Wednesday, August 27, 2008
On Being Asian
So what the Hell does it really mean to "be Asian"? Honestly?
I just came back from a meeting with one of the main organizers for an Asian-American youth conference - the ONLY Asian-American youth conference in this city - and it brought up a lot of different thoughts and insecurities for me.
My part in this meeting was to basically take over the operations and planning for the small-group workshops at this conference, as well as a number of other details that play a large role in the overall picture of this conference for high school students. And I went into it full of confidence because I have a lot of experience working with kids as a teacher, and also as a facilitator (which is the role I would be in for this conference). No big deal, I thought. I'm Asian, my identity is important to me, and I have no problem facilitating activities and discussions with kids of all backgrounds.
Seemed simple, right?
Not really. Because this meeting reminded me of something that I am always aware of, but that doesn't play a large part in my life: "Asian" can mean so many different things. "Asian-American" can mean even more. It can be people with Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Mongolian, or Eastern Russian backgrounds. It can be first-generation, second-generation and beyond. It can mean all sorts of mixes with all sorts of other races. It can encompass overachieving "model minorities" and "at-risk," gang-affected youth. It can mean me. And it can mean kids with backgrounds and experiences totally different from me.
And that's the funny thing - because I feel like I'm pretty damn good working with kids of all sorts of backgrounds. I can reach out and establish relationships with white kids, black kids, Latino kids . . . all no matter their economic background. And I do it all the time - that's what I do for a living.
But the fact of the matter is - ironically enough - that I have never worked with a large population of just Asian kids. Never.
And I suddenly found myself wondering if I can connect. If all my ideas and plans that work so well for all the other youth I work with would work as well with this group of kids. And I know - logically - it shouldn't make any difference. It shouldn't. But, somehow, it does.
Because I've always had a strange relationship with my Asian-ness. In school, I was accused of being the "Asian sell-out" at times. It really bothers me that I don't speak Chinese. It bothers me that I've never been to China and don't carry out many "Chinese" traditions. I wonder how "Asian" I really am.
Because, in some ways, I identify more with brown hip-hop culture than Asian-American culture. I know more about indie-rock than I do about Malaysian, Thai, or Korean culture, for that matter. My upbringing was far from "traditional," and I love exploding Asian stereotypes that many Asian communities like to uphold (in regards to academic success and expectations, more quiet, passive demeanor). And I wonder how much I can really represent these kids whose conference I'm about to shape.
In my gut, of course, I realize that nobody - no matter how "Asian" they are - can really represent the hundreds of kids that will be there because "Asian-American" is such a broad category. A first-generation Vietnamese girl who grew up struggling with poverty will share little with a third-generation Japanese male who grew up upper-middle-class. Neither of them can be represented by a recent Indian immigrant. And that is part of the farce that is "Asian-American." That is being "Asian" at all. A quasi-racial category that spans such disparate ethnicities and cultures and religions - and yet is still accepted as a valid way to categorize people - by other races and "Asian" folks, themselves.
It's so ridiculous. To the point that it is practically a crime. Of course, we all know how seriously the dominant white culture takes crimes against other cultures, so I won't hold my breath waiting for a response.
And so I realize that my specific background is not that important when it comes to being part of this conference's organization. I identify with being "Asian" to a degree, and my confusion as to exactly what degree and how connected I am to that broad category only makes me more like all the other "Asian-Americans" out there (I presume). Which makes me perfectly suited (and qualified) to lead it.
And so I will. Because I'm Asian, and I think talking and thinking about all of these things is important. And that's that.
* On a sad (but not surprising) note - I learned that the budget for this conference is significantly lower than that of the African-American and Latino/a youth conferences in this city. Once again, I am faced with the sad fact that such a broadly-identified community either cannot or will not come together to try to effect change on a larger level. So many thoughts run through my head about the how and why (culturally, logistically, etc.), but the fact remains that - if I want to see something done right, it looks like I'm going to have to do it myself.