Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pan Asian Rites of Passage

Will Lu is a film director based in Los Angeles, California. But he flies out to work with Pan Asian youth in Oregon to teach film, all afternoon, four days a week in July. Why would a person leave in July for any place far from a beach?

Middle schoolers, high schoolers show up at 8:45 in the morning to the Lane Community College campus for an orientation. Why do students newly freed from the halls of schools, voluntarily come to spend four days a week for a whole month of their precious summer? What about the teachers for whom summer is just as precious, or those who have retired. Why come back?

Rites of Passage was formed by Greg Evans, LCC employee, his brainchild. The African American Rites of Passage Summer Academy was first. Then his friend Yungsoona Geil Walker suggested a Pan Asian Rites Summer Academy quickly followed by Puertas Abuertas led by Jim Garcia and Umista who is now headed by James Florendo. Both Florendo and Garcia are LCC employees. The main function for the ROP academies is as a recruitment tool for the community college nestled into the southeast hills, an attractive campus of buildings, which almost look like a small mountain with paths zigzagging among them. The ROP summer academies bring young students of color to campus, giving them free bus tickets and free lunch cards, paying for all their books and hosting them for many experiences. The hope is that the students will become so familiar with the campus and the idea of going to college that they, even if college may have seemed economically unattainable, will return to LCC after they graduate from high school. They would be familiar with the counseling centers and many adults who will be ready to serve their needs. Under Evans' leadership, each ROP is allowed to go its own way as each cadre of teachers decide on their own what it is needed for their community's youth to support their academic success when they return to school in the fall.

Dr. Anselmo Villanueva, retired administrator, first encouraged me to become part of Rites of Passage and I have never regretted it. That decision meant my last three years of teaching had no revitalizing summer vacation, but ROP energized me more than I could imagine. It was refreshing working with the young students who were so much more comfortable with parent involvement than most. I enjoyed the kinship formed with all the students, the freedom with which they expressed affection for their teachers and one another. Being PanAsian became the norm.

We believed that the best thing ROP could give Asian Pacific youth were experiences which would help them be comfortable in their own skin, encourage their Voice, and help create a support network of friends. Asian youth are spread all over three districts, and may even be the only Asian in their school. Anselmo, Multicultural Coordinator Bettie Sing Luke and I brainstormed in his office and assembled a staff that included two important strands. I told Anselmo, I wanted the students to learn Asian movement, like Lion Dance. I told him how much that meant to some of my students at Jefferson when they formed the Lion Dance team that goes on today. No longer was being Asian considered quiet and “nerdy” when the dramatic, colorful lion made acrobatic moves to the beat of cymbals and drums.

And Anselmo suggested young Jason Mak just returned from UCLA’s film school. As a middle school teacher I had already learned the power of putting a camera into a young person’s hands.
In the beginning we taught a class on Asian American literature and Asian American social studies. However, over the four years of the summer institute we have adjusted giving more time to Jason. Making film is not only time consuming but with less time it becomes stressful and deadline becomes as deadly as any experience. During deadline editing week, all the morning class time gets sucked into the student film projects.

The Pan Asian Rites of Passage program has now evolved into my morning class which is responsible of gathering everything together forour capstone performance. We do some writing in that class, writing to be shared publically. We listen to role models and elders and learn the history of Asian Pacific Asians. This we learn to pass on to others at capstone. We may make art, music. We design the t-shirt. And we discuss many issues.

The Asian movement activities have grown. One year, talented choreographers Boon Tran and Chau Nguyen organized a fan dance troupe. This year we offered Fan Dance, Chinese Lion Dance and Hip Hop taught by dancer Chris Peyreya. The “America’s Top Dance Crew” on MTV with heavy representation by Filipino, Korean, Chinese and Japanese hip hop artists, both men and women motivated ROP students to also learn.

Like every other year, this year has its stories. This year, only a couple of students came excited about the program. With so many graduates there were only about four returning students. Everyone else was new. Angela didn’t want to come. Being a junior she wanted one summer to relax. She had come to ROP from the beginning as a middle schooler. But she wanted to make a film and meet Will Lu so she was a good sport about it. Richard was visibly angry, arms folded in front of him, scowling. Only Tri and Eugenia came excited. But within a week ROP had bonded!

Anselmo shared the story about stopping by Tracey and Jazmin's house the second week, and the girls running out the door yelling, "We are so proud to be Filipina!!" Richard's mother shared that Richard was angry at first but within a week he enjoyed himself. Richard was on the drumline at his high school, and for us, his exciting beats kept raised all our excitement in the Lion Dance. Emilie wow'd her lion dance coach, Matt Lee. He was so pleased to have a young woman capable of dancing the head of the lion. Tracey's Buddha had such personality!
Jazmin and Tri became uncoomplished hip hop dancers. No physical challenge ever fazes them. Eugenia, Tri and Keegan made sure no one, no matter how shy, was left out. Alan may have held back for a bit, but soon he was involved in all aspects. He is known, whether in dance, in filmmaking, in preparing for interviewing elders, or writing to be prepared and ready to go no matter what. Justin who was quiet in the beginning, became known for his accomplishments in speaking and in lion dancing. Andrew may have worried us by getting lost on the first day and not arriving home on time. But he was not last ever again in any way of speaking. We relied upon him. Kimmie put shyness aside and became everyone's friend. d Accolades for Angela for sticking with it. Thumi and Angela never let a moment slow down.

They decided the adults who were in the beginning of talking about doing the Capstone together, Latino, African American an Pan Asian, that that was not soon enough. They met with Greg Evans and got everything going in the 11th hour. No one cared about the awkwardness of last minute melding. No one complained about the length of the program. Every person witnessed pride and confidence from future leaders.

Michael and Jordon Klindt had had the students work with August William plays. The students were inspired to write their own play and at Capstone presented the play, skillfully using the Little Theatre, even spilling into the audience to bring them into the drama of African American students passionately advocating for inclusion in the curriculum in part of the schoolboard. Standing ovation. I remembered their teacher Michael Klindt as a young eighth grader on the African American History Project, already becoming a leader then. It moved me to see his own shining example for the youth, his commanding presence as he not only introduced the performance, but also lifted his students up and taught the audience at the same time, with the passionate conviction that both he and Jordon have for what they do.

For our part, of course, the Lion led the procession of our school to the theater followed by our parents and supporters. They and the fan dancers, both men and women, put on a dance, a flurry of color, expressive of the beauty and power of nature. Hip Hop, a new dance form to us was to be performed, but the only two students who had the confidence to perform looked at the expanded audience decided they weren't ready for this venue. It's one thing to perform in front of parents but not here, not hip hop. When Jazmin had the courage to say the hip hop performance would be cancelled she was greet with good natured laughter that felt like the audience had reached over and patted her reassuringly on the back.

The PanAsian Rites of Passage then went to the student-produced films. Some were comedic like “5 Minute to Showtime” by Keegan Tran, or Emilie Christoffels’ film poking fun at stereotypes, “Rice Aide.” All the students acted in their films and in one another’s. Emily made great use of JiHo who joined in the last week and acted every part, even the “exotic Asian woman” at the end who gets an uncomfortable pinch on her behind. I sat in the darkened theater cringing and was so relieved when his mother who also sat in the audience said she would try to make sure that JiHo could attend the whole program next summer. “Coo Coo for Hurricanes was Angela Ngo’s comedic film with a memorable toilet scene which challenges Roger Fan’s in “The Trouble with Romance.” (Angela did win the award for best comedy at an academy award reunion ).

Justin Cheung wrote and directed “Bitter Sweet.” He wanted the experience of a second language student entering our public school system. Justin picked Kimmie Davis to play the lead. Kimmie was extremely shy. Her parent let me know that Kimmie may not be willing to do a lot of things. But part of ROP is to open the respectful conversation to encourage participation in many activities which team up students with one another, and give each time to make themselves known, their thoughts, their aspirations, to work and play together. Kimmie’s mother was already surprised when her daughter went up to read the few words of her poems. I learned later that was the first time Kimmie ever got up in front of a class.

If Kimmie’s mom was surprised about the poem, I can imagine how it must have been for her when “Bitter Sweet” began and she saw her daughter, perfectly cast, but also acting her heart out, dragging something from deep within herself to express Justin's story. The audience felt the movie. We felt the anxiety of that first day of school, the interminable boredom of being put in the library by yourself watching the clock tick the day by, sitting with a pile of books you cannot read. We felt Kimmie’s isolation when she carried her lunch tray into the cafeteria and a whole table of students turned and just stared at her. Jazmin hit the perfect note wearing Emilie’s dragon fly sunglasses. And we were all with Kimmie when she took her food tray into the bathroom stall. The whole audience reacted with sympathetic sound. Kimmie throws down her food tray and attracts the attention of a young Latina student in the restroom who comes to her rescue, and from there a friendship blossoms.

The student takes the time to work with her on reading, introduces her to other activities which American kids do, introduces her to friends, and as she does that Kimmie brightens, walks with confidence, laughs and smiles her beautiful smiles. We all think of this as Kimmie’s crowning moment for the ROP. At the academy awards get together just after school began, Jason awarded “Bitter Sweet” the Will Lu Award for Best Drama to director Justin Cheung and actor Kimmie Davis, the Justin Lin Award for Best Director for Justin Cheung, and Kimmie Davis was awarded the Kal Penn Best Actor Award. A sweep!

The Yuri Kochiyama Award for Courage is the most prestigious award and it was awarded to Jazmin Joseph. I remember two weeks before Capstone, Jazmin came early while I was setting up for class. It gave me a chance to ask how she was because I was noticing that she seemed distracted, and set apart from the other students. Jazmin answered that she’d been very stressed and that yesterday she had taken a long walk in the orchard by herself and thought about a lot of things. “This film thing has really been stressing me out!”

I sympathized. This was an especially hard week because Jason was at a weeklong conference and although he had put in place mentors, the students must have still missed his confident presence.

“So I decided that I need to change my film project,” Jazmin continued.

WHAAAAAT! Next week was the last week of ROP! What is Jason going to say. No one changes films at the end during editing time. But I kept my mouth shut. I did stop what I was doing, and looked up a bit stunned.

“Don’t worry,” Jazmin read my mind. “It’s almost finished.”

(Whew!) “Good! I’m glad you did the film you want to do, Jazmin!” I said as the room started to fill up with students and Jazmin rose to greet them, happy, and her old self again.

Jason returned that day and when Jazmin came in early the next morning she announced, “Jason and I came up with a name for my film! It’s My Life in Brown & Pink.”

“But being Asian and Native would be more like Brown and Red or Yellow, wouldn’t it?” I asked as Jazmin looked at me with a crooked smile.

She started to say “Welllllllll . . .” when the late light bulb went off. “OH! I get it!”

What guts! Jazmin had decided "to come out" the summer before she became a freshman in high school to her family and friends and she used the power of film to do it during the Rites of Passage.

That afternoon she showed me her film in progress, her mother driving, looking over at her, “So, your sister says 'Jazmin likes girls!' Why didn’t you tell me?” and the heart to heart that followed, her step father explaining why he believed being lesbian was part of nature’s way, her uncle saying he thought it would be cool if Jazmin were to bring her girlfriend home to meet them.

Jazmin, off camera, asks her sister Tracey, “What would you do if someone teased me?” and Tracey answers with her brows furrowed, “I’d be there for you, of course. You’re my sister. And besides that, it’s wrong.” Tracey’s characteristic smile lights the screen “It’s a beautiful thing!”

Jazmin, in her film, looks like she has been rung through a wringer. When I commented on that, she explained to me that it was because she shooting it at 4 am. and she was really tired and so glad it was finally over. In the film Jazmin expresses her relief that her family, her friends, everyone she cares about support her.

“I love this! Jazmin, I am so proud of you. This is going to help a lot of people!" I went on to tell her that she must do whatever it takes to submit it to DisOrient Asian American Film Festivals and other festivals. "People have to see your film, Jazmin!"

The night of Capstone, when “My Life in Brown & Pink” premiered before its first big audience, and Jazmin came on screen saying, “I’m under a lot of stress. You see, not only am I Asian American but I’m also . . . Lesbian, ” from those opening words to the end during the credit roll when her mother, driving, turns to her daughter, smiles big and says “I heart my Lesbian daughter” and makes a face and funny noise, the audience can feel something. Being Gay stops being an issue and becomes relationship. Jazmin’s film and her family will help a lot of people. Some will gather courage from this little film. Others will confront their own hate and fear and perhaps make the right choice. I want to send Yuri Kochiyama one of these DVD’s. She will also be so proud of Jazmin.

I’m posting this on the blog without editing because I don’t have a lot of time today, but I wanted to get this up for Will Lu because he couldn’t be with us that evening for Capstone and tell him that he was very much with us in spirit. Please try to catch Will Lu’s film. I loved “Spy Moms.” We all know a spy mom, and some of us are related to one. Last year he directed and produced “ATF: Asian Task Force” which was shown at our DisOrient Asian American Film Festival. Check them out!

BTW, DVD's of the Rites of Passage films can be ordered through me with a donation of $10 more more. Just let me know on my email mjoo@efn.org how many, and address and I'll send them out. The cool thing about this year's DVD is that it includes the two other year's student films, a documentary of the Eugene Japanese American Memorial with orignal music by Richard Choi (for which he was awarded the HP Mendoza Best Score Award) and this year's Shoot Out Challenge films on Asian Super Heroes. Will Lu's short with ROP film assistants Rose Pergament and Matt Lee is also included.

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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

from Outside the Monster's Belly

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. . . following Earth instead (Rakaia River, site of Salmon Ceremony, photo credit Ruth Koenig)


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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.