A conversation at a SXSW party this year brought a bad feeling back to the fore, and so I kind of want to discuss it. I also kind of don’t. I fear being misunderstood because I am aware of how being white has stopped me from talking about it before, but maybe this post can help me clear up, even for myself, what I feel.
2015 was the Year of Kpop at SXSW, with several events, musical showcases, and parties. I attended as many as I could because of a longstanding interest in Korean culture (and the fact that I was hoping for some free not-taco-food) and I found as I interacted with people there that I was asked a few questions that made me uncomfortable and left me without an explanation.
I’m aware of how it looks. People see a white woman who speaks Japanese, Chinese, a bit of Indonesian and wants to learn Korean. She married a Taiwanese man, and her dating history has more Fu-Qiang, Jin-Woo, Baatarzaya and Kok-Cheung than Bob, Eric or Joseph or Steve. She listens to Kpop, Cantopop, Indopop, and even some Mongolian pop. She wears cloth surgical masks when she’s traveling, but not for health reasons.
I have had some variation of the following questions/statements directed at me from Asians (usually women), but not in a kind way:
- Are you trying to be Asian?
- Do you have Yellow Fever?
- You think Asia is better than the US?
- You’re more Asian than [insert name of Asian-American friend]
- You just use chopsticks because you want to be like us.
- Aren’t white guys good enough for you?
I think all of these assume a lot about me – a superficiality that ranges from fetishism to self-hate to utter ignorance. I feel the need to explain this aspect of me, aside from the fact that so many times in my life I have been misunderstood, and not in a good way – because something lesser has been ascribed to me. A xenocentrist culture-cringing affected white-privilege-wielding ignorant-ass woman who wants some Asian people in her life because she thinks it’s cool?
I don’t like to mention race when discussing people (hot guys, bank robbers, or weirdos at work) because what matters to me is the heart, acts and intent of a person, not their skin color or their background. And I’m well aware that by telling some stories I am perpetuating racial stereotypes and reinforcing bigots’ opinions if I mention a race that’s not their own. If I am more comfortable with Chinese people, it is because I have spent more time with my former Taiwanese family than my blood-family. I saw my Taiwanese sister more often than I do my blood sister, and my Taiwanese father cared more for me than my own. That was more than a decade of my life.
But I forget that I’m different when I’m with my Chinese family because they treat me like I am family. My friends treat me like friends. If they happen to be Asian or black or hispanic, so be it – what matters to me is they are my friends. I know this world isn’t post-racial but I try to treat people equally no matter their age, gender, abilities, and all the other ways that people hate each other. And I’m largely successful.
I don’t believe that Asian cultures and their elements are automatically superior to my own just by the benefit of origination in East Asia. My life and mindset aren’t centered on culturally-appropriating Asian elements because I refuse to pretend that I am not what I am. I don’t wear eating utensils in my hair, feel uncomfortable in a cheongsam, and when I dye my hair black it’s because black is the new black. I am proud to be a Texan, and I love the shape of my eyes. I have been accused of “wanting to be Asian” or of “pretending to be Asian”, but guess what – I was just eating ramen with chopsticks, ‘kay? Right tool for the job.
In 1989, I was a pre-teen, in that formative, pliable time of life. I saw the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989 incident writ large on the news, and it fascinated me. The same way Chinese Communist propaganda posters fascinate me now; I truly didn’t understand what was going on. And I gain a certain satisfaction diving in to and wrapping my mind around something fascinating.
I was excited by the protests and certain that love would win in the end. The students would get what they wanted, and eventually everything would be OK – the students were so earnest and so passionate! Goddess of Liberty! Self-sacrifice and hunger strikes! DEMOCRACY TAKING OVER THE WORLD.
Because of course at that age, pre-Gulf War and pre-September 11th, I thought the natural course of things would be democracy winning again. That’s how my textbooks painted the world: Communism worked out poorly for Russia, Cuba…”Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It was all going to culminate like an exciting movie with a happy ending and everything would be OK because democracy was the real only way!
Then the crackdown. The eradication of all of the beautiful things I thought I was witnessing. The deaths, the sorrow, the blood, the pain, the confusion. That wartime excitement when tensions escalate and nobody really knows exactly what’s going on, but you hope it doesn’t turn out badly.
And the Tank Man.
His heroic act, one man against the entire army, certain to lose, but bravely standing his ground against all odds. The young romantic in me was captivated, and I needed to understand. I needed to know more, to ask why this happened, what this rift in my understanding of the world meant. It would define most of the rest of my adult life, this need to understand, to know, to be able to experience.
In high school I wanted to study Chinese, but the only language that even came close was Japanese. I applied myself thoroughly, learned very quickly, and even participated in a speech contest (which I happen to have also won).
I still loved Modern Chinese History, and the events and conflicts that led to it. The more I dug, the more I found I didn’t know.
And I was in the orchestra. I played cello, and attended mostly AP courses, which had a larger population of Asian kids. They were my peer group, and race only came up when they were speaking Chinese or something and teasing the white people for being ignorant and only speaking one language.
My best friend was Korean, and I spent a lot of time with her, in her home, at her Korean church, learning snippets of Korean, eating her mama’s home-cooked meals. The winning, super-talented ensemble group I played in with her was 3 Korean girls and myself. We practiced hard and often in order to win, and among them I was no different.
In college, I had a hard time making friends at first. Insecure and lonely, my first-ever time living alone, and far from my mama, I tried to make friends with other students in my Japanese class, with mixed results. One day while
doing homework in the Union, a guy came by and invited me to a VASA function (he was inviting everybody). He got to chatting with me, found that I had Vietnamese friends in Dallas and invited me to volunteer in the club’s activities. I took him up on it. I’d always sought to participate in organizations (Orchestra photographer, secretary, Japanese club, and so on) and I knew this was a good way to meet people, make friends. And I was welcome.
Through this organization and other sister organizations I met some of the people who would stick with me for life. Roommates, friends, and yes, boyfriends and eventually a husband. And the Lim family from Singapore that I still adore. They came to Dallas recently and I spent the evening with them – I felt more like I was at home with them and these beautiful children of theirs, children I’d never met than I did in my own relationship. I minored in Modern Chinese History and wrote my final paper on the effects of the Cultural Revolution on Chinese geopolitics. I wish I still had that paper somewhere.
I could go on talking about how I married a Taiwanese man and stayed with him for more than a decade, and the fact that I saw an Asian person at home every day normalized my experience of race, but I am still processing my place as a white woman in the world, and the place of Asians and Asian-Americans in the West through Reappropriate, The Grand Narrative, Angry Asian Man, and other sociocultural observations. Also, it sounds like I’m trying to explain myself too much, but I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.
So to the girl at the SXSW K-Town Cowboys party who derisively said with an eyeroll, “I love white people”, which reminded me forcefully that I am Other, thanks. You made me think.