Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

Radiolab and the Psychology of Abandonment

photo by Newtown Grafitti via Flickr

For weeks now, I’ve been reading and writing about the repercussions of the Radiolab Yellow Rain segment, in which the program's co-host pushes a genocide survivor to accept the “fact” that Yellow Rain, possibly a chemical weapon that killed Hmong refugees following the Vietnam War, was really bee poop. Even before it became apparent how questionable the bee poop finding is (no counter-evidence is mentioned in the segment), I wrote about how Radiolab had failed as storytellers. The more compelling and important and human story in the Yellow Rain segment is not whether Yellow Rain was or was not bee poop, and how that affected the West; it is the story Kalia and Eng Yang attempt to tell, of genocide and suffering in the East and of the silence surrounding that story, the same story ironically silenced by Radiolab. I use “ironically” here not as in the Alanis Morisette song but as in “contrary to what was, or might have been, expected” (Dictionary.com).

My problem was I trusted Radiolab to find the emotional truth. Empathy and curiosity were the traits that drew me to the program in the first place, its willingness to report the humanity in the science, to follow a story ostensibly about sending information into space for aliens to its heartbreaking tangent in which a writer describes trying to represent humankind by mapping the electromagnetic pulses of love inside of her. The irony of a program like this casting aside the emotional perspective of its non-Western interviewees, was enough to make me feel my interests and investment had been abandoned, especially as an Asian American who knows what it means to be silenced, to be marginalized.

I was adopted from Korea when I was two and a half, and grew up with white parents in a largely white town in Connecticut, so I know what it is like to wish you had the privileges of the majority, the power to be heard and to make yourself heard, and I know what it is like to believe that you have those privileges even while you know deeper down that you do not. When I was growing up, people often told me to go into math. They would usually follow this up or preface it with, “Asians are good at math,” either as an explanation of my success or as a backward way of encouraging me, in both cases putting me into a box they felt comfortable with. I appreciated math’s objectivity, its ability to eliminate the unfairness I felt in other parts of my life. And for a while I even thought, in the way that I have thought at times, “If nothing else, I could wait tables at an Asian restaurant,” that at least I could do math. I thought of math + Asians as a kind of humble brag. I let myself be told who I was.

The idea that Asian Americans enjoy some racial benefit is extremely dangerous. Putting someone in a “good” box is still putting him in a box, is still about power and control, is still about one person determining what is right or wrong or appropriate for someone else based on skin-color. Some people seem to believe that because a few Asian stereotypes are “positive” that using them to define us is not racist, or that we have somehow overcome racism and/or are not subject to it. In the comments on the Yellow Rain segment, people seem to feel the need to use racial comparisons in order to explain the offensiveness. Such as, imagine a Jewish person describing the Holocaust and Radiolab arguing that people died not so much of gas but of starvation, and that the gas maybe wasn't even really that deadly. Of course that would never happen (at least not on NPR). Why do Asians need to be put into context? It is ironic that some comments say it was good of Radiolab to air the Yangs’ voices in the first place. A voice is exactly what is taken away from them. It is what is being taken away from all Asian Americans when we are explained, or praised, or pushed aside, and yet we are told we can’t play the race card.

When I mention my adoption, though, it isn't to say that I know how it feels to be between two races. I doubt this is an uncommon feeling among Asian Americans. I mention adoption because I have been wondering: why this issue, why Radiolab? Why have I become so obsessed with this?

In the adoption community, there is a large conversation going on over the semantics of birth parents. Do they “give up” their children, or do they “place” them, is the thrust of it. Somehow, a big portion of the responsibility for this conversation seems to have been pushed upon adoptees. After our adoptive parents, we are the ones who have to deal with how we say this, who are supposed to be careful about what we say. I wasn't aware of this conversation until recently, and I have never said my birth mother “placed” me. I have come, over only the last couple years, to be aware of all the many ways in which my mother might have been tricked or coerced, or even forced, to “place” me for adoption—adoption agencies in Korea have histories of approaching single pregnant mothers and coercing them or having them sign something or giving them medical care in exchange for adoption, or even taking the children away outright—but no matter what happened, it doesn't change the lasting psychological effects of that separation. However I came to be in an orphanage, whether left by my mother and found (the narrative the agency gives), or freely given, or forcibly taken, I still feel abandonment. I still feel the deep, deep loss of losing the person who bore me.

This loss makes me ever afraid of losing again, of being abandoned (again). Semantics won't change that. As I realize more and more how much that first loss has shaped me, I can’t help but wonder whether my desire for lasting connections heightens my attachment to story. How much of a role does my particular loss play in why I can’t stop following the Radiolab saga. I don’t know anyone involved, either the co-hosts or the interviewees. But I did have an investment in the show and in my expectations (fair or unfair) and in the racial dynamics. I wonder, if Radiolab hadn’t seemed that empathetic in the first place, that human, whether I would be so bothered now. Even in the single segment in question, what seems to hurt so much, and hurt Kalia so much, is that I trusted Radiolab, that Kalia seems to have trusted Radiolab, who do start out by telling the story of the genocide, before we realize that Laos is only introduced as context for the effects of Yellow Rain on the West. From Kalia's essay here on Hyphen, and from Radiolab’s response at Minnesota Public Radio, it seems to me that they tricked her, giving her a list of questions that focus on her uncle’s experience, only the last two concerning the bee poop, and then disregarding that experience to focus so completely on fecal matter. It feels like a betrayal. It feels like a friend saying, you never really mattered.

When I made the decision to stop listening to Radiolab, I searched frantically for another podcast to follow. I was afraid that Radiolab had ruined radio for me. I became seriously overdramatic. I was so attached.

But I knew that Radiolab didn’t want me back. It didn’t want the Yangs. It doesn’t want truth. It wanted, in fact, to trade all of that for something else, something simpler, something myopic, something comfortable to its own perspective. I, my perspective, the perspective outside of and sensitive to privilege, was once again ignored. And I overreacted. It is going too far, of course, to compare this feeling to adoption—though to be clear, that is not my intention. I am trying to understand what it is about me that makes this segment so upsetting. There are far worse offenses out there, and we need to make sure those offenses are brought to task as well. But the irony of having put my trust in Radiolab, and their power to reach and connect to so many people—that, more than anything, tells me that I am right to quit the program, to ask others to quit and not to get into or put anyone into that box. We need to be more careful with our trust, and we need to hold those trusted sources accountable, because it is we who are empowering these programs and people to inform, to represent, and even to define, us.


Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea at age two. His first novel, I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying, will be out in 2013, and a novella, The Last Repatriate, was published in 2011. He is a Contributing Writer and the Fiction Editor at the Good Men Project.

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LTE wrote 2 years 37 weeks ago

Feeling marginalized today?

"imagine a Jewish person describing the Holocaust and Radiolab arguing that people died not so much of gas but of starvation, and that the gas maybe wasn't even really that deadly."
At the time few thought the Germans would start a mass killing of the Jews. It did take some convincing.
It had taken years to convince many the Soviet Union was not the worker's paradise. Some university professors still can't believe it's not so.
The list goes on.
"I am trying to understand what it is about me that makes this segment so upsetting"
Part of the strum and dang of life in America these days is anything that doesn't go as one hopes, it just has to be because of racism.
I can't tell you how many times NPR has fluffed off my point of view on issues over the years. To the untrained eye I am "white", so I guess I could charge white guys/women being racist against me, a "white" guy.
I listened to the segment in question sometime ago and I didn't see racism, I did see something else, the lack of clear evidence (for the record I am inclined to side with the Hmongs on this issue). None the less, a radio station has to run with some solid evidence if for no reason other than legalities as charging a nation with such large crimes requires a bit more than the word of 2 people.
Though I find NPR annoying and dismissive at times, I still listen on occasion. They do some good news reporting and my local station does carry the BBC World News. I suppose even a blind squirrel can find an occasional nut.
Keep in mind, if you were in Korea, you'd probably find yourself dismissed by Koreans more often than being dismissed by Radiolab.

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