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Belonging as an Asian American

By

“You’re a banana.”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah, you’re yellow on the outside, white on the inside … It’s a compliment,” my friend clarifies during our side conversation in class.

“If it’s a compliment, then why did it leave me with such a heart-sinking aftertaste?” I wondered as I pushed laughter through the lump in my throat to form a breathless “ha ha.”

I later laughed the same breathless “ha ha” in response to a supposedly humorous conversation on how the Chinese are planning to take over the world because everyone who’s Chinese is a math-and-science robot. Every time when names such as banana or robot are hurled — when they conjugated to form a lump too big for words — I responded with a forced “ha ha” — “ha ha” as in: “I don’t know what to make of what you’re saying, but I’m supposed to find it funny.” I managed a “ha ha” as I watched Asian Americans play the roles of buffoons occupying background roles and acting servile in movies and another “ha ha” after listening to people attribute the success of Asian Americans to our nature as unfeeling machines hell-bent on excelling as products of tiger parents who only care about test scores. I even found myself laughing and acting flattered by the recognition of a stranger who catcalled “Ni hao! Ni hao! Konichiwa! An-nyeong (hello in ‘Asian’)?” — failing to consider that English could be my first language because of how I look. But I couldn’t do anything except laugh — even when it wasn’t funny at all. In writing this, I’ve realized that I made laughter my form of silence to make it seem like no offense was taken. For if I was offended, then the racism behind the names would be true — and I didn’t want it to be true.

Now that I’ve been explicitly and implicitly referred to as a banana, a submissive buffoon, an unfeeling machine, a speaker of only “Asian” — and trapped in boxes labeled with derogatory names camouflaged as humorous and, therefore, acceptable — how do I go about my day feeling comfortable as Asian American? Isn’t it easier to just drop a protective curtain of laughter over the racism?

Yes, silence is easy, for it allows me to stay in the safe space of my head, where the fiction I muster can be a reality to avoid discomfort. However, the toll silence takes on self-esteem remains hidden, and is slowly corrosive. When we Asian Americans are silent, we allow so much to pass unchecked that it becomes hard to discern when our boundaries have been crossed.

The most sensible definition of non-silence is “do whatever you can to be like everyone else” to find belonging. If you belong you’ll no longer be trapped in boxes labeled with derogatory names, right?

Phoebe Eng, an Asian American writer, ruptures the comfortable bubbles we occupy: “Fitting in is a coping mechanism, a protective sap, that allows us to go on with our lives, to raise our families, get our promotions and live life free of the annoying daily reminders that things may be more difficult than we care to admit. It’s always easier to wear the right clothes, drive the right car, talk the right way and keep our conversations light.”

The only problem is that, at some point, the delusions we construct about fitting in eventually crumble. Maybe this happens as you’re walking through the front door of your house and you feel the weight of acculturating — to disguise your differences by adopting American mannerisms — evaporate as you speak comfortably in a language that is not English and scarf down Chinese food. Maybe it’s when you catch your reflection in the midst of your friends as you’re walking, talking, and laughing, and it occurs to you how visibly different you are from them.

Or maybe it’s when you find yourself standing in Michael Luo’s shoes and experience the ugly exclamation of a white woman: “Go back to China!” You then find what Michael Luo notes in The New York Times, “No matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American,” and it resonates deeply with you, for you call America your home. After all, there are still Americans who view Asian Americans as strangers from a different shore. Insensitive remarks such as “what country are you from” and “your English is so good” are commonplace, and they undeniably indicate that Asian Americans still do not belong fully to American society.

Most second-generation Asian Americans acculturate rapidly to disguise their differences by learning America’s language and culture to act like a typical American. To refuse to acculturate becomes the more difficult task, acknowledging the racism occurring against you and hypocrisies that make you uncomfortable. Assimilation, if anything, is an easier solution, but can only lead to a loss of your culture and your power to speak up — the same way that silence does.

But wait. Assimilating can’t be too bad in an America that defines immigrant success so heavily in terms of conformity to norms, right? It is arguable that assimilating has played a role in shifting the perception of Asian Americans from “coolies” and “enemy race” to the respected, educated immigrants and “model minority.” Admittedly, Asian Americans are no longer working in hard labor as subjects of lynching, violence, immigration bans and the hideousness of internment camps. Slurs such as “chink” and “gook” are no longer publicly thrown around to the extent they were before, indicating that people no longer form thoughts with these linguistic expressions that exist to denigrate. You most certainly can’t be called a “chink” or “gook” if you act like an American.

Despite how positive names such as “model minority” seem, they still trap you in a box. This may be in a different manner than outwardly racist terms, but the box maintains its cover of you and your discomfort.

In theory, the name “model minority” works in our favor. This celebrated image of Asian Americans appeared in the mid-1960s, at the peak of the civil rights movement, when Asian Americans were extolled for their persistence in overcoming extreme hardships and discrimination to achieve success. Basking in the perception of success, we reside comfortably in the box — so comfortably that we forget we’re still trapped. Beneath the surface, “model minority” ideas oversimplify the experience of an entire racial community. As a Chinese American raised in Western culture, I’m categorized with a homogenous group of people who 1) work hard, 2) never complain and 3) live with an above average success and satisfaction — and so our multitudes are ignored. The myth, therefore, renders Asian Americans invisible. When we are grouped as high achievers, avid students and career climbers, society fails to acknowledge the nuances in our stories that have been reduced to: we came, we suffered, we persevered.

For instance, the reality of Cambodians living in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district — under the poverty line — is simply overlooked due to the artificial portrayal of Asians being diligent and successful in their economic and educational endeavors. Moreover, the image of success as a “model minority” conveys to other minority groups that their shortcomings are a product of poor choices and inferior culture — instead of the perpetual racism that the myth claims as nonexistent. The only result that follows the emphasizing of differences in socioeconomic outcomes, rather than commonality in the historic struggle for civil rights, is the pitting of minority groups against each other.

By being silent in response to boxes labeled with harmless but derogatory names, or assimilating to find ourselves in boxes labeled with seemingly positives names, we participate in our own degradation. It’s almost as if we reside in these boxes — although we’re now trapped and invisible — everything will be easier, and we will not be ostracized by the country we try to call home. However, being confined in a box will prevent us from ever addressing racism, from assuming we first acknowledge its pervasive existence and from holding onto the ugly history we suffered that makes us who we are. In these boxes, either our full weight and complexity are simply ignored as we’re excluded from conversations on race, or we live so comfortably in these boxes, failing to express the narratives that demand change. We must break free … but how?

In the same way the women’s rights movement has become more prominent due to the prominence of more female narratives through art, I believe the Asian American movement will find its way forward through the increase of Asian American narratives. Likewise to a man being unable to tell a woman’s story, only Asian American can communicate their own multitudes.

In “#thisis2016: Asian-Americans Respond,” a video published by The New York Times on the responses that other Asian Americans had about their own racist moments after reading Michael Luo’s letter to a woman who told him to “go back to China,” the individual wounds people had from un-belonging cultivated a kind of belonging. When the discrimination they felt became words that tumbled out of their mouths in the shape of wounds, they realized that they were no longer hurting alone, but instead as part of a community of people facing the same contempt with similar wounds.

At Stanford, we can find belonging in communities by joining clubs such as Asian American Student Association, by living in Okada, by attending events with Asian American speakers, by burying our noses in the works of Amy Tan and other artists, or by taking AMSTUD 91A: “Asian-American Autobiography” with renowned novelist Chang-rae Lee.

Having Asian American narratives provides a sense of belonging that allows us to stand comfortably on our own, look upwards towards the sky, and know that people have gazed at the night skies since the beginning of time and will continue to do so after we’re gone. Furthermore, only when we fully listen to these narratives, listen to more than what we want to hear, will we be able to look racism in the eye, break free from boxes and come to terms with who we are and find belonging in the un-belonging.

“Because she believes in herself,

She doesn’t need to convince others,

Because she is content with herself,

She doesn’t need others’ approval.

Because she accepts herself,

The whole world accepts her.”

– Tao te Ching

Contact Helena Zhang at helenaz ‘at’ stanford.edu.