Just about two months ago, I was driving up the 101 to record a conversation with Nicole Kelly for her podcast, The Heart, and Asha Grant, of the Free Black Women’s Library LA (a branch of Olaronke Akinmowo’s Free Black Women’s Library project). That afternoon we had a conversation on the topic of people pleasing, and how it has informed our youths, and the kinds of queer women we have become now.
I highly recommend listening to NK’s series, Divesting From People Pleasing, for a deeper dive, but “pleasing” as we’re considering it, is not about being nice. It’s about all of the ways that we, as queer women of color, deny, curate, bury, criticize and otherwise create a public presentation of ourselves in order to move through the world. It planted a seed in my mind about what it means to be Asian American: about the values that are most important in my family, about the ways I was taught to protect myself and succeed, about how those strategies are perceived by larger American culture.
After the the podcast episode aired, I got a text from an artist friend, Chloë Bass, that said, “My response thought (IN CASE YOU WERE ASKING, which you weren’t) to something you said is that actually we are being protected using strategies that people in the past wished they had known before the bad thing happened to them. If they had known to protect themselves from that thing, they feel like they would have been ok. So they imagine the thing they wish they had (long hair, correct clothes, whatever) and use that as the protection into the future. But in the future, we face different problems that need different protections that we don’t know yet. And it’s always going to be like that.”
“Does it have to always be like that?” I asked Chloë. I couldn’t help but wonder: Is safety ever more than an illusion? What is true safety?
This was at the end of March and COVID-19 was buzzing like a low ominous bass line beneath everything, shaking out a hysteria that was erupting in all sorts of ways, from hoarding obscene amounts of toilet paper and water to a rise in brutal violence and open hatred of Asian Americans in public. Plus, there were just a lot of people dying from illness. I kept thinking about what Chloe had said. I kept thinking about this present/future that I lived in. I was well aware that it was different from the past that produced my grandparents and my parents, that I wouldn’t otherwise exist.
But it was also true that the same discriminatory sentiments against Asian people, from the past, had been carried on, as a kind of cultural protection among The Rest, which is how I consider everyone else who isn’t “Asian”.
But it was also true that the same discriminatory sentiments against Asian people, from the past, had been carried on, as a kind of cultural protection among The Rest, which is how I consider everyone else who isn’t “Asian” — a designation that of course Westerners would make to attempt to homogenize the majority of the world’s population. So am I ignorant or optimistic for thinking that I am less vulnerable than my Japanese American grandma Sumi — Betty, as she called herself to please in white company (a name I used at the milkshake shack at my summer camp because Kamala was too pretty to let them butcher)?
I wanted to track down the past-future protections that had gotten me to where I’m at now in my identities. I also wanted to know how to better face the unknown of my own future — I don’t want to be caught parading around in last generation’s false sense of security. So last weekend, I got my parents and my sister on a Zoom call to discuss the values that had been instilled in us by my grandparents, and what the culture of our family was about.
I had an idea of the general values in my family culture — I did grow up in it — but it was illuminating to have my parents put these things into context for me. It boiled down to four main values: education, family, pride in your identity, equity & justice. There is a way that all of these ideas meld together to create the general container of the world I know. If I think about them as one protective strategy, the goal is to gather as much knowledge and legitimized qualification as possible, use it to enlighten your family in a cultural and social way, gain access to money and opportunity, and then feel confident enough to extend this same protection to as many other people as possible.
When I see it laid out like this, I understand how easy it would be to create the narrative that Asian Americans are complicit in upholding white supremacy culture. I know a lot of Asian Americans who do. I also see how easy it would be to cast this strategy as simply protective, conservative, self-interested, rather than forward-thinking or inclusive.
When I was in high school I found my family strategy constraining in its singular focus on academic achievement, with some room for sports, as the most important value in a person’s whole entire life — “what about the way I feel?” I was always writing in my journals and my creative writing classes, “what if succeeding means sacrificing who I want to be?” Then, in college, having been radicalized by a winning combination of campus orgs and post-colonial theory, and also starting to come out, I found this strategy short-sighted and arrogant. “How dare we find a comfortable life within the systems that oppress us while people continue to die?!” was my totally cliched, self-righteous college vibe. Without understanding that comfort is necessary to survival, without looking at how lucky I was to have been gifted an extremely expensive experience of learning to articulate who I was, how I thought, and what I stood for.
My parents met in my dad’s dorm room at Oberlin College in the 70s because he was a popular calculus tutor, and my mom and her roommate needed help with their problem sets. When it was my turn to go to Oberlin College (and my sister would join me three years later), I didn’t quite understand what a huge accomplishment it was for both of my parents to have been there, but also how well it fit their own parents’ plans.
My mom is sansei and grew up in California. When I ask her about what expectations there were of her growing up, she says it was very clear. “Just like you, we were born with college funds, and the expectation was that we would go to college. Sometimes, as a treat, we got to work to add money to our college fund.” My mom’s mom had grown up on a strawberry farm in Oregon and she’d told me about how much manual labor filled her life. “It was extra for the women and girls because we also had to do housework and take care of the men — don’t get married to a man, unless you want to waste your time,” my grandma had told me. I’ve taken her advice to heart.
I know my grandma saw education as her way out, as a means to develop her own independence and to fortify herself against inevitable racism and discrimination. Sumi went to college, and then in the midst of internment, was one of the few Japanese American women to earn a master’s degree, and went on to earn a teaching credential, so that she could influence as many young minds as possible. I read an essay she published in the 80s in a UC Berkeley review about how, when she was applying for secretarial work, for which she was overqualified, she was told that they didn’t hire Japanese people and she should “go be a waitress.” But she would just not accept that. It occurs to me that my grandma was accruing an official record to back her up when she went to break the rules. I come from people who never intended, I see now, to accept safety as enough.
It occurs to me that my grandma was accruing an official record to back her up when she went to break the rules. I come from people who never intended, I see now, to accept safety as enough.
My dad’s family did not have the discipline, steady-paying jobs nor the financial-planning that my mom’s did. But my dad says his own dad clearly had designs on him getting an education, and leading an intellectual life. We’ll be generous and say first that my grandfather is a charming, intellectual powerhouse with mastery of both the sciences and the humanities, and was a professor of Eastern philosophy for many years. But what is hard for me to forget is that he’s also a narcissist, philanderer, misogynist, party monster and just generally irresponsible. When I ask my dad about his dad’s expectations of him, he tells me this story: “My dad, first of all, did not come to the graduation ceremony when I got my M.D. Instead he asked me when I was going to get a Ph.D. and I had to tell him I probably won’t! I think he saw medicine, and all professional degrees, as technical work, as not requiring a great mind.”
At the age of 7, my dad came to the U.S. with my grandma and his two younger sisters to join my grandfather, who was teaching math and physics at Yankton College, in that well-known American city, Yankton, SD. My dad says Yankton’s small town Americana made it a really smooth transition, people were welcoming and helpful. When my dad’s family moved to Houston, TX in 1964, it was the first time they had experienced segregation in the U.S. and it shocked them. My dad says, “We saw the U.S. from an academic perspective, as this place of innovation and new ideas, and especially my mom, was horrified to see African American people treated so poorly.”
As a dark-skinned Indian person, my dad lived in this liminal space, where he was technically allowed into places that denied Black people entry, but everyone was angry about it, convinced he was lying, that he had snuck in and wasn’t supposed to be there. Both of my grandparents, my dad reported to me, held gatherings with Black leaders from Texas Southern University, where my grandfather taught in the summers, to organize around passing the Civil Rights Act. My dad says of my grandfather, “He was always asking, ‘Why do people stand for this, why do you let them treat you this way?’ and they’d say ‘Well, if we resist they kill us.’ So that was sort of our introduction to the U.S.” That my family has long seen their own proximity to Blackness as a relationship to consciously cultivate and build power with was news to me, but also a message I grew up with, that was always implicitly there.
All of this reframes the narrative I had of what my grandparents and parents were doing with their lives, and with me, their latest iteration. Before I began this mini-journey, I thought I came from a family that hung on pretty tightly to protective measures. It seemed like the risks I was willing to take in my own life were bigger than the ones that people had taken before me: I’m very gay with a mohawk, I’m a writer who doesn’t write for white people, I’m not invested in marriage or the couple form. I am actively looking to discard a kind of superficial safety for another that was built around being exactly who I am, to living the change I seek. That is what true safety looks like to me now: being secure in my ability to adapt, to create my own path where there is none, to set goals that nobody else can see, to pick the people who give me strength and bring them along with me. I’m starting to understand now that so many people in my family before me were taking these same risks, building this same kind of security, it just looked different then than it does now.
I can’t claim that this is how all Asian American families work.That would be as absurd as believing myself to be performing the role of model minority when I achieve success — and I maintain that I would be just as smart, as funny, as hot, if white supremacy never existed. I recognize the ways that my personal Asian American culture is strange, in my family we’re all weird, but we are also a part of Asian America and I know we aren’t the only ones.
I’m very gay with a mohawk, I’m a writer who doesn’t write for white people, I’m not invested in marriage or the couple form. I am actively looking to discard a kind of superficial safety for another that was built around being exactly who I am, to living the change I seek.
What I think I am saying is that so much of American culture is a performance. I was working with a hypothesis that a good portion of what we call Asian American culture, is a fearful protective response to living in the U.S. That living under capitalism, that contending with the prevailing notion that we were all the same and all expendable, had produced a monolithic Asian American culture meant to prove our financial value and therefore human value, to commodify ourselves in order to buy our safety in white America. In essence, to pretend that we’re committed to their rigged game. I don’t know, now, that it was always based in fear. I think so many of the best parts of our cultures, the most safe and the most dangerous, are still protected, just for us. But the performance worked, they believe it.
Some among us apparently believe it too. There are an unseemly number of Asian American people who are fully committed to the violent, tragic cause of the original America. When I see Asian Americans suing Harvard to get rid of Affirmative Action, because they see it as the highest level of protection I think to myself, “Oh shit, these assholes forgot that complete assimilation is a performance.” And when I see Andrew Yang wearing an American flag around and telling us to “prove our Americanness” I think to myself, “To whom does he belong?” I think somebody needs to remind them. I think they forgot. That you will never be protected, you will never be safe here, not by accepting values that don’t value you.
I used to think it was my own security and safety, my privilege, that allowed me to decide that I didn’t want to participate in anyone’s monolithic culture — queer, Japanese, South Asian, literary, womanhood, romance. In many ways, it’s true. My parents and grandparents have a built all kinds of safety nets to catch me, should I fall, and as long as we’re alive, we will have each other. But it’s also clear that they also passed down to me the permission to live beyond the things we know, to take the risks that I see fit, and to invent my own version of security and comfort in the world, because that’s what they did. That’s my family legacy.
I still agree that we can’t know what protections our future selves will need, but maybe we just don’t expect to hold on to safety, especially not to find it in the status quo. The version of safety that’s an illusion is the one that pretends to protect you no matter what. Instead, maybe we just accept that none of us are safe unless all of us are safe, that to keep living our cultures and identities comfortably, we’ll always have to take risks and keep looking out for the costs of our sense of security.