When I was seven or eight, I remember sitting at the dinner table, glowering at the food in front of me. As my family got ready to eat, I accused my parents of neglecting me and my brother. You’re never around! And other such accusations flew out of my mouth. The moment they were uttered, I could see the raw hurt flash in my father’s eyes.
My parents have loved me and my brother more than anything else in the world. They weren’t home until dinnertime because they were working all the time. Growing up, my mom worked in a clothing factory, her back hunched over a sewing machine from dawn to dusk. Her eyes would go bleary as they watched the needle endlessly pierce cloth under harsh lights. My dad worked as a construction worker and contractor. He often came home with paint, dirt, or wood dust on his shirt and between his nails. He did everything from tearing out walls to reconstructing roofs. My parents were paid probably lower than minimum wage, and this was during the nineties. They slowly chipped away at a mortgage for a house in San Francisco while supporting my grandmother, my brother, and me. Their lives weren’t glamorous and they could barely afford the two gifts I got each year. You’ve probably heard it a million times, but the only reason they came to America was to give me and my brother a better life than they had in China – they had grown up during the communist era, starving through the Great Famine and lacking education beyond middle school.
So why did I think my parents didn’t love us back then, when they so clearly did?
When I took my photography class last year, I felt drawn to taking photos of Asian Americans, perhaps because there is such a lack of representation of Asians in our media. While pursuing a photobook on Chinatown, I found myself with some great photos of children. Here are a couple of the most striking children I met. Continue reading
“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It’s a phrase commonly known today. But I never realized how significant food was to my heart – a woman’s heart – until last year.
“Did you eat yet?” – I grew up hearing this greeting from almost every Chinese adult I met. The tradition came from surviving difficult periods of poverty in China, when food of any kind was scarce. It became a habit of asking each other if someone has eaten yet as a phrase of endearment. You asked in the past, hoping your friend has eaten already, and if they haven’t, you offer what you can. Today, it’s just a greeting, but signifies how you care about the person. There’s a popular t-shirt I once saw that said, “‘Did you eat’ means ‘I love you.’”
Asian masculinity has been a long standing issue in American culture, particularly with all the detrimental stereotypes and yellow fever, where Asian males see white males “stealing their women.” For example, in response to Jenny An’s article where she declares she would never date an Asian male, Clarissa Wei wrote “I Am an Asian Woman and I Think Asian Boyfriends Are Superior (Well, Mine is Anyway),” where Wei embraces the model minority rather than rejects it. “Hard-working, humble, unwavering loyal to the family? …Why the hell would you say no to that?” she declares. But does she miss the point?
Uh-oh, does dating this white guy make me more American and racist against myself?
The taboo topic of Asian American women dating outside their racial circle was reignited recently by Jenny An’s “I’m an Asian Woman and I Refuse to Ever Date an Asian Man,” where she bluntly announced that she’s a racist because dates white males to make herself more American. Certainly I understand An’s internal angst about feeling like an Other in a white America, but does dating someone white validate my the “American” in “Asian American?” As an Asian American female dating a white male, I couldn’t disagree more with An’s philosophy.
If Jenny An wished for a white man to reaffirm her Americanness, I find it to produce an opposite effect. Going to predominately white communities with my boyfriend, I wonder if people look or treat me differently than they do him sometimes. Having a white boyfriend isn’t a “get out of jail free” card in America. People still say racist things, including “Your English is so good” or “Where are you really from?” Like most Asian Americans (and likely any other Americans who aren’t white), regardless of gender, we’ve had to negotiate these feelings of being treated as an outsider. Having a body-guard works as well as putting a Band-Aid over a fracture. Jenny An should probably start with figuring out how to be okay with her own skin rather than using her boyfriend’s as a shield.
The first Chinese immigrants built the foremost railroads to connect our country under harsh and sometimes inhumane conditions. Asian workers were massacred by union workers, and these murders were disregarded by authorities. From China, only men were allowed to sojourn to the Beautiful Country, the Chinese name for America. Women were excluded so that no Asian families would take root on U.S. soil. Chinese enclaves called Chinatowns, better known for their tourism today, segregated the Chinamen from the more civilized Americans. In 1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned immigration of these undesirables, until it was finally lifted in 1943. Despite the contributions of Asian migrant workers, they were seen as foreign, exotic, and ultimately seen as unable to assimilate. All of these efforts in the past were to ensure that Asians did not join the civilized melting pot of America.
This past summer, the Pew Research Center’s report, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” stated, “Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.” The report shows that the Asian American community is flourishing…but a question continued to pester me. Why is that, despite Asian American prosperity, they are so alienated? For a community that is so educated, Asians are still seen as an Other. People still praise me for my accent-less English, despite being a native-born American. We get asked “Do you speak English?” or “Where did you really come from?” We are still perceived as our ancestors were – perpetual foreigners.