“The College recognizes the traditional liberal arts goal of expanding students [sic] intellectual horizons by exposing all students both to a diversity of cultures and to an analysis of the experience of being different.”
Diversity at Carleton, “About Carleton,” www.carleton.edu
When people ask me about being half-Asian, two things happen. First, I think of elementary school. I think about the first time someone told me I looked Hawaiian, then Native American, then white; the first time I had to choose a bubble on a piece of paper and didn’t know what to do…
But I don’t respond with these. Instead, I usually give the short answer, which is just as true, and a lot more convenient: “It’s the best of both worlds. Most of the privilege, none of the guilt.”
Clever, right? Rhetorically, it steers the conversation away from melodrama. I’ve played that game before. Let’s drag out our pain and stand around and admire it. It can be useful at events like Chili Night, but between two members of the liberal elite, it often helps us forget about real problems like Darfur.
But it’s also a defense mechanism, because deep down, the pain is there. The question almost always comes from a white person, and some part of me is still remembering elementary school, when some kid would ask me if I was Chinese, I’d say, “No, I’m Japanese,” and discover the whole thing was a setup for a really bad joke.
“Chinese, Japanese, American knees!”
In case you’ve never seen it performed: you pull the corners of your eyes up, and then pull them down, and then touch your knees. You laugh, and the kids around you laugh, and a little piece of Hannah’s soul slips out of place.
I grew up in an inner-ring Cleveland suburb called Lakewood. It’s pretty remarkable for its socioeconomic diversity and population density, but it is 93 percent white. In advanced and AP classes, I was almost always The Minority.
I got used to this, and over time, the questions people asked me got less and less offensive. “Do you speak Japanese?” became “Do your parents speak Japanese?” and so on.
It would be nice to believe that all Carleton students know better. Once, at a party, someone asked me what I was before asking my name. But for the most part, people here behave themselves. I really want to trust them. I want to hear them talk about sushi and just be happy we share a mutual appreciation. I wish I didn’t have a violent visceral reaction to anime kids. I wish I could listen to guys wax poetic about the beautiful Asian women they met on study abroad trips and feel special and desirable instead of nauseated.
But I can’t. As it stands, in 2011, 66 years after Hiroshima/Nagasaki, white America’s attitude towards Japan is at best dubious.
I know that using gender analogies for race is problematic, but bear with me for a second. People say that being a bisexual woman is easy in contemporary America because our culture celebrates lesbian sex. The hidden problem is that bi women don’t have to own their sexuality. There’s nothing empowering about inserting yourself into a standard, heterosexual male fantasy; it skips the difficult, important process of true self-acceptance. Hence, the importance of Lady Gaga.
How different is it to be Asian, or half-Asian? In the past, internalized racism was a simple problem with a simple solution. Detroit Red became Malcolm X and never looked back. But what do you do when your culture is exactly what The White Man wants? What do you do when you’re afraid to show cultural pride because he thinks it’s charming, adorable and possibly not quite human?
Most people don’t seem to think about this. Some Asian girls have no problem dating guys who are “into Asian girls.” We can write lengthy papers on Orientalism and then go out and buy Asian decor because of what it represents – something that is not familiar, not Western, not your parents, not your trashy cousins, and definitely not your third grade shame, whatever that was.
When people ask me what it’s like to be half-Asian, I get the same feeling I get when I think back to two years ago, when we moved out of Lakewood to a much rougher neighborhood in West Cleveland. Every time I walked the dog, I suddenly faced a string of catcalls. It made me angry for a while, but one day, I realized something much worse had happened. I’d stopped smiling. (Smiling to myself is pretty standard if it's summer and I have music.) The more I smiled, the more attention I got. Exoticism does the same thing: it takes something genuine and turns it into a source of fear.
I still have what I call a Madame Butterfly complex. Before I date someone, I have to make absolutely sure that they like me and not my race. Of course, everyone deals with something like this, because there are always stupid reasons to like someone. But if we can call this one problem by its right name, racism, we can begin to rebuild a relationship toward all Asians and Asian Americans based on actual respect.