The stories we tell about ourselves say a lot about how we’d like to be seen. Here’s mine:
Before it was the Pacific heir to the American century, China was an apparition lodged in the back of my throat. My mother, whose family fled China following the Japanese invasion in the mid-20th century, grew up in Cuba and came to America when she was six years old. She married—and, not long after, divorced—my father, an Anglo-American Jew, and I grew up the eldest of two children in a shared one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, New York.
My identity as Chinese American has long been central to my “origin story,” but the truth is, there is an inherent tension between who I espouse to be and the person I am. For anyone who identifies as mixed race, this tension is all too familiar: being too much of one thing, too little of something else. Being mixed race means only ever having partial authority, and the very nature of my heritage has had the unintended effect of leading me to double down on race as a marker of identity. In other words, race is the primary lens through which I would want me, the protagonist of my own life, to be read.
POC and marginalized writers often wrestle with an obligation to present race in their prose and have historically been seen as “writing on behalf” of their identity. I wanted to understand how other contemporary Asian American writers grapple with marking identity, and especially race, in their characters through choices in dialect or speech, and what, if anything, they can teach us about how Asian Americans can use their voice today.
Back in March, as coronavirus was seeping its way into every corner of American life, Chinese Americans in this country were facing a dual threat. Not only were they grappling, along with the rest of the world, with how to avoid the virus itself, they were also contending with growing racism. Hate crimes and incidents of harassment and discrimination surged. It wasn’t long before other Asian Americans began facing threats, too, lumped together with Chinese Americans by a bigotry that refuses to know the difference. Cataloging these incidents, the poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong wrote, “We don’t have coronavirus. We are coronavirus.”
Of course, history tells us that this kind of bigotry is not new; it is a virulent, corrosive force that has merely been amplified by the crisis. I was concerned for the Asian Americans in my life, and none more so than my mother.My experience within the Asian American community has largely been one of solidarity, of promoting a shared identity despite our differences.
I’ve long embraced my mom’s immigrant story: the courage that comes with any attempt at reinventing one’s life far from home, the struggle of having to sacrifice to ensure a better life for me and my sister. And so, when I heard about the increasing frequency of anti-Asian discrimination, I was certain that my mom would have a similar sense of outrage. But her reaction couldn’t have been more different. She told me that while she did not condone acts of racism against Chinese Americans, she was furious at Chinese people.
“They brought the virus over here,” she said. “They should be the ones to blame.”
My experience within the Asian American community has largely been one of solidarity, of promoting a shared identity despite our differences. But the way my mom was talking reminded me of the splintered and sometimes fraught history of what it means to be Asian American in this country. I was confused and frustrated by the apparent double standard at play. The basis of anti-Asian racism is that Asians belong in Asia, no matter how many generations it’s been since we left. What made animosity against these Chinese—whom right-wing media was quick to vilify—any different from rationalizing the hostility that my mom and her parents experienced when they first immigrated to America? But when I asked my mom about it, she just shook her head. “We’re not those kinds of Chinese.”
I was reminded of the way that language can sometimes be used as a wedge between groups, even groups that, on the surface, would appear to have more in common than they do apart. This sometimes charged dynamic between hyphenated and foreign-born Asian Americans is accentuated in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. The novel alternates sections between two narrators: Nao, a 16-year-old in Tokyo who keeps a diary, and Ruth, a Japanese American writer living on an island off British Columbia who finds the diary washed up on shore.
For the first-person narrator, Nao, the question of racial identity is clear. Using the convention of the diary as a means of self-introduction, Nao tells us that she lives in Japan and that her parents are Japanese. And yet, because she grew up in America and because she is not completely fluent in Japanese, Nao also feels estranged from her nationality and her surroundings. Rather than see herself as Japanese, Nao identifies as American. Ozeki writes: “…I don’t have any memory of Japan from when I was a baby. As far as I’m concerned, my whole life started and ended in Sunnyvale, which makes me American.”
This insistent marking of identity contrasts sharply with the way we learn about Ruth. When Ozeki describes Ruth’s character traits, instead of marking her race, she first indicates her profession and the fact that she is a pet owner. Ozeki writes, “Ruth was a novelist, and novelists, Oliver [her husband] asserted, should have cats and books.” The first explicit indication of Ruth’s identity is when Ozeki explains where Ruth found the diary, at the south end of the beach below “Jap Ranch.” Ozeki writes, “The old homestead, one of the most beautiful places on the island, had once belonged to a Japanese family, who were forced to sell when they were interned during the war….Once Ruth heard the nickname, she stubbornly persisted in using it. As a person of Japanese ancestry, she said, she had the right, and it was important not to let New Age correctness erase the history of the island.”
Interestingly, it is only in the context of a political argument—who can and cannot use certain words—that we learn of Ruth’s heritage. Perhaps this is because in her normal day-to-day life, Ruth can afford to take her “Japanese-ness” for granted. From the description Ozeki provides, being Japanese is not the most salient part of Ruth’s identity, especially compared with some of the other characters she lives with on the island.
Later in the novel, Ruth introduces us to Akira and his wife Kimi, who co-own the Japanese restaurant Arigato Sushi in an area called “The Liver.” Here, Ozeki tells us that the two emigrated to Canada from Japan, so we know their ethnicity, but it is further substantiated in Kimi’s speech. Ozeki writes, “Okuma City wasn’t very special…but it was our hometown. Now nobody can live there. Our friends, family, everybody had to evacuate. Walk out of their homes. Leave everything behind. Not even time to wash the dishes. We invited our relatives to come here. We told them Canada is safe. No guns. But they don’t want to come. For them, this is not home.”
Though it’s not hyper-obvious, Kimi’s speech is written with an accented diction, in short staccato phrases, punctuated with fragments meant to mimic a non-native speaker. Ozeki sets up a dichotomy between Ruth and Kimi, both women of Japanese ancestry, but described in very different ways: one with her ethnicity and racial background veiled, the other exposed outright. This seems to suggest that there is an implicit hierarchy present with respect to language fluency; those who choose not to identify as Japanese can decide when to be conscious about race, a privilege not afforded to the more-recently immigrated Japanese characters who are defined by their racial make-up.
It might also go on to explain why Nao, halfway through the novel, begins to pick up on the one phrase that her great-grandmother Jiko uses in English: superpower. Ozeki writes, “She was talking in Japanese, but she used the English word, superpower, only when she said it, it sounded like supah-pawah. Really fast. Supapawa. Or more like SUPAPAWA—!”While this accented speech is employed partly for comic effect, it also hints at a subtle power play; Nao is trying to set herself apart from her grandmother on account of her self-imposed American identity. Like Ruth, Nao begins to pick up on irregularities in speech and draws attention to what bucks up against the norm.
Ozeki seems to suggest that Nao’s “Americanness”—like Ruth’s—is manifested by the ability and need to locate difference. Strange speech is pointed out or endearingly mocked. Identity is verbalized and made explicit. Perhaps Ozeki is not only making a point about marking “othered” identities but is arguing for something intrinsic and true about American identity as well: that foreignness, in any form, needs to be exposed.
After the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, the conversation in the Asian American community shifted again, this time not around being the victims of racial discrimination, but rather, being complicit in it. Tou Thao, the Hmong American police offer, who stood idly by as his partner Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, became a symbol of Asian American silence on the issue of racial discrimination in the Black community.
The model minority myth has been used to minimize the role that racism plays in the persistent struggles of other racial and ethnic groups, especially Black Americans. Asian Americans are caught between the perception that we are inevitably foreign and the temptation that we can be allied with white people in a country built on white supremacy. As a result, anti-Black racism runs deep in Asian American communities.
Asian Americans are loath to speak out against these implicit hierarchies because doing so would jeopardize an already precarious position in the United States, one in which survival has always been conditional. Sometimes, this lack of language comes out of an inability to hold power in the way that native speakers do, and other times it is for the sake of shielding loved ones from those conversations as a form of filial piety.
In “You Fell into the River and I Saved You!” the final story in Jenny Zhang’s short story collection Sour Heart, Cristina, a Chinese American woman, is on the eve of flying from New York to Paris for an English teaching job. She and her parents are having a conversation about crime rates in Brooklyn compared with France when her dad says: “It’s even worse over there…. It’s all reversed because their suburbs are our Brooklyn. Dou shi hei ren he a la bo ren. You won’t see many French kids in your classes, I’m guessing.” It translates to “they are all black people and Arabs,” referring to Cristina’s would-be students. Cristina responds by thinking to herself, “I had been offended by his insinuation. They’re all French over there. It’s France.”
Though Cristina is clearly put off by her father’s comment, she is unwilling to tell us directly. She intentionally obscures the more astringent reality of the English phrase. By writing this line, and no other, in Mandarin, Zhang tries to shelter Cristina’s father from the prejudice of an “outside” reader. In doing so, she also signals in Chinese people who may, perhaps, be more understanding and sympathetic of racism and discrimination within the Asian community.
But Cristina, like so many real Asian Americans, never says the thing out loud. She never makes manifest to her parents the feelings she has about the casual racism that is so pervasive. If Cristina did, she might have been able to undo some of the racial hierarchy that she and her family had been complicit in maintaining.
Asian Americans, whether meaning to or not, have long perpetuated anti-Black statements and stereotypes. And my family is no exception. I grew up hearing relatives, family friends, and even my mom make subtle, even explicitly charged comments about the Black community. Many of the same Chinese Americans who spoke out so vocally on anti-Asian racism from coronavirus have been suspiciously quiet when it comes to Floyd’s murder. But if we don’t help other oppressed communities in their time of need, how can we expect anyone to help us in ours?
Alexander Chee’s collection of nonfiction essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, wrestles with the theme of repetition and reclarifying identity. We learn very soon into the collection that Chee is mixed race Korean American, that he is gay, and that he was raised in a middle-class household in a small town in Maine. However, the degree to which all of these things manifest throughout the essay collection is uneven, and where Chee chooses to emphasize particular aspects of his identity is just as intentional as his omission or when he signals to the reader that he is two or more of these things simultaneously.I want to believe in a world where everyone has the opportunity to tell the stories about themselves that most accurately embody the way they wish to be seen.
Alexander Chee’s identities are deployed strategically and intersectionally over the series of essays to develop and complicate his character. Not only do the identities build on themselves, but what we know about Chee at the outset of the book informs what we continue to still know to be true of him as the book progresses.
But if we already know these things to be true about his narrator, why does Chee have to keep repeating himself at all? Putting aside the fact that each of these essays previously appeared individually and that it is necessary to introduce the reader to who the narrator is, there is still the reality that we rarely ever say anything a single time in a story. If we want the reader to understand a fight between a mother and a daughter, for example, it is necessary to remind the reader, again, what kind of mother the mother is—is she the kind who will threaten a daughter with a rolling pin or the kind who uses it to bake shortbread.
The same needs to be true for the way we approach characterizing and marking identity. We are constantly raising the identity of our characters—in small and large ways—depending on the point we’re trying to make. Chee writes in “The Autobiography of My Novel,” that “I was still discovering that this identity—any identity, really—was unreliable precisely because it was self-made.” In his collection of essays, we see a plethora of “self-made identities”—but all versions of the same person. We must treat each of our characters, too, as if we are constantly scrutinizing their individual identities, highlighting, in essence, that which makes them human.
This idea of a “self-made identity” resonates a lot with me. I want to believe in a world where everyone has the opportunity to tell the stories about themselves that most accurately embody the way they wish to be seen. And I want to live in a world where people are judged on the basis of these stories.
But I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones. Like Chee, my identity as a mixed-race person is mutable. I have the privilege to pick and choose the aspects of my story that fit the situation. While my intention is not at all to lessen the very real discrimination that affects the Asian American community, I can safely say that I have the opportunity to ascribe my identity in ways that can be accepted. In other words, I get to choose how I wish to be seen.
But as the events of the last several months have made abundantly clear, not everyone has the ability to tell their story in the way that I can tell mine. There are people who don’t have the privilege of defining their own sense of self, whose identities are ascribed for them and by them by people in power. Sometimes, this perception on the basis of appearance and skin color comes without even the benefit of any kind of language at all—shot, strangled, or otherwise silenced—before their lives are forcefully and needlessly taken.
The novelist and short story writer Viet Thanh Nguyen writes, “To the extent that we experience advantage because of our race, we are also complicit in holding up a system that disadvantages Black, brown and Indigenous people because of their race.” Those who are in a position of power have a responsibility not to repeat or maintain these cycles of subjugation. We must use our voice to uplift but also to reach across our differences.
One of the only ways to truly write effectively about difference is through dialogue. We can’t assume we know someone’s intentions without the use of language. Ozeki, Zhang, and Chee have taught us that what we communicate and how we communicate it is meaningful and informs our job as writers: to ensure that every story has the right to be heard.
I call my mom every week now. It’s ironic that it took a pandemic for me to be more in touch with her now than I have since I left home for college at eighteen. Over the last several weeks, we’ve talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, trying to bridge a connection between the struggle of Black Americans in this country to the journey that my mother and her parents faced as new immigrants. I’ve had to learn more about our history as a result—a history of disrupters, activists, fighters, and, above all, survivors. I think of activist Grace Lee Boggs, who settled in Detroit and engaged in serious, radical organizing and theorizing with her Black husband, and Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American survivor of internment camps and prominent civil rights activist, who developed close relationships with Black activists. “We are all part of one another,” she once said.
Every week, I pick up the phone, share articles, dialogue through difference. I haven’t convinced her all the way yet, but I’m not done trying.