Close your eyes. Take a moment to envision an American person.
Now open your eyes.
It isn’t me.
It was in elementary school when I came home one day and told my mom that I was American. She chastised me, as if I had burnt her as badly as overcooked, inedible rice.
“No, you’re not American. You’re Chinese.”
Elementary school me was confused, but didn’t talk back (#filialpiety). I knew not to bring it up again, because I had learned that saying this was just wrong in my mom’s eyes. To her, saying I was American was equal to saying that I was white and that I had abandoned my Chinese roots – almost in shame. I took that to heart, and have never said “I am American” to her again.
I don’t remember exactly when I learned the term “Asian American”, but I remember feeling some type of identification with it. To a high school me, this term was for people who “weren’t Asian enough”, and simultaneously “weren’t American enough” – but rather just existed in this middle haze. A term that did not diminish me because of something that I wasn’t. A term that unified people who also felt that they “weren’t enough”. In what we lacked, we strangely found unity. I stopped saying that I was Asian, or Chinese, or American, and now always say that I am Asian American, specifically Chinese American. The two words must come stuck together like two tapioca pearls up a bubble tea straw, of an order I made in English.
“We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.” – Andrew Yang (Washington Post)
Reading this severely angered my Asian American self. My identity that I had so strongly valued in its togetherness was separated, with one prioritized over another. I felt my Asian Americanness separate and unequal, with Americanness prioritized – no – STOMPING OVER AND SPITTING AT at my Asian roots. Is my existence as an “American” insufficient? Do I have to prove how “American” I could be? I already know the answers to both of those questions; I can never be sufficient or prove my “Americanness” no matter how much red, white, and blue clothing I don.
“We are still, in the public eye, a perpetual foreigner.” – Tzi Ma (Time)
“One moment we are Americans, the next we are all foreigners, who “brought” the virus here… our belonging is conditional.” – John Cho (LA Times)
Every day when I walk my dogs, you see my eyes and think FOREIGNER. Then you see my mask and you think COVID-19 – not because everyone else is or isn’t wearing a mask, but because I’m wearing a mask. What’s worse – my un-American eyes or my disease-ridden mask? I only feel somewhat safe when I have two medium sized dogs whose leashes are attached to my physical body, and even then, am I really? I no longer know how to react to being a Brooklyn, New York Asian woman if acid gets poured on someone else who is one also. I’m not safe alone. I don’t know if or when I will be again. If Jeremy Lin is pleading for people to “just accept us as humans”, is my existence beneath humankind?
“To be Asian in America during the time of coronavirus is to feel very alone. You might think that everyone’s alone during the pandemic. But it’s a different form of isolation carved out by that insidious model-minority myth, with its implication that as long as you worked hard and didn’t ask for handouts, racial inequities could be overcome.” – Cathy Park Hong (NY Times)
“Like fame, the “model minority” myth can provide the illusion of ‘raceless-ness.’ Putting select Asians on a pedestal silences those who question systemic injustice. Our supposed success is used as proof that the system works — and if it doesn’t work for you, it must be your fault.
Never mind that 12% of us are living below the poverty line. The model minority myth helps maintain a status quo that works against people of all colors.
But perhaps the most insidious effect of this myth is that it silences us. It seduces Asian Americans and recruits us to act on its behalf. It converts our parents, who in turn, encourage us to accept it. It makes you feel protected, that you’re passing as one of the good ones.” – John Cho (LA Times)
I’m only American on the few days my dad made me ham sandwiches for lunch in elementary school because I asked for it instead of my Shanghainese or Cantonese rice dish. I’m only American when it’s convenient for the media to celebrate the successes of people whose faces resemble mine. I’m only American when the model minority myth works in my favor and has duped my parents into believing in the possibility of achieving an “American dream” where hard work could overcome racial inequities. Am I, and are others, truly included in #AllAmericans, one that extends beyond activism by and for Asian people, one that stands in solidarity with the disproportionate deaths of LatinX and black people due to societal inequities? While we all support healthcare workers (or at least I certainly hope we all do), when will we truly support each other without perpetuating further discrimination – Asians included? Am I really that radical by saying EVERYONE, STOP HATING EACH OTHER?
In my middle school, the loudspeaker blasted “Proud to Be An American” as sung by Toby Keith daily after we recited the pledge.
“And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” – “I’m Proud to Be An American”, Toby Keith
Will I ever be free?
Will my parents ever be free?
Will my fellow Asian Americans ever be free?
Will Black, LatinX, Indigenous, and all marginalized groups ever be free?
Will America ever be free?
When you closed your eyes and imagined an American, did your own reflection come into the view of your eyes? Did you envision yourself? Are YOU free? Do you want to be free in America?
But questioning all of this, isn’t enough.
“I don’t want your love and light if it doesn’t come with solidarity and action.” – Rachel Cargle
My mother survived the “Cultural Revolution” in China. By the way, “Cultural Revolution” is read as cease all education, subscribe or die from the Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, starve every day of your childhood, shut up or else during the house raids at my grandparents’ house, and the death of my grandfather – based on the little that my mother has told me.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be or feel fully free, but the one freedom I will never cease to use is my freedom of speech. My mom didn’t have it, and is terrified to use it now. I don’t blame her, but I can’t sit silent. Because of my parents immigrating here, I have this right, whether my “fellow Americans” acknowledge me and the fact that I can exercise it or not. I carry a lot of privilege to be able to use it, even if I feel it diminishing these days. But I have to take my chances.
Vaccines are never 100% effective, and I don’t know if any will be created that are in my lifetime. There’s one I’m testing out now, every single day and in all aspects of my personal and professional life.
I’m sharing this vaccine with you.
(Source: Hate is a Virus)
It is okay to be fearful. I am.
But don’t stop in the tracks of hate. Immunize.
Immunize until you can picture yourself when I ask you to close your eyes. Immunize until you can picture EVERY SINGLE GROUP.
And then immunize again. We need all of the immunity we can get.