By Arthur Hu
For Northwest Asian Weekly
Thankfully, the latest infamous Asian American isn’t a disgruntled geek shooter or a Yale murder victim, but the Japanese American mom of “balloon boy.”
Her name is Mayumi Heene. Her son, Falcon, captured the nation’s attention for a few hours because people thought he had climbed into a homemade hot air balloon and disappeared into the sky. It turned out to be a hoax. The boy had hidden in the attic of his family’s home.
The press wondered if Mayumi was involved in the hoax or a battered victim. After telling everything to the sheriff, she may be both. I first heard the story on Dori Monson’s radio show in Seattle, and then saw the balloon land on a video posted on the Internet. Her looks, name, and accent are all Japanese. That makes her boys, Falcon, Bradford, and Ryo, Asian Americans or at least Hapa.
We then learned that they were the same “we are children of aliens” family led by a manic do-it-yourself mad scientist dad that was on the television show “Wife Swap.” “Wife Swap” is a reality show where wives of two vastly different families switch places, careers, children, and husbands for one week.
Mayumi’s husband, Richard, called his guest wife a “man’s nightmare” and was glad “my wife was born in Japan.”
Mayumi and Richard got married in 1997 in Las Vegas. They’re not exactly what you’d expect a real life goof-off Homer and straight-woman Marge Simpson to look like.
Barbara Slusser of Fort Collins, former research partner to Richard, got close to the family working on TV projects, but pulled out over concerns about his temper. “[Mayumi’s] a highly intelligent woman, a lovely soul,” Slusser said. “[But] whatever he says goes. She’s basically his slave.” Slusser said Mayumi is a rock for her husband and should be put up for sainthood for putting up with him.
Disgrasian.com’s Diana Nguyen and Jen Wang noted that the report seemed to portray that Mayumi “is essentially a sad, suffering-in-silence, subservient — a word used three times to describe her — Asian woman cliché.” But they did notice that the pair had separate his-and-hers lawyers. That’s not something you’d expect from a wife loyal enough to go down with the ship and her captain.
Now there’s a big difference between subservience and submission. The Japanese word “amae” encapsulates hierarchy and dependence. While the old are above the young and the husbands are above the wives, everybody submits to somebody else.
One Japanese woman has commented that Mayumi wasn’t being stereotypical, but a “bakka,” or crazy, and from what I’ve seen of video clips, she doesn’t seem to be an average Japanese.
At least not any more than Richard is a typical American.
This is a family living on the edge, having lived in an office space and rented homes, and driven with a broken hatch window. They love their boys and didn’t mean to hurt anybody. Many Americans can only dream of capturing the imagination and attention of America, if only for a few hours.
Though some may despise the misguided father, their misdeeds certainly don’t rise to the level of having the book thrown at them or delivering the boys into the clutches of the foster care system.
In this day of zero tolerance, America has shown how the real bad guys come out when Americans get legal excuses to demonstrate just how much they dislike some people. Judging by horrible and racist comments left on the “richardheeneofficial youtube channel,” there’s a mob out there just waiting to mete out justice, and I can’t imagine how having a wife from Japan is going to help their case.
This family is in some deep tofu, folks. Look in the history books of the American West to see what people felt justified doing to the Chinese, Mormons, and Native Americans.
The Heenes don’t have a mean bone anywhere in their bodies, but they’re pretty much at the mercy of public opinion now. After they’ve paid a fair price for their mischief, they need help to get back on track to the American dream. While Asian parents are tough on discipline, it’s to teach a lesson, not to ground people for life.
If it were up to me, I’d give the Heenes back their confiscated belongings, sentence them to a month in jail and a month of community service. Then harness their energy for the good by handing them over the Great American Celebrity Machine.
The father would make a great host of a backyard inventor show, and Mayumi would be interesting on Oprah.
Whatever wealth they get should be plowed into scholarships for other kids of crackpot parents.
If nobody has yet to stick up for these adventurous folks, it’s time for the Asian community to take a stand, starting with this Asian American dad. ♦
Arthur Hu is a regular contributor to Asian Week in San Francisco. He is a local writer living in Bothell.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.