By VICTORIA TAI
August 26, 2017
“People think I’m smart, they think I’m safe, they invite me into their homes to help children with subjects like physics, chemistry, and math.”
I feel a lot of positive discrimination:
People think I’m smart, they think I’m safe, they invite me into their homes to help children with subjects like physics, chemistry, and math. When I coupon or mow the lawn, people think I’m super–cheap, but not poor. And when I live in the better neighborhoods, white people trust me to get their mail or watch their dog. Moreover, I’m considered attractive by many white guys who wouldn’t want to date white girls (note: creepy, we hate that.) Culturally—that is, behavior-wise—I think “privileged whites” and east-asians mesh pretty well. For instance, having internalized the value that expressing too much emotion is a bad thing, or that saving money for long term goals is a good thing… or the high premium on the value of education.
I’m justifiably proud of that hyphen: Asian-dash-American. Like Hispanic- and Native-Americans, I get to choose how far I want to lean into (or out of) that heritage: the food I eat, which language I speak, the music I enjoy. Indeed, I secretly feel lucky for the freedom to pick between two continents when my white American counterparts feel doomed with the sinking ship. There’s some vague notion of being a worthy rival to whites, that East-Asians were the only ethnic group who weren’t successfully enslaved in America because they resisted subjugation, rallied against exploitation and legally sued the white man. There’s profound respect and pride for my heritage when I read Iris Chang’sor even Amy Chua’s , even when I don’t subscribe to their style.
In terms of identity, my awareness of self versus others is roughly grouped like: (1) female (2) INFJ personality (3) creative (4) Chinese (5) Californian (6) thin… (60) height… (100) bloody type. In other words, most everyday events don’t call attention to my ethnicity, rather, they remind me of my place through gender first, my personality second, and so on. I put blood type in there as an example of another feasible way you could categorize human beings—and the Japanese do!—but culturally we Americans don’t, as a result I’m totally unaware of my blood type in relation to explaining outward phenomena and inclinations, and when someone is being a dick, it hardly ever dawns upon me to suspect that it’s because of my blood type. I think that points to a huge racial privilege in itself: getting to be defined by other characteristics.
There are moments when I realize I’m Asian, though.
In the political arena, for instance, it’s obvious that my race comes to the forefront and no matter what Madeleine Albright or Hillary Clinton says about championing women in leadership, on a gut level, I’m not perceived as “one of them” because I’m perceived as “not completely American” and at this point and time, they wouldn’t stump for me. Having Elaine Chao doesn’t fool me. To that criteria, Blacks and Hispanics are considered more of an American face. Native-Americans, it goes without saying. But Asians–sometimes considered your prized exotic breed, is not the stock your country is made of. I’m not sure where Indians and Middle-Easterners are pegged, but probably even farther out of norm of all-American. I was lucky enough to ask that very question pointedly at the United Nations, and they gave a wish-washy answer; you knew their heart wasn’t in it.
In the political arena, for instance, it’s obvious that my race comes to the forefront and no matter what Madeleine Albright or Hillary Clinton says about championing women in leadership, on a gut level, I’m not perceived as “one of them” because I’m perceived as “not completely American” and at this point and time, they wouldn’t stump for me.
Not to compare with the terrible lot of Asians in Europe which is far more racist, but, when dealing with Blacks, Latinos, or Midwesterners, I’m also hyper-aware of being Asian. (Duh.) It’s not just being the “chinita” or “my little Asian friend,” but also being photographed for my eyes, or ostensibly introduced to show an element of racial diversity. I don’t know how many conferences I’ve been in, where the cameraman zoomed straight to my face.
As far as liberals, I wish white Americans would just admit that deep-down they would admit that they prefer the company of other white people, instead of refuting it and forcing a token ethnic person to show how hip and diverse they really are. But white urbanites express denial, anxiousness and hypocrisy in many ways, and you can see that discomfort with what’s-culturally-frowned-upon play out in food as well.
// Oh. That’s another thing I love about being Chinese, btw, people just like what they like, and they are totally unapologetic about it. i.e. Celine Dion, eating fat, superstitions about the microwave, cooking hot-pot/ramen inside a hotel room using the coffee-maker and only inviting other Chinese people.
I experience hate/racism from Hispanics and Whites when I speak languages that I’m not supposed to… to the extent that I go through great lengths to conceal that ability because I have been sabotaged, shut-out and bullied due to it, and will only reluctantly offer to speak up when there seems to be no other possible route or when I am explicitly invited to translate. Sometimes it’s true with even English, which is one of my native languages!
People perceive language as their territory, their identity, and since many of them know that they aren’t ever able to put in the effort to learn an Asian language, and sometimes they can’t even speak decent English/Spanish which is somehow their cultural inheritance, my ability in language highlights a painful deficiency on their part. (Chinese-Americans feel threatened or diminished the same way when a white person speaks decent Mandarin. I’m guilty too. I once saw a Black-American taking his toddler son through an Aquarium speaking only Mandarin, and I was like, ‘damn! He even knew the Chinese word for sting ray!’)
In that sense, thanks to White Privilege and American Idiocracy, it’s tiresome that I have to act with contrition for my gift of those languages which “aren’t my place,” and pretend to not know better, or at least be super obsequiously congratulatory toward other races which can only manage a butchered up ni-hao.
As a woman, as an Asian-American, living in Texas, I feel obliged to conceal/deny the fact that I am working on chemistry by studying engineering standards and diagrams in German. And somehow it’s deemed understandable for white Americans, or Hispanics, or Blacks to “not be (left-brained) people” and lack even a rudimentary appreciation of arithmetic and sciences to the obvious detriment of society. My 34-year-old white roommate tutors as a profession, but feels uncomfortable teaching second-grade math!!, so I have to do all the bills and help her with basic taxes. It’s almost inconceivable to think when it’s ever okay for East Asian-Americans to openly solicit respect by saying, “I’m the first generation of my family to ever go to college!” // Uh, good for you, welcome to the modern world. Do you want to be admired for being the first generation to use e-mail too?
Perhaps due to lower expectations, White privilege allows people to genuinely be curious or talented with any language or subject without apologies, whereas I do feel that (among our many, many equal standings) East Asians still have to walk the fine line of not being too pretentious, and it really saddens me how many learning opportunities, how many worlds of discovery, were simply not so available for me because of fear of.
As far as systematic discrimination, not much. I have often felt like an invisible wallflower in racial relations, able to glide effortlessly through tensions. When we learn about racism in U.S. history, it’s about black people, it’s about brown people—then a minor blip with Japanese internment camps—and then it’s back to black people and brown people. Honestly there are parts of the United States still stuck on Yankees vs. Confederates, and they don’t have the bandwidth to bother with the notion of Asian-Americans.
World history was blatantly Eurocentric, and my parents had to enroll me in Chinese school, a concurrent school, just to appreciate the depth and many facets of China’s history and take me out of primary school to study in Taiwan. Truthfully, I always liked Latin American history/literature the best, but that didn’t happen until I specifically elected to take courses in university.
One last obvious discrimination I can think of—against body image, food and weight—which are so pervasive that I hesitant to mention it here.
There is a sense of resentment that Asians are so lucky because so many of us are thin. I’ve grown up with a lot of other people’s projection of their own body issues and discomfort, whether it’s direct attack: “I’d rather be healthy than skinny or emaciated like you!” or magazine articles denouncig size zero, which is what I am, or rants posted up at the gym with high-fives ()
Not infrequently there’s jabs and qualifiers in fitness classes, “Y’all don’t have to have a perfect body with no fat, like Victoria” or pointed remarks, “You probably don’t even know what it’s like to be fat,” or being called out with slogans like, “real women have curves.” There’s often mean-spiritedness from people who are insecure about their own bodies (blocking access to a locker, to a machine, or flat-out admissions from the formerly fat that they could never deal with you.) And you know what? We just have to take it, being a scape-goat for other people’s body image issues and their aggression, because our very existence—indeed if you ever have to take an Asian-based airline, you’ll be very aware—-reminds others of body pain.
So in the very same way that White feel censored from talking about other races without being automatically slapped with the racist card, I think a lot of Asians are censored from talking about food/weight with abandon.
Victoria Tai is a writer at Quora!