When I was in college, white guys liked to bow at me in bars.
I don’t know why the bowings mainly happened in the early 2000s in St. Louis, I have yet to experience so many white guys bowing at me since. And I live in Japan.
It was always the same. A group of white dudes would see me, I’d see them seeing me, and before I could hide myself in the middle of my pack of friends (most of whom were white), a representative from the dude group would come over and, with a big, dumb grin on his face, bow at me with hands at prayer. If I was really lucky he’d say something like “konnichiwa” or “ah-so!”.
The first time this happened to me I was horrified, embarrassed, I felt like a thing not a human. In a bar full of people, mine being the only obviously Asian face there, I felt so exposed. That first dude bowed, then laughed in my face, “No, no, I love you Asian girls! You’re so cute!” and he bowed again as his bros gathered around him and shared in the joke. They started to surround me.
As I felt myself shrinking, speechless, frozen, my friend Molly came to my rescue.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re disgusting!” she shouted at the dudes, and pulled me away. The dudes laughed and barked after us.
After Molly’s example I learned to shove down and hide my horror, fear, and humiliation when approached in this manner. I would tell the dudes to fuck off, not give them the satisfaction of seeing me squirm. But no matter how steely the demeanor I cultivated in the face of those bar bros, I felt like little pieces of me were getting chipped away every single time it happened.
It took a long time for me to make a conscious choice to stop letting hate and ignorance take a part of my humanity and self-worth every time someone bowed at me or laughed at me or threatened me because of my race.
Such is life as an Asian-American.
The New York Times recently posted a video called, “#thisis2016: Asian-Americans Respond to Racist Remarks.” The video was a response to Asian-American writer Michael Luo’s open letter to a woman who screamed at him and his family, “Go back to China!” and “Go back to your fucking country!” Through tweets gathered from the “this is 2016” hashtag that Luo created, the video featured Asian-Americans who had posted tweets sharing their experiences of racism in America.
The stories told were disturbing, baffling, heartbreaking, rage-inducing; but I wouldn’t say any of them were shocking to me. As an Asian person raised in America, such things are a part of life – even a rite of passage. I often call learning to live with Asian-related racism in America, “Asian-American Life 101.”
I don’t know a single Asian-American person who has not had to deal with racism in some form. It’s not always as loud or hostile as “Go back to China!” (why are we all from China?), sometimes it’s a joke or culturally accepted stereotype.
“No, but where are you really from?”
“Do my math homework!”
“But you’re a model minority!”
“Oh my God! Your English is so good!”
“Are you a doctor? Do you play the violin? Piano? Do you eat sushi at every meal?”
“How do you pronounce your middle name? Mee-kee Lay?” (“It’s Micaela.”)
“Are your mom’s feet bound?”
“Your eyes are so expressive…for an Asian’s.”
“You’re my little China doll!”
“You don’t sound Chinese.” (“I’m from Texas”)
“Konnichiwa!” (I’m Chinese American)
“Whatever, I can’t tell any of you people apart.”
To me, such transgressions are just as damaging, if not more insidious than screaming racial slurs (by the way, all of the above have been said to me with “good intentions”). Seemingly inoffensive, ignorant, or innocent racist remarks ask Asian-Americans to be tolerant in the face of their own racism. “What’s the big deal?” or “I’m saying something nice about you!” asks Asian-Americans to smile while being reduced to a caricature. We’re seen as Asian before human.
Racism toward Asian-Americans is so ingrained, so systemic that for years I believed that the burden of carrying the weight of de-humanizing bigotry was my responsibility. While I knew nobody liked being the “the token Asian,” not many people spoke up (or not many people were heard) in mainstream American culture. For a long time I figured that it was my lot in life to absorb racial aggressions – micro and otherwise – with politeness and humor. Beat ‘em to the punchline so they’re laughing with you, not at you.
As an American living abroad, people often ask me why I would want to live in Asia, if I miss my home in America?
The answer is, of course I miss America. It’s my home, my country, and it’s where my family and closest friends are. But truth be told, living in Asia has opened my eyes. For the past few years I’ve been “unremarkable.” As a Chinese-American who grew up in Texas, that’s a remarkable thing.
In a group of people I’m never “the Asian one.” And while we may discuss our cultural backgrounds, nobody has asked me where I’m “really” from. Fewer assumptions are made, and for the first time, whether I’m in a racially mixed group or a group of Asian people, I feel as if who I am as a person is noted before my race. This is not to say Asia (I’ve lived in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and now Yamaguchi) is “colorblind,” nor is it without its racial issues. However, for the first time I’m walking through life the way my white friends in America do – as just like everybody else (until I open my mouth and my Americanness is undeniable).
That being said, I know one day I’ll move back to the US. I believe in my country, and despite the troubles I’ve faced being Chinese-American, America has also given my family and me opportunities to thrive and freedom to speak out. But in light of the 2016 presidential election, I’ll be honest, I’m nervous about moving back. More than nervous, I’m downright scared sometimes.
It seems that many Americans are feeling empowered to spew forth the hate and prejudice they formerly kept hidden. People of color are increasingly being told that after the November election they will be deported. Racism feels like it’s reaching a fever pitch. I fear that we’re standing on the precipice of normalized hate.
Can you understand why I’d be afraid to go home?
I fear for my fellow Asian-Americans; I fear for my fellow Americans of color; I fear for my immigrant parents; I fear that that the microagressions I learned how to tolerate in my youth will boil over into outright aggression, violence. If they haven’t already.
All because Americans are being told that there is a right way and a wrong way to be an American.
I’m proud that so many more Asian-Americans are speaking up – shouting out – that racism toward Asian-Americans is not “acceptable racism.” For the first time in my life, I feel that we are really coming together and saying NO – no you cannot bully us, no you cannot erase us from film, television, media, the public eye, no you cannot silence us.
But what happens after November 8th? As minorities, will we have a new angry, racist majority eager to put us in “our place”? Or will America come to its senses?
I’m trying to hold out hope. But like I said, I’m nervous. After all, this is 2016.
Photo: Louise Hung