By Guest Contributor: Nam Le
“Be safe if you go outside, Ma. People in this country at this time do not like Asians. They do not care that you’re not Chinese. So just be careful.”
The text is half in English, half in Vietnamese. None of it is exactly what I want to say.
I skip over the word racism when I text Ma. It is a wrong turn into an armed minefield, a back alley of snakes and wet live wires. My cousins, better able to navigate this ground, tells me that the closest road might be through kỳ thị. Discrimination.
When I ask for directions again on Google, seeking a second opinion, it offers up phân biệt chủng tộc – a four syllable tour that passes by “separation based on race”.
But that, too, is far short of what my tongue wants to express on this Tuesday night — a truth I have always hoped my parents would never have to know: that on this side of the ocean, thunder still rolls.
Talking about my Asianness is to risk being boxed in by it. Even though my heritage is not all I am, it offers the world an easy genre to classify my writing into as soon as I do it.
But I know I no longer have the luxury of avoidance. (iIf ever I really did in the first place.)
That means I have to try to explain to Ma the callousness and cold indifference of this country whose promises she followed over an ocean, and to show her how deep the roots of this go.
Where the soil begins.
How to fear the fruit.
To try to find a consistent thread through the racism Asian Americans have endured is difficult, grisly work. When you do hack through the decades of bone and splinters, you will find only contradiction: we have been hyper-visible in the collective, invisible in the individual; co-opted into the maintenance of white supremacy, and forcibly pushed out of the power structure too. These things that cannot feel true all at the same time.
But they are, and they have been, because this country has shepherded all 18.6 million of us, regardless of origin, into “Asian” for convenience, the lens through which we are viewed through has only varied by the demands of the political moment.
The first Chinese folks to arrive in this country, for example, hiked their way to the Gold Mountain, and were met with force: a rapidly mobilizing racial animus that declared them to be less than equal, and then denied from further entry outright legally as they bore the brunt of racist attacks and social exclusion from the country they still helped build. It would take the emergence of Japan during World War II before they were re-collected back into America’s graces and elevated in opposition to Japanese folks.
Follow the journey of any other Asian group to this country. You will be able to chart their story along these same axes.
What is happening now is only what has happened already.
Perhaps we should have all known better. All waves, even the ones that took us here, eventually break.
This is not to say that other groups did not suffer, nor is it to delegitimize the struggles faced by other immigrants, Native people, black people, or Hispanic people. It is only to say that anti-Asian racism is worth its own distinction.
It deserves to be seen, not just kept inside of us, to try to earn a mainstream tolerance that has always been temporary.
Here is what I don’t want to happen in the aftermath of this:
· Another laundry list of PR statements made by companies who have no interest in treating this seriously, but who want to preserve the bottom line with a vague promise of solidarity.
· Non-Asian folks centering themselves. I am sorry you are upset to find out what we have always known, but that’s your own thing to handle and fix. We have our own wounds to tend. Do not assign us the job of giving grace too.
· The same tired talks about Asians not being a monolith, the bad faith discussions about affirmative action, the refusal to recognize something as racist because it doesn’t fit some absurd purity test of using the exact, agreed-upon slur.
· Theatergoers full of folks willing to fork over dollars to see Shang-Chi, but not our humanity.
Durian does not grow naturally in North America, so I don’t blame you if you’ve never seen one – it is the kind of thing you have to actively seek out.
So think of a watermelon, ripe, plump, lively green. Then, roll it through the dirt until its skin is muddied – still green, but muted – and sprouts rough barbs, so it is no longer smooth to the touch.
When you crack it open, do so forcefully. Expose yellow flesh.
There it will be — the smell of something rotting, raw and loud, an odor that will sear your nostrils, emanating from within that jagged, muddy green husk. This scent of what is edible.
People who have gotten past that roadblock – and many do not – will tell you that it tastes delicious, swearing that there is a creamy richness that makes the backbone for a fantastic smoothie.
When I try to sort out my feelings after Atlanta, and the lack of my surprise at the way things have gone, I have often returned here.
To the promise of something good, if we could just hold our noses and swallow yellow flesh.
The Asian American Dream is a durian.
“Did something happen in your area?” She writes back.
She does not yet know that women like her, who have lived more danger than anyone should just to get here, are currently in the crosshairs of a hateful country. Again. That six lost their lives, and another had to fight for hers that very afternoon. That I have bought her a taser and a prayer not to have to use it.
And for another night, she won’t.
“No. Just please, please be careful.”
Nam is really, really bad at writing author bios. He spends his time writing about anything that fascinates him, whenever he’s not learning how to do magic, or suffering at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur. You can reach him on any social media platform at @aguynamednam.
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