(The following post is an assignment for my class, Imagining Asian Americans, but that doesn’t make it any less real talk.)
I used to be one of you. Yeah, two years ago I would have skipped out of this post like you’re tempted to right now just after reading the title.
Early on, I was taught without words that if I didn’t think I was a minority maybe they won’t treat me like one. That I was better than those minorities. So like a camel sticking its head into the sand, I disavowed that I was different and loudly questioned why we spent so much time studying race at schools. I argued against affirmative action because I thought we should be postracial and colorblind. Whenever minority issues came up, the knee-jerk reaction was to shrug it off, to prove that I wasn’t like those militant-for-no-reason minorities.
In this way I isolated myself from the other minorities. And then I left the Asian-Americans behind, too. I traded in my model minority mandates for new-to-me white rebellion (as much as I could, anyway) because sex, drugs, and rock and roll were way more appealing than the only agenda pop culture ever laid out for me. I avoided other Asians like the plague, worried that people would think I was one of those Asians. I fought to be included in that edge case of “cool” Asians as if my lives depended on it–my throat hoarse from proving that I can be just as loud as anyone else, my purity score plundered by (occasionally reckless) experimentation. Fighting the expectations with increasing intensity, I broke free of the gravitational pulls of the communities I grew up with–to find myself eating moon cakes alone.
It wasn’t really until I went to Jamaica that I started questioning all of this. First, I learned that despite answering “China” for the last 12 years when asked where I came from, I actually identified more as an American at a third point because it explained much more about who I was. Second, I learned that I was pretty happy with my perch outside of the racial binary in Jamaica, which made me realize that I was on a similar perch here. Finally, despite the racialized (racist?) catcalls (“Pssssst Ms. Chin” and “Chinese Japanese!”) that hurricaned on me, I found myself happier about being Asian than I had been in a long time. Why? Because despite the frequent politically-incorrect statement from black Jamaicans, Asians in Jamaica didn’t seem as constrained as Asian-Americans in terms of expectations and stereotypes. They were accepted as just as Jamaican as everyone else. All of a sudden, I felt freed from having to constantly distancing myself from The Stereotype (because it didn’t exist on the island!), an activity that occupied far more of my time and energy than I realized. And then I started wondering why things were so different in America.
With eyes now open to the processes of racialization, at least in the cases where the US differed from Jamaica, I became increasingly interested in understanding why Asian-Americans were framed as continuously foreign, why the myth of a homogeneous(ly successful) Asian-American experience was so entrenched, why Asian-Americans were treated so differently from other minorities, why the outrage I thought was missing from the Asian-American community was, in fact, alive and well, just marginalized as rare exceptions not worth mentioning.
It was these questions, in addition to many more that I had not thought to ask, that Asian-American studies has helped to answer. It is a study of history: understanding how two centuries of codified discrimination, old misunderstandings, uprisings and struggles for rights and equality and events the government would rather forget shape how we are perceived, classified, and treated today, a study of Angel Island, Sa-I-Gu, Vincent Chin, the Hays Code, Manilamen, Executive Order 9066, Yellow Peril, the Third World Liberation Front, the Chinese and Asian Exclusion Acts. It is also a study of representations: how the media has controlled and shaped the image of what an Asian-American is supposed to be over the years, broadcasting constraints and bamboo ceilings into our self-perceptions. It is a study that understands its internal conflicts: the problems with a pan-Asian identity, the problematic intersection between queer and Asian-American.
For me, it has been a study of a culture I barely realized I was a part of for most of my life, of problems I didn’t know I was struggling against, of a community and a movement I didn’t know about and didn’t think I would be willing to join. Maybe more than it has been about figuring out how to stop them from looking at us as a nameless, souless Mongol horde, it has been about figuring out how to make me shed years of alienation and discomfort and, basically, stop doing it myself. That I don’t have to be ashamed when a Cindy Kim somewhere is doing “the Asian thing” and excelling at violin instead of shaving her hair into a mohawk and rioting on the streets because it is her right as an Asian-American and therefore an individual to do whatever the hell she wants and it don’t have to affect me none because I, too, am an individual. That indeed, violin concertos contain movements of their own, and can be just as good of a soundtrack for revolution as anything else.