Combating the monolith: Part II
This is part two of a series of underrepresented narratives within the Asian/Pacific Islander-American community. Dim Mang is a sophomore majoring in history and political science. On campus, she is involved in Days for Girls, The Roosevelt Institute, pre-law fraternity Phi Alpha Delta, and A/PIA Heritage Month Planning Committee. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TMD: Tell me a little about yourself.
Mang: I was born in Mandalay, Myanmar (also known as Burma), but I grew up in Yangon, which is the former capital and largest city in Burma. My family is Chin, which is one of the minority groups in Burma. The unique thing about my family background is that we’re not Buddhist, which the majority of Burmese people are. We’re also Chin — not ethnically Burman. This basically means that we’re still in a minority group in the country that we’re from.
When I was seven, my family and I immigrated to the U.S. At the time, it was me and my two brothers and my younger sister. My mom was pregnant with my fifth sibling, who is my little sister. We were able to come here because my parents had put forth their names for the diversity visa lottery system and my mom won. Their main reasoning for moving was the unstable political climate in Burma. They wanted us to be able to attend university in the U.S. and have a life that was more stable and not marked by political problems.
Since coming to the U.S., I haven’t been back to Burma yet. I have five younger siblings, and there’s eight of us, so it becomes really difficult for all of us to go back together. My dad has gone back on three separate occasions because of family deaths and property maintenance, but I haven’t been back to Burma since we moved here.
TMD: You may have already answered this, but in what capacity do you identify with this label of “A/PIA”?
Mang: I don’t think that I identified as A/PIA as extensively as I do now until college. Obviously, when you’re in a country like Burma — which is in Asia — you’re not like “oh, I’m Asian”, because everyone around you is technically Asian. Asian is a label you get when you’re not in Asia. I don’t remember much from before I was seven, but I don’t think I ever would have identified myself as Asian back in Burma. If anything, I would’ve identified myself as Chin — as Zo … because that’s what I was. I was Chin first and Burmese second. Burmese was just a nationality rather than a basis of ethnicity.
When I came to the U.S., in intermediate school, people would call me Asian and some of the things people would call me were derogatory. We lived in an environment that was really conservative, so that was when I started to identify more as Asian. I really got exposed to A/PIA cultures in freshman year of college because of the Asian population at U of M. I started to identify even more strongly the summer after my freshman year, when I interned at an Asian-American nonprofit. I really got to learn about the history of our community in America, and what it’s like now.
TMD: In that vein, how do you view your relationship with the larger A/PIA community on campus?
Mang: I think I’m slowly trying to insert myself into the larger A/PIA community now, but I wasn’t really doing it consciously. What happened in the beginning was that one of the earliest friends I made here is Korean-American, and two of my close Asian friends now are Korean-American. Now, I have friends who are more a part of the Asian community than I would consider myself to be.
I would still say that my current relationship with the larger A/PIA community is from a bird’s eye view. I’m not not a part of it, but I’m also not within it. It’s more like I’m looking from the outside and doing things like the A/PIA Heritage Month Committee. But I don’t think that I really try to consciously navigate the community here. It might be because I was really aware of it freshman year, but I think it was also that the activities that I was involved in never had many Asian people. If you’re in a pre-law fraternity or policy organizations — not to generalize — but there aren’t many Asian people in those spaces. I think I’m in the process of trying to build a more tangible relationship with the A/PIA community, but I’m still at a place where I’m trying to figure it out because I don’t really know where my place is right now. I just know that I want to find a place.
TMD: You talked about not being able to insert yourself into the community. In your time on campus, do you feel like there have been barriers to being able to find an entry-point into the community?
Mang: I think the barriers are two-fold. One is because of the way the community functions, and the other is because of feeling like my interests and who I am didn’t quite align with the majority of the A/PIA community. I think it’s because I grew up in a very Caucasian, southern environment. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I haven’t really found Asian Americans with my own interests. I don’t think it’s because they don’t exist, but I think it’s because I either haven’t looked hard enough, or they haven’t presented themselves to me. Like, I’m really into old Hollywood films and British literature and history, and I’ve found that a lot of people who are into those things aren’t always Asian-American. I don’t really know why, and that’s still something I’m trying to figure out.
But a bigger reason why I don’t feel a part of the community is because I think that the community can be closed-off sometimes to new people and ideas. For me, being Southeast Asian is a whole different experience. I don’t think I grew up middle-class. I think I grew up pretty solidly working-class. Furthermore, culture-wise, there’s a huge difference between being Southeast Asian and being East Asian. All of the Burmese people I ever knew back home were my siblings and my cousins, so it wasn’t ever like I had Asian friends back home. My best friend is half-Vietnamese and half-white, but he’s white-passing. I think the nature of the A/PIA community here is not the most welcoming or inclusive environment, sometimes. I don’t know if that’s intentional or unintentional — I’d like to say it’s unintentional. I just often find that when I do put myself in those spaces, I just feel really left out.
TMD: You mentioned feeling like there isn’t space for you in the A/PIA community. Do you think that’s because of these dominant narratives of what an “A/PIA” is supposed to be? Have you ever felt constrained by these dominant narratives?
Mang: I do think that I don’t fit into the spaces because of those dominant narratives. There are some issues that I can relate to with other Asian Americans on campus, especially East Asians. For the most part, I feel like my experience is so different. For one thing, I wasn’t born in the U.S. I’m not second-generation. If anything, I’m first or 1.5. I grew up long enough in Burma to understand what I’d left behind, and to have a whole different life that was different from an American life. That’s also interesting, because I also grew up in a very white community that I’m sure I’ve absorbed a lot of their interests and culture.
So, I don’t even know what, exactly, sets me apart from other Asians, but I’ve just always found that there isn’t much common ground besides the fact that we all call ourselves “Asian.” There is some superficial common ground like “oh, we all eat rice,” or “oh, we all have parents who are tough on academics,” but even those are still stereotypes and generalizations. I feel that a lot of what I am supposed to have in common with other Asian Americans are things that people in my own community didn’t choose for themselves. It’s like, “oh, you should have these things in common because it’s easier for us to think about it that way.” These generalizations and similarities that supposedly exist … I don’t think that they actually exist, or that they’re that important. Sometimes, I do find myself purposely distancing myself from this community. Maybe that’s because I think it’d be too much effort to create a space, because I have found other spaces for myself. At the same time, I am trying to balance that with my desire to promote Asian-American culture and awareness, and I don’t know how to do that without a community.
TMD: Among all of these experiences that you’ve had around figuring out what your A/PIA identity means to you, how have you found ways to celebrate your identity?
Mang: One consistent way that I have tried to celebrate my identity is finding other Burmese students on campus. There are eight others, and we have been getting together for lunch. They are international students, for the most part, so their experiences are different from mine. But even hearing Burmese again — even though I speak Chin at home — is like hearing something that I could have experienced had we stayed in Burma. They regularly go back to Burma, so hearing about their experiences is really cool. It’s like trying to hold onto this culture that I still identify with, but mostly in name, because I am so far from it. Joining A/PIA Heritage Month Committee has also been a way for me to come up with subjects that I want out there, rather than the topics that the community wants out there. I do also have close Asian-American friends who I talk to about what being an Asian woman is like, especially being an Asian woman who is on the dating scene, because I think that is really problematic. My sister is also on campus, so I talk to her a lot. She’s the only one I speak Chin to, so I enjoy that. I still try to maintain my connection to my culture and heritage and identity through small ways.
TMD: What is a message that you would like to convey to your fellow members of the A/PIA community?
Mang: I don’t think it’s enough for A/PIAs to have solidarity because we all call ourselves A/PIA — it’s not enough for that to be our only commonality. I don’t think that just because someone eats certain foods at home and has a certain type of upbringing, it is enough for me to feel a type of kinship with other Asian Americans. What I do think the A/PIA community, especially here, can do is not only to listen to these stories, but also understand that they’re still different.
Sometimes, in our need to feel unity — especially with a community as fragmented as the A/PIA community — we try to be like “we are this one entity.” This doesn’t feel true, because I would still say that my experience as a Burmese American is so radically different from the experiences of other Asian Americans. Understanding that my experiences are very different from yours does not mean that I don’t want to be part of this community; I just don’t want you to use my experiences only when it’s necessary or convenient. I don’t think it’s that Southeast Asians and South Asians and other underrepresented Asians don’t want to be in these spaces, it’s just that these spaces haven’t been open to us. And we can’t open these spaces artificially — we can’t put an underrepresented Asian on an executive board and say “that’s enough representation; that fills our quota.” That’s not enough. These people have to be integrated into these communities. You can’t have one Filipinx group dance at an Asian showcase and say that you’ve done your part. You still don’t understand our culture. I think that East Asian culture often encapsulates all other Asian cultures to the point where everyone believes that East Asian culture is the only Asian culture that exists. Building allyship with your fellow Asian Americans is important so that these overarching narratives are broken down and people understand how varied being A/PIA can be.