anyway, in the fight for emancipation, it’s not just a matter of winning and losing – but participating. Pick your spots. Perhaps even those we now see as abusers might one day be seen as instructors in the school of the Great Liberation, or at least those who carried and transmitted trauma of their own. Director Chan said essentially that the film embodies a conversation between different perspectives on coping with hard times. “If you get them together, they would probably argue.”

Not unlike the Family Siev.

As filmmaker Valerie Soe said as she moderated the Q and A, Blue Island is “lyrical and poetic” in contrast to the highly charged emotional experiences of other recent films taking on the same subject matter. This made the film real and palpable to me, and as the director Chan said, “layered.” The layers in the film resonated with layers of human suffering, struggle, resistance, wisdom and consciousness that are with us here in San Francisco, Buffalo, India, Africa, and Ukraine, indeed, everywhere there is life. As Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Our struggles are common. We all need human dignity – a key interpretation of our own Constitution. Abusive power erodes human dignity.

As I say in therapy, “growth and change happen at the pace of relationship.” Filmmakers like Chan and Yoon and their team, like all the filmmakers and teams that make CAAMFest possible, catalyze the pace of relationship and understanding.

A big thank you from your Superfan.

***

Plague at the Golden Gate premieres May 24, 2022 on PBS’s American Experience, and will likely be streaming for some time online. The CAAMFest audience was treated to two 20-ish minute clips of the film this weekend at the Great Star theater on Jackson Street in Chinatown, a lovely establishment in a place that deserves our respect and care. The film is helmed by veteran director Li-Shin Yu (co-director along with husband Ric Burns of The Chinese Exclusion Actand more), and produced by James Q. Chan.

A still from “ThePlague at Golden Gate” by Li-Shin Yu, depicting 1900 Chinatown, San Francisco

In 1900, the microbial theory of disease was barely budding. The Surgeon General at the time wrote articles alleging the bubonic plague was caused by contaminated food and living in filth and squalor. Chinese immigrants were also regularly pathologized as inherently disease-ridden, and a scourge in and of themselves. So when bubonic plague was discovered in Chinatown, San Francisco, the fear of contamination and infection led to racist scapegoating and countermeasures such as quarantining Chinatown.

When suffering is misunderstood, when the relational-cultural context of suffering is misunderstood, identities and peoples get pathologized, and the true sources of suffering are not seen. 1900 and 2020, QED.

The film clips portrayed this story in the context of two white doctors, one of them tending to dehumanize Chinese immigrants, and one who was humanitarian and scientific, and whose work made the difference in averting worse disaster. The winning story is the one we feed.

A scene from Chinatown this past weekend. Asian Americans are a community, and we demand our own human dignity and the human dignity of others.

There are clear parallels to our current situation, and this is undoubtedly a significant film coming at an important time. However, it raised questions for me. Here’s what I asked at the Q and A:

“I love this panel but I have a question…As a psychiatrist and a writer I know that Asian Americans are contextual thinkers. That’s central to our psychology. Contextual thinking is also central, I think, to feminine consciousness, and also to a broader human consciousness and compassion. You brought so much great context in your film. But what strikes me now in this moment is that we’re at another level of breaking through of context to a deeper, more interdependent society. And part of your film is about the context of White men against the “backdrop” of Asian Americans. So it becomes a story of Whiteness, at least in these clips. I haven’t seen the whole film. So the context of Whiteness is that there’s good White people and bad White people. Maybe their [goodness lies in] humanity, finding the humanity in their Whiteness. But I wonder whether this – and I’m going to put this very starkly – the Chinese American tango with Whiteness has also shut out people who are outsiders within the Chinese American community and within the Asian American community, such that it’s harder for us, unless we really communicate, and really know who we are to ourselves, rather than who we are to White people, which is what I worry is a subtle message in your film.”

My friend, co-producer James Q. Chan had a great answer to my question, regarding the message they were conveying in the film but also recognizing that I was speaking about transmitted trauma as we have encountered racism. Racism is a distorting pressure with disabling impact on our journeys of identity, belonging and wellness, and in my experience and knowledge as a psychiatrist, racism in itself is a primary cause and aggravating factor for mental illness, substance abuse, and a whole range of socio-cultural distresses. And of course, misogyny and other abuses of power are intersectionally distorting and disabling pressures.

As an extraordinary and pervasive abuse of power, racism marginalizes, splits, oppresses and disempowers us, such that avoidance becomes our Asian American superpower. We react to such pressures by morphing, mobilizing, or muting. As much as we’ve come together during the ongoing upsurge of Anti-Asian hate, as much as we have done as a people and as a nation and world to rise from the ashes of inequity, there are many internal issues we have avoided. Our avoidance has turned on the people who make us and power-structures uncomfortable. We have even scapegoated and railroaded members of our literal and metaphoric families. But these people bear truths and pain that we must hear and bring into community and common consciousness.

Who will listen to us, when we speak, if we don’t have ears for ourselves?

I listen every day to people impacted by abusive power. And there are those who have had ears for me. But who is listening to the listeners? When will healing and not just anointing the leaders we designate as “most presentable” be our mission? Cuz I know some people who are looking for a platform, from my friends who run Healing Circles for Change to psychiatrists of color to climate-oriented psychiatrists and psychologists to others pressing for a trauma-informed society, and all those living in worlds where mental health, wellness and community overlap to envision the better world that is possible with insight, creativity, and relationship.

My frank opinion is that the leadership we currently see, as fantastic and on-point as it has been in many ways, is not as thoroughly versed in psychology as it must be, to negotiate the next stage of our communal journey. If it doesn’t get there, we won’t get there. And thems the facts, as I see them.

We cannot turn our eyes from each other. We cannot continue to believe that the blind eye of American mythos that has centered White Male Christianity can ever see our light, our relatedness, our contexts, our identities, or our beautiful soul.

I know it will never see us like I see us. It will never see me as I’ve been seen by the people who have truly loved me. This American mythos has never truly loved me, and I don’t think it’s ever truly loved us.

And you know what?

We don’t have to love our abuser.

I’m working on loving people who have fallen complicit into this mythos and delusion that has driven hatred, autocracy, and suffering for countless millions, this American mythos connected to all the destructive mythos we see at work in the world.

But is health stronger than disease? I guess we’re going to find out. I believe it is, because I’ve seen it work, in my life and the lives of countless caring people throughout the world.

Our human tango with abusive power challenges, silences and harms important, valuable parts of our own identities. I don’t consider any of this “acceptable collateral damage” in the pursuit of some greater purpose. No, these internal and interpersonal alienations cry out for belonging, purpose, vitality, and victory. They call for innovation, inner-vation (inner renovation) and social change.

If not now, when?

From MOSF 16.8, words and image by Ravi Chandra

Photo by Bob Hsiang

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist, writer and compassion educator in San Francisco, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. For fourteen years, he was lucky to have his MOSF posts published by the Center for Asian American Media, and now looks forward to broadening and building a diverse creative community and coalition through reflecting on culture and psychology for East Wind eZine. Sign up for updates here, and see all the posts here. He writes from the metaphorical intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian communities have mingled since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. He literally works there, between two Indian restaurants, go figure, though one has permanently shuttered during COVID. His debut documentary was named Best Film (Festival Director’s Award) at the 2021 Cannes Independent Film Festival. The Bandaged Place: From AIDS to COVID and Racial Justice is available on-demand, and with the discount code “Awake” you can get a 20% discount. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. You can find him on Psychology Today,  TwitterFacebook,  Instagram,  YouTube,  SoundCloud, or better yet, in the IRL.

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