chinatown and other american fabrications
the stratification of asian american identity
This Week in Reading
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
When I first moved to Los Angeles I wanted to write an essay about Chinatown. I moved to LA a week before the 2016 election, and in the aftermath I found myself scared and alone in an unknown place. So I went to Chinatown. Every Chinatown looks basically the same: a fantasy cartoon of Asia, all pagodas and red pillars. Chinatown is not authentically Asian, but it is authentically Asian American, and the restaurants, the plazas, the grocery stores, the elderly women sitting on pink plastic stepstools, all invoked memories of running errands in Seattle’s International District as a child. In a new city where everything was unfamiliar, Chinatown provided the comforts of home. I wanted to write an essay about how Chinatown was the same wherever I went, about how it seemed immune to gentrification—posit that it was insulated by a foreign alphabet too intimidating for potential colonizers to navigate, and by its own performative splendor. I believed the authenticity of Chinatown would remain so that non-Asian people could play tourist, eat dim sum and feel like they had been to Disneyland.
Four years later, I can no longer write that essay. Ai Hoa, the Vietnamese grocery store in Chinatown, went out of business last year— before the pandemic. Art galleries and trendy bars are slowly encroaching, white walled spaces showing non-Asian artists in a lantern-strewn plaza. I thought non-Asian’s impulse to treat Chinatown as a zoo would protect it. I underestimated how bad Americans are at looking without touching, seeing without taking.
Interior Chinatown is an exploration the Asian American experience through the lens of Hollywood. It is sharp and smart and satirical. It is about understanding your own identity as refracted and explained by the white understanding of the Asian American experience. Is that not Chinatown— a place designed to be not like China, but like how Americans imagine China to be?
The novel opens:
“Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.
You are not Kung Fu Guy.
You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you’ve been practicing.
Maybe tomorrow will be the day.”
The protagonist of Interior Chinatown plays Generic Asian Man Number 3/Delivery Boy on Black and White, an interracial cop show. In a world where race is a binary there is no room for an Asian character to be more than background.
Reading the book, I realized I have essentially no Asian men in my life— my family is a matriarchy, most of my cousins are female, and due to the fact that I have eliminated nearly all men from my social life, I don’t have any close Asian male friends. Interior Chinatown is at its heart a book about Asian masculinity, a personal oversight I was unaware of until 30 pages into the novel. So much of the public conversation about the Asian American experience is filtered through the lens of Asian American women. We talk about fetishization and yellow fever— degrading behavior undoubtedly worth spotlighting, but altogether different than the burdens carried, invisibly, by Asian men.
There is a line from the NYTimes Steven Yuen profile that has been circulating this past week:
“Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”
Whenever I read a book by an Asian American author that is any good, I reflexively recommend it to my other Asian American friends. I do so because I think they might connect with the writing in the same way I did, but I realized recently that this is a flawed approach. I should be sending these books to my non-Asian friends who would probably also appreciate the objectively good writing. I assumed the power of these books was the way they could function as mirrors— I forgot they could also be windows into an experience rarely centered in American culture. I read a lot of books about various marginalized experiences, but I don’t know if non-Asians are reading books by and about us. In the economy of marginalization, the Asian American experience doesn’t offer as much explicit trauma as the other tragedy porn stories featured on bookstore endcaps. Asian American struggles aren’t as marketably bleak as novels about crossing the Mexico-American border or growing up in the inner city. The quiet suffocation of invisibility and erasure doesn’t sell books these days. I was talking to Minnar about this and she said something very astute: “I think Americans are interested in Asia, but not Asian Americans” she told me. Removed from the splendid set dressing of the Asian continent, Asian Americans are bland and uninteresting. Too white—despite not being white at all.
Asian Americans are pleading for other people to care about us, to spread awareness, to repost the graphics about our elders being violently assaulted in the streets—but when people do, I don’t feel solidarity. I just feel tired. Non-Asians just don’t get the Asian American experience, because we barely get it. How can we teach non-Asian groups to extend true solidarity to us when we don’t even know how to show solidarity within our own communities?
We have different languages, different experiences with colonialism. Some of our motherlands were imperialist powers, some of our motherlands were terrorized by those imperialist powers. Asian Americans have the greatest income disparity of any racial group. Many Asian immigrants arrive with student visas and work contracts in the tech sector, but 1 in 7 AAPI immigrants are undocumented. We exist at intersections of privilege and marginalization that may barely overlap with the experiences of the other Asian Americans we seek to align ourselves with. Sometimes our calls for solidarity are inadvertently demands for universality, to seek a uniform kind of justice for a group of people who do not have uniform needs.
I put a poll on my Instagram stories last month, asking if people sensed there was a perceived hierarchy of “types” of Asians. The majority of Asian Americans said yes, and moreover, the hierarchies they offered up overlapped greatly. Over and over Japan and Korea ended up at the top, followed by Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Mainland China came after that, always preceding Southeast Asia. The Philippines routinely was ranked in last place. South Asia was often excluded altogether, or placed somewhere near the bottom, with India seen has having a higher status than the other South Asian countries. Central Asia didn’t even register. This hierarchy is inherently based on stereotypes, not facts— but race is a theoretical construct calcified by mutual understanding: if so many people sense that this imaginary hierarchy exists, it holds weight, regardless of if we believe it is valid or fair.
I’m drawing attention to this invisible Asian hierarchy because it illustrates how disparate the Asian American experience is even within the Asian American community. The hierarchy is a manifestation of an infinite number of factors, including but not limited to: class, colorism and geopolitical dynamics between every single country in Asia. It is also, in no small part, shaped by each group’s relative representation within American culture: which cultures are known, understood, celebrated, fetishized. Which cultures are seen as sophisticated and which are simply poor. 67% percent of non-Asian Americans said they didn’t perceive a hierarchy among the Asian American community—but this unawareness is what creates the invisible yardstick against which each subgroup is measured.
I spent the first 23 years of my life not talking about my race because I was afraid that my biracial heritage disqualified me from speaking about the Asian American experience. I do not move through the world as a visibly Asian person, and I was, and remain, hesitant to speak on behalf of those that do. What my biracial heritage has granted me, however, is clarity in how wide the gulf is between my and my mother’s experiences. I will never truly understand what it is like to be a Vietnamese refugee, to make a home in the country that bombed your birthplace. I do not know what that feels like, no matter how much I imagine and project. If I cannot truly comprehend my own mother’s experience, a woman’s whose blood runs through my own veins, who has repeated these oral histories into my ear since I was baby on her knee— how foolish it would be for me to assume that I can understand any other Asian American’s, with whom I may share no overlap in culture, class, or upbringing.
Seeing all of that complexity compressed into an Instagram graphic calling for generic solidarity, quite frankly, drove me a little nuts last week. Like ok, so glad the algorithm told you to care about Asian Americans this week. Congratulations?
What I am hung up on is the surprise, the public perception of how “recent” this uptick in anti-Asian racism is. Even the hate crimes and xenophobia tied to the coronavirus is not new—restaurants in Chinatown reported a 50-70% drop in business in February of 2020, a month before America would go into lockdown. Maybe you don’t remember that. Maybe you weren’t paying attention.
Maybe none of you paid attention when the public school curriculum went over Japanese Internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act because those people didn’t look like your families, but I did. The United States forced 120,000 people of Japanese descent to live in concentration camps for four years. Anyone on the west coast with more than 1/16th of Japanese lineage, was sent inland to these camps. Other Asian Americans were frequently mistaken for Japanese and were harassed and assaulted. “I’m not Japanese!” they would scream, sheltering behind their hands. I’ve always known that this country does not see Asian Americans as full citizens, that we will remain foreign no matter how many generations live here and how many Asian American babies are born onto US soil. If you weren’t paying attention, I’ll let you copy my notes: the lesson of Japanese internment is that Asian Americans’ humanity will forever be conditional in this country, that our ethnicity will always be more defining than our citizenship. The other lesson is that Asian American communities drew distinctions along ethnic lines to insulate themselves from the harm being inflicted on other subgroups.
I don’t need non-Asian people to condemn anti-Asian racism. Merely not assaulting Asian Americans is not solidarity, and it is not enough. What I need from non-Asians is for them to contend with how their understanding of the Asian American experience perpetuates the hierarchy and stratifications within the Asian American community. I need Asian Americans to recognize the limitations of their own identity and acknowledge how much of the Asian American experience lies outside of our own personal realities.
Forgive me, I cannot bring myself to beg you to not murder my family. I hoped you knew better than that, but like the gentrification of Chinatown perhaps I was giving America more credit than it deserves.
(me and my mom in my grandmother’s apartment, on my third Tết)
I read Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong at the beginning of the year, which I liked, but didn’t love. I felt like Hong dipped her toe in discussing class and then skated firmly around it. Her unwillingness to implicate herself in the way class divides affect the Asian American experience stopped her from creating something that was as vulnerable as it was impassioned. That being said—it’s an important book, and I think both Asian Americans and non- Asian Americans should read it, for different reasons. Cathy Hong Park is a poet by training and it shows: Minor Feelings’s strength is in the overall effect it casts on the reader rather than any particular argument.
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