An open letter to Chris Rock from an Asian-American woman
Update: At least one of the children’s parents have spoken out about this incident, and it turns out they had no idea what the joke was going to be.
You don’t know me, so let me you a bit about myself. People sometimes lean toward me in the street so I can hear them mutter, “Ching chong bing bong” or, “How you doin’, Chinatown?” as I pass. When I ignore them, I might overhear them drop an expletive and complain out loud that I probably can’t understand them anyway. One time, I was even awoken from a nap on my commute because the train was pulling into the Chinatown station. “Excuse me, is this your stop?” they asked. I went back to sleep.
I have dealt with such microaggressions ever since I set foot in America. These things stopped phasing me a long time ago; I was complacent, just happy to be in this country at all. They haven’t stopped me from living a happy life or having a successful career. But over the years they affected how I perceived myself, and it’s taken years to undo that damage.
People like you are why it took so long. And that’s too bad, because you and I share a common goal.
In my younger years I hated my round face and small nose, which had earned me the nicknames Hello Kitty and Cheeks. I had neither the curves of many black actresses nor the light-colored eyes of white ones I frequently saw on screen. Besides Margaret Cho, the only other Asians on TV spoke with phony versions of an accent I used to have, filling stereotypical roles like working in nail salons.
I rebelled against the model minority stereotype by dyeing my hair purple and cutting class often. I sought relationships with white boys because it felt more “American” than being with an Asian one. My Asian friends called me whitewashed, but I wasn’t offended; I didn’t want to be like them.
That all changed when I moved to California. Here, surrounded by so many other people who shared my experiences, I learned that you can break the mold and still honor your roots. I began to embrace my people’s culture and history, my facial features. Very shortly after, I met the love of my life: a second-generation Asian-American man, outgoing and creative like me, who doesn’t crinkle his nose when I make spamsilog for breakfast on weekends.
With our wedding looming near, we talk more often about how we can raise our future kids to follow their passions while imbuing them with our parents’ pragmatism and work ethic. As kids he’d wanted to be an actor and I a singer, but lack of opportunity and encouragement led us to more practical choices. We hope things will be different for our kids, that if they want to be actors or singers or writers, they have great opportunities within their reach. All the talk around the lack of diversity at the Oscars and in Hollywood in general was a promising sign.
And then you broke out a cheap Asian joke.
How can a fellow minority talk about lack of diversity in Hollywood and put down another minority group at the same time? How is it okay in 2016 for anyone to make a child labor joke — using three children as props — on national TV?
Watching them on stage, it was too easy to imagine they were our own kids, and it broke my heart. What will they learn from this? That life is a popularity contest and you can be bullied by the people with the most fans? That being humiliated on stage is better than no attention at all? That you can empathize with another community’s struggles and still be demeaned by people in that community?
Despite people like you, I won’t let my kids doubt who they are because they see themselves represented in that way. No, my partner and I will have to continue teaching our kids that those stereotypes don’t define them. We will encourage them to be themselves and speak up when they feel disrespected. And we will remind them that, if they work hard, they can perform on the Super Bowl, star in a popular show, and win an EGOT, too.
I have never written a post like this before. To express such personal thoughts in a public forum is not what I was raised to do. But for the first time ever, I’m not just complacent or annoyed; I’m angry. I’m angry for those kids who were on that stage, for the next generation of Asian-Americans, and at the institutions that allow such tasteless jokes to begin with. I’m angry, and I need to be for the sake of our children. So thank you, Chris. Thanks for finally making me give a damn.
Engineer, baker, shower singer, and — someday — parent