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American Dreams: An Interview with Alvin Lau | Projekt NewSpeak
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Posted: 2011-01-09
Categories: Projekt NewSpeak

The Mexi-Asian Perspective: A Mexican’s Guide to All Things Latin, Asian, or Both

by David A. Romero

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” It has been said that America is a nation of immigrants; not only in its history, but that America continues to be defined and redefined by those who travel to its shores and borders. The story of immigrants coming to America and rising in economic status therefore, is the very embodiment of the “American Dream.”

National slam poetry superstar Alvin Lau keeps that dream alive every time he spits through the mic. The son of Chinese immigrants, Lau has won more high stakes poetry slams than any other poet in the world, including consecutive championships at Brave New Voices: The National Youth Poetry Slam (’02, ’03), dozens of regional and invitational championships, and a record-setting six individual finals appearances at the National Poetry Slam and Individual World Poetry Slam (’04, ’06, ’07, ’09, ’10). Lau’s poetry has been featured on two seasons of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, NPR, Amnesty International’s spoken word tour, Rattle Magazine’s Tribute to Slam, and the Poetry Foundation online.

I was fortunate enough to meet this Chicago-based poet during one of his visits to Da Poetry Lounge in Hollywood.  It was there that I was able to gain insight into Lau’s work, hear some of his provocative views on politics and society and finally, learn some of his poker playing secrets.

In “Asia America, Where Have You Gone?” you talk about your immigrant family, their culture, and their history. What particularly resonates is how you talk about your “mother typing out her first book to the sound of crackling eggs.” Could you please talk about how the experience of your Chinese American working class parents informs your work?

Our family sprung up from the bottom rung of society: my parents both came to America laughably broke under spurious student visas, and had to grind out a very modest living in a pretty racist ’80s Greenville. In college, my dad worked midnight shifts as a janitor and finished two degrees in three years. He used to tell me stories about scraping shit– literally shit– off the ceiling after Rolling Stone concerts at SIU, and at some points he was so broke he had to eat dog food. He’d tell me these stories with a hint of pride. “Hey, look where I once was and where I am now.” American dream, all the way.

Common themes in my writing reinforce the same stance; I believe in change manifested through art, that great things bloom from the ground up, and that anything can be accomplished through enough furious effort. (Which is all kind of ironic, considering I’m a diehard Yankees fan. Fuck you, Cubs!) I try to write poetry that is as challenging to the reader as it is difficult for me to write. It’s easy to write about facebook, or temporarily relevant but ultimately forgettable topics, sure. Everyone loves Pokémon and American Idol jokes. But that’s not art. If it doesn’t spark simultaneous self-discovery in the audience and the artist, it’s failed. It’s not art if it’s not hard work. Click here to watch Lau perform \”Asia America, Where Have You Gone?\”

In “What Tiger Said” you challenge Woods’ “ivory tower” and “white-washed” perspective, saying that Woods could have been a “hero to minorities everywhere.” If you had a chance to talk to Tiger Woods, what would you say to him?

I’d play him the music video for “I’m on a Boat,” and then point at T-Pain and ask, “How does it feel like to be him?” I mean seriously, Tiger was a celebrated athlete because he was a minority in a white man’s game. If another white golfer comes along and breaks every record that Tiger set, he’s not going to get nearly as much attention or endorsements. If another minority comes along and becomes the greatest ever, he won’t be as celebrated, he won’t be a pioneer. Yet, Tiger plays down his roots, except of course, when he’s pushing his Buddhist streak when he gets caught boning ugly cocktail waitresses. Come on man, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t downplay your heritage and then use it as a crutch. Eminem never says “Nah, I’m just like any other black guy.” He celebrates his whiteness as much as his fans do. Click here to watch Lau perform \”What Tiger Said\”

In “Asia America, Where Have You Gone?” and “What Tiger Said” you promote unity between all minorities. Where do you see the cultural battlegrounds between minorities and mainstream America?

Oh man, I don’t even know where to start. I’m always shocked at how much blatantly ignorant B.S. pervades every aspect of our intellectual life: in media culture wars, in schools, in coffee shop conversations, even at poetry events. People don’t read enough. Don’t think critically enough. They listen to some ratings-bloating right wing rant from a radio personality and let their emotional centers overtake their logical ones. I remember in art school, 90% of the people around me were upper-middle class white people, and they’d always tell me “Alvin, you make everything about race.” And once more people of color started hanging out with us, they’d admit “Yeah, when you’re a person of color, everything IS about race.” (I was just watching Far East Movement’s latest music video and I was like “Whoa, there are Asians making popular music in America? Ah-maz-ing.”) So I think once people understand that White and non-White cultures are completely separate microcosms in America, understanding can begin. That, and Sarah Palin needs to be pushed off a cliff. Or pulled onto a boat and clubbed in the dome on TLC.

As a national figure speaking to audiences all across the country, what advice do you give for Asian and Latino performers in terms of balancing mainstream success with a connection to their cultural roots? Have you ever been put in a position where you felt like someone was asking you to “sell out?”

A lot of Asian writers strike me as being Asian first and writers second. They preach to almost entirely Asian choirs, becoming ethnocentric and exclusive. But as an artist hoping to reach as wide an audience as possible, I almost prefer to identify myself as “Writing Asian;” while I’ll always be proud of my culture and identity, I discuss those parts of myself only as a method of commenting on the greater human experience. If you’re an aspiring artist, I encourage you to do the same thing. Celebrate who you are with vigor, but don’t cut down members of your audience for not entirely understanding where you’re from. Help them understand. Understand them.

A couple years ago, I held workshops at an Asian student leadership conference, and the conference sponsors were MTV China, Fox News, and the U.S. Coast Guard, and I couldn’t help but think “How did we let MTV, FOX, and the military sponsor us? You’re inviting the enemy into our home and making them hot cocoa.” I felt really uncomfortable performing and speaking alongside representatives from those organizations. It’s just not what I stand for, you know?

Aside from being a poet, you are also an accomplished professional poker player and instructor. Poker tournaments seem to be one of the few places on TV where one can consistently see Asian Americans on television, could you please comment upon this phenomenon?

Hard work and calculation is all it takes, and Asian-Americans have that in spades (along with compulsive gambling problems). Whoops!

When it comes to poker, how DO you know when to hold ‘em? Know when to fold ‘em? Know when to walk away? Know when to run? Have you ever found yourself having to run away from a table?

I lived in Las Vegas for a few months for the World Series of Poker, and there I played some hands against very, very tough tournament players. Some of the better pros possess a battle aura, a presence, that you usually only detect in rock stars and celebrities, and it’s pretty scary to face down. I mean, it never sent me running scared, but it certainly made me want to just dive back into my headphones and disappear after a hand was over.

 Do you think that Asian Latin fusion food is just a passing trend, or the future?

Oh man, fusion food is absolutely my favorite food, so I’m going to be biased here. I’m going to cross my fingers and say it’s here to stay. I just can’t imagine not having papaya dipping sauces with my gyoza.

Who is your favorite Latin celebrity, historical figure, or fictional character?

One of my favorite writers is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is most famous for writing insanely amazing books which are subsequently turned into atrocious movie adaptations.

Would you rather date an Asian or someone of Latin descent?

I definitely have a half-Asian streak. German-Japanese? Korean-Polish? Nigerian-Vietnamese? ZOMG can’t get enough.

Any last words or shout outs?

Korean Fried Chicken is so delicious. It needs to get mainstream.


Alvin Lau


For booking information, email Travis Watkins at Poetry@Laymanlyric.com

David A. Romero is a cheese enchilada-making spoken word artist who knows something about Mexicans. A lover of boba and a citizen of Diamond Bar, CA, he also knows a thing or two about Asians. http://www.davidaromero.com/

Have any ideas for the blog? Questions? Comments? Hit me up below! Or email me: davidaromero@projektnewspeak.com