Close Viewing: My America (… or Honk if You Love Buddha)

Celestine Ames


My America (… or Honk if You Love Buddha) chronicles Renee Tajima-Peña’s journey through cities, highways and households in her search for the real Asian America. It’s a story of self-discovery told within the context of a cross-country road trip. The film explores themes of race, immigration, identity, interracial relationships, change, idealism, rebellion, and freedom.

Other than Tajima-Peña herself, the most central character in this film is Victor Wong, the strange old man who seems to have lived a very beautiful and inspired life. Victor Wong weaves the narrative together by appearing multiple times throughout the film. In Tajima-Peña’s words, “Finding Victor is like finding Buddha, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Kerouac all rolled up in one”. He’s strange and passionate, and he doesn’t live by anyone else’s standards. In the 1950s and 60s, Victor Wong was involved in the Beatnik scene of San Francisco. He was friends with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac, and he served as inspiration for the character of Arthur Ma in Kerouac’s 1962 novel, Big Sur. Here are a few of Kerouac’s descriptions of Victor Wong (Arthur Ma) in Big Sur:

“Arthur came from a large family but as a painter and a Bohemian his family disapproved of him now so he lived alone in a comfortable old hotel on North Beach”

“Little Arthur Ma who never goes anywhere without his drawing paper and his yellowjack felt tip pencils is already seated in my chair on the porch (wearing my hat now too) drawing one of his interminable pictures, he’ll do 25 a day and 25 the next day too — He’ll talk and go on drawing — He has felt tips of all colors, red, blue, yellow, green, black, he draws marvelous subconscious glurbs and can also do excellent objective scenes or anything he wants on to cartoons…”

“Arthur was friendlier, warmer in a way, curious and always asking questions, more active than George with his constant drawing”

“(and here again another great gigantic little Oriental friend for me, an eastcoaster who’s never known Chinese or Japanese kids, on the West coast it’s quite common but for an eastcoaster like me it’s amazing and what with all my earlier studies in Zen and Chan and Tao) — (And Arthur also being a gentle small soft-haired seemingly soft little Oriental goofnik)”

In My America, Victor Wong serves as a link between the Beat Generation and Tajima-Peña’s current journey. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that Renee Tajima-Peña’s attitude towards life has been highly influenced by the Beat Generation. This is, after all, a road movie, surely influenced in part by Jack Kerouac’s adventurous, excited, idealistic language in novels like On the Road.

Victor also, in my mind, represents an Asian-American who has paved his own way in the new world, while still holding on to some of the wisdom and traditions from his Asian heritage. Victor is fiercely individualistic, rebellious and free-spirited. But still, he hasn’t completely shed his Asian influence. Towards the end of the film, he presents a red envelope to the parents of a newborn baby, and in doing so, he carries on an important tradition.

My America includes a good amount of commentary on rebellion, counterculture, and protest. About halfway through the film, Tajima-Peña travels to her hometown of Chicago, which brings up memories of her family and childhood. The viewer begins to see the disparity between generations of recently immigrated Asian families. In Tajima-Peña’s case, she and her siblings “were raised to just blend in”. Her parents were interested in conforming to American society, and she was interested in never turning into her “all-American parents”. She rebelled. “It was racism that defined my life. And I would never turn the other cheek as my parents had. I’d fight back”. Her siblings also rebelled, as well as a good portion of her generation. My America does a good job of capturing the sense of unity that often comes with protest and rebellion. For Asian-Americans, as well as any other minority, this sense of unity is incredibly important. As Victor Wong said, “It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement came along that I felt like I could become part of America”. And in Tajima-Peña’s words, in reference to her own discovery of activism, “For the first time in my life, I knew I belonged in America. I felt comfortable in my own skin.”

Tajima-Peña made sure to include a diverse group of Asian-Americans in her film, drawing from different generations, locations, backgrounds, and worldviews. This was an important step to take, because it allows the viewer to see that, even within the Asian-American community, there are countless perspectives regarding the topics brought up in the film, and that all of them are worth considering. Some of the Asian-Americans that she interviewed actually considered themselves to be white, while others proudly identified with their race. Some were traditional and conformist, some were fierce rebels and revolutionaries.

Renee Tajima-Peña has accomplished something huge in making this film. My America gives the viewer a sense of what it’s like to live an Asian-American life. She presents America in an uncompromisingly honest way, providing not only her own perspective but the perspectives of many different people across the country. She unflinchingly tells the beautiful, tragic truth of America. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Tajima-Peña says, “Traveling through America can take your breathe away, but it can break your heart at the same time”.