Story Behind the Book Yell-Oh
Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American
I couldn't understand why Alex
refused to acknowledge the injustices, which, to me, were so plainly obvious.
I wondered why we didn't see the world from similar perspectives. But I
quickly realized my error. Alex and I didn't have to share the same worldview,
just because we were both Asian. Later, listening to other Asian American
girls tell their stories in our anthology, this idea would resonate with
My mother always made time for
me. She heard me talk endlessly about how much my teachers hated me, and
that I wanted to move to Florida or California or anywhere but where we
lived. When I was finished, she offered advice that was meant to assuage
but only left me asking more questions. My mother told me about the challenges
she faced as a first-generation immigrant - and that not being the most
popular girl in the school wouldn't be the last crises I'd ever face in
my life. Her arguments were impossible to refute. There was so little I
knew about my parents' past, and so much about their lives that peaked my
curiosity. When I attempted to talk to them about their family history,
or memories of immigration, I felt like I was paddling in quicksand. Most
of the time, I thought that they were far removed from what I was going
through at school. I wished there were a person who could challenge my views
without discounting them. I wanted someone to listen to me, to give me insight,
and to validate my emotions. I didn't want to consult peers or teachers
with my problems for fear that they, like my friend Alex, would dismiss
me as some angry little Asian girl.
The desire to reconcile feelings
of alienation and self-hatred grew, and I became interested in embarking
on a journey toward gaining a fuller understanding of my identity. In college,
I decided to take a closer look at my high school photo album. In every
photo that was ever taken of me in high school, I'm smiling. I revisited
the questions I asked myself as a teenager - the most important one being,
what feelings and experiences were masked by that picture-perfect, model-minority
smile? The album chronicles a dreadful decade of fashion and beauty trends
manifesting an underdeveloped, Asian, female body. In seventh grade, I wore
Cover Girl pearlescent, electric blue and purple eyeliner in a style
that, according to instructions I found in a beauty bonus insert in my teen
magazine, would "widen and accentuate almond-shaped eyes." In eighth grade,
a botched iron-rod spiral perm obliterated my fantasy of becoming L'Oreal
spokesmodel Andie McDowell. In ninth, a short wedge hairdo meant to emulate
Mary Stuart Masterson's in Some Kind of Wonderful, earned me the
nickname "UFO Girl". In tenth, my mother cringed when she saw me wearing
hazel colored contacts. They made me look moo-soh-wo - in Korean, "scary"
- like a lion or a lizard. In eleventh, Sun-In lightening solution turned
my hair orange, and I never left the house without wearing a too-puffy,
size 32A, push-up bra.
My best friend, Amy, who is Irish-American,
was also insecure about her appearance, but I think our high-school photos
tell disparate stories about how we coped with our physical flaws. Pictures
of Amy tell of a girl who felt like a nerd wearing clunky, plastic-framed
glasses. Amy cursed her dull, frizzy, brown hair, and her pale, fleshy body.
I was equally unsatisfied with my image, but not just because I thought
I looked brainiac or fat. I was trapped in my "outsider" skin, marked for
life. No amount of lightening, tightening, or whitening would transform
me into the beautiful, glossy girls in Seventeen, or even the popular
"It" girls at school, whose blond or brunette ponytails swished from side
to side in the hallways.
The stories, poems, and essays
appearing in Yell-Oh Girls! starts a lively dialogue about issues
of identity, culture, and growing up through the perspectives of Asian American
girls - issues rarely addressed in the mainstream magazines targeting American
teen girls. In five months I generated over 500 submissions from Asian American
girls from across the U.S. and Canada. And with the help of a friend, I
launched a Web site as an interactive accessory to the book. I prompted
potential contributors with a list of introspective questions designed to
trigger a writing frenzy and, to my delight, I received letters and submissions
from people who were eager to get involved and wanted to know more about
the anthology project. Girls from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and
geographic locations joined our discussions about a range of topics - interracial
dating, dual identities, family conflicts and relationships, sexuality,
friendship, political activism. Later, I sought pre- published and original
essays from women whom we considered mentors, and decided that a "mentor
essay" would be placed at the end of each chapter. This special feature
would accomplish two important tasks. It would emphasize the importance
of connection between girls and women, and make visible some successful,
charismatic, Asian women whose contributions to literature, activism, and
politics would inspire girls to follow their personal and professional dreams.
The book includes insightful essays by revered writers and organizers such
as Phoebe Eng, Nora Okja Keller, Elaine Kim, Patsy and Wendy Mink, Janice
Mirikitani, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, and Helen Zia - all critical links between
young and mature perspectives.
Once again, my mailbox is brimming
with e-mails. The inquiries are from girls who eagerly await the release
of the anthology ("When's it coming out again?"). They are girls who are
excited that somebody they know will be among the featured contributors.
Also in the mix are girls who are trying to bridge the generation and communication
gaps in their relationship with their parents. Girls who are getting up
the courage to tell their friends that calling them "China Doll" or "Oriental"
isn't okay. Girls who want to find creative ways of resisting the pervasive
stereotype that suggests Asian women are silent, docile, sexually subservient,
exotic. Girls who are overwhelmed by the conflicting roles they are expected
to perform at home and at school. Girls who are learning to accept and even
love themselves - their bodies, their parents, their cultural uniqueness
- in the context of Eurocentric, mainstream ideals reinforced in American
culture. And, most obvious are the girls, who, in the process of respecting
the demands of people in their lives, are searching for their own distinct
In Yell-Oh Girls! nearly
seventy girls unite to challenge the idea that youth are passive receptacles
to the mass media, and parental and peer pressure. Wielding the power of
the pen, these contributors are the warrior women of tomorrow, combating
stereotypes, recovering untold stories, and taking the initiative to change
the world. At the heart of the book is the belief that, as Asian American
girls, our voices matter. --Vickie Nam
"Why bother stressing out over things you can't change? That's life, so
Alex's attitude toward most of the social crises that occurred throughout
adolescence was that if there was no way in hell he could fix something,
he'd just ignore it. Although his philosophy clashed with my own, it was
something I learned to accept over the years. After all, he was one of
the only Asian kids I'd grown up with since I was a toddler. Alex's phlegmatic
responses bewildered and vexed me, especially as I began confiding in
him about the critical observations I was making about the predominantly
white, conservative suburb we lived in, which, in my opinion, was also
a moist, dark breeding place for prejudice. I could tell from the way
his voice dropped, and from the slow sigh that always accompanied a shaking
head of disapproval that he thought, as usual, I was being dramatic. I
should stop obsessing about imagined "differences" - racial and cultural
that, Alex said, were apparent only to me, and not to anyone around me.
Vicki at a Book Signing in Your Area
Text © 2001, HarperCollins Publishers.
Girls!: Emerging Voices Explore Culture,
Identity, and Growing Up Asian American
by Vickie Nam (Editor) - Buy
the Exclusive AllHip Interview of
Editor Vickie Nam where she talks about her experiences as
a journalist, about editing the book, experiences growing up Asian in
America, her thoughts on Pop Culture, Mentors and on finding her voice
and personal mission.
Story About the
Girls! Editor Vicki Nam Discusses the genesis of the book.
from the Book Yell-Oh Girls!
Alaina Wang Excerpt: "China Doll"
Gullapalli Excerpt: "Funny
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