Asian Frustration, Frustration at Asians

About two weeks ago I noticed myself judging and feeling frustrated with other Asian people. As someone who cares a lot about Asian American mental health and racial justice, I wanted to explore these feelings of judgment and frustration, because I like feeling my feelings and doing so helps me procrastinate my grad student responsibilities. Some incidents with fellow Asian Americans that have made me feel frustrated include: when I met a queer Asian American man last year who said he had internalized European beauty standards and is working to unlearn his automatic attraction to white guys; when I got dinner with an Asian American female friend who wondered about the truthfulness of reverse racism; all throughout high school when I saw other Asian American students obsess about grades and academic achievement and getting into prestigious schools.

When I sat with these emotions, I noticed a somewhat embarrassing thought emerge: you should all be better than this. I felt a literal judgment and I’m not proud of it. Yet, I felt how I felt. With the queer Asian American man, I thought to myself, like oh my goodness it’s gross that you’d prefer a white dude, like why would you ever desire a colonizer over a beautiful man of color? With the Asian American woman, I remember eating a forkful of twice-cooked pork and thinking, okay, reverse racism is literally a tool of white supremacy to gaslight people of color who have experienced discrimination, why would you even contemplate its existence? And in high school, I recall thinking to myself about other Asian Americans, as I listened to “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga and wrote angsty blog posts, ya’ll are so boring and why don’t you care about anything else other than grades, ugh.

I recognize that I’m not some social justice pariah either. During my undergrad years, I did a lot of mental health programming and some cool collaborative mental health programming with Asian American organizations, but I largely remained uninvolved with explicit racial justice and overall political organizing with these Asian American orgs. During my senior year of undergrad, a guy I went on a date with asked me about what I think of capitalism, and I stammered about how um, I don’t really know enough about it or what it is to have an opinion, um, what do you think, before he gave me an amused smile and said he thinks that no one should be homeless or unable to access healthcare I just wanna say this guy still tried to hit me up a lot after this date despite my lack of knowledge about how economic injustice intertwines with racial injustice, not like a man’s opinion matters, but. When a professor in undergrad asked me about if I ever wanted to visit Vietnam, I said something about how I have some abuse in my family so when I think of Vietnam it reminds me of that. The professor then owned me by saying how abuse exists in a lot of cultures (e.g., in white families), not just Vietnamese culture.

I disclose all of this to say, I have grown a lot over the past few years and still have a lot of growing to do. So, I can extend myself some compassion and I can extend these other Asian Americans some compassion too, though I still feel that frustration in my gut.

minor-feelings-cathy-park-hong-0225201 pic from salon

I am excited to read Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong soon! I bought a copy of it. Over the past few years I’ve made an intentional effort to read books predominantly by people of color and black writers to elevate my racial consciousness and spur me to action. Yay books! Image via salon.com.  

I thought about these feelings while playing tennis a couple weeks ago which actually helped because oh wow did my partner and I get destroyed. It’s not that we played poorly, we actually played pretty well. It’s just that the guy on the other mixed doubles team was so, freaking, good. Like he curb stomped us in every single way. I wasn’t even mad about it at all because he was a kinda cute older Latinx guy with great legs clearly was a 4.0 and my partner and I are both 3.5s and yeah, we had fun. By the second set I knew we were way out of our league, and a feeling of complete hopelessness set in, and not in a bad way, like, this guy is just better than us and we’re gonna lose and it’s fine.

This feeling of hopelessness about the tennis match helped me process my frustration at fellow Asians though, because at some point during the match I thought to myself: Thomas, of *course* you and other Asian Americans are gonna have some internalized racist shit to work through, you literally were born and raised in white supremacy. When I reminded myself about the overwhelming omnipresence of white supremacy, it helped me feel more at peace, even though I still feel angry about racial injustice of course. Like, how much is Asian American history or politics taught in the education curriculum – pretty much not at all, so duh we may not know a lot about it. I thought about the lack of representation of non-stereotyped or non-fetishized Asian Americans in films, television shows, and even gay porn, and thought, well yeah, it makes sense that some of us have internalized white beauty ideals to work through. I thought a lot about how my friends and research colleagues have talked about how while black parents often talk to their kids about race from a young age, to try to shield them from anti-blackness in the United States, Asian parents often avoid talking about race altogether, perhaps to instill some form of racial colorblindness that ends up oftentimes making us complicit in white supremacy or at least unaware of how it manifests in our daily lives.

At this point I’m making space for both, the frustration I feel toward other Asian Americans and myself for our shortcomings with racial justice, as well as the compassion I feel for us given our unique position in regard to race in the United States. At the same time, I’m maintaining my righteous anger at white supremacy and I’m committed to working on internal, individual to individual, and systemic levels to dismantle the omnipotence of whiteness. I’m remembering that in high school, I used to care a lot about whether I got a 4 or a 5 on an AP exam, mostly so I could escape my abusive mother. Now, I recognize that oftentimes academic achievements are part of a false meritocracy that often distracts us from racial justice work, and I’m fighting to create mental health opportunities for people like my mother, who once told me that only “weak” people seek therapy. I’m fighting and I’m growing, and I feel happy about that right now.

itzy wannabe from twitter

Okay ya’ll knew my gay self could not help but share this random Itzy promo on this blog post. Their new album and title track “Wannabe” comes out in like two days! I have literally been listening to snippets nonstop. But actually, even though I know it’s problematic, thanks to K-Pop for helping me always find Asian people beautiful from a young age. Image via Itzy’s Twitter.

General reactions to or feelings about this post? APIA folk reading this, have you experienced anything similar, or where are you at in terms of developing your racial consciousness? I already have a post prepared for next week but I may substitute it out for a post that literally contains selfies and video clips of me dancing around my apartment to Itzy’s new album that comes out in two days. I’m ready to transcend my body and this earth thanks to “Wannabe”! Anyway, catch ya’ll next week.

12 Comments

Filed under Personal, Society

12 responses to “Asian Frustration, Frustration at Asians

  1. x

    I am Asian and honestly, I can relate to all three of the major matters you discussed here. I think living and studying in the u.s. for several years has helped me realized those issues. But for a while I felt very ashamed and don’t know how to deal with it. Like I mentioned to you many times before I couldn’t understand sometimes whether we (the man I was dating and I ) have this fetish or we have natural attraction. My therapist couldn’t have a clear answer either, which I don’t blame her. But I do think I got better on visions of beauty as I grew older. i joke with my cousin how messed up our brains are. But recognizing the problem is the first step, right? speaking of the issues, could you recommend some books or authors relating to the matter of internalized racism?
    Xin

    • Thank you Xin for vulnerably sharing how you yourself have struggled with these issues! Even though it’s something you wrestled with with the man you dated in the past, I’m glad you had that honest struggle and tried to explore and unpack it – I feel like that’s so much more courageous and also scary than ignoring it like I’m sure others would have done in your situation.

      That’s a great point about books. Unfortunately the first thing that comes to mind is this academic article: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312177158_Development_and_evaluation_of_the_Internalized_Racism_in_Asian_Americans_Scale_IRAAS

      In terms of fiction books, Slant by Timothy Wang comes to mind (the character grapples with internalized racism honestly) as well as the movie Front Cover. I’m hoping that Minor Feelings explores that – I’ll review that one on Goodreads whenever I’m through with it. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment and hope you’re well.

  2. I’ve seen Cathy Park Hong’s book recommended on my Amazon (I think because of all the race-related stuff I’ve been buying and looking at) so will be interested to see your thoughts on it. I was pleased to read a review of Girl With a Louding Voice by a Nigerian background reviewer at the weekend; it’s important to me to read critiques of works by people of colour by people of the same background to make sure they’re representing their communities well to people like me with different experiences. (I’m reading the whitest of white books about a rural woman becoming a schoolteacher in 1960s Buckinghamshire at the moment so feel a need to read something a bit more diverse next!!).

    These thoughtful posts are fascinating to me, introducing me to concepts I’ve not had to consider in my privileged bubble.

    • Aw yay I’m glad you’ve been reading books about race Liz and recognizing the importance of doing so, as well as the importance of reading people of color’s critiques of people of color’s books. I appreciate you tuning in and staying present to these posts regarding race and for your general and consistent support of my self-exploration and self-disclosure on this blog. Hope you are well overall.

      • You know what, I’m glad there ARE these books about race being published. I have always read a fair few novels outside my own demographics but don’t remember seeing so many books out there in the non-fiction side of things. All good here, keeping hands washed and food stocks in and distancing from immuno-compromised friends and family to keep them safe, the usual!!

  3. I’m kinda ashamed to admit this. When I started my first year of university, there were a bunch of clubs at registration looking for new members. One of them was the Chinese Student Association. I only spoke a few words of Cantonese so I declined when they asked me if I wanted to join. But the other reason is that I wanted to fit in. A friend of mine in second or third year said the Chinese students have a reputation for just sticking to themselves. They never participate in other campus events.

    In hindsight, I wish I did join to get a better understanding of their perspective. And to learn more about my own culture. But I wasn’t mature enough back then. I was so careful about my English and trying not to have a Chinese accent. At that time, my parents just wanted all of us to fit in. Like you, I’ve grown a lot and still have a lot to learn.

    • Thank you Matt for sharing so vulnerably about your experience! I think that urge to not explore part of one’s culture and wanting to fit into the dominant culture is not uncommon. I appreciate you sharing what you wish you had done in hindsight and how you’ve gained maturity while still having things to learn – I feel the same way. Hope you are well.

  4. Cat

    First, I was so honored and touched that you recommended me this book on Goodreads with a message referencing our recent conversation on your blog. It’s been a rough week, and that really made me smile!

    [I thought a lot about how my friends and research colleagues have talked about how while black parents often talk to their kids about race from a young age, to try to shield them from anti-blackness in the United States, Asian parents often avoid talking about race altogether, perhaps to instill some form of racial colorblindness that ends up oftentimes making us complicit in white supremacy or at least unaware of how it manifests in our daily lives.]

    Second, a big hell-fucking-yes to this. As I’ve mentioned before on your previous post, I’m also Asian American (and Vietnamese!) and there were definitely a few levels I understood this at until I was a certain age. On one level, I understood that being Asian made me different – I remember realizing early on in elementary school that on days that I brought lunch, I had to be careful. On another level, I understood that the Asian “norm” in my schools was different than what I was; in elementary school, Asian was understood largely as Chinese or Japanese (Chinese because of the Chinese population in my area, Japanese because we had a language immersion program) but in high school, it was understood more as Korean (especially at the height of the hallyu wave with k-dramas and kpop groups becoming more trendy and common knowledge). At that point, I still considered a lot of my Southeast Asian friends as Indian and not part of the larger Asian demographic. I really only started thinking about my Vietnamese American identity more critically when I had to level learning about the Vietnam War and communism with my parents’ stories of being refugees, especially so when I had to confront internalized racism/white supremacy, the normalized idea of grades being the equivalent of my American “worth”, and the glossing over mental and physical abuse for the sake of hard work and family-first values. This wasn’t even until late my junior year in high school, and I feel like I’m having to do a lot of catching up on my racial and cultural understanding. I really wish it had been something I was aware of earlier.

    I can’t remember now where I read it, but I remember reading something on tumblr during that period of time that was talking about the myth of the Asian model minority (laying low, being high achievers and reliable workers, submissive) vs. the caricature of Angry Black Man, and both being weaponized to separate an alliance between black and Asian POC during and post-civil rights movements. I don’t remember the content well, but I remember this next moment vividly; it came up in conversation with my dad, where I was talking to him about his frustrations at work/having to be a diplomat over an outspoken leader because he saw himself being overlooked because he was Asian despite their assumptions that he’d be an expert engineer (which he was, but still taken for granted). He talked a lot about how people were still often surprised that he didn’t have an accent (despite living in America since he was 13), about how people expected him to be submissive so it was easier to retain some measure of control by acquiescing, about how he used to get beat up and learned to take beatings even with a black belt in karate… but despite all this, he still wasn’t able to picture himself as being an activist, as trying to change the situation, because that’s “just how things are for us”. But there were things I didn’t ask and knew that I couldn’t: what did “us” mean? Are we talking about race? About your refugee status, being Vietnamese? Are we addressing the Asian role in American history? Vietnamese history, with its French colonial influence? I know that for my family at least, these topics are still danced around; I only ever really get to learn more and discuss with others online, even though I’ve tried being part of (or even initiating) Asian student associations/Vietnamese cultural groups/etc. I’ve found that even in those groups, it’s less about exposure of issues/activism and more about finding a common group, knowing you’re not alone. But I don’t think those things need to be separate! For me at least, I don’t know how to bridge that gap into uneasy conversation.

    Also, I keep thinking about that comment your undergrad professor made about abuse being present in other cultures, too. I don’t think it makes your comment about being unsure about visiting Vietnam invalid, still! Visiting homelands, for any culture, can be emotionally complicated. For me growing up, I wrestled with wanting to see Vietnam with knowing my mom, who said “she nearly died getting out, she’d never come back” but has wavered with this sentiment somewhat recently (my grandfather passed away a few years ago, and wrote poetry about how he wondered if he’d ever see the shores of his homeland again, or if it would stay a far-off memory). Like you, the idea of Vietnam is still tinged with a lot of abuse/trauma, but if I do go (and like I mentioned in my last very long comment on your other post), I want to be able to navigate it on my own, reclaiming it a little for myself, without the immediate familial heaviness.

    Also also very off-topic but I’ve had Cherry by ITZY stuck in my head for *days*. Wannabe is sure to follow. (I tend to go into kpop by group nowadays; it was TWICE two or three months back, then BTS, and currently MAMAMOO. Would love to see a playlist rec from you sometime of your faves, or maybe you have a spotify you don’t mind sharing?)

    I hope you’re doing well and staying safe with all your grad school work and duties, and that you don’t mind this uber-long comment!

  5. Hi. I think this is a really interesting post. I’m Asian too, Chinese-American specifically, but I think it’s because I grew up in what felt like literal two worlds. Both my parents are Chinese, but my dad was born and raised in the U.S., so I was often raised on “white” ideals as much as “Asian” ideals. What’s interesting is that I went to a mostly Asian school throughout my life (ie. one of those magnet schools), and that rat race to get the best grade is too real!! I definitely agree that ABCs, in general, do not think about racial or social justice as much. I have friends who are just like “Well it’s too complicated for me.” Or, “It doesn’t affect me” or “That’s just the way America is”

    One thing that struck me was your thoughts on how much the American education system lacked Asian American studies. Although I agree that there needs to critical thinking about American history in the overall American education system (ie. all the f*cked up sh*t that the US has done in Latin America Vietnam, the Middle East, etc.), I’m not sure if Asian history is as important as those things, to be honest. I think Asian history should be taught a bit more, outside of the internment camp narrative. But, we also need to realize that we’re actually only around 5-6% of the entire US population, and we’re mostly based in coastal cities…

    Perhaps it’s better to focus on the education in that specific coastal city/state. Maybe then Asian Americans will open their eyes and realize they’re part of the problem as well.

    Perhaps it’s better to educate the WHOLE country about the 5-6% minority… but I just don’t see that happening (nor do I see people caring quite frankly…) With African Americans, which make up around ~13% of the American population, we see the violence and racial injustice on the screen, every single freaking day. And people can see that and say, wow yes, that’s unfair. How did this happen?

    With Asians, I think having an education around Asian American history may be important, but less… “relevant” in some ways because people just don’t see the effects of it.

    Also, Minor Feelings looks really good! I read the New Yorker review on it, and it seems like an excellent book!

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