Multiplying the Meaning of “Asian-American” on Still Processing
July 7, 2018
By Yaoyao Liu
Image by: Francesco-Nazardo
I’ve only been listening to the Still Processing podcast, hosted by New York Times culture writers Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, for the past couple of months. In that time, however, I’ve devoured their pertinent and thoughtful episodes so quickly that I’m almost done listening to the entire archive. I was already looking forward to their episode on Asian Americans in the today’s cultural landscape, then even more excited when I realized it was going to be a two-part episode featuring a number of special guests. This morning on the bus, I just finished up the first segment, “Asian-Americans Talk About Racism, and We Listen – Part 1.”
From Amy Chuang’s account of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to Emily Yoshida’s discussion of coming to terms with her mixed identity to Pablo Torre and Andrew Ti emphasizing the colorism inherent in model minority stereotypes, the episode highlighted that the term “Asian American” can refer to any single moment in a diversity of experiences. Nonetheless, I did appreciate that Jenna and Wesley started off the episode with some definite commonalities: name mispronunciations, feeling protective of immigrant parents, and alienating vertigo that sometimes comes out of vacillating between cultures imagined to be wholly separate.
I identify and present as an East Asian woman, which marks my American experience as one of assumed submission, unsolicited compliments on my English, and privilege as a “white-adjacent,” to use Andrew Ti’s phrasing in the episode, representative of the “model minority.” I appreciate the reminder that for all that I have experienced as a woman of Chinese descent living in the US, I do have an obligation to leverage the power I hold to support those who face greater institutional barriers. To that end, I’m happy to be a part of a film festival that makes it a priority to showcase the work of non-East Asians, as well as that of filmmakers that explore notions of gender, sexuality, class, and diaspora.
The most resonant part of this episode, for me, was the discussion of being “non-speaking” as an Asian American person. Apart from my role in SAAFF, I’ve spent a lot of time, for academic and professional purposes, in circles that are comprised mostly of Chinese nationals. My own Mandarin is proficient to passable, depending on the topic, and I struggle with reading and writing Chinese. This is confusing and occasionally unsettling to a lot of native Chinese speakers, who often assume a person that looks Chinese ought to be fluent, even if they did grow up outside of China. I’ve definitely felt discouraged and embarrassed after introductory conversations that soured after the faltering of my tones. Sometimes I feel as though I must strike them as similar to the earlier victims in the film Get Out, lobotomized into whiteness, especially to Chinese people outside of my family.
Listening to the podcast, it was comforting to hear about other people’s experiences with this very specific, but still frustrating, aspect of Asian American life. It’s nice to know that even if you’re the only Chinese person in a room who can’t speak Chinese fluently, there are a lot of other people who go through the same thing and it’s not the anomalous failure that it sometimes feels like it is. The discussion reminded me of an interview with author Jenny Zhang, in which she discussed the overlooked gravity of the “non-speaking” or partially-speaking Asian American as a linguistic amalgam:
“There can be this exoticising, anthropologised interest in language but only if it’s in a far-flung place. Why doesn’t anyone consider the fact that when you are a second-generation immigrant and you speak this very specific mixture of Chinese and English that’s also a dying language? After I die, my children, if I have children, they won’t speak that blend of Chinese and English. And it’s not a blend. It’s actually its own language. I’m the last remaining person who will ever speak that. Why is that not significant? And that’s not just true for me but so many children of immigrants.”
The next episode in this two-part special looks at ideas of Asian American solidarity and struggles with dating. If Jenna and Wesley’s curation of this first one is any indicator, it should be well-paced and insightful.