I’m Chinese, but I’m not Chinese

boy
Who are we behind the costume? [Chiang Mai, 2014]
On a regular basis, I’m mistaken for being Chinese – as in from the Motherland, China, Chinese. Now, to be fair, I look pretty damn Chinese, but these days it’s getting ridiculous.

Continue reading “I’m Chinese, but I’m not Chinese”

An Asian American expat musings on the post-election malaise

As an expat, one of the things I experience is how different governments treat their people, and how my passport country measures up. Until I had moved overseas, I had taken for granted American infrastructure, rules and regulations and our homegrown love for criticizing politicians and government. I lived in a democracy where political cartoons are the norm and SNL skits are revered and expected.

So, it’s been interesting to live in places where having those rights is not a given. For example, right now in Thailand, protesting on the street is not a legal option any more. Of course, I feel sympathetic, but I mostly listen. I hope it’s obvious why. As a result, I inevitably reflect on my own upbringing in historical contexts, and about my education.

In high school, when we were learning about US politics, I remember feeling torn between the Democratic and Republican parties because I liked and disliked both party policies. I didn’t have any parental influences coloring my perspective because mom’s an immigrant with basic practical English and my stepdad tried to instill the value of thinking for yourself.

When I look back at my voting history I’m not surprised to have voted Democratic, Republican or Third Party depending on the candidates. I am surprised, however, by how many I’ve been old enough to vote in – 7 including this year’s.

You have to understand that even though I am a pragmatic and idealistic person, I don’t believe that politicians care about everyday people. I’ve become cynical about our political system. When everyone was excited about electing Obama, I was in my dark corner grumbling, “He won’t do anything.” I didn’t care if he was black, white or green and I certainly didn’t have any pride about him being from Hawaii. He went to Punahou School, one of the most expensive schools on the island and a high school theatre rival.

No, I didn’t vote for McCain. I voted Third Party in the primaries. I was tired of the two party system, the same ‘ol same ‘ol. I wanted real change. I wanted a revolution. It didn’t happen. We moved overseas, fed up with American politics and the 9 to 5 treadmill. At one point, I foolishly declared on social media I was for anarchy, not fully realizing what I was advocating.

Fast forward to this election, when my bf first told me about Bernie Sanders, his eagerness and happiness, palpable, but apparently I said, “He won’t get elected. Don’t bother.” And then I slithered back onto my suspicious bench. My bf remained optimistic though.

In the beginning, Republican nominee Trump was just some ridiculousness that the media seemed to be lapping up. I only noticed him because it was hard not to. I jokingly said if you wanted attention, you need only add his photo to your blog or write about him. Talk about click bait. But as the primaries were coming to a head, I found myself very much invested in Bernie Sanders that rogue candidate who believed in shattering corruption, and now who everyone is touting as someone who we should have taken seriously.

I also found myself looking behind the political correctness identity politics curtain that was being propagandized throughout mainstream media. There are a few reasons for this. I grew up in Hawaii so I know what a diverse population looks like, where whites can often be the minority, and how a diverse group can be together. Whenever I spoke about how ethnically rich Hawaii was Mainlanders mistakenly thought we lived in blissful harmony to ukulele music with plumerias in our hair at the luau.

“Uh, no. Are you kidding? We’ve called each other nasty racial slurs and we had fist fights.”

Like Ja Flip which means Japanese Filipino and haole, originally a Hawaiian word that has come to mean ‘whites’ and straddling the line of: Does this mean nigger? But it’s important to say everyone got pissed on, including me who was part of the Asian majority.

(To be fair, I do want to add that Hawaii is filled with interracial couples, kids and families. When Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever came out, my brother and I looked at each other and said, “What’s the big deal?”)

In grad school, in one of those teacher training classes I was taking, I remember a white girl talking about the racism against her, how she was teased, bullied, beaten up, how she hated Hawaii and school, and how she was thrown into a dumpster. My classmates and I listened with horror and sadness. I was the first to speak up after a tension-filled silence. I guess because I knew what it was like to be a target myself.

“Sorry. I’m sorry you went through all of that.”

My bf endured this kind of distorted and misguided revenge too, but at sunny UC Irvine’s art program where he was constantly told, “We’ve heard from your kind for the last 2000 years, nobody cares what you have to say”. Never mind, he grew up poor and was teased for it. Never mind, he was here on scholarship. After this experience, he turned away from art, his passion, for many years.

I also dated a Southerner for 6 years. Alabama. Deep South. Baptist Christian Creationist who went to church as often as three times a week throughout his childhood. I met his family, stayed with them and his extended family (all kind and generous people), and *gasp* even lived in the South.

It made me realize how much the South as a region is fair game when it comes to judgments, jokes and deeply insulting stereotypes. I find myself defending the South whenever it comes up in casual conversation as a ‘place to be avoided at all fucking costs’, as ‘banjo country’ and ‘backwards’.

Funnily, I experienced racism in California, Oregon and Colorado, but never throughout my travels and time in the American South.

When I met Mr. Alabama, he had mostly gotten rid of his accent as he was sick of being asked, “Where are you from?” and of course, being teased. He told me he studied Californian’s accents and I think he felt pretty good about shaving it down, although whenever he gets off the phone with family it comes back.

My brother ended up marrying a Southerner and so all of my nieces and nephews are mixed and live in Tennessee. Maybe they are the only AMWF couple in the entire state, but I seriously doubt they are and the only mixed couple. Look, I’m not saying the South is perfect, I just think people’s perceptions of RED versus BLUE states and all that other crap is harmful, hurtful and propagates hate.

Perhaps all of this clued me in to the danger of listening and believing only one kind of narrative. Specifically, the narrative mainstream media was screaming from rooftops this election season: us versus them.

I don’t know. I decided not to go to battle on FB because it seemed like the conversation was being pushed aside for feeling angry, outraged, for “c’mon White people” status updates and vilifying OTHERS. Instead, I decided to read and listen to both the alternative left and the alternative right. And just like high school Lani reading about the US political system, I learned both sides said things that I agreed and disagreed with. Both sides covered things that the other didn’t, too.

Of course, it helps that I’ve been living out of the country since Obama took office. And I think it helped that I had weaned myself off of mainstream media many years ago when I heard that corporations like Time Warner had bought out other news outlets in America. I even limited NPR to just the books section.

But I’m not patting myself on the back. Because even though I have Dem, Rep and Third Party supporters and friends from around the world on Facebook, I’m not sure if folks are ready to stop blaming and listen to each other yet. You know what I mean? Yes, the emotions are dying down. The corporate media is starting to issue apologies for their propaganda and bias reporting. But until Americans start to understand what our government has been doing to countries and open a dialogue with those who they perceive to be their mortal enemy, I think I might as well continue to stand on the periphery.

Maybe I always will. After all, I didn’t vote. Therefore, many will see me as part of the problem. That’s fine because I’m used to having this conversation. I just have to tell them the story of young Lani watching the votes being counted across America from east to west, and how the next President of the United States was declared well before the count ever reached Hawaii. Or that there is something called the Electoral College. Or that it’s my choice to not participate in the government that I find corrupt. Or that I didn’t like any of the candidates. Or that the lesser of two evils is a bullshit argument that not even Hollywood perpetuates when the hero saves humanity.

Yes, I live overseas, so you could make the argument that my voice doesn’t count, that I’ve become less American as result. Or you could say, I’m just a bit on the outside.

Celebrating 7 years abroad

7 years Collage

It was Facebook that reminded me that the milestone had passed. Otherwise, I’m sure I would have continued to scroll past this moment, drinking my coffee and eating my banana.

I posted, “I signed up for Intensive Thai, but based on my photo (with my application) I was enrolled in Intensive English instead.”

Would you hire an Asian American to teach English?
Ah, the face of a woman who needs to brush up on her English.

Now, normally, I’d write a long post about what these 7 years overseas has meant to me, what I’ve learned, etc., but after deciding that I hated half of what I wrote, I’ve settled on writing a list post, in an effort to stir up the punch, so to speak, and force me to distill my years abroad into one tasty beverage.

Ingredients:

Identity cocktail

  1. Being asked, upon hearing that I’m from Hawaii, “Are you from Hawaii China?”
  2. Always being asked, “Where are you from?” And almost always being started at, despite looking Asian living + traveling in Asian countries.
  3. Quickly learning how to say in Thai, “My mother is Thai and my father is Chinese, but I was born in Hawaii and I’m American”.
  4. Watching locals light up upon hearing I’m part Thai and Chinese.
  5. Having a Chinese Bible thrust under my nose in a park in Cuenca, Ecuador followed by my British friend’s laughter as she looked on.
  6. Being taunted on the streets of Cuenca by teenage boys yelling, “Konichiwa,” as I walk briskly home in the dark.
  7. Overhearing Thais say, “She speaks really good English,” after leaving a red taxi truck in Chiang Mai.

7 big years Collage

Perspective blender

  1. Realizing that America has its own set of rules, constructs and artificial realities, and recognizing that culture is invisible.
  2. Attempting to see what is assumed.
  3. Seeing my mom on her home turf, connecting with her through her native language, and (hopefully) understanding her a little more.
  4. Getting out of comfort zone, regularly.
  5. Making friends from all over the world, living and working in an International environment, and being that Annoying American trying on her British accent.
  6. Having successful (and unsuccessful) interactions with locals using their language. Really having to rely on what I’ve retained and my creativity to navigate my way around (e.g. avoiding meltdowns).
  7. Learning to be more patient because that’s the way things are on this side of the world…

7yrs Collage

Growth + goals garnishes

  1. Living a life that is much closer to how I want to live, through part time work, play and pursuing my passions.
  2. Finishing that damn memoir, my first book, after years of carrying it around the United States.
  3. Working on my second book with all its ups and downs of self-doubt peppered with excitement.
  4. Blogging consistently, writing every day for me, not losing sight of the dream.
  5. Successfully conquering my fear of driving a motorbike, but definitely not how traffic moves in SE Asia.
  6. Eating food that I once thought was gross, terrifying, weird and too different.
  7. Kicking my fears and failures in the gut by getting back into teaching. Namaste. Amen. Big hug for me.

What’s up with Asians obsession with white skin?

Cuenca, Ecuador, 2010
We’re covered up, fearing the sun, scared of a tan. [Cuenca, Ecuador, 2010]
https://soundcloud.com/lifetheuniverseandlani/whats-up-with-asians-obsession-with-white-skin

As many expats in Asia and perhaps even some travelers know, being white-skinned is considered beautiful, desirable and essential. This is quite laughable to the Westerner who wants to be tanned. Creams, sprays and salons are dedicated to making us look like we’ve just been to Mexico or the Bahamas. When I lived in Hawaii, I was sometimes teased for looking “too white,” for not getting enough beach time.

In Asia, however, being tanned represents looking poor: bent over in the fields, working outside in the hot sun and appearing dirty or, Buddha help us, old.

And even though, throughout the years, I’ve explained to my students or colleagues that a tan means you got out of the office, you were on vacation, you have time to play, this ideal simply does not correspond to life in the East. Of course, Asians try to make it sound like the sun’s UV rays are extremely harmful, and while there is some truth to this, the lengths Thais, Chinese, Koreans, etc., go to, to look lily-white is shocking, and a little scary.

This phenomenon is something I’ve touched upon here and is something that I’ve learned to accept, but it was this article shared by a friend that got me thinking about the issue again. In short:

“A young woman in southern India is painting her body black to protest against what she calls the growing intolerance in the country against the low-caste Dalit community, writes Ashraf Padanna in Kerala.”

You can go ahead and read the article, I’ll wait here.

Can you imagine? Horrible that Indians are killing themselves for being in the “wrong/dark” caste system. Unbelievable that Asians are poisoning themselves in an attempt to look whiter. I’ll be keen to read a follow up article on her experiment.

I remember my b/f told me that one of his university students in China had to wear a mask because she took the whitening creams too far and had to hide the mistake. He also told me an amusing story of when he was teaching in Ankang, a small city smack in the middle of China. One of his colleagues was a Chinese American who had dark skin (I’m sure he wasn’t that dark) and the security guard wouldn’t let him on campus because he didn’t believe he was a teacher. He eventually had to jump the fence in order to teach his classes.

When I first got to Thailand I saw pink nipple cream at one of the malls. I laughed. Then I thought, “Are pink nipples considered more desirable than brown ones? Is this something I’m supposed to want???” Then, of course, I started noticing how Thais hid under umbrellas, covered themselves with sleeves, scarves and socks, all in an attempt to avoid Vitamin D as much as possible.

In Cambodia they are much more relaxed about it. I think this is because they are browner and it really can’t be helped no matter how much you try to avoid the sun. It’s also a poorer country. Women here don’t walk with umbrellas like Thailand or Laos, wearing hats are much more practical.  Although, they might cover up, which I understand, because the sun is super strong here. My own efforts of putting on sunscreen while at the pool have been futile. I’m getting dark as my archaeology days.

But Cambodia, just like its sister Asian countries, loves its light-skinned celebrities. In Thailand (I know Thailand better), Chompoo is such a crazy popular actress and she is Thai and British. She is everywhere, on TV, at the movies, on commercials, and advertisements. Mario is Thai-Chinese and German, and is a very popular celebrity as well. It’s rather maddening, actually, to see many luk krung (half-Thais) dominate Thai pop culture. And if they aren’t on top, then milky-white skinned celebs are – seriously, unless it’s comedy or a villain, you won’t see a nice brown tanned Thai.

Chompoo is easily one of the most popular and rich Thai celebrities of all time.
Chompoo has got to be one of the most popular and rich Thai celebrities of all time.

I know other Asian countries have the same beauty standards because whenever I turn on the TV this is what I see. I watch marshmallow-white, creamy Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Khmer, Indians on TV. Just once (okay not just once!), I’d like to see a popular dark-skinned Asian celebrity on Asian TV (because ABCs – Australian born Chinese, American born Chinese, etc, you get the picture, want to be tanned and healthy looking). I think it would do a world of greater good for teens to see someone that looks like them and for everyone to understand beauty comes in all shades.

I know others have expressed their concern and disgust over Asia’s white-skin obsession, but sadly it does not appear to be going away any time soon. My students tease each other for having ‘black’ skin and then, of course, I have to step in and tell them they are being ridiculous. But I can’t help but wonder if my dark-skinned female students will have a harder time finding a man than their light-skinned counterparts.

Enter Dr. Rhonda Tindle who is a professor of East Asia studies. I tweeted her asking where this white-skin obsession came from and here’s what she had to say:

(27th century BC /creation myth)  If you look up one of the Yellow Emperor’s consorts, you will find Leizu. She was very young (of course) when she became consort of the Emperor and the myth is that she was of the purest yellow as was the Emperor.  She was also apparently really clever because she discovered silk.

The Japanese in particular really take the purest yellow thing (pale skin) to heart.  But the whole pale thing goes back to these mythical creation stories of the Yellow Emperor – or at least the preference for pale skin is supported by the myth.   I read an anthropological article a few years ago that the whole love of pale skin and pale being beautiful relates to the male preference for young females.

*I added the Japanese link

When I first got to SE Asia, I mistakenly thought Asians obsession with being white-skinned meant they wanted to be White. But I was wrong. They might admire whiter skin and there are certainly Asians who are obsessed with mainstream ideals of beauty (wider eyes, bigger breasts), overall though, I think Asians want to be Asians, but with lighter skin. Take the controversial Chinese laundry detergent commercial. The woman puts a black man in the laundry, but he doesn’t come out White, he comes out pale Asian.

Interestingly, the commercial it was based off of (right down to the music), was an Italian one claming and boasting to add color to the wash –  same scene, but in went a skinny Italian man and out came a big black hunk. My goodness, if these two commericals don’t represent the fundamental differences of wants and desires between the East and West, I don’t know what does!

To make matters even more complex, I asked a few of my colleagues regarding Cambodia’s desire for whiter skin or finding a fair partner and one of them said,

“Khmers are dark-skinned people. If you find a light-skinned Cambodian then it probably means they are Chinese-Cambodian which is considered more desirable because the Chinese are known for their business savvy. Regardless of whether or not this is true, it’s what people believe.”

To be honest, I think I’ve been living in Asia for too long. I notice skin tones, who’s darker than me and who’s lighter, but I don’t use it as a benchmark for beauty. I can’t. I’ve seen too many situations where appearances were deceptive and when looking good mattered more than being good.

Besides, standards of beauty change, but compassion, generosity and kindness go beyond the shades that seem so important today.

FB like.
It all comes down to wanting to be liked and accepted. [Chiang Mai, 2013]
What do you think?

google-shot-of womens magazines

Why I stopped reading women’s magazines

google-shot-of-magazines

There is a blogger I follow on Instagram (I don’t know why, really, I don’t read her blog, but I find her – a curiosity) and she’s posted recently that she LOVES women’s magazines and how she’s obsessed with them. It reminded me of a time when I felt the same way.

I used to be a fan, too. I used to have so many teen and women’s magazines you’d laugh over the sheer volume. It got so ridiculous that I quickly learned that I could donate my zines to the local library and old folk’s homes.  I suppose you could have called me a collector because I looked them over and over again and, well, bought them in stacks and eagerly awaited new issues like a dog at the front window.

I grew up watching my mom pour over her Thai soap opera + movie star magazines that I suppose it became natural for me to seek out my own. Although, I did look through hers quite often and I can tell you that the language barrier wasn’t a problem in figuring them out. Glossy extensions of the cover were at the beginning or a middle insert, then gossip columns and interviews, beauty ads sprinkled throughout with erotic-looking romance series and horoscopes towards the end. Call *009 for a kinky chat with big breasted Japanese-looking ingénues were at the back, and why those types of things were in a women’s magazine, I’ll never know.

It started when I grabbed a Redbook out of sheer boredom on a road trip and while it was too adult for me at the time, I was hooked. The habit of flipping through the pages is akin to smoking a cigarette, it’s a ritual that gives a short high and it is an addiction. I mean, how can it not be? You are looking at beautiful women and desirable things. Sometimes, it even smells nice if you like the perfume samples between the pages. And other times there are celebrity interviews, fun stories and facts and stuff about boys – BOYS!

It took years though, certainly well after college, until I realized how reading/flipping through these magazines made me feel. Ever since I was a teen, I was aware of race. I never saw an Asian woman on the cover of Glamour, Elle, Teen, Vogue, Cosmo, Harper’s Bazaar, In Style, Seventeen, Marie Claire and W. Of course, I certainly remember Jenny Shimizu, the only Asian American supermodel to go mainstream.

Jenny-Shimizu
I used to have this very picture hanging on my college bedroom wall, along with a zillion other magazine pages that I found worthy…

But other than the exceptional Jenny, there wasn’t much for me to relate to. And for some reason, I paid close attention to women of color. There was one model that was half Asian and half white in Teen that I like the best, purely based on color and looking back at young Lani and I think, “Now there is a girl who wanted a role model.” I was actually very unhappy with the way I looked growing up and I have to wonder how much looking at fashion spreads and flawless women contributed to this.

A lot probably – it took me ages to get over being small on top, short and that I had bad skin. I considered myself too Asian-looking, as well, if you can believe it.

Even now when we’re all aware of Photoshop, and phone aps that make us look ‘beauty’, I feel like many young women (and men!) unconsciously compare themselves to an ideal industry standard. But maybe I’m wrong, it’s very easy to upload yourself on social media and make yourself into whoever you want to be these days.

But growing up when I did, being Asian didn’t feel beautiful and like most young women, I wanted to be desirable. It certainly didn’t help that I was teased for having a flat face, something that I learned later in Physical Anthropology is a rather Chinese characteristic. I must confess during that class, I felt such a startling weight leave my body. I felt relief and, for the first time, a little proud.

I also noticed how many things in these magazines were EXPENSIVE. I’d scoff at the “Under $99” page. The idea of buying a $70 blouse or bracelet seemed incredibly wasteful and outrageous, especially in my 20s when I was struggling with credit card and student loan debt. I learned to be frugal instead, going through mad coupon cutting phases and certainly falling in love with second-hand or consignment stores. I felt no shame in buying dresses at Goodwill. I couldn’t afford to.

Of course, some parts of the magazines were useful (if not ironic) like the articles on having a healthy body image or tricks to snag boys. Those articles gave me ideas on bravery and so I had no problem walking up to a boy I knew from class and asking him out on a date. They always replied, “no,” so then, I had to read the articles on rejection and boosting self-confidence. Vicious cycle.

I’m starting to sound pathetic, huh?

Women’s mags are good for learning aesthetics and studying advertisements, product placement and the psychology of these types of things. Once I started paying attention to how I felt looking at these zines, I started to wean myself off of them. This probably corresponded with figuring out how expensive this little addiction was as well. I also noticed how the British Glamour’s magazine size was half as big as the American version and I thought about environmental waste, too.

So I ended subscriptions and eventually stopped buying them all together. Then I became one of those folks who goes to Barnes & Noble and stands by the mag section perusing them for free. And the great thing was I started checking out other sections besides “Women’s Interests” and eventually learned to skip the magazines all together and study the bestsellers lists and get my hands on some books.

To be clear, I used to read books and magazines, but now I don’t read women’s magazines. Occasionally, I’ll look at them at airports or when a friend has a copy, but I don’t feel the pull like I did and the magic has certainly worn off. It’s made it easier to not covet unnecessary beauty products, designer brands, feel nonexistent and that the world revolves around celebrities.

It hasn’t made me less girly though, just more myself.

The perks of living in Asia.
The perks of living in Asia. Seeing yourself. Represent!

Do you read fashion magazines? What do you think?

Las-Vegas-sign-2007

Do you speak broken English?

Despite the fact that I’m an expat in Asia and I hear broken English all around me, and struggle to communicate just as much as the next foreigner navigating these poorly maintained roads, I don’t speak broken English. And this isn’t because I’m an English teacher and I have my nose in the air, it’s simply because I was raised by an immigrant mother and my “intellectual” brain didn’t think for one minute that I needed to adapt or change my speech so she could understand me better.

In fact, my brother and I found my mom’s poor pronunciation often hilarious. Sometimes, we’d torture her, egging her to say the word again and again and again.

“Say ‘purple’ mom, say, ‘purple’ again!”

“Puppo.”

My brother and I would repeat the process, ending in fits of laughter. Until, of course, she got pissed at us for making fun of her.

Then there would be the other variety, in which I’d be neck-deep in confusion wondering what exactly my mom was asking me to get from the laundry room. I remember my teenage brain desperately trying to understand her, but each time she said the word, I’d be quagmired, confused with no hope of getting it. Naturally, the discussion escalated.

“What!?”

Sitsaw.

“You want WHAT?!”

Sitsaw. For cut, Lani! For cut!

“Oh, scissors! You want the fucking scissors! AHGGG!”

Don’t ask me again, why she didn’t teach us Thai. We struggled to communicate at times and looking back that just seems like a very family thing to do.

She did know the difference though between proper and broken English as she specifically told me not to speak pidgin. Most people in Hawaii speak pidgin, which is technically a creole language,  and one that was, interestingly, developed on sugarcane plantations as a way for Americans and immigrants to communicate. So Hawaiian pidgin was influenced by many languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Hawaiian, and is a lot of fun to speak, too.

But to my mom’s ears it was the sound of the ignorant and the under-educated. She forbade us to speak it. Although, last April when I returned to Hawaii after 5 years away, I was awestruck by how everyone spoke pidgin. It’s like my ears picked up everything, but when I lived there I guess I didn’t filter it out as any different or distinct. Surely though, pidgin was spoken just as much when I was growing up as it is today. I don’t know!

It wasn’t until I was out of the house that I realized how little my mom understood – and how much her English abilities had plateaued just like my Thai did when I was living in Thailand. Her broken English also fine-tuned my ears allowing me to decipher what many Asians are struggling to say when they speak English. It’s actually a pretty damn helpful skill to have. I mean, after all, broken English is arguably the most common language in the world.

So when I’m confronted with that “OMG. We are going to have to start signing in sign language” moment, I notice I slow down what I’m saying as naturally as possible to allow the listener to catch up and process what I’m saying.  I also do this in the classroom to a lesser degree and am very much at ease repeating myself. (Oh, the irony!) I almost never reach for broken English. And the only reason why I know this is because after noticing many folks around me doing it, I started to think about why I didn’t.

When we were living in Thailand, my b/f thought it would be funny (he watches WAY too many prank videos) if he pretended to talk to me like I was his countryside Thai girlfriend. You know, talk to me the way you hear so often, too often, foreign guys do with their local girl. Talking at them like they talk to them – or worst.

“Me want big burger now.”

I’d give my b/f the dirtiest looks and try not to laugh.

Then he’d throw in some Thai to go with his caveman speech, “Pom chob gin bur-ger.”

Did they notice? Did they roll their eyes and talk about how atrocious it was that he was talking to me like I was an idiot? It was too hard to tell, but I’d always tell him to quit it.

Big burger.
Big burger.

Do you speak broken English?

May Day, Mililani Waena Elementary

Identity, what is it good for?

Some hats we wear are more ill-fitting than others. [Prayao, Thailand, 2013]
Some hats we wear are more ill-fitting than others. [Prayao, Thailand, 2013]
According to Marcel Proust, via Alain de Botton, “We don’t really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something has failed to go as we hoped. Though we can, of course, use our minds without being in pain, Proust suggests, we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer, therefore we think and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context.”

I wager you could make the same argument with identity, that is, you don’t really know who you are until your identity has been challenged.  It’s easy for a mother, a wife, a doctor, a writer to declare who they are, but once your motherhood or wifeliness has been taken away, what are you left with? Who are you? It’s been my experience  that when how you see yourself is questioned, put under fire, you burn red black hot or forge something new, maybe both, in that order.

Growing up Asian American wasn’t really a test, a trial or a task until I left the diversity of Hawaii at 12 years old for a landscape that was barren of people like me. Something as simple as not being accepted by our small 6th grade class, hearing the teacher tell the other girls to play with me and suddenly waking up to the idea of looking different, was sad. But I made friends with the other girl outcast, an overweight, very developed nerd with a hairy upper lip who stood by the walls of our school reading romance books.

I didn’t learn that Hawaii was this amazing special place until I was living in the Mainland or the Continental US, and I experienced the reactions, “OH, wow!”

“Can you take me back with you? Put me in your suitcase!”

“Did you have recess on the beach?”

My favorite though was when folks would ask me, “Sooo, what brought you to the States?” then gently reminding them that Hawaii is a state, and watching their faces when they realized their faux pas.

Being American wasn’t anything to ponder until I left the US for a life overseas. Truly. Americans don’t really know what the rest of the world thinks of them, nor do they care, I realize. Being asked about my country though is kind of interesting! Flying away from those stars and stripes gave me such a huge telescope on my culture, my perceptions of right and wrong, what I take for granted and how the rest of the world lives, that I’m grateful for the experience, the tension, the challenge that being an expat brings.

When I was a Waldorf teacher, I deeply identified with the role of a teacher. I was 30 years old and felt like I had found my career after what seemed like a wasted 20s of figuring-it-out. I enjoyed the reactions from bank tellers to butchers when I told them I taught 1st and 2nd graders.

“God bless you.”

“Ah, a teacher. What a thankless task, thank you for teaching our children.”

“We appreciate what you do.”

I’d glow from the gratitude and the burn out, but when I was fired, I felt identification-less.  Hell, I wrote a whole book about it, that’s how down-on-my-knees I felt about the whole experience.

But it was through the process of writing that I began to see how much identity is fickle, finite and fragile. And even though I eventually returned to teaching, 7 years later, I’m very careful not to identify too strongly with the role.

Hello, there. [Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2015]
Hello, there. [Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2015]
And even though I’m ethnically Asian, I don’t identify myself as strictly Asian American – or American Asian. I used to identify with being Chinese because of the way that I look. I don’t know if you are aware of this, I certainly wasn’t until my mom pointed this out, but I’m very Chinese-looking. Apparently I’m some sort of poster child for Central China.

But then people would have the audacity to mistake who I was, from “Konichiwa” to “What Native American tribe are you from?” and that was just in Colorado! When I told my brother what was happening, he said, “You can’t expect to know what ethnicity people are, British, Dutch, German, so don’t expect them to know what you are.”

When I moved abroad to Thailand, Ecuador and now Cambodia, my sense of what I looked like, my identity became such a whirlpool of confections that I learned just how sage Eminem’s lyrics, “I am whatever you say I am” are. I became comfortable with people believing I was a Thai native who spoke really good English, Japanese (the way I dress), Chinese, Korean, American, a banana (yellow on the outside and white on the inside), Cambodian, Ecuadorian Chinese and Hawaiian.

Does it really matter if people get it wrong? It’s hilarious when Chinese tourists come up to me in the grocery store and ask me for help, and my white bf replies back in Chinese, “She’s not Chinese.”

“You really should learn Chinese. Think of all the tourists you could help.”

This coming from the guy who thinks it’s great fun to say, “Expensive.” “Delicious,” “Don’t cut the cue” and other phrases in Chinese to Chinese tourists as we walk by. It’s ironic, really, how much Chinese tourists embrace me, meanwhile it’s my lao-wai bf who’s learned their language, lived in their country and taught their children. That’s some external versus internal differences for you.

But now social media has created a new way for us to perfect and shape how we see ourselves and how we project ourselves.  I find it fascinating that we can create who we are on an electronic and global level and it’s a real as the device you are using to read this.

Sports teams are another big way many people identify themselves. Anyone who has watched a stadium full of frenzied fans can attest to the power sports have, from “we” won to “we” lost and the highs and lows that physically manifest as a result of however a team or two played that day. And they say we no longer live in tribes…bah.

They also say ‘you are what you eat?’ but what about what you buy? Our identity also feels caught up in the brand names we use, too. Stores like Target know what we buy and what we like and cater coupons in the mail just for us. They’ve tapped into our habits and social media and the Internet does the same things with “suggestions” and advertisements.

So are we none of these or all of these? What is at the root of you? I remember a friend asked me, the quintessential metaphysical question, “Who are you?” and told me that I couldn’t use labels. I couldn’t say a daughter, a sister, a friend. That was 20 years ago and I can’t say that I’ve found a good answer.

I do think it changes though. Your identity. I know I’m me, but me has changed.

Recently, my sister-in-law decided to submit her and her son’s DNA to DNA ancestry dot com and by doing so revealed what my brother and I are. We knew we were Chinese and Thai and my grandmother told us that we were also a little bit Russian and that was confirmed. But the surprise was finding out that we’re 10% Polynesian and a smidge Middle Eastern as well.

May Day, Mililani Waena Elementary
I’m so ethnic, yo. [May Day at Mililani Waena Elementary, Oahu, circa 1985]
I wish DNA testing could be made available for everyone so that everyone would know on a scientific level that we are all mixed.

Because at the end of the work day, we all want the same things, a nice safe home, a fulfilling job, good schools for our kids, healthy food in our bellies, etc. But if those needs aren’t being met, if they’re being taken away, if we’re fighting for some basic rights, people, all people are going to lash out. Identification suddenly becomes important and feels very necessary in labeling the haves and have nots, or in the case of WWII, who you are, becomes the target of ethnic genocide.

So, who am I and who are you, I would imagine become closely linked, intertwined and the labels we once thought were so important, peel off to reveal a common language we all understand and a false division that time will hopefully forgive.