“[T]he positioning of Asian Americans as the least oppressed in dominant discourses on race…puts Asian Americans in a position where the only choices we have are to be in collusion with white supremacy against other people of color, or an ally to another community. Whether villains or allies, what both positions have in common is that they are tangential—we are marginalized, we marginalize our own experience and our own communities. It is tremendously important to work in solidarity with other communities. But we are more than allies. More than villains. We need nuanced, even empathetic, critical examination of our people and our experience.” —Bao Phi, A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (Ed. Sun Yung Shin)
I started walking to and from school by myself when I was in fifth grade, sometimes in the company of other latchkey kids. One of those kids was My, a Vietnamese girl who got made fun of occasionally because her last name was Han, so she was “My Hand” at a time when we young children giggled at any word, like “it” and “pen” and “doing it”. She would occasionally treat me to a Snickers bars or Chico sticks with her food stamps at one of the bodegas we passed on Broadway on the way home.
There were a few teachers who despised me while I was growing up. One was my first grade teacher, an older, steely Irish woman named Ms. Gregory, who forced our parents to shell out for green skirts and pants to perform a traditional Irish jig at a school assembly (none of us were Irish). In junior high, Ms. Tanalski, who had my brother in her class and also despised him, would shame him by calling him in front of the whole class to point out that his tender shaved head made his scalp look green. By the time I got to her classroom, she had made up her mind about me, and wanted her pet, a beautiful Croatian and Italian girl named Nadia, to dance the last dance to “Last Dance” at my junior high prom with my dance partner, a handsome Croatian boy named Marino, and separated us during the song.
My classmates were Egyptian, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipina/o, Polish, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Argentinian, Korean, Chinese, Dominican, Indian, Bengali, Afghani, combinations of these and countless other ethnicities we didn’t know how to—but would, soon enough—categorize into neat racial categories like Asian, black or “Spanish”. Those classrooms in Queens were like the United Nations that adults imagine New York City, one of the most segregated cities in the United States, to be.
We performed our ethnicities for our parents, schoolteachers and administrators once a year at the annual “multicultural” festival. I was to become an anchorwoman, at least according to 2 teachers (thanks, Connie Chung!), while they compared other Korean American girls to Kristi Yamaguchi. The role models for us, from my teachers’ perspectives at least, were few and far in between. Flipping the coin, I wonder how many of my classmates might have been great news anchors or ice skaters, but they were dark and English wasn’t their first language.
At school, I was a floater, more or less down with but never not quite fitting into the inner circle of any of the countless cliques that formed: the first (or 1.5) generation immigrant kids; the “Spanish” girls; the Chinese and Korean Christian kids who played ultimate frisbee and handball; the Guyanese girls from Ozone Park, the activist kids who hung out in the yearbook office; the pinoys who rolled deep wherever they went; the kids from the projects who took a different bus home; the several gangs struggling to stay relevant and under the radar (this was during the Asian Gang Unit days); the white girls whose parents picked them up from swim practice in shiny SUVs with Tupperware full of brownies in the backseat, while I schlepped it home in the dark from the school where we practiced (the most “gang-infested” in the 90s) eating my dinner of Cheez Doodles and quarter water on the subway.
Growing up, my brother listened to A Tribe Called Quest, Naughty by Nature, Color Me Badd, KRS-1 and Wu Tang. He called me a Twinkie, white on the inside, yellow on the outside, because my Polish friend had put me onto Nine Inch Nails, Greenday, NOFX, Rammstein, Korn, and later on my girl, a pinay raver, introduced me to house, techno and rave a few years later, our pants at least 30 inches at the hems, box braids, glow sticks, the whole nine. I heard the Jungle Brothers for the first time and immersed myself in hip hop. By my late teens, when I had already learned to speak passable Spanish, was told I “talked like a black person”, that I was ghetto, hood, boricoreana, china latina, you name it, with varying tones of admiration, respect, disgust or curiosity. Never Asian, never down by my own merit.
I wonder what was like for the boys I grew up with to be called “gay”, fitting into no other racial configuration of what kids knew to be masculine. Interestingly, my earliest understanding of queerness and gender nonconformity was early on and completely Latino, shooting pool and drinking beer at the local gay bar La Caja Musical or watching the drag shows at Queens Pride on tippy toe since the summer I turned 11, after the 1990 murder of Julio Rivera just a few blocks from our house. I always wondered how the kids I grew up with who were both Latino and Asian navigated the multiple boundaries crossed as a perpetual foreigner.
I remember one friend, who was Korean and Argentinian before he was American, was made fun as a chink, chino or spic depending on who was making the joke. I recently saw on Facebook that some of his Asian American friends had assembled a taco themed birthday party for him just a few years ago as a prank and wondered what it’s like to have your identity be a delightful prank for your douchebag friends. It’s frustrating enough speaking Spanish, just a variation of “you speak English so well!” from immigrants from countries with comparable Asian populations, who, just like in the U.S., are perceived as perpetual encroachers and cunning entrepreneurs, despite their centuries’ long histories in those countries. I am often complimented on my intelligence, that Asians are smart so “I’m sure it was easy for you,” asked if I studied abroad or had built houses somewhere in Latin America.
As an Asian whose assimilation—and experiences of anti-Asian sentiment—in America has been defined more through life among other working class people of color, at least in the political and cultural sense, negotiating race has been a painful, challenging and dissociative process at best. And, none of this is meant to undercut the gravity, violence and trauma of white assimilation—people of color have had to adopt whiteness to literally keep their lives and livelihood, while only sometimes succeeding.
Many of us know we are not all doing “better than whites.” The 95% of Asian kids in NYC who are not attending high school at one of the top 3 specialized schools that have near or majority Asian student populations, or my Asian students at Hunter College, a public university in New York, know they are not the kids the media talks about. Many of us know, at least the more politically conscious among us, however much we fear being “like a white person” claiming reverse racism, that our daily experiences as Asians even in majority-minority cities, even within multiracial movement spaces, even within ourselves and how we essentialize ourselves, i.e., “that’s so Asian”, have serious social, political and psychological consequences.
The conversations on Asian American identity, power, privilege, oppression and resistance that have resonated with me most have been with APIAs who also grew up working class or poor, and have taken place largely outside the bounds of the Asian American social justice community. I attribute part of this to the conflation of class privilege with race privilege in political conversations on Asian racial identity, what I feel is yet another manifestation of how Asian America has internalized the model minority myth in public discourse, and how we ourselves often bear the burden of representation despite our own “myopic lenses” through which we understand race and class in America.
On all fronts, my experience of being Asian/American has not been a product of self-determination. It has been, very much like our collective experience, a fickle placeholder on a continuum of whiteness and blackness depending on who holds us in their gaze. The state of racial nonexistence so many Asian Americans experience is the product of another, often minimized binary upon which race in the U.S. is fundamentally built: East and West.
Perhaps mine and others’ arrival at racial awareness would have been markedly different had the formation of “Asian America” not been disrupted by Asian exclusion, selective immigration policies and the post-internment invention of the model minority myth, or if “Asian” were a racial identifier that had some inherent cohesion, i.e., language, phenotype, culture, food, colonial history, religion, music, art, cultural expression.
Sharing unconventional stories, learning American history through an Asian/American lens, uncovering the intersections, refusing to have our communities aggregated into neat racial packages, airing our dirty laundry, diverging from (sometimes self-) prescribed monolithic identities and disrupting the vast erasures of our history across the diaspora is a start to re/building Asian America.
This essay is part of an ongoing series of original and curated work by the author: “My Asian American Identity Demolition Project.“
*Writer’s Note: It was brought to my attention that this photo of Nikki S. Lee’s project might be interpreted as brownface. Eunsong Kim of contemporary.org wrote a very thoughtful critique of Lee’s work and its use that you should read. After learning more about Nikki S. Lee’s work and process, which is actually quite problematic and very much a project of cultural appropriation of POC experience (including Asian Americans), I feel it is important note that my use of this photo is personally significant and not endorsement of Lee’s work or process. When I first picked up her book and saw this image in my late teens at Shakespeare Books by St. Marks Pl., it was the first time I had ever seen a representation of an east Asian woman who was not whitewashed or in completely orientalized fashion. It was the first time I saw someone who had a face like mine, dressed and styled like me. For others who react to this photo (without knowing Lee’s process), I’d like them to challenge how they might be essentializing what “Hispanic” or Latin@ is and/or conflate that with their class associations. Latin@s are not a monolith, either. I’d also like to note that if a reader feels discomfort (perhaps because they believe that Asians are uniformly more privileged than Latin@s in art and media representation), that’s the point. Let’s get uncomfortable.