“…the history of virulent racism directed against Asians and Asian Americans has been at once consistently upheld and denied. Shuttling between “black” and “white”— Asian Americans occupy a truly ghostly position in the story of American racialization.”
Anne Anlin Cheng, The Melancholy of Race
“Mommy, why are they staring at us?” I wondered if someone strange had pulled up behind us or if my dad was talking to them. She didn’t hesitate before providing a short answer that did not invite conversation, “Because they’ve never seen a Chinese before.”
During our leaf-peeping road trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains, my dad had pulled our brown and wood paneled Dodge Monaco into the Esso station. As he pumped the gas, the white family in the neighboring car stared, first at Daddy and then through our windows at the rest of us. They did not even look away when they saw we had noticed their stares.
“Diversity” wasn’t a thing in the 1970s. Mom and Daddy probably didn’t think about who else lived in Raleigh, North Carolina when we moved there when I was four. They liked the weather and Daddy had a job offer as a university professor. It was the next logical step in their quest to succeed in the US, to demonstrate to their far away families that their sacrifices had paid off. They didn’t think about trivial things like where they would buy mao dou and sha cha jiang. Building community with other Chinese families wasn’t even an afterthought because there were so few when we arrived. We could survive by blending in.
The only racial categories in the 1970 US census for Raleigh residents were whites and “Negros.” This Black-white binary captured our family’s experience, where at the time, immigrants from Latin America and Asia were few.
In the “Foreign Born” section of that census, 314 Raleigh residents were born in China, 21 of whom immigrated in the 1950s. Two of these 21 were my mother and father, who came to this country before they met. My brother and I were US-born, but apparently we had eluded counting in the US Census.
My parents weren’t the type to wonder, much less ask, “How does it feel to be stared at through a car window?” It didn’t cross their minds to talk about how we looked different nor about why we lived in a place where people stared at Asians like we were phantoms. They probably hoped that if we didn’t talk about it, we might avoid trouble and that if we didn’t react, we would fade into the scenery. As recent immigrants, they were single-minded in “making it,” so talking about anything that didn’t have to do with our future seemed an unnecessary distraction. This discomfort and messaging fed both repression and internalization that white was better than Asian and that acting white meant safety.
But we didn’t blend in. The fact that our ethnicity caused stares remained mostly unstated. Leaving things unsaid took less energy. Assimilation meant my brother and I never ate moon cakes and were never given red envelopes for Chinese holidays that no one else celebrated. It meant that I didn’t know what I was missing, like hand-pulled birthday noodles standing for long life. We celebrated Thanksgiving with Southern-style sweet potatoes and no mi fan stuffing. I believed we were like everyone else except in looks and the occasional fusion meal.
In school, I found out we were not like everyone else. Mrs. Fisher, my white second grade teacher, clarified something with the class, which was all white except for me. Addressing a boy confused by a math problem, Mrs. Fisher asked, “So, does the answer make sense now?”
Mrs. Fisher said, “Excuse me?”
Always attuned to corrections so I would not make the same mistake and bring notice to myself, I was baffled. I was not in the habit of saying “ma’am” and had never been required to use the polite Southern mannerism.
At home I asked Mom, “Why does everyone say ‘ma’am’ to the teacher, but I don’t have to?”
“Because we aren’t mei guo ren. She knows you aren’t raised to say that. It’s Southern.”
I hoped my classmates didn’t notice the different rules for me, but they must have. My mother was astute with her answer, but the interchange went no further. Perhaps her understanding went no further. Perhaps she hoped if she didn’t make a big deal of the differential treatment, I wouldn’t either.
My suspicions that classmates noticed I was not like them were confirmed, not daily, but just often enough that by the time I let my guard down, I was reminded again I did not belong. Kids pulled the outsides of their eyes upwards and watched for my reaction. I thought, “The inside corner of my eyes is not lower than the outside corner, so why do they do that?”
Kids sang, “Ching chong foo long ni hao” as they passed me in the hallways.
I thought, “Wow, that doesn’t even make sense; how stupid.”
Kids asked, “Where are you from?”
“No, where are you really from?”
“Really from Raleigh!”
Kids asked, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”
“I’m from here.”
The taunts did not pierce my thick skin nor make me wish for something unattainable like to be white. Of course, it would have been nice if they left me alone or even pretended I was invisible. Using today’s language, including and welcoming someone who was different without exoticizing her was beyond kids’ conception.
My parents also experienced insults from people in stores, on the sidewalks, when they entered our schools. I know this not because they told me, but because of my own present-day experiences. Without saying so, their message was “let it go.” Saying anything back might have brought negative attention or worse, an escalation. At the same time that our faces made us easy targets, the silence from our parents suggested that nothing of note had happened. Oblivious to the complexities of our isolation, I received the mockery without complaint. I internalized this tamped down “no big deal” response to racial harassment.
Neither Black, white, nor Asian boys left my brother alone. Black and white boys physically and verbally bullied him for being “the funny looking little guy.” Asian boys mocked him for expressing affection within our family and for being more athletic than academic. He kept it all to himself, developed a tough exterior, and befriended a group of rough white boys. Soccer talent kept him afloat socially. Just as I stayed mute about the mocking, he never mentioned getting punched and tripped. Without affirmation from the adults in our lives that racial harassment is wrong, nor dinner table practice in acceptable responses, he built a protective wall around his anger and frustration at the unnamed racism. Keeping the violence hidden meant we each tried to process our pain alone.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Asians arouse suspicion and fear in the US. Given anti-communist sentiment surrounding the revolution in China and the Vietnam War, my parents erred on the side of caution and did not talk politics with anyone, least of all us kids. As an adult, when I asked my father what it was like to be a student at Berkeley in the 1960s, he looked at me incredulous, his eyes asking, “Are you kidding me? Do you think I had the luxury of paying attention to the news, much less participating in Civil Rights demonstrations?” He had left most of his family in Communist China and made a vow not to date, much less demonstrate, until he earned his doctorate.
I don’t remember specific conversations, but I know their tenor was domestic and tame. We did not discuss the news. While Watergate, Vietnam, the energy crisis, Roe v Wade, and closer to home, Nixon visiting China and the desegregation of my own public school system happened, we did not discuss their relevance to our lives.
My parents had had no contact with family in China throughout the Cultural Revolution due to their suspect status as capitalists or intellectuals. We did not discuss the doors finally opening for travel to and from China, nor did we discuss my twenty-something cousin coming from Shanghai to live with us and attend college which she had not been able to do in China due to the family’s bourgeois background. Perhaps they left things unspoken to protect us from people’s assumptions that we were communist.
Asians in media and literature did not exist in the 1970s. A white actor in yellowface played the lead character in the hit TV show “Kung Fu.” In the western “Bonanza” about a white cowboy family, Hop Sing was the subservient, nodding and smiling cook who spoke in sentence fragments with an exaggerated accent. I laughed along rather than notice how someone of my own race was portrayed so inaccurately. And my parents, who must have noticed, didn’t name any discomfort much less the cause of the discomfort. I never wondered why everyone in my favorite shows “The Brady Bunch” and “Partridge Family” was white. It was beyond my imagination to see an Asian on a TV show, movie, or commercial as anything except as comic relief.
My brother reminded me that Mommy brought home the picture book “The Five Chinese Brothers,” maybe because she had an instinct that representation mattered (before it became a buzzword). Written and illustrated by white authors, the brothers’ identical faces were painted lemon yellow on every page. I didn’t remember the book at all, much less as offensive. Pippi Longstocking and Harriet the Spy, white girls who don’t fit in, were my go-to characters for their creative adventures and spunkiness. One Halloween, I braided pigtails over a straightened coat hanger to make them stick out like Pippi’s, but my wrong-colored and -textured hair was too slick and heavy. Books with characters who looked like me hadn’t been written yet, so I didn’t miss reading them.
When I was in sixth grade, our schools integrated. Before, my suburban schools were all white (except my brother and me). Even though the Raleigh City and Wake County school districts merger was unpopular among voters but supported by business leaders and forced by the legislature, I remember no conversations about how instead of walking to school, I would ride a school bus from the outskirts of Raleigh into downtown. Perhaps our parents didn’t want us to learn about racial violence against Black people. Perhaps they themselves were wary of Black people. No conversation meant that I had no preconceived notions about what integrated schooling meant, but I must have noticed Black kids in my classes for the first time. Now, my schools were almost exactly one-third Black and two-thirds white, which reflected their proportions in the new district. Like with the US census, my brother and I still didn’t count. We were present but not present, disliked and questionable for our potential menace.
When I was eleven, my parents had a new house built. We were shocked when local teens egged and toilet-papered the construction site. Unconfirmed speculation was that our family was not welcome in the new neighborhood which was all white. A centerpiece of school that year was the project of writing our autobiographies. In my sixty hand-written pages, I made no mention of my race nor ethnicity. Rather than make sense of this seesawing between violent negative attention and silent denial, I ignored it.
My mom taught math at the junior high school. One day she came home upset because someone had pasted “Wanted: Mrs. Mao Tse Tung” posters in the hallways. They portrayed an Asian woman’s caricatured face, with slanted and slit-shaped eyes, buck teeth, and a “coolie’s” hat. Mao Tse Tung was probably the only Chinese name familiar to Southern teens because of Nixon’s 1972 historic visit to China to meet with the famous leader. The pranksters were ignorant of the fact that Chairman Mao’s surname was not “Tung.” The only Asian teacher in the school, my mom Mrs. Tung did not want to make things worse for herself by asking the administration to address the racial harassment. Probably to protect me from being associated with her, she quit her job before I started seventh grade there the next year. As if my own face would not elicit taunts.
As a child, I did not know that Japanese American incarceration during World War II exacerbated the fear and hatred many white Americans held of Asians. I did not know that Chinese exclusion had been the law for the better part of a century. Until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1964, Asian immigration was either excluded or greatly limited by quotas. With the ensuing influx of Asians into the skilled workforce, hostility and mistrust towards Asians grew during my childhood. No one explained that our experiences of racism were the consequences of that exclusion and fell neatly under the “yellow peril” stereotype. Not only were all Asians assumed to be communists, spies, or traitors, they were also stealing “Americans’” jobs at lower pay. It would take years for me to understand that the stereotypes of Asian Americans structured not only how people perceived me, but how I perceived myself.
The summer before my senior year of high school, Chinese American Vincent Chin was murdered outside a Detroit bar by white autoworkers who assumed he was Japanese and who felt threatened by Japanese auto companies’ rising competition. The perpetrators never served time for this racially motivated homicide. Rather than learn about Asian American history in school, I learned about this infamous act of anti-Asian hate as an adult.
At the same time that Asians were targets of racial bullying and hatred, I also experienced invisibility. I had a typical ballerina’s physique and trained at a local studio after school almost every day. My teacher even used my image in abstracted, silhouetted poses (which did not show my face) for concert posters. Every March, she announced the cast for the spring recital, which was usually a story ballet. Despite technical ability, consistent attendance, and longevity, I was never cast as the lead, not even my senior year. In hindsight, I assume my white director could not see me as Snow White nor Cinderella, nor could she imagine white audiences accepting an Asian Peter Pan (even though they accepted a girl playing a boy). Instead, I played Princess Tiger Lily, the Native American role. Each time those casting lists came out, deflated, I questioned my talent, and made non-race-related excuses for why Elizabeth or Margot or Lyn got the roles. I wondered where I had erred, but did not question my beloved teacher nor my parents. Now I know that some Hollywood movie producers still want to change Asian lead characters to white for greater palatability to a mainstream audience.
In high school, we had two class presidents (one Black and one white) and two homecoming courts during football season (one Black and one white). I never questioned these binaries because I didn’t know anything else. Perched on the back of a shiny convertible waving to the parade crowd, I marveled at how I, a nerdy, pimply Chinese girl, even got on the Homecoming Court. I was thrilled to be “popular” for once. I wore a plaid wool skirt and ruffled white shirt that I sewed for the occasion. I curled my needle-straight hair to look like Farah Fawcett’s, but the humidity straightened it before the halftime procession.
Decades later I realized that I had been voted onto the coveted Homecoming Court spot of a Black girl. White mainstream journalists had recently coined the term “model minority,” driving a wedge between groups of color. Against the Black-white backdrop of the 1970s South, the stereotype accomplished its intent, creating a racial hierarchy while glossing over the different circumstances by which most Asians and Blacks had arrived in the US. Ignorant of how my race pitted me against my Black classmates, I was complicit in oppression.
My race was a blurry, ill-defined specter. I had almost all white friends and assumed that boys didn’t ask me out because of my acne rather than my race. None of these friends ever noted in my presence the fact that I was Chinese, which only reinforced my uncertainty about who or what I was. Just as society did not recognize my race, neither did I. Only recently did I find four other students in my yearbook who were not Black nor white in my senior class of three hundred. At the time, I never wondered whether we (the others were South Asian and Middle Eastern) were counted as Black or white. During high school, we five never connected nor named what united us, probably because they, too, experienced their identities like elusive apparitions. I wonder whether they noticed; I know I didn’t. We came into and out of view like shadows.
My parents’ goal was for us to blend in and disappear into white mainstream culture, somewhat understandable as they had defected from Communist China and were fearful of inviting trouble. Without even the thin protection of others who shared our identities, self-censoring and keeping us children quiet and ignorant were the safest routes to avoiding unwanted attention. My parents desired for us to stay under the radar so that they could secure a better life for our family. Not making waves was the solution. At home, silence ruled, but over and over outside the home, I was reminded we were different. I had no words to make sense of the contradictions of harassment by peers, invisibility among good friends, and differential treatment by teachers. Daily, I lived the paradox of simultaneously being othered and of disappearing into white spaces.
Leaving the Ghost Behind
By the time I left the South for college, I could not speak Mandarin, my first language. I’d never had an Asian friend. I’d never had an Asian teacher. I’d never seen an Asian cast member in a movie or TV show who was not a trope. I didn’t think of myself as Asian except when harassed. Despite being born in the height of the Civil Rights movement and being bussed across town to school, I had never had a conversation about race at home nor with friends. I did not notice these things because I knew nothing else. Mirroring and reflecting with others were not a part of my experience. I could not articulate how immigration and assimilation caused whiplash between being invisible and hyper-visible, how my erasure and my racialization had psychic consequences.
When I applied to college, my instinct was to leave the South and suburbia, but I couldn’t have said why beyond needing to establish my independence. I’m sure I checked the “Asian” box, but I wouldn’t have known how to answer the question: “How do you identify?” because I had no words for my experience of race and identity as an illusion that came and went.
My upstate New York university in the 1980s was about 10% Asian. I had never seen so many Asians in one place before. I studied their behavior. They hung out in groups at the dining hall, had their own parties, and seemed to know each other from home. One part of me wanted to join them and another part wondered why they hung out only with each other, as if doing so made them “less than.” I looked like them, so maybe they too had messy kitchens with reused jars left out on the counters and parents who didn’t talk much with each other nor with us. But why didn’t they have mostly white friends like I did? Now it’s obvious to me that white people are never criticized for hanging out only with each other. Now it’s obvious to me why some Asians take comfort in being with each other.
Even though I grew up in an era and a town defined by Black-white struggles, without space for the few of us who were neither Black nor white, I had never before questioned how I fit in. This new and different opportunity to belong intrigued me. Until I began to excavate my culture, language, and identity, I did not know what I had lost. I befriended one Chinese boy in my dorm lounge, and the doors to discovering my identity and place in the US racial structure opened.
Early freshman year, I remember too many of us piling into a friend’s car for a Tops junk food run and counting only two White people (me and a white guy friend). Then my denial and confusion lifted, and I corrected myself. He was the only. For the first time, I identified as Asian, and I was in the majority. Quickly, I had a Taiwanese boyfriend, Korean study buddies, took Mandarin for my foreign language, and signed up for a modern Chinese history course.
I liked how it felt to be with friends who understood, without words, why my parents didn’t send care packages or why I wouldn’t be flying home for Thanksgiving. These college friends were the first to show me that the racial isolation and silence I had grown up with did not have to be. From my vague and slippery childhood sense of self, I emerged from the shadows determined to find pride and strength in my identity.
Image: Photo by Ceng Ismail, licensed under CC 2.0.