I’ve been following writer, Suey Park, on twitter lately. She was the woman to started the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick. Reading what she has to say has really gotten me thinking about things that I’ve only grazed the surface of before.
I am an Asian American woman. But I look white. Here’s my story. I am 50% Chinese, 25% Lithuanian and a small mix of German and Italian (possibly some other things). I am American born. On my father’s side we did not follow any culture. On my mother’s side, we did. I grew up eating chicken feet, going to dim sum for every holiday/birthday/anniversary/etc, celebrated Chinese New Year, lived in a house arranged by Feng Shui, and leaned the appropriate phrases in Cantonese to say to my aunts, uncles, and Po-po. There are many more points, but to be honest, I’m not sure which of them differ from the “normal” American household because to me, they were normal in our house. Besides American, the only culture I know is Chinese. It is what the majority of my background and ethnicity is.
Growing up, when having to fill out forms which required your ethnicity, the options were: white, african american, hispanic, asian/pacific islander, and other. I checked “other.” As I grew older I started checking “Asian” because I did not want to be “other” any more. It made me feel weird. Like I didn’t belong.
Because I don’t look very Asian, I was never teased the way my sister was growing up. No one called me slang terms. I was occasionally talked down to, or asked, “Do you speak english?” by my teachers in elementary school. But mostly I saw the racism acted out upon my mother. When we would go out to the store, women would make comments under their breath, “Go back to Korea,” they would say. Which is like, not even the same country, duh. The cashier would look at my mother blankly because she wouldn’t understand what she was saying in her accent. To me, my mother never had an accent. I can understand everything she says. I would be shocked when people referred to her as having an accent. To me, it was normal. People were rude to her left and right, and still are to this day. I almost got into a fist fight with a woman once because of how she treated my mother. I was in high-school, and full of angst.
As I grew older, it became clear to me that people have been racist to me and my family throughout the years. I still have to look back at instances growing up and re-evaluate them. “Were those people being that way because I’m Chinese?”
But also because I look white, I see and hear people make fun of Asians around me. They don’t realize that I am also Asian. One co-worker kept making fun of a group of Japanese tourists in the gift shop I worked at. He was an old white man, slanting his eyes and saying horrid things. Because there was a line of people, I couldn’t escape him, as he plainly and rudely made racist remarks in front of me, somehow thinking that I might join in with him. I was extra nice to every customer, and as soon as the line ended, I stormed off straight into the managers office and asked them to fire him. He wasn’t fired of course. Just warned. I put my foot down and said I wouldn’t go back out there and work along side him, so they put me in the stock room, and never scheduled us to work together again. Just typing this makes me remember how angry I was that day.
When I entered the professional workplace. The racist remarks began to die down and the sexist ones arose. The first few years I began photographing weddings, the white middle aged man of every group would look at me in disbelief. “Are you friends of the bride?” “What school are you in?” “Did you buy that camera yourself?” Seriously? And a lot of, “I’m a photographer too, you’re probably too young to remember film photography.” Like, how young do you think I am?! And film photography is still taught in schools, btw. I’ve been shooting weddings since 2002 and people still ask me who I work for. As if it’s not possible that I might be self-employed, or own my own company, or have employees. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I also looked more Chinese than I do, or god-forbid, had an accent.
I’m still fighting this battle. I speak up. I hold my ground. I also joke around with my other Asian friends, because I have to, to not to be constantly angry. I use my privilege and my culture to relate to others. Wether it be correcting them, or identifying with them.
What more can I do? I’m working on figuring that out still.