Saturday, April 24, 2004

Flip books

So I was admiring the visuals of Superman: Birthright and noticed that the names of the art team were Leinil Francis Yu (pencils) and Gerry Alanguilan (inks). I'm going to hazard a guess that Messrs. Yu and Alanguilan are Filipino, an ethnicity pretty well represented among comic artists. There's a pretty long list of names but only Whilce Portacio and Ernie Chua immediately come to mind.

This got me thinking about what is technically called "niche labor". Condemnations of images of the Chinese restaurateur/launderer or the South Asian convenience store owner as "perpetration of racist stereotyping" at best fails to acknowledge the role these economic footholds played in the establishment of immigrant communities. At worst, it effectively imputes shame to how hardworking people choose to support their families, though these groups would never admit it. Such an attitude is the inevitable corollary to the belief that subdivisions of society should reflect the proportional representation of society as a whole.

Anti-racists often forget that people from certain ethnic groups end up in certain professions more as the result of network effects than racism. Besides, it doesn't look like they've updated the Official List of Forbidden Occupational Ethnic Stereotypes in decades. The standing of Filipinos in the rarefied world of comic artists accompanies the prominence of Filipinas among nurses - to which I want to devote a post of its own in future. (Filipinos are also represented in the performing arts out of proportion to their number, especially when compared to other Asian immigrant groups. Most of the bar bands in Hong Kong, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian locales seem to be comprised of Filipinos - and they're good.) Korean greengrocers selling top-quality fruits and vegetables from humble storefronts serve as New York City's first line of defense against scurvy. The Senegalese Mouride sect of Islam dominates street commerce in New York (and, I am told, Paris). Some niches are only possible in economic and cultural hothouses like New York. In 1991, Cantonese immigrant Zheng De-Shi decided to open his own restaurant. Having learnt Mexican cuisine from his work in other restaurants, he decided to open a Mexican restaurant rather than a Chinese one. The original Fresco Tortilla - on Lexington Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets - was successful and nothing succeeds like success, especially among the Chinese (see: Chinatown express) resulting in a wave of restaurants where Chinese people cook Mexican food. A similar dynamic lies behind the phenomenon of Thai bagel makers. Thai immigrants learned the bagel-making trade at bakeries like Bagel Nosh (Feh!), Zaro's (Feh!) and Ess-a-Bagel (Yay! But still no H&H, or Columbia for that matter) and later opened their own bagelries, such as Sam Thongkrieng's Absolute Bagels. (Not as crusty as bagels from nearby Columbia, which threaten to lacerate your mouth if toasted so, for discerning Morningside Heights residents unwilling to make the schlep to H&H, the choice between Columbia and Absolute depends on how crusty they like their bagels.)

One shouldn't discuss niche labor without addressing the elephant in the room: Jews. Due to their long history of persecution, Jews often go to lengths to downplay Jewish niche labor phenomena. However, not only does it look disingenuous (a la "There's no such thing as the mafia" or "Terrorism has nothing to do with Islam"), but it obscures a history Jews would be proud of if they didn't have to fear others twisting it into a a weapon against them. Like other immigrant ethnicities, Jewish parents steered their children into careers with the security of steady demand, such as medicine. However, Jewish-Americans' perceived affinity for occupations such as law has as much to do with being shut out of "white shoe" professions and firms as with any preference on the Jews' part. Jewish involvement in the foundation of the American film industry was not the first step in a calculated conspiracy to control the media; at the time Hollywood was a highly risky start-up industry the extent of whose success few, if any, predicted.

Asian-American identity groups welcomed the arrival of Bend It Like Beckham's Parminder Nagra as ER's first regular South Asian cast member as an overdue acknowledgement of South Asian prominence in medicine. Of course, they welcomed Bruce Lee's leading man status too only to criticize him posthumously for perpetrating the stereotype of the "Asian martial artist"; later they complained about the "model minority" stereotype. Expect to see "Indian doctor" added to the Official List of Forbidden Stereotypes soon. "We're underrepresented in the media," "That portrayal perpetuates stereotypes," "That portrayal is deracinated." Sometimes you can't win for trying. (Of course, one never hears a peep out of these groups against affirmative action in university admissions. Asian admissions at Berkeley rose from 35 to 38 percent in the first year after Proposition 209 abolished race-based admissions in the California state university system, a move that groups claiming to represent the interests of Asian-Americans resisted all the way.)

During the IT bubble Asian-American identity groups perceived racism in the prominence of Indians and Chinese among engineers but their absence from managerial ranks. Though linguistic and cultural barriers undoubtedly played a part, one Taiwanese computer engineer who repeatedly turned down offers of managerial positions told me, Why don't I become a manager? Because when the company has to lay people off, they go for the managers first and leave the engineers 'til last!