My mother is a master of shtick. She is childlike and fit for theater, with the kind of bossy tenacity that’s practically a requisite for immigrants.
When I look at my mother, all four feet and eleven inches of her, I see a mix of things—the naysaying qualities of Arrested Development’s matriarch Lucille Bluth, the flailing limbs of an inflatable car yard mascot, and the mindset of a bulldozer.
Expect nothing from my mother, and you may be treated to a curiously racy dance performance at Christmas, fueled by a single glass of wine. Meet her for a Saturday afternoon luncheon and find her dramatically cavorting with household trash, or proclaiming her garden is better than all other gardens, or sternly reiterating her strict fruit-washing practices.
But she wasn’t always like this. It took my Thai mother over 20 years of living in Australia—a country poor in gun obsession, but rich in interminable racism—to develop these defenses. Because defenses are what they are: an armor against xenophobes; a way of diluting the thick soup of oppression that surrounds her.
I sense her theatrics were born somewhat tactically. Why other me when you can enjoy my unforeseeable antics! Here, let me disarm you with a pantomime instead of the passivity trope you’ve come to expect from Asian women like me! Today, she’s joyful and unguarded after living guards-up, on the backfoot, for so long.
I celebrate my mum in these moments. But it hurts to remember that when I was growing up, I feared that every public utterance she made would materialize as an invitation for school peers—the vast majority of them white--to point out that I was different. (Though it must be stated: Mum had not fully unlocked her thespian tendencies here—they didn’t fit with my intractable teen angst. She was more about Disaster Mindset at this point, with snowballing worries that were sometimes warranted, oftentimes not.)
For my mother and me, peak racism was upheld by a Senator named Pauline Hanson, the unwavering emblem for a racist '90s Australia. Ms. Hanson is credited with erecting her own right-wing populist political party in 1997 called One Nation, after famously declaring in a Parliament speech, “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.” She continued, “They... have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate... Do we want these people here? I am one red-blooded Australian who says no, and who speaks for 90 percent [a made-up figure] of Australians." (It is irresistible not to add that the redness theme rings true, for to conjure Hanson is to imagine a vine-ripened tomato about to be dropped from a great height: lacking integrity and threatening explosion.) A feebler One Nation party still exists today, and Hanson’s Twitter account—replete with lackadaisical retweets only—confirms she remains red-blooded and an embarrassment to Australia.
Anyway! It may or may not surprise you to hear my mother supported Pauline Hanson and her anti-Asian stain campaign. Given this was a time when tween me had taken great pride in whitewashing herself as best she could, I didn't really stop to think about how strange it was that my Asian mother, an immigrant, sided with her oppressors and supported the policies that sought to eject her. But, of course it makes perfect sense—a kind of half-conscious self-administered hegemonic washing that helped her feel acclimated to a society that would never truly accept her.
I’m half-white but perceptibly Asian, and a “white wistfulness” set in during my formative years. I tossed home-cooked lunches before anyone could see them. I bluffed that other people’s Christmases (endless cousins, beige foods) were like my Christmases (no relatives, Thai food, my mum being weird). It’s both droll and sinister to recall that I felt proud of my phony “disconnection” from being Asian.
“I’m not that Asian”, I once retorted to some forgettable creep in the playground, aged around 12. “She’s not!” a friend interjected on my behalf. Her bright blue eyes narrowed; her ski-slope nose remained haughtily upturned.
I felt relieved that my white friend had “seen” me and recognized my nuance (shout out to my beloved white dad for affording me a sometimes-sense of belonging!). An affirmation like this, a well-intentioned leg up, further supported my theory: the whiter half of me was “better.”
Throughout my youth, I never offered a wide smile in photos. A more restrained simper—purloined from Joey Potter, Dawson’s Creek’s coy dream girl—helped me look more “white,” I thought. “My nose flattens out if I show my teeth!” I’d lament to anyone who called out my unconvincing half-smile. Smiling with teeth would also make my eyes look smaller and so, what should have been an easy, reflexive act was always carefully staged.
Much like my mother had, I grew accustomed to insults packaged as compliments, maybe delivered with astonishment, or without a trace of critical thinking. Your English is really good! So, are you from China? (the only country in Asia, after all!) Casually dehumanizing but sharply familiar, remarks like these produced an automatic laugh as I unknowingly advanced a twisted stereotype. I dulled the niggling feeling that the way things were wasn’t the way they ought to be. I made incremental adjustments that watered down my private self so I could feel okay (just okay).
Moving quietly is what’s expected of Asian immigrants. It’s a disposition designed to insulate. Asian immigrants have shrunken or obscured their identities in order to take up less space, to steer a humble, hardworking course, and dodge the fruits of a poisoned society since, well, forever. Retreating methods used to be my mother’s defense. But now? She could comfortably run sold-out workshops about not giving a fuck.
This past year, my mum and the rest of the Asian American community were forced to confront the irony of moving quietly. It became acutely clear that efforts to go unnoticed do not always proffer safety. Safety proved flimsy, a mirage, and we witnessed its callous outcomes.
When I hear about Asian elders being assaulted on America’s streets, I picture my Mum, of dwindling physical strength and stature. When six Asian women were murdered at a massage spa in Atlanta, I pictured my mum before I was born, grasping at her few available job prospects in Sydney, illegally working in hospitality while white people sneered at her untidy English and fetishized her exotic looks in the same beat.
These are the strategies of years past, but they’re not on high rotation anymore. Now, as if by osmosis, I've picked up parts of my mum's character. “Help! I’m annoying!” is an absurd and relatable headline from an article I saw online last week. I haven’t read the Agony Aunt-style piece (still might) but it’s possible that I was the one who submitted the quandary, in some fugue state in my sleep. I am nothing if not annoying. There’s my inability to refrain from making a joke even—or especially—at the most solemn of moments. There’s my anxious oversharing tendencies that even virtual strangers must endure. And, of course, the Instagram account that I run, Tiny Gentle Asians. It features photographs of doughy Asian infants that are assigned sassy personas at odds with their squishy cuteness. Call it a celebration of the same kind of subversive malarkey that I learned from watching my mum. Could it be that I, too, have a shtick?
Asian Americans have been uniquely scrutinized in this pandemic year: Our elders are being targeted, our small businesses are closing, and geopolitical games between America and other Asian countries have threatened the safety and wellbeing of the diaspora. These events cast light on a fact about our Asian Americanness that’s rarely reckoned with: Within our overarching identity group are separate, isolated communities that rarely interact. Our fragmentation is our weakness. This year’s Not Your Token Asian interrogates who among us benefit at the expense of others, and how part of demanding justice for ourselves means demanding justice for each other.