Cold as Ice


While a colleague was working on my computer the other day, he shared his interest in Hip Hop culture and Rhyme. He then rapped a piece he had written:

I’ve fallen in love and I’m preparing for marriage
working a year of double time for the woman I cherish
convinced that true love is only measured in karats
by a tradition of consumerism, an addiction I inherited

study the trade, you’ll see it’s colonial heritage
and that a mining of “a diamond is forever” oppressive
linked purposefully with our celebrated weddings
so we’ll never think about the hell and death that we’re spreading

corporations know cheap diamonds come from tyrants
so they fund their armies so they can ensure that there’s violence
to keep the price down and to maximize their margins
so they can make a fortune over what they bought for a bargain

what’s even worse is that we’ve cursed these people
promoted sociopaths and rewarded what’s evil
funded warlords who torture and steal
who we support every time we drop to our knees and say,
“will you marry me?”

My friend challenges us to think – to ask why we do things and to consider what our actions could bring to bear.

The United Nations reports that $23 million in blood diamonds are being smuggled into international diamond markets. Blood diamonds have killed over 4 million people and made refugees of millions more (Amnesty International USA). The insatiable demand for the gem has been tapped into by rebel groups to fuel savage wars in West Africa. The market has also funded Al Qaeda (Washington Post, A19, July 13,2004).

Many see a diamond as a symbol of love and commitment, other times of wealth and power. How many see it as causing so much torment and death in Angola, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Liberia? How many see it as costing the lives of millions of women, men and children?

An article in Amnesty Magazine recounts the story of Jusu Lahia, a 15 year old that was wounded by an exploding rocket-propelled grenade. At that time, he was a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front; the same rebel group that terrorized tens of thousands of people by hacking off their arms, legs, lips and ears with machetes and axes. The insurgents spared thousands of other but enslaved them as prisoner-laborers to dig up gems we covet from muddy open-pit mines.

Countless suffer and die that we might sport a rock upon which our society has bestowed inordinate meaning and value.

“Will You Marry Me?” by David Tansey. “Diamond Skull” by Damien Hirst.

Homeless Asians

The other evening, a dinner conversation about race led to admission of stereotypes we held about other people. As an Asian I confessed my surprise at encountering a homeless Asian man while volunteering at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in New York . It is a notion shared by an individual who posted in Yahoo Answers:

How come we hardly see and asian or mexican homelesses? When I travel the streets or something i normally only see white and black people as homelesses But i also go around the asian community and i only saw 1 asian homeless so far and i think 2 mexican homelesses In La i saw alot of black homelesses too

The “best” answer highlighted is one I would have given myself: we take care of our own.

… I believe that homelessness is less pronounced among Asian and Hispanic communities simply because both cultures value the family very highly and when times get tough for someone, they are more likely to step up to the plate to be there for their family member and help them out. Too bad we can’t all be like that.

I would add that “face” is very important to Asians. Laurence Hsin Yang of Columbia University, explains that the Chinese and by extension, Asian, concept of face is integral to its culture. He writes that one’s moral standing and place is society is contingent upon upholding personal and communal obligations. An individual loses face by not meeting her responsibilities, in this case, taking care of indigent family members. As a community, we lose face when we allow our own to become homeless.

Yet there are homeless Asians. Isabelle Hsu reports in the Pacific News Service that in San Francisco alone there are approximately 6,000 plus people living in the streets. She quickly adds that this is a very rough estimate. Ed Jew (the only Chinese American on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s committee to end chronic homelessness) explains that the official estimate of Asian homelessness is probably low because of cultural sensitivities. It is also a matter of saving face: homeless Asians refuse to go to shelters and admit to their homelessness.

The lives of two men serve as examples. Robert Chan is a 38 year old immigrant from Vietnam who had lost his wallet and ID. Moreover, he had strained relations with his sister. Without proper identification, relations and money, he has no choice but to live in the streets. Michael Sao, a Laotian immigrant has been in the country much longer than Chan. He moved to San Francisco in the late eighties and has been working in restaurants until a back injury put him out of a job two years ago. At first he tried staying in homeless shelters, but the violence and conflict made him swear he would never go back again.

Homelessness is a problem faced by all racial groups. In its fact sheet Who is Homeless?, the National Coalition for the Homeless includes a 2004 survey of 27 cities which found that the homeless population was 49% African American, 35% Caucasian, 13% Hispanic, 2% Native American, and 1% Asian. The paper also cites studies which show that single homeless adults are more likely to be male than female. Moreover, a 2005 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that single men comprised 51% of the homeless population and single women comprised 17%.

In National Estimates of Homelessness, the Coalition estimates the homeless population to number approximately 3.5 million, with 1.35 million of them children. It also cites research which reveals that about 1% of the U.S. population experiences homelessness each year.

With the economy in a recession, these figures can only get worse.

Photo: homeless in SF by Kieran Ridge & Hiromi Oda

Where are you from?

It has been 18 years since I moved to the United States (well, New York City) and I still get asked “where are you from?” Or am assured “you have no accent!” While I’d like to say that such questions do not bother me, they do. It makes me feel as if I were still a stranger, a foreigner, as one who does not belong. It makes me feel as if I were not one of you.

It surprises me how otherwise well-educated and seemingly well-mannered individuals can lack cultural sensitivity. At a church I used to attend, a doctor exclaimed after I had read the lesson for the first time, “Your English is so good! Where did you learn to speak it so well?” He uttered the exact words the second time I read. And the third. A diplomat I know who prides himself in knowing where foreigners are from, wouldn’t think twice of telling the coat check person, “let me guess, Palestinian!”

Whatever motivates one to ask such questions, P. M. Forni in his book Choosing Civility warns:

For many nonnative speakers, their accent is a serious matter, and they don’t like being asked about it over and over again. They object to what they perceive as an unwarranted (even if unintentional) criticism of their linguistic abilities. They feel that no matter what they do to blend in, they will always be outsiders. Or whatever the reason, they prefer not to release information about their background.

Accent aside, always use restraint when it comes to satisfying your curiosity about others’ ethnic identity. People may be proud of being Hispanic, Arab, African or Native American, but may also resent off-the-cuff inquiries about “what” they are. They may think that you want to classify them rather than making the effort to deal with them as individuals (p.120-121).

I confess that I have done to others what I do not want done to me. Many years ago, in an attempt to display my knowledge that there are many Chinese languages, I asked a guest whether she spoke Cantonese or Fukienese. Rather than be rewarded for my erudition, I received a verbal slap. “I am not Chinese! I am Taiwanese! We are democratic, not communist!”

Last week, while discussing this very topic over a meal, a friend commiserated, claiming that she knows how it feels. At first I found this rather difficult to believe. While she is half Dominican and half Irish-American, she looks totally Caucasian. She agreed that no one would mistake her for anything but White. However, Latinos ask “where are you from?” whenever she speaks in Spanish. Never mind the fact that she speaks the language fluently and has spent a lot of time in Latin America.

Another friend suggests that I consider the possibility that folk who ask such questions might mean no harm and actually even think that they are being hospitable. Perhaps. Most likely so. Indeed, I can see how someone new to the United States might welcome being asked about their origins and other-ness. But for heaven’s sake, I’ve been here a while and I do speak A-merken!

Homosexual Killers

The Archbishop of Uganda’s Anglican Church recently expressed his great fear that homosexuals are out to kill him. Henry Luke Orombi was quoted as lamenting “nowadays, I don’t wear my collar when I am in countries which have supporters of homosexuals.” He explained that he is forced to “dress like a civilian because those people are dangerous … some of them are killers. They want to close the mouth of anybody who is against them.”

I think that Mr. Orombi needs a reality check to see whose mouths are actually being shut. Whose faces are battered and whose lives shattered. Orombi simply has to look within his own country.

On June 4, 2008, Amnesty International released a public statement expressing concern over the continued harassment and attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights defenders in Uganda and calling on its government to end harassment of LGBT women and men by police. The statement also recounted the latest abuse of transgender individuals.

… the two were dancing at Capital Pub in Kampala, Uganda, when they were detained by club bouncers, harassed and beaten while being asked whether they were men or women, and “accused” of being homosexuals. The club management of Capital Pub called the police, who detained both individuals for four days at Kabalagala Police station. During their detention, both were repeatedly beaten by police officers, and one was kissed, fondled and forcefully propositioned for sex by other detainees, and stripped and had their genitals groped by a police officer. One of the two was denied medical treatment for diabetes, and allowed only one meal a day. After their release on bond, both individuals were charged with public nuisance, and are currently awaiting trial.

Since their release, both individuals have faced harassment and violent attacks from individuals in their neighbourhood who were informed by police of their gender identity. These started with threats and escalated to a serious violent attack on the night of 3 June in Old Kampala, where a group of youths attacked both individuals. One of the attackers has since been arrested by police.

Another case is that of Olivia Nabulwala, a Ugandan lesbian seeking asylum in the United States. She reports that her family was so angry and ashamed they hurled insults at her, pummeled her, stripped her then held her down while a stranger raped her. In a sworn statement she says:

I hated myself from that day … I disliked my family for subjecting me to such torture, and yet they felt this was a good punishment for me.

Orombi should shut his mouth and listen to the suffering of his own people, to the suffering of his sisters and brothers in Christ, to the suffering caused by his mouth.

Role Models


During a recent interview with Isabel Betancourt, Larry King simply had to ask whether she was sexually assaulted during her captivity. To Betancourt’s credit, she chose not to respond. She chose not to. King could have chosen not to include titillating questions but he did – he also asked whether she and the other captives were chained, lived in huts, or dealt with jungle animals. He needed to know each and every horrid detail of her six years of suffering in Colombia’s jungles. I can imagine the veteran journalist (and network executives) rationalizing that we, the viewers, want to know every salacious, delicious detail of Betancourt’s time with the FARC rebels.

But did he really need to ask such questions? Though a lot of folk may indeed want to know whether the hostage was raped and tortured, King could have used his show to bring his viewer’s attention to far more important stuff such as global poverty and inequity. He could have used his very influential forum as a vehicle to educate and promote change.

And speaking of change, both presidential candidates have lately been accused of flip-flopping and pandering, of not keeping their promises. Obama on Iraq, NAFTA, gun control and wiretapping. McCain on tax, campaign and immigration reform as well as torture. It has been argued that this is to be expected: after winning their primaries, a candidate usually moves to the center. This is all strategic, to win more votes and the presidency. Quite frankly, I am not at all surprised with the candidates’ “refining” of their policies and with TV journalists giving viewers what they want. But I wonder if these good people, who have the opportunity and influence, would not take the lead and set the example, if they would not take the risk and stand on principle, then who would?