In her delightfully wry "My America . . . Or Honk If You Love Buddha," noted documentarian Renee Tajima-Pena attempts to answer this question, in regard to Asian Americans: "Will we truly ever belong in America?"
Tajima-Pena's answer is yes, but not before she delves deeply into her own family history as the Chicago-born daughter of Japanese Americans--whom she considered carbons of Ozzie and Harriet--and into the lives of various others, most notably, well-known character actor Victor Wong.
Most nisei are like Tajima-Pena's parents, big on seeming all-American. But their children--the sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans)--have wanted to reclaim a sense of Japanese cultural heritage while coming to terms with the legacy of the World War II internment. Tajima-Pena's probing of this legacy, which many older Japanese Americans have found too painful to discuss with their children and grandchildren, constitutes the film's most poignant passages.
Wong is a highlight in Tajima-Pena's series of vignettes, gathered in a cross-country tour, about how Asian Americans have found their own ways to become "American."
And what a complicated life Wong, 70ish, has led, beginning with his experiences as the rebellious son of the traditionalist mayor of San Francisco's Chinatown. Wong apparently was one of the very few Chinese Americans who ventured a block or so out of his turf to become caught up with the beatniks in adjacent North Beach.
"They were the first who treated me like one of the boys," says Wong. He ended up being memorialized in Jack Kerouac's "The Big Sur." Wong has had five children by four wives, none of them Chinese American, and has arrived at the kind of self-knowledge that allows him to see his father in himself.
If Wong is the de facto star of the film, there is no lack of captivating supporting players, all of whom occupy varying positions in American society--and varying attitudes toward it.
In New Orleans, Tajima-Pena discovers the Burtanog sisters, who are of Filipino descent and belong to a family that has been in the city for eight generations--long enough for them to say of themselves that they are regarded as "honorary whites."
Meanwhile, in Seattle, an engaging pair of young Korean American rappers, calling themselves the Seoul Brothers, have freely drawn upon the culture and politics of their African American friends.
Tajima-Pena even covers a Chinese American debutante ball in Orange County that is a virtual replica of such events that are long a tradition in white American high society.
By the time Tajima-Pena has taken us through her memorable "visual scrapbook," ending with her own marriage (to a Mexican American), she concludes that she can only hope to be as successful in her life as her parents have been.
With much wit and good humor, a lot of it directed to herself, Tajima-Pena raises the serious questions of how an individual of Asian descent goes about establishing a sense of identity in our society.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film is suitable for all ages.
'My America . . . Or Honk If You Love Buddha'
A Renee Tajima-Pena presentation produced in association with the National Asian American Telecommunications Assn. and the Independent Television Service with major funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Writer-producer-director Renee Tajima-Pena. Producer Quynh Thai. Cinematographers Christine Choy, Jim Mulryan, Jon Neuberger. Editors Johanna Demetrakas, Jean Tsien, Michel Negroponte, Jon Neuberger. Music Jon Jang. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
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