I think nearly every first gen diaspora kid I know would sacrifice a toe to understand—like, really understand—why their parent/s move through the world the way they do. Last week, when my mom asked me to help her edit her final undergraduate paper, I got just a tiny bit closer.
Her final assignment was to read a memoir and “reflect on your own life journey in relation to [the author’s].” She chose Jane Goodall’s autobiography Reason for Hope (1999), because she’d heard that Goodall was an environmental activist, and my mom herself has worked in environmental testing.
In her paper, she wrote (edited for grammar):
Thinking back on my own experiences, I was able to connect with the way that Goodall coped with prejudice and stigma. Although I never had an invention that went against scientific authorities, I have still felt social stigmas and discriminations that disturbed me. I worked in a laboratory for testing environmental and pharmaceutical products. When I started working, although I had accumulated a lot of experience in China, some people still doubted my scientific background because I did not have a bachelor’s degree. People ignored my opinions and looked down on me. I could not get respect as I did when I was working in China. Was there any hope for my career? I knew I could not control other people’s ideas, but I could change myself. I spent a lot of time and effort in learning current technology. Gradually, I proved my ability and helped other people to solve technical problems. I gained confidence and built a good reputation. Although my co-workers were willing to discuss their issues with me, management still hindered opportunities for my professional growth. Multiple times, they rejected my education and training requests, which frustrated me.
The fact that my mom articulated this at all is huge. It also means, I’m sure, that this is the least of what she’s experienced. Until now, my mom has been vocally averse to talking about discrimination. She’d often tell me that if I were to keep paying attention to the inequalities I was always going on about, I would never be able to live. My response would often be that I’d rather be mad and awake to the truth than to have a false sense of security and pretend that I couldn’t see it. (You know Elena Alvarez from One Day At A Time? …yeah, that was me.) But I also understood that what she was saying was that living—or attempting to live—in a quasi-state of purposeful ignorance was a survival mechanism. And I think that for her, that survival mechanism has hinged upon the incredibly effective mechanism of self-blame.
There’s a hint of that in that paragraph above, but it’s moments like the phone conversation we had afterwards, that have, over the years, crystallized this idea for me. On the phone, we started talking about why she might’ve been discriminated against. When I told her about instances of racism my sister and I have faced, she told me she thought that because we were born in the States, we wouldn’t have to face what she did. Which was, after all, the dream she was sold. She told me that she thought it was because her English was bad and made people uncomfortable that they treated her the way they did, that it as a her thing. It breaks my heart that all these years, she’s blamed herself for the weight of that racism, that she’s seen this treatment as a reflection of herself, rather than a reflection of a far bigger system.
And it makes sense why she would. My mom didn’t have a working framework for anti-Asian racism in America. Part of that is that there’s a discontinuity between what Asians have faced in this country versus what newer waves of refugees & immigrants—hell, even Asians born here—know or are told of that history. She also came up in a time & place where ethnicity and class were cast in different terms from how they’re cast in America today. Between Mao’s massive weaponization of class struggle and Deng Xiaoping’s push to develop the country’s economy, I think there was just much more emphasis on class and economic survival—like, just being able to provide your family with the material necessities to live—as opposed necessarily to race.
On top of that, in America, racism looks different for different groups. And because racism has historically, at least in the mainstream, been cast as a black/white issue, and because mainstream media (like WCCO (CBS affiliate), KSTP (ABC affiliate), Fox 9 (Fox affiliate), Kare 11 (NBC affiliate)) is the media that my mom has access to, she may not have understood the discrimination that she’d been facing to be a function of racism. (One might argue that she could’ve sought out alternative news sources, especially online, but that becomes a difficult and daunting task when you struggle with the language.) Racism against Black folks often looks different from racism against Asian folks, so how was she supposed to interpret the unfair treatment she was facing? Maybe the closest thing she could pin it to was her socioeconomic status, which was also bound up with her level of education, of which language is a primary signifier, of which hers clearly elicited discomfort—and I would venture to say fear and distrust—in her American (read: white) co-workers.
“We are asked to understand our lives under such impossibly convoluted conditions,” Jia Tolentino writes in Trick Mirror (2019). She is talking about feminism, womanhood, the institution of marriage, and her confused feelings about the three, but it also applies here to the ways that my mom has dealt with the convoluted conditions of her life in America.
It’s scary to acknowledge that there may be a whole complicated system at play that is beyond your control; it is far easier and safer to blame yourself and, in so doing, retain some sense of agency. Trying to understand these complicated systems would’ve challenged the entire foundation upon which my mom based the decision to uproot her life, leave her loved ones, and come to an inhospitable country where she didn’t speak a lick of the language. Doing so would’ve challenged that quintessential American lie-cum-empty-promise of meritocracy—that cornerstone of the paradigm upon which my mom, like so many migrants to America, has built her life.
Meritocracy promises a brighter future and upward mobility through hard work; it promises fewer barriers and injustices the higher you climb. It says nothing, of course, about the impact of race, gender, cultural capital, etc on your ability to make good on it. The idea of meritocracy thrives in a place like America—a country that so emphasizes the individual and the individual’s ability to overcome anything. It’s no wonder that my mom came to believe that there was something wrong with her, the individual, and not the system that hoodwinked her into believing so. That isn’t to say that she didn’t play a role in choosing to go that route, but it should never have been a route she had to choose in the first place.
I think my mom’s understanding of anti-Asian racism is also affected by the relatively siloed spaces she’s moved through over the past 30+ years. When I came up, she had her Chinese community of immigrants whose kids went to Chinese classes together, did Chinese dance, had Chinese New Year potlucks, etc. And then she had the white people, predominantly, who she interacted with at work. Those two worlds of hers didn’t really overlap, and if they did, they were in such specific, pre-prescribed circles—like say, my sister’s figure skating cohort—that I don’t know that she would’ve gotten a good sense of how other Asians experienced racism.
I don’t think these issues were talked about much within our community either. Maybe notions of saving face or pride or shame were at play? Maybe they didn’t really have the language for it or the cultural habit of doing so? Maybe they just wanted to enjoy each others’ company. Perhaps there was also a certain amount of denial around racial realities. Desire can, after all, color what you wish to see or not see, and you can live this way for a long time—hell, a lifetime.
Growing up, I often thought of my mom’s over-the-top niceness to Americans (more so with white people, but with other POCI too) as ingratiating, that there was something almost disingenuous about it. I never thought of it as a possible response to her implicit understanding that in opening her mouth, she made people feel unsafe. I think that’s part of why when she does interact with those people, she tends to make herself as small and as sweet as possible, as agreeable and easy to laughter, as bright and bubbly as she can be—in order to be seen less as alien threat and more as regular human.
The quality of her voice changes too when she talks to Americans, and it’s different from when she’s being agreeable to other Chinese people. It’s more nasally, treacly. It’s also a way of speaking that I associate with (Southern) Chinese (hyper-)femininity, which I’m the first to admit I don’t understand in full, but which I do understand to be deferential and soft, yet towing that thin, impossible line between strength and fragility. Much of traditional Chinese femininity centers on men, is made of that which props up the man in a traditionally Confucian, male-dominated society. It looked different on a surface level during the Mao years, when propaganda cast desirability in terms of industriousness and strength, and it has shape-shifted in the years since, but it’s still always been within a patriarchal society. And I think that in a way, my mom has spent much of her life in America performing those same coded dynamics, but as if all the Americans around her were men.
In America for Americans (2020), Erika Lee writes:
Xenophobia is not only about immigration; it is about who has the power to define what it means to be American, who gets to enjoy the privileges of American citizenship, and who does not. The nation’s founding documents outlined the basic rights to be bestowed on Americans […] But the question of who actually counts as an American has been a source of constant debate” (Lee 11).
I think my mom knows this, and she knows that in many ways, despite her American citizenship, she still doesn’t “count.” But she can try to make herself count to those who do.
After my mom turned her paper in, she texted me: “You are so good in writing , I realized you use my info reorganized it, sentence connection is much better and clearer, your thoughts very logical, you are amazing. I hope I can have tenth of your skills.”
I cried. My mom has never been one to say these things aloud, much less in a way that reverses the typical 长辈/晚辈 generational dynamics. While I didn’t feel this way when I was younger, I have come to appreciate the unspoken understanding that she loves me regardless of my abilities or achievements. So I cried for the newness of this moment. But more than that, I cried out of grief. Because what even is the value of a language that refuses to see your own mother? A language that has told you over and over again that you are not wanted or welcome, and most certainly not equal? A language that has pushed you back down every time you’ve tried to get up? A language that lies to you? Even as I use these words, I am so sorry for them. Have them, Ma. Have them all. I would give you every last one in a heartbeat if I could.