Self-Destruction and the Asian American Experience

I'm still digesting our work during the A/PIC conference. But I wanted to reflect on some themes I found today.

During the worship service, I heard a poem with which I am well familiar, Suicide Note, by Janice Mirikitani. Don't remember the first time I heard/read it but it's been many times since. Even glancing at the words now I feel the swell of emotion. I have felt the despair over imperfection.

After service we broke into small groups to answer questions as part of the "Building the World We Dream About" curriculum in which our conference host, Throop Memorial, is participating. Discussion participants shall remain nameless our of respect for their privacy, but you know since this was an A/PIC conference, the participants were APIs. One young woman talked about how she had been suicidal as a teen, until finally she decided that out of spite, she wasn't going to let the racism kill her. Her anger saved her.

It's been so long that I'd almost forgotten, but I was suicidal as a teen as well. Nearly every day I fantasized about different ways in which I could end my pain, but could never figure out how to do it without distressing others. One particularly bad night after I came in from walking in the rain, daring cars to run me over, a Chinese American friend I'd known from early childhood cursed me out. Invectives flying, she reminded me of my family and friends and how they would feel if I killed myself, reminded me of my filial obligations that are such a strong part of Asian culture. She told me that if I ended my life she would hate me for the rest of hers. I resolved that no matter how much it hurt to live, I would never kill myself. My friend's anger saved me.


I have lived with depression all my life. My father has it. I can see signs of it in my brother. I had always assumed that it was due to a genetically inherited chemical imbalance. Today was the first time that I considered that it might have something to do with being Asian American. After all, my family members have that in common too.

This isn't to say that all Asian Americans are depressed and suicidal. Obviously not. Nor to say that one shouldn't seek pharmaceutical help (tho I've personally always been resistant). But today was the first time where I considered that the stresses of trying to bridge the cultural divide may actually be causing self-destructive tendencies (ie - it's not just me and my faulty genes).

It's amazing that I'd never thought of that before, given how much Ms. Mirikitani's poem resonates with me.

Being Bridges

Today during the A/PIC conference, we broke up into small groups and did some strategic planning on what we envision A/PIC to be in the not too distant future, building on what we see as our strengths. I can't remember whether it was me or someone else in my group that first suggested it - we seemed to come to it together, naturally - the analogy of a bridge. API Americans at our best can be a bridge - from the past into the future, from the brokenness of our present world to the Beloved Community, from our respective "Old World"s to this "New World," from other people of color to whites...

This idea of being a bridge between other PoCs and whites is something that I have thought about many times in my life. Many times I have been "othered." I know what it's like to walk into a room of white people and wonder if I'll be accepted. In day to day interactions, if someone is rude to me for no apparent reason, I will wonder if it's because of my skin tone. This is something that I don't think many whites have had to deal with. The uncertainty that undermines one's confidence. I know what it's like to be a person of color.

Otoh, there have been times when I have "passed" in some strange way. Several times a white person has confided in me something that he or she probably wouldn't say in front of an African American. It's ranged from overtly racist comments to just a mention that they aren't comfortable walking in a certain neighborhood at night. I have the impression that I am considered "safe" if not white.

As Asian Americans we often carry certain privileges that don't come as easily to other PoCs. Many of the stereotypes about us, while still hurtful, are "positive" and can get us "in the door," unlike for many other PoCs. Many of us, not all, are well-educated and financially secure. We live, work, and play in circles that bring us into regular contact with white Americans. In fact, our relatively small numbers and isolation in many parts of the country almost ensures that to be the case. Even some of our disadvantages become opportunities in another light.

To be sure, there are ways in which we are decidedly at a disadvantage, such as our being perceived as perpetual foreigners. ("Where are you from?") Our loyalty to this country perpetually in doubt. But overall, we are in a covetable position, our experiences allowing us to see "both sides," heck, many sides of this issue of race that too often gets turned into black and white. What can we do with this opportunity? How can we use the fact that we are "less scary" to help our white sisters and brothers address the issues of racism that still pervade this country? How can we model constructive ways to live with each other?

Our very lives are bridges - it's what we've had to do to survive. How can we use that to help others?

Majority Minority

While visiting Pasadena, I'm staying with my friend Phoebe in her house in Temple City.  The towns south of Pasadena - Alhambra, Monterey Park, and San Gabriel - are notable for their high concentration of Asians.  (Monterey Park is over 55% Chinese.)  If you want good Chinese food in L.A., you don't go to Chinatown; you go to Alhambra and Monterey Park.  To the east in San Gabriel and Temple City, I noticed that there is more of a mixture of Asians and Latino/Hispanics.  Neighbors with straight dark hair and varying shades of tan skin living side by side.  

Driving northward towards Pasadena, I saw a blonde woman in sportswear walking her terrier and was surprised.  "What's she doing here?" I wondered.  The wonder lasted less than a second before I remembered that this is after all the U.S. and it was she who was the norm here, not me.  Still, however silly, the experience of surprise was something that I wanted to record and share.

Before heading over to the start of the A/PIC conference at Throop Memorial Church, I spent the day hanging out with old friends and visiting the Norton Simon Museum of Art.  What I remember about the Norton Simon is its fabulous collection of 19th and 20th century Western art - sculptures by Rodin and Moore, paintings by Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee and Degas.  What I did not remember about the museum was the even more impressive collection of Asian art - room after room of stunning bodhisattvas showcased beautifully.  How could I not remember this?  Guess I was not in the right frame of mind to appreciate it before.

As the A/PIC conference started, I met new friends, and as old friends started to trickle in I was struck by how moved I was to see them.  I call them "old friends" but really, some I've only known since last year and only for the few days of the conference.  But I was just so happy to be there.  So grateful.

And grateful for the generosity of Throop Memorial Church for opening it's doors to us.  As Rev. Clyde Grubbs explained the history of Throop Memorial and how Amos Throop was also responsible for founding Caltech, I let out an audible gasp.  For over six years I had studied at Caltech, much of that time searching for a more spiritual life, never knowing its connection to Unitarian Universalism.  It was as if the Spirit were telling me: see, this is where you were meant to be all along.

Happy Year of the Rat!

Welcome to year 4706 of the Chinese calendar. It is the Year of the Rat, the first of twelve animal signs/constellations in the Chinese zodiac. (Click here for a story about how the twelve animals were chosen.)

Traditionally, the New Year is celebrated for 15 days - from the second new moon after the winter solstice until the next full moon, which is observed as the Lantern Festival. On New Years Day you don't wash your hair lest you wash all the luck (fa) out of your life and you don't cut anything lest you accidentally cut away relationships. It is a time to visit home from where ever you might be, to reaffirm the bonds of family, to eat lots of yummy food that all represent good things like wealth, abundance, prosperity, family, and happiness.

This year, I'm not doing anything to observe New Year Day itself except to write this post. While I am thinking of the new year and travel, let me lift up the hundreds of thousands of travelers in China who are stranded away from loved ones due to the severe weather.

But within the next fifteen days, I'll be having a New Years/house-warming party of sorts this weekend (yes, it's taken me this long to get around to a house-warming), and then I'll be traveling home to California!

First, I will visit Pasadena, where I was a graduate student, to catch up with old friends, and then attend the A/PIC conference (the Asian/Pacific Islander Caucus of DRUUMM). And then I will make my way up to visit family in San Francisco, in time to celebrate the Lantern Festival on February 21st. Sweet! I have a feeling it's going to be a good year.

Between Two Worlds

As an Asian American, I am always torn between two worlds.  As a UU of color, I feel the same way.  And at no time do I feel it more than when I am with my family.

Amongst my UU friends, most are highly educated, listen to NPR, disdain popular culture, shop at places like Whole Foods and local farmers markets, and eat at fine restaurants.  My folks and my brother are reasonably well-educated, but that's about where the similarity ends.  They watch popular television, love professional football, shop at Safeway, buy what is on sale, and happily eat at fast-food and the other cheap restaurants that saturate the San Francisco bay area. They would not know on which side of a place setting the bread plate goes, nor would they care.

This week, my family has been visiting me and my new home.  There were any number of rich historical and cultural sights we could have seen or nice restaurants we could have eaten at.  Yet, what were the highlights of my family's visit to DC and the East Coast?  CiCi's Pizza Buffet and Walmart.  

Knowing my brother's penchant for pizza and for cheap food, I had planned the trip to CiCi's, where you can get all the pizza, pasta, and salad that you can eat for five bucks a person.  Even my parents were impressed by this deal.  But I was surprised by the request to go to Walmart.  You see, in San Francisco, where land is expensive and the population very liberal, there are no Walmarts.  So I looked up the nearest Walmart on the internet and loaded the family into the car.  It turned out to be a "Super" Walmart.  Gigantic.  And for the next couple of hours my parents poured over ridiculously cheap dvds.  

The irony is that my family in SF lives amongst people who could be UUs.  Educated, wealthy, liberal, and disdainful of things like Walmart.  Yes, I know that there are valid social justice reasons to despise Walmart.  (I don't shop at them myself, which is why I had to look up the location.)  But social justice isn't the only reason why UUs dislike Walmart.  From Disney to Las Vegas to L.A. to McDonald's to the NFL, there are good reasons to object to all of these things.  But are there good reasons to look down on them?

When does social conscience become classism and elitism?

Yes, I know that McDonald's is harmful to my health and destroys the environment, but every time I walk into one, it reminds me of my family.  When UUs put down mainstream American culture, they remind me that my family would not feel comfortable amongst them, my Chinese family and me who have yearned to be mainstream. And it reminds me that I am not always comfortable with many UUs either. 

Mainstream and Counter-Culture

Every now an then I run up against the sense that a lot of white, well-educated, liberal people (which describes most UUs) really relish the idea of being non-conformists.  Counter-culture.  Free-thinkers.  "Out there."  Eccentric.  Weird.  

I've heard many a one say with a sigh that they've always been "different," but I have the impression that this is something that they actually take considerable pride in.  And this always bugs me a little.

It's not that I don't also take pride in my ability to think independently - I do.  But as an Asian American, who has grown up feeling weird and different, there is also part of me that really just wants to belong.  As a kid, the things I desperately wanted were McDonalds, tv dinners, Barbie dolls, and Disneyland, where "Main Street" white-culture America was held up as the idealized norm.  

As a person of color, I do not have the luxury of being able to reject what is main-stream.  "Counter-culture" is not a choice for me; it's an inescapable reality.  And multiculturalism is not just a cool sounding ideal, it's a necessity.

I come to UU to be part of something greater, to have the power to make the world better, not just to be "different."  I can be different all on my own.


Model Diversity

The Asian/Pacific Islander "group" of All Souls (in other words, a group of us who are of A/PI descent) had a potluck this evening and our senior minister was kind enough to accept an invitation to join us. It was billed as a purely social event, a space where A/PIs can get to know each other, but this is Washington, DC with the movers and shakers, and some stereotypes of Asians have basis, so eventually people could not resist the opportunity to get down to business. Talk turned to diversity and how to build more of it at our church. What the group was specifically interested in was how to build true multi-culturalism in our congregation as opposed to the bi-culturalism that people often mean by "diversity."

At times, being Asian in a black and white culture is like being... nothing. Persona non grata. I don't mean to play the violin of self-pity tho. I know that lots of other people are in the same boat - Latino/a/Hispanics obviously, Native Americans, a growing population of Arab-Americans, and also, something that I had not thought about until discussions within UU made me aware, people of African descent who are not "African-American." In a country that is so used to framing the discussion around the legacy of slavery and its dynamics, where do the rest of us fit in to this?

UU has many of the same problems that society has, magnified. Not because we are worse about them but because we actually talk about them. And within UU it seems to me that All Souls magnifies these problems even more. Not because we are worse about them but because we actually talk about them. So of course the A/PI community here, myself included, has not always been happy with how "diversity" has been framed. Even at All Souls, the view can become "black and white."

Yet we also recognize that this is a place that is sincerely trying, and is much better about it than most other places. So when the question came to how to increase our diversity, I was a little surprised when Rob refrained from tooting a horn he had every right to toot. He didn't talk about how great All Souls is, which it is. Nor did he point to other UU congregations, of which there are a few that are struggling with similar issues. He stated that if we really want to build diversity, we had to look outside of Unitarian Universalism. It was a statement of humility that both surprised and impressed me.

He pointed to Middle Collegiate Church, in the heart of New York City. I've heard great things about this congregation from others as well, including Taquiena. So for anyone interested in what true multi-culturalism done with intent looks like, I lift up Middle Church. It may be too Christian for many UUs, but man does it look beautiful and alive. I'm definitely going the next time I'm in NYC on a Sunday.

What Makes an Asian American?

Greetings from Portland OR, home of GA 2007 starting tomorrow.

Today I want to point out that twenty five years ago today a young man named Vincent Chin was murdered.  I remember Vincent's murder the way that others remember Kennedy being shot.  While I didn't know it immediately, it's the day I became Asian American.  

Murders are a common occurrence, unfortunately.  What made Vincent Chin's murder so remarkable was that he was killed for being "Asian" and his killers served no jail time.  None.

On the evening of his bachelor party, Vincent, a Chinese American, got into an argument with two auto-workers - Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz - who accused him of being the reason why Nitz had lost his job (due to strong Japanese car sales).  Both parties were thrown out of the club.  Ebens and Nitz drove around the neighborhood for 20-30 minutes, looking for Chin.  They found him in the parking lot of a McDonalds and then beat him to death with a baseball bat.

The two men were convicted of manslaughter, given three years probation and ordered to pay a fine of $3,000.  According to Judge Charles Kaufman, "These weren't the kind of men you send to jail... You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal."  Apparently murdering an Asian man doesn't make you the kind of person one sends to jail.  

People have on occasion wanted to know why I "insist" on putting a "hyphen" before American.  Why am I Asian American and not just plain American?  It's divisive, they say.  I tell them, I'm not the one who put the hyphen there.  It was put there by others.

I was not born Asian American.  I was born an American of Chinese ancestry, believing in the American dream.  My parents taught me that there was discrimination against Chinese, but if we studied harder, worked harder, and never complained, never made trouble, we would be alright.

When Vincent was murdered, and especially when his murder was judged to be worth only $6,000 total, I and other Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc realized that we were seen as one race by others, even if we viewed ourselves as many different ethnicities.  We also realized that never causing trouble ourselves was not going to keep us out of trouble.  It was Vincent's murder and the perversion of justice afterwards that created the Asian American community.  

Black and Yellow

After service today, I attended the second "Gathering" of people of color at All Souls.  It was intended, or so I thought, to bring all different kinds of people of color together to intentionally discuss the issues that face us, both what we share in common and the differences between us.  The problem is that the room was predominantly African American, and thus the conversation was centered around the African American experience.  This isn't anyone's fault.  It's just what happens when a room is skewed.

While we share commonalities, there are differences between the Asian American experience(s) and the African American experience(s).  There's no denying that some differences work to our "advantage," but not all.  Being Asian isn't just being "color-lite."  After some time I spoke up, and the issue that I chose was that of community.  

As UUs we like diversity.  Yet someone had been speaking about going home to the hood, where everyone was the same (ie - all black), and pointed out that this is not a bad thing.  I agree.  This particular Asian American envies the black community.  I envy having a place where one could go when tired of being a minority, even if just for a bit.  I tried to explain how as an ABC (american born chinese) there is no such place for me.

Everyone tried to be open and accepting and some got it, but the questions I encountered made it clear to me that others did not.  At the end of the meeting, a woman stopped me and asked "Where are you from?"  For a moment, I thought she was asking what country I was from, and my mind reeled.  But she clarified, "Which state are you from?"  California, I answered.  "Aren't there a lot of Asians in California?" she asked.  I knew what she was getting at - there are a lot of Asians in California, so how can I say I have no community?

Community is not just about being able to see the same colored and shaped faces reflected back at you.  Community in this context is people who share a common heritage and cultural expectations.  A place where you can be you, without having to think about it.  As an American-born child of immigrants, my culture overlaps with but is not the same as my parents' culture.  In this interface of cultures, there has rarely been a time when I have not been judged lacking.  As was demonstrated immediately after I left the church.  (God apparently likes to rub salt in ones wounds.)

I had left hurt and frustrated, all the more so because there was no one at fault, and stopped by the corner store to get a drink.  The East Asian man behind the plexi-glass smiled at me as I came in.  He smiled again as I paid, and then asked the question that I knew was coming, having been through this a thousand times.  "You Chinese?"  Yes, I nodded grimly.  "Ni tsung Da Rue lai ma?" (Did you come from mainland China?)  "No," I said, "I was born here," tapping the counter with my index finger.  A look of disappointment flashed across his eyes but he persevered.  "Do you speak Chinese?" he asked.  "Yi dien dien," I answered, meaning "just a little."  He grunted and let me go on my way.

My younger self would have lashed out in anger at this man, for the expectations that he placed on me that I couldn't fulfill.  Now I understand that he is just looking for the same thing that I want in this country full of diversity.  Someone like himself.  Community.  I am sorry we could not be that for each other.


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative