Your Pretty Is Foreign

I don’t mean to brag, but I kinda get called exotic a lot. I don’t know if it’s my unblemished creamy skin, almond green eyes or high cheekbones, but on a really good day I find myself thinking, “You look like a fucking China doll.” Now that we all know I’m only thirty pounds away from being an international racially ambiguous model, let me tell you, being called exotic is not all its cracked up to be. Before you start thinking I’m one of those girls who complains about going to the gym and getting hit on (“I just want to be left alone!”), there’s a bit more to it. I know what your intention is, you want me to know you find me attractive, but you can’t say, “You’re pretty,” you have to say, “Your pretty is foreign.” You have to qualify what kind of pretty I am, clearly it’s not “normal,” it’s surprising.

“Oh hey, it’s like you’re white…but not quite…what could you be?!”

The suspense is killing me.

At the same time I know you’re well-meaning, how could I not, looking at me with those ever so earnest white person eyes, open wide like a boy staring through the glass at an aquarium, you’re being so appreciative of my Otherness, amiright? Who am I to refuse a compliment for my unique, fascinating beauty? You’re trying to equate me to Rihanna, that’s what I assume from this tropical island girl rhetoric.

So how am I supposed to respond when you call me this controversial six-letter word?

But you’re so nice, I feel a little guilty putting you in this embarrassing situation…I have to tell you you’re executing a micro aggression. You’re not racist, necessarily, just one of the thousands of people in my life who want to pay me a compliment. Thank god we both know oriental is off limits, that could get awkward… But paying me a compliment wrapped in a micro aggression is like handing me a burrito laced with a splash of poison (if it’s free, I’ll still take it), not enough to kill me outright, but a small amount, growing after each encounter, making me uncomfortable in my body, in a crowd, on the arm of someone who might be congratulated later for this rare bounty, aware I’m not what people think I should look like. The should being based on geography, on this continued idea of non-mixed races, one colonial Caucasian, Mayflower and shit, and the rest of us obviously immigrants.

It’s irresistible, this word which comes to the lips of my admirers. You embrace me for my beauty, while simultaneously categorizing and labeling it, making sure I know, I’m not the standard, the default, I stand out from the crowd of my community, my gender, my race. It’s not easy, but I try. Or not, because I don’t need anything to augment this shit, I woke up like this! You’re reminding me of something I already know, I don’t belong…but in a good way! To my evolutionary instincts it means I can be picked off from the herd. Am identifiable, describable, a list of mix-matched characteristics, blending together to equal an Other. I know I’m supposed to be beautiful because I’m exotic, but can’t I be beautiful because I’m a beautiful human?

Clearly what I’m really trying to say is, thank you for calling me exotic, you’ve made me feel so welcome in yo-, I mean our country.

Fuck, I’m White Too

Fuck, I’m White Too

Growing up my family never identified as white. My mother is Caucasian, yet even she made jokes stereotyping white people as uncultured, ignorant about everything from spices to family relations. My father was always worried we’d become “too American,” which … Continue reading

A Light-Skinned Asian’s Attempt At Unpacking Her Privilege

The #notyourasiansidekick discussion touched on what I see as one of the biggest hurdle to feminism/POC solidarity, mutual validation between APIs and other POC. APIs feel invisible, hiding and hidden oftentimes by the “model minority” label. Personally, any racial or sexist discrimination I faced I have attempted to write off as not being a big enough deal to make a fuss about. Sure, it slowly chips away at me that there is no voice for API people in U.S. politics, API women are continually sexualized and meant to see it as a compliment, and no one in the media looks remotely like me, but that shouldn’t be a big deal, right? I still “look white,” right? Isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t I, a half API, half Caucasian (I describe myself thusly while internally hating the idea of being two halves, two parts continually separate from one another which together make up a split being), be happy that my skin is pale enough to pass, be “accepted,” in a cursory way, for an ethnicity that I partly identify with? Even though this pale skin does not reflect the darker, smoother, shiny skin of my father, I don’t have any right to complain. That’s what I’ve been told, discretely, quickly from anyone I dare mention discrimination to, feeling like lesser than, not a part of.

“You’re not even Chinese,” I’ve been told by many people, them somehow benefiting from dismissing half of my ancestry.

Listening to Miriam Yeung talk during the Google Hangout, she identified the first generation Asian Americans, a group I am a part of, as the bridge generation. 80 percent of ASAM adults are foreign born. 80 percent! I had never dreamed it was that many. She said it’s now our responsibility to bring these conversations about ASAM issues back to our families, but how do you talk to the disenfranchised if your parent’s language was never passed down? If any connection you could have with the disenfranchised was assimilated out? Who are we, those with the features of two races, and therefore the features of none, reaching out to?

I have joked in the past about a “racially ambiguous” title for those of us who are asked “Where are you from?”, have people comment on our features as being indicators of this or that race, and generally feel like an outsider with all racial groups. Perhaps passing as a white woman is particularly hard for me because my father was an outsider in our community. I had no Chinese friends when I was a kid, I rarely ever saw another Asian person in our town at all. I had a few friends who were Filipino, who spoke Tagalog to their parents over the phone, but our mutual Asian heritage was not discussed outside of me asking, “Have you ever been in an Asian supermarket? You know that smell?” That smell was recently killed fish airing on ice chip beds in the back section of the store. I hoped this knowledge, briefly shared, would make my experiences the norm. There had to have been a Chinese girl my age at my school, but our paths never crossed. Shouldn’t I have met her in AP Calculus? Or Mock Trial?

It is our natural state to compare ourselves to others, including who has it worse and who has it better. Sometimes the only comfort is that we have kept going despite adversity, and we don’t want anyone telling us our struggles were manufactured by our privileged perspective, What most likely started as an evolutionary necessity, surviving by being part of the dominant group, benefiting from the pack’s safety, has become a wedge to keep us from truly reaching out to one another.

Now we all have to admit: “We have it better and we have it worse.” Or we will never be able to work together.

I’ll start:

I have it better than a lot of people. I was born in the U.S. where I was awarded privileges merely for having a mother who was a U.S. citizen. I have light skin, which gives me a clear advantage in our colorist society over people who are darker. I am able-bodied without any physical handicaps. I grew up in a community where I did not fear for my safety. I did not want for food or shelter. My Chinese heritage has always been seen as a nice sprinkling of the exotic rather than an indication of instability, aggression, or dishonesty. I am a cis female who has only had heterosexual partners; I can walk down any street and not worry about reactions to my partner and I.

I have it worse than a lot of people. I was born in the U.S. where women are systematically treated as less than men. I am ASAM, which while a “model minority,” is still less than Caucasian. I have always been a little chubby, because of our Western beauty ideals, I have been chastising my body since I can remember. I am first-generation, my father never taught my siblings or I how to speak Cantonese because he was too busy learning English; this has continually kept us from being able to speak with our extended family and other Chinese people. My father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure when I was nine, shading my entire adolescence with my family’s need to care for him. After the diagnosis he became increasingly traditional, we lived in a household with obvious patriarchal rules; I was taught my time was always less important than elders or males.

Writing this I see the inherent problem with attempting to unpack your privilege. In order for you, the reader, to see my privileges and disadvantages you need to know everything about me. You have to know my whole story and that of my parents. But no one wants to do this, can do this, so we go off the most obvious indicators. Skin. Appendages. Clothes. Hair. And it leaves me to wonder, what are our true privileges: how strangers see and interact with us? Or the taint of disadvantage we feel as Others, even amongst people who accept us for our exterior indicators of sameness?

Role Model

At every 350PDX meeting I feel a little less than myself. I know why I’m there, they must realize my constant attendance is an indicator of my passion for the subject, but I still worry, while there, and afterwards, people will judge me as a “girl who is here because her boyfriend is.” Last night the group leader asked everyone to say their name and one thing about themselves.

The people ahead of me said things like, “I’m Steve, I’ve been an activist for 20 years, I’m an engineer and a lawyer, I’m a member of multiple local environmental organizations, etc.” Everyone listed out their credentials, essentially explaining, as if we needed to hear it again, why they deserved to be here, what they contributed. I thought it’d be silly to say, “I think climate change is an extremely important issue,” because if I didn’t think that I wouldn’t be there. Should I say, “My name is Lucy and I’m a baker”? Being a baker is a totally irrelevant part of my life in this group. It gives me no sway, no qualifications. Zach, my boyfriend, mentioned his degree in environmental science and internship at a local hip eco-brain trust group. I was the only one there with no activist or environmental background. I was also the only young woman and the only person of color. I felt pressure to prove myself, but was ill-equipped for the task. I had willingly left my comfort zone, wanted to learn something new, but was doing it entirely alone.

Barbara, the new member, who was probably about 70 years old, introduced herself as a nominee for a Pulitzer Prize in history (no pressure), and looked at me through thick lenses when my time came.

“I’m Lucy,” I looked in her face and then out at the group. I shrugged my shoulders and lifted my arms slightly defeated. “Ugh…yep, here I am.”

“She’s taking the minutes now,” the man across the circle from me said.

“Yeah, I love taking minutes,” I said sarcastically and there were a few laughs. “Yep.”

I had nothing to say. But so much to say.

Why didn’t I say, ‘I’m a writer and baker’? Or ‘I’m interested in multiculturalism and want to work on building diversity within 350’? These are all facts, things I want them to know about me, but I worried they would scoff at achievements which weren’t as qualitative as awards and degrees.

A few steps over the threshold of my and Zach’s apartment and I said, “Did I seem really dumb when I didn’t say anything about myself?”

“No,” Zach put his arms around me. “It’s okay.” The classic comfort of someone who wants to continue to have sex with me.

“No, it seemed dumb. I just don’t know what to say.”

“Yeah, those are the smartest people I probably ever hang out with.”

“And…and…we’re so young in comparison to them. I haven’t had time yet to do much of anything!”

Outside the group, I rarely worry about whether I am seen as intelligent or skillful. Growing up I quickly grew to believe, probably because the same was assumed of my older siblings, that I was smarter and a faster learner than my peers. This may have also been the fodder my parents used to legitimize taking us out of school for extended vacations.

“You can catch up, don’t worry,” I remember my mom saying while I protested.

Occasionally I needed extra assistance, but seldom received it.

My diving during swim competitions never improved, despite asking my coach for a little more attention. I quit after the first year, never being able to win a match, a year of being second string. My ego couldn’t take it. I got a B in Calculus, often falling asleep in the middle of tests because it was overwhelming. I visited my scary teacher, rumored to be an ex-spy (he had a purple heart on his license plate and never allowed the yearbook to run his photo or have a student keep his signature in their yearbook), and asked the same questions over and over, catching on only to get stumped when I was alone and be too embarrassed to return with the same problem. I was supposed to be smart, why couldn’t I get it the first time? I don’t know if he gave up on me, never trying new ways of describing the problem set, or if I did, not insisting on going over more of them, unwilling to admit I couldn’t replicate what he made look easy. Instead, I decided this was something I couldn’t get, a kind of intelligence I didn’t have.

There are so many more moments of me giving up after a plateau or rough patch in my education, physical or academic career. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if any teacher or my parents had taken an extra step to make sure I felt comfortable in a subject I was struggling with. I never did. I felt dumb, and worrying I would look dumb I never said anything; hoping silence would make me disappear. I didn’t want to be dumb. Or worse, a dumb girl.

I feel the same way now. I silently go through the motions, helping out in areas I can’t embarrass myself in, hoping this group will realize my potential, pry a little, work at me. I don’t know if they recognize how hard it is for me to sit in a room of people who look nothing like me, who all have more expertise than me. Wondering if they realize how hard it is for me to not languish in my fears of being a female stereotype, or even a Chinese one. I wonder why I can’t just be, existing without reservations, without analysis of my existence and how my actions might reflect my racial or gender group.

And if I can’t hack it, how can I expect anyone who faces more societal discrimination or stereotype threat to keep going? I have to stay here, hoping my presence will draw others like me to the group. I know we have so much untapped potential, skills/perspectives this group needs, but it is hard being one’s own role model.