May 21, 2012
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.