Last night, a friend introduced me to a guy who seemed pretty jovial and decent to be around at a Cheers-esque Christmas celebration. “This is Maitri,” my friend said to the guy. The guy at once waved his hand in my direction as if to dismiss and said, “Oh, she’s just an Oriental.” I didn’t know if it was a joke (and if I was simply supposed to take it because some people these days jokingly, i.e. passive-aggressively, like to make points to “politically-correct liberals who can’t take a joke” or some vomit like that) or if he meant it. Or if he was just a drunk tool. Any way, it was uncouth. Maybe if the guy had done the same to D with an “Oh, he’s just White,” I wouldn’t have crinkled my nose and walked away as my friend frowned in apology for his friend’s statement.
Today, Amardeep pointed out this lengthy response by Korean-American Wesley Yang to Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother phenomenon – Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?
… Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.
I’ve always been of two minds about this sequence of stereotypes. On the one hand, it offends me greatly that anyone would think to apply them to me, or to anyone else, simply on the basis of facial characteristics. On the other hand, it also seems to me that there are a lot of Asian people to whom they apply.
I saw the article before when it came out in May, but was reminded of it at an interesting time. The more I talk with my parents and older adults of my family, the more I realize how Asian, or more specifically Indian, my thought processes are not. Increasingly, I am of it, but I am not it. They’ll probably never get me – my priorities and quirks, but mostly my logic – and they cannot. Of course, my thoughts and decisions will forever be shaped to a certain degree by being raised in Kuwait by Indian parents, but I am, for better or for worse, American.
It comes down to expectations because of what we look like. The ones our immigrant parents have of us because they bore us and we look like them. And those the “native” Americans of this country to which our families came have of us because, well, we look Asian, so we had damned well better behave that way.
That way. The high-achieving, hard-working, deferential and thus quietly successful way we Asians are expected to go through life. For all my defiant Other-ness, I am able to (barely) deliver everyone’s expectations because I happen to be well-versed in science, mathematics and American English, am pathologically obsessed with employment and can slide in and out of different cultural and sub-cultural contexts. It most definitely hasn’t been easy, as described above, but I get by.
What of my counterparts and the hordes of Asian-American kids behind me, however, who cannot partially differentiate their way out of a wet paper sack and also have the personality and spine of that same wet paper sack? The ones who really want only to draw, write poetry and play soccer or, heaven forbid, have no apparent skills and charms and subsequently no clue what to become when they grow up. I know several beautiful, young people whose future paths haven’t been walked by anyone else yet, but who live in constant, secret fear of being compared to the achievements of the rest of their model society as well as the inevitable rejection of their parents. Is a profound lack of imagination and cruelty the best these kids can hope to get?
It’s the last paragraph of Yang’s article that reminded me hope lies in readjusting expectations from what our parents want of us or what America expects of us to the forgotten What We Want Of Ourselves.
… though the debate [Chua] sparked about Asian-American life has been of questionable value, we will need more people with the same kind of defiance, willing to push themselves into the spotlight and to make some noise, to beat people up, to seduce women, to make mistakes, to become entrepreneurs, to stop doggedly pursuing official paper emblems attesting to their worthiness, to stop thinking those scraps of paper will secure anyone’s happiness, and to dare to be interesting.
Because let’s face it, we’re not either of them. Then the truth that it’s really us and neither our parents nor anyone else who ultimately have to live our lives, think our thoughts, feel our joy and pain and feed, clothe and shelter us. Once we accept this fact, the strange third place in which we find ourselves is actually a boon and we can be anything we want from here. So, to the All-Asian-American Rejects, I say: Look beyond your face and into who you are. Take your difference and define your own identity and success. There is no set path, so you have to figure out what you want and build from there. Your secret weapon is America – this still-undiscovered country that socializes you into smiling, talking with others, being the salt of the earth and even an honest, comforting, calming mediocrity – and having been born and raised here by parents who, at some point, were risk-takers, too. If you fail, you will have failed, but it will have been on your terms.