Not-So-Subtle Asian Traits

With the poem - Boat People - by Joshua Nguyen

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Nguyen Family During Winter.
Joshua Nguyen reads “Boat People”

I grew up in Houston, TX. My parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. Knowing my father, I understand that the move was calculated. Vietnamese is the third most-spoken language in Houston, their house is a 10-minute drive from Bellaire Blvd. (one of the largest Asia-towns in the nation), and the humidity in Houston clings like the air in Vietnam.

From a young age, I recognized how lucky it was to have access to a large Vietnamese community in Houston. There was an importance to stay connected to our Vietnamese culture. Most of my father’s side lives in Houston. I would spend a lot of days growing up around lazy susans on Bellaire Blvd. or having random get-togethers at my aunt’s house. I was taught about the importance of family and respecting your elders no matter what. This unwavering respect would be detrimental in some cases.

In times where Vietnamese pride was synonymous with being apart of my family, I was told to never speak up or speak back when family members would say the N-word, use homophobic slurs, or criticize other immigrants. Any pushback against my family would result in ostracization and/or kneeling on rice while getting disciplined. It’s mind-boggling to me to know so many Vietnamese people who are xenophobic and disapprove of other immigrants coming into the country when there was a time the nation hated my aunt and everyone who looked like her because of the fact that they were new to America. And like a typical Asian-American young person, because of many previous futile attempts of trying to unpack these prejudices, I have become hopeless that some people in my family will ever change.

Growing up, I felt a pressure to strive for the “white” idea of success.

I do have empathy for those who are afraid to speak up in their family, but at some point, there must be a moment of resilience for the hope of bettering the future generation. You can be the example of change in the eyes of your younger cousins. The path may be more isolated: I am less afraid of giving my opinions and now there has been distancing between me and my family, but at least both sides know where we stand. I think that’s the big fear: the fear that if you don’t participate in toxic behaviors, if you don’t just duck your head and try to ignore your cousins, then you may not be welcome in that family anymore. I became isolated in my family in a nation that already isolates my own people.

Growing up, I felt a pressure to strive for the “white” idea of success, mainly from older folk in the community. Within my Asian-American friend groups, I was taught that the only way to be cool was to mimic black culture. This balancing act between these two groups have been researched by Claire Jean Kim in an article that explains the ‘racial triangulation’ of Asian Americans:

In her research, Kim talks about how Asian-Americans try to adopt benefits from both white culture and black culture. To me, this apex is less of a detriment and more of a privilege. I have seen Asian folks who were taught by their families to adopt white values as a measure of success. And adopting white values, in turn, means culturally appropriating from other groups to further their own status. In this path, the Asian-American person tries to achieve a level of white privilege, though they may never be able to take away the foreign appearance of how they were born. An extreme example of this is Tila Tequila who hit peaked stardom with the progressive A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila and now is an open white supremicist. We are not taught to question the validity of achieving this whiteness, or why it is the status quo of American ideals, but we are taught to strive to this closeness to whiteness for our own success, even though it comes at the expense of buying into a system in a society that discriminates against black and brown folk.

Another path shown in Kim’s research is when Asian-Americans culturally appropriated from black and brown folks. Similar to the path I described above, this path is an attempt to try and fit in, but this path is at the cost of self-hatred and it takes for granted the harsh realities of being a black and/or brown person in America. It’s not only white people who try to adopt the ‘hip’ practices of black and brown folks, but it’s us Asian-Americans as well! We want all the cool facets of a culture that isn’t ours but we don’t want to take in the discrimination and violence that comes with the culture. Rich Brian changed his name to Rich Brian after being taught that the N-word isn’t a word that Asians can throw around just to be cool. K-pop steals heavily from black music and fashion trends. AAVE (African American Vernacular English) can be heard from Asian Fuckbois at your local neighborhood boba spot.

Asians are pandas /only cause they want white privilege/and black culture

I was taught by my elders to work hard and achieve success no matter what. This meant to be a chameleon between different races. Seek to have the power of white people while leaving all the black and brown folks behind (but it’s okay to still eat their food and listen to their music). Is this what learned Asian-American pride looks like? To laugh with your family eating pho while they put down another group of people? Do you abandon your culture to fit in with society — an option that leads to the irresponsible appropriation of different parts of other cultures in order to get by.

Not only should we unlearn our desire to achieve a proximity to whiteness, we need to interrogate how and why a proximity to whiteness is a measure of success.

Asian folks need to do better. We need to recognize that we benefit from white culture and we can’t approach these issues with competing ideas of discrimination. Yes, Asian folks get discriminated AND other black, brown, and indigenous folk get discriminated too, more heavily and in different ways. There needs to be hard conversations in the Asian community, especially young Asian folks, to not be afraid to open up tough discussions among their Asian friends. To unpack the learned prejudices passed down from elders who may never change their ways. We must no longer be bystanders while other marginalized groups continue to be targeted and violated. There is no time for us to be lazy in changing our ways. We need to recognize our contributions to the formation of our American society today. Not only should we unlearn our desire to achieve a proximity to whiteness, but we need to interrogate how and why a proximity to whiteness is a measure of success. We need to discuss ways of achieving success without the exclusion of other cultures in the process. If there is no hope in changing our stubborn Asian elders, then we need to influence the younger Asian-American population to be better people. We need drastic changes, not subtle ones.

Joshua Nguyen is a poet from Houston, Texas. He is a Kundiman Fellow and has been published in The Offing, The Acentos Review, Freezeray Poetry, Button Poetry, Birds Thumb, Gulf Coast, and The Texas Review. In 2015, he was part of the Word Around Town Poetry Tour (WAT) in Houston, Texas. He is a tapioca connoisseur and plays an aggressive-tight strategy in poker. He is a MFA candidate at the University of Mississippi.

Joshua on Boat People: “I wrote the poem Boat People after reflecting on both Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Harvey. Throughout this time, the president was making a fool of himself in Puerto Rico, throwing paper towels into the crowds, and also criticizing people in Texas who were on boats during the flooding. My parent’s house flooded. My sister sent me a picture of my father and my cousin trudging through chest-level water trying to get out of their neighborhood. Through this tragedy, I saw people act as true neighbors and help each other out. I saw the resiliency of the people of Houston. At the same time, the president was spewing xenophobic rhetoric, which some of my own family agreed with. I wrote the poem to express the parallels between the Vietnamese people fleeing to America, many of them labeled “Boat People”, and the image of my family treading high waters during Hurricane Harvey. Another parallel I wanted to show was the fear of the Vietnamese coming to America and the current fear of immigrants coming to America. And the hypocrisy coming from my own family.”

Link to ‘Boat People’ (Text)

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