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The Year in Hyphenates

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized I’d failed at whiteness. And because I’d spent my childhood working so hard at it, I had failed at Asianness, too.

Kim Fu is the author of the novel For Today I Am a Boy and the poetry collection How Festive...

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In October, then-New York Times Metro Editor Michael Luo published, both online and on the front page of the newspaper, an open letter to a woman who’d screamed, “Go back to China!” and “Go back to your fucking country!” at Luo and his family on the street. He encouraged Asian-American readers to tweet their own experiences of racism using the hashtag #thisis2016.

My feed flooded with stories for weeks. Almost every story recalled a memory from my own life. When I saw a tweet by someone recalling that they’d been asked if they could “see in widescreen,” I remembered a classmate saying he thought it would be difficult to breathe through my “flat, Asian nose.” I’d responded as though he’d said something rational: “I’ve never had any other nose, so I have nothing to compare it to.”

When people ask where I’m really from, I don’t insist that I was born in Calgary; I answer what they’re really asking, at length: my grandparents were from China, my parents were from Hong Kong. When I’m contacted as an expert source on China, a country I’ve never even visited, I refer them to other thinkers and writers. When waiters assume I can’t speak English despite the giant hardback novel propped before my plate, when white people at bus stops and laundromats and workplaces and my own readings launch into broken Mandarin or their opinions on the one-child policy and the virtues of Asian wives, I’m unfailingly patient and polite. A drive-by “ni hao, baby” or “Go back to China!” almost doesn’t register as sound, like the continuous buzzing of overhead power lines.

I’ve responded with stoicism and good cheer because I bought into a narrative pushed by white people on both ends of the political spectrum: that to be Asian-American is to be white-adjacent, white-lite. The right uses the model minority stereotype as proof that pro-white racism doesn’t exist, as a means to blame blacks for their own oppression. My leftist white friends act as though I receive the same privileges they do and am equally complicit in anti-black discrimination, without acknowledging the historical complexities of that complicity.

My inability to square this narrative with my experience had always felt like it was my own fault. If I was almost white, then I could be white if I just tried harder—if my elocution were crisper, if I dressed and held myself a certain way, if I sat with the white kids.

Through #thisis2016, thousands of Asian-Americans told a different story, one of aggression and othering, a story set in a distant province from whiteness—one month before America let us know, through their vote, that maintaining the borders of whiteness mattered more than anything else.

*

I often conceptualize as “success” and “failure” aspects of life that don’t fit this dichotomy at all. Am I failing or succeeding as a writer, a daughter, a romantic partner, a guest at this party, an inhabitant of my body?

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized I’d failed at whiteness. And because I’d spent my childhood and teen years working so hard at it, I had failed at Asianness, too. I reached adulthood without learning the language of my parents. I suddenly found it humiliating that I couldn’t speak to a butcher or waitress in Chinatown, or to members of my own extended family. I became conscious of knowing almost nothing about Chinese history, Chinese culture, or my parents’ lives. I regretted having had so few Asian friends. Like so many other Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians, I had been taught to distance myself, to equate accents with stupidity, to strive to be an exception—not like other Asians, especially first-generation immigrants. I’d accepted that a white girl in a cheongsam was quirky, but if I ever buttoned silk higher than my collarbone, I became a fetish object. I’d been putting on an ineffectual show of whiteness my whole life, and it hadn’t worked.

Since I was constantly identifying as “Chinese” because people were constantly asking, and I wanted it to feel less like a lie. So I went to the library and got out all of Wong-Kar Wai’s movies. For years, I made an effort to watch Chinese films and TV shows. I learned to cook Chinese food, I read almost every novel written in English about modern mainland and overseas Chinese, and I pestered my mother with painful questions. I started doing language tapes in multiple Asian languages. I’m fond of the Pimsleur series, despite—or because—lesson one in every language begins, “Imagine you’re an American man.” There’s something fittingly punishing about that. I will always play an American man in these dialogues.

The vector isn’t bad parenting. The vector is white people.

This past summer, I visited Hong Kong for only the second time. I’d been taken for a brief visit when I was four, which left only a faint impression of claustrophobic apartments and vicious mosquitoes. In 2016, I went determinedly as a tourist. Acting as though I had another connection seemed pretentious, or even appropriative.

But once we were there, it became clear I could not experience the trip the same way as my white husband. My inability to speak the language offended people deeply. Pretending I wasn’t wandering through the neighborhoods where my parents grew up and my grandparents died, that this place hadn’t haunted my imagination, seemed equally false.

Standing in a packed subway as it scraped the ocean floor in Victoria Harbor, I did not feel the promised comfort of being surrounded by people who look like me. I felt tall and thick, corn-fed, bizarrely dressed. As conspicuous and foreign as I did at home.

In The X-Files episode “Hell Money,” a Chinese-American detective acting as an interpreter tells Mulder and Scully, “You might see the face of a Chinese man […] but let me tell you something. [The Chinese] don’t see the same face. To them, I’m just as white as you are.” Your face disappoints everyone, the TV told me. You will fit in nowhere.

*

In September, I saw Peter Ho Davies read from his new novel, The Fortunes, in the basement of my local bookstore in Seattle. Despite the booming footsteps and creaking floorboards above, Davies was an unusually captivating reader and speaker. He’s also half-Welsh and half-Chinese. When he opened the floor to questions, the first came from an elderly white woman. Rather than asking anything about the book, or any of the interesting, provocative subjects Davies had raised, she asked, apropos of nothing but his face, “How did your parents meet?”

I cringed. Unruffled, Davies gave a thoughtful answer about how good parents often seem dull to their children, and it was only later in life he realized the radical, romantic sacrifices his parents had made in order to be together. He said he’d inherited his mother’s charitable, amused reaction to ignorance. “Something like, ’Oh, those silly racists,’” he laughed.

He described waiting in line at a bus stop in Wales as a young boy, and realizing that, not only was he the only half-Chinese person around, he was the only person of color, and quite possibly the only one that his fellow bus-passengers would ever encounter. To represent people of color well, he wanted to be the politest, most well-behaved boy that ever was.

It’s clear from The Fortunes, however, that Davies gave up that burden long ago. The novel is somehow both meticulously crafted—meticulously researched historical detail, exquisitely constructed sentences—and a white-hot outpouring of anger.

The book consists of four relatively separate stories about four Chinese-American characters, three based on historical figures: Ah Ling, the manservant who inspired Charles Crocker to use Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad; Anna May Wong, the first Chinese film star in Hollywood; Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in Detroit by two auto workers who mistook him for Japanese and blamed the nation for their industry’s decline; and the fictional John Ling Smith, a half-Chinese writer about to adopt a baby from China.

This four-part structure, and its conscious imitation of the multi-generational family epic, makes a profound thematic argument. Unlike The Fortunes, the conventional family epic passes suffering between generations in an intimate and literal way. Parents suffer in the laundries, the whorehouse, the boat, the railroad, the battlefield, the famine, and thus, they are abusive, distant, secretive, or possess alienating values. They injure their children, and their injured children injure their own children, and so pain ripples through the ages.

Conversely, the four main characters in The Fortunes are from successive generations, but they’re not related to each other. They don’t even know each other. The legacy of mistreatment passes from one generation to the next because attitudes toward Asian-Americans are a cumulative product of history. The vector isn’t bad parenting. The vector is white people.

I found Davies’s novel thrilling and validating. I am second-generation, child of immigrants, so any kinship I might feel with a laundryman or a railway worker seemed far-fetched or racially essentialist—something in our blood, something Confucius said, etcetera. The Fortunes suggested something I had seldom seen elsewhere: Asian-American is a distinct identity, distinct from our ancestors’ nations of origin, and distinct from our current countrymen. It’s not a bungled merging of two identities, not a failure to be authentically American and a failure to be authentically Asian. Not “caught between two worlds,” as we are often said to be, but its own world altogether.

*

2016 marked the third season of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and the debut of CBC’s Kim’s Convenience, two broad, family-friendly, big-tent sitcoms. In the second episode of the third season of FOTB, two of the Huang brothers have an argument that I was astonished to see on TV. The fictional Eddie Huang, whose network-TV softening so infuriated the real life Eddie Huang, says:

“They’re ignorant about who we are and where we come from. […] I’m keeping them on their toes, blazing trails, breaking chains. When they see me coming down the halls, they’re nervous. Then they see you coming, in your gi, with your violin […] and we’re back to where we started!”

Only weeks later, the fourth episode of Kim’s Convenience aired. A cousin visiting from Korea causes Korean-Canadian Janet to have a meltdown in a Korean restaurant in Toronto. Janet attempts to talk to the waiter in Korean, but he can’t understand her stuttered nonsense, then jokes at length with her cousin. Janet’s non-Asian friends question her authenticity. “You’ve never even been to Korea,” one says. Janet snaps, “I don’t have to go to Korea! I’m Korean!”

I watched an Asian-American child yell at another Asian-American child about behaving like a stereotype. I watched an Asian-Canadian despair at the slipperiness of her identity. For the first time, I watched these uniquely North American conflicts acknowledged and unpacked before millions of viewers. Media from Asia was never going to represent my experience this way.

The repeated whitewashing (e.g. Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange) and white-hero-centering (a Bruce Lee biopic with a white protagonist, Matt Damon in The Great Wall, a Disney-bought screenplay from the perspective of a white love interest of Mulan, to name just a few) scandals of 2016, and the fantastic response of #StarringJohnCho and #StarringConstanceWu, has drawn attention not only to underrepresentation in Hollywood, but also—because of the role of Chinese investors in some of these films—to the disconnect between the perceptions and desires of people in Asia and those of Asian-Americans.

For MTV.com, Inkoo Kang writes, “Asian-American moviegoers can’t rely on Asian audiences to be their allies. Asians in Asia aren’t affected by issues of racial erasure and hierarchy on a daily basis, and thus shouldn’t be expected to understand or fight for Asian-American concerns.”

In a recent YouTube video, “That Japanese Man Yuta” has people on the streets of Tokyo watch Katy Perry’s performance at the 2013 American Music Awards, a revolting mashup of Asian stereotypes and yellowface with a dominantly Japanese aesthetic. The Japanese people interviewed are confused about why anyone would be offended by this. They express sentiments that would vindicate Lionel Shriver, arguing that culture isn’t static and they’re glad to see Americans learning about and adopting Japanese culture.

To me, this gets at the heart of “Asian-American” or “Asian-Canadian” as a unique and coherent identity, what brings together people descended from dozens of nations that don’t speak the same language and are frequently at war with one another, what separates us from those nations of origin. Nobody else understands our particular brand of marginalization, how it’s lived every day and how it was forged by history. A character in The Fortunes put it aptly, pinning it sardonically to the death of Vincent Chin, the Chinese-American whose killers mistook him for Japanese. “You could say it’s when we became Asian American. Two drunk white guys couldn’t tell us apart, and we realized we had more in common than we thought.”

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