By: Gerrie Lim
On my first day home from Kindergarten, I told my parents, “no one looks like me.”
My mom likes to tell this story as a description of what it was like to live in Selma, Alabama.
Like I think a lot of fellow Asian Americans can relate, I spent my younger years distancing myself from my ethnicity and race— making jokes at Asianness with non-Asian people as if I wasn’t Asian. Maybe if I can poke fun with the others, they’ll see me beyond this Asian girl. Besides, it’s good to laugh at yourself, right?
If you say something so many times, it internalizes into truth.
In college, you meet others just like you. Who look like you, who sound like you, who live like you. Who grew up like you. You start embracing yourself and your ancestry. Maybe it’s okay to be Asian in America.
Lost as another post-pre-med, I decided to major in communications. It was like English, minus all the long papers I didn’t want to write and all the classical literature I didn’t want to read. So when I learned about the concept of reclaiming traditional slurs and using them as identifiers, I was so into it. Taking the message behind a single word and turning it on its head? That’s communication porn, right there.
I jumped right into it. I started gladly calling myself a chink. I like “oriental” too, even if it makes me think of rugs. “Gook” seemed like it was more for Koreans, but they can’t tell us apart, right? “Chinaman” is simply two words that already exist, put together. One of the earliest derogatory names for East Asians was “slant [n-word].” White people can’t even be creative in their racism; they had to use words that were already in use to oppress Black people, another marginalized race.
Was that not the highest form of reclaiming— to be picky and snobbish about your race’s racial slurs?
Lately, I’ve felt a little off for the past couple of months. I feel like I’ve hit a wall. (Is there such a thing, to feel a wall about your Asianness? There must be, on the sole basis that I feel it, right?)
Last Sunday marked the end of Lunar New Year. I had my red qipao in my closet ready to go, but I opted to leave it, simply because it was too cold. I watched the parade clamor through Chinatown before wandering around the area. And it was inside that Chinatown Supermarket, while looking down a barrel of poor, live frogs and surrounded by the bustle of Chinese grandmas and listening to the loud slinging of Cantonese words I did not understand, I grasped the feeling that had been eluding a label.
I felt like a fucking phony.
It’s that same feeling I have when I go home to the Philippines. Because I look Filipino, everyone speaks to me in Bisaya, and they are greeted with my unaccented American English. I look the part, but I don’t know the lines. As if a white person filleted and skinned this Asian girl and wore her skin.
Chasing after the Asian side of me, what’s Filipino and Chinese, can feel performative.
Stereotype threat is defined as a “situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group.” I feel like the threat of the stereotype is in the knowledge itself: am I fulfilling the script or am I performing this way because I’m aware I’m fighting it?
Recently, I was confronted with a white person who blogs about Chinese designers. They have an advanced degree in Chinese studies and spent a lot of time in China. It’s hard not to be jealous of how they’re closer to my ancestors than I am. And I have yet to see this to the same degree for the Philippines, but I’m sure they’re out there.
It’s not about gatekeeping. I often talked at lengths with my high school AP European History teacher that they should have AP Asian History, along with AP African History or AP Latin/South American History, as opposed to monolithic World History. It’s not about gatekeeping, but ownership: at the end of the day, a white person can cast that Asianness off and put it back on whenever they please. I can’t.
I am stuck with this Asianness, this yellowness, this chinkiness of mine.
At the end of the day, if I study or major in the Chinese language, Asian American history, or anything remotely Asian, it’s seen as an attempt to get close to who I am. My perspective is valued less than that of a white person who has no cultural or ancestral bias doing the same thing. Am I mad that someone is profiting off of my ancestors, and that someone is not me?
And how is it that my heritage can be conformed to the rigidity of a textbook and classroom learning? Like there is a how-to guide or any structure to being Asian in America?
The wall that manifested around my Asian Appreciation was one of an exhaustive realization: this energy is not about loud Asian American pride, which is laborious in its own right, but rather acute and everyday awareness of one’s Asianness, and I am still learning how to navigate that. It stings in a tiny but ever-present way, like counting calories at every meal feels, an internal and persistent neck-hair prickling.
I know there is no right way to be Asian American and that “Asianness” cannot be quantified. That if I, an Asian American, am doing it, then on principle, it is valid. I can’t shed this Asian skin (nor would I want to). But at times, it feels like if I am not actively pursuing my Asianness, I fear it will slip away from me.
Every time I feel like I’ve gotten a grip on what it means to be Asian American or how to do it or thinking that I’ve understood this journey of thousands of miles and generations or being comfortable in my own skin or balancing Asian and American or wondering if those things are even separate anymore.
Undoing the damage you and others have done to yourself is long and constant work.