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.


Charity Childs-Gevero said...

Oh...I've added two of your articles to my shared items (What I'm Reading) box, on my blog. Just thought I'd let you know. :-)

Anonymous said...

From Ms. Sis~

I want you to know that I am really enjoying this blog you are writing and it is really wonderful to see you take on these topics within the wider blogosphere and not just with the folks you "know".

In regards to some of what you were discussing in this post....

Representation and identity"politics" seem to be both necessary and moot points. It is true that folks need to come together and unify and be aware of their history/culture/environment/etc... but by no means are any two people within a specific identity identical, let alone an entire group of people. Cultural connection may be an integral part of who we are, yet belonging to any particular culture does not define or decide everything we do and become.

Yet while there is no unanimous one-minded population of people, whether "Asian"- (which would be the majority of human beings on the planet- so shouldn't they just be the "people" and white people have to put white first?) Black is equally vague, and then divided into sub categories: African, African American, all the folks throughout diaspora connected to various nations, indigenous folks present on lands precolonialism, the mulit/bi/racial- as if any of those experiences can exactly compare. Don't get me started on "Latino(a)/Hispanic" as a category- how many places and spaces and people does that try to include while washing away the specific histories of nations/ societies etc... and so on, and so on....?

So I don't know that I buy into some sort of "best way to be ___________ " (insert race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality etc here). We just have to work to truly understand ourselves, our experience, and respect all that makes us unique and every facet of self, so we can truly respect that in others. Remembering that each person has a unique fingerprint, and print on the world and respecting the multiple layers of life that shape individuality and commonalities.

I think that while sure you are still coming into aspects of awareness around self- you have a genuine love and respect for others and that shows wherever you are when you are your vibrant self. We are who we are and we must strive to continually do that better- but you come from a true place and that shows, and youth and adults appreciate you for that, and for being true to you and honest with others. So in that sense you are wired to relate to folks that want to be around people who are real.

Miss you! And I have been thinking a lot about what I would say regarding the previous posts on inter-racial relationships... but I wasn't sure if you go back to the older posts... or maybe we will chat more about that in person. Cause that is definitely something that has impacted me immensely as a woman of color, in various ways depending on the situation...

until next time...
Ms. Sisbzfst

Jennifer said...

I feel you on this one in more ways than one. I am confident that you are the RIGHT person for this job because of your thoughtfulness and introspection and your recognition that there may indeed be no "right" person to organize an Asian American student conference.

I've had some experience participating in such events (more the college rather than high school level) and I have to say as both an organizer and a participant I found these conferences really valuable because of the sense of connecting with who share something with me--not race or ethnicity exactly but an awareness of race and ethnicity and the place of Asians in American history/culture.

So if you think of what you are doing from a social justice/educational pov, anyone who is willing to educate him/herself about Asian American issues for a conference (regardless of what his/her own identity is) is doing a good thing because Asian American issues are put on the back burner in this country (as you can see from looking at the amount of money allocated to Asian American issues in comparison with other ethnic/racial groups).

Anyway, while I agree with "Anonymous" and with you about the social construction of race, there is also something very powerful about coming together--even if imperfectly.

I am wondering if there is room in the conference for a discussion of what "Asian American" means to those attending? That in itself could be a really valuable/enlightening exercise for everyone involved. Because just realizing that racial categories are not essential but constructed and yet have a weight in our daily world can be a really empowering thing for people. Anyway, will look forward to hearing later as things progress how the conference falls out.

CVT said...

Jennifer -
Thanks for the comments. I suppose there's not a lot for me to say other than this: don't worry, there will ABSOLUTELY be some time spent looking at what "Asian-American" really even means to the students involved. It's a leadership conference, so it would seem that that would be a necessary step of introspection . . .

My only real worry is that I OVER-politicize the workshops, seeing as how it's high school kids, and there's only so much "deepness" that they want to deal with on a given day (while escaping a normal school day).

CVT said...

Charity -
Thanks for the add - I'm glad you're enjoying my posts enough to do that.

Sis -
I'm not so worried about my "Asian-ness." It is what it is (and what it isn't). All those thoughts just popped in my head as I kind of put myself in the other guy's shoes (the one handing over the reigns), imagining his take on me, as an "Asian-American." Did that make sense? Hope it did.