A lot of people have been asking me why I don’t like Austin. Even my partner (until I explained it to him through quite a few tears) thought I was being overdramatic. And, I mean, I get it. It’s a green city, it’s pretty, there’s lots to do, the music scene is great, it’s “progressive.” Compared to a lot of other places in Texas, it’s not that bad. One could even say that it’s… “diverse.” A lot of people love it here. That’s great for them. I, however, am counting the days til I can move back to Houston.
As someone who grew up in an ethnic enclave, moving to this city was stressful for me. My district in SW Houston wasn’t perfect- people still had their prejudices- but on some level, when everyone’s generally working class and you had to see each other day in and day out, you’re at least used to diversity if not engaged in it. My tiny high school was, for the most part, the melting pot America advertises itself as. Yeah, people hung out with their racial or ethnic groups, but never exclusively. In fact, by the second or third year, I don’t think you could’ve walked into our cafeteria and found a table that wasn’t mixed. It was nice being in an environment where I had a sense of personhood.
I had no idea that that wasn’t the norm until my first couple of days in Austin, 1st year of college. Forget being a person, I was just small, Asian, and female. Professors wouldn’t make eye contact with me even when I sat in the front row, I wouldn’t get called on because no one expected me to participate, much less be vocal. I don’t know how it is for people in majors where you’d expect more Asian students to be, but in liberal arts, I was often the only person of my race in the room. Occasionally I’d get lucky and there’d be some other black or brown students in the room, making for a total of 2 or 3 people of color, but for the most part, it was like being invisible in a sea of white.
Speaking of which, boy did my existence not matter. The white girls in class would only answer my questions when they had to, all the while looking at me like I was half a person. It was almost like they looked through me instead of at me. They’d quickly respond to me, and then turn right back around to their friends.
One time, I was at a leadership workshop and we did that activity where you had to silently go around the room and order yourself according to birthdays. So everyone was going around with their birth month number on their fingers and then if you got a match, you’d try to figure out each other’s days. I swear I was standing in front of this white guy for a minute trying to get his attention because we both had 8 fingers up. But no, he looked over, behind, around me, and then finally, reluctantly at me. In the end, the August group messed up. We didn’t get all our birthdates in order. And guess what? He and I had the same birthday. The aversion was just so strong we had to put some other date in the middle of us.
Outside of campus, it was worse. My friends and I made the sad mistake of going to this witchy-themed place where a bunch of people set up shop to sell things like crystals, candles, etc. It was like we weren’t even customers. Pests maybe, just there to browse. Unless you initiated conversation and were just as hipster-uppity as them, no one really had to interact with you. I feigned interest the whole time we were there and had many many long, painful conversations in exchange for the awkward silences to stop. I thought that’d be the last time. Until I figured out the entire city was like that.
Well, at least the parts that weren’t East Austin. Here’s some background for those who aren’t already aware of Austin’s history of segregation and gentrification. I recommend reading it even if you already know- because there’s something really resonating and cathartic about someone articulating the fact that dogs are more valued than people here. I’m not saying everyone who lives here is like that, no. In fact, a lot of people I know who grew up in or around Austin are really cool. I’m just saying this is the overall vibe I get from the city, and I know I’m not alone. Why do you think people are moving away?
Still, I don’t dare bring my grievances up in front of other people. Other Asian Americans on campus generally aren’t aware, don’t really care, or have entirely different experiences/backgrounds from me. Other people of color have their own things to deal with, and, let’s be real: no one looks at this yellow body and expects me to be socially aware. So, even if I often share experiences of marginalization, what am I gonna do, jump into conversations and be like, “me too?”
Needless to say, it’s been a lonely and frustrating couple of years here. My friends back home know. Sometimes I call or text them just to get a feel of what it’s like to be me again. Because I’ve adopted an entirely different survival strategy here. One that involves a lot of, well, hiding. And being alone.
When coming from a diverse place makes you feel alienated, it says a lot about what the norm is. I never realized this, but I’m the lucky one. Growing up in working-class ethnic communities is… a benefit. The same places I’ve lived in that other people label as “sketchy” or “unsafe” taught me a lot about people, their resilience, their capacity to communicate, be resourceful, get along, build, and live.
My cultural capital may not look like enthusiastic networking, always feeling comfortable enough in class to speak without having to think about it first, or having connections/access to certain opportunities, but it does look like understanding ¹Nigerian, Chinese, Spanish, or Indian-accented English without any trouble (I’ve had a lot of substitute teachers), being able to connect with a variety of groups of people who don’t look like me, or having a slightly easier time unlearning [and continuing to] prejudice or countering my automatic, unconscious biases against certain bodies. (It’s a lot easier to separate people from their stereotypes when you’ve lived your whole life next to and with them.)
Anyway, now that I’m in my fourth year here, I’m tired. I went through the phases of newly angry, angry plus more educating myself, angry and wanting to get more involved, angry plus my life spiraling deep into the intricacies of social injustices. And now, post-burnout, I’m switching between self-care and an older, quieter, calmer angry. It’s more about learning at my own pace, and doing what I have the capacity to. The cons are, however, it’s slower and lonelier.
Thus, some bitter feelings have built up. I mean, I still have to live in this growing tech town dominated by the wealthy, male, and pale. And be surrounded by ethnic food and no recognition of ethnic people. And show up to city cultural events and see mostly white faces attending. Somewhere along the line I also got the message that there seems to be some degree of Asian fetishization around here. Either that or I’ve been consistently running into some creepy people. Regardless, I can see it in their eyes that they’re not seeing who I am as a person. Or at all.
Which is what inspired (read: forced) me to write the following list. With my hypervigilance, a wonderfully keen eye for microaggressions, and background knowledge of a plethora of stereotypes that could be projected onto my body* at any given time, I have compiled a couple of bullet points illustrating the numerous ways I have been perceived, in semi-sarcastic internal dialogue.
*There’s some interesting research/texts out there about screen bodies (the body as a screen), representation, and film, if anyone’s interested.
Without any further ado, these are some common looks I get:
- Eh, I don’t really have to pay attention to what you’re saying because you look and sound small. *Yawns*
- Ugh. They’re multiplying.
- Oh, she looks shy, let’s leave her alone lest we start conversation and make her uncomfortable- you know how their kind are. (Also often paired with avoidance of eye contact/refusal to acknowledge my existence.)
- Yes, tell me more about your culture.
- You seem so interesting and nice and quirky (and probably submissive) and I am trying to hide the fact that I want to sleep with you but my fixated eyes and frequent smiling are giving it away.
- related: You scare me a little, I am mystified by your people, and I want to sleep with you.
- disgustingly related: Hmm, I wonder if she’s freaky.
- What are you, twelve? (Sometimes accompanied by: “Well, pfft, what are you doing here?”)
- This is a 4-person group project but I’ve decided to TALK TO EVERYONE ELSE BUT YOU BECAUSE I’M UNCOMFORTABLE WITH DIFFERENCE. You probably don’t have anything to say anyway.
- What’s that standing between me and the snack table? Oh, just an unassuming Asian body. *Proceeds to fruit snacks* (Y’all, this power of invisibility is how I get skipped in lines all the time.)
- Why are you in this space/conversation? You look too privileged to understand.
- Man, hope this one understands what I’m saying/speaks English.
- So… so foreign, these features. Oh. Oh yes. Right. Of course I’m paying attention to what you’re saying!
- Here, you be scribe. You look like you have good handwriting.
- Oh. My. God. It’s an Asian. I forget we have those! It seems as if I’ve forgotten how to look away, AS I AM UTTERLY FASCINATED BY THEIR EXISTENCE. Honey, come look!
- related: I am frequently looking over at you because everything you do is so intriguing to me and I think I’m slick/entitled so I don’t try hiding it even though in reality you can see me out of the corner of your eye and are painfully aware that I am not used to diversity
- other version: any combination of disgust and fascination at foreignness
- yet another variation: I am smiling at you with well-meaning eyes because I want you to feel welcome but I am not going to say anything to you because I’ve never really interacted with one of your kind anddd I’m not starting now.
- You’re cool. You’re not like the others, you get things (i.e., I can magically relate to you now because you are close enough to white that I can feel comfortable around you. Ah, but also exotic enough to add diversity points to my cool-progressive-person scale).
That was almost as uncomfortable to write about as it is to live through on a regular basis. I read through these again, and they sound pretty dramatic, but no, these are real looks, vibes, verbal and non-verbal responses I get from people just for being. I have to think about my race and gender all the time, because I’m reminded by others of it all the time². Is it possible that someone with my same combo of race/ethnicity and gender could disagree or have different experiences? Sure. Perhaps that’s even more likely. But I didn’t write this for people who don’t have these experiences, I wrote this for me.