Someone recently asked on Twitter, “I would like to ask everyone to please respond with how old you were when you first realized racism existed in this world [and] I would like white people to come back in a few hours and read the differences in the experiences.”
I was about five or six when I learned about racism.
It was my first day in kindergarten and up until that point, as an only child, I wasn’t really used to other kids. Even though I was born in Texas, I didn’t speak English because my parents didn’t speak it. Everything on that first day went fine until we ate at the cafeteria.
My mom packed Chinese food for me in my Go-Bots lunch box and when I opened it, the other kids said “ewww, what’s that?” and laughed at me. I didn’t know what they were eating because I’d never seen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before; I’d eaten rice for every meal and suddenly, because they laughed at me and made slanted eye gestures, I felt ashamed.
I’d existed only 60+ months on Earth at this point and I didn’t know this new feeling, only that I wasn’t welcomed. I was different. I didn’t look like the other kids, I ate different food. I didn’t speak their language. When my mother came to pick me up, the kids laughed again because she was speaking Chinese to me. You’d perhaps think I hated school after that, but I didn’t. I hated my heritage instead.
For most of my adult life, I tried to undo that shame.
It didn’t help that my Asians friends never talked about race; my black and LatinX classmates discussed it without hesitation. Asians, however, were on the playbook of assimilation. But assimilation greatly backfired on us as we became adults. It’s easy to acknowledge racism exists when one’s community is being unfairly incarcerated or killed by the police or if one’s community is being rushed out of the border. Asians, though, overachieved in white society. Most of us have great jobs and make excellent money, but suicide amongst second-generation Asians are absurdly high and imposter syndrome is prevalent. We’re still the kids with the rice in the Go-Bot lunchbox.
Counterculture for Asian diaspora was something that came late in the age of modern Western social reform. Most Asians still have a hard time grasping it. A good Asian friend recently asked me what’s the point of Asian-based groups? Foodie-based groups, she understood. Traveling groups she understood.
But Asians-only groups? What’s the point? Recently, I was invited to speak at an event called Crushing the Myth. It was a venue of Asians to listen to other, normal everyday Asians speak on stage for ten minutes about Asian diaspora topics. The idea was the brainchild of Jerry Damon Chang and it was simple but brilliant – Chang understood the bottled frustration of our entire race that had been suppressed to speak openly about our diaspora experiences. There was a lot of love in the venue that afternoon. It was magic. It felt like the accumulation of every pain, every issue caused by race that happened to me since the day of my first kindergarten lunch up to the serious racial bullshit I’d endured. Events like Crushing the Myth helped heal me.
Most Asians are still in the dark about race today.
The reason I join Asian groups, attend events like Crushing the Myth or Kollaboration and a million other similar gatherings, is because I can’t just find any random Asian-American, let alone a first-generation Asian immigrant, and talk about race-related issues that continues to affect my every day life. Most Asians think there are no real problems, but that would be like saying gravity doesn’t exist simply because it’s invisible and only manifests through action. In these groups I’d find accountants and chefs, unemployed nobodies and CEOs, musicians and directors…Asian diaspora from all walks of life connected because of experiences driven by being Asian. Through these groups, comes a much-delayed pride, the ultimate medicine in removing the shame of being Asian.
Our communities are in unexplored territories, experiencing an Asian renaissance. It’s both beautiful and horrifying, because with the many creative beauty, the bold podcasts, the Crushing the Myths and Kollaborations also comes the toxicity of extremism and division. We’re no longer interested in being the Model Minority that our immigrant parents hoped; we’re becoming a butterfly or a Fung Bros. cameo. I wished nothing more than to be a “regular” American; someone who never have to think about race and simply enjoy basketball and Raisin Bran, but that reality is a lie because the Western world, especially America, is all about race. We’ve been defined by it the day we’re born and it factors into everything from who we date, what we eat, our professions, our dreams.
May is designated as Asian Pacific Heritage Month and most Asians don’t give a fuck. The naysayers think it’s dorky and the idea feels exclusive. “Why have designated months at all?” they ask. You won’t find one black person in America who’d ponder about the necessity of Black History Month. The answer is simple: When you don’t know your roots, when you don’t have pride in the things from your culture, i.e. your food, your own community’s art, basic knowledge of your own motherland, how can you put in context your place in diaspora within the Western world? The default feeling is shame. Shame to be different, shame to not fit, shame to not belong to the standards of white acceptance.
You are a beautiful Asian swan in a field of ducklings. We shouldn’t want to be them, we should want to dip them in Peking duck sauce. All those kids that laughed at my Chinese lunch are now likely overpaying for $35 chow mein in a downtown restaurant. This is why Asian activism matters. This is why Asian groups matters. It’s why we should embrace and discover the many voices, blogs, podcasts, communities that put context in who we are in diaspora. May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month. Let’s take advantage.
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