I am an Asian American. But not really -- after all, I am an Asian American Woman. More precisely, I am a heterosexual, young, mentally and physically able, highly educated, economically privileged, agnostic, Chinese-born, Canadian-bred, eventual-immigrant(?) Asian American Woman. And on this May 1st, it has given me pause to consider what that really means.
As a kid, I was a unique and beautiful snowflake like all the other children. Growing up in Toronto, I had more than my fair share of Chinese adult role models to identify with. Like other Chinese children, we suffered through Chinese language classes and culture summer camps (13 years of Mandarin on Saturday mornings, 10 of Chinese dance, summers spent learning calligraphy and watercolour). And though I grew up with my parents instilling in me a sense of my rich cultural heritage as a person of Chinese descent, this was, after all, not my primary culture.
What is sometimes glossed over in discussions of Asian Americana is how the heritage of the Asian American exists on a different plane than that of the Asian national. Dim sum, a common activity for affluent first-generation Chinese families of Toronto, exists for me like home-cooking or soul food might for a person of a different culture. Nowadays, when I crave dim sum, I am seeking a childhood nostalgia despite an awareness that I am not a connoisseur of dim sum etiquette. For my parents, dim sum is something else; it is a way of re-living the Old Life. And so, my history and personal experiences contain an inexorable tie to the ways of my Chinese ancestors, distilled through the teachings of my parents. Part of me is, and always will be, China.
And yet, the act of immigration, erases a lot of the old nationalist boundaries. Thrown into a common pot of "immigrant", Chinese and Japanese, Korean and Filipino all find similarities amongst our narratives that would not have existed in the Old Country. Though the nationalist tensions between my Taiwanese parents and a patriotically Chinese couple might have been too wrought had they been in the Old Country, here, they find a way to forge an uneasy truce, in light of the common struggles they face being so far displaced from their original homes. Many scholars postulate this to be the roots of the Asian American history -- and this is a term chosen carefully to illustrate how the act of including the American culture in our identities renders us as more pan-ethnic than we might otherwise have been.
I remember, as a child, when two Korean boys in my Grade 4, Gifted program greeted me off the school bus by pulling their eyes backwards into slants and berating me with a sing-song "ching, chong, ching, chong, ching...". Being ten years old, I didn't fully comprehend the magnitude of their teasing, but I remember feeling self-conscious of myself as Chinese. I felt unconsolably different.
The true irony of that moment is apparent to me only now: on Earth-2, on that day, in another schoolyard, those two Korean boys would have been the butt of the self-same joke. In my memories, the two boys saw, as children, a distinction between my Chinese self and their Korean-ness, but in actuality, in the eyes of America, we are a lot alike. Our narratives are the same: born in America (or, in this case Canada), raised in a predominantly segregated ethnic households that nonetheless admitted some similarity to other nationals of the pan-Asian diaspora, and thrown into a world where, to the non-Asian, we are all physically and culturally (not to mention, politically, educationally and medically) indistinguishable, and like other Asians, we find ourselves fighting the same fight against the same people for similar and equal treatment. In other words, me and my Korean tormentors were more similar to one another than either of us were to our Chinese and Korean forefathers.
The pan-Asian "umbrella" term really didn't arise until the 1970's and 80's, but our history of finding strength within one another arose early in the turn of the century as a backlash against White plantation owners using our existing national tensions to pit racial and ethnic groups against one another. For a time, the owners of the sugar canes segregated recently imported coolie labour based on nationality, and cultivated racial and ethnic tensions by unfairly treating one group better than another. The Chinese might get more money, the Japanese might get better housing, the Filipinos might get more time-off, but ultimately, it was the plantation owners who won by successfully controlling us for a time. And yet, we eventually realized that, despite our petty differences, by setting foot in America, we were more similar to one another than we were to our oppressors, and that by banding together, we could overcome the inequities placed before us. Despite the segregation of the Hawaiian sugar cane plantation, we forged a language called pidgin that combined words from English and many Asian languages to create a universal form of communication. Later, we joined forced to build our first labour unions, our first schools, and ultimately our first nation-wide political movement.
Every year, for the last four years, I have made a big deal about Asian American Heritage Month. And I do this because I fear that we have grown complacent in our pan-Asian identity, and though it is necessary to not forget the distinctions that make each component community unique, now is the time to remember, too, our strength as a collective.
Today, I celebrate my "Chinese-ness". I remember the rich culture instilled into me by my parents -- one of lion dances and hong bao, of the Monkey King and chasiubao. This is the culture of my parents and my childhood, before there was French immersion and English language prep school, and I cannot deny my links to Taiwan, or through that, to China. As a girl who grew up frustrated and distant from that part of me, I have found a sort of acceptance of this culture of my parents passed through my blood into me by an accident of birth. It is, in some ways, different from that of my parents because of my birthplace, but, I argue, a part of the very definition of who I am because of that difference.
And still, today, I celebrate my "American-ness". Born in Canada, this August, I will celebrate an important anniversary -- this year, I will have spent a third of my life as a legal temporary resident of the United States of America. My mother was barren for a long time during her marriage with my father, and it was only after coming to Canada was she able to find medical treatment that could temporarily relieve her sterility. My sister and I were miracle babies in the most literal of senses, and during both pregnancies, my mother risked her life to give us ours. My parents came to this country, quite literally, to give us a better life -- indeed a life at all. Just as the Chinese culture she forcefed us as children was in actuality my mother's gift to us, so, too, is my 'American-ness'. Her dream for us was that we would assimilate into America and find a way to live a life better than her mistakes. And with that in mind, I celebrate and am grateful for my literacy, my economic privilege, the many opportunities I have before me. Part of who I am is, after all, the fact that I grew up in North America, and this "White-washness" that has been as much a blessing as a 'burden', is who I am.
But most importantly, today I celebrate and remember my rebirth as part of the larger Asian American collective. As a second generation American, the very dual identities I describe above grants me a kinship with the thousands of other men and women who strive to find a balance between the accidents of their birth and rearing. I anger and struggle at the injustices that we, as more than our individual ethnicities, collectively face. When a non-Asian becomes aroused by a Vietnamese prostitute after watching Full Metal Jacket, or appropriates anime to satisfy his own fetish with the Orient in a modern-day Silk Trade, though I am Chinese-Canadian and possess no direct ties to either of those two individual cultures, the ramifications of his actions affect my larger, Asian American community and culture. When the non-Asian dehumanizes a Korean American friend based on the colour of his skin, he dehumanizes me as well.
And from there, we begin to see a stacking effect of identities, where tenous holds are nonetheless enough to create connections between peoples of vastly different histories and identities. We can see how one might also feel anger at the James Byrd lynching despite the mismatch of my melanin to his, or the anger at homophobic legislation despite my identity as a heterosexual woman. Whether gay or straight, man or woman, Asian or otherwise, I am part of still larger communities affected by social injustice. I am, after all, still a minority in America.
And so zooming back inward from this macroscopic view we have come to imagine of identity politics in America, is there hardly any surprise that today, feeling introspective and retrospective, I desperately want to return to the schoolyard where the two Korean boys "ching-chonged" their way to another divertine potty joke elsewhere in time? I want to find those two boys and reminisce about shared experiences. I want to encourage them to find the similarities between them and myself, between them and my African American boyfriend, my lesbian best friend, and the mentally challenged students I tutor at the local high school. Culture, history and heritage is about genetic history, life experience and personal effort and choice. It's about authenticity granted by accidents of birth combined with the unending dedication to maintaining that culture within us. In other words, the very hyphenation of our identities as Asian American (or any other identity) is a symbol of our culture -- we are ultimately a people walking a line blending the influences of nature and nurture.
(Since this is directly relevant to the hullabaloo of the previous Asiaphile post, I think it is highly relevant to consider what I have just said in terms of the question: "what is culture?" Culture is unique for different groups, and indeed for each individual. My personal culture is a tapestry of my and my family's history, dating back to Chinese emperors and forwards to American Idol. Indeed, even my culture and my sister's culture differ because of the different effort we put into cultivating those cultures in ourselves; my sister thoroughly rejected Chinese language classes, and subsequently, she has fewer ties to China and traditional Chinese culture than I might.
In discussions of cultural appropriation, the debate is not about the act of borrowing, but the questions of authenticity and entitlement associated with the act. The struggle for those who seek to borrow from another culture are not how one might go about doing it, but whether or not they can achieve true authenticity -- and thereby, unquestionable entitlement -- to the culture. It is my belief that true authenticity cannot come without both nature and nurture. Birthright must be coupled with childhood training, immersion in the culture, and effort by the adult to maintain that culture as part of their personal history. This does not mean that an outsider can not appreciate another culture, I simply believe that they must merely recognize the limits of their attempts at assimilation. My parents would never be culturally American because it was not their birthright, but nor do they think to consider themselves the same kind of cultural American as me or my sister. And, nor would I consider myself as culturally American as a White American.)
We, Asian Americans, are not all the same, but too often, we allow our differences become our weaknesses. We present a means of controlling us as a community by letting ourselves be divided and, like dogs fighting over the remaining scraps of a Thanksgiving feast, we are too busy killing one another to note how we are still dogs wrestling at the foot of the Master's table over coldest, toughtest slices of discarded meat.
I am Chinese-Canadian, and I will not pretend to be anything else. Being Asian American gives me no pretense at being a part of any other culture, history or heritage within the pan-Asian diaspora that is not part of my birthright. And certainly, it is imperative that we maintain an understanding and remembrance of our individual, rich histories. However, at the same time, I am also Asian American, a woman, a minority. And no amount of imagined difference will erase the kinship I feel towards those communities, nor should it encourage any of us to imagine that we are better separate than fighting, together, towards the common goal of equality and tolerance.
**This is from reappropriate.com again in response to her Asiaphile post. I think you'll find her comments re: culture and what that is...especially for hyphenated identites---very useful. There is an LJ feed of her site---though I don't know how to link it. I bolded a paragraph that I thought relevant to taxishoes post on names and appropriation.**