Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Anomalies R Us: Hapa Haru (Spring)!

Hey, Hip Hapa Homeez. So much excitement is in the Spring air! Besides featuring documentary filmmaker Jessica Chen Drammeh as our monthly Hip Hapa Homeez, Your Hip Hapa also has a surprise for you. You can read it following our interview with the Anomaly director.

postcard design, Joey Silayan/title treatment, Gino Tadiar
Q: Jessica, how did your parents meet?

A: My parents, who are now both deceased, met in college. I'm second generation Taiwanese Chinese American and, at times growing up, I got off-the-cuff questions about whether my father met my Asian mother while serving in Korea. I would be surprised at the story people would try to concoct--first of all, because my mother was not Korean; second of all, because my father would have been too young to serve in the military!
Jessica, an anomaly at school
So the real story of how my parents met went something like this: my father's family (English-German-Irish-Native American) is from Pittsburgh. My mother's family is from Taiwan. My mother's aunt was the first of the family to come to the U.S. She was a professor at a school in West Virginia, where she settled down with another college professor. When my mother came over, she lived with my great-aunt and great-uncle for a time. She went to one of the local colleges, where my parents met on campus.

Q: What was it like growing up mixed?

A: Well, the era that I grew up in was pre-multiculturalism, pre-political correctness, etc. The particular county in West Virginia was (and still remains) very homogeneous--mostly native-born whites, very little ethnic diversity, and not very many families had international roots. I was certainly made to feel "different" from my earliest recollections of going to school. At the time, it was commonplace for kids to sing racially offensive songs, and to ostracize others for "looking different", whether that be eye shape, skin color, etc. As an adult, I can contextualize it, but at the time it was very alienating.

Jessica growing up in West Virginia
Q: Did you want to become a filmmaker first, or did you have a passion for mixed race stories and then decided to make movies about them?

A: One of the pivotal eras of my life was during high school, when I came to New York on a thespian group trip, and discovered a city rich with people coming and going from all around the world, unlike my little childhood town. So I ended up moving to New York to attend NYU as a film major. This combined my interests of photography, creative writing, theater, and music.
One particular semester, I took a documentary course and wanted to explore a topic I had first-hand experience with. I had picked up some of the early books about multiracial identity and suddenly it struck me as a subject ripe for exploration. I did some very preliminary work on mixed race personal stories back then, but would need to return to it later. So, after graduating from film school and finishing a thesis film, I came back to Anomaly ( with an expanded purpose. I also became involved in the post-Census 2000 network of mixed race community organizations, conferences, panels and educational events geared towards building awareness of issues pertinent to mixed race people and communities.

Q: As the recipient of many film awards, which do you think is the most important for Anomaly

Anomaly interviewee Pete Shungu as a child with his family
A: One of the awards that arrived during a pivotal early moment was the James T. Yee Mentorship Award from the Center for Asian American Media. ( Through the James Yee Award, I was connected to filmmaker Nicole Atkinson Roach, who collaborated with the late Marlon Riggs on groundbreaking documentaries like Black Is, Black Ain't (, which explored blackness through multiple lenses in an amazingly innovative style. I had been looking at some identity films like Black Is, Black Ain't, and Nicole became a wonderful mentor in developing Anomaly's focus, guidance in applying to grantmakers and producing a trailer. So, Nicole and the mentorship helped very early on, when a project needs to gain traction!

Q: Your film seems so thorough and not just the usual angst about "What Am I?" Did you first develop a script, or was it your interviewees that made it less emotional and more intellectual?

A: While making the film, we developed an “interactive” process of sorts, where we would shoot, edit, and then have work-in-progress screenings for feedback. We'd repeat this process over several stages. Many filmmakers don't like to do this because it risks changing the vision of the film too early!

Anomaly interviewee Gabriella Callender and biological mother, Winnie McDonald
photo, Ku-Ling Siegel
We wanted community participation, in fact. So from a 6-minute trailer, I shot more footage, developed an outline, produced a 13-minute work in progress, shot more footage, revised the outline. We did this over a few years! We shot over 100 hours of footage with more than a dozen participants. During this process, we were desperately raising funds to continue, and there hadn't been established interest in documentaries about mixed race stories. Also, at the same time, characters' lives were unfolding, and some moments we had to wait for to get on camera. For example, you can't script when in a real person's life she will reunite with her biological mother. Developing a rapport with the participants was fundamental, because we wanted to get a real look at their personal lives. Eventually, we ended up with an 80-minute assembly/rough cut, which ultimately got trimmed to the 47-minute fine cut. As the saying goes, documentaries are made in the editing room. We also had the insight of veteran filmmaker/professor Sam Pollard (, who became a consulting editor to the project.
Anomaly interviewee Michelle Myers and daughter Myong (left)
photo, Tyrone McCloud
Q: Where can we see Anomaly?

A: For folks in the New York City area, our next screening is May 12 in Brooklyn. It’s being presented by Filmwax (, singer-songwriter Gabriella Callender will be performing live, and it's co-sponsored by Loving Day ( It should be a festive community homecoming after being on the film festival circuit. Anomaly will also be screening at UC Davis on May 9. In the fall, it should be available for educational purchase. Information will be posted on our website at We also have a clip gallery online at YouTube:

Q. What's your next project?

A: There's a running joke amongst many documentary filmmakers that long-form docs take 10 years to finish, so at 9 years in the making Anomaly is about average. Recently, I went to a colleague's screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, and her film took more than 15 years to complete. Wouldn't it be fun to finish a short doc in 3 months? So, some of the ideas I'm developing next may focus on an intended short format, and outlets such as mobile devices.

Haruo McKinley all grown up
You go, Jessica! What an incredible story and speaking of, here’s another. 

Around the time I first started this blog in 2008, I wrote about a boy named Haruo McKinley whom I’d had a crush on many decades ago in the fifth grade. In fact, half the girls in my class liked him, too. The reason I remember Haruo so vividly is because my mother gave me a diary that year and I filled it with my observations about him. Over the years, I would re-read my diary and wonder what ever happened to the boy whose name means Spring. 

Haruo as a 5th grader

Not long after my blog post, a man wrote me that he’d been in the Army with Haruo, but had not heard from him in years. Well, just yesterday Haruo’s ex-wife, Pamela Lajeane Scott, or PJ, emailed me! After marrying and having three children with Haruo, whom she calls “Mac”, presumably for McKinley, PJ and he divorced. Haruo, she says, left Ft. Lewis where I had been at school with him to move with his family to Ft. Polk Louisiana where she met him. After winning a baseball scholarship, Haruo went to Northwestern University and was drafted. Consequently, he enjoyed a highly decorated military career serving around the world. Haruo also played drums in a band called—are you ready for it?--The Mixed Emotions.

Here’s more from PJ:

Q: PJ, how did you discover I was looking for Haruo?

A: I was checking Google for "Haruo McKinley" when I found your website. I found your article on Watermelon Sushi World and was totally excited to read about Haruo in the fifth grade. Since he and I met in the eighth grade, you had a picture of him that I did not. That in itself was amazing as his late mother left me all the pictures she had when Haruo was young.

When “Mac” entered my world via eighth grade, he was quiet, resolved and very interesting. I swore he would be my boyfriend.  One day he was getting a drink of water at the water fountain and I slapped him on the back and said, "Hey, new guy!" Little did I know, he chipped his tooth on the water fountain and did he ever let me know that he didn't think that was cool. Cool or not, that broke the ice and from then on out until 1985, we were inseparable.

Haruo's mom, Kura Otaka McKinley
Q: What was it like for Haruo growing up mixed?

A: “Mac” had some problems adapting. He spoke broken English and I helped him by correcting him. He always called me “bossy”. By graduation, he had mastered the English language and became one of the most popular kids at school. His friends loved him and lovingly called him the "Salem Kid" as he was a smoker as early as ninth grade. As far as his Japanese cultural background, I think it helped him as most people were interested in hearing stories about Japan and his martial arts ability. Needless to say, he was not bullied because they had seen him in action several times when other boys asked me out and he let all my future dates know that I was his girl. That always thrilled me.

Q: Since you're also biracial, was being mixed a part of your attraction to each other? Did it help your relationship?

A: Haruo’s father is Irish American (still living in California) and came to the U.S. when his parents left Ireland in the early 1900's. He lived in New York for most of his life until he left home for the military. In the early 1940's, he was stationed in Korea and participated in the Korean War. He was on R&R in Kawasaki Japan when he met Kura Otaka (Mac’s mom) and from there Mac was born and, later, his little brother in Germany.

As far as me being French and Choctaw Indian, I was born and raised in Louisiana where most of the population is Cajun, Creole, Mulatto or Caucasian, so it was never an issue with me.

“Mac” seemed to like that I was also a little different. We meshed and I saw our relationship as a great opportunity to know about another culture. His mother taught me many things, including how to make and love Japanese food--especially sushi and sukiyaki, my fave.

Thank you, PJ! Since it’s Spring, Hip Hapa Homeez, let’s talk about the name Yayoi. Everyone speaking Japanese assumes I was born in March, which most Yayoi’s are. But, my mother is so rebellious she went ahead and named me Yayoi in spite of my May birth. Try explaining that to Japanese nationals.

 Remember to buy a Hapa*Teez t-shirt to support our Watermelon Sushi film. And, please like our Watermelon Sushi fan page, our Hapa*Teez fan page, and join our Hip Hapa Homeez group page on Facebook for interactive discussions about being an anomaly--and more. We’re also on twitter, Google+, Pinterest, etc. Just look for "watermelonsushi" anywhere you're online, and you’ll find us.

And, finally, HAPA Haru (Spring) to you all!

Your Hip Hapa,