Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fashion As Culture

By: Danny Liemthongsamout

Entry # 1

I've been tasked with a challenge to not adhere to the consumerism of U.S. society.  However, my experience growing up in an ethnic enclave is a base for my analysis, feelings, and understanding opposing my existence in U.S. society.  Accurate understanding of my views on fashion, beauty, and consumerism requires understanding of my community and my life as an ambivalence of cultural views and U.S. societal views.  I'll be honest in who I am, who my community is, and how I understand my experience.

I'm an average Southeast Asian Male.  My ancestors struggled with wars and colonization.  My grandparents and parents came as refugees to the United States in 1989.  A Lao legend warns us of a eagle promising us a better land with the intent of us living in its feces.  My mother gave birth to me at the age of 19, when my father died.  He was a kind man who would give away his suits and care for his peers.  He died in his sleep next to my mother and me.  An autopsy reported he died of unknown causes.  The elders say it was his rage.  As a survivor, he was vicious in all his endeavors.  He listened to the elders intently and cared for everyone.  He was also vicious when people cut him off on the road or disrespected his parents.  The Lao people in surviving and continuing all have this mentality to a degree in my community.  A majority of people I grew up with didn't have fathers due to our circumstances.  Spiritually I'm not a reincarnation or a carnation like my peers.  My family tells me my father's soul entered me by dying next to me.  I grew to look exactly like him and live my life as he did.

Even though our elders established a temple to allow our culture and traditions to continue, we still live in a U.S. society.  Lacking resources to have an education and/or jobs, my community exists through crime.  Our families have a tradition of surviving and continuation.  Some children at the age of 10 starve.  Personally, I made money anyway I could to put food in the fridge.  As much as all of us tried to not think, eventually we have to confront our existence.  We come from broken homes, nights of hunger, stories of violence, and stories of death.  We grow witnessing the resistance of our families to oppression and disrespect.  Overtime the hollowness of our lives exists in our minds constantly.  It comes from too many nights of seeing family pictures as we are robbing homes.  It comes from too many instances of stealing cars and seeing fathers run out of homes carrying children.  Growing up in poverty exposed and exposes me to suffering whether it's the homeless man on the corner or the child stealing food at Walmart.  I feel my understanding of the world comes from understanding suffering.  My own suffering is only one way to understand.  Constantly loving people and knowing they will suffer is the hardest part of my life.  I respect everyone's struggle as important and meaningful; however, I feel few realize their privilege of stability.

My youth was never about shopping.  I had to steal from stores.  Never from small stores or Asian stores.  In our culture, we judge people for their reasons and not their actions.  The monks at the temples welcome us even though they know what my generation perpetuates.  As a people we've never had money, jobs, cars, and houses.  We are raised in a culture where people are valued for their character, kindness, and love.  Sometimes it's helping an old lady with her groceries or giving a fish I caught to a child.  Sometimes its beating up a loved one's ex-boyfriend or gambling my life so my parents can eat.  Lao people don't have friends; we have family.  Families formed by experiences in the refugee camps and relocation.  As a diaspora, our main value is family.  We love everyone and will accept anyone into our family, because we understand struggle.  This understanding also causes an existence of ambivalence from violence and crimes we must commit to survive.

 I guess this ambivalence is why we become activists.  We never chose to be activists, because we exist in the suffering.  For life to be better for our communities and families, we have to be activists.  I help people from my community attend college and a majority of them are active community members.  They have been community center workers and members from Richmond, Providence, and Sacramento.  I guess we have an impersonal approach.  Instead of a professional image that is eventually shattered, we tell the youth of our experiences, struggles, and knowledge.  People in U.S. society don't see criminals as people.  We are labelled as outcasts with twisted minds; however, we're people.  Few take the time to understand the histories of our families and the communities we come from.  No matter how much we give, few respect our thoughts and voices.  In a way I understand, because we can never truly tell every detail about our lives.  Coming from a demonized community, I can't say many things due to society and also the emotional strain.  We are cocaine dealers, weed dealers, killers, hit men  pimps, prostitutes, and hustlers, but we are also sons, daughters, lovers, mothers, fathers, and people.

I was taught to stand up and do whats right no matter the consequences.  It doesn't matter if a cop, teacher, or person in power is wrong; I have to stand up.  Ironically our New Years consists mostly of criminals, because we stay to our traditions.  We don't see hierarchy   We only see family and people trying.  Sometimes I was a monk; sometimes I was a car thief.  It's what I had to do and my family loves me.

Annual Lao Conference

We live as unstable as our parents.  We don't know if we can pay rent this month. We don't know what our futures hold for us.  We don't know if we'll make it home tonight.  All of us strive for a college education; however, we have responsibilities. Our younger generation will eat and our parents will have their homes no matter what it takes from us.  As a people we will love each other today and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.  I'd rather feed someone with my last $10 than have gas.

I helped many people with no high school diploma enter community college.  Many don't receive financial aid, because they haven't passed the Ability To Benefit test.  They don't worry, because they care about their education.  We're survivors so we'll keep going not matter what.  Personally I don't receive financial aid, because I completed my FAFSA a week late.  I was working in a factory at the time and lost my sense of time and days.  It was an experience where I spent more time with the elders and young people than my own family.  70 hours a week.  I pay $2,500 every three months on top of $2,500 of unsubsidized loans.  As my parents say, "We're poor and we get by.  Get an education and be happy."  I'm used to this existence day by day.  Hustling and graduating high school.  Working in a factory for two years to pay for summer school 2012.  Life is hard, but I have to be around to maybe make the lives of the next generation easier.  Some of us don't make it and commit suicide, but it isn't their fault.  My generation does what it can.  We have strength, because we make things happen from the little we have.  Our parents made something from nothing.  Sometimes I can't give much so I do what I can.  I believe my community's understanding and feeling comes from experiences of sorrow and kindness.  Pride, masculinity, femininity, and inferiority barely exists in my community, because we are reminded of our humanity constantly.  Everyone around me lives with this instability.  Ironically, I feel living with instability in life has brought me happiness.  I learned at a young age to be proud of my parents.  I learned to be proud of my male cousins playing Keisha Cole through their sub woofers.  I learned life will be okay if I keep going and I have family to catch me. I learned the meaning of good.  I learned it's nice to be important, but more important to be nice.

Fashion in my Lao culture correlates to our views on tattoos.  Tattoos for us is a ceremony that binds us to spirits.  We believe our community struggles, because our elders received tattoos to survive the Secret War.  To become bullet-proof and stab-proof, the elders sacrificed a part of their lives.  They all must live hand to mouth everyday.  If they ever break the rules, they will go crazy.  Some rules of the tattoos are we must never lie, we must never start fights, and we must never steal unless starving.  The question is why as a community we subjugate ourselves to this tradition?  Every generation chooses to sacrifice their fallibility and lives.  My generation chooses to have these tattoos so we can survive and provide for our younger generations to maybe one day live stable lives.  I don't fear death as I carry a tattoo on my arm.  All I wish for in life is to be around and provide for the younger generations as they grow.

As criminals, we are silenced.  We can never truly have allies if we are constantly sees as broken, inferior, and needing punishment.  I've only come to realize to not shun my experiences and understandings.  No matter how many Southeast Asian organizations exist in Sacramento, my community will be stuck in a life of instability if our voices aren't valued.  From my experience, academia doesn't truly know the experience of the poor in the United States.  I was raised in home full of drugs and no food.  When everyone was worried over the viral video of an Asian boy being beat up, I was angry due to people I love being jumped and shot at everyday.  Academia wishes for me to leave this environment and get away.  This is my community and the people who raised me.  The low number of Lao males in Sacramento forced us to grow up to become stick up boys.  The fashion of stick up boys isn't only clothing but also a culture of interaction and thinking.

Fashion growing up was always what the stick up boys wore.  They were respected not for balling, but taking care of others with their money.  They would give their clothes and money away because they could always get more.  If they wanted something they would get it.  If their mothers wanted a house; they would get it.  If their sister was beat up by her boyfriend; they'd break her boyfriend's legs with a sledgehammer.  We all wanted to be stick up boys.  We wanted to be unstoppable in our endeavors against our oppression.  As I grew up and became more of a stick up boy, I realized every stick up boy struggles.  They carry a smile while living in constant instability.  Everyday was a new day.  Death or a life sentence could happen any day, but they did all they could for themselves and everyone they loved to live the best they could.

Stick up boys can wear whatever they want, because everyone tries to avoid violence except hot boys.  I was a hot boy once.  It's a phase I had while coming to terms with all my struggles and life.  It's an existence of rage and destruction.  I felt the world owed me everything and I would take everything.  I'd destroy if I wanted to and I'd steal if I wanted too.  A stick up boy has reasons for his actions.  A hot boy is usually selfish.  The hot boy phase exists from our poverty.  Watching ads for items we can never afford.  Being 5 and knowing our parents can't afford candy for us.  It doesn't last long, because we aren't selfish.  We've suffered to much in our lives to not understand the people we hurt.  We've seen to much violence to the people we love; therefore, we can't even raise our hands even in self defense to our parents or the ones we love.  The hot boy phase is close to the internalization phase of William E. Cross, Jr.'s "The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience".  The internalization phase consists of rage and a sense of total understanding of their experience.  The stick up boy phase is close to the internalization-commitment phase.  The internalization-commitment phase is characterized by continued critical thinking and understanding.  Cross states, "One of the the most striking qualities of many people who are into stage five (internalization-commitment) is the compassion they exhibit toward folks who have not completed the process."(Cross, 282)  I didn't become truly involved in community work until I truly was a stick up boy.  I was able to understand the struggles and experiences of others fully once I understood who I was and the world I lived in.

The Air Jordans, New Era Hats, pea coats, and cars mean nothing if a stick up boy doesn't take care of his or her family.  Truthfully most of my clothing is bought if I have fed my family and no one around me needs money.  This was only a few years in my life during high school and after.  Truthfully a majority of my clothes is either from robberies, hand me downs, or from thrift stores.  I stopped shopping in 2010 after I left UC Davis, because I was realizing there were more important things to buy than clothing.  I also have over 25 jackets and 20 hats, because I felt I deserved all these things at a young age.  I'm not immune from influences of cultural and U.S. societal fashion.

I"m still influenced by brands and consumerism; however, I don't have the expendable income to afford high priced clothing.  I'd rather buy food for my loved ones than go thrift shopping.  I still buy branded clothing when I'm thrift shopping though.  I guess coming from nothing doesn't rid me of seeing value in brands.  I also take off my jacket and shoes to give them away sometimes.  I feel I live within my Lao diaspora, but our physical community is surrounded and intertwines with U.S. society.  There is an ambivalence in my clothing of what my community sees and what U.S. society sees.

My Lao community being a subculture within crime culture means our stick up fashion is not only clothing, but a way of interaction.  Kawamura states, "the way a cravat was tied, how shoes were polished, the type of cigar smoke or how a cane was held - and understood how they were regarded with utmost seriosness by bourgeois consumers.  All these subtle details of style were interpreted as significant markers of social standing."(Kawamura, 8)  Hype beasts exist that follow the hype of clothing; however, few can wear the clothing like a stick up boy.  There's a loose walk to the feeling of strength as a stick up boy.  Folding of pants at the ankle cuffs serve as a place to hide drugs.  Rubber bands at the ankles allows a person to shop lift objects and insert them into his or her pants.  Baggy clothing allows the concealment of weapons.  There is a way of interaction as a stick up boy.  Coming from a community where anyone is willing to fight or kill me, I learned to treat everyone with respect early.  There is also a commitment to do what is right to avoid problems.  When I smoke, I blow my smoke into the air to establish my strength.  When people I am with are hungry, I buy them food.  Being a stick up boy isn't about balling, it's about respect.  Loving people and doing things for them they might not have the initiative or ability to do is how we get our respect.

Be Green Challenge Update:
I've only spent money on cigarettes, gas, food, and bills this week.  I've been trying to save for tuition, but I've been giving money to a loved one for his lawyer fees.  I've been fishing more also.

Works Cited:

Cross, William E. "The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience." Sterotypic and Non-sterotypic Images Associated with the Negro to Black Conversion Experience an Empirical Analysis. N.p.: n.p., 1976. 277-83. Print.

Kawamura, Yuniya. "Introduction." Introduction. Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies. Oxford: Berg, 2006. 8. Print.

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