(This post is a continuation of the story I started here.)
I wasn’t that Asian. Not really Asian. Not too Asian.
This seemed like a fairly simple conclusion. For one, I could barely speak enough Mandarin to order in a restaurant. Second, my home wasn’t decked in reds and golds and stylized, waving cats that I associated with Chinese decor. Finally, all my references and interests and geeky guilty pleasures were firmly based in American and Canadian culture. Q.E.D. Minimum Asianness.
That ‘Asianness’ was even a quality that could exist in varying degrees, and that I only had the barest amount of it, was a belief I carried with me into undergrad. At university, I avoided participating in Chinese or Asian-American cultural groups, rejected invitations both general and targeted. That was not how I wanted to be identified, and it bothered me those few times when I would come back to my dorm room to find a flyer from the Chinese Student Association or Asian American Association addressed specifically to me. It was like being, unmasked, found out.
And then sometime in my third year, things started to change. This is the part of the story that gets a little hazy, because I’m honestly not quite sure what changed. I’m finding that trying to trace any line of logic through my choices is a little like trying to find a rhythm in white noise: there seem to be patterns, but it’s hard to say if they’re actually there or something my brain has decided is there, making order where there isn’t any (or at least any that I can understand). Either way, it was in my third year of undergrad that events started coming together that I believe got me to where I am now. I had close friends who had started getting more involved in Asian-American activism, and I started hearing more about what they were doing. I became closer with people who were actively involved in different Asian cultural groups on campus. I started reading a lot more about race in different ways than I had before, finding writers I liked, then writers they liked and so on. And talking to those friends and reading those writers was getting me curious. I was finding perspectives that I had never seen before, but which somehow mirrored so much of what I had experienced. I was learning about the violence and oppression that has targeted Asian-American individuals and communities for as long as they have existed, and I was learning about the brave and intelligent and selfless people who were – and are – fighting against it. I was reading fiction that articulated my conflicted emotions better than I ever could, that told stories that I had lived. It amazed and frustrated me that I hadn’t seen any of this before, and I consumed as much as I could. And somewhere in there, I started to find myself re-centering around a few new beliefs. First, being Asian-American carried with it a host of current and past struggles and obstacles and victories and conflicts that couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored. And second, there was no way that I was going to separate being Asian-American from the rest of who I was, and even if I wanted to, there was no way that anyone who saw my face or my last name would allow me to do so. All the attempts that I had made earlier to minimize my ‘Asianness’ – driven, I think now, by a desire to distance myself from a part of me that could be stigmatized or attacked – were not only harmful, but also futile.
Which brings us pretty much to the present. I’m still learning a lot, still noticing more and more ways in which I’ve internalized discomfort about my race, still trying to challenge them. I’m also seeing that while being Asian-American does mean something, it certainly doesn’t mean just one thing, and learning more about the range of experiences that that term speaks to is vital for any sort of progress. And I’m thinking a lot now about the ways in which the racial experiences of Asian-American people and other people of colour are similar or different. I realize, for instance, that even my ability to convince myself that my race has little impact on who I am (and having no one directly challenge me on that) is not a luxury that all people of colour are afforded. There’s a lot still for me to understand and work on, but the great thing is I’ve also met and gotten closer to some amazing people who are on, or have been on, similar paths. So as much as I am frustrated or angry or sad by what I’m learning and seeing I am also, tentatively, hopeful. Which isn’t quite enough, but it’s a start.