not related to race, but maybe related to privilege because it has to do with disparities?
this cat is scared too... or someone just farted
At some point in my life I learned that I wasn't perfect but that was ok and that it didn't necessarily make me a bad person. I think that many consider this a step in the general path to greater maturity. Armed with this knowledge, one can truly commit to self-improvement and become receptive to constructive criticism. Pathologic pride was dead. But today I realized that I had been using this humility to avoid confronting the issues that probably need work the most: those that are scary to face because they threaten our own self-image. By readily admitting my mistakes in areas that I was already comfortable in being imperfect in, I could avoid the hard challenges while leaving intact my belief that I was self-aware and open to self-work.
Some background... A few months ago, as I've alluded to in other blogs, I picked up bell hooks's, Killing Rage. In one of her essays she takes on the topic of victimizing oneself. She recognizes that it's important to name and point to injustices in this world and how they have affected you, but only to the extent in which they allow you to address those issues and empower yourself. It's a delicate balance between awareness/justified anger and victimization. In my mind I interpret victimization and self-victimization as a pathologic state whereby one becomes somebody who is harmed and helpless to to remedy it. One grows so consumed with the injustices dealt to you and those around you, that it becomes impossible to maintain any agency. In the back of my mind I immediately, however reluctantly, admitted that this might be a trap that I fell into sometimes.
This is a really hard blog to write.
I think it's because if someone points out that I've made a mistake due to a cultural misperception or ignorance, it's both acceptable within my own self-image as well as societally, to graciously admit my mistake and genuinely try to learn. In fact, it's seen as humble and a positive trait. I can make a mistake in that capacity and still believe that I'm a wise or insightful human being, in fact admitting that mistake validates that. However, for me, admission of victimization is much scarier for so many reasons.
I fear that the admission of self-victimization will invalidate my anger and question the existence of the injustices that I've been pointing to. I fear that this will present a weakness of character that will discredit all that I have said before. I fear that by admitting that sometimes I victimize myself, I admit that I'm not actually as insightful or wise as I'd liked to think. I realize that by admitting this I also have to admit that part of my self-image was someone who is insightful and wise - which is perhaps foolish for a 25 year old person to believe. So I'm embarrassed of that as well.
And finally, the hardest thing to reveal in this blog... By admitting that working on myself was terrifying and difficult would mean that I would really have to recognize exactly that: this shit is hard. In my head, there are two general responses to those who are facing difficulties that you have also experienced. The first is supportive: "I, too, have gone through something similar and I remember how hard it was and how hard it probably is for you right now." The second is callous: "I, too, have gone through something similar, so why can't you figure it out and deal with it as well?" Re-experiencing how painful the struggle of true self-improvement can be is a reminder that recently I have not been particularly understanding of that with white and privileged folks around me. In that regard, I have not been a particularly empathetic person, and that, I am ashamed of.
Someone called me out on this today. Thank you, Mo. If you hadn't been so persistent then I'd probably still be pretending it wasn't around and hoping it would go away on its own. At first it was mortifying. I did my best to seem mature about it and admit my own shortcomings and speak honestly. Then later, when I didn't have to pretend anymore, all the fears engulfed me and I wondered how many other people could see what you had seen. I felt exposed and fragile, vulnerable and overwhelmed.
But there are positive things as well. bell hooks's piece shows me that I'm not alone; it's validating to know that it's not uncommon or a character weakness to feel this way. It feels empowering to know I have the strength to confront myself. And finally, it's uplifting to be reminded that there have fantastic people around me that can not only push me to confront these issues but also provide a warm shelter when I'm feeling vulnerable.
Museum of Chinese in America
The Museum of Chinese in America is celebrating their grand opening of their new, bigger, grander space at 215 Centre Street in New York City's Chinatown today (NYT article). The space is designed by Maya Lin who became famous in the early eighties when her design was selected for the Vietnam War Memorial.
So why is MoCA important? So many reasons. And I think the NYT article missed the point.
I remember I was once talking with a friend and she remarked, "You're the only Asian person I've ever heard refer to themselves as a 'person of color'." Another time, during an inter-racial dialogue, someone said, "I feel like I've heard a lot about the 'Black experience' in the States, but not really much about the 'Asian experience.' I'm curious to hear about your experiences."
More disturbingly, once one of the dean's of my friend's medical school said, "I can't tell the difference between White students and East Asian students." We're seen as the model minority, not underprivileged and not under-represented. At the same time we're not always accepted as American. When the public found out that the design for the Vietnam War Memorial was created by a Chinese American, people protested that an American monument should be done by an American. Lin was born in Ohio. On a more personal note, I've been told on more than one occasion after criticizing the American government that I "should go back to my own country." I was born in Connecticut. Furthermore, I don't think my white friends who are equally vocal in their politics, have been told that nearly as much as I have.
But I don't want to be misunderstood. I don't believe that the history of Asian folks in the United States needs to explored because it is directly a means to end racism (or even to educate about racism). In fact, MoCA is more about collecting histories rather than any sort of activism. The examples that I relate above illustrate the importance of understanding our own history, being in control of our own legacy.
Often when I talk about Asian identity in the context of the United States, both Asian folks and others are a little confused. They don't totally know how to synthesize all the information they receive. On one hand we're stereotyped as smart, overachievers. A race of people who take what white folks invent and then do it better. (Incidentally, this whole "model minority" stereotype incredibly damaging as it lulls people into thinking that all Asians are doing great! The statistics for Asians in the States do not actually reflect this. Our folks struggle too.) On the other hand, they're aware that we're not white, exactly. The mainstream representations of us don't fit into the mold of "oppressed race" and yet we're not "white." And so often I've heard other Asians say, "I don't really identify as Asian."
I think institutions like MoCA are fantastic because they reinforce a less stated notion: "We're not African-American. We're not White. We're not Latino. Our heritage is not a mix of any of those. We're Chinese/East Asian/Asian/etc. and we have our own history." Asian Americans have also helped build this country, we have our own patterns of immigration (albeit diverse), and most importantly: we're not in a no-man's land between black and white or privileged and not privileged. We're Asian American.
To me, that feels very empowering. When I claim my own identity in positive terms instead of negative terms (ex. Asian American instead of "not-white" or "not-black"), I gain a sense of self. Suddenly, it becomes possible to imagine myself as a character with agency instead of an extra in someone else's story. Most excitingly, it allows me to validate my humanity from within myself; invigorated, I'm ready to interact with my community in a positive way instead of sitting on the side lines wishing someone would validate me.
A short from an art class in 2005. We were to explore our family history through photographs.
FYI: When eating bread and olive oil, rice vinegar is not a good substitute for balsamic vinegar.
It did not taste good.
And so it was a bit of a surprise for everyone when a few months later I started dating a white girl who looked like a Republican. Incidentally, when confronted with this news, she asked, "Republican? Why?" My friend quickly rattled off, "Clothes, hair, white, pearls." To which she responded, "But pearls go with everything!"
A few weeks before meeting her I had learned a new lesson about white folks. As it turns out, in general, white folks don't like being referred to as white folks. They sometimes find it racist and at the very least it seems to be impolite. This was a big surprise for me because I had pretty much spent my whole life referring to groups of people by race. When I was little it was a way of helping me understand how I fit in culturally. White folks didn't use chopsticks at the table. I was different because I was Chinese. Chinese folks eat rice and speak Chinese and really, really, really like the color red. It wasn't a label that implied quality, just difference.
As I got older, it seemed natural to speak this way because it seemed like everyone around me spoke that way. My Korean friends joked about white people and their Korean music. I would overhear black kids in the hallway imitating the way "white people" talked. My Chinese friends and I referred to "Chinese parents" as a culture in it of itself, a phrase used to describe the often expected strictness, importance on musical ability, and academic success. My friend and I joked that Jewish people weren't really white, they were Chinese.
Looking back, I can now recognize that these comments were almost exclusively made by minorities/people of color. Looking back, I realize that they were never made in mixed company. I'm an idiot. How did it take me so long to realize this? Jokes that are funny to people of color are not funny to white people. And sometimes they even find them offensive.
I guess it's because white folks are raised to be scared to talk about differences. Our parents' generation was that of the "melting pot" and "color blind" philosophy. People were people. To recognize that people were different based on race was dangerous because you might be a racist. It was better to pretend or work to a point where race wasn't even noticed. And so that's the message, however explicit or implicit that was passed on to their children. [Clearly this is just a guess - my own attempt to understand. I wasn't raised white. I have no idea.]
On the other hand, those of us who fall in the category of "other" can't really ignore race and culture. In fact, I think it's learned/taught very early on, that paying attention to the rules of white folks is necessary to survival because they're the dominant culture.
For example, when I was six or so, I was playing at my friend's house and was invited to stay over for dinner. I helped set the table and the dinner seemed to be going fine. At this point I had already learned the differences in food and utensils. Chinese food was eaten with chopsticks. White people food was eaten with forks and knives and spoons. Towards the end of the meal, I got to the awkward point where there was just a few bites of food left on my plate. I tried to get my spoon to pick it up, but there wasn't enough leverage and I watched myself chase it around on my plate. The pieces were too small for a fork. I pondered what to do.
Throwing out the food was not an option. That would be wasteful. My dad had been very clear about that. So, though it seemed awkward, the plate was so big, I decided to lift the plate so that the edge was too my lips. We did that all the time at home with our bowls. In fact, it's how you eat rice with chopsticks. As soon as I got the plate to my lips, I realized that perhaps this had been the wrong decision. It was so heavy, that it was hard for me to maneuver my other hand to push the rest of the food into my mouth. And if that weren't enough of a hint, I heard my friend protest (I couldn't actually see her since the plate was so large and in my face), "She's putting the plate to her mouth! You can't do that!" Her mom quickly hushed her, "People are taught different manners."
Needless to say, I was embarrassed. I finished as quickly as I could. Then I tried to pretend that nothing had happened. We all did. I also worried that now they thought me and my family were uncultured and rude. I worried that she thought I had bad parents who hadn't taught me good manners. This seemed to be of special concern to me since many of the manners I had been taught revolved around how to interact with adults and how to show respect: "Did you go say hi and say 'a yi'?" "Make sure you thank 'shu shu' for that." Manners and respect seemed to be linked. Had I just disrespected my friend's mother? My host?
And so that's how I learned that white folks didn't put anything but cups and utensils to their mouths. I find it hard to believe that that's a racist statement. But I guess, then again, if it bothers white folks, it's not like I have to go around pointing it out.
Last night I cried to my mom. I also water damaged my cell phone. I'm an efficient multitasker.
I've been a bit reluctant to ask my mom her honest opinion about my blog. Of course, I told her about it and hoped that she would read it, but I was scared to truly engage her because I didn't know what she would say. I was scared that she wouldn't understand.
In the past she's told me that she believes that I generalize too much. "People are people," she says. "There are good and bad in every race." Of course she's right, but that's not what I wanted to hear. I'm angry. I'm hurt. I need to be validated. And I was scared that she would rebuke me the same way that many white folks had. And then I would feel alienated. Alienated from my own mother. At the same time, I desperately wanted her to know what I was thinking. It seemed like without that knowledge, she wouldn't know who I was.
But last night, on the phone, she brought the blog up herself. She had reserved a copy of Killing Rage, a book that I often refer to as "the book that saved my life," and it was finally ready for pick up at the library. My soul started beating faster. Maybe I didn't have to feel like there was this unspoken elephant between us anymore. I asked her about her thoughts about my blog and I held my breath.
And then she said all the things that I had worried she would say. I generalized too much. She felt that my writings created an "us and them" stance that was more divisive than unifying and constructive. She worried that my tone would turn people off and thus my message would be lost.
I grew desperate. How could I make her understand? There was more at stake than with other folks before. While I didn't need her to agree with my completely, I did need her to understand why I felt the way I did. Unlike with other people, "agreeing to disagree" wasn't an option, it seemed like failure.
So I spewed everything I could think of: the primary goal of my blog isn't to convince people of anything, it's just to talk; I feel like I'm going crazy and just have to get these thoughts out; writings like this are important because it's validating to know that people struggle the same way you do; that yes, not all white people are bad, but by virtue of being white they have white privilege and experience this world differently and that shapes who they are; I'm in an angry, hurt phase. And then she asked, "Why are you so angry?"
I was taken aback. Wasn't it obvious? And then I realized, of course it wasn't obvious; how could it have been? As much as I've discussed to death these issues and my experiences with my peers, I've never told my parents.
I've never really had the ability to show weakness to my parents. I don't like them to know when I'm hurting. I'm not sure why. Part of it is because I know they're happy when I'm happy. Part of it is because I want them to be proud of me. I want them to have the kind of daughter that's capable and successful in this life, and for some reason in my head that translates to never unhappy. I remember when I came out to my parents they were super supportive, but my mom did mention that she was worried that this would make my life harder. I think instinctively I'm reluctant to tell her about homophobia that I've encountered: I don't want them to know that sometimes I'm hurt by things that they can't protect me from.
But this was my chance and so I told her everything. I told her about how alone I feel because I'm pretty sure that most of my classmates are uncomfortable with who and I and what I say. I told her about how I don't even feel comfortable in my own living community because I think there are people there who bully my girlfriend when she visits because we're queer. I told her how since I left home for college, I've never had a Chinese home to return to and how much I miss that comfort and familiarity sometimes. And I cried. I cried because these are hard things to admit to anyone. I cried because all this time, she never knew how I felt. I cried because I wanted her to understand.
A few years ago, my friend, Jia's grandmother passed away. Since at the time I wasn't particularly close to my own grandparents, when I first heard the news I was sad for her but was not particularly struck with emotion and didn't realize that she might feel any differently. But then I heard the despair in her voice and I remembered. Jia was born in China and when she was younger, her grandparents raised her while her parents worked in another country trying to establish a new life. Unlike my grandparents who often played a more peripheral role, her grandmother was like a second mother. There was the sadness of saying goodbye to a cherished relationship. But there was also the despair of not being there when it happened. And I remember at one point, Jia looked at me, locked my eyes, and said with the conviction of someone who believes with every fiber of their being, "I don't think that people were meant to be so far from each other."
Has my mom converted over to my belief system? No. She's still a voice of reason and moderation. She will always be the wonderful person who can patiently explain how she feels without anger. She will always adamantly state that people are people are people are people. She will never be overwhelmed by the number of white people around because it will always seem like there's more and more Chinese people everyday compared to when she first moved here. But, I feel like she understands me better now.
As we engaged in post-climatic eye-drying and strolled downhill through our thematic resolution, my mom pointed out that because of immigration patterns and modern ambition, we don't have the abundance of family around. You hear about families that just seem to have cousins and aunts and uncles at every street corner in town. As my mom said, "it's like they have this clan." [At this point, I refrained from making a white people, Ku Klux Klan joke.] I know what she's talking about and I remember hearing about my friend's families when I was younger and thinking, "that's not my family." But we still have each other. We're not alone in this world. We can offer each other comfort. And we should be proactive about it. In the end she's right: people are people. We're all the same. And like many children, I don't call home enough.
Last year, I was recounting the most recent happenings in an ongoing flirtation of mine, "K", when my friend turns to me and says, "Jess, if K were white and female, do you think you could fall for him then?" My friend clearly wasn't fooled. Despite the fact that C was probably one of the best guys I've ever met and quite attractive, she knew that I would never fall in love with him (I'm just a little too gay), but the "white" qualifier surprised me. My mouth dropped open and I immediately tried to defend myself, "Hey! I don't date just white people! My first girlfriend was black! I dated a Hapa after that! One of my boyfriends was Native American!" Why did I feel the need to defend myself? Why was it upsetting to be seen as a person who dated white folks? Was it not radical enough to date a white person?
Actually, it was just around that time that I was worried about the opposite. I was worried that I could never date a white person again. And I was worried about what that said about me. My last relationship was with a white person. An incredible, loving, progressive person. While we were together I had never considered race an issue in our relationship. Sometimes I forgot that we were interracial at all. But as I reflected over our relationship, I realized that sometimes the race difference was hard on us.
I remember getting into a huge argument about rich, white folks and their huge houses and expensive cars. She thought I was too angry and militant.
I remember her breaking down in tears when I made a half joke about not living with only white people in the future. And I remember how guilty I felt afterwards, like I had failed to be enlightened enough, that I had failed at fitting in. People are people. Why not hang out with only white folks?
And yet, it seemed impossible. My recent experiences with white folks seemed less than promising. Somehow things I said, jokes I made always seemed to alienate them. I was too angry. I pointed out white people too much. I could tell this. I could sense it. And I could tell that people didn't like me because of it. And yet I couldn't stop. It was like being transported back to middle school again when you're trying so hard to make friends but you can just tell that nobody likes you. Except, back then sometimes it was just confusing and not necessarily your fault. You were still learning social navigation skills and didn't know what you were doing wrong. This time around, it was all the same feelings of being unliked coupled with the knowledge that you were the one doing something wrong over and over and over again. It's a terrible to feel unliked. It's even worse when you're certain it's your fault and you can't fix it.
It's a confusing place. I've often wished that there were some kind of objective meter out there that I could judge my behavior against. On one hand, I felt for certain that my comments were militant and out of line. Response after response of those around me had told me that. Maybe I was a racist. On the other hand, a small part of me cried out to be validated. The most effective tool of counter-organizing is to convince those who are oppressed and those who are aware that they're being extreme. Was I falling victim to societal pressures to fall in line? The uncertainty killed me. Was I a good person or not?!
I didn't know. But whichever I was, it was pretty clear to me that I would probably never date a white person again, not necessarily because I was against it in principle but because it just could never work out. Whether I was a good or bad person, I could not, for the life of me, keep my mouth shut. I'd have to find someone who was ok with that.
Please don't be upset. I wanted to tell you, but I didn't want to hurt you.
I had a fling this summer.
It wasn't exactly a fling. Technically I didn't cheat on you. Nothing happened. But yes, I would be lying if I didn't admit that I emotionally cheated on you. But, I'm over it and now I'm more committed to you than ever!
It's hard to know where to start. When we started seeing each other it was so fun and light! I was young and optimistic about the way you made me feel. I was born here - I could be the first Chinese American, female president. Yes, there were problems (racism, classism, poor people), but we were the country of opportunities. A country with flaws but one that was earnestly striving to change all that.
But then maybe the magic wore off and I found some things about us I didn't like. I realized how we Americans were often self-centered. Even worse, it wasn't a thing of the past. We trampled over the concerns of others just to improve our own comforts and lifestyles. We even sacrificed our fellow citizens to get ahead. Especially if they were poor. Especially if they weren't white. Especially if they were weird. And many didn't seem remorseful. Some even felt entitled to behave in that way.
And then the reality of long-term relationships sunk in. There were struggles. I got hurt. Deeply hurt. You told me I was wrong for caring about what I thought were our shortcomings. You told me I was weird, oversensitive, and militant. I felt uncomfortable expressing myself fully because I feared I would be ostracized the way I had been in the past. You sent me emails telling me to "tell someone who cared." I watched other people of color get shot out and wondered how quickly I might become the new target. I listened to you condemn my "lifestyle" and invalidate my personal relationships. I watched you listen to my white friends instead of me.
You want to know who it was. It doesn't matter. Fine. It was Taiwan. I got there and suddenly all those feelings of alienation disappeared, I could belong if I wanted to. I was swept away... No. I'm not in love with Taiwan. I don't want to switch citizenships. Eventually I remembered that every country has its problems. Taiwan is extremely homogenous. They have their own class issues, race issues. Chinese culture can be very suffocating. And for the first time I truly understand why my mom likes living in the States more. I want to be with you. But things need to change and I need to change.
So. Yea. What now? I don't know. Sometimes I'm still really hurt. I have baggage. Sometimes being in a place where even my own community harbors prejudiced feelings towards me is still really aggravating and unsettling for me. But sometimes I feel renewed. Rededicated. Like we can fix it. Together.
When asked how I identify, I have a neat, packaged answer to whip out. Somewhere between all the conversations about life, workshops on race and privilege, discourses about activism, and community work, the question has come up so often that it's almost old news to me. I have a list ready to rattle off and an identity ready for every category. I even have my identities categorized into a flow chart in my own mind: political versus personal/cultural, claimed on principle versus personally, etc. My dad calls himself a "soup freak" because of his love of soup. You can call me an "identify freak."
I remember when I was younger, there was often a mild buzz in the background of my life about the identity crisis of second generation Asian kids: not American but not Chinese/Korean/whatever. I sometimes pictured a collective of floating East Asian youth wandering around: a lost island community with straight, black hair bobbing over the rest of America. Though, to my parents' credit, I think I grew up relatively immune to this confusion. From a young age I was told I was "Chinese American." It was a special identity. American AND Chinese. So simple. Looking back, I embraced it without even knowing.
Nevertheless, the first return of second generation-ers to their parents' home country and their reaction to the experience is seen as part of the coming of age process. As a ten year old my perception was that it was the gold standard procedure to finally sorting out this lost identity. You went. You hung out in the motherland. You ate a lot of food and maybe had your accent made fun of. Whether you finally felt accepted or suddenly realized you really were American, or both, you came back with a renewed sense of self. Since I never really struggled with my own Chinese identity within the context of being American and over the years have come to a pretty comfortable spot, I actually didn't really anticipate much change on that front when I went to Taiwan. Instead, I looked forward to hanging out with my grandmother and stuffing my face at every possible turn.
However it was in a mildly confused state that I found myself the fourth day of my trip. I was standing in the middle of the nurses' station in the inpatient ward of the pediatrics department of National Taiwan University Hospital. I was jet-lagged and onto my third bubble-tea of the day. This weird mix of Chinese and English-hospital-lingo-with-a-Mandarin-accent surrounded me. I didn't know where my resident had gone (whoops). I don't know how long I stood there, but suddenly I was mesmerized and I imagined myself just blending into the wall and watching.
All the women had charms hanging off their cell phones. Exclamations of surprise were distinctly Chinese: "eH!?" People signed off their notes with red stamps. I eavesdropped on every conversation - ALL OF IT WAS IN CHINESE! I felt this wave of comfort of wash over me. The presence of such "cultural ticks" filling every turn with its ordinariness was like I finally had my own club. These people would like my black eggs. When they watch tv, they might eat dried plums instead of potato chips. They take their shoes off when they get home.
But in addition to this immense sense of belonging, some part of me felt off-kilter. Hence my confusion. Why did I feel so weird? Were the pearls in milk tea really alien eyes like my friend, Val, insisted? Had consuming too many pearls finally caught up with me? I haven't resolved that question, but what I did realize: I felt weird because I was no longer different. Suddenly all the little things that I identified as making me different in the States weren't special, they were normal. Did that no longer make me special?
As I explored this thought process I realized that when I was in the States I didn't just identify as a queer, activist, radical, woman of color, I identified as "other/not-mainstream." My feeling of discomfort stemmed from suddenly feeling a little less other and thus suddenly feeling like I had maybe lost a little bit of myself.
What I've been reading:
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
about this blog
A place where I can write my thoughts on race, on privilege, on class, on being a doctor. Part of the endless struggle to become a little bit more enlightened and feel a little less alienated.
Agree with me. Call me out. Pass it on.
I post once or twice a month with smaller comments on mini-blog.
My name is Jess. In the interest of full disclosure: I'm a 30-something-year-old Chinese American and believer that the quest for social justice and equity must be an intentional and active one. I'm a Family Medicine physician. I'm queer. I'm a radical. I grew up in a mostly white suburb and my parents are white-collar workers. And I don't eat meat, but I miss it sometimes.
Subscribe via email!(no lists ever sold)