I first heard the term ‘Asian American coming out story’ a few months ago, when I was with a group of other students talking about race and how it impacted the experiences of Asian American people. The girl who used the term was describing how she came to realize that being Asian or Asian American actually does mean something racially, that it isn’t just the same as being White. In a way that sounds silly: you would imagine that all it should take was a look in the mirror for that realization to happen. But as someone who at the time had only recently rounded that same corner, the ‘coming out’ comparison seemed to fit. There’s a recognition and an ownership of a part of yourself that you have tried to de-emphasize, and now having claimed it, there are a whole host of other questions and struggles you now have to tackle. And like other coming out stories, I think there is some value in sharing these. So here’s mine.
As I said, this doesn’t really have to do with literally recognizing your race. I was well aware from a young age that the vast majority of my relatives lived somewhere that was a very long plane-ride away, that there was a whole other language, country and (most importantly) cuisine that I could claim some sense of ownership of. And I imagine that I knew that I looked different than some of my other classmates in elementary school, though growing up in a large city with a huge immigrant population (not to mention having my mother actively seeking out Chinese doctors, dentists, hairdressers, etc) it wasn’t hard to find faces and skin tones and hairstyles that looked like mine. So I could trace my heritage, but on the hierarchy of things that were important to me being me that seemed to fit somewhere between my non-existent athletic ability and my love of superhero cartoons. Which is to say, enough that I knew it existed, but not so much that I felt it actually had any bearing on my life.
It wasn’t until high school that ‘Asianness’ emerged for me as a characteristic that had meaning on its own. I went to a small school with a large population of students who were of East Asian and South Asian origin, and in the time-honoured practice of elite institutions everywhere, the school regularly touted its ‘diversity’: you can be sure that every promotional brochure proudly displayed smiling children of every shade available. No brochure can stop people from being ignorant, however, and smart people in particular have a way of coating their ignorance with intelligence and creativity until it’s barely recognizable for what it is. It was here that I first heard the term ‘Asian six-pack’ (an academic courseload that includes three maths and three sciences), and it was here that regularly exchanging ‘l’s and ‘r’s to mimic ‘Asian’ accents became an acceptable joke. Being Asian wasn’t a neutral descriptor for me anymore: it dragged along with it other words with other meanings, words like ‘smart’, ‘studious’, and also ‘foreign’, ‘different’.
I wish I could say that all of these things struck some chord in me. I wish I could say that here was when I started recognizing the ways in which racism and oppression were embedded in all levels of society, and that they worked to marginalize Asian people and other people of colour, and that I was newly motivated to take action and do something about it. And really, I probably had more reason than most to make those connections. It was also during these years that I was first getting introduced to principles of social justice and racial equality, after attending a youth conference that my English teacher took a group of us to. So a bunch of the pieces were there, and you might have thought that I could start drawing lines between my relationship with my own ethnicity and these new terms and frames I was learning. But no such luck. Even if I felt bothered by the jokes that my classmates and friends were making (many of whom were Asian themselves), I don’t think I saw them as anything more than individual displays of ignorance or narrow-mindedness. I wanted them to stop, sure, but almost in the same way I would want someone to stop a bad habit. It’s all personal, individual. I could still only see it as ‘people being racist’, not as ‘racism showing itself through people’, and that I think made it easier to define and thus to ignore. It certainly made it easier for me to continue with the belief that I could discuss and think about racial issues without really considering my own experiences with them, or the experiences of Asian American communities generally. Besides, as I increasingly told myself and others, I wasn’t even really that Asian anyway.
I still have a little while to go before I get to the actual point of this story, but I’ve blown past the word limit I’ve set for myself for these posts, so that’s going to have to wait. For now, I’ll leave it here, at what I think is probably the low point of my racial consciousness. It gets better, I promise.