The Silence of Asian American Legacies
I wrote the below when I was in high school.
It’s jarring, partially because I feel like over the years I’ve lost this connection to communication and language, and partially because it still rings true. Because, despite all the life experiences and the maturing I’ve done — if any — it still captures a truth: silence is what characterizes the Asian American story.
In media, in politics, there’s a reverberating lack of texture related to the Asian American experience. It seems that only in fiction, do these stories abound, and these fictions enjoy the safety of artifice, outside the realm of action and reality. Not sure what publishing this will do, but it’s part of a larger journey to reclaiming my story and rediscovering my passion for storytelling, for communicating truths that life experience has forced me to disassociate from. So here it is… the beginning of my break from silence.
My family is defined by its silence. The highs, the lows, the laughs and the pains are noiseless, creating a deeper language that has somehow always evaded me. My mother, father and brother have always used this unspoken language, resulting in a fragile, and in their minds, perfect equanimity. And ever since I was young, I never understood why they didn’t vocalize anything. I never understood the need to read between the exhales and the inhales, and in my attempt to end that silence and to encapsulate my family and myself in a few words, I always failed miserably.
I tried to describe my mother — a woman defined by her courage, her sacrifice, and her small, calloused hands. She is a woman who could have offered her countrymen great service had she stayed in Korea. But she came to America to live the Dream — luxury cars, safe streets, and financial security. But she didn’t. And she never complained about it: the ten-hour work day or the exhaustion of life as an alien to a place she had to call “home.” But I saw the pain in her irises — hues of deep, dull brown and layers of tire that in time became a simple black. She was living in a numb haze triggered by my brother. He had run away for three years as a result of extensive physical abuse, and her own guilt and disappointment were slowly killing her. Never once did she say it aloud. In fact, she didn’t quite say anything.
My father’s silence was less obvious than my mother’s. Although he would throw me a comment or two, his words were hollow and his pain just as apparent. He had more to carry than my mother did: a baggage of shame that brands Asian men all too aware of their inadequacies. Since the moment my father was born, he had been taught that his life was measured by how well he could provide for his family. And in failing this single duty, he became frustrated and beat his own shame and self-loathing into my brother. My father never could express his pain in words, nor did he even try. Perhaps he thought that, by keeping his silence, he could disguise himself and maintain a veil of ignorance. But even as a nine year old, I saw that his silence had rendered him naked.
My brother inherited my parents’ silence, keeping quiet through the beatings and the countless mental degradations from my parents. He chose to make his statement by running away — ironic in that it did not entail him to speak. He endured much abuse, but in the end, I think he was thankful for it; thankful, because it justified his continuous failures. He has always been smarter, more talented, and infinitely more gifted that I am, but he always felt entitled to an easy time — the best without much effort. And when reality callously confronted him, he ran away. To this day, he runs — it’s a wonder he has not stopped for breath.
And I? I too am silent, but I am determined to change. My greatest ability as a child was to adapt, to settle into the backdrop of my family’s emotional turmoil. But in turn I forfeited my own ability to communicate. I was too scared of becoming a stereotype — too scared of having to write a story about the immigrant family, about the difficulty to speak and understand. And I now realize that my family’s silence was an effort to survive. But I refuse to live that way.