A Letter to My Chinese Immigrant Father About American Racism

support_liang

The Peter Liang conviction was a reminder of the space between my father and me. Usually the space hangs there, pregnant but unperturbed. Every now and then, however, something like Liang’s conviction forces us to actively confront this truth: that he, a first-generation Chinese immigrant who embraced the “American Dream,” and I, his queer Chinese-American daughter, are very different. It seems obvious, but we rarely speak of it, because I’m expected to not be different.

In the weeks following Liang’s conviction, I’ve composed many unsent letters to my father. The first ones, composed after he called to proudly tell me that he supported Justice4Liang, were of anger. I felt angry that my dad didn’t understand his own anti-Blackness. I wanted to shake him by the shoulders and scream, “can’t you see?!” but instead I sent him a dozen think pieces to read, the more scathing the better.

The next letters spoke of self-disappointment. My dad’s support of Peter Liang clearly pointed to failure on my part. I had failed to have any effective conversations about structural racism with him. Honestly, I had rarely even tried.

After disappointment, it got personal. Of course my dad will show up for a Chinese man who looks like himself, but not for a single Black Lives Matter action — that’s because he fundamentally refuses to operate outside of his own frameworks. This is what I tell myself when I think about how he refuses to accept my queerness, or to see the pain that comes with that refusal. The truth is, I don’t feel hopeful that my dad will ever fight for my queerness the way he fought for Liang, much less fight for Black families, with whom he feels he shares nothing in common.

This is when I realize that I have been yearning to talk to my father about the Liang protests and Black Lives Matter, yes, but along the way I want, and need, to talk to him about so much more. I want to talk to him about the pains of diaspora, fatherhood, and daughterhood. I want to explore with him how these experiences relate to life in the U.S. and the fact that it’s founded on anti-Blackness. I want to co-imagine how we can be better allies towards others and towards each other.

Intergenerational communication about race, power, and privilege within the Chinese American community won’t happen through the critical think pieces I tried throwing at my dad. It might not even happen through explainers written specifically for a Chinese audience. At least, not through explainers alone. For my dad and me, I think understanding will come only after we listen to each other’s stories and recognize each other’s pains. So here’s the letter I’d like to send my dad in the wake of Liang’s conviction —

Dear Dad,

You don’t like to tell stories about yourself, but here is what I know. You grew up in a rural village in Hubei, China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. You lived in a cement hut with your parents and four sisters. As a family you didn’t have money or material comforts, but you had pride. From a young age, you felt you would be the one to change your family’s circumstances. By day you harvested crops with everyone, and by candlelit night you retreated into a world of books no one else could enter. Once, grandma caught you reading instead of picking cotton, and she flung your book straight into the pond outside your home. By 1986, you had graduated from college, and Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, was sending the country’s top students abroad. On a full scholarship from the Chinese government, you headed to Caltech to study economics.

The ten years between 1986 and 1996, when you and mom put down your first payment for a two-story, four-bedroom house in suburban New Jersey, remain a mythical black box to me. As a kid I took it for granted, assuming that anybody who put in enough hard work and sacrifice — two values you instilled in me since babyhood — could achieve what you did. When I grew older, and learned how hard it was to make money, the climb you made seemed nothing short of magic. I’d ask my mom about it, and she’d repeat the same explanation: You worked hard, saved money, and felt entitled to nothing but what you had earned.

From 1988 to 1993, you lived in West Philly, where I was born. In our conversations about Peter Liang, you often refer to this time to dismiss my criticisms of broken windows policing. You tell me that Black neighbors used a baseball bat to kill your schoolmate, a grad student from Hong Kong, in a park near our home. Mom tells me her friend was beaten bloody on his walk home from visiting me after I was born. “We were robbed three times in one year,” she says. “We felt safer when we saw police patrols.”

In these moments, when I feel ready to hurl out angry accusations of complicity and anti-Black racism, I try to think about the loneliness you and mom might have felt as new immigrants in a country that viewed you only in caricature. I think about how you left behind a family that idolized you, to live among strangers who dismissed you as subservient, alien, and irrelevant. I think about how you might have felt as young parents, waking up in the middle of the night to robbers breaking into your apartment with a newborn sound asleep.

I imagine, dad, that you must have felt like the dangers of West Philly had nothing to do with you. You moved to the U.S. because you heard you could provide better opportunities for your children. You didn’t ask to inherit its history of racial violence. This country didn’t even feel like yours. Growing up in a country where everyone had the same color skin did not give you the terms to speak or think about racism. All you wanted was to be left alone to do your thing — and you’d leave others alone to do theirs.

The problem is, it’s impossible to live in the U.S. and not participate. You and I are assigned a place on a racial order that was birthed out of white colonialism and solidified over centuries of violence and discrimination against Black people. To not acknowledge or challenge the hierarchy is to enable it. There’s no such thing as neutral.

I can see why acknowledging the racial hierarchy might be hugely inconvenient. It means recognizing that poor Black people are more likely to experience state violence, mortgage discrimination, incarceration, residential segregation, and lower access to educational resources than poor Asians. It means conceding that your success story, built on “work hard, save money,” might not have happened the same way had you been a Black immigrant instead of a Chinese one. It means admitting that, just by doing nothing and maintaining the status quo, you are perpetuating oppression.

The truth is our convenience is not worth the hundreds of Black lives — like Akai Gurley’s — lost to this hierarchy each year.

You always taught me to avoid owing anyone anything. It’s just easier, you’d say. Keep your pain to yourself, and you don’t have to be responsible for anyone else’s pain. In a country that doesn’t care about you, better to keep your head down and take care of your own.

But that arithmetic doesn’t work here. Because of the racial hierarchy, some minorities experience more pain than we do as Asians. We profit off the pain of other marginalized groups, including Native, Latinx, Muslim-appearing, and Black people. And so we need to support their fights against oppression. Aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, we help ourselves when we fight alongside other minorities. We’ve already benefited in major ways from their fights — as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, Asian Americans gained rights to vote, marry interracially, and immigrate to the U.S. after 1965.

I know there’s heartbreak in immigration. You, mom and dad, came to the U.S. to build a life for your kids. We, your kids, grew up internalizing messages that your accents are laughable, that you’re square for working hard, that our heritage is something to be ashamed of. As a kid your daughter was disappointed in you for not knowing how to make cupcakes for the bake sale. As an adult, she’s disappointed in you for supporting Peter Liang. She writes about it on the internet, using terms she learned at the Ivy League school you paid for.

When I think about the weight of your sacrifices, I feel deeply undeserving. Most days, I feel a lump of betrayal in my throat for being so different from you. I hope you know I’m never saying these things to judge you — how could I?

I’m saying these things because I know you have a deep sense of compassion and a strong sense of justice. I’m saying these things because mainstream media never directly addresses you, or your experiences. I’m saying these things to invite you to fight — for you, me, your grandkids, and all the other kids in this country who are unfairly punished for the color of their skin. I’m saying these things because I love you, but there’s a space between us. I want to bridge that space, but first let me acknowledge your hurt.

Your daughter,

Lucy

 

 

, , ,

13 Responses to A Letter to My Chinese Immigrant Father About American Racism

Before posting a comment, please read our comment guidelines.

  1. black March 18, 2016 at 1:10 am #

    Touching letter, but no matter what you say to your parents….they’re gonna always be stuck in their ways. Most parents are just like that. It transcends race.

  2. M March 18, 2016 at 5:01 am #

    Super moving and thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Leesa Albert March 20, 2016 at 6:47 am #

    deeply thoughtful. Godspeed.

  4. susan_hayase March 22, 2016 at 11:43 am #

    Thoughtful letter. I think you’re right to acknowledge your father’s struggle. In this country, many people’s struggles are not acknowledged; we suffer from invisibility, and it makes us brittle and less able to understand other people. Maybe the second step is to show your dad some of the ways that Chinese immigrants that he could respect and relate to have stood up for equal rights — less complex cases in which there were no confusing conflicts — and how others who were not Chinese supported them. Maybe the third step is to tell him about how non-Chinese have had similar struggles and how Chinese supported them. Maybe the fourth step is to tell him about other, non-Chinese Americans, who have had struggles with other American people of color — the complicated ones, like the struggle of Korean Americans and African Americans to build better relationships in Los Angeles. You could tell him about Korean Americans and other Asian Americans who objected to the trivial sentence given to the Korean American woman who shot Latasha Harlins.

    Good luck and best wishes. It’s not a streamlined or easy process.

  5. Bing March 22, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    the letter itself was nice—-only if you write and read it from an English native speaker’s perspective—-and this reader/writer has to be fully aware of the meaning of the words, phrases, and even spirits and ideologies under the iceburg.
    Make some good black friends and they can change your father’s attitude towards blacks. Big words can’t do much here.
    First generation immigrants have very little social supports in their life—–when you, a Chinese American, or I’d rather say, an American—fighting with your peers against discrimination towards black population, how many of you have fought against those soft and invisible discrimination—language barrier, systematic so called model, obedient, silent, etc etc stereotypes? How many of you educated other ethnic groups that Asian should not be treated in a weird way?
    We came to this country to provide your generation a better environment so you don’t have to compete with billions. And now it’s your turn to let more Asian voices be heard. All live matters, including VIcent Chin’s.

  6. mark kett March 23, 2016 at 6:39 pm #

    Stop making excuses for the blacks. America loves blacks but hates your kind. There is a level playing field but the blacks want more, hence the white backlash and Trump. All you Asian female writers never speak up against Asian injustice, but bitch about this accidental shooting done by an Asian male. Your hatred for the Asian male is transparent. You want to know why your dad doesnt protest with BLM? Because when the cops beat him to a pulp no one in America will give a shit because Asian lives are worth less than the white man’s. Whites are given light sentences when they murder an Asian, but the Asian will always get maximum punishment with any crime.

    • black March 24, 2016 at 6:34 am #

      (LOL)America does NOT love blacks I can assure you that. Ohhhh boy, look everybody we got an angry white male, Conservative troll on here. If America loves blacks.. explain all of those police shootings of unarmed black men and women throughout the years,( and don’t say crap like “well he was a thug and he had a record”, like this thing with Akai Gurley). This whole Akai Gurley thing is NOTHING new in our community. Explain the high unemployment rate blacks have compared to whites, or when a black person goes for a job interview who is equally qualified to that white person going for the same job and he/she doesn’t get it, but the white person does, explain that. Explain how banks are slow to give black people loans to open up businesses or buy a house. Explain how when successful black people move in certain neighborhoods that are predominantly white they are greeted with racist signs spray painted on their house or car reading “Nigger go home”,(yes that still happens today and yes there are successful hard working black people out here).Explain the gentrification going on in a lot of black communities. There is, “a level playing field?”…. according to whom??

  7. mark kett March 24, 2016 at 12:30 pm #

    Most of those blacks got shot during the commission of a crime, so hard to sympathize. Blacks may be 11% of the population, but they are over represented in the media. I dont see Asians selling me shit on TV. Like the OP’s father, maybe if they get educated their unemployment rate would not be so high. To say that the whites favor the yellow man over black is preposterous. No I dont see “nigger go home,” but I do see “gook go home.” Enough excuses. If a yellow man with nothing can come and succeed in this country so can a black.

    • black March 24, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

      All those things that I listed were not “excuses” they are FACTS. You mentioned about those blacks got shot during the “commission of a crime”. Whites like you always have every reason why it’s okay to shoot unarmed black people and I stated that in my previous comment towards you. It seems your the one making the excuses. The fact is.. they were UNARMED! Not whether it was during a commission. Okay you know what…what about the number of unarmed Blacks that were shot and killed while NOT during a commission?? And the same excuses a cop has is..”I felt threatened”,or “He had what LOOKED like a gun”, and when they do the investigating you can’t find the damn weapon. HUH?? Tell me, how many Whites compared to Blacks get shot and killed like that whether it’s a “commission” or not??? Tell me! Not many. (and you know this).
      So you think those unemployed Blacks are “uneducated?”… how do you know?? Just listen to yourself.There are many highly educated Blacks who are unemployed. You whites definitely don’t “favor” the yellow man over the Blacks…but you definitely use them as a buffer(a middleman)between this whole racist American Black/White dynamic.You use them as excuse to continue to be racist towards us and you have clearly proven that by stating the typical Conservative boot-strap like argument of.. “If a yellow man with nothing can come and succeed in this country so can a black”. Peter Liang is the most recent and perfect example of how you use other people of color to pay for your sins. I mean.. haven’t you been paying attention??!! What do you think all those what…12,000 or more Chinese people all over the country was marching about?? What was their main slogan…”NO SCAPEGOAT”. Your probably one of those two-faced type of white guys who talk so well about Asians to their faces and feed them that “model minority” crap, while at the same time making fun of them and using that label against them. I see right through you and you are full of crap.

      • Jim April 14, 2016 at 11:59 pm #

        Unlike the recent specially selected racially sensitive news reporting, current federal government statistics on police shootings show white criminals are shot and killed by police at a higher rate than black Americans engaged in the same criminal violations! Black officers are also found to be harder on black perpetrators than white police officers with an increased use of their weapons. Obviously there are always bad apples of each racial stereotype in very small numbers in any sizable municipal police force but we’re talking across the nation.
        Its very sad that young members of the black community are being checked out more often by the police(to the point of feeling like harrasment…the joke “driving while black” may feel like a possible offense in places that are not diverse is very unfortunate) it’s because even for black police officers the typical police experience with black crime is known to be more violent.
        It was telling years ago when Jesse Jackson related a recent experience he had in which he was walking down the sidewalk in a predominantly black inner city neighborhood in the early evening and heard the sound of running feet coming down the sidewalk behind him. He felt his heart speed up and fear well up because he new he was likely to be seriously hurt or worse. When he turned and looked back to his surprise he saw a couple young white kids running up the sidewalk. He felt complete releaf… his chances of a serious problem had dropped to very little. Even if they actually did rob him of his wallet which he knew was unlikely, there was no fear of severe physical damage. He told this tale as a sad story in a presentation that week. It was the first time he realized his real fear due to a practical understanding of outcomes was not to different from what any other non black citizen might legitimately fear.
        There is a real cultural problem. The black community is told that victimization is creating people’s problems. This tapestry has been created by poor schools, tough role models, poor expectations, drugs, abuse and a society that allows this kind of behavior only in the black community. Often it involves the rejection of school or normal success expectations as a betrayal to white society. This very western american society is a pain in the ass for everyone and requires a lot of work that is often not appreciated enough. It’s a terrible problem for the majority of good well meaning black Americans that are inevitably watched more closely by the police and others because of the degree of the known problems in part of the black community. Most public high schools in America teach tolerance and understanding but allow black agression, anger and poor performance by black students

  8. mark kett March 25, 2016 at 2:58 am #

    Unarmed but 6’4″ and trying to be armed. Yeah its all whitey’s fault.
    I wish you the best.
    And please dont let the media continue to manipulate your community.

    • black March 25, 2016 at 6:18 am #

      Yeah okay but you didn’t look at the OTHER unarmed black men and women who were killed that I mentioned did you??. You only wanna address the Mike Brown incident and even that whole incident of him trying to attack the officer and so forth is questionable. You pick n choose and make generalizations and excuses AGAIN as usual. Come on man stop the B.S.
      I’m very well aware of the media manipulation of my community(a media controlled by YOUR people), so you of ALL people don’t need to tell me that. It’s about police brutality not so much “whiteys” fault but you have to ask yourself… historically and even today,when it comes to law enforcement who does most of the harassing and killing of unarmed black men and women???…BINGO! White cops. “it’s all whitey’s fault??”, Weeeeell…all I’m saying is take a honest look at the history of this country when it comes to Blacks and other so-called people of color. I mean… take a REAL honest look and be honest with yourself.(but that maybe asking to much from white guys like you). Be gone.

  9. Jamaican March 30, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

    Wonderful letter to your dad. And thank you for helping me. As a Jamaican woman who is dating a Chinese man, I understand better why he has such a struggle with his parents. I tell him to slowly educate them by doing so will build a stronger bond.

Before posting a comment, please read our comment guidelines.