Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Age Defying

“I don’t get this whole age thing.” Shannon proclaimed at a recent dinner. She was referring to our obsession with and fear of aging. To prove her point, she challenged those present to admit their ages. “Let me start, I’m 62.” Next to her, I blurted 42. And most everyone shared how old they are, except for two women, one who looked like she was 18 (though is not unless banks had adolescent executives) and a retired woman who had earlier protested that “one does not ask such questions.”

While I agree with my friend that there should be no shame in admitting one’s age, fact of the matter is, there is stigma attached to growing old. It is thus understandable why many people would rather not be asked how old they are.

The buzz word for this is Ageism, which is no spring chicken itself but has only gained traction recently. The term was coined almost 40 years ago by gerontologist Robert Butler. Ageism is stereotyping and discrimination against older individuals due to their age. Butler defined it as a combination of prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age and the ageing process; discriminatory practices against older persons; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older women and men.

This is a cause for concern for more than 66 million Americans 55 years old and over (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006).

Ageism in America lists various types of discrimination suffered by mature individuals. First, personal, as exemplified in instances of exclusion based on stereotypic assumptions; physical abuse; and propagation of stereotypes. Second, institutional, as reflected in such practices as mandatory retirement; absence in clinical trials; and devaluation in cost-benefit analyses. Third, intentional, as evidenced by marketing and media that employ stereotypes; targeted financial scams; and denial of job training. Fourth, unintentional, as seen in the absence of emergency procedures to assist old and vulnerable persons living on their own; and the lack of built-environment considerations (ramps, elevators, handrails). Fifth and last is sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation and ageism deserves particular attention due to the insidiousness of double discrimination.

As Tina Gianoulis explains:

If straight seniors must struggle against becoming invisible as they age, gay elders have been almost non-existent in society's mirror. Since many queers who are reaching old age during the 2000s came of age well before the gay liberation movement, they may have spent much of their lives in the closet without the support of a visible community.

Those who have partners may find their relationships discounted and ignored as they get older. They may be separated from partners and placed at the mercy of unsympathetic family members or nursing home staffs. Little research has been done about the lives of these older gays, even though some researchers estimate that there are between 1.75 and 3.5 million gay men and lesbians over 65 in the United States.

Yet, because of the prejudices in the country against homosexuals of all ages and backgrounds, and the prevailing stereotype that older persons are “sexless,” older members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community have an exceptionally difficult time being accepted in society.

Federal law does not recognize the legality of same-sex marriages, and when one member of a same-sex relationship passes away the surviving partner loses significant financial ground. Partners in a same-sex marriage are denied Social Security benefits that married couples receive when one partner dies. By contrast with heterosexual married couples, they face heavy taxes on retirement plans and are subject to an estate tax if they inherit a home, even if it was jointly owned. As a result, same sex partners also risk losing their home when one partner enters a nursing home. While federal Medicaid law permits a married spouse to remain in the couple’s home, this does not hold true foraged same-sex partners.

Everyone should get this old age thing. After all, we all age whether we like it or not.

Image from

Monday, July 28, 2008

Comment on Being White

Through Facebook, a friend responded to the post To assimilate or not to assimilate:

It is funny about the white thing, because as you know if you are Hispanic you can consider yourself, White, Black, Asian or Indian (not in the Sub-continental sense) In my experience everyone who can will say they are Hispanic and white unless it's glaringly obvious they are not. Although in the case of Lulu's birthmother, who indicated she was white, it is only the absence of Mayan surnames that made her white! In places like Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican (and really all Spanish speaking places) there is a distinct white and black hierarchy or where there are Indians white/mixed/Indian. Not so different from the US!

What is interesting to me is Middle Easterners and those of Middle Eastern ancestry. Certain countries: Greece, Turkey, Lebananon, Israel, etc seem to be accepted as white, but not in the WASPY sense that is valued in the US. Tom's family is from MI and all the well-to-do communities at the time would not allow blacks, Greeks or Jews to move in. In the town I grew up in there were not too many WASPs (a lot of Puerto Ricans and African Americans). The kids who were WASPs were the only ones that considered themselves to be white. Even though I was as Caspar as they come, I was too ethnic looking to be accepted in the white clique.

My friend is of Greek descent. She and her husband (Tom) have adopted two adorable girls from Guatemala.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

To assimilate or not to assimilate

Christian Lander’s The Definitive Guide to Stuff White People Like has got me in stitches as well as thinking. Apparently, I very much like a whole lot of things White: Coffee; Religions Their Parents Don’t Belong to; Film Festivals; Farmer’s Markets; Organic Food; Diversity; Barack Obama; Nonprofit Organizations. And that’s just from the beginning of the list. So what does this make me then? A coconut, brown on the outside, white on the inside? Based on the book’s test “How White Are You?” apparently so – I am 54% white!

While the guide parodies highly educated, upper middle class Whites safely and securely sequestered in their enclaves, it does reveal the extent of my assimilation.

So does signing up for Facebook. As friends and schoolmates from over 20 years ago and 3,000 miles away find me, I have come to realize how far I have come. Not only in distance but culturally as well. Aside from shared history and ethnicity, there is not much in common.

Is my immigrant experience shared by other foreign-born individuals? Is assimilation inevitable? Should immigrants assimilate?

Based on numbers from the Urban Institute and the U.S. Census Bureau, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that in 2006, there were close to 36 million individuals in the United States who were born overseas.

In terms of actual assimilation, the Manhattan Institute released a report earlier this year which measures immigrant assimilation. According to its author, foreign-born residents are:

  • Perfectly distinguishable from natives when they are not citizens of the United States.
  • Much more likely to be married to another foreign-born individual.
  • Much less likely to be able to speak English.
  • Less likely to own their residence.
  • More likely to have larger numbers of children living with them.
  • Overrepresented at the low and high ends of the educational distribution; and underrepresented in the group of individuals with no more than a high school diploma, or with some college education but no degree.
  • Less likely to be unemployed or absent from the labor force.
  • Less likely to be veterans.
  • More likely to be working in historically higher-paying occupations but earning less than natives working in those occupations.

As expected however, there are differences among subgroups. Based on the assimilation index developed for the study, people from Mexico, El Salvador, China and India are least assimilated; while those born in Canada, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam are most acculturated. Immigrants from Vietnam, Cuba and the Philippines scored the highest.

Becoming American is a process and is not necessarily inevitable. In urban settings, it is not difficult to find pockets that live in isolation. Within these ethnic enclaves, immigrants stick to their kind, not venturing far from their zones of familiarity and safety (except for jobs). They appear to have no interest whatsoever in participating or being part of the larger community.

This has been a source of concern for some native-born people. As Howard Husock wrote in the New York Sun:

It is a mistake, though, to think that Americans are more worried about who has a green card than they are about immigrant assimilation, a less discussed matter. The idea that immigrants should, and can, become Americans has been a powerful one, a reflection of the fact that ours is a society based on values and laws, rather than a single faith and a common blood.

Lately, discussing immigrant assimilation has become less than acceptable in polite company out of a concern that assimilation imposes Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture on others. But the majority thinks that newcomers should learn English, which is endorsed by 87% of Americans in one Rasmussen survey, and become American citizens. This makes clear that, notwithstanding the affection for multiculturalism among elites, average Americans still believe in the melting pot.

I share affection for multiculturalism and very much value diversity. I think that it is important for immigrants as well as later generations of Americans to remember and be proud of their countries of origin and cultures. The wealth, strength and vitality of the United States are born out of the hard work, resilience and dreams of immigrants.

Nevertheless, we are now part of American society. We chose to come here. We sacrificed a lot to be here. We should thus make the effort to belong, not just economically but culturally and politically as well.

Photo: Nicolai Schäfer in Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Nickel and Diming Charity

A Salvation Army truck backing into a building had emblazoned on its sides “Doing the Most Good.” Who does the most good? Among nonprofit organizations, it is nowadays determined by who has the best answer to another question: how much of a donor’s dollars is spent on program.

This metric reflects the nonprofit sector’s “professionalization,” its embrace of the business sector’s practices and to some degree, culture. It also signals Americans’ abiding trust in capitalism. And numbers.

Often, an organization’s effectiveness and efficiency is measured by how funds are allocated among administrative, fundraising and programmatic costs. A webpage captures the various responses to the all important and encompassing query.

What percentage of my donation actually goes to help horses?
Habitat for Horses - In the past four reporting years, an average of 90% of all donations are spent on the horses. The other 10% is being spent on administrative and fundraising cost.

What percentage of my donation goes to administrative/operational costs?
Greenville Hospital
System - None. 100 percent of your donation goes toward the program or area of your choice.

What percentage of funds raised by NamasteDirect actually goes into loan funds?NamasteDirect - Not less than 70 percent. We are committed to keeping administrative costs to less than 25 percent and to retaining up to five percent for reserve funds to meet special borrower needs.

Based on Charity Navigator’s criteria, all of the above are sterling agencies. Charity Navigator claims to be the largest and most utilized charity evaluator in America. It measures the health of over 5,000 nonprofits through “an unbiased, objective, numbers-based rating system.” It scrutinizes how responsibly an agency functions daily and how sustainable programs are. Basically, organizational efficient nonprofits are those that spend less money to raise more. Fundraising and administrative costs are kept at a minimum in order that a majority of its spending is on programs and services. A good agency gets four stars while a bad one, one star.

It is commendable that charitable organizations are held accountable. However, experts caution against using the discussed metric as the ultimate and only measure of a nonprofit’s health. A professor and senior fellow at a think tank emailed:

Percentage of dollars for overhead is a commonly used metric but it is very blunt. There may be very good reasons why the percentage is high for some nonprofits. And there can be reasons to worry if the percentage is too low. I would urge great care in using this measure. There are a good number of people who have written about this.

A deputy director of a national program that educates family foundations and individual philanthropists wrote:

Hi – my opinion is that such a measure might be interesting, in that the relationship to success may not be there at all. My bias is toward operating support and to not linking a NP’s success to dollars purely designated to programs—because the presumption and general practice of most funders is toward programs, to the detriment of operating support. Beyond that fact, the least interesting (but most often cited) so-called NP measurement vehicles like Charity Nav and such use this operating to program $$ ratio as an indicator of success and positive value. I would disagree with the premise…and would be cautious about giving any more credence to it.

While donors have the right, and indeed the responsibility, to ask nonprofits how donations are spent, they have to go beyond mere dollars and percentages when gauging success. They ought to probe deeper and ask more questions. What do people and communities being served really need and want? How can these needs be met? How can agencies mobilize their resources? What do staff require to do their jobs better? How can board members become more engaged? How can executives be more inspired and effective leaders? What is needed to fulfill a nonprofit’s mission?

Answers to these questions will vary. Narrowing it all down to percentages and cents does not give anyone a clear picture.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Local Food, Local Hunger

Since we first met them a year ago, a couple has been encouraging me and my partner to turn locavore. The Urban dictionary defines a locavore as “someone who eats food grown or produced locally or within a certain radius such as 50, 100, or 150 miles usually for ecological reasons.” Another entry adds “Noune (sic). A person whose diet focuses on foods grown and produced nearby, typically 100 miles.”

A few days ago, they had us over for dinner and we sampled locavore cuisine – they served us vegetables grown in their community patch, steaks from half a cow with a Mennonite farm pedigree, and ice cream churned from the milk of a free-range heifer. Indeed, we could taste the difference between their food and the provisions we pick up at Giant or Safeway.

The other day, the New York Times featured this growing trend of buying and eating local. The author’s angle was from that of lazy locavores – folk who’d like to get on the bandwagon but don’t have the time, energy or interest in gardening much less animal husbandry. Not quite like our friends, these true blue Manhattanites hire a chef to market for and prepare their local-themed meals or an assistant to tend vegetables in their patios.

Aside from the quality, taste and health benefits of harvesting local and organic fare, an argument for the local food movement is that it makes economic sense. Stephen J. Dubner was asked in his NYT Freakonomics blog if this were indeed the case . Dubner, in a nutshell, answered no because of the huge inefficiencies involved in producing one’s own food (comparative advantage rules).

While it might be well and good that the movement is gaining traction, the Food Research and Action Center reminds us that “one of the most disturbing and extraordinary aspects of life in this very wealthy country is the persistence of hunger.” In 2006, 35.5 million people were food insecure - 22.9 million adults and 12.6 million children. Moreover, those who were worst-off increased to 11.1 from 10.8 in 2005. Black and Hispanic households experienced hunger more than other Americans (United States Department of Agriculture, 2006). One can wager that there would be more hungry Americans in 2007 and 2008.

So while some people get finicky about where their mache is grown, millions of women, men and children skip a meal or two, cut back on the food they purchase and go to bed hungry. More and more families and individuals have also turned to food banks.

And so have these agencies hitched on the local food band wagon.

Earlier this week, USA Today featured an article on gleaning. Gleaning is the process of collecting left over crops from local farms and making them available to people who resort to food pantries. While not a new practice, more organizations are engaging in it as they find it harder to replenish their inventories. Fewer people are donating due in part to rising fuel and food prices. Some who used to donate themselves are now surviving on items found in food banks.

Now let’s get one thing clear: though the produce might come from local farms, it isn’t fresh. And these folk are not locavores by choice.

Illustration by Julia Gran in

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cold as Ice

While a colleague was working on my computer the other day, he shared his interest in Hip Hop culture and Rhyme. He then rapped a piece he had written:

I've fallen in love and I'm preparing for marriage
working a year of double time for the woman I cherish
convinced that true love is only measured in karats
by a tradition of consumerism, an addiction I inherited

study the trade, you'll see it's colonial heritage
and that a mining of "a diamond is forever" oppressive
linked purposefully with our celebrated weddings
so we'll never think about the hell and death that we're spreading

corporations know cheap diamonds come from tyrants
so they fund their armies so they can ensure that there's violence
to keep the price down and to maximize their margins
so they can make a fortune over what they bought for a bargain

what's even worse is that we've cursed these people
promoted sociopaths and rewarded what's evil
funded warlords who torture and steal
who we support every time we drop to our knees and say,
"will you marry me?"

My friend challenges us to think - to ask why we do things and to consider what our actions could bring to bear.

The United Nations reports that $23 million in blood diamonds are being smuggled into international diamond markets. Blood diamonds have killed over 4 million people and made refugees of millions more (Amnesty International USA). The insatiable demand for the gem has been tapped into by rebel groups to fuel savage wars in West Africa. The market has also funded Al Qaeda (Washington Post, A19, July 13,2004).

Many see a diamond as a symbol of love and commitment, other times of wealth and power. How many see it as causing so much torment and death in Angola, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Liberia? How many see it as costing the lives of millions of women, men and children?

An article in Amnesty Magazine recounts the story of Jusu Lahia, a 15 year old that was wounded by an exploding rocket-propelled grenade. At that time, he was a child soldier in Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front; the same rebel group that terrorized tens of thousands of people by hacking off their arms, legs, lips and ears with machetes and axes. The insurgents spared thousands of other but enslaved them as prisoner-laborers to dig up gems we covet from muddy open-pit mines.

Countless suffer and die that we might sport a rock upon which our society has bestowed inordinate meaning and value.

“Will You Marry Me?” by David Tansey. “Diamond Skull” by Damien Hirst.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Ricky Nguyen

In response to an earlier post, a friend emailed:
Your blog post about the relatively small number of Asian and Hispanic homeless made me think of this very sad article from my hometown paper. Ricky Nguyen was triply isolated: gay, schizophrenic, Vietnamese. (Though not homeless....barely.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Homeless Asians

The other evening, a dinner conversation about race led to admission of stereotypes we held about other people. As an Asian I confessed my surprise at encountering a homeless Asian man while volunteering at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in New York . It is a notion shared by an individual who posted in Yahoo Answers:

How come we hardly see and asian or mexican homelesses? When I travel the streets or something i normally only see white and black people as homelesses But i also go around the asian community and i only saw 1 asian homeless so far and i think 2 mexican homelesses In La i saw alot of black homelesses too

The “best” answer highlighted is one I would have given myself: we take care of our own.

… I believe that homelessness is less pronounced among Asian and Hispanic communities simply because both cultures value the family very highly and when times get tough for someone, they are more likely to step up to the plate to be there for their family member and help them out. Too bad we can't all be like that.

I would add that “face” is very important to Asians. Laurence Hsin Yang of Columbia University, explains that the Chinese and by extension, Asian, concept of face is integral to its culture. He writes that one’s moral standing and place is society is contingent upon upholding personal and communal obligations. An individual loses face by not meeting her responsibilities, in this case, taking care of indigent family members. As a community, we lose face when we allow our own to become homeless.

Yet there are homeless Asians. Isabelle Hsu reports in the Pacific News Service that in San Francisco alone there are approximately 6,000 plus people living in the streets. She quickly adds that this is a very rough estimate. Ed Jew (the only Chinese American on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s committee to end chronic homelessness) explains that the official estimate of Asian homelessness is probably low because of cultural sensitivities. It is also a matter of saving face: homeless Asians refuse to go to shelters and admit to their homelessness.

The lives of two men serve as examples. Robert Chan is a 38 year old immigrant from Vietnam who had lost his wallet and ID. Moreover, he had strained relations with his sister. Without proper identification, relations and money, he has no choice but to live in the streets. Michael Sao, a Laotian immigrant has been in the country much longer than Chan. He moved to San Francisco in the late eighties and has been working in restaurants until a back injury put him out of a job two years ago. At first he tried staying in homeless shelters, but the violence and conflict made him swear he would never go back again.

Homelessness is a problem faced by all racial groups. In its fact sheet Who is Homeless?, the National Coalition for the Homeless includes a 2004 survey of 27 cities which found that the homeless population was 49% African American, 35% Caucasian, 13% Hispanic, 2% Native American, and 1% Asian. The paper also cites studies which show that single homeless adults are more likely to be male than female. Moreover, a 2005 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that single men comprised 51% of the homeless population and single women comprised 17%.

In National Estimates of Homelessness, the Coalition estimates the homeless population to number approximately 3.5 million, with 1.35 million of them children. It also cites research which reveals that about 1% of the U.S. population experiences homelessness each year.

With the economy in a recession, these figures can only get worse.

Photo: homeless in SF by Kieran Ridge & Hiromi Oda

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Where are you from?

It has been 18 years since I moved to the United States (well, New York City) and I still get asked “where are you from?” Or am assured “you have no accent!” While I’d like to say that such questions do not bother me, they do. It makes me feel as if I were still a stranger, a foreigner, as one who does not belong. It makes me feel as if I were not one of you.

It surprises me how otherwise well-educated and seemingly well-mannered individuals can lack cultural sensitivity. At a church I used to attend, a doctor exclaimed after I had read the lesson for the first time, “Your English is so good! Where did you learn to speak it so well?” He uttered the exact words the second time I read. And the third. A diplomat I know who prides himself in knowing where foreigners are from, wouldn’t think twice of telling the coat check person, “let me guess, Palestinian!”

Whatever motivates one to ask such questions, P. M. Forni in his book Choosing Civility warns:

For many nonnative speakers, their accent is a serious matter, and they don’t like being asked about it over and over again. They object to what they perceive as an unwarranted (even if unintentional) criticism of their linguistic abilities. They feel that no matter what they do to blend in, they will always be outsiders. Or whatever the reason, they prefer not to release information about their background.

Accent aside, always use restraint when it comes to satisfying your curiosity about others’ ethnic identity. People may be proud of being Hispanic, Arab, African or Native American, but may also resent off-the-cuff inquiries about “what” they are. They may think that you want to classify them rather than making the effort to deal with them as individuals (p.120-121).

I confess that I have done to others what I do not want done to me. Many years ago, in an attempt to display my knowledge that there are many Chinese languages, I asked a guest whether she spoke Cantonese or Fukienese. Rather than be rewarded for my erudition, I received a verbal slap. “I am not Chinese! I am Taiwanese! We are democratic, not communist!”

Last week, while discussing this very topic over a meal, a friend commiserated, claiming that she knows how it feels. At first I found this rather difficult to believe. While she is half Dominican and half Irish-American, she looks totally Caucasian. She agreed that no one would mistake her for anything but White. However, Latinos ask “where are you from?” whenever she speaks in Spanish. Never mind the fact that she speaks the language fluently and has spent a lot of time in Latin America.

Another friend suggests that I consider the possibility that folk who ask such questions might mean no harm and actually even think that they are being hospitable. Perhaps. Most likely so. Indeed, I can see how someone new to the United States might welcome being asked about their origins and other-ness. But for heaven’s sake, I’ve been here a while and I do speak A-merken!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Homosexual Killers

The Archbishop of Uganda’s Anglican Church recently expressed his great fear that homosexuals are out to kill him. Henry Luke Orombi was quoted as lamenting “nowadays, I don’t wear my collar when I am in countries which have supporters of homosexuals.” He explained that he is forced to “dress like a civilian because those people are dangerous … some of them are killers. They want to close the mouth of anybody who is against them.”

I think that Mr. Orombi needs a reality check to see whose mouths are actually being shut. Whose faces are battered and whose lives shattered. Orombi simply has to look within his own country.

On June 4, 2008, Amnesty International released a public statement expressing concern over the continued harassment and attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights defenders in Uganda and calling on its government to end harassment of LGBT women and men by police. The statement also recounted the latest abuse of transgender individuals.

... the two were dancing at Capital Pub in Kampala, Uganda, when they were detained by club bouncers, harassed and beaten while being asked whether they were men or women, and “accused” of being homosexuals. The club management of Capital Pub called the police, who detained both individuals for four days at Kabalagala Police station. During their detention, both were repeatedly beaten by police officers, and one was kissed, fondled and forcefully propositioned for sex by other detainees, and stripped and had their genitals groped by a police officer. One of the two was denied medical treatment for diabetes, and allowed only one meal a day. After their release on bond, both individuals were charged with public nuisance, and are currently awaiting trial.

Since their release, both individuals have faced harassment and violent attacks from individuals in their neighbourhood who were informed by police of their gender identity. These started with threats and escalated to a serious violent attack on the night of 3 June in Old Kampala, where a group of youths attacked both individuals. One of the attackers has since been arrested by police.

Another case is that of Olivia Nabulwala, a Ugandan lesbian seeking asylum in the United States. She reports that her family was so angry and ashamed they hurled insults at her, pummeled her, stripped her then held her down while a stranger raped her. In a sworn statement she says:

I hated myself from that day ... I disliked my family for subjecting me to such torture, and yet they felt this was a good punishment for me.

Orombi should shut his mouth and listen to the suffering of his own people, to the suffering of his sisters and brothers in Christ, to the suffering caused by his mouth.

Role Models

During a recent interview with Isabel Betancourt, Larry King simply had to ask whether she was sexually assaulted during her captivity. To Betancourt’s credit, she chose not to respond. She chose not to. King could have chosen not to include titillating questions but he did – he also asked whether she and the other captives were chained, lived in huts, or dealt with jungle animals. He needed to know each and every horrid detail of her six years of suffering in Colombia’s jungles. I can imagine the veteran journalist (and network executives) rationalizing that we, the viewers, want to know every salacious, delicious detail of Betancourt’s time with the FARC rebels.

But did he really need to ask such questions? Though a lot of folk may indeed want to know whether the hostage was raped and tortured, King could have used his show to bring his viewer’s attention to far more important stuff such as global poverty and inequity. He could have used his very influential forum as a vehicle to educate and promote change.

And speaking of change, both presidential candidates have lately been accused of flip-flopping and pandering, of not keeping their promises. Obama on Iraq, NAFTA, gun control and wiretapping. McCain on tax, campaign and immigration reform as well as torture. It has been argued that this is to be expected: after winning their primaries, a candidate usually moves to the center. This is all strategic, to win more votes and the presidency. Quite frankly, I am not at all surprised with the candidates’ “refining” of their policies and with TV journalists giving viewers what they want. But I wonder if these good people, who have the opportunity and influence, would not take the lead and set the example, if they would not take the risk and stand on principle, then who would?