I have three distinct memories from kindergarten:
- The first time I lied and got caught. I wanted more cookies. I’d already had cookies.
- The first word I ever read out loud: “hot.” I got a sparkly star sticker for it.
- My friend Talia who really, really, really wanted to be Chinese.
For the record, it was sweet. She was my good buddy, my protector, who pushed away some other kids when they tried to take a winged pink-and-white My Little Pony I got for my birthday. In the way that copying is the highest form of flattery in the 8-years-old-and-under set, we wanted to be twins.
Eventually, we figured out that no matter how much we talked about it and wished for it, Talia could never become Chinese. And she learned to be OK with that, though no less my friend. It didn’t change a thing when the other kids tried to take my plastic toy pony. She still fought them off; Talia could be scary!
I thought about this recently when Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) said to an audience of Asian-American and Pacific Islander members of Congress, “I’m an Asian trapped in a white body.”
Of course, the Internet flew into a rightful tizzy.
Case said he was quoting what his Japanese-American wife says about him — I’m assuming between the two of them, in private or among friends. And I think I understand what he was getting at, attempting to express his love for the majority-minority community he serves in Hawaii. But making that claim in public came across as tone deaf and lacking an understanding of the whitewashing Asian-American and Pacific Islanders endure.
I thought about how, as I got older, those declarations from others of wishing to be Chinese or more broadly Asian began to feel less sweet.
When the white girls in middle or high school would say things to me like “Ugh, I wish I was Asian so I could have your silky hair” or “Oh, my God, why are all Asian girls so skinny?” it felt more gross than complimentary. I’ll admit, I gobbled up any acceptance and praise I could when I was in my awkward tween years. It was always better to be admired for my hair instead of teased for my acne. But starting back then, some insidious seeds were planted when they divided up my race into pieces, into accessories of a person instead of a whole person.
This tendency for people to divide people of color into their conveniently desirable traits, picking and choosing what is exciting or different, made me feel special and other all at once. It made me self-conscious. Why were only parts of me desirable?
We all got older, and my friends started partnering off and meeting new people. As we matured, a new sort of Asian admiration started coming to my attention. I still hear this stuff from time to time. A boyfriend will identify me as “Sandy’s Asian friend,” often sharing with me his enthusiasm of having recently discovered Asian horror movies or sushi. Or I’m someone my Asian friends’ white partners feel they need to win over with their inner Asianess.
“I’m more Chinese than Maggie is. I have to show her how to use chopsticks.”
Waaaaah, that’s a 7.8 on Chang’s China-meter!
“I’m basically Asian. I feel so much more comfortable around Asians than white people.”
It must have been SO HARD for you growing up in Texas.
“I’m an honorary Asian. I have so many Asian friends, and Taylor’s family loves me.’
Your gong is in the mail, Grasshopper.
All right, fine, I don’t usually say those things out loud. I’m more likely to roll my eyes and say, “Oh … cool story.” I just know that every time someone (usually white) says something that claims ownership over an aspect of my race, I feel a twinge. I tense up as if I’m holding all the pieces of myself closer.
Even though these things are said with good intentions, the problem comes with experiencing my race and culture Chinese-menu style — isn’t that something people say? — a random bit of this, a random bit of that, putting together an experience that suits you. It’s convenient. You get to have the crab rangoon, siu mai or even pad thai (as I’ve seen on my local all-inclusive Chinese restaurant menus), but you don’t have to eat the chicken feet or stinky tofu. That’s too much!
It’s privilege that allows someone to grab from the à la carte menu. You don’t have to live the less palatable aspects of being an Asian-American person. The slurs, the mockery, the violence, the stereotypes. Hell, you contribute to the stereotyping with your Asian admiration! But you mean well, so …
Why do some people believe they have to possess a piece of you or your culture — absorb it into their dominant experience — in order to be an ally?
Whether Case or any of those people from my past consciously meant what they said that way, such a mentality has been ingrained in them their whole lives. Other cultures are allowed to be picked apart. Mainstream culture, family, friends, media, the American education system all say that you are allowed to appropriate pieces of other cultures to suit your needs.
I don’t know what it’s like to live as a white person. I feel I’ve had glimpses of what it might be like when I’ve lived in Hawaii or Hong Kong — to move through a culture confident in your status, that the people around you, who look like you, see you as their equal without a second thought. But I can’t claim to be an honorary white person (no matter what folks have said to me) because I can never fully live that experience.
Just like how all the honorary Asians out there, the basically Asians, the more Chinese than Maggies, the Ed Cases can never really live the experience of being Asian-American or Pacific Islander. They will never consume the full menu.