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A Conversation with Donald Young

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Did you have a particular take on how you wanted those stories to be told?
We wanted them to be personable, but not narrative dramas or tied to specific issues. My sense is that whenever Asian Americans are talked about in society, it's always tied to an issue: immigration, education, whatever. It was important for us to show Asian Americans, and minorities in general, as individuals, not just as symbols for an issue. Obviously each story does relate to an important topic area: immigration, politics, assimilation, stereotypes, but we didn't want the themes to be at the forefront or dealt with in a heavy-handed way. We just wanted to have the audience meet people and through their lives, see the larger range of issues that our community deals with. We chose a documentary format because we wanted the audience to see real people, not types.

What's the significance of the title for you?
Asian America is a label. There are so many ways that people identify themselves. Our title is kind of a play on something that we know doesn't exist. We wanted a title that reflected an exploration or an inquiry rather than a definitive statement on what the community is or who belongs to it. We didn't want to be presumptuous or authoritative about defining Asian America.

Our conscious intention was to create a piece by and for Asian Americans, but we also wanted it understood and appreciated by a larger audience. It wasn't meant to be just a translation of these experiences for the general public, but if only Asian Americans could appreciate the series, we wouldn't consider that to be a complete success. It's not about achieving mainstream success, but about building a bridge between communities.

What has the reception to the film been like?
We've done screenings in places like New York, Seattle, at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and we've shown it to different Asian American community groups: professionals, academics, etc. What's been interesting is how each community responds differently to each of the stories. For instance, in Washington, D.C., they were really into the Locke piece, understandably, but they were also asking really hard-core, difficult, intellectual questions. In Seattle, the environment was more celebratory than probing. They were really happy to see Asian American stories.

The biggest hurdle for us was to get it on PBS. They've accepted it for the primetime schedule, so that's really good for us. We don't know how the general public will respond yet. Up to this point, we've only focused on building Asian American partners. We're going to start to do more stuff with educational partners, public television stations, and other kinds of outreach. Our strategy is to develop national partners by ethnic group or subject matter. In fact, we're developing our outreach materials now. We're working on an elaborate range of stories for the Web site, mostly issue-oriented stuff to give more context and background for what's in the film. For the doctors segment, we're exploring the whole issue of immigration, foreign doctors and H-1B work visas, particularly with the South Asian and Filipino communities. For the Governor Locke segment, we're doing a whole section on emerging Asian American politicians. For the Lela Lee episode, we'll probably elaborate more on her work and the significance of it.

So what's next?
I think as an organization, NAATA would like to produce more, but we don't have any firm plans for the time being. Part of the issue is, of course, funding. But we also want to see this process through, see how people respond to the series, figure out what went well, what could we do differently, and approach it strategically in that way. One thing that was important for us with this project was to try to carve out Asian American stories and also create opportunities for Asian American producers. So that's one thing we'd like to continue doing. I'm really glad that this has opened up new opportunities for a lot of our crew. This series has inspired all of us to do more of our own work and it has challenged us to tell stories in a different way. It's been a rewarding experience, and I'm proud of what we've accomplished.

Jean Cheng is a documentary film producer based in the Bay Area.

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