I was playing volleyball at the beach, and a few elementary-aged kids rode by saying “ching chong ching chong.”
I often get the question of “where are you from?” To which I respond “New York.” Occasionally, I’ll get the follow-up, scaffolded question of “where are you really from?”
One of my friends calls me chink, and I let him do it.
I am a first-generation American of Chinese descent and could say that any of these things offend me. But I would be lying, and I frankly think there are far greater things to worry about in my day to day life.
In most of these off-hand comments or jokes about my race, I stay silent. In fact, sometimes I laugh at jokes about Asian and Chinese stereotypes, and even pile onto the discussion with my own experience growing up in a Chinese family and in a Chinese community. When someone asks me “where are you really from,” I like to let them guess and laugh at the responses as well as what my appearance dictates. In fact, I let my high school students guess at my ethnicity in summer school because they were curious — I got Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino before they got the right answer.
However, there’s a part of me that wonders whether my complicity with some of these comments and questions that happened as recently as yesterday means I am doing a disservice to other Chinese and Asian-Americans, as well as Asians in general. Am I inadvertently telling people it’s okay to make jokes and insensitive comments to Asians by my complicity?
The short answer is no. We all handle our identities differently, so why should it be my duty to correct and educate people, when I don’t believe that shouting someone down is the most effective course of action anyways? Living as a minority is something that requires thick skin, and growing up mostly surrounded by white people, I deflected often with humor any stereotypes people used for or against Asians. In fact, I let them motivate me, whether they were good or bad. Good at math? Well, I always made sure to show off that I was good at math. Not athletic? I made sure to become an accomplished runner.
The long answer, though, is complicated, and I would say that my behavior as an Asian-American is more of the problem than the solution. My complicity, silence, and sometimes even enabling of comments and questions that I would never dare ask someone of another ethnicity is only a small part of my life story and relationship with my race.
This article is more about relationships within the Asian and Asian-American community, and I can only speak to my experiences. I am not a voice for all Asian-Americans, but just here to speak the truths I’ve witnessed, experienced, and perpetuated.
Before I even begin exploring, I’ll say that part of the problem is, in my experience, a perceived lack of solidarity among the Asian and Asian-American community. In fact, I would gesture that, especially among older generations, the worst examples of racism I’ve seen are from Asians, and usually directed at other Asians. Ask any person of Chinese or Korean heritage what the worst thing a family member has said about Japanese people, and you’d be horrified at the results. I once heard someone in my family say that the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have been dropped all over Japan, and that’s just one example.
I understand the troubled history of war and imperialism that plagued Asia in the past century, particularly the 1930s and 1940s. My grandparents and great uncles and aunts, after all, lived through World War II, where China suffered approximately 20 million deaths at the hands of Japanese imperialism. I didn’t. I hear many, including the late Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking, note that what makes hostilities and animosity among Chinese towards Japan is the inability of the Japnese government to address its atrocities during the Sino-Japanese War and particularly horrific incidents like the Nanking Massacre. There has always been a part of me that asks why we can’t let bygones be bygones, but I realize now that to be respectful of my family’s experiences, I have to listen more than I condemn.
Allow me to preface, too, that I’m no more racist than the people that make these comments. A younger version of myself would have said “but I have tons of black, Hispanic, Indian, Japanese, and Korean friends; I can’t be racist!”
But that’s some bullshit. Although I’m a product of an ultra-woke liberal culture and university, the truth is that I’m no more racist than the average Trump supporter (who, as an aside, my friends on the left love to critique and other without looking at their own biases). I teach in a school district in Baltimore City that is predominantly African-American. And yes, I do have a lot of black and Hispanic and Indian and Japanese and Korean friends, for that matter, but I’m just as racist as the next person.
Racism is a product of a system and culture more than it is the erroneous behavior of select communities and individuals. Policies perpetuate racism far worse than a single individual can. It took me a while to realize that my family’s attempt to live in a “good neighborhood” was an attempt to leave poorer and predominantly minority housing projects that we lived in when we were much younger. It took me a while to know that whenever someone in my family or friend group told me to avoid going somewhere because it was a “bad neighborhood,” the neighborhood was often plagued by systemic racial and class oppression, white flight, and a host of other top-down issues that cannot be blamed as much on the individual as much as on the powerful structures and institutions that perpetuate those problems.
Hell, even today, when I drive and walk through parts of East and West Baltimore, I consciously carry less cash and valuables in the case of a mugging or car break-in. I don’t consider that action any less racist than the most recent Trump tweet. Bias is an adaptive evolutionary trait that allowed us to reduce risk and prioritize safety, and racism is one of those biases that we all have. The sooner we’re self-aware to realize it, the better.
Perhaps prejudice is the better word, as I have once heard the definition of racism as requiring both power plus prejudice. Donald Trump is the President of the United States, and hence holds the power to institutionalize his prejudice. Regular day folk, like most people I work with and serve, don’t have the same power as someone like Donald Trump, but prejudice is a word with just as much negative connotation as racism, and also needs to be addressed.
Another lacking portion of Asian and Asian-American solidarity is a fundamental division between American-born Asians and FOBs. A FOB is an acronym (often used in a derogatory sense) that stands for “Fresh Off the Boat,” and in my experience and discussions with other Asians and Asian-Americans, there is a heavy division between both.
Asian-Americans like me and my friends have been dismayed at aloof Chinese tour groups with seemingly no respect for local custom and decorum making a “bad name” for other Asians. We have been critical of not only how Asian international students spend, but flaunt their money, in the anecdotes where we see someone being picked up by an Uber Black SUV to a class one mile away, the brand new BMW speeding down I-85, or the $2000 designer jacket someone will wear to class.
I grew up learning Chinese as my first language. and fell behind with not learning to speak English until I was 4 or 5. But I quickly learned that to adapt and survive in America, I had to assimilate. I learned English fast, and I grew to develop a disdain for speaking Chinese in the sense that it would make me less American. I went to Chinese school on Saturdays openly rebelling, refusing to do my homework, and misbehaving to the point where I provoked my Chinese school teacher into the most frustration she ever felt with a student. At 7 years old, I disrupted the class constantly, and told my teacher something along the lines of “I’m not doing any of this work. Hit me, I know you fucking want to.”
To this day, I try to avoid speaking Chinese when I can. It isn’t to the point that I’ve forgotten the language in totality, because I still had to communicate with family, but my reading and writing in Chinese are almost completely absent. And I know that some of the animosity I have towards Chinese tour groups or people I silently deem “FOBs” are part of that inner desire to assimilate I’ve had my entire life.
I had a facetious discussion with my friend, Michelle, about whether we were whitewashed. International students at our college definitely thought we were. And I inputted the comment of “so what? I’m whitewashed and pretty damn proud of it.”
And there’s a part of me that knows that that animosity towards Asians that didn’t grow up in the United States is wrong. I know, for sure, that not all immigrants could be characters on Crazy Rich Asians, because someone in a Chinese tour group making a “bad name” for Asians could be my parents. I know that not all Asian immigrants are rich, because my parents came to the United States with almost no money, and I was sent back to China to live with my grandparents between 2 and 4 because my parents frankly couldn’t afford to raise a second child in a home with poverty-level income. To this day, I hate wasting food. It causes me almost physical pain to see food thrown in the trash, because growing up until high school, I know that I would have received the verbal equivalent to an ass-whooping if I didn’t finish all the food on my plate.
I have stereotypes towards Asian immigrants as “new money” people who never knew what it meant to struggle financially, and I don’t know now if those overgeneralizations are true, because there are so many cases where they aren’t. And I failed to recognize, sometimes, that even if someone was obscenely rich, they still had the same day-to-day problems and obligations as I had.
The fact is that I’m complicit and silent with racism against Asians because I’ve always felt that the most racism Asians, at least in my experience, is from other Asians. There is an incredible amount of diversity in America’s Asian and Asian-American communities that we’re still trying to figure out how to navigate, and that makes the struggle beautiful, but also painful.
I still don’t know how to bridge that divide between someone who grew up like me and a rich international student, like my cousin. I still don’t know how to navigate the upwardly mobile, professional expectations of Asian parents to either be a doctor or engineer, and the reality that our hearts may be someplace else. I still don’t whether affirmative action is “reverse racism” against Asians, because I genuinely have never believed it is, but I can see (and have) experienced completely why an Asian-American high school senior with merit can feel that. I still don’t know how myself and my Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, Korean, and friend of every other ethnicity can leave behind the grudges of history and learn to live together with respect and love. I still don’t know what the balance of gender roles should be, where in many Asian families, the man is the patriarch, boss, and the wife is subservient.
Above all, I still don’t know what my obligation is to take care of my parents when they get old and sick. I know it would be almost blasphemous to tell my mom or dad “hey, I’m too busy to take care of you and want to talk about putting you in a home.” A home sure as hell isn’t happening, but I still wonder what the expectation is.
The truth is that for Asians and Asian-Americans the landscape is just, well, different. If life were a map, we would be navigating very uncharted territory, gray areas where right and wrong are constantly ambiguous, and that means we’re all still trying to figure it all out, and we will all have different ways of doing so.
I never worried, or even cared about racism against Asians in America because the more pressing questions were always between the Asians in my community. I’m complicit in racism against Asians because I believe that change has to come from within the community, not from outsiders who haven’t experienced what it’s like to be in our neck of the woods. Yes, the question of where are you really from still stings a little bit, but it pales in comparison to the challenges and questions we navigate within our community on a daily basis.