Expanding on Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China

A week ago, Michael Luo, a NY Times editor, wrote this open letter to a woman who told his family to go back to China on the street. It immediately spurred heartfelt and heartbreaking reader responses and eventually a now much circulated video from from Asian Americans who’ve experience similar incidences of racism.  All of this has happened on the heels of the racist Jesse Waters segment on Fox and now Michael himself getting on Ann Coulter’s radar.

There’s been a key but valid criticism of the video for not including many Brown Asians, in particular South Asians.  There’s a particular sensitivity there I think people should be aware of especially given the anti-Muslim sentiment in the West in general right now.  To Michael’s credit, he addressed this on his Twitter feed, citing how the NYT was at mercy of the news cycle:

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To the NYTimes credit, he pointed out a video which I liked with Asian Americans discussing broad and complex views on race:

While I don’t defend constant exclusion of Brown Asians when discussing Asian American issues while balancing that I don’t necessarily expect every piece can realistically include everyone’s issue nor should they if we ever want to get to speaking about something specific, it does lead me to what I want to talk about more today.

“Go Back to China” is a pretty specific slight to East Asians. Like on a practical note, I really don’t think anyone is yelling at Aziz Ansari to go back to China (though that would be kind of hilariously confused racism I guess), though a lot of shitty things are happening to Brown people who look like him.  I get why people who look like Michael and me are worked up in particular about “Go Back to China.” My friend did pose the valid question below, why does this East Asian story get so much airtime though?

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To me the answer is kind of obvious, people have a natural frame of reference with their own lived experiences, which is why it can be difficult for even People of Color to empathize with other minorities who are not like them. That’s why solidarity tends to fall short outside of groups that are connected.  I do think Asian Americans are possibly also disproportionately hungry for any kind of representation in media.

While I don’t buy the idea multiple struggles can’t exist in the same continuum, there’s a serious question to whether why some stories dominate airtime, are deemed valid, while some don’t. Michael Luo has the advantage of working at NYTimes and able to project his voice out.  He’s a fellow Taiwanese-American, members of a pretty privileged group when relatively speaking among other Asian Americans and People of Color.

So jumping off that, I initially got this weird this is like First World Problems vibes from this. Out of all the shitty things happening right now (the refugee crisis for instance), like I was really not sure how much I am bothered by some Upper East Side bimbo in front of an Equinox talking shit, except for the aspect of her going after him while he was with his children and threatening to call the NYPD on him, which usually cannot end well for any non-White man when a White woman is involved, full stop.

There’s another aspect I want to speak on that I haven’t heard talked about that much critically:  Why is the response to so often to say “I’m American” as a shield against these types of aggressions?

First, this is this claiming of “being American” as a shield of why this is not okay doesn’t sit well with me.  Second, who do we forget in our umbrella of Asian American or who to stand up for?

The idea of the perpetual foreigner is probably the most relatable kind of racism for all Asian Americans, and people naturally care about what relates to them. However, only this feeling of “not belonging,” while distressing, doesn’t remotely fall into category of evils that keep me up at night.  What keeps me up at night is more of what if you dehumanize people so you can take away their rights or worse, that kind of connection that I think is left out of this discussion, that does bother me.

Also, what if Michael’s family was from China, and they had just arrived? Would it be okay to yell at bunch of people from China to go back to China?

Obviously, that is not his intent, but it feels a bit respectability politics-esque  to me. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea that asserting the Americanness of us (we don’t need to assert it because we just are, full stop) makes us better than recent arrivals – even if that’s not always the intent. I remember in George Takei’s poignant video reaching out to Latinos, the only line that rubbed me wrong was “US government feared people who looked like him,” to separate himself from the Japanese who attacked Pearl Harbor.  This history is complex, and I can’t speak to the Japanese American experience, but this is a sentiment that felt often prevalent in the Asian American side of ethnic studies I knew, that we are American and racially different and that’s that, that always left me feeling kind of alienated.

I’ll say this, I’ll will never say I’m not Taiwanese (especially given the current climate), that I’m only American, or feel like I need to act in a way that is acceptable to White people. I’m that lady speaking another language loudly in the office because I don’t give a fuck because I deserve respect anyway.

I’m acutely aware of how much better I have it than the people I work with who are on visas or the working class immigrants around me. The women who work in the massage salons and nail shops that line the sides of my luxury Manhattan apartment building might look like me and we would get the same insults at us thrown on the street, but you can guess which one has the vastly more privileged life and can more easily fight back with something like the front page firepower of the New York Times.

You don’t have to be an “American” or something acceptable by mainstream White America to get treated with dignity – it doesn’t make us better those people who don’t fall into that category. Some of the people who treat recent immigrants the worse are us American-born Asians, and it’s disgusting.

There’s whole dynamic in the videos where you see an offender asking a random Asian person to perform some stereotype of race and the response is to say they’re American only to avoid an other-ed caricature.  A delicate dance is happening here, people who justifiably want to be treated with the dignity of full citizens and who they are, particularly in the cultural sense. Some people though, perhaps unintentionally in some respects and internalized oppression in others, do it in a way that puts down other people, in particular recent Asian immigrants.

As someone who often feels culturally misunderstood, I do get being annoyed at people not getting you. But we shouldn’t have to strive for what really feels like Whiteness or being as inoffensive as a Person of Color as possible rather than “Americanness,” which we are by default anyway.  I don’t need to prove I’m a good immigrant, and I certainly don’t want to act in a way that perpetuates the “good minorities” versus the “bad minorities” dynamic.

I do also sense some regional component given this is the NYT. This sort of thing rarely happened to me in California – I don’t pretend it’s some pantone utopia because isn’t – but these things feel much more prevalent now that I do live on the East Coast in New York City.

Trying to being as White and assimilated as possible isn’t exactly an irrational survival tactic if you’re in that in a situation that is not accepting (eg. the NYPD once singled out me and my brown friends outside of a concert for an alcohol check on Brooklyn even though there were many White people around us drinking from open containers) and sometimes even violent (eg. a bunch of men on the street called me a zipperhead and threatened me on the street one night in Lower East Side), versus the unapologetically ethnic and sometimes problematically tribal dynamic I’m much more familiar with after growing up in LA and living in the Bay Area for so many years where I had a youth that involved us doing more than our fair share of squabbling primarily with other Asians and People of Color.

I’d like to think there’s better ways to be woke all around.  I think of it is to not to have to qualify ourselves for dignity, to not try to put ourselves ahead of other people in the quest for acceptance, and to remember look beyond our own frames of reference, to understand by defending not just ourselves by others who are not like you, you are doing something immeasurably more powerful.

Not trying to be preachy here, jump all over Michael, or the sentiments of these folks necessarily, but I wanted to color and add one more layer to this conversation. It’s hard to bring complexity to these discussions, so let’s keep moving forward.


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