A few years ago, I was at one of those conferences where you go into rooms and listen to people sit on panels and talk at you. This was a conference for Asian graduate students, and one of the panels that day was “Asians in the Media,” which consisted of two male writers and a female news anchor. The panel started off generically enough (break stereotypes, don’t go to medical school, take risks, etc.), but at some point, one of the panelists made a remark that because there were so few Asians in their workplace, they didn’t really even think about being Asian all that much. This seemed to strike a chord among the panelists, and they all proceeded to riff for a solid fifteen minutes about how we shouldn’t overthink this Asian thing, and if anything, they were actually more cautious than not about that, because, they laughed, nobody wanted to be “stuck” being “that kind of Asian.” So we sat, a roomful of Asians listening to other Asians tell us how they didn’t want to get stuck being Asian. It was pretty surreal.
In America, Asians disaffiliate from their own more than any other minority group. This is a fact that we all know at some level. Of course, there’s nothing that says an Asian has to relate as an Asian just because they look like an Asian. Still, it’s just kind of weird how if you go to any university or professional network in the country, you can be assured that the Asian Student/Professional/Whatever Association is significantly undersubscribed compared to other minority affinity groups. It just seems that for some reason, we have a greater tendency at some point in our lives to say things like “Oh, I’m not really that kind of Asian [who hangs around Asians]” or “Oh, I’m not really that kind of Asian [who dates Asians].” It is a bizarre self-consciousness of being that seems to disproportionately afflict us. (And again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying an Asian has to identify as an Asian, this is a free country I know, but if this all doesn’t feel at least a little weird to you in a gut feeling kind of way, then you are probably one of those Americans who doesn’t see race–for which I congratulate you for being way ahead of the curve.)
The weirder thing is, this self-consciousness has effectively created three kinds of Asians in America: (1) Asians Who Hang Around Asians; (2) Asians Who Hang Around White People; and (3) Asians Who Hang Around Minorities That Are Usually Not Asian. These identities are somewhat exclusive; there isn’t a whole lot of socializing between Asians Who Hang Around Asians and Asians Who Hang Around White People and Asians Who Hang Around Minorities That Are Usually Not Asian–whatever Asian you are, you mostly hang around with your kind of Asian (or non-Asian). The reasons for this exclusivity vary between the Asians, but I think it more or less goes like this: for Asians Who Hang Around Asians, the other Asians aren’t Asian enough; for Asians Who Hang Around White People, the other Asians aren’t American enough; and for Asians Who Hang Around Minorities That Are Usually Not Asian, the other Asians aren’t woke enough. (And for reference, to tell what kind of an Asian an Asian is, it is one of those intuitive things, but a good starting point is whether their Facebook profile includes pictures of them with Asians who are not family members.)
It is all very strange as an anthropological matter how this all came to be, and someday, if people come to care about Asians, it may be studied, but for now, I think my conclusion is that this particular taxonomy pretty much explains what happened at the “Asians in the Media” panel that I was talking about earlier.
This past Christmas, I was visiting my parents in Taiwan, and on one of the living room walls hangs a Chinese poem, written in calligraphy. For as long as I can remember, this poem has accompanied us as we moved from place to place, and it has hung on living room walls from New Jersey to Hong Kong to Taipei. I am illiterate, so I have never been able to read the poem, but for some reason this time, I felt moved to ask what the poem was about.
“It is by a famous general,” my dad said. “辛棄疾 Xin Qiji.”
“When was it written?” I looked at the poem, the characters arrayed in seven columns, flowing and incomprehensible.
“Long time ago. Song Dynasty, maybe sometime in twelfth century.”
(The Chinese literary canon is a funny thing. As far as I can tell from my limited perspective, all the greats lived and wrote and died long ago, and since then, the country has kind of thrown up its hands in acceptance that there would just be no finer works than these. I once asked my dad if there were any famous contemporary Chinese writers and poets, to which he responded, “Yes, but not as good.”)
“So what’s the poem about?”
My dad thought for a minute. “Okay,” he began. “So during Song Dynasty, there was war. And this General, was from north.” He raised his hand, pointing north. “He was forced south. He wrote this poem there.”
“So he’s writing about losing the war?”
My dad shook his head. “No. War over long time ago. This General, he lives in south now. He is writing the poem there. Many years later.”
“So what’s he writing about?”
My dad thought for another moment. “He is writing about how he wants to go back to north and fight.”
“Okay, so what happens next?”
“What do you mean nothing?”
“That’s the whole poem? He wants to go back and fight but he doesn’t?”
“Does he ever go back and fight?”
“He does not say. But no.”
My dad sensed I wasn’t getting it. He explained again: “The poem is about how this General wants to go back and fight, but does not.”
“You just said that.”
“That’s what the poem is about.”
“But why can’t he go back?”
“He doesn’t say, but it is because nobody else wants to go back.”
“Why don’t they want to go back?”
“They have been in south a long time now.”
“So it’s just the General who feels this way?”
My dad shrugged. “Maybe. For sure, he feels this way.”
“Is there any chance he’ll ever go back?”
“No. No chance.”
“Does he know that?”
My dad thought for a moment again. “He doesn’t say. But he has to know.”
“How do you know?”
“If there was a chance, he would not have written the poem this way.”
“Okay. So he wants to go back?”
“And he can’t go back?”
“Because no one else wants to go back?”
“But he still wants to go back?”
“That’s the poem?”
I’ve thought about this poem a lot since, and I think it kind of explains the whole disaffiliation thing in how the way it is felt telescopes from one generation to the next.
The General (as far as I can tell) is writing about that feeling of being alone in wanting to go back to a place where you are native. And for my dad, it’s easy to see why this spoke to him. At the time he first hung this poem on our living room wall, he had just moved to New Jersey with a new job and a family with three young kids who filled the house with more and more English by the day. Taiwan was home, but here we were. So to him, this must’ve felt almost too on the nose.
For me, I’ve felt this feeling too. But rather than arising from missing a physical place, it’s stirred by a cultural rift. Because when your culture at home is so strikingly different, it’s enough to make you one person at home and another away. And being neither one nor the other, you float, never feeling quite native in either. I think this is why we find ourselves moving so often from one identity to another, and then another, and so on and so forth; searching for some larger American story that might have room for us to belong.
But there is a hope in this moment. Due to some old legislation, when you meet a fellow young Asian, chances are good they are also an immigrant’s child who might feel just as bereft as you do. It’s a demographical moment that’s pretty unique. And while I don’t want to say that makes for a singular moment, it might be a singular moment! How often are you in a place where you are not only your family’s first writer whose beginning begins in the place, but all the people you meet who look like you are also their family’s first writer? We have so much in common and so much to do with all that in common, and even for those who don’t think this skin matters the least we could do is speak with more ease with each other, because what’s certain is that it matters to others, so this boat is sure to find room for you too. And when we embrace it–and we should really embrace it because this window is not open forever–this is how a new culture begins.
So to return to the panel. We all knew what they meant. They feared the sting of caricature, of becoming an Asian who was just an Asian and nothing more than that Asian–and so they held their own skins at arm’s length. But really, maybe they have it all wrong. Maybe they are the ones who are stuck. Because while they are spending their time guarding themselves with other stories in which they seek to belong (though we all know you can only belong so much to a story in which you have to insist on belonging), it’s the Asians assured in being just Asian who are using this moment to build up (in the first place and first instance!) what it might mean to be Asian.