At a summer camp in Arkansas circa 2014, my middle school cabin mates and I had a series of increasingly ridiculous conversations while we were getting ready to go to camp events. That year, there was this girl in my cabin who liked to walk around and guess things about each of us: our zodiac signs, personality types, etc. It was easier and more intimate than a Buzzfeed quiz. Instead of asking us a bunch of arbitrary questions which we’d answer, angling for a certain result, her conclusions were based on living with us.
One night, she went around and told us what Disney princesses we were based on our personalities. We had a cabin mate who was Cinderella because she was “hard working and did the right thing even when no one was watching.” Someone else was Belle because she was “smart and refused to conform to societal norms.” I was so excited for her to get to me.
But then she said, “You’re Mulan cuz…y’know…”
I didn’t know. For half a second, I was puzzled. How had she looked at me, an unathletic middle schooler whose hobbies at camp included reading and lingering for far too long in the only air conditioned building accessible to us: the snack store, and thought “Ah yes! Like Mulan!”? But then she clarified.
I don’t remember what I said to that. I wasn’t happy, but I was also old enough not to get too hung up on princesses. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. But I bring it up because to this day, when my non-Asian friends and I play this game, I’m still routinely compared to Mulan because she’s Chinese. In fact, she’s one of the only mainstream Chinese main characters to choose from.
Representation in popular culture
As representation goes, there are a lot of problems we could talk about. For example, writers/animators tend to tell stories in which BIPOC main characters turn into animals halfway through the film. But the issue on my mind lately has been the danger of a single story.
To me, the problem isn’t really that Mulan is really hardcore and magicaly good at martial arts after one training montage, it’s that this is the only story we have of someone who looks like me being a princess, and…she’s not one. The problem isn’t really with the Joy Luck Club (the token Asian American Book everyone reads in school), it’s the fact that the Joy Luck Club has the burden of encapsulating all things Asian American in a way that’s impossible to live up to.
I’ve spent the better part of my gap year writing about Asian Americans. I have a lot of thoughts, but the Asian American identity has also shifted dramatically since I left the States. And I’m still processing. I’m thinking about the state of Asian American representation and how much I want to speak into that. Or if I even should.
Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot more Asian Americans, particularly those of East Asian descent, write about racial trauma, and those stories need to be told. I just wish they weren’t the only stories people cared about. I want there to be room to talk about the hard things, but I want space for joy and for confusion and for the complexity of the human experience too. Recognizing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders through things like AAPI month is important, but it’s more important to listen to Asian Americans/Pacific Islander Americans every month, not just in May or when something tragic is happening.
Writing about Asian American identity is hard
I really struggle when I write about Asian American things. I’m aware that as a person of East Asian descent, I need to be extra conscious of the other experiences within the Asian diaspora. I can’t let Asian be shorthand for just Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese. I have stories I want to tell, but they’re constrained by scope, word counts, the news cycle, and other things beyond my control. I’m asked to provide examples of books and historical events, but it’s so easy to fall into the same problems I’m trying to avoid.
Fundamentally, I want to portray the complexity of my community. I want people to know that we are just as human as anyone else. Most people wouldn’t fight me on that. You’d get it right on a test, but what does it mean to imagine people who you don’t understand complexly? Recently, a friend told me that what I’m trying to do is to make Asian Americans both more comprehensible and more complex. Those are often at odds with each other.
I want there to be more than just one story about Asian Americans. That’s why I write about them…and myself. But I can’t help but wonder sometimes if I’m just becoming the tokenized story that people will read. I don’t want to write the next Joy Luck Club.
Language is tricky. We assume that when we speak the same language, we understand each other. But no one comes to any conversation as a blank slate. We bring our baggage, our presuppositions, and our experiences with us. Just as someone who didn’t grow up in the US as an Asian American might not pick up on the microaggressions that I would take quite personally, I have my blindspots too. Because of everything I bring into a conversation, I might miss it when someone tries to explain it to me.
Even when I set out to write something that speaks against the dominant narrative, there’s a script we use to talk about race and stereotypes which sometimes inadvertently serve to reinforce them. Vague language allows people to fill in the blanks with their presuppositions. In my experience, hyper specific language doesn’t always explain the situation either.
What I’ve known and am still coming to understand is that it shouldn’t be on me, or anyone else, to find the perfect words to explain. The only way through this problem is for us to really listen to people who have vastly different experiences than us. We have to read broadly, engage with different people, and get out of our comfort zones. As for my writing, Lee Isaac Chung probably said it best when he described his work as him “only telling stories here.” Despite the expectations others might put on my work, I’m going to keep telling the stories that matter to me.
So thank you, for listening.
Read other Asian Americans:
- Grace Hwang Lynch who writes about Asian American culture, education, and food. Her piece on preserving Taiwanese through romanization was thought-provoking and insightful.
- Inkoo Kang is a TV critic at the Hollywood Reporter. Her cover story about Minari emphasizes how the themes of the movie go beyond just Asian American-ness. Her 2018 piece in Slate about how Asian Americans need to forgive the Joy Luck Club has also been on my mind lately.
- Jay Capian Kang’s profile of Steven Yeun inspired my own profile of Lee Isaac Chung. My piece is written to be in dialogue with his.
- Check out Good Morning America’s inspiration list of AAPI people making history right now nominated by leaders/influencers/members of the AAPI community.
- Yale’s Asian/Asian American Oral History Project, Negative Space, collects the interviews and artwork from those who self identify as Asian/Asian American to broaden the “kinds of narratives encompassed by that label.”
My writing on Asian Americans this year:
- OPED: Erasure and Stereotypes in School Lessons Left Me Searching for Myself – One Day Magazine
- PROFILE: Between Lee Isaac Chung and Me -Yale Daily News Magazine
- OPED: Racism About and At Home -Arkansas Soul
- PERSONAL ESSAY: For a Better Life, Move to Taiwan -Taiwanese American