I’ve been listening to political and cultural podcasts during my commute lately (some recommendations: NPR 1A, Five Thirty-Eight, NPR Code Switch), and it’s nearly impossible to ignore politics on social media, so I’ve keep abreast of many types of discussions, from many places, in recent times. The thing that has increasingly become obvious to me is that in America, conversations have become largely dichotomous – i.e., “us vs. them,” but especially so around race. In looking for statistics breaking down how racial groups voted in 2016 – stirred largely in part by statements shared on social media by people I know, about how white women voted vs. black women – I was struck by the realization that it was difficult to find more than a couple of news or polls sites that actually talked about how Asian Americans voted (The NYT exit polls have “race” as a single category, which includes “Asian,” but in further breakdowns, like “race by education,” for example, it becomes “white/non-white.” CNN, for another example, breaks down race by age, for “Black, White, Latino,” but not Asians).
I’m an Asian American. Where do I fit in?
Now, let’s be clear. It could be a numbers problem. In clinical trials, Asian Americans are often categorized but not considered part of the analysis, because the number is usually too small to be a valid sample size. We are only 4.7% of the US population. However – that is still over 14 million people. This is just one example of a larger phenomenon; it’s difficult to find representation in media and pop culture (though for a time I thought it was getting better. Asian Americans have started to garner more leading roles in TV; I see them more casually on commercials or in print ads). And, I’m absolutely not trying to detract from the conversation about the treatment that Black Americans face, simply for being Black. However, the existence of other racial problems does not invalidate or erase the micro-aggresions that other minorities – like Asian Americans – face, or the growing sense that there are not enough narratives out there that describe us, that speak to us, and that help us shape our identities – or mobilize us, for that matter.
Let’s be clear about one other thing, as well. My desire to see more Asian American representation or narratives does not stem from an inherent belief that we are all alike, or that I will immediately sympathize with any Asian American story, perspective, or point of view. In the stories that do already exist in the public sphere, I rarely find one that I identify with. I’m not lost, and I’m not bitter, though perhaps sometimes I feel a bit in limbo when I consider myself against the country at large. I had the privilege of growing up in a community where a largely conglomerate culture is celebrated (though there is more to it, of course, and I’ll get to that later). I know exactly who I am in terms of my profession, my feminism, my values, and my goals. But culture plays a large part in the shaping of those things, and race plays a large part in culture, and it would be obtuse of me to ignore those factors.
I was raised in Hawaii, which was, in 1990, 61.8% Asian/Pacific Islander (according to this), and has increasingly become mixed-race. I have one immigrant parent, who has now been a US citizen longer than a citizen of her birth country (South Korea). My other parent was born in Hawaii, to a Japanese nisei mother who had never been to Japan, and a Chinese-Japanese American father, who was California-born. Neither of my American grandparents spoke a language besides English, and though they retired in Hawaii, they both spent much of their adult lives on the continental US or in Europe, because my grandfather was in the US Army. I speak minimal Korean (which I learned in college) and English was spoken at home.
It’s difficult to describe, in a comprehensive way, what it’s like to live in HI, but I will try. Growing up, culture was a mishmash of everything local to Hawaii (“local culture,” as it were) – traditions and influences from many Asian, European, and Pacific Islander cultures have been integrated into something wholly unique. You attend bon dances even if you are not Buddhist or Japanese; you eat the Chinese New Year foods and heed the Hawaiian ghost stories, and every pot luck features sushi rice, Chinese noodles, lomi lomi salmon, BBQ (entirely different from the Southern/Midwest style), kimchi, poke, manapua…the list goes on (and I’m getting hungry). Here is where I need to stop, though. I’m from Hawaii, but I am not Hawaiian, and my perception of living there is thus different than it would be for a native Hawaiian. We were taught in schools, elements of Hawaiian culture (the alphabet, traditions, lineage of kings and queens, and holy places), in what I honestly believe was not an attempt to tokenize it, but to acknowledge that Hawaii’s history did not begin with statehood – or even with colonization – even if admittance of guilt never accompanied these discussions. For now, I’ll leave it there.
I only bring this up as context; I grew up in a predominantly Asian American community, and yet, I still felt different. The majority of my friends (not necessarily out of any premeditated choice, but simply because the majority of people are Japanese American) were Japanese American, with Japanese American parents and Japanese American grandparents, and for the most part, a strong sense of Japanese American identity and ties to Japan itself. In contrast, my grandmother didn’t particularly celebrate any Japanese traditions, and my Korean mother dictated much of what we ate (my dad would be happy eating meat and potatoes every day, to be honest). She made both Korean and American food; growing up, I ate “all-American” staples like spaghetti with Ragu sauce, ground beef chili seasoned with a packet, and burgers (though my mom makes her patties with tofu to keep them moist), as well as kimchi jigae, dwenjang jigae, ddukkook, ddukbokki, samgyopsal, and plenty of banchan. We had regular cake for birthdays, and the pantry had as many sugary cereals and Pop-Tarts and canned beans and so on as instant ramen noodles, but rice was present with every meal (except spaghetti). She didn’t celebrate Chuseok (the harvest festival) or the lunar new year until we were much older – her one concession was buying dduk (rice cake) from the Korean super market, if she remembered. So the food of my childhood was the same, yet different from what my friends were experiencing, and my ultra-strict immigrant mother was different, as well. I had some relief in the sense that my American-born dad was much more laid back about some things (he saw no problem with sleepovers or not wanting to be a doctor, two things that my mother had firm opinions about), but still staunchly conservatively Asian in other regards (e.g., no dating until I was some arbitrary, forever-to-come age; anything less than an A on a report card is essentially an F).
I read a lot of stories these days about the growing trend of Asian Americans preferring to marry other Asian Americans; the reasons given are that they feel more comfortable with a partner who understands their culture without explanation. In some sense, I can understand that, but in another sense, I think it really depends on the person. I dated non-Korean Asian Americans who were baffled by my mother’s strict sense of filial hierarchy and rules about propriety (who eats first, the proper amount of deference shown, etc.,), which they found un-modern and hard to reconcile, since on the surface, we looked so much alike. I tried to explain some of these things (which I don’t always agree with), but to be honest, I’ve had much more success explaining these things to my white husband than to ex-boyfriends who were Asian American. And I don’t think that it’s because my husband considers me through some exotic lens – he simply understands that all families are different, and this is what my family is like (and no, I am not offering anecdotal evidence as proof of point; I am sure there are plenty of Asian American men out there who would not have been as presumptuous, and plenty of non-Asian Americans who would have been). Have I had to prep him before he visited my parents for the first time? Sure, because otherwise it would never have occurred to him that my dad has to be the first one to start eating (a rule my mom cares about more than my dad, for what it is worth). And, we have been married for almost five years now, but we still haven’t sorted out the matter of what he is to call my parents; my mother will never stand for first names (again, dad doesn’t care), and it’s weird to call someone “mom” when you already have a mom.
That, too, segues into many things about Asian culture – that have become Asian American culture – that I inherently disagree with. The institution of patriarchy, for example. My parents treat each other as equals, but my mother still insisted, for example, when I wanted to move to the east coast ahead of S. to take a job, that it’s a wife’s duty never to leave her husband. She asks me, every time, if I’ve learned to cook yet, even though it’s clear that S does the cooking, likes to cook, and is better at it. She has always assumed that I will put having a child before having a career, even though she supported my education and was proud of my Ph.D. Growing up, she disapproved of any clothing that was “form fitting,” meaning that I was always dressed in clothes 1-2 sizes too big, frequently told me I was too fat, or too thin, and warned me against asking men out because they would view me as “easy” (I did it anyway, arguing my point that asking a man out really doesn’t put me on unequal footing, because asking also meant that I was fully prepared to end it if I was no longer interested – and I did, frequently). That isn’t to say that I don’t love my mother and appreciate her, but I don’t believe that you should have children just for the sake of “having someone to take care of you when you’re older,” or that your children should be “eternally grateful because I birthed you.” So you did, and I appreciate your shaping me into a self-possessed, happy individual who has had many opportunities, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize or can’t acknowledge faults or influences that I don’t want to perpetuate. (Kim Fu describes Peter Ho Davies’ book, The Fortune, in this piece; I haven’t read the book, but the part about passing on suffering and “pain rippling through the ages” is exactly what I mean here. Korean people have a concept of han, of deep communal suffering and pain that is rooted in cultural identity and historical injustice, that is very real. I understand that my mother has been shaped by these things and that is not her fault, but these things have not shaped me, and I refuse to carry them forward).
And this is at the heart of the problem I’m talking about, and the problem I – and many others – face. We are not Asian; we are Asian American. I have been to Korea, and I have been stared at, because I don’t speak Korean, I don’t dress Korean, and apparently there is something about my face and the way I carry myself that immediately singles me out. I don’t relate to my Korean cousins any more than I would a stranger, and I disagree with many of the fundamental values that are in conflict with those I’ve been raised with as an American – not because of superiority in either party, but simply because they are different. So, when people say that ever-trite “Go back to where you came from,” or ask “Where are you really from?” there is no other reasonable answer than to roll my eyes, because, seriously – you first. So, being told that bodies of Korean literature, or Japanese literature, or Chinese cinema, are meant to represent us and explain us and satisfy our need for seeing reciprocated identity in media, is not simply unsatisfactory – it is incorrect. That is not my experience, and that is not me.
So when I say that I want to see more of the Asian American narrative, that is what I mean, and I can’t see how anyone can have any objection to another aspect of the multi-faceted American narrative. It’s integral to understand where we come from and how we grew up, to create understanding of how we want to move forward. That includes acknowledging that minorities can be racist (toward each other and toward the majority), acknowledging that we live in a larger world than we may sometimes see in isolated communities, and acknowledging that diversity is a strength. I cannot tell you the number of times, even in Seattle, which has a strong Asian American community, that S and I received glowers from older Asian couples as we walked down the street, hand in hand. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard people in Hawaii tell my parents, “discreetly,” that they would never have let their daughter date a white boy, or the number of times I’ve heard elders say they would be dead before they saw their child date a Black person. These are the things that are unspoken, because we’re Asian American and we do what our immigrant parents say; we are quiet and we have more boiling under the surface than we are supposed to exhibit. Except we are not.
I cannot myself imagine having this world view, despite having been raised within this environment, so I firmly believe that it isn’t a necessity to carry these prejudices forward – in fact, that we mustn’t. Yet this is still our reality, and if we want to move past this and celebrate our differences, we need to talk about race, and acknowledge all of our differences, and include all of our differences in every conversation. Oftentimes, so much of our conversation is focused on attributing Asian American qualities to emulating or defending ourselves against whiteness, or asking whether our loyalties can lie with Blacks or “others,” or we are held to standards in countries of ancestry that we have never even stepped foot in. I am absolutely not discounting the debt we owe to Black Americans for the strength of their civil rights movement that has spoken for us, too – rather, I am acknowledging that debt, and suggesting that we begin to own ourselves, and contribute in a unique way. If we are proud of our heritages and yet still feel American above all else, then we have stories to tell, and power, and positive contributions to make. I don’t know how much of this is about us, and how much of this is about how everyone else sees us. I even struggle with “us,” because wasn’t I just warning of dichotomizing people? I don’t have answers and I don’t have a path forward. But I thought I had to write this, because it has been at the forefront of my mind these past few months, and hey, maybe someone else has answers – or at least can write to me and say, “Yes, I feel that way, too.” And isn’t that a start?
[Special thanks to the amazing Lizbob, for thoughtful discussions.]