by Mary Choi Robinson, adopted from South Korea to the USA
As I sit down to my laptop it is May 2, the second day of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Awareness Month and I reflect on Alice Wu’s The Half of It I watched last night to commemorate the first day of AAPI month. Watching the movie with my daughter, I thought how I wished it or something like it had been available when I was a teenager or even in my early twenties. To see an entire film focused on the life of a young Asian woman on the cusp of self-discovery and adulthood would have made me feel seen and a part of the fabric of American identity. So while this month is meant to showcase AAPI heritage I am not in fact proud to be Asian-American…yet.
I am sure my previous statement will elicit reactions from disbelief, to shock, to anger, and everything in between from varying groups of identities. So let me explain why I am not proud yet, how America made it nearly impossible for me to be proud, and how I’m gaining pride in my Asianness. As a Korean adoptee, raised by white parents in predominately-white areas, I have always navigated two racial worlds that often oppose each other and forever contradict my identity. The whiteness of my parents did not insulate or protect me from racism and in fact would even appear at home. When I first arrived to the US, my sister, my parent’s biological child, took me in as her show and tell for school with our parents’ blessing. Her all white classmates and teacher were fascinated with me and some even touched my “beautiful silky shiny jet black” hair, something that would continue into my early thirties until I realized I did not have to allow people to touch my hair. Although I start with this story, this is not a piece about being a transracial, transnational adoptee—that is for another day, maybe in November for National Adoption Awareness Month—but to illustrate how my Asian identity exists in America.
As I grew up, I rarely saw other Asians let alone interacted with them. Instead, I lived in a white world full of Barbie, blonde hair and blue eyes in movies, television shows, magazines, and classrooms. The rare times I did see Asians in person were once a year at the Chinese restaurant to celebrate my adoption day or exaggerated or exocticized caricatures in movies and tv shows. Think Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles, or Ling Ling the “exotic gem of the East” in Bewitched. Imagine instead an America where Wu’s film or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or Crazy Rich Asian or Fresh Off the Boat or Kim’s Convenience would have opened up for generations of Asian Americans. Rarely would I spot another Asian in the school halls. However, I could never form friendships with them, heavens no, they were real full Asians and society had taught me they were weird, ate strange smelly things, talked funny, and my inner adolescent warned me association with “them” would only make me more of an outsider, more Asian. In classrooms from K-12 and even in college, all eyes, often including the teacher, turned to me when anything about an Asian subject, regardless of whether it was about China, Vietnam, Korea, etc., as the expert to either verify or deny the material. I always dreaded when the material even had the mention of an Asian country or food or whatever and would immediately turn red-faced and hot while I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pant legs until the teacher moved on, hoping the entire time I would not be called on as an expert like so many times before.
My white family and white friends would lull me into a false sense of belonging and whiteness by association. That false sense of security would shatter when they so easily and spontaneously weaponized my Asianness against me with racial slurs during arguments. Of course, I was used to racist verbal attacks from complete strangers, I had grown up on a diet of it, but it especially pained me from friends and family. The intimacy of those relationships turned the racism into acts of betrayal. That was the blatant racism; the subtle subversive racism caused just as much damage to my sense of pride. As a young professional in my early twenties, a white colleague told me how beautiful I was “for an Asian girl.” A Latina student in one of my courses loudly and clearly stated, “The first day of class, I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to understand you and I’m so glad your English is so good!” And of course I regularly receive the always popular, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” Because Asian Americans, whether born here or not, are always seen as foreigners.
AAPI Awareness Month did not even become official until 1992. But anti-Asian sentiment in the US has a long history and was sealed in 1882 with the first national stance on anti-immigration that would be the catalyst for future immigration policies, better known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, coincidentally signed into law also in the month of May. In February 1942, the US rounded up and interned Japanese-Americans and Asian-Americans of non-Japanese decent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Now in 2020 amidst the global lockdown of Covid-19, anti-Asian attacks, both verbal and physical, have increased to startling numbers. As recently as April 28, NBC News reported Over 30 percent of Americans have witnessed COVID-19 bias against Asians. Think about that—this is Americans reporting this not Asian Americans. The attacks have been worldwide but this report shows what Asian Americans are dealing with alongside the stress of the pandemic situation in the US. Keep in mind the attacks on Asian Americans are not just from white folks, indeed we’re fair game for everyone as evidenced by Jose Gomez’s attempt to murder an Asian American family including a two-year old child in Midland, Texas in March. Let that sink in—a two-year old child simply because they are Asian! Asians are being spat on, sprayed, and worse by every racial group.
To help combat this current wave of American anti-Asian sentiment, highly visible leader and former presidential candidate, Andrew Yang advised Asian Americans in a Washington Post op-ed to:
“…embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”
My reaction to Mr. Yang’s response bordered on anger at the implication for Asian Americans to continue the perpetuation of the model minority myth. The danger of which, besides reinforcing divides between racial and minority groups, extols the virtue of suffer in silence. Do not make waves, keep your head down, be a “good” American. Sorry Mr. Yang, I am finally gaining pride in my Asianess and I cannot and will not stay silent any longer.
It has taken me my whole life to gain nuggets of pride in my Asian identity. Now I appreciate the color of my tan skin and dark almond-shaped eyes and no longer compare my physical beauty to white women and the standards society has forced on us all. For the first time I actually see myself, and all Asian women and men, as beautiful because of and not in spite of being Asian. I no longer avoid other Asians and cherish friendships with those who look like me. I love to explore the diversity of Asian cuisines, cultures, and traditions and continue to learn about them since, remember, “Asian” is diverse and not a monolith of just one culture. Now I speak up without fear of rejection or lack of acceptance when I witness anti-Asian or any racist behavior and use those moments as teaching opportunities whenever I can. I no longer resent not being able to pass as white. I am becoming proud to be Asian.
Read Mary’s earlier blog My Adoption Day Is An Anniversary of Loss