OPINION

Growing up in Belgium, my brother and I were the only two yellow-skinned, black-haired Asian kids at our overwhelmingly white Flemish primary school. During the first week, the timid and the shy among my classmates gaped at me from a distance, while the braver souls approached me with naïve curiosity, one urgent question burning in their minds – did my people really like their pet doggies better in a sizzling hotpot? “Yeah,” I said, whenever I got tired or annoyed, “they also like to dip the ears and the snouts in peanut butter sauce for extra flavor.”

As a 6-year-old, I had the emotional range of a teaspoon and couldn’t even distinguish between anger and fatigue. Racist and offended weren’t in my vocabulary (or in that of my classmates’), and due to this cultural un-awareness, I cared very little if my behavior and my appearance confirmed the stereotypes about my ethnic origin that had existed on campus long before I was born. Yes, I ate white rice, had small eyes, was a math nerd, and played the piano like a Kung Fu master. Yes, my parents liked high grades and shoved Chinese poetry down my throat every day on my way to school, then made me recite it to their impressed friends when they came over for dinner on Christmas Eve. I didn’t hide or flaunt the values that my parents had been trying to instill in me since my birth – I took them for granted as part of my multicultural identity, and so did the blond-haired, blue-eyed white kids in my class. My nonchalant confidence about what set me apart deterred them from taunting me with ineffectual racialized jokes (rice-related or eyes-related), and instead, they looked on with careful attention and suppressed excitement whenever I showed them the pinyin of an arcane character or a replica of a traditionally Chinese ink-and-wash painting.

At 16, I came to America, hoping to find a tight-knit community of Asians who bonded over their shared heritage and supported each other through similar hardships as foreign immigrants. Although I made a couple of caring and loyal Asian friends, I couldn’t help but notice that some of their siblings refused to talk to me, only ate steak and fries, and ferociously rebelled against their parents’ attempts to teach them the family language. They so desperately wanted to break free from the stereotypical image of the hardworking but unassertive overachiever without personality – an image that would shackle them to the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy forever – that they rejected all that made them Asian, including the red packets of pocket money they received for New Year and the lunch boxes stuffed with steamed buns they took to summer camp. While racism from non-Asians toward Asians often springs from ignorance, this kind of internalized racism – from Asians toward themselves – springs from a combination of alienation, confusion, and shame, and it is the worst kind that I have ever witnessed.

I was lucky. Because I was a rarity in Belgium, I could afford to fit a few Asian stereotypes without having to fit them all. For the most part, Belgians didn’t personally know what Asians believed in or acted as as a whole, and I was seen as an individual with traits that I had either inherited from my culture or developed on my own. Unlike myself, Asian-Americans were born into the Asian-American minority, large enough for its members to have earned a common reputation, but too small for them to be recognized as distinct personalities. Now, I feel part of this ethnic group, and when the differences between us and the Asian minority are ignored, we can feel lonelier than when the differences between us and the white majority are emphasized. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem too counterintuitive that I felt more accepted in white Belgium than amongst some of my fellow Asians in colorful America.

However, no matter how hard it seems to be an American minority with many independent voices, we can’t just give up and morph ourselves into the mainstream demographic. I’ve spent much of my childhood and my teens explaining unconvincingly that not every Asian is Chinese, like me, and that not all Chinese like music and rice, like me, but I’ve found it infinitely easier than pretending to like theater and potatoes – preferences that are less typically Asian and more typically European – to prove my point. If we truly like to play instruments or eat rice, then why shouldn’t we? An appreciation for the beauty of music boosts our quality of life, and a bowl of cooked rice is definitely healthier than a greasy plate of hamburger and fries. We should all encourage the Asian kids to be unapologetically different, but we should also let them know that it’s okay to be unapologetically typical at the same time. After all, only when we stop being afraid of debunking and perpetuating the myths surrounding our culture are we ready for the world to see our true unapologetic selves. 

When you type “Chinese students” and “classroom” in Google, the first article that jumps out is titled “Why Are My Chinese Students so Quiet?”. If you search the same words in Quora, you will find all kinds of discussions relating to the same topic. There seems to be a preconception that Chinese students sit silently in U.S. classrooms because they have a “shy” or “quiet” personality; however, is this really the case? I think Chinese students’ relatively low level of participation in class is not due to their personalities, but rather a result of the repressive nature of the Chinese educational system which is hostile to questioning and mistakes.

When I was in the elementary school in China, there was a special form of lecture, a so-called “demonstration lecture,’’ where teachers give a lecture in front of teachers from other classes or schools, as a way of sharing teaching skills. People believe that this “demonstration lecture” not only measures the teacher’s ability, but also the school’s.

The thing that’s unique about a Chinese “demonstration lecture” is that it’s more of a show than an actual lecture. One week before the lecture, the teachers will tell the students what is going to be taught, what questions will be asked, and then give the correct answers to these questions to make everyone memorize the answers verbatimly. By doing this, the teachers can show that they teach so well that every student in the class understands the material and can thus give out correct answers.

 When headmasters or officials from the Department of Education come to observe the lecture, the teachers will borrow the “best students” from the whole grade level, even those who are not their students, and train them for the lecture. In order for the school to look better, the other students, who are actually in the class, will be dismissed during the “demonstration lecture”.   

In fourth grade, my math teacher needed to give a “demonstration lecture” for the newly recruited teachers so we weren’t required to memorize or rehearse for anything. The only thing that she reminded us was, “if you don’t know the correct answer, don’t raise your hand.” During the class, when my math teacher gave out a question, I raised my hand thinking that my answer must be right. I was in the advanced math team, so I was confident that I would definitely know how to answer the questions. However, I was wrong. I was a little bit disappointed, but I believed that I would sure get the next question right. I raised my hand, and of course, I was wrong again.

After the class was over, I was walking out of the classroom with my friends when my math teacher approached me and said in a teasing tone: “Look at you! You raised your hand so many times yet your answers were all wrong! Why do you even do that!” Having said that, she quickly walked passed me, and my classmates who overheard this teased me. At that moment, I felt stupid and guilty. I thought that it’s shameful to make mistakes, and that it’s safer to just sit quietly in class. Since then, there was always an inner voice that kept telling me, “never raise your hand if you don’t know the answer.” I began to lose confidence in math. I stopped participating in class, because I didn’t want to make mistakes. I learned to become a “silent student”, and this continued until I came to the U.S. for high school. I stayed quiet not because I have a shy personality, but rather because that I learned, or, I have been conditioned, to be silent in classes.

Sherry Shi, a Chinese international student at UCLA who came to the U.S. only a year ago, said that she too does not raise her hand in class even when she has comments or questions about the material. She shared: “I just don’t want to ask ‘stupid questions’.” I then asked her, “but sometimes American students ask very simple questions. Why do you think they don’t care if they’re asking ‘stupid questions’?” She hesitated for a while, and said, “I don’t know… I guess I just don’t want to be the focus.” Sherry’s response implied that at some point in her life, she also has been told that there are “stupid questions” and “non-stupid questions”. Moreover, asking stupid questions will make her become “the focus” in a negative way.

Currently studying at Pepperdine University, Joy Liu is a Chinese student who has been in the U.S. for 5 years. She stated that she “never” raised her hands in Chinese schools, because “it is the teacher who asks questions most of the times,” not the students. Also, she said that she was not an A-student, so she would rather “not raise her hands even when [she] knew the answer”. On the other hand, when she started attending high school in the U.S., she started to participate in class. During our conversation, she told me that she always talks to her professor both in and out of class at Pepperdine.

Why do Sherry and Joy show different levels of participation in U.S. universities? They are both Chinese international students. The only difference is that Joy had entered the American educational environment five years go, where students are highly encouraged to speak up and ask questions. Meanwhile, Sherry just left the Chinese educational environment one year ago, where students are repeatedly reinforced not to make attempts if they do not know the correct answer.

If one or two Chinese students do not seem to participate in class, it may be caused by their personalities; however, if many Chinese students fail to actively participate in American high schools and universities, people should take a look into the repressive nature of the Chinese educational system.

 

The controversial Atlantic article “My Family’s Slave” by the late journalist Alex Tizon sparked a range of emotion and discussion. Tizon writes about Eudocia Tomas Pulido, a Filipina domestic worker his family enslaved for 56 years and how he felt about her contested role in the family, even after her death. Reactions ranged from sadness at Pulido’s life, to anger at the Tizon family and Alex Tizon himself. The article raised key questions about modern day slavery, poverty in the Philippines, the power of narratives, and more. Read on to gain perspective on these important questions.

How might slavery arise in a Filipino American family?

In the United States, the word “slave” brings to mind the institution of chattel slavery. Therefore the common understanding of slavery in America is that it only happens within a Black-white racial dynamic. However, slavery can also exist within the same ethnic community. In the case of “My Family’s Slave,” the slaveowners are a working-class, immigrant Filipino family and the slave is a Filipina domestic servant. It is worth explaining the different historical and cultural contexts that Filipino immigrants bring with them, so we can challenge these conditions and the enslavement that often arises from them.

Poverty, imperialism, and joblessness back in the Phillipines forced Pulido into enslavement, which continued in the United States when the Tizon family migrated here. Filipino youth and student organization Anakbayan USA released a statement explaining the structural economic and social conditions of the Philippines that shaped Pulido’s life. This includes feudalism, an agricultural system in which landlords exploit landless farmers and peasants. Imperialist economic influences, including that of the United States, exploits these farmers such that they are unable to provide for their own families. This creates poverty and joblessness resulting in the mass migration of Filipinos abroad. Everyday, around 6,000 Filipinos leave their country in search of work. These overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) often find themselves isolated, indebted, and even undocumented.

Pulido is one of these OFWs, whose enslavement is a consequence of poverty in the Philippines. She was born into a poor family and her choices for survival were to either marry a pig farmer twice her age or to become a servant (katulong) for another family. Marrying a pig farmer would have kept her in poverty as a part of the poor peasant class, while becoming a domestic servant as an already poor woman would have made her easily exploitable. In the U.S., the Tizons forbade her from leaving the house; she could not drive, use ATMs, or speak English; and for a good while, she was undocumented. Considering her circumstances, it is not surprising that Pulido “chose” to stay with the Tizons; she had no other viable options for escape.

Who was Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s life before she became “Lola”?

A common criticism of “My Family’s Slave” is that Alex Tizon focuses too much on his own guilt and struggle rather than centering Pulido’s perspective. Filipina journalist Lian Buan takes us into Pulido’s hometown of Tarlac to gather the perspectives of those who knew her in a different light, outside of the master-slave dynamic: her surviving family. These articles offer insight into Pulido’s life that Tizon, for whatever reason, did not cover himself.

In Tarlac, Pulido goes by another name: Aunt Cosiang, rather than the name “Lola” (grandmother in Tagalog) as the Tizon family knows her. According to her niece Ebia, although she did not wish to marry or have her own family, one thing she wished for was “to stay for good here [Tarlac], to sell what she cooks, because she cooks very well, especially pastries.” Over the years, Pulido had sent back cooking and baking tools in hopes of opening a bakery to sell puto, or steamed rice cakes. In Tizon’s telling of Pulido’s thoughts about moving back to the Philippines, he could only write that she could not go back permanently because she was ashamed about not sending back money or because America was all she knew. This disparity reveals how relying on Tizon’s narrative conceals essential parts of Pulido as a person. “My Family’s Slave” missed many opportunities to let Pulido tell her story from her own perspective. In Buan’s evaluation of the piece, Tizon devoted much of it to describe the good things he had done for Pulido instead of what she must have thought about her circumstances. As someone who was silenced and abused for essentially her entire life, to not offer her a chance to break this lifetime of silence furthers the marginalization of her agency, and the agency of other exploited workers like her.

What can we do now?

Both Pulido and Alex Tizon have passed. We will never hear Pulido speak for herself nor Tizon’s responses to these discussions. That does not mean that the pursuit of justice for Pulido and those like her is over. We can prevent further injustice by joining the efforts of organizations such as GABRIELA USA and Anakbayan-USA; by treating domestic workers with dignity; by uplifting the stories of survivors; and by learning how to deconstruct narratives such as those advanced in “My Family’s Slave” that unknowingly excuse slavery rather than demand justice.

To keep up with the ongoing reader response to “My Family’s Slave,” check The Atlantic’s Notes column.

My mom is Taiwanese and my dad is Chinese, but many people only see me as Chinese. This was more of an issue when I was growing up than it is now, but usually when I tell someone in the U.S. that I’m Taiwanese and Chinese, they reply with, “Oh, so you’re Chinese, right?”

As a child who did not know any better, I learned that it was simply easier for me to introduce myself as Chinese, and before long I identified as Chinese American.

It was not until I visited Taiwan at eighteen, met my extended Taiwanese family, and fell in love with the country and culture that I fully embraced my identity as Taiwanese.

In contrast, I do not have the same relationship with China or the Chinese side of my family. It was easy for me to “drop” my identity as Chinese and instead identify as a Taiwanese American.

In community college, one of my white professors was talking about the importance of recognizing multiple identities and asked for students with more than one race or ethnicity to share their identities. When I offered mine, she laughed at me in front of the class, asked me, “Aren’t they the same thing?,” before following up by telling me that she always thought I was Korean based on the way I look.

It’s really confusing, okay?

At 18, embracing my Taiwanese identity meant dropping my Chinese one. To me, China and Taiwan were different enough that I knew that one did not equal the other, but similar enough that I thought it would be redundant to mention both.

I held this “either/or approach” until a few years ago, when one of my best friends came back home for winter break and told me that she was, “done with halves.” She told me that she was going to start owning both her White and Chinese identities.

Being biracial/biethnic does not equate to simply being “half-this” and “half-that,” because that implies that you aren’t wholly anything.

Whenever my friend told anyone that she was Asian, people would often tell her something along the lines of, “But you’re only half-Asian,” as if her identity as an Asian is something that they knew more about than her.

Identities are not fickle things to be discredited and taken away if the “math” doesn’t add up. It is due to my friend that I really began to think critically about what it means to have multiple identities and identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese.

In embracing both of my identities, I found that I had a new problem.

At conflict with my Chinese identity is my identity as Taiwanese.

Although I am no more Taiwanese than I am Chinese, I sometimes find myself thinking and acting as if I were not Chinese at all.

When I was visiting Taiwan last summer, I found myself picking up on the anti-mainland Chinese sentiment that people I was spending time with shared.

I began to feel annoyed by “those” rude Chinese tourists, as if I were not Chinese myself, and as though I was somehow better than them.

At other times, I found myself strongly identifying as Chinese. When I re-watched “Mulan” last weekend, I felt pride in the fact that a Disney heroine was Chinese.

Similarly, a few years ago, I learned that the first anti-immigration and anti-miscegenation laws in the United States were aimed at the Chinese, I felt pain and anger for my ancestors.

For me, part of self-care and self-love is awareness and acceptance of who I am. I do not want to only choose to identify as Chinese when it is advantageous and disown it where it is disadvantageous.

The question has moved beyond what I identify as to how to manage my identities.

China and Taiwan have been in conflict since the 40’s, so how can I reconcile these two identities and love for them both? Just because these two countries are in conflict with each other does not mean that my identities need to be that way.

In a sea of Southeast Asians on campus, I am a minority. I am underrepresented. I am Laotian.

Oftentimes, people misidentify me as Vietnamese. While I do not find that to be an insult, it functions as a reminder that I am not able to relate or identify with a cultural group on campus.

Laos is located in Southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam. My parents, like most of the Lao population in the United States, sought refuge in America from the war over communism. I am a first-generation college student in my family and according to the Center of American Progress Asian American Pacific Islander data, one of the 13 percent of Laotians pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

Within the Southeast Asian community, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong individuals are less likely to be financially successful. According to The Washington Post, “the experience of refugee populations such as Hmong, Lao, Cambodian and Khmer groups continue to fall below standard markers of achievement.” The reasons for this ranges from lack of personal motivation and familial support to complete higher education to gang involvement and traditional values that apply patriarchal beliefs.

There are plenty of APIDA student clubs and organizations at UCLA—Vietnamese Student Union, Association of Chinese Americans, Hanoolim (Korean Cultural Awareness group) and even the Association of Hmong Students and United Khmer Students of UCLA—but not one exclusively established for the Laotian community.

Imagine my shock, coming from San Diego—a culturally diverse city with a large Lao population—to UCLA. Approximately 31.2% of undergraduate students identify within the  APIDA community as of Fall 2016, but this campus still lacks a Lao student organization. Which brings me to the question—where is our representation?   

College seemed like a place for me to bridge the gap between my identity and heritage because as a teenager, I neglected to fully embrace my culture.

Participating in every religious ceremony and regularly attending temple allowed me to possess an adequate understanding of both Buddhism and Lao customs. However, I long to be more immersed and enlightened.

I regret not appreciating my culture throughout high school and did not realize how much of an impact my lack of traditional involvement and understanding had on me until the college application period of my life. Months of self-reflection for personal statements led me to realize that my perception of my own identity was unstable due to a deficiency in Asian American representation in the media and culture that I was exposed to.

A few months at UCLA did not solve my internal conflicts, but directed me towards valuable resources. For instance, I involved myself with  an APIDA Newsmagazine called Pacific Ties that allows me to be part of the news media presence that I wish I had growing up. In addition, my involvement in Southeast Asian Campus Learning Education and Retention (SEA CLEAR) connected me with two amazing Lao graduate students at UCLA, one of which includes my current mentor. Although I am still in the process of getting to know both of these individuals, I already feel supported, understood and a lot less alone.

However, I cannot help but imagine how wonderful it would be to have more cultural clubs and organizations centered around the minority groups of the minority groups. It is crucial to establish more clubs that emulate SEA CLEAR’s mission to “increase graduation and retention rates” and “nurture students to embrace their identity by exploring Southeast Asian history, culture, and politics.” Adopting these crucial principles will provide a safe space for students who identify as minorities of a minority group, as well as provide outreach opportunities to their ethnic communities to encourage Southeast Asian high school students to pursue higher education at UCLA.

With this representation, we can disillusion the Asian stereotypes that continues to overlook the struggles of the minorities within the community. Creating more cultural clubs and organizations on UCLA’s campus would grant the ethnic groups a chance to both genuinely represent themselves and to strengthen their community.

We’re all tired of whitewashing.

We’ve seen it before, and we’re seeing it today. From John Wayne’s portrayal of Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” (1956) to Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko in “Ghost in the Shell” (2017), we are not strangers to the common practice of Asian and Asian American roles being handed to white actors/actresses.

Despite the minimal Asian American representation in Hollywood and in movies in general, Asian Americans receive an even shorter end of the stick in another medium: video games.

In 2016, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), an annual conference showcasing the latest and upcoming video games, revealed billion-dollar hits, such as “Battlefield 1” and “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition,” but many lacked the presence of Asian Americans.

Even highly anticipated games, like “Horizon Zero Dawn” and “Death Stranding,” predominantly cast white actors and actresses as the lead and supporting roles.

This does not mean we should immediately boycott game companies. We should recognize some of their efforts, including the award-winning games “Mirror’s Edge” and “Sleeping Dogs.”

“Mirror’s Edge” is a first-person parkour game starring Faith Connors (Jules de Jongh), a half-Japanese, half-British female. The game was published by Electronic Arts, one of the more prominent publishers in the industry.

“Sleeping Dogs,” which was published by Square Enix, another prominent company in the video game industry, starred Wei Shen (Will Yun Lee). The game was praised for its near-accurate depictions of Hong Kong, Cantonese voice acting, and dynamic portrayal of Wei Shen, according to reviews by Imagine Games Network and GamesRadar.

What about the “Final Fantasy” series? And “Street Fighter?” Those have many Asian and Asian American characters.

Yes, they do, but many of these characters are heavily stereotyped. “Street Fighter” characters are only known for their martial arts. They are bland, flat characters. “Final Fantasy” characters are not necessarily stereotyped, but they are portrayed as more white. They possess pale complexions, sharp jaw lines, and natural non-black hair.

final fantasy
Photo courtesy of Flickr.
street fighter
Photo courtesy of Flickr.

So, what does this mean for us and big video game companies?

Well, video game companies should start casting more Asian Americans in lead roles. Bethesda Softworks, the company responsible for publishing “Fallout 4” and “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” is already taking the lead by starring the character Morgan Wu in the highly anticipated “Prey” (2017). Other companies like Electronic Arts and Bungie should follow suit.

As for us, we should continue lobbying for representation as usual. We need to fight for accurate representation and dynamic portrayal of Asian and Asian American characters not only in films but also in video games. We are a diverse community, and, at the least, we should be seen as such.

Sign In

Reset Your Password