I was in fourth grade when my family moved to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where I would go on to spend my formative years. When my mother and I went to register at my local elementary school, the receptionist beamed when I spoke.
“You speak such good English,” she said, after my mother spoke first, in her accented English, having learned most of it after moving to the U.S. in her mid-30s.
“I was born here,” I replied.
At age 8, I don’t think I considered this interaction racist. I don’t know if I had the vocabulary to describe it or place it. I don’t remember if I turned it over in my head the way I do now as an adult.
The memory comes back to me a lot, most recently this weekend, when I was listening to New Yorker reporter Jiayang Fan describe a similar incident during her childhood with her mother, who was ridiculed at a suburban shopping mall for her accented English. Fan similarly recalls not knowing what to do with it, but feeling humiliated while her mother laughed it off, trying to minimize it.
Inside, I probably felt humiliated, too. But I probably smiled back at the receptionist, as we are so often taught to do as Asians — and especially as an Asian girl. Smile, nod, don’t speak up, don’t make a fuss, don’t create waves, let it go, just work hard.
Today, I understand that this was a microaggression. What do we do with these incidents like when I got ridiculed for my “weird” tea eggs for lunch; or when I got mistaken for other Asian classmates (and these days, other Asian co-workers); or when the fishmonger at my mother’s suburban supermarket pretends to not understand her? It’s not being called a “chink” or a “gook,” or being spit on or assaulted on a bus or stabbed at the store when a global crisis happens to originate in a country where people happen to look like you.
They fall under what writer Cathy Park Hong calls “minor feelings,” in her recent collection of essays of the same name, defining them as:
the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head.
What do we do when these actions aren’t overt racism, but they nevertheless sour and fester into something bigger and more insidious?
The answer isn’t to minimize them or dismiss them as innocent mistakes. “People are just ignorant, but they mean well!” we’re told.
The answer isn’t to smile, nod, and let it go. If we don’t speak up, don’t make a fuss, don’t create waves, we continue to make ourselves invisible. If we just work hard, prove that we’re a “good” immigrant, “show [our] American-ness,” we reinforce the stereotypes that persist about us.
Because these microaggressions eventually sour and fester into being called a “chink” or a “gook,” or being spit on or assaulted on a bus or stabbed at the store when a global crisis happens to originate in a country where people look like you. They eventually sour and fester into racist and nativist rhetoric and policies from the highest levels, the biggest megaphones.
Before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone wear masks outdoors to protect against COVID-19, my mother repeatedly recommended that I wear a mask. I was afraid to do so, afraid it would make me a target, given the growing number of racist attacks against Asian Americans — but I was also afraid to tell her, afraid of whether or not she’d understand.
I don’t know what the best answer is to deal with everyday racism or the anticipation of it. Yes, we tell ourselves to call out racism the next time it happens. Yes, it’s vital to have allies, especially in heightened times like this — and in turn, for Asian Americans to be allies for other people of color in fighting institutionalized racism and white supremacy.
But sometimes, it’s difficult to call out racism in the moment. Sometimes, I still find myself freezing up when it happens, or not immediately recognizing it as racism, or questioning whether it is — and then berating myself after, when it’s too late to do anything.
I thought about all of this again while watching Netflix’s “Tigertail,” the new film from “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang, who poignantly explored intergenerational trauma between Asian immigrant parents and their children. The gorgeously shot “Tigertail” expands on the pain of what goes unspoken between parents and their children. Some of that pain can stem from the pressures the former put on the latter, often subconsciously projecting onto us their pains and struggles, having been hardened by the experience of cobbling together a new existence in a new country.
Tzi Ma, who gave a similarly soulful performance in last year’s “The Farewell,” plays Pin-Jui, who immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan as a young man. In one scene, after his daughter Angela performs a mortifying piano recital, Pin-Jui berates her for crying about it in the car.
“Crying never solves anything,” he tells Angela, echoing a scene at the beginning of the film, when Pin-Jui is a kid in Taiwan. His grandmother scolds him for crying, lecturing him to “be strong” and “never let anyone see you cry.”
Adult Angela (Christine Ko) becomes estranged from him, and a taciturn Pin-Jui struggles with not knowing how to talk to her and connect with her emotionally, despite sharing some of the same struggles. In one scene, he invites her to lunch, but they eat in silence.
As a teenager, I harbored a lot of anger toward my parents for not having the emotional vocabulary to recognize and comprehend racism, for telling me to not make a big deal out of it. But now I think they were doing the best they could with what they had, having had to reinvent themselves in a new country with a culture they couldn’t understand. It’s also a country with a history of racism toward generations of Asian Americans that rarely gets taught in school — including the insidious model minority trope that reinforces these stereotypes: Smile, nod, don’t speak up, don’t make a fuss, don’t create waves, let it go, and just work hard. It’s the same impulse, the same social conditioning that made them caution me to not become a journalist and to choose something less risky and uncertain and more stable and routine.
For my parents’ generation, minimizing pain and avoiding tension was a mechanism for survival. For their kids who grew up in America — as difficult and as draining as it is, especially in these unnerving times — calling out racism, documenting it, processing it and making art about it is our mechanism for survival.
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