My mother wakes up to the sound of her own heart preparing itself to carry on another day. The aroma of the congee she is preparing sneaks out of the kitchen, slips underneath my door, and wraps itself around me. I know it is time to play with the sun.
At my grandmother’s house, shoes collect outside the door. I try to count how many pairs but do not yet know how to count by twos. I love in multiple languages and am able to ask my grandmother what she dreams about when she lays her head down at night. Teacups leave rings of gratitude on the table. Using the droplets, I draw pictures of monkeys in treetops only I can see.
My cousins all look like me. My feet do not touch the ground as I sit and watch the pots of broth boil and roar. I wonder if the fire on the stove, when radiating onto the mirrored surface, would burn through and seep into liquid. Finally, my bowl of warmth comes. I drink the fire that has now become an ocean. On my face, a smile reveals my bliss.
If only life still felt this worry-free. These are the early moments in my life when I actually felt whole.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled with my Asian identity. Whether it’s not being able to speak to my family members, my internalized racism, my guilt from shaming my relatives who weren’t “American” enough, my misguided desire to be white growing up, or hiding my queerness, shame is something I know all too well. I battled my own existence.
During my adolescence, to combat my shame, I defined my Asian identity through academic excellence. At the same time, I became the reductive caricature of “Asian” I was expected to be. I was clip art, a fortune cookie, orange chicken, plastic ninja shurikens, a raised hand, a bowed head, a Chinese zodiac printed on a placemat.
There are days when I still cry because I don’t feel Asian enough, whatever that means. There are days when I still hurt knowing the ways I colluded and made jokes at my own expense because I knew no other way to deal with my pain.
Growing up in my family, I quickly learned that there were things that we could and would openly talk about without filter like each other’s weight, what the kids would be when they grew up (always between doctor or doctor), anytime an Asian would appear in any form of media, and gossip about other families.
However, I also quickly realized that there were things that we couldn’t and wouldn’t ever talk about: struggle, money, abuse, trauma, and anything else that didn’t fall in line with the idea of the ever-elusive American Dream.
This made my life difficult, because — spoiler alert — the American Dream is a lie that only serves to sustain capitalism and meritocracy, I was bullied all the time, my family went bankrupt, my family is far from functional, I’m a survivor, I suffer from depression and I’m queer.
I learned fast that these were the parts of me that I had to suppress every day in order to make others comfortable. Because of that, Asian spaces, especially on this campus, have been some of the most oppressive spaces I’ve ever been in. In my experience, they’ve been extremely sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, and anti-Black. The culture of silence was also extremely damaging for me because I was hurting so much with nowhere to turn to.
Granted, I never really felt safe in any space, but it hurts so much more when the oppression and the ignorance is coming from people who are supposed to be your community. It hurts so much more when it comes from people who look like you.
When I first arrived to campus, I made a conscious effort to not seek out Asian-American spaces, because I feared that I wouldn’t be able to be all of me. Instead, I sought out gay white spaces and loved the newfound freedom to be unapologetically gay, at first. However, after a lot of not-so-subtle wake-up calls, I came to realize that even within those spaces, I was still the constant other. I was seeking the affirmation of gay white men who did not see me as fully human, just an accessory they could put in their pocket.
I tried desperately to get gay white men to love me and, in the process, was completely rendered invisible or, even worse, fetishized, tokenized, and abused. Too often, I was reduced to an exotic experience to check off of a list, right between “try sushi for the first time” and “get a (tacky) Chinese tattoo (that’s actually Japanese).” I was told that I should be grateful to have white purity bless my yellow otherness.
I now realize that I am not the Necto dance floor. I am not your gaysian token. I am not your model minority. I am not a porn category. I am not a lost sweater in the backseat. I am not bruised knees and a name to be forgotten. I am not a white unicorn.
I am a golden dragon. I swallow unicorns whole and spit out their horns.
Slowly and painfully, I realized that I was investing all of my energy trying to convince my oppressors to accept me, instead of investing that energy into my comrades, into reclaiming and constructing spaces of our own, and into my own fire.
Ciarra Ross, a fellow comrade, warrior and radical lover, in “Michigan in Color: Reaction is not a revolution,” writes: “One of the most detrimental reactions to injustice that I often witness is the idea that we must “prove” our humanity to our oppressor in order to survive … Is this not a form of internalized oppression? Is this not reductive, narrowing and harmful? The idea that I must prove myself worthy of the space and resources essential to live with my well-being intact is violent, cruel and unworthy of my energy. Fighting for narrow-minded people — at best — to realize that I am a human being born with the right to live fully is not my idea of survival, much less my idea of the pursuit of freedom or power. Quite frankly, it is degrading and dehumanizing.”
I became politicized once I started to realize that I was looking for community in all the wrong places. My experiences are part of much larger movements and history that I didn’t know about. That lack of knowledge, that misunderstanding, is taught. I literally thought I was the only one going through all of this, that I was the only one suffering in silence. Once I gained the language to articulate my own experiences, I began to truly see the beauty of the world through the process of communal healing.
I found The Coalition for Queer People of Color — or, rather, it found me — an organization that showed me that my existence was already inherently radical. I found a space that didn’t want me to choose one of my identities over another. I found a chosen family that allowed me to just live. I could be all of me. I could just be.
I am grateful to all of the queer and trans* people of color who helped me realize that my identities are not jagged broken pieces but rivers that all flow together to make up who I am. I found purpose in working to dismantle the systems that kept me from realizing that I am already powerful and more than my traumas.
I am showers at 2 a.m. I am my mother’s dreams. I am an embrace from a close friend. I am exhaled smoke. I am the sound of his heartbeat in the morning. I am the subtle groove of a melody. I am everything I am meant to be.
My politics are centered on strengthening the margins and making sure that we hold each other accountable because, even within the margins, it’s a warzone, y’all. I know so much about my own oppressors and I forgot to take the time to collectively heal with my own communities. Reaching out to my communities in order to call them in — and out when necessary — and mobilize them to combat the ways that we have been complicit in the oppression of others has become a necessary part of what it means for me to practice radical love.
So many Asian Americans have bought into respectability politics and assimilation into whiteness, a reality that often leads to the replication and perpetuation of the oppression of others for our own benefit. I am not an exception, but I am working to unlearn.
I want to work to dismantle the model minority myth as a tool of anti-Blackness. I want to work to decenter whiteness and center our own truths. I want Asian Americans to be honest about the ways that race has been constructed around proximity to whiteness and distance from Blackness, and where we fall within that equation.
I want to work to expand the ways through which we conceptualize what we mean by “Asian American issues.” Just as all issues are queer issues, I argue that all issues are Asian American issues because all oppression is connected. Asian American is not a monolithic entity and, within this identity, there is difference that must be honored and recognized. There are so many issues that should be discussed within Asian American spaces including but not limited to trans* rights, the prison industrial complex, rape culture, health care reform, mental health stigma, immigration rights, modern-day apartheid, occupation, and colonization, and colorism within people-of-color spaces.
Asian Americans should be working to make sure that we don’t fight to get ahead at the expense of others within the margins. We have to work across differences to build revolutionary relationships with one another. I need to see A/PIA organizations and movements focus not only on multiculturalism and issues of representation but also on a genuine desire to learn and unlearn, listen, grow, heal, and dismantle.
Queer South Asian poet-activists Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian tweeted from @DarkMatterRage, “unless azn activists decenter a *feel good* politics & move toward discomfort, complicity, anger — we do little for other people of color.”
When we say that we want inclusion, we have to be critical of what we want to be included in. So often, we are fighting for the right to oppress rather than for the freedom of all to have access to self-determination. In a conversation with Hannah Giorgis, a feminist writer, organizer, and artist, she tweeted, “I don’t want a seat at an oppressive table. I want the table dismantled.”
Please do not misunderstand, this has been and continues to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do: re-entering communities I once thought I didn’t belong to despite all of my pain. I still struggle every day to unlearn and grow. I still struggle with owning my identity as an Asian American in a way that feels authentic and unapologetic. I still struggle to navigate different spaces and negotiating how much of myself to give and when. I still struggle to find ways to start tough conversations in order to share knowledge with the communities that I belong to in ways that are accessible.
Part of practicing love is resisting power structures through communal learning and growth. Part of practicing love is resisting notions of individuality that sustain capitalism. The reality is that, when I succeed, my communities succeed.
I would have never been able to come to these ways of thinking were it not for the activists, community members, and storytellers who came before me to share their knowledge through their words, art, tweets, Tumblr posts, hugs, and strength. I have been especially inspired by activist and writer, Suey Park, for organizing to strengthen the margins and mobilize her communities.
We all have the potential to revolutionize the way we navigate this world and our relationships with others. We all have the potential to stop centering our oppressors and start centering our own communities, narratives, and truths. We all have the potential to strengthen the margins.
Grace Lee Boggs reminds us that, “These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.”
I thank you all for reading and joining me on my journey to learning what loving myself, being loved, and loving the communities I belong to look like in practice. I am grateful to have the opportunity to hurt, heal, and love openly and unapologetically and I am done asking for permission to do so.
I am trying to feel whole again.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail email@example.com.