APAHM Tributes: Day 2

I think being considered Asian American is a little bit of a misnomer, not because I think the term is inadequate, but of how quickly someone’s history is dismissed once you hear or see that term. It’s as if once you add the “American” addendum to the “Asian” label, people think they know you.

It’s what a lot of the Chinese and Japanese American activists from my research on Asian American activism in the 1970’s struggled with. It’s what I’m still struggling with.

I’m going to be clear about this. Being Asian American does not mean we only consider our Americanness and Asianness in isolation. I believe that our identity as Asian Americans has to be intricately tied to our history as a diasporic people. We are and have always been in movement, sometimes by choice, but often times through force.

For today’s highlighting of AAPI figures, I’m thinking a lot about how our histories of immigration & displacement, and the interconnected legacies of imperialism shape our identity and our future as a force for progressive social change.

A lot of what I know about my identity as an Asian American is informed by those in the Asian diaspora who actually aren’t “American”. I believe we learn a lot about ourselves when we think about just how broad our community can be.

Arundhati Roy has been my favorite author since high school. The God of Small Things entirely changed my ways of thinking. I had never felt so strongly connected to a novel before. When Ammu tells Rahel that the things you say can make people love you less, it felt like my lungs collapsed. I remember saying horrible things to my mother as a snarky teen, and Roy just knew how to tear into my heart, but in the best way possible. And this was a work of fiction.

Her non-fiction writing, I didn’t discover until later. Her biting criticism of British imperialism, of Hindu nationalism, of forces that tear apart families and countries speaks to me in ways that I never knew was possible. The way that I think about myself as a colonial figure, as simultaneously oppressed by white supremacy but also as an oppressor who benefits from Western imperialism and U.S. nationalism makes me uncomfortable and extremely angry.

I think, as Roy’s novels and articles have taught me, this kind of uncomfortability is the beginning of a deep interrogation of how we fit in the world. While #APAHM is a celebration of our accomplishments and the triumphs of our ever-widening community, it must also be a call to reflect on our harrowing past, and how we can work to move forward together.

What authors, thinkers, and artists in the Asian Pacific Islander diaspora have pushed you to think beyond the limits of a fixed nation-state based identity? Share with me your thoughts!

a conversation between sides

you ask
how sacrifice
builds.

you ask
how loss
strengthens.

you ask
how broken
people
mend other
broken people.

keep asking,
and i will show you

my mother
and her pharmacy degree
tucked away in a home office.

my father
and how he leads in a room
where my grandfather’s voice still
rings.

my yinyin and yeye
and plastic flowers
we put near gravestones.

my popo
and how she refuses
to leave the house
my mom bought for her.

you ask
how is this a dream.

keep asking,
and i will show you

photo albums, army trunks, mahjong tiles.

keep asking,
and i will show you

rain-damaged letters, ink-stained newspapers, calligraphy brushes.

keep asking,
and i will show you

rice flour, reused pie tins, boiling water.

you ask
isn’t this America?

keep asking,
and i will say
this is the America i know.

keep asking,
and i will say
this is the life we have made.

keep asking
and i will want to show you
to the door.

instead i ask,
what does your America look like?
how different does your love look?
what does your America have that i cannot find in mine?

toastmasters

in fifth grade she stumbled in;
met blonde-haired,
blue-eyed
America.

traded calligraphic characters,
ink and brush,
for foreign-sounding syllables,
exchanging L’s and R’s
like she could trade her accent for respect.

changed her name to something more
pronounceable.
didn’t know that
her name wasn’t the only foreign thing about her.

fast forward years and lives and loves later.

she still stumbles,
catches herself,
but questions nothing.

she is told to make speeches,
writes the sentences herself,
recites words from memory;

asks for my help,
but she does not need it.

she knows
she does not need to sound perfect
to have something to say.