Whether you immigrated when you were 12, were born in the U.S., or came over so early you barely remember your birth country, none of that matters.
We all know the drill, the “ching chong, chink” slurs thrown at you in the school hallways, the assumption that you’re from China, the guessing game that follows if you told them you were not, the way other kids would pull their eyelids up and over in an attempt to mock you. Then, the questions. “Can you do my math homework?” “Do you know martial arts?” “Do the nail ladies talk about their customers to each other?” “How do you say [insert cuss word] in your language? What about my name?”
First, I need to get something out of my system: In what world do you think working people care enough to gossip about you?
Anyway, I was talking to a friend recently about microaggressions when she said, “If you grow up here, other kids tear you apart by age 10.” How true that is. I was spared from physical violence because I was a girl, but my poor cousin. Came over right during middle school. A couple of days in and he returned home one afternoon with bloodied knees.
He was a playful kid, I remember. I think now he shows as much emotion as my desk drawer when you first meet him. Assimilate he did- in multiple areas. Whether it was conforming to gender norms, class norms, or adopting new cultural (often racial) norms, he did whatever was required to survive socially.
I think one of the scariest moments for me was being alone in the hallway when I was a wee fifth-grader (in Houston) and being spooked by two taller black guys with loud laughter, slurs, and “Asian-sounding” noises. Replace the word Asian with Alien and that sentence would still make sense. Since my district had so few White people, it was actually primarily other kids of color who engaged in this type of racialized bullying. My cousin grew up in White suburbia so he got a different brand of the same medicine. The point is, we didn’t get a pass from anyone. Both White kids as well as kids of color were tormenters. (And honestly, on some days, it feels exactly the same as an adult.)
But! I should also mention a counter example. By now I’ve realized being Asian American puts me in a unique racial position where I have to give multiple sides to things lest someone tries to pin me one way or another on the overly-simplistic spectrum of Black and White. Which means I’m going to hold other people of color accountable while also challenging the anti-Blackness within and perceived of my community.
Anyway, a tangent: One of the first and most memorable people I met in elementary school in Boston was this older black girl who gave me maybe 12 of her VHS tapes after she learned from my mother I hadn’t seen all these classic movies other kids grew up with. She just gave them to me. I went home with a bunch of tapes every day and she didn’t even want them back. Mom and I were speechless. To this day, I still get tender and teary-eyed whenever I recall any of this.
And that is the story of how the first Cinderella movie I ever saw was the Black one. The 1997 one with Brandy Norwood, Paolo Montalbán, Whitney Houston, and Whoopi Goldberg. Man, the 90s were something else. I didn’t actually ever get to watch the original 1950 Cinderella movie until senior year of high school LOL.
What’s more, Cinderella was my favorite princess story (don’t ask me why, I think it was the blue dress), so I watched and rewinded and watched that tape again countless times. I’m going to make this very clear: my first Cinderella was Black. (And beautiful.) Just let that sink in. A young Thanh watching a Black Cinderella over and over again on her little TV in her Asian household. Now, my family wasn’t immune to holding anti-Black sentiments, but there’s something to be said when you immigrate to a place with a sizable POC population and your daughter’s screening the 1997 Cinderella on TV on repeat and your good friend/coworker at the preschool nearby is Black too. Whether my mom liked it or not, she has had and continues to have her fair share of interactions with all kinds of people. And this tickles me to no end. End tangent.
Sorry y’all, that was too important to me not to include. In any case, the point I was trying to make before the story took reign of my post for a second is that my childhood as a 1.5 generation Vietnamese immigrant had its fair share of anti-Asian experiences.
Let’s skip ahead to the point where I struggle with hating myself. Not my “self” self, but my “ethnic self-hatred and internalized racism” self.
I mean, when you had that kind of self-esteem-destructing childhood and you learned there is no refuge anywhere and it wasn’t like your parents could intervene much nor did you have the vocabulary or motivation (too shameful) to bring this stuff up with your fellow Asian friends, what would you have done?
I internalized those things, that’s for sure.
The media steps on Asians and rubs it in with stereotypes, interactions with others teach shame and how to hide/erase traces of ethnic culture and self, we learn that things are not made for us here, and that the way to distance ourselves from our Asianness is to run fast and straight into “American” culture, whatever that means.
When images of you are constructed by other people, there are only so many options you can choose for being. Take the “Outgoing Asian” approach. (This was actually a named concept in one of my college textbooks.) It’s what you do when your entire racial group is painted as meek and mild: be loud and outgoing and assertive. In fact, be kooky and out-there, almost. Remember, you gotta show that you have personality. Don’t be that quiet nerd that has no personality. And just for kicks, if you don’t like being labeled as pleasant, a pushover, or agreeable, throw in some attitude, sass, wit, whatever it takes to be louder and unpleasant.
But wait. What if in your attempts to be rebelliously unpleasant, you fall into scary dragon lady territory? Can’t have that, some people are into that and you want none of it.
Quick, switch to the chill person. Wear a beanie. Listen to obscure indie music. Make art. Really carve out your life via alternative avenues. Become whatever hipsters were before they got a label and became too self-aware. You’re calm, you’re cool. No one would ever mistake you for fresh off the boat. I mean, look at all the plaid you wear. FOBs hate plaid. And if you’re nerdy, it’s only slightly and in a way people can kinda get with and value.
- Acceptable equivalents: a darker version with more deadpan humor. The less you seem to care, the better. Say “no” a lot in response to everything.
- Or, go the existential route. Really get into European philosophers, mathematicians, poets, artists- feed that nagging little voice in your head that wants more. But keep it low key; too special to share with those who might break.
Pro-tip: if you’re not in STEM, throw in the occasional “I can’t math” joke. Tailor it to your personality, but make certain they know you’re bad at math.
Somewhere along the line, if you’re a woman, make your hair lighter. Black’s too serious. Reminds you too much of your mom. Too starkly Asian. Make it burgundy, brown, blonde, blue, it doesn’t matter, you’re tired of being just another tree in the woods. Everyone already says you look the same.
If you’re a dude, get into sports. Wear basketball shorts. Use words like “ayee” and “yo.” Get into hip hop culture. Be… chill-popular. Be flustered when you get called out for saying the n-word. Be funny. Use a lot of puns and quips. Drink, smoke, party, strive towards success and being valued for your usefulness/accomplishments, work out, get swole, make money, make douchey jokes, push people’s buttons a little, be assertive, date a lot, do whatever necessary for you to get. that. masculine. status.
All genders: get yourself a white partner. They’re just better. You’re already trying to run away from your own Asian self, why run towards another Asian? White people won’t date you? Go for other people of color. If you’re able to get with someone non-Asian, you’ve made it. No longer bogged down by the limits of your race, you’ve transcended into personhood.
- honest side note: my rationale for this at the time was that I really didn’t enjoy growing up with sexist Asian patriarchs and I didn’t wanna end up dating younger versions of them. Then I met actual Asian American guys and the majority of them were in a state where they had not yet… developed… a backbone. I simultaneously knew they had it rough in terms of figuring out who they were but also expected them to “rise above” and become confident, upstanding beings untouched by the spirit-crushing forces society constantly thrusts at them.
- It’s okay. I grew out of this cringey way of thinking.
Lastly, be happy. Just blissfully happy. Yeah, things are kinda awful for other minority groups, and you don’t like all this white-washing or stereotypes, but you can deal. It’s not that serious. Besides, there are other things in life. Food, friends, how funny you all are. There are things to do and art to see and places to explore and restaurants to try and walls to take photos in front of. You’re comfortable. You have the greatest friends. They’re mostly Asian but sometimes White or White-passing and occasionally the cool Black person. Things are good. Your friend group is diverse. You don’t judge, you talk to everyone. You’re not sure what everyone else is freaking out about, you’re just being yourself. A regular, unmarked, human being. And they just gotta be themselves, too. Work on loving themselves a little harder. Plus, worrying about all that political stuff doesn’t sound like you. Of course you care, but you’ve got a career to focus on. A future to create for your kids and something to give back to your hard-working parents. All you want is to make them proud. Everybody’ll be happy when you make them proud.
Okay, I’ll stop here before I go on forever. I think you get the gist. Being Asian American is like this complex puzzle that’s constantly changing. The rules are always changing and there are lots of constraints and dead ends and no rule book.
But before I go on, I first gotta say: I’m sorry. All the examples above got too real in a way I did not expect. I don’t regret speaking my truth, but I also had no idea that that would turn out so satirical and ruthlessly frank yet accurate and I hope nobody thought I was passing judgement or describing anyone in particular. If anything, I have been every single one of the vignettes I’ve painted above. (Yes, even a little bit of the dude one.) And there are a lot I left out because the scope of my experiences and knowledge is limited and I wouldn’t describe something I know little about. But the point is: don’t take these caricatures I’ve drawn too seriously. People are so much more complex and nuanced than what they are and what they’re not.
I think Asian Americans walk a thin line between one constructed image of ourselves and the next. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. It’s gotten so bad even our attempts to escape these tropes have become tropes themselves. Take, for instance, this infographic created by Joy Li that brilliantly captures the way Asian women living in Western societies navigate identity.
I could write an entire book on this one image alone. I mean, monolid or double eyelid? Flat chested or not? These are painfully real ways that Asian women’s options are limited in who we get to be, simply because of the bodies we were born into. [I just can’t describe how validating it feels to see that someone else has also picked up on these life-determining subtleties. Before I found out about this, I thought maybe I was reading into things a little too much. But no, here is the physical, carefully crafted proof that my experiences aren’t just in my head. And luckily, this is only one of Joy’s thought-provoking works.]
I’ll cut this post off here. I haven’t even started on the ways in which I’m trying to unlearn all the damaging things I’ve picked up over the years about who I’m allowed to be. I’m still trying to figure out what parts I want to keep versus the parts I’ve been told to keep. Likewise, I’m trying to uncover and rediscover the bits of my heritage that I was pushed to bury so deeply, and to figure out whether I can still connect with it enough for it to be a part of me.
All things considered, I’ve got a lot to sort through. It is a very intricate puzzle, after all. Perhaps because they knew the people they were trying to encase in it were so complex they couldn’t possibly be contained with just one layer of enigma. But I think laying it all out in this post was as good a first move as any.