some rambling thoughts about race in America and Asians

In the current political climate Asians are almost always left out of the political discussion. It stings me a little every time I hear someone mention the race relations in the US as Whites vs. Black and Hispanics. I read a personal essay recently by one of my friends about how Asians have been wiped out of American history, always quietly swept under the rug or “white-washed”. The Asian response to discrimination of themselves or others is often muted if at all expressed. My parents immigrated to the US only after the Chinese Exclusion Act was lifted, a “travel ban” of its own time based solely on race. I learned this from a small line hidden in my high school US history textbook. Suddenly the timing of their immigration in 1958 after comprehensive immigration reform banned this discriminatory law made sense. It made sense why my grandfather, who was one of the few to immigrate in the 40s, was separated from his family for 6 years. When I raise this question with indignation at the family dinner table, there was some quiet acknowledgement of its injustice, but no anger. It’s a cultural value to respect authority and obey their decisions no matter the apparent justice or injustice of them. It’s also a cultural value to not cause trouble. Someone protesting is looking to stir up the current calm. I can’t help but feel this is part of the reason that the Asian American voice is so lost in today’s climate. The majority of us buy into playing the white narrative, forgetting our own color, trying to carefully and quietly blend into the most acceptable role in society by not raising a voice of contention.

I can definitely identify with the feeling of being “white-washed,” it was almost expressly performed by my parents in an effort to assimilate as we grew up. We spoke exclusively English at our home in Houston. My father was a TV child (his parents worked 14 hour days, 7 days a week at their small grocery store) as a consequence our house was filled with references to Bugs Bunny, Johnny Rocket, and jingles for Coke and bananas. My mother wanting to protect us from her controlling parents, refused to speak Cantonese at home. As a result I lost the vital linguistic connection between me and my very Chinese grandparents. With the linguistic connection the cultural connection fled. My parents adopted current attitudes towards blacks and Hispanics, saving money to move from their predominantly Asian immigrant neighborhood to a “safer” white one when we were young. They homeschooled me, so my social interactions were exclusively with my Americanized-siblings or the white kids in the neighborhood. And then like good Asians, they saved up money for me to attend a private, very white high school to receive “the best education we can possibly give you.”

However some vestiges of Asian and immigrant culture remain: the fierce loyalty to your immediate family, the desire to cause as little trouble as possible, to accept the status quo, to always respect authorities, to place family and community above personal ambitions or personal discontent. And though we could afford to live in a nice neighborhood and attend private school now, my parents’ immigrant past still haunted them, my spendthrift father would carefully guard our possessions, the same pair of overalls for all three children as we grew into them, patching the knees with bright squares of old bandanas. Our maroon minivan was coaxed to a coughing 13 years as we rode around in the Houston August heat, windows rolled down because the AC didn’t work, but we were saving money. This money went into us, the three children. Private high schools, private colleges, only the best education we could afford. As a result I grew up with the white upper class, proudly wearing the same pair of run-down Reeboks flaunting them against my classmate’s laughs as I burned inside.

And I feel like I slip into the white narrative for the most part, except when it is found to be inconvenient in a very subtle discrimination by neglect or micro-agressions. In high school I would be overlooked for leadership roles compared next to equally qualified peers because I was seen as too quiet, to calm for those roles. As an Asian it is easy to blend into the background and be completely overlooked. As I grew older I experienced the fetishization by white men and woman of East Asian woman. People made a point of telling me that they only date Asians as if it was a compliment, they would make assumptions on my sexual roles, or sexual preferences upon a first meetings, based on my race, feel entitled to make comments on my English skills or judge my lack of knowledge of Mandarin or Cantonese. They raced to place me in their mold of perfect Asian geisha and unashamedly told me what a disappointment it was that I didn’t measure up. One white woman smilingly told me after a church service that I should marry her youngest son because so far her two older sons had married a Japanese and Korean and “it would be lovely to have a Chinese in the mix too.” In all these instances it perhaps bothered me less that I was objectified, but because it quickly reminded me of my non-assimilation. My skin color might always color me as an exotic outsider to whom it was acceptable to greet with “Konichiwa!” in the streets. These advances were jolting reminders of what I didn’t identify with.

Blue mountains, blue sky, blue ocean, I land in Claremont California for four years at a liberal arts college. Suddenly I’m surrounded by faces that look like mine, smart, sassy Asian-Americans also struggling within our limbo existence between two different cultures. I meet an Asian-American support group and listen in amazement as they rail against the “yellow ceiling” or the lack of advancement and leadership opportunities for Asians, about our white-washing in the media, about our forgotten South-east Asian immigrants who often don’t fit the “model minority” stereotype, against the “model minority” stereotype that has bought us a free pass from the government. Asians weren’t supposed to shout. I learned that perhaps our quiet acceptance of stereotypes, even good ones, could be destructive. I also recognized my adopted “whiteness” much more clearly. Playing white was safe and easy, if I wanted to be truer to myself I needed to recognize all the subtle and not so subtle differences between white and Asian cultures. I could allow myself to drift between the two, but I needed to search for what felt truest to myself and also what felt right in the way that I interacted with the communities I was in.

Back in Houston after a year abroad, I entered this school year still confused about my personal identity with race. Was I Asian or white? Was it possible to identify with both? As a result it was extremely difficult for me at first to relate to my students. Ironically I was placed at a school just minutes from Sam Houston High School where years before my dad went to school. Now instead of the immigrant Asian community it serves the immigrant Latino community. My school is 93% Hispanic and our school culture is loud and sassy and bright. As one of three Asians in the staff of 40 I stood out as neither belonging to the hated white race or the hated black and brown races.

Being in the classroom was difficult for both me and my students because to me it made my disjointed – Asian / white identity even more salient. Students didn’t seem to know how to relate to me. Even more difficult was the fact that I was a paired with a wonderful proud Honduran / Mexican Resident Advisor who had grown up in the same neighborhood as our students. The students naturally gravitated to her, because she understands their background on a personal level. In contrast, I was definitely the stranger in the classroom. Many students later confessed to me that they had never really interacted with an Asian person face to face (thanks segregated Houston neighborhoods!). My face alone seemed to quiet their normally loud voices. Specifically I remember a point when my RA was lecturing our advisees about how in college you won’t see people of color all you might see are “people like Ms. Lim, white people.” That hurt because I’ve always identified as a person of color, and never had my white-washing been so blatantly stated in my presence. I don’t blame her because it’s true, you will find mostly Asian and white students in college and yes I behave and live in many respects like a person with white privilege. Except that my skin color still buys me micro-aggressions on the street, assumptions about my language skills, my cultural adaptation, food preferences, and intelligence. It felt like being pushed to the outside of an inner circle, and realizing that it was true.
This nice splash of reality concerning my identity happened again as I was reviewing for finals with my senior students. Our casual conversation turned to our shared fear as women about attending colleges with co-ed dorms or having to cross campus alone late at night. One of my favorite students suddenly turned to me and said, “Ms. Lim, you’re lucky.” I was puzzled for a moment. “You have all the good stereotypes.” It was a silent recognition that because of my race, my ability to appease and blend into white culture, I had much more privilege than them. Subtly I think she was implying that I might be approached less, that perhaps I would have more perceived ownership over my body and the boundaries around it.

Throughout this year, trying to overcome the initial distance that my skin color placed between me and my students has been an uphill battle, but not without some small wins. They’re shocked and pleasantly surprised when they can give me numerical answers in Spanish, when they find out that I know the neighborhood from visiting my grandparents all those years ago. I’ve acquired a taste for Tapatio and Tahin on my fruit and they have tried Cantonese BBQ pork buns or laughed at my amount of rice eating. I think it was powerful for my students, especially my seniors, to hear my support for the immigrant population especially after the election, to write petitions with me to our senators and congressmen. There’s still plenty of awkward moments when we misunderstand each other’s cultures, I don’t catch the lightening fast insult someone threw in Spanish, or students react poorly to my quiet and calm demeanor, looking for a little spice. I accept when some of them say “you wouldn’t understand” when talking about their own experience, because it’s the truth and I’m not going to pretend that I do. Working with them has made me take a deeper look at the vestiges of my Chinese heritage, at how much I’ve assimilated into white culture, and also to acknowledge and appreciate the privilege that I have as an Asian-American.

Thinking about my personal experience with race, I see my parents reflected in these first-generation immigrant students. I want to encourage my students to be loud and proud Hispanics, I don’t want them to assimilate and deny their heritage like my parents and I did with ours. I want them to voice their concerns and be politically active even as I learn to do the same for myself. Finally I want my students to feel more comfortable interacting with me, to see that I’m open to acknowledging their culture and that I am more than the “Chinita”. And perhaps as I learn more about their culture they can also learn more about how to relate to us not-so quiet Asians.

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