So I have a confession to make.
For most of my life, I refused to identify myself as Asian-American.
I know, right? In hindsight it seems silly, because, well, look at me. Or rather, look at who I wished I looked like. I’ve always wanted to be a gamine pixie sprite, with big eyes and short hair. Essentially, I wanted to be Edie Sedgwick. Or Audrey Hepburn. Or Natalie Portman. (I also wanted to be green-eyed and blonde, but that’s another story.)
I was never one to deny my ethnicity–in fact, I’m quite proud of it–but for a very long time, I struggled with how to describe myself. Because the word “Asian” comes with a lot of baggage and the term “Asian-American” even more so.
Why? Oh so many reasons. I’ve written before on the need for a cultural conscious shift because the way “people like me” (a loaded phrase in itself) are represented in fiction and media contributed a lot to my existential angst.
I’ll say this first about myself: I’m not by nature someone who’s particularly active in any causes. I’m a politician’s worst nightmare; I can’t be bothered to care because I’m generally so self-absorbed much of it goes over my head. This self-absorption is the reason why I’m not really part of a “community” and why I shy away from terms like “our people” and “us” as a concept. I can only speak for myself, although I will admit to being guilty of gross generalizations and throwing around the term “them” as a notion.
So I get it when the media does it. I do. It’s easier to process people as groups, rather than individuals. But for years and years and years, I refused to have anything to do with “Asian-American” culture because of how we were portrayed. I think I was scarred by this book when I was a child. No, really.
APRIL AND THE DRAGON LADY is a YA novel published some years ago about a young Chinese-American girl in an interracial relationship and the cultural/generational clashes that occur within her family (particularly between her and her grandmother, the eponymous “Dragon Lady”). It’s an old story, and a good one, but I hated this book with a passion.
A well-meaning librarian gave this book to me, thinking I would find something in common with April, the title character. The thing is, I didn’t. In many ways, I had a very typical all-American childhood: throwing baseballs in the backyard with my dad, riding bikes through suburban Pasadena streets with the neighborhood kids, barbeques and pool parties in the summer, pizza and girly sleepovers, etc. Sure I had a non-English speaking grandmother who lived with us, but I also had a white father. I’m as Asian as I am white, which meant we had both chopsticks and forks and knives in our cutlery drawer. (A cliché but apt description.)
Malinda Lo wrote a really interesting and thoughtful post about reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s THE WOMAN WARRIOR that resonated with me. I already adore Malinda Lo for many, many reasons, but what stuck out for me was her admission that she never felt as though she fit in with the Asian-American community.
Her reasons are different from mine, but the feelings are similar. I never fit in with many Asian-Americans back home. I dutifully attended Korean school from first through third grade, but failed miserably at making friends. I had plenty of friends in school, but amongst “my own”, I was pretty much a loner. Why? I’m not sure. The things that interested them never interested me: Korean boybands (anyone remember H.O.T.? Anyone?), math clubs, Asian fashion, etc. They never quite said it, but I think their assumption was I was “too white”.
I quit Korean school after that and never went back. To this day, I sort of regret it because I have the reading comprehension of an 8 year old, despite being able to speak and understand the language. In fact, the day I quit Korean school was also the day I inadvertently began refusing to see myself as Asian-American. I mean, if I wasn’t Asian, at least I was American, right? I sucked at math, I played soccer (badly), did Girl Scouts–all part and parcel of the “normal” (middle-class) American experience, right?
It wasn’t as though I abjured all things Korean. I watch Korean dramas. I need my fill of kimchi and doenjang chigae every so often. It’s just that most of the Asian-Americans I came across fulfilled all stereotypes discussed in UNRAVELING THE MODEL MINORITY STEREOTYPE book, which apparently didn’t include me. This book was another one that enraged me; a well-intentioned (they’re always well-intentioned, aren’t they?) teacher in high school gave it to me and it made me feel even more alienated than before.
The thing is, the experiences catalogued in books like APRIL THE DRAGON LADY, THE WOMAN WARRIOR, Amy Tan’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB aren’t really relevant to a lot of young Asian-Americans today. While there are still a lot immigrants coming in from Asia, the biggest “boom” occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, and we’re about a generation and a half removed from that now. There are a good number of people my age who are mixed race and even more whose parents are pretty Westernized themselves. Not to mention Asia today is a vastly different place from Asia of 35 years ago and the cultural gap isn’t so huge anymore.
The older I get, the more I realise that I’m not alone and there are a gazillion other kids out there like me who are Asian-American but not “Asian-American”. The older I get, the more okay I am with identifying myself this way because blogs like Disgrasian exist: other people my age who no longer identify myself as “Asian-American” but Americans who are of Asian descent. Or simply, themselves. Asian people have a lot in common with other, sure, but insofar as a Mediterranean-Americans do and no one thinks to discuss that experience. We’re no longer just piano prodigies or future doctors with “traditional” parents–and if we are, we can kvetch with sarcastic love.
Unfortunately, fiction and media are having a slightly harder time catching up to this notion. Some strides have been made, but not nearly enough. I’ve mentioned I want to read about protagonists who are “incidentally ethnic”–in short, someone like me. Someone whose “foreignness” informs a part of who s/he is, but not the whole. I speak Korean, but I also speak English (and sadly I speak English better than I speak Korean). And Spanish. And can get by in French, Italian, and Japanese. And am learning German. (By the way, I FREAKING LOVE THE LANGUAGE. Ich liebe Deutsch.)
Next week I suppose I will undertake the loaded topic of representing race in fiction: from story to covers to why there’s a need. I won’t lie; I’m a wee bit wary because THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS I COULD GO WRONG. Nevertheless, this is a bit of a background post on where I’m coming from, so I don’t sound like some complete hack. Go easy on the flames, guys. I’m just one person, after all.