May 21, 2012

Who Is the Angry Asian Buddhist?

An Interview with arunlikhati

Who is the Angry Asian Buddhist? Nearly four years ago a blogger on the group blog "Dharma Folk" calling himself arunlikhati published a short blog post called "Angry Asian Buddhist," protesting the white-centric views of American Buddhist media and (some) American Buddhists themselves. Since then, he's become an outspoken critic of the various stereotypes swirling around the American dharma scene and an advocate of the discussion of race in our sanghas. arunlikhati now primarily blogs at "Angry Asian Buddhist," a site that has over the years proven to be no stranger to controversy.

Sometime ago in the long-distant past—well, all right, it was less than a year ago—I started these blogger interviews with Kyle Lovett of "The Reformed Buddhist," whose blog is no longer online. The first person to comment on that interview wrote,

Would love to see a counterbalance to this blogger getting so much attention by seeing a Q&A with the Angry Asian Buddhist, or someone else equipped to discuss the experiences of people of color confronting racism from white Buddhists. It's quite relevant, I think. And a good way to ensure that POCs who are familiar with online debates in the Buddhist community know that Tricycle wants them to feel included and safe in this community.

Absolutely! So here is, long overdue, an interview with none other than the Angry Asian Buddhist himself.

How do you think the Buddhist media marginalize Asian American Buddhists? We Asian Americans, we are here, we’ve been here. But we sort of get treated in a way that we’re only here to talk about certain things. We’re part of the American Buddhist community, but many times we aren't represented in panels and discussions. And a lot of the time people talk about American Buddhism while leaving out Asian Americans. I write a lot about how the American Buddhist narrative is being shaped from the perspectives and the experiences of white Buddhists.

What are your thoughts about the two Buddhisms framework? Well, a lot of people are perfectly fine with it. But for a lot of us it doesn’t really fit with who we are and our lives. So most everything I write about explores the problems with the way that other people see Asian American Buddhists.

When you think of the Buddhist community as it is, there are some parts that will always be the same—for example, there will always be immigrant Buddhists. There will always be convert Buddhists. In America at least, that’s nothing which is going to change. But the gap in between will always change. There will be a lot of people who are descendants of convert Buddhists, and there will be people who have descended from Asian immigrant Buddhists, and there will be groups that cross as well. You will have kids whose parents come from many of these backgrounds—let’s say her grandfather was a Shambhala member and her grandmother was a Japanese American farmworker who was raised Christian and then converted to Buddhism. These crosses will inevitably happen, more and more. And they’ve happened already.

My perspective is that people write about the split saying, “Oh, we are Western Buddhists, or this Buddhist or that Buddhist—unlike this traditional or Asian Buddhist. We’re this, not that.” And this is part of the way that people build their identities. You center your notion of Buddhism around who you are, and part of it is defining who you’re not. Within American Buddhism that’s how stereotypes are made. We fixate on things that are different, and we make generalizations about them. Often when people make these distinctions they say, “We’re this, and we’re not that,” and they think of one particular example—“that time I went to a Korean congregation and they weren’t nice to me.” Then it becomes, “those Asians, they’re just not inclusive in the way that we are.” And so that one Korean congregation becomes all Asian congregations.

What is it about these issues that draws you to them? It started out that I wanted to present a different view of what it means to be an Asian American Buddhist to a community that doesn’t really seem to have the same idea of what it means to be an Asian American Buddhist as I do. In the process of doing so, I ended up pushing back against notions I felt needed to be responded to.

Part of what I try to do these days is provide more of a looking glass into the community that I’m a part of. For example, for each holiday, I am trying—with a very strong emphasis on the "trying" part—to post an interview with someone who has been involved with these holidays. And they’re not highly read articles, but it’s still important to put out there. You can talk about Burmese Buddhists all you want, but do you actually know what it’s like for a Burmese Buddhist to celebrate the Burmese New Year? And so if you want to know the voices of Asian American Buddhists, there they are. I’m trying to share them on my blog.

Why do you write under a pseudonym? There’s almost a power behind this anonymity. As I write a lot about Asian American issues, I could be any Asian American. But often people come to assumptions of who I am and what my background is, based on what I write. And some have been extremely warm in their guesses, and some people extremely cold. Sometimes people use that guess to categorize who I am and to further categorize my writing. But I like to think that what I write about is true regardless of who I am. I could be a black woman on the other side of the world—but my writing on the issues of Asians in Western Buddhism would still be true.

Why did you decide to present yourself as the Angry Asian Buddhist? There’s a guy, Phil Yu, who has been running the blog “Angry Asian Man” for over 10 years. When I was in college everyone was excited about him. I guess in some ways he started out very similarly, writing about racial issues in American society. In short, I chose the moniker “Angry Asian Buddhist” because there was an "Angry Asian Man," and I was sort of writing about the same thing, talking about the same issues, but instead for the Buddhist community. I thought that if I didn’t grab the name, someone else was going to.

Are you trying to be contentious, or does it just happen? If I were the "Congenial Asian Buddhist," people would just think, “Oh, OK, that’s interesting.” In some ways it’s important to be provocative because it causes people to think. There are also times when contention doesn’t cause people to think, because when people become angry they become more entrenched in their opinions. But that said, sometimes you can even see in my writing, how I don’t really deal with certain issues because I feel that they are so provocative.

You use the term “perpetual foreigner syndrome” a lot on your blog. What do you mean by that? Asian Americans are treated like perpetual foreigners. I think that we sometimes even treat ourselves this way; if you are a Vietnamese American, and you grow up here, you do ask yourself the questions, “Am I really Vietnamese? What does it mean to be Vietnamese? What does it mean to be Vietnamese American?” But if you grow up in Vietnam you don’t grow up with the thought, “Am I Vietnamese enough?”

We have that identity issue, and part of that reason is because we look different. Because we look different, people tell us that we are different. For example, people ask me where I’m from, and I tell them. And then they ask, “Where are you really from?” I say, “What do you mean by that?” And they’re always telling me, “You look Chinese,” or “You look Japanese.” I am a fourth generation San Franciscan! Why would these people ask me that when these very people might be first generation San Franciscans? And part of that is because I look different.

There’s a tendency in the Buddhist community to associate American with white, and immigrant with Asian. There are these dual stereotypes, and they influence the way we see things. Here’s an interesting fact. When you look at census figures for Asian Americans in the U.S., two thirds of Asian adults are immigrants. But it’s important to remember that the term “immigrant” is a really broad one. Some people have spent almost all of their lives in the U.S., but they’re still considered immigrants. And so when we talk about immigrant Buddhists, in our mind maybe we’re thinking of those refugees who don’t speak English. But “immigrant Buddhists” includes people who are very much American—very American in everything that they are, but just happened to be born elsewhere.

How do you think language barriers come into play in the interactions (and the lack of interactions) among American Buddhists? Having access to a language gives you access to so much. Because I speak Vietnamese it makes it easier for me to connect with Vietnamese communities. But if you don't speak Vietnamese, you might visit a Vietnamese temple and say, “Oh, they’re so quiet, they didn’t talk to me, they weren’t welcoming.”

I remember I went on a meditation retreat at a Vietnamese temple. And I was eating in the kitchen because there wasn’t space where most of the meditators were eating. I was sitting at the table with other meditators, and everyone was speaking in Vietnamese. At the retreat was a Jewish guy and a black guy, and the people I was eating with were saying, “This is so cool, there’s a Jewish and black guy here, and they meditate so well. They meditate better than the rest of us!” And I asked, “Did you guys speak with them? How do you know this?” And they said, “Oh no, but we can watch and we can see.” They didn’t want to speak to them in English because they felt very ashamed that they didn’t speak English well. In some ways it sort of broke my heart, because I remember talking with the Jewish guy and the black guy, and they were saying that it was awkward that no one really talked with them. And I had to tell them, “These people think you guys are awesome. They just didn’t want to tell you because they’re embarrassed.” And the two guys said that they have no reason to be embarrassed.

But if I can help you understand this in any way it’s just that sometimes if you don’t speak English it can be really embarrassing to speak it—a lot of Vietnamese refugees who came here in the 1970s were very educated. Many were physicians, lawyers, teachers, and businessmen in Vietnam, and they came here with absolutely nothing and worked their way up. I know a pharmacist who chose to run a nail salon. The Vietnamese have a monopoly on the nail salon business here, but they weren’t operating nail salons in Vietnam. It’s something that they decided to do here, and they cornered the market, because they needed to be able to make a living in a place where they didn’t have to speak English as fluently as being a lawyer or a pharmacist required. That example itself is just a thin slice of Vietnamese America. And so I think often when people who go to these temples have very strong ideas of how they’ll be treated or how they’ll be accepted, they just don’t understand the other side.

—Emma Varvaloucas

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southhoustonsangha's picture

Conspicuous by its absence is an analysis of (or at least some suggestions about) what could or should be done to right the perceived wrong. If there is a perception that the Buddhist media marginalizes Asian American Buddhists, then what are the corresponding proposed remedial measures? I don't see much that speaks directly to that in either in this interview, in these comments, or on Angry Asian Buddhist's blog (the blog itself may provide a bit of the additional content that is perceived as missing, but it represents just one very limited mechanism, and is blogger-centric rather than issue-centric). Anyone can point a finger and draw attention to something, but it takes a bit more effort to make a significant contribution to change.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi southhoustonsangha, thanks for commenting here. My interview with arunlikhati was actually almost three hours long, and we did get around to discussing remedial measures. I ended up cutting that part of the interview for various reasons (no one would be able to make it through the interview if I had published all three hours worth of material!), but one small quote from the transcript might help to answer your concern: "As I began writing about these issues, many people responded with 'so what are you going to do about this?' And to be honest, what I do is doing something about it. Just by writing about it I keep the discussion going, I keep it on top of people's radars."


I think you're right that it takes a lot of effort to make a significant contribution to change. But no change can be made without first realizing that there is a problem. I think that's arunlikhati's primary contribution regarding these issues—many in the American Buddhist community (and you can see examples of this by scrolling through the comments on "Angry Asian Buddhist") don't think that the media marginalizes Asian American Buddhists, or that there are race issues to be dealt with in American Buddhism. By calling attention to the fact that there are problems, in my view arunlikhati is already making a significant contribution.

southhoustonsangha's picture

Hi, Emma! Yes, as I noted above, AAB’s blog itself may provide a bit of the content that is perceived as missing, but it represents only one relatively isolated mechanism, and it’s blogger-centric (or at least blog-centric) rather than issue-centric.

In other words, the analysis and response both seem to be limited to the point where they hint at something deeper in the way of a paradigm issue. Is the relative lack of Asian content a problem, or is it a *symptom* of a problem? The difference is more than semantic. If something is, in itself, a problem, then one should deal with it directly. But if something is just a symptom of some other reality, then the only way to address it is to go after the ACTUAL reality and deal with THAT. In doing so, the original perceived "problem" then tends to resolve automatically.

Please bear with me while I belabor this critical distinction with an analogy. Suppose there was a perception in a group of Buddhists that they were all excessively thirsty. If they simply call for more water to be supplied, they would never become aware of the fact that they all have diabetes. But if they instead identify and treat the diabetes, suddenly the excessive thirst becomes a non-issue.

I perceive that the thirst for additional Asian content is a simple symptom of the diabetic shortage of reciprocal acknowledgment among American Buddhist functional groups. It’s astonishing to me that practitioners who place so much emphasis on universal interconnectedness are so profoundly blind to their own collective lack of it. For the most part, there are no associative mechanisms by which different Buddhists can achieve at least an awareness-level understanding of each other’s existence. This seems to be true at all levels, from local to national.

Take my geographic area as an example. If greater Houston Texas mirrors the conservative national Buddhism prevalence estimate of 1% of the general population, then we have at least 60,000 Buddhists just in this one little area. Given our high concentration of Asian immigrants (29% of the greater Houston population is foreign-born), the actual number could be much higher than that. And yet there’s not a single mechanism through which all those people who share such a significant facet of identity can gain an awareness of each other’s presence. There isn’t even an accurate list of local temples and practice centers, which are estimated to number at least forty. In defining the depth and breadth of this blind spot, I researched the internet, spoke with a few of the area’s Buddhist leaders, checked with prominent Buddhist academics at our two largest universities, traded emails with commercial news journalists who cover the local religion beat, talked with countless Sangha members, and even spoke with researcher Jeff Wilson (author of the newly-released book “Dixie Dharma”) about it. There’s nothing - no informational resources of any useful or practical scope.

And from the wider internet research I’ve done, I strongly suspect that the situation is similar in the rest of the country. How can we possibly expect synergistic and derivative value-adds such as balanced literature contributions when nobody even knows who else is out there?

Rather than stimulating Asian contributions directly, I think we would be better off finding new ways to foster the prerequisite interconnectedness that is so conspicuous by its absence. This is why I recently started South Houston Sangha News, so that I could do my small part in helping to establish one corner of a mutual awareness platform and help provide the beginnings of cohesion on a local scale. I encourage you and your readers to take a deep look at this issue and its ramifications, and to find your own ways of contributing to its improvement, if that kind of activity is of interest to you.

Thanks for hearing me out!

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi southhouston! Sorry for the delay in my response...I wanted to make sure I fully understood your comment before answering.

To me it seems like the relative lack of Asian content is both a problem in and of itself, and a symptom of a larger problem. The first, smaller problem is that a lack of Asian content leads to Asian-American Buddhists, and minority Buddhists in general (which is a kind of silly thing to say, as Asian-American Buddhists, if you consider the American Buddhist population at large, are not in the minority) feeling that Tricycle, and American Buddhist media in general, is not including them within their folds. By doing that, we're unconsciously sending the message that "this magazine is not for you" or "this community is not for you."

Though that issue I think functions as a stand-alone issue, it's also part of a larger one, as you wrote, of "the diabetic shortage of reciprocal acknowledgment among American Buddhist functional groups." And if you ask Angry Asian Buddhists (and me, for that matter), there's something more sinister involved there as well: not only a lack of reciprocal acknowledgment between groups, but a lack of acknowledgment from "convert" Buddhists about the existence, influence, and long history behind "heritage" Buddhists in the United States, not to mention a lack of respect.

I definitely agree with you that the general lack of awareness among American Buddhists about other American Buddhists is alarming—I wish there were more informational resources out there as well! But I think this issue that the Angry Asian Buddhist writes about goes further than a mere lack of information and awareness. That's part of it, of course, but the lack of Asian content in many Buddhist magazines mirrors a convert/heritage divide in American Buddhism that is built upon more poisonous roots.

If I'm not making much sense, you can read Angry Asian Buddhist's blog posts...they explain what I mean much better than I can. This one is a good start:

I hope I've answered your points...I'm going to go now, my eyes are getting a little blurry! Too much block text :)

Mumon's picture

I don't often come here, but I did today because I'm really glad to see this interview with arunlikhati. Although I am of European origin, my in-laws are Chinese, and I practice Buddhism under a Japanese teacher. As I travel to Asia quite frequently, I regularly experience these "cultural interface" issues mentioned above, but of course from my own cultural deformation.

The points arunlikhati makes are quite cogent, and as I often write about, goes beyond what arunlikhati says. In particular though Tricycle bills itself as a "Buddhist review" it has a highly eclectic (to say the least) view of Buddhism as it really is practiced around the world. (And naturally this is based on my limited, but quite different experience than is portrayed in Tricycle.) This is especially true when it comes to China, where views on "Buddhism" get colored by views on international politics.

But this interview is a very good start.

moonaysl's picture

Thanks Emma for hearing my comment!!! I hope this is the beginning of a more diverse-centric Tricycle :-)

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi moonaysl, you're welcome! Thanks for both of your comments!

Bridey101's picture

This is why I do not say I am a Buddhist. I will say, I try to follow the teachings of the Buddha. It seems like when you identify as a Buddhist, you then become identified with a group and then it is a slippery slope to behavior common to groups, that of finding differences, reasons to think of ones own group as a better group in some way. Read a basic Sociology text. It has been studied, that need to belong. Is not the definition of Buddhism itself a contruct of mind?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism is a way of living, not just a mental construct. People understand the Law (dharma) through your words and actions as someone who practices it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As a member of Soka Gakkai International-USA, I find a different kind of anger. Compared with most other Buddhist congregations, SGI-USA is highly diverse in racial and cultural make-up. The anger I'm referring to is one that our Jewish Buddhists, Black Buddhists, Latino Buddhists, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Buddhists, et al. have with members of their own ethnic classes who do not understand the Law, and therefore often dismiss or belittle those of their own "kind" who do practice Buddhism.

ANDREWCOOPER24's picture

Wonderful, illuminating, and much-needed interview.