Visibility Isn’t Enough. Asian Americans Need To See Ourselves
A stranger asking me where I’m from doesn’t horrify me — it just jolts me out of place. Suddenly I’m looking at myself from outside my own body, as an object to perceive and scrutinize.
In the past week, I’ve been finding a few stray ants in my room. I promise it’s not because I leave food lying around. It’s springtime and the ants climb up the radiator pipe that runs from my room to the sidewalk outside. When I spotted them this time last year, I spent a few days in a full-blown freakout. But this time around, there’s no need to panic. I’m reminded of a scene from the Korean movie Oldboy, where a woman hallucinates a gigantic ant sitting on the subway. She says that all truly lonely people see ants; in a way, they’re the ultimate social butterflies. So maybe I willed the ants into existence this time, because loneliness is the exact thing I’ve been thinking about lately. In March, when mainstream news outlets started reporting on the explosion of hate crimes against Asians in the U.S., and especially after the media coverage of the Atlanta shooting in which six Asian women were murdered, what I felt at first was a sense of relief, like a fist unclenching. I felt relieved that others recognized that it was about race. In the days and weeks afterward, headline after headline announced that Asian Americans were finally “speaking out” after keeping silent for so long. At last, a moment of catharsis and reckoning.
But soon enough, my relief was overtaken by a feeling of even deeper alienation. If we were finally talking about what hadn’t been talked about, finally visible after so much invisibility, why did it feel so inadequate? Why didn’t I feel seen and heard? Where does this kind of racial loneliness stem from, and how do I ease it? All day after the Atlanta shooting, I tried to say something, not even publicly, but to myself. To get my bearings on how I felt. In the end, I felt unable to speak. The nation was at last asking us what it means to be Asian American, and I realized I didn’t have the vocabulary to even begin answering.
All minorities are made invisible in certain excruciating ways in this country, but it’s a preoccupation that hounds Asian Americans in particular right now, because it feels like our presence here is an aberration that needs a foreign language to explain. The structure of race in the U.S. has predominantly been constructed as a white or Black binary. So how does a third presence make itself understood? Assimilation? Disappearance?
It's a conundrum that Asian American studies professor Leslie Bow has researched and written about extensively, especially as it manifested in the South. During the Jim Crow era, there was confusion around which schools and bathrooms Asian Americans should use. Many Asian Americans wanted to move closer to whiteness, and the privileges that came with it. In the 1927 Supreme Court case Rice v. Lum, the plaintiffs argued that Chinese-American students should be permitted to attend white schools since there wasn’t a Chinese school. The court disagreed, saying that the issue of “yellow pupils” was not any different from the issue of “separate schools as between white pupils and black pupils,” which it had already settled many times before. In the book We the People: A Story of Internment in America, Japanese-American educator Mary Tsukamoto recalls her first bus ride, in 1943, out of an internment camp in Arkansas. She was baffled to find the bus driver motioning for her to sit in the white section.
More than 75 years later, the question of where to place the Other in this country remains unresolved. Are we located somewhere between Black and white, or do we belong somewhere outside? Often, we adopt the role of the model minority to take on the hue of whiteness, by burying our hardships. Race itself becomes something you can “overcome,” or something that’s on its way to irrelevance. It’s not just that Asians feel invisible in this country; it’s that too often we seem only visible as an invisibility, a raceless aberration that obscures the reality of how the American caste works.
Now, after a mass shooting and an onslaught of hate crimes, Asian Americans are said to be breaking our silence. Looking back, I think that this made me feel more lonely, more estranged from myself, because I wondered what it really means to speak or not speak in this country. When we don’t speak, is it because we’re scared? Is it because we don’t care? When we do speak, when we say #StopAsianHate, what does that even mean? What is the hate we’re talking about, and where does it originate? You become white in this country by assimilating to it, by being so thoroughly absorbed by it that you disappear. In his book The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White, sociologist James Loewen tracks how Chinese-Americans in Mississippi moved much closer to the white end of the race binary between the 1940s and 1960s, arriving in the region first as agricultural laborers but soon finding greater economic prosperity through owning grocery stores. This relative success wasn’t achieved through allowing themselves to be subsumed into the white race, though. Ultimately, it required distancing themselves from both Black people and white people — taking on white racist ideals of hierarchy by promising not to engage in any racial mixing. The Chinatowns of America literally exist inside the national border but, in some real way, they live, psychologically, outside of it. A stranger asking me where I’m from doesn’t horrify me — it just jolts me out of place. Suddenly I’m looking at myself from outside my own body, as an object to perceive and scrutinize.
Recently, my mother watched Minari and told me she wondered what the fuss was about. For her it was a sweet story, but someone else’s. When I watched it I felt that I was seeing my parents in focus for the first time, grieving the loneliness they must have felt. It was a kind of generational transference only possible now that I’m around the age they were when they came to this country from Seoul to Columbus, Ohio, but my mom said she didn’t remember feeling lonely. Or at least, she didn’t until I started talking about how my childhood felt, and it was then that her own recollection started trickling back. My parents lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. “I guess I never thought of myself as an immigrant,” my mother said. “I thought of it as a vacation.”
In college, I flew between the U.S. and Korea every chance I could because my parents had moved back to Seoul. Around this time I also started dreaming about water. It was always the same: I’d find myself balancing precariously on a plank, or a piece of wood, as the ocean threatened to swallow me, but the dream never reached the point where I fell in. In those days, I’d often wake up confused about whether I was in Korea or in the U.S.
In many ways, this sense of disorientation sums up Asian American identity for me. The model minority can only be created out of partial amnesia, a severing that erases when and how Asian Americans reached the United States. Instead of remembering our collective history within the context of imperialism and war, as a history of both displacement from Asia and exclusion from the U.S., we narrate that we came here in search of a better life, the kind of vague and mysterious thing a fugitive would say. The model minority immigrant arrived on these shores with nothing — no past, no trauma, certainly no trauma in which the U.S. might have been played a part — and starting with nothing, became a self-made man, as all true Americans are.
Asian American history is not one I ever learned in a classroom, outside of a brief mention of Japanese-American internment. We're asked to adopt the forward-looking identity of a people and community who may look like you but you share little with. In my Ohioan school we used to joke that U.S. history ended after World War II; somehow the school year would end before we made it to the Cold War. So I left the public education system as a Korean-American with no memory of the Korean War.
In The Melancholy of Race, author Anne Anlin Cheng captures the psychological texture of racial identity as a grief that never ends, because you’ve lost something that you can neither recover nor get over — and sometimes, you can’t even name what exactly you are missing. But the sense of loss, a loss that came about because you’re a racialized subject, is a constant presence. Cheng explains how this grief is both confounding and insufferable not just on a personal scale but to the nation, because the U.S. is a place “at ease with grievance but not with grief.” The attempt to tally injuries comes more naturally than the attempt to understand what an injury feels like, and how deep it cuts.
Racial grief extends infinitely, but the country only understands grief as a timeline divided into six stages. We’re constantly entreating the oppressed to establish “closure” and move on, to look to the future in the name of national healing, without elucidating exactly what it is we’re moving on from. “Rather than prescribing how we as a nation might go about ‘getting over’ that history,” writes Cheng, “it is useful to ask what it means, for social, political, and subjective beings to grieve.”
This melancholy isn’t just experienced by people of color. It represents a national agony over the impossibility of stitching together its own cognitive dissonance. “Precisely because the American history of exclusion, imperialism, and colonization runs so antithetical to the equally and particularly American narrative of liberty and individualism,” Cheng says, “cultural memory in America poses a continuously vexing problem: How does the nation ‘go on’ while remembering those transgressions? How does it sustain the remnants of denigration and disgust created in the name of progress and the formation of an American identity?”
If grief is given an expiration date in the U.S., it lives forever on the Korean peninsula. The Korean concept of han is often explained to outsiders as a feeling of repressed sorrow that never goes away, which Koreans claim is a collective emotion unique to them. You resign yourself to carrying this simmering grief forever, and feel perversely proud of how long and how silently you endure it.
But put another way, han is not resigning to suffering but refusing to forget it. If history is written by the victors, holding onto grief is an act of resistance. The origin of han has to be placed within Korea’s history and self-image; necessity is the mother of invention. If the American narrative of nationhood is of liberty — imagining itself as a sprawling young nation born at the site of self-determination — the Korean narrative sees itself as a small ancient kingdom, perpetually yearning for true self-determination but never getting a moment’s peace from invaders. The United States’ first real interaction with Korea was in the 19th century, when it sought to end the isolationism of the so-called Hermit Kingdom through "gunboat diplomacy," in which it persuaded countries in East Asia to open their borders through the threatening show of military force. Korea resisted contact with the West for as long as it could, but by the dawn of the 20th century, the U.S. had succeeded in forcing Korea to “open up” and become more accessible to the rest of the world. By 1910, Korea was a Japanese colony, and by 1945, foreign powers had split the nation in two.
History is not only a chronology of events. It is the shaping of a psyche. Understood in this way, I realize there are different ways to think of invisibility, depending on where you are and which direction you’re facing. In one way, it can mean disappearance. In another way, it can mean refusing to explain yourself to that which will never understand you. Visibility in and of itself has no value unless we ask where power rests, and who we’re trying to be visible to.
Assimilation is the attempt to be seen and understood by the very system that disenfranchises you. There's an alienating unspecificity to the current appeals for ending “Asian hate,” placing the root of the recent violence at the beginning of the pandemic instead of the much longer history of Orientalism and Yellow Peril. I find no comfort in arguing that we must end Asian hate because I too am an American. In an essay titled Weaponizing Our (In)visibility, author Shireen Roshanravan asserts that to be a person of color means that your identity is fundamentally confusing to the state, a deviation from the normativity of whiteness that makes the non-white you “opaque.” The impulse to leave the othering and dehumanization of Asian Americans disconnected from the history of imperialism and neocolonialism in the Asia-Pacific, is a step toward disappearance, not a step toward healing from grief.
The choice I have isn't actually between visibility or invisibility. Misrepresentation is very visible, after all. What I have is a choice of recognizing who understands han — who refuses to forget. It's offering your shoulder to people in this country who are grieving and will continue to grieve. Roshanravan cites Asian American civil rights activists Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs as two people who knew where visibility was important, and where it was less so. While they remained largely unknown to the greater American consciousness, they were well known within the Black Power movement to which they dedicated themselves. When we recollect that "Asian American" was created as a political identity, this is what we mean. My racial identity means empathizing with and fighting with oppressed people against oppressors. It's understanding how power works.
The desire to be understood is human, but the desire to be understood by all is not only futile, it shuts out the true intimacy we could have with our past and our community. Figuring out where our place is in this country isn’t about being accepted and acknowledged by the most powerful here; it’s about tracing the source of grief in order to speak about it. It’s using the anchor of both personal and collective memory to hold you in place, so you don’t float away like someone’s hallucination.
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.