By Andi Hubbell
When Vietnamese-American poet Bao Phi first approached the podium at the Asian Pacific Islander American Poetry event last night in Van Munching, he gave no indication of the fiery, spirited performance he was about to deliver.
Sporting a Knicks cap, jeans and a casual, congenial attitude to match, the poet instead seemed calm and down-to-earth.
He explained to about 50 audience members in the lecture hall that he and Ed Bok Lee, the event’s other featured poet, would perform alternating sets. Phi then said he was going to recite one of his older works, a poem titled “You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me.”
Phi then instantly transformed from a confident, collected speaker to an impassioned artist as he described a contradictory convergence of American, Asian and Asian-American culture.
“You bring out the refugee in me,” he said, an edge of anger ringing out in his voice.
When he concluded the poem, Phi explained that there is often a misconception that Asian-Americans don’t have anything to be angry about. He attributed this to the model minority myth, which stereotypes all Asians as successful and intelligent.
“Maybe people just don’t pay attention to us when we’re angry,” he said.
Phi and Lee’s poems revealed the hardships of the Asian-American experience, illustrated tensions between Asian cultures and mainstream American culture and depicted Asian-Americans’ struggles as a constructed racial “other” in the United States.
Though many of their works expressed negative sentiments, the poets also demonstrated a resolve to embrace diversity and celebrate Asian-Americans’ identities.
After performing “You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me,” Phi recited a poem he wrote in response to Senator John McCain’s use of the word “gook” in 2000.
“Dear Senator McCain,” he said. “I am a gook, a jungle spook.”
Phi went on to satirically depict various stereotypes attached to Asians, first describing himself as a barbarian with “my slit eyes fixed on white women” and then portraying the generalization that Asian-Americans are over-achievers. He repeatedly referred to himself as a gook, later introducing other racial slurs.
“Senator, what is the difference between an Asian and a gook to you?” he said at the end of the poem.
Lee, a Korean-American poet, expressed similar instances of intolerance toward Asian-Americans when he performed his first set. He recited a poem from his first book “Real Karaoke People,” which discussed the physical harassment he encountered as a child and teenager.
“Those were the days of stones, hand-packed clay,” he said.
Lee described the disillusion he faced as an Asian-American. He found solace in “another lost, brother-less Asian man” named Andrew.
“Between throwing and flying not everyone comes back,” he said. “I did.”
Lee also recited the title poem of his second book, “Whorled.” Prior to performing the poem, he said every two weeks the last living speaker of a world language dies. The poem, which is addressed to a speaker in a future age, laments the possibility of a future in which only one language has survived.
“I am sure on the other side of the world there is a language I haven’t heard,” he said. “It is beautiful.”
After Phi and Lee each performed an additional set, the poets took part in a question and answer session where they continued to stress the importance of diversity.
“Coming from marginalized communities … our stories sometimes aren’t heard,” Phi said.
Phi emphasized that expanding Asian-American studies is a crucial part of ensuring that the Asian-American experience is understood.