As An Asian American, I Refuse To Be Invisible In This Country
If being alive is being seen, then I choose to be seen.
After the Fall of Saigon, 42 years ago today, my mother came to this country alone, penniless, with nothing but hope for a better future. You could call this the American Dream.
My mom met my dad in a refugee camp in Florida. According to my mom, she picked him out of all the other suitors because he kindly gave up his blanket to an elderly man and got back into line for another blanket. You see, my parents met after leaving Vietnam, a war-torn country in which the United States had intervened to counter the spread of Communism. My parents were 24 and 27 when they left their home country, seeking Freedom, Independence, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
They started a family, i.e., had me, in the winter of 1981 in Chicago. I can only imagine how cold it was that morning when my Dad took my mother to Evanston in what must have been 60 below zero, a far cry from the tropical climate of Vietnam. Out of the cold, I was born and named Michael, chosen by my mother because of the Archangel Michael. A strong name, my mother tells me. My father insisted on a Vietnamese middle name that means “Loyalty to Country.” It mattered to him that I retained my cultural heritage in my middle name, my Vietnamese name.
My mother always told me to remember my last name. To remember that I was different. That I’d have to work twice as hard to prove my worth. But through that work, I could survive and even thrive. All the same, I was different, but I was American.
I grew up a chubby, nerdy kid who was sensitive and quiet. I’d much prefer video games to sports, but I did find time to watch the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan with my dad during the 90’s. My mom moved us around the country because of her ambition for a higher paying job, to provide for her family, but also because she was a Asian woman working as a programmer in Corporate America. She never liked office politics and preferred to move across the country to achieve a higher position.
Wherever we moved, we always found our people, the Vietnamese Diaspora. I remember fondly the house parties full of kids running around with my parents eating at the adult table while I somehow made new friends with the other kids. I didn’t grow up speaking Vietnamese because my mother wanted me to speak perfect English and tried to teach me later in life, but it didn’t stick. Still, old Vietnamese love songs give me comfort and a sense of a home I have not yet seen.
I write this as a response to an article that I’ve been seeing in my social media feeds. The money quote that keeps being highlighted, in typical Buzzfeed fashion is this: “All along, the transaction was pretty straightforward: Citizenship had been traded for dignity, an American passport came with annihilating our heritage.” The basic argument is that Asian-Americans have traded away their heritage for assimilation into American society. I find this argument flawed for a few reasons: 1) Vietnamese culture has not been erased 2) I find strength in my identity as a Vietnamese-American 3) Dignity is not the price of Citizenship nor is our heritage. Rather, the America I know and love is built from the Dignity of treating everyone equally and cherishing our immigrant heritage.
First, the article asserts that the White man “ was diluting our cultures, stripping us of our mother tongues, deleting our histories, extracting our pasts, all so that we could become his slave. So that we wouldn’t have an identity. We were simply alive by heartbeat alone but altogether invisible.” False. Have you been to a China town? Or a Vietnamese district? Our mother tongues are hardly stripped, and our histories will never be erased. This is a lie and only if you believe that lie does it become the truth for you. I refuse to buy this idea in the great marketplace of ideas that our society has become.
Second, the author writes “[i]n 2016, it’s clear that I am invisible. Like my people, I have no voice. I have no grounds to stand on. No foundation in politics, no cultural icon like Jay Z, no place in American history. We are a people that have worked so hard to belong and now we have a sudden painful epiphany that we never belonged in the first place.” This is bullshit. You have a voice, clearly, because you’re writing a blog. You have a voice in government, through your elected official. There is a Congressional Asian Caucus, though not quite representative of our numbers, which is the fastest growing racial group in the U.S., but it is up to us to run for office. We are only voiceless if we choose to be voiceless. We are only powerless if we choose to be powerless. I can name some cultural icons that I look up to: George Takei, Margaret Cho, Raja Gemini, Jujubee, Lucy Liu, Constance Wu. We have a huge place in American history. We built railroads in California which led to the failed policy of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Japanese Internment was another embarrassment of American History, but one that reparations continued to be made. The Korean War and the Vietnam War still have repercussions today in foreign policy. The “sudden painful epiphany that we never belonged” as described by the author sounds more like a dramatic fantasy than anything factual occurring in reality. Does racism exist? Yes. I lived in the South for most of my life, and racism is still alive. But this idea that we somehow have to play this role of foreigner and that we don’t belong is just that — a story that we choose to play out in our lives. I refuse to play that role in my life.
I am clearly not alone. May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, and San Francisco is honoring us with an amazing event tomorrow. Crazy Rich Asians has a kick ass cast and is currently in production. Mulan is going to be a live action film. Moana, the latest Disney Princess movie set in Hawaii with Polynesian roots, is a story of self-reliance, finding strength in your culture, and leading others with an awareness of the past but with an eye towards the future. Hasan Minhaj, Senior Daily Show Correspondent, delivered some sick burns at the White House Correspondents Dinner. And just across the pond, Star Wars: Rogue One actor, Riz Ahmed, reminded the UK Parliament about the importance of diversity and inclusion in film and TV.
Third, have you checked out Vietnamese food? Or Asian food, more generally? It is pretty amazing. C’mon spring rolls and banh mi! Americans have embraced my culture, in part, by embracing our food and noting our traditions. Is there more work to do? Sure. But wallowing in self-pity and doubt is no way to do that work. Have some cafe sua da (Vietnamese Iced Coffee) and get to work!
So this May, I refuse to be invisible. I’m going to be out there being all Asian, because I am. Power, after all, is just a concept. Only those who believe they have no power are truly powerless. I’m going to try and channel my best Rose Pak who was a known power broker in San Francisco. But one thing I won’t do is buy into the story of being a pathetic, powerless, invisible, puny person. I refuse. I invite you to refuse to be invisible, too.
Fascinating read here.