What are the words you use to identify yourself?
Where do you call home?
What is your relationship with “your countries?”
Where do you go to be Asian?
How do you stay Asian?
Do you ever feel like you need to present your Asian-ness?
What’s your relationship to the broader POC community?
When did you learn about the history of Asian discrimination in the United States?
These are some of the questions I have been asking over the past few months to friends, colleagues, and family who broadly identify as Asian.
The conversations have been fruitful, surprising, similar, scary and affirming, very often all at once and over and over again.
I’m digging into the –NESS of Asian-ness.
I’m questioning my relationship with “Asian American.”
And I’m asking – where are you in this journey? And ultimately, what is your responsibility towards diversifying the voices and people we see as Asian American?
Let me back up.
I’m not American.
Really, I’m about as far away from Asian American as you can get. So, I wanted to answer a few of my own questions here to reveal a little bit of the WHY behind these questions. This is important to me as I’m not sharing the other conversations verbatim, they are not my stories to tell. But they will surface indirectly in my work one day and continue to inform how I move through space and time as me, a performer, educator, and activist.
Bi-racial, Eurasian, English, English-Malaysian, Chinese. I grew up mostly in Wisconsin.
These are the phrases I currently use to identify myself. The Wisconsin response is my “I’m not going to answer the question you are actually asking me” line.
Home is so many places. It is Wisconsin where I lived, in the same house, from 6 months to 18 years old. Its bratwurst splitting on a hot grill, bubblers instead of drinking fountains and whitetail deer jumping through the backyard.
Home is Yorkshire, though technically I was born in Lincolnshire, in a town called Scunthorpe.
Home is the Lake District, it's cream tea, it's fish and chips.
Home is mosquito-net-covered beds in Malaysia with gung gung opening a durian outside the bedroom, swinging a machete to open the sticky, stinky, spiky rind.
Home is the hawker stalls in Singapore, the abundance of moist towelettes and ais kacang.
Home is complicated geographically but beautiful. It’s when I’m with my mum, dad, and sister who were, for a long time, the only family members in the States.
Home is firing up Skype to talk weekly, monthly, annually to family in all those different places, waiting for the signal to be strong enough so that we can all lip read across oceans.
I grew up visiting Malaysia/Singapore, England, Malaysia/Singapore, England, Malaysia/Singapore, England. I didn’t go to any other country except those three until I was 21.
I like each country, I love certain aspects and I could do without some of it.
I could do without the guilt of knowing that I used to say water with an English accent.
I would like to have easy access to Yorkshire pudding and a Sunday roast year-round.
I could do without the capitalism of Singapore.
I would love to have chicken satay every day for the rest of my life.
I could leave behind the jetlag.
I would have liked to have longer relationships with all of my grandparents.
I wish I hadn’t assimilated my language to erase por por and gung gung from my tongue when trying to explain them as my grandparents during my time in Florida.
I wish I could hold onto the settees, bins, washing ups, and soya sauces of my life, but they slip away as I move further from my parents and establish new systems of family and language.
Where you go to be Asian? And - how do you stay Asian? And – do you feel the need to present your Asian-ness? These three questions all come from a place of personal insecurity, disbelief, half-ness and the perpetual “not-quite-enough.”
I am English. I am white. I am so VERY English. Fitton is a common surname in England, go look up Gawsworth Old Hall. English is my native language. I can easily navigate England when I’m there. I understand the politics and history of England partially in thanks to the western education I received.
I am also Chinese. I am yellow. I am from Malaysia. I am a Tan from Southern China. I can’t speak Cantonese, Malay or Teochew. I can’t confidently navigate Malaysia’s geography and I've never been to China. I vaguely understand the history and politics of Malaysia though much of that is centered around a colonial narrative.
I didn’t know I could use “people of color” language until I was in university. I was using Asian identifiers before then and understood some of the oppression towards Asians in America and abroad, but not in the way I thought second, third, fourth or fifth generation Asian Americans do. As I work through these questions and dive into the history of Asian America, I am working to reclaim, restate and re-perform my own Asian-ness. I am reading the language of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and comparing it to Executive Order 13769, otherwise known as the 2017 Travel Ban. I’m always performing my Asian-ness just as I am performing my white-ness in overt and covert ways that feel authentic to me. And it is all ongoing. I've cherished the conversations I've had thus far, to hear others' stories and experiences but, the most valuable aspect has been having a platform to say, "I hear you" and "me too." Let's do more of that.