Asian-American "is a weird term invented by the Census Bureau to group together people who don't have all that much in common," says Sandra Tsing Loh, a writer and monologuist best known for her wickedly funny commentaries on National Public Radio. "In some cases, we're talking about Americans, say from India and Pakistan, whose old countries are at war with each other. And how does the label apply to someone like me, whose father came from China and mother from Germany? When I visited Shanghai with my family, people looked at me oddly, probably thinking I was a half-breed or Hispanic but not quite one of them. And I saw pretty much the same reaction when we stayed at my mother's hometown in Germany. At least here, in southern California where I live, I'm accepted just as I am, an ethnically mixed American."
Yet Loh has accepted an invitation to participate in "Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood: Then and Now," a panel discussion that's part of a festival presented next week by Columbia College's Center for Asian Arts and Media. "I've done this sort of thing too often," she says. "The discussion, usually involving the same set of activists and academics, follows more or less the same pattern: 'Aren't Hollywood and the media terribly backward, using poor, shallow, awful stereotypes? We demand positive portrayals.' We pat each other on the back and say 'Hey, let's do lunch.' Much is talked about, but very little ever gets done. So I'm skeptical of this new round of discussion going anywhere."
Frustration is a recurring theme in Loh's work. It surfaces again and again in her essays, some of which are reprinted in her anthology Depth Takes a Holiday; in her first novel, If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home by Now; in her one-woman off-Broadway show, Bad Sex With Bud Kemp; and in her satiric first-person riffs on NPR's Morning Edition and Marketplace. She traces her ironic detachment to her suburban California upbringing in the 60s and 70s. Loh's Chinese heritage was never played up in her family, nor was it an issue among her peers, though she edged close to the cliche of the overachieving Asian student--she was trained as a pianist, and her father, an aerospace engineer, encouraged his children to go into the sciences. "He'd point to people in trailer parks and say, 'That's where you'll end up if you major in literature,'" she says.
At Caltech, one of her father's alma maters, Loh majored in physics--"always on the verge of flunking out"--then moved across town to the University of Southern California for graduate work in literature and cultural studies. "After six years of that, I figured I'd done enough time in academia." She tried performance art next. "My act was sort of Victor Borge on acid, but I gave it up when I realized that my materials were way too Eurocentric."
Around that time, in the late 80s, she took up writing, contributing short pieces to the LA Weekly. "Freewheeling stuff, like blurbs on the best restaurant under a freeway, next to a ramp," she says. "Because I belonged to an avant-garde composers collective"--she's scored some of Oscar-winning documentarian Jessica Yu's films--"they asked me to write music reviews." Cultural commentaries in magazines that came and went "like Hollywood starlets" soon followed. Her "Valley" column in Buzz was a forum from which she chronicled the lifestyle and angst of thirtysomethings in LA--"the ecofriendly, culturally sensitive, insuranceless set that drinks Starbucks coffee and longs for copper pots," she says. One reviewer dubbed her "the acerbic queen of the Crate & Barrel crowd."
Loh sees herself as a storyteller, not an advocate. "Very few of my characters and topics are Asian-American," she explains. "I'm not into celebrating positive images or condemning stereotypes. That kind of thinking only leads to a critical quagmire, to safe, middle-of-the-road humor. Maybe that's why you don't find my stories in anthologies of Asian-American writers. The story that won a Pushcart Prize was not included in any--not that I'm bemoaning the oversight."
The panel discussion with Loh, veteran actress Beulah Quo, Columbia College film instructor Karla Fuller, and University of Chicago film and media studies professor Tom Gunning--part of the weeklong festival "New World, New Art: The Asian Artist in America"--takes place Wednesday at 5:30 at the Duncan YMCA Chernin's Center for the Arts, 1001 W. Roosevelt (312-738-5999). Admission is free. For more on festival events, see Section Two's Dance Critic's Choice or the Special Events section of the art listings; music offerings are listed under Fairs & Festivals in Section Three. Call 312-595-7437. --Ted Shen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Davis Barber.