I had grown up constantly wavering between denying and suspecting that my skin color was behind the fights picked with me, the insults, the casual distance kept up even between myself and some of my closest friends. Sometimes—in retrospect: oftentimes—these incidents were obviously rooted in race. I have been called “chink” and “flat face” and “monkey” many many times. And it is the context of these words that make a child grow uncomfortable with who he is, that instill a deep fear in him. (As a side note: I am married now to a Korean woman who grew up in Korea, and when I mentioned the “flat face” slur to her, she said, “but your face is flat.” Yet how different was this from the leering way it was said to me as a child, something she hadn’t felt as a Korean in Korea.) I was afraid, back then, of myself, as if there were a little Asian person living within me that was corrupting my being, taking me away from the white person I thought I was.
There are still incidents from those days that I cannot get out of my mind. I remember watching, in one middle school class, a video meant to teach us that blackface and sculptures of big-lipped black people and stereotypes of watermelon and fried chicken were wrong. Later that same year, one of my best friends drew a picture of a square with a nose poking off of one side. I knew this was me even before he said it. Sometimes my friends would ask me to do the trick where I put my face against the table, touching both my forehead and my chin to the wood. I thought of this as a special ability, but underneath, I knew I should be ashamed.Every time I read that I get choked up. Later he writes, "It is hard to call someone who thinks he is complimenting you a racist. But the positive stereotypes people think they can use because of their 'positivity' continue (and worsen) the problem." Ha/Ouch: Last week I tweeted to Matt "I love Asian babies." It's true: I think Asian babies and children are more beautiful than their white counterparts. Is that racist? I don't really know.
When I was an MFA student at Emerson College (where Don Lee got his MFA and then later edited Ploughshares), there was a rumor going around that in the original workshop stories from Yellow, the characters were white. That Lee made them Asian later. I’m not sure the truth of this statement. In fact, I’m not interested in the truth of it. I’m more interested in the fact that this was a rumor at all. This was something people wanted to talk about, and talked about as if the truer versions of the characters were white. If Lee did use white characters, originally, he is not alone. I know many Asian American writers who refuse to write about Asian Americans, out of a fear of being typecast, or a fear of being seen as “using” their ethnicity, or a fear of being an “Asian American writer,” or something. And really, I understand that. I have been one of those writers. This may not come as a surprise, at this point in this essay, but for a long time, I wrote only about white characters. I wrote about them because I grew up with people like them, but also because they were the people in books and because I, too, feared the label, or at least told myself I did. What that fear really is, it seems to me now, is a fear of not being taken as seriously as the White Male Writer, who has so long ruled English literature.It's the double-edged sword of identity politics, where you're either "using" your identity or denying it. Make reference to your heritage, your race, your gender, etc. (or don't, even) and someone will accuse you of getting ahead via quota. (However: "Both Harvard and Princeton are currently under investigation on charges of racism toward Asians, whose grades and SAT scores, on average, must be higher than those of other races in order to gain admissions. Many Asian Americans are responding by marking the box on applications that declines to indicate race, something I cannot help but read symbolically.")
2. Brian Pera is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund his next film (Only Child) and there are all kinds of awesome incentives for donating, including music samplers and perfume from the one and only Andy Tauer. I donated $25, which qualifies me for fancy-schmancy tuberose soap, based on the perfume created for Loretta, the character in the clip below. You can learn more about Brian's project at Evelyn Avenue.
Loretta "Never Been Sadder" from Eileen Meyer on Vimeo.