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on being asian
According to the NYPD, anti-Asian hate crimes rose 1,900% in New York last year. Influencers post graphics that say “Stop hate crimes against Asian-Americans” on their Instagram Stories. I am currently residing in a ski town in Utah, the whitest place I have ever lived. I’ve been thinking lately about how I don’t have a clearly defined narrative for my Asian identity. Actually, I’ve been thinking about how there’s no clearly defined narrative for Asian-Americans at all.
My parents were born in China during the Cultural Revolution, in 1968. They grew up in Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province. Both of them are from in the same small village, raised chickens and ducks growing up. My mom hated the chickens. They went hungry all the time because they saved the bulk of their food for their younger siblings. My parents were among the very few kids from their village who went to university. They studied computer science, got married, moved to Shenzhen in their early 20s. I understand now that Shenzhen in 1993 was like San Francisco in the early 2000s: a boomtown. I was born there, in 1996. When I was 3 years old we immigrated to Canada. My grandparents were living here already. My aunt and uncle had moved before them, then departed for Seattle to work at Amazon. My parents were lucky because they worked in CS and therefore did not have to retrain like so many immigrants; they taught themselves English and got jobs in the IT departments of two different colleges within the year. We lived with my grandparents in Delta, British Columbia, until I was 10, and then we moved to Surrey.
I felt Asian because I started playing piano when I was three years old and my mom filmed my lessons and my piano teacher was always angry at me and I practiced an hour a day, though I cheated sometimes and it was closer to 45 minutes. I played for 10, 11 years even though I was never talented at it. I felt Asian because my dad taught me math at home, sitting beside me as I learned long division and how to multiply fractions. I competed in math competitions for a few years and I was okay. I felt Asian because there was always the expectation that I would get perfect grades in every subject, and whenever I wasn’t the best at anything my parents said, “Oh, X’s daughter did better, what’s wrong with you?” My parents wanted me to be a dentist. When I left college, my dad said, why don’t you come back to BC, and go to community college, and become a nurse? We would travel to Beijing and Shenzhen every second summer. My parents had lots of friends to see and would bring back gifts for them, usually Apple electronics, and we would eat out, go sightseeing, marvelling how fast everything was changing. I would spend time with my maternal grandparents and my mom would cry when we left. Shenzhen was always sweltering hot in the summers, so humid and polluted I sometimes struggled to breathe. I felt Asian when in school we learned about the transcontinental railroad, the banning of Chinese immigration, Japanese internment during World War 2. Vancouver is a city that is 23% East Asian, and almost all my friends in middle school were Chinese-Canadian kids like me. We watched kpop videos and got bubble tea and cheap sushi. Melissa loved Big Bang. Shermaine liked Mabinogi and Maplestory, taught me how to play, was frustrated when I was terrible at it. I felt instinctively comfortable around these kids. Many of them had dads who were entrepreneurs in China, leaving their wife and kids in Canada and visiting a few times a year because the education system was perceived as better i.e. it was easier to get into a U.S. college. Then I went to Penn, which is 15.4% Asian. Then I moved to San Francisco, which is 34.3% Asian.
I never had to think much about my identity because I was so immersed in it. I read Amy Tan’s novels in elementary school and cried over the difficult mother-daughter relationships portrayed in them. I read Paper Tigers by Wesley Yang when I was in high school and it made me cry. I read Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother by Amy Chua and it made me laugh. In the past couple of years I’ve enjoyed Minor Feelings by Cathy Hong, The Souls of Yellow Folk by Wesley Yang, The Racial Middle by Eileen O’Brien. But no matter how much I read the Asian-American experience still felt incoherent to me. From Minor Feelings:
“I confront the infinite chasm between the audience’s conception of Poet and the underwhelming evidence of me as that poet. I just don’t look the part. Asians lack presence. Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities. We’re not racial enough to be token. We’re so post-racial we’re silicon. I recited my poems in the kazoo that is my voice. After my reading, everyone rushed for the exit.”
Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining. It takes all your powers of persuasion. Because it’s more than a chat about race. It’s ontological. It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality. Except it’s even trickier than that. Because the person has all of Western history, politics, literature, and mass culture on their side, proving that you don’t exist.
I’ve worked in tech for the past few years—Asians make up around 50% of that industry. We’re a model minority, after all: we get advanced degrees, we have high incomes. We teach our children to work hard. From Kathleen Hou’s essay in The Cut:
Internally, I wondered if America had the capacity to care about more than one race at a time. The consensus in my group chats is that no one cares about Asian Americans.
I’ve noticed that people are mostly interested in racial issues when they’re relevant and marketable. Like last summer when all the predominantly white women’s publications I read posted links to Black-owned businesses and apologies for the ways they had been non-inclusive in the past. Like the way the New Yorker and the New York Times and Elle will probably run thinkpieces in the next couple weeks, if they haven’t already, about rising rates of Asian-American hate crimes. While I think reporting on and providing context about the sociological factors behind anti-Asian xenophobia (Trump and the “China virus,” for ex) is obviously good and useful, I don’t think these pieces generally shed much light on the actual experience of being Asian in America.
But what do I know about it myself? I’m not sure whether to say Asian-Canadian or Asian-American because I’m Canadian but have lived in America for years and will likely continue to. I’m afraid to write this post because I feel like I don’t know enough about being Asian. I know that I’m privileged—in the FB group Subtle Asian Traits, filled with memes about the second generation Asian experience, there were frequent discussions of East Asian insensitivity (colorism, closer proximity to whiteness, an unwillingness to critically examine their privilege). I know that America is racist—I tweeted something about Utah that went viral and there were lots of white men who tweeted things at me like you fucking bitch. go back to where you came from. I know that for my brother, a Chinese teenager who wants to study computer science, college admissions will be challenging (I had a boyfriend in high school, Chinese-Canadian and brilliant, who was angry about affirmative action, the way he had to have a 140-point higher SAT score just to have the same chance at being admitted. He still got into Stanford). I know that I’m fetishized: dating app data revealed that “all men except Asians preferred Asian women, while all except black women preferred white men." I know the opinions around interracial dating are fraught; I know that many Asian men feel unwanted. I know lots of my friends have had the same experience I have, growing up in North America, speaking English as their first language, begging their parents to let them quit Chinese school. In adulthood finally asking themselves: what does it mean to be Chinese? We haven’t lived in China as adults, we’re mostly divorced from Chinese politics, if we visit Shanghai we stick out like foreigners. The way we dress and the way we talk is all wrong.
But I read Peter Hessler’s book Two Years on the Yangtze recently and so many of his descriptions of Chinese culture—the way elderly people have dignity because “they live in a culture where age commands unquestioned respect,” the mixed reverence for Mao, which is almost incomprehensible to foreigners, the openness about income and money, the attitudes towards the government, the strange marriage of communism and capitalism—were startling in how familiar they were. It felt like he was talking to me directly about my parents. I thought, well, I really am very Chinese.
Sometimes women email me things like, “You make me feel understood.” I’m always happiest when these women are Asian-American like me. I always feel like I’m writing for other Asian girls. I know we share a common experience even though I struggle to articulate what it is. I know everyone else is always trying to tell us who we are. I had an ex-boyfriend who used to say things to me like, “I think Asian women are more privileged than white men. I wish I were an Asian girl.” I wondered whether he knew anything about the people who shouted nihao at me whenever I traveled, the kids in elementary school who pulled their eyes into slants to mock me—about how the first time I was stalked by someone I was 14. There was a dude who said to me, I’m glad your Twitter content isn’t like, ABG sucking off her founder boyfriend stuff. When I heard things like that I kept my disgust and my anger to myself. Maybe that’s my real cultural inheritance: self-control, a kind of simmering disdain.
I’ve never successfully pretzeled myself into any of the things I should’ve to satisfy the cultural ideal. I was a good student for a while, I guess. But I was never thin enough, quiet enough, respectful enough, conservative enough to meet proper Asian standards. To be honest I’ve never really felt bad about that. I don’t feel shame about the place Asian-Americans occupy in American culture, only anger. I’ve been privileged enough to be mostly shielded from racism, but I still worry that someone might slash my grandfather’s face on the subway.
I know that I grew up reading books, watching movies that had no place in them for someone like me. I wasn’t anything like the white women in the rom-coms I liked (Sex and the City? 27 Dresses? Bridget Jones?). I wasn’t anything like the white men whose novels I loved, the All-American alcoholics, the Jewish intellectuals, Roth and Salter and Updike and Bellow. When I went to college I didn’t understand the things that signified wealth there—attending Exeter, spending summers in the Hamptons and winters in Aspen, playing golf. Once I left my parents’ house, there was no one around to tell me what kind of narrative I should craft for myself. Even now I don’t know. I read lots of Asian female authors—Esme Wang, Rachel Khong, Jade Sharma, Weike Wang, Ling Ma, Susie Yang, Helen Hoang, Alexandra Chang, Susan Choi—trying to recognize my experience, piece it together. I follow Asian girls on TikTok, Twitch, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube. Beauty gurus and fashion vloggers and fitness influencers and academics and doctors and streamers. I listen to 88rising and watch Awkwafina movies and dutifully showed up to watch Parasite and Minari. I appreciate it when I’m walking past like, a Gap billboard, and there’s an Asian model, because I never saw them in magazines as a kid—everyone looked like Natalia Vodianova and I felt ugly. I watched all of Ugly Delicious and loved it and then read an essay about how David Chang was an abusive boss. I think I’ve collected some information about the different stereotypes of Asian woman on the Internet. Like, you could have gone to a UC school and like EDM and wear fake eyelashes or you could be an type-A Asian woman working at Deloitte or you could be a software engineer who goes rock climbing on weekends or you could be an international student with rich parents wearing Gucci to your accounting class, unloading Valentino heels on Poshmark or you could be a RISD student with blue hair and tattoos. But there has to be more to it than just those archetypes, right? Maybe no one is interested in the Asian-American experience, but I still have to live it. I’m not an activist or an advocate or particularly informed at all—I’m just stumbling through my life, trying to describe it all.
A few weeks ago I mentioned to a friend that I felt a little weird living in Utah because there are so few Asian people. And he just gave me this look like, why would you care about something like that, and I realized, oh, here is someone who has never thought about race his whole entire life, he thinks anyone who talks about race is a hysterical SJW out to get him. I should’ve tried to explain, I know—how something you don’t even really understand can affect so much of your lived experience, how when anyone sees me now and forever the first thing they’ll recognize is that I’m an Asian woman—but I just turned away. I didn’t want to say anything to him at all.
From Minor Feelings:
When I wasn’t racked with insecurity, I was wildly arrogant. All three of us were. We had the confidence of white men, which was swiftly cut down after graduation, upon our separation, when each of us had to prove ourselves again and again, because we were, at every stage of our careers, underestimated. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. That struggle kept me faithful to the creative imagination cultivated by our friendship, which was an imagination chiseled by rigor and depth to reflect the integrity of our discontented consciousness. No one else cared. No one else took us seriously. We were the only ones who demanded we be artists first.