In Honor Of Asian American Heritage Month: Reflections On A Career As An 'Asian American' Writer

Thirty years ago, I had my big break as a would-be writer. I was offered a paid internship with my hometown newspaper, The Detroit Free Press. That was back in the day when by definition educated people started or ended the day with the newspaper. You had to be aware of the headlines.

There was the last great newspaper war in a major metropolitan area, each rival boasting a circulation that ranked it among the ten most significant dailies: the Free Press coming in the morning, more liberal leaning; the News, arriving in the evening, more conservative in orientation. You could drive through a neighborhood in the Motor City and glance at the boxes, yellow for the Free Press, red for the News, to predict the politics of each homeowner.

It was an exhilarating summer. The Freep had an historic building downtown, an Art Deco design by noted architect Albert Kahn. It was among the few structures that still had significant business, people coming and going as was not common nearby. The neighborhood, once the center of the fourth largest city in the nation, was the exemplar of urban decay.

Over a dozen weeks before wisdom tooth surgery, I penned more than 30 editorials. They gave me a flimsy folding table, the type brought out for dinner parties or if your parents hosted friends to play cards, which was set up in the office of one of the regular writers, a former member of the clergy. Each morning, there was a meeting with the editor to discuss the issues that might warrant an official opinion; positions were negotiated, pieces were assigned, and each of us was expected to finish a draft by lunchtime. The associate editor was a chain smoker — you could indulge that habit inside — and she taught me without ever intending to do so, about the responsibility of research, the importance of meeting a deadline, and the significance of grammar.

All but two of my submissions ended up in print. One was tossed out, a paean to legal-size paper, on the occasion the courts changed their rules, no longer accepting the longer sheets — which, so far as I can determine, cannot be found anywhere now. Another was substantially revised, on a controversy I cannot recall, but with no offense to me since it was an honor to be published at all. 

I am not sure they knew how young I was. It was probably for the best that the tradition for editorials is that they are attributed to the institution rather than any individual. That stint was the high point of my achievement as a journalist. I later wrote obituaries for The Baltimore Sun, also pasting up the Sunday edition weather map when “cut and paste” referred to material objects and not a user interface.

Since then, however, I have been a commentator on a professional basis. That is, I have earned a living through words, and, I am not embarrassed to say, in a manner more workmanlike than literary. From time to time, I have even been paid for radio and television. When the internet was new, before the word “blog” entered the lexicon, I was compensated at the handsome rate of $500 per essay, on a site that went defunct, Intellectual Capitol.

As an Asian American, here is what I have learned about my occupation. I deliberately “buried the lede” in this instance, because I am not an “Asian American writer.” I am a writer who happens to be Asian American. That is a critical distinction. I wanted to establish a bit of background about a career. Yet it cannot be separated from an identity not for lack of trying. 

I had never met anybody else who was Asian American who wrote. Such an ambition was unheard of. For that matter, neither had my parents — or anyone else I knew. Asian Americans were supposed to be doctors and engineers, or they were dry cleaners and restaurateurs. An Asian American who supposed he might write and speak, in English no less, looked to virtually all others foolish and silly.

The half-dozen reactions I have experienced are related to race. I share them with more amusement than anger. The episodes repeat themselves. Others likely have had similar encounters. (I am omitting the obvious racism, the letters from people that use slurs such as “chink,” which have devolved on the internet into anonymous gibberish.)

The most common request is that I play a representative. I have a camera pointed at me, a microphone thrust before me, or am solicited to submit an article. The assignment is “the Asian American” point of view or “the Chinese” perspective. Even after I explain it is impossible to summarize in a soundbite or slogan the thoughts of millions of people of diverse ethnic, religious, linguistic, class, and political origins, the response runs along the lines of, “yes, yes, yes, of course we understand that — but” what is it anyway that Asian Americans or Chinese Americans think and believe and feel. I am invited to generate a stereotype to my fancy.

The next most common interview inquiry is for a credible interpreter. In this instance, we all look alike. There is no line between Asian Asians and Asian Americans. Why is it, a producer or editor asks, do Asians or Chinese — and fill in the blank with whatever generalization has come to the forefront. They want the answer about ancestor worshipping, dog eating, or not being able to pronounce an “r.” I have realized I could play an expert. I can pass myself off, simply by how I look, as an authority on Asia, to gullible audiences who would assume anything I uttered was based on ancient Oriental secrets.

A special solicitude is reserved for Asian immigrants. There is a very specific role I also could accept if I were willing to be a shill: ideologues would like me to repudiate Asia, or a specific policy of China. The implicit bargain is rejection of Asia means acceptance in America. They give special credence to someone of Asian, or Chinese, heritage criticizing Asia or China. It confirms that their own condemnation of whatever the practice might be is not pure prejudice, as if to say, “You see, one of them says so — it must be true!”

Another peculiar favor is shown to Asian Americans. It is to reassure the majority as “the model minority:” denigrating African Americans, Latinos, and anyone else with whom we disassociate ourselves is a sport that earns applause. We have succeeded, or so the story is told, by virtue of intelligence and diligence, without relying on government handouts. Our accomplishments prove there is no longer racial discrimination holding back anyone who applies themselves without complaint. The comparisons that are invited, if we tolerated such cliches, are not based on history or fact. They are false flattery that uses us to send the none-too-subtle message, “The Asians made it; why can’t you?”

When I began writing enough to have readers, I was encouraged to take up subjects other than Asian Americans. That was good advice whether I wished to acknowledge it: not enough people cared about Asian Americans, and, besides, I could not help but appear self-indulgent if I prattled on about “my people.”

Yet as with everything else influenced by race, contradictions abound. Often — not always but more than enough to serve as a reminder about privilege and lack thereof — when I stray beyond the bounds of “Asian American,” I hear the heckler’s jeer about how is it that I could be qualified to discuss that topic. I persist in talking about Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, motorcycles, and higher education, among other subjects.

Among the pundits whom I follow are white males who, without reference to their race or gender, consider in their columns anything they please — including Asia and China, despite having never visited the places of which they pretend familiarity. I do not begrudge them. At least they display curiosity.

We have made progress. My heroes are the writers, almost all of them younger than me, who are Asian American and empowered rather than limited by their lineage. They genuinely blend cultures in their observations, with the insights available only from a new vantage point, literally neither black nor white; or, they specialize in art and sports, fashion and firearms, without any allusion to their lineage. We Asian Americans have gained access to the full range of human experience. Book reviews, movie reviews, recipes, and travelogues by Asian Americans inform the majority.

A competent writer must describe the world as it is. But the best writers also should imagine the world as it could be. I appreciate to the utmost the opportunities I have enjoyed. There is more to be done.

CONVERSATIONS