It would be an understatement to say that our time together in quarantine is a gift. You have, in many ways, saved me from self-destruction during this objectively stressful time. Yet this abeyance of normalcy is marked by the trauma of a global pandemic, national protests against systemic racism and police brutality, extreme fire and weather caused by climate change, the din of the 24/7 election-year news cycle, your grandpa’s indomitable mind despite flagging health, a punishing sense of the unknown, and a crippling suspicion that there are no answers and never will be. Marshaling the discipline to write a deeply personal missive on a heady topic like Asian American identity against this freefall was daunting, and the task has been arduous.
But I agreed to write this letter because you, like me, are Asian American—colloquially, an American of Asian descent. Yet the term “Asian American” belies the complex, heterogeneous social and political histories of—and interethnic global relationships among—East, Southeast, and South Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas. It condenses a range of experiences into a monolithic identity; reduces details of distinct and at times opposing immigration and migration histories, diasporas, and displacement narratives; perpetuates evolving stereotypes; and enforces noxious biases. The history of visual representation is equally riddled with problems—from colonialism, capitalism, and single-point linear perspective (the breeding ground for racial and religious propaganda) to deleterious pop-culture representations of Asian Americans in film and literature in the last century.
I agreed because representation operates inversely, too. It splinters the universal into immeasurable fragments. It refutes existing narratives while at the same time strengthening collective resonance. Representation via the heterogenous Asian American voices in this collection of letters, in mine to yours, is one gesture toward the term’s capacity to hold the expansiveness and nuance of our experiences.
I agreed because the only thing I believe with my whole heart and mind about identity is that dialogue is irrefutably necessary for its creation. Thus, here is my dispatch to you, nestled within grandpa’s story: a conversation stretching back more than a dozen generations. I’m tending to it now in the hope that we can cultivate it together and share in its bounty; that grounding your self-perception in these exchanges might lessen what pain arises as a result; that, in trying to show you the path to find the answers, I might uncover them myself.
The genealogy of the Shěn clan, commissioned in 1916 by my great-great-grand- father Zhì Xián「志賢」begins with the following reflection:
Alas, preparing a family genealogy is like writing a country’s history, the purpose of which is to record praiseworthy virtues and laudable achievements, so as to encourage and guide posterity for their betterment. Our ancestors were fishermen of obscure origins and of no particular fame or entitlement. For generations, they were simple, honest, hardworking people whose family interrelationships and individual endeavors and exploits are difficult to trace and arrange in proper order and time sequence.1
My dad was born in Shanghai in January 1935, the first son and third child of Hè Fŭ「鶴甫」, one of dozens of grandchildren of Zhì Xián「志賢」, a wealthy and powerful businessman in late 19th-century China. The genealogy traces the first generation back to the late 1600s, and our specific line is descended from the third-generation adopted son Yún Gāo「雲高」. My dad represents the tenth generation, making me the eleventh and you the twelfth.
The Shěn compound built by Zhì Xián「志賢」—representative of the seventh generation—on the northeast side of the city was expansive and featured many ostentatious displays of prosperity, such as a billiards house, a chapel, and professionally maintained gardens. It also included a row of homes for his twenty-four children, which he fathered by two wives.
Around the time my dad was born, his father—my grandfather, a civil engineer trained in Paris—ran a successful architectural firm and loved dogs, owning six of them. They lived in a well-appointed French-style home in the southeast end of Shanghai. My father had two older sisters and a loving mother, Cecilia「顧敏恆」, who cared well for him as a toddler.
But their privilege was short-lived, ending when the Japanese took control of parts of the city during the Second Sino-Japanese War. My great-great-grandfather’s lavish estate was ransacked and destroyed in 1937 by invading Japanese troops. During the occupation, my dad’s father left for the interior of China to assist the nationalist military. He also left his three small children and wife behind in an apartment in the French Quarter—part of the so-called Solitary Island, an area of foreign concessions that remained intact after the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, surrounded by war zones and providing refuge for some of the 400,000 displaced Chinese for several early years of the war. Without access to adequate resources or support, my dad’s middle sister fell sick and died toward the end of 1941. A little over a year later, his mother suffered a fatal stroke, passing in early 1943.
Though we’ve lived less than a mile apart for most of my life, my aunt Margaret—my dad’s surviving older sister—has rarely spoken about this part of the family’s history. This summer, as the pandemic wore on in Santa Clara, where we both currently live, we adhered to social distancing guidelines and spoke by phone. In a short and anomalous reflection, my aunt told me that she knows the date of her sister’s death because it was three days before Pearl Harbor was bombed. She recounted with a tinge of urgency in her voice how she had been very close with her younger sister and that her death is still a painful memory. She can still conjure an image of her little sister being carried away down the stairs of their cramped apartment, too weak to be saved, but nonetheless crying and calling out Margaret’s name while she stood helpless and horrified at the top of the stairs. The real shame, my aunt noted, is in never knowing where—or even if—her sister’s body was buried: no grave exists; none had existed.
After my dad’s mother and sister were gone, his father returned to Shanghai in 1943, becoming severely ill before recovering enough strength to organize their clandestine departure. In 1944, they left at night on foot, though at 9 and 11 years old, my dad and Aunt Margaret were carried by rickshaw. They traveled to Chongqing by way of Quanzhou, not returning to Shanghai until the war ended two years later.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, a collection of seven essays released last spring by poet and Korean American author Cathy Park Hong, develops the titular phrase to describe “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” Minor feelings, Hong concludes, are the result of unopposed, reoccurring microaggressions of race—what author Viet Thanh Nguyen has also termed “low-level racism”—towards Asian Americans and other non-Black minorities, compounded over time to create dissonance between one’s perception and reality.
In a New Yorker review, Jia Tolentino uses a clinical metaphor—apropos of the times, if a tad macabre—to describe the impact of reading Hong’s memoir on racial identity: “It bled a dormant discomfort out of me with surgical precision.” Following in this vein (no pun intended), for me, Minor Feelings hacked away mercilessly at an aged, congenital scar with such guttural force that it unleashed a mystifying combination of rage, satisfaction, and melancholy. The pleasurable yet painful orgasm of validation perpetually shy of vindication. I read it with a strange, delusional excitement—finally, words to describe feelings and ideas I had laid to rest with neither the language nor emotional confidence to codify them within a known hierarchy.
Unmoored by the multiplicities of location and diasporic imagination, and complicated by notions of nationality and nationhood, Asian American identity is a mosaic of dissimilar places and histories. Growing up, I was—usually in this order—from Shaker Heights, Catholic, American, Midwestern, half-Chinese and half-Caucasian, mixed or biracial, part Jewish. So, not at all like Hong. Why, then, did reading Minor Feelings so resonate with me? It’s hard to reconcile the term Asian American with its paradoxical connotations: extreme disparity here acts as a unifying foundation.2
In “The Indebted,” the concluding essay of Minor Feelings, Hong describes an early racialized encounter at a pool in her aunt’s apartment complex while she was babysitting her young cousins. A white man yells at them for trespassing in the pool, overruling Hong’s logical explanation and muttering They’re everywhere now as she obediently leaves. Hong carefully prefaces this reflection with a disclaimer: “The public pool is such a stark example of how much this country has been hellbent on keeping black and white bodies apart that I became unsure if it was my history to retell.”
Could it be, I wondered, mere coincidence that one of my earliest memories with racialized emotions also happened at a pool? I was 5 or 6 years old, watching my older brother jump off the diving board at Thornton Park, the community rec center in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where I spent a good chunk of my childhood schlepping between the pool, tennis courts, and ice rink. I stood on the concrete deck of the deep end, dripping wet, squinting in the sun to catch a glimpse of his bravery and unaware I was blocking the line for other eager divers.
Behind me, a group of Black children started snickering, and I turned around to confounding jeers and gestures. They pulled back the corners of their eyes, joined their hands in prayer, bowing. Chink! A Konnichiwa! She can’t see the line because of her slitty eyes! they taunted. Each insult elicited hysterical giggling, which fueled more teasing. I turned back around, pretending I couldn’t hear them. In fact, I was frozen with bewilderment.
By this age, I generally understood the concept of racism towards Black people. But I wasn’t Black, and I couldn’t figure out what the insults meant. I asked my mom about the incident later, though it occurs to me now that I don’t remember exactly what she said. I carried forward only the takeaway: my dad was Chinese and she wasn’t, so I was half-Chinese. There weren’t a lot of Chinese or half-Chinese families in our town, so I looked different than other kids. Even more tellingly, I’m nearly positive my mom did not use the term Asian American.
My story differed significantly from Hong’s: the offenders were children rather than an adult, Black instead of white, and the location was public, not private. Nonetheless, it substantiates the damning and recursive logic of racism. It’s also hard not to draw a connection between my low-level racist incident at the pool and the model minority myth’s perpetuation of anti-Black racism, though playing out here inversely. Shaker Heights residents love to tout the fact that their community was one of the first suburbs to racially integrate, and in 1986, the city began a “Fund for the Future of Shaker Heights,” offering loans for down payments for residents buying homes in segregated neighborhoods to promote multiethnic neighborhoods. But the enduring legacies of colonialism and capitalism rely on and desire to identify the other. Progressive housing tactics helped avoid some of the pitfalls of white flight, but they also unwittingly promote a white savior mentality that can be as harmful as outright racial bias.
Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel Little Fires Everywhere, centered on the travails of an upper-middle-class family led by matriarch Elena Richardson, is set in Shaker Heights in 1997. I would have been in eighth grade that year. The story begins when Elena, a third-generation Shaker Heights resident married to a prominent lawyer, rents a home to single mother and artist, Mia, and her daughter, Pearl. She takes them under her wing in the same misguided manner that Cher adopts Tai in Clueless. Ultimately, Elena turns against Mia when she finds out that Mia has befriended the mother of a Chinese American baby whose custody is in dispute. Close family friends of the Richardsons claim rightful adoption of the baby, while Mia sympathizes with the child’s immigrant mother, with whom she works at the only Chinese restaurant in town.
Ng, who drew upon her memories of growing up in Shaker Heights to write the novel (it’s sadly true there was only one Chinese takeout restaurant in town, Pearl of the Orient, across from the apartment where my aunt Margaret lived for nearly thirty years), cleverly reveals how racialized power dynamics converge with economic and social hierarchies. The opportunity for this story to serve as a stage for a deeper probe of race relations became evident when Hulu optioned the novel as a miniseries, casting Mia as a Black woman played by Kerry Washington. (In the book, Mia is presumably white.)
Would a baby have a better life with an adopted family who doesn’t understand the culture of her biological race, or a single mother who does? Should a biracial family in late 20th-century Ohio celebrate their Chinese culture or embrace the new “American” identity? My parents chose assimilation whole-heartedly. We spoke only English in the house and were raised to believe we were no different than anyone else. But in the racial hierarchies of Shaker Heights, being Asian American was different.
The honorable Ren Xian, a fisherman plying his business in Lake Tai Hu near Zhang Sha Island, and his eminent wife from the Wang Family were the first ones to convert, he assuming the name John, she Cecilia. There are no records prior to that time. There have been two hundred sixty–some years and ten generations since the time of the conversion to the holy church of the honorable Ren Xian Gong. The family was in Zhejiang, then moved to Qingxi and eventually to Dongjiadu, Shanghai. Simplicity and diligence in raising family, honesty and loyalty in dealings in the world: these are the ways our forebears conducted their lives and hoped to pass on to their progeny.
Consequently, without a genealogy, the descendants will not remember the past achievements, observe the law, and continue the family tradition. So under uncle Reverend Jin Biao’s kindly urging, the other uncles and my father strongly felt that a genealogy must be undertaken. They raised large sums of money for this purpose, but then uncle Jin Biao was transferred to a different location for his priestly duties, so he could not contribute to or be responsible for this undertaking. Fortunately, my older cousin Reverend Liang Neng happened to be transferred to pastoral duties at the church at Xujiahui, and he took over the genealogy task.
The influence of Catholicism, specifically Jesuit ideology, upon the Shěn clan (and thus on the genealogy) is indisputable and seeps into nearly every aspect of my father’s life. When he returned to Shanghai in 1946 with his father and surviving sister after the war was over, my dad enrolled in high school at St. Ignatius College, a well-known Jesuit prep school in the French Quarter where his paternal grandmother’s family had achieved scholarly renown; a monumental bust of his grandmother’s uncle still sits on the sprawling campus. During this short spell of pseudo-normalcy, my dad’s father remarried and had two more children with his second wife, Lily.
In 1948, the Communists took control of Shanghai, and by 1949, the political situation had worsened; my dad’s father received word that his name had turned up on a list of political undesirables. He hastily departed to Hong Kong while my dad stayed with his new stepmom and half-siblings, my aunt Maria and uncle Larry. But dreading the looming reality, he arranged for his new family to join him not long after arriving. With his older sister in boarding school, my dad was left alone in the family’s apartment; he was 14. Eventually, his father sent word to shut down their life in Shanghai. My dad was instructed to make all arrangements: settle accounts, disperse furniture and belongings among family and friends, call Margaret back from boarding school, purchase train tickets, and make their way to Hong Kong, all as quickly as possible. A risky encounter at the train station rattled their sense of safety, and out of caution, my dad and his sister destroyed any family photo albums showing evidence of their father’s military record. For this reason, there are few extant photos of my dad’s nuclear family.
Once settled in Hong Kong, my dad enrolled in another Jesuit prep school and resumed his studies. There, despite the frequent upheaval, trauma, and loss he experienced as a youth, he forged a strong bond with one of his teachers. After graduating in 1954, he enrolled in a Jesuit seminary college in Manila. He was following in the path of his mentor, as well as that of many of his forebears.
Catholic doctrine is founded on the idea that God’s love is universal (the word catholic stems from its late Roman antecedent catholicus, derived from the Greek adjective katholikos meaning “universal”). It is available to all, blind to worldly distinctions like race or socioeconomic status or whether your parents were Catholic. All God’s children can and will be saved. Confucian ideology, which places importance on adherence to a higher order, was well suited to reinforce Catholicism’s emphasis on the inclusive whole over the individual. Both ideologies fetishize sacrifice and encourage a reverent fealty to power hierarchies.
I can’t talk about my identity without addressing the outsize impact of Catholicism: being raised Catholic, attending Catholic elementary and high school, and not one but two Catholic universities—first Notre Dame, and then Georgetown, where I transferred after one year; the “Catholic Disneyland” in South Bend, Indiana was too much for even someone like me, indoctrinated at birth. I attended mass twice every week (more or less) until age 18, and I have earned five of the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, and marriage (only for my first, which lasted just over two years). Until adulthood, I was pro-life by default. During my freshman year of high school, I participated in the so-called “life-altering” Kairos retreat—a multiday program rooted in Ignatian spirituality where teenage attendees are offered the chance to reflect upon God’s role in their lives. Upon returning, I made a faith journal (an inconveniently oversized scrapbook decorated with a candle fashioned from colored construction paper) and filled it with cringeworthy notes about the important figures in my life who strengthened my faith: my Irish Catholic boyfriend at the time, whom I followed to Notre Dame (hence transferring to another Catholic university when we broke up), teachers, and classmates. In college, I studied art history, becoming obsessed with revealing the multitude of ways Catholic imagery in the late gothic and early Medieval period was developed and disseminated to educate, convert, and dominate existing populations and newly discovered colonies.
Sometimes when I’m fretting indiscriminately, I noodle the idea that Catholicism gave me a foundational moral core—or maybe more like a strong fulcrum from which to build sound judgment. Or at the very least, a guilt complex that propels me towards smart choices. I worry that without a starting point, finding your way may be unnecessarily arduous. I’m not sure if you know who Jesus is, a concern that occasionally makes an appearance in these quasi-subconscious speculations. The Catholic guilt of not raising you Catholic is impossible to eschew, but, for better or worse, the dictums of universal love and deferential obedience never fully took root in my mind.
The recollection of that encounter at our local pool, which is now reminiscent of a kind of impersonalized, racialized heckling that I’ve grown adept at ignoring, is less painful to recall than the racially tinged bullying directed at me at Gesu—a tight-knit and predominantly white Catholic church adjacent to a K–8 elementary school where I spent the bulk of my youth, if I wasn’t at home or Thornton.
In first grade, several new students joined our kindergarten cohort, among them a charming, bright boy with blond hair and blue eyes who was popular with students and teachers. I reveled in being one of the top students in school, blissfully unaware of the unflinching way I lived up to the brownnosing Asian stereotype. I hardly cared about what had happened the previous summer—it was, after all, a relatively minor incident and still, then, a one-off. So, although I was one of only a handful of Asian American students at the entire school, I was a stubbornly precocious perfectionist. This likely irritated my teacher, who from the start seemed to delight in pitting me and this new boy against each other in performative competitions of wit.
We were both assigned to a small reading group for gifted students and quickly fell into a pattern of sparring for kudos. My exceedingly competitive nature was piqued for the first time. But I was smarter, regardless of ego or attitude. I won the class spelling bee. I could finish the hardest math worksheets first, conspicuously flashing a smug glance in his direction each time I proved this point. He was more likable than I (see: overly competitive), and for a while the two of us were a formidable yet balanced pair of teacher’s pets.
Maybe a third of the way into the year, an organic rift between boys and girls began to swell in our class—this being the natural age when gender roles, groomed and stoked by Christian patriarchal rhetoric, began to take on sharp distinctions. By the middle of first grade in my parochial learning environment, boys had cooties and girls paired off in twos and threes on the playground to administer a special handshake that would ostensibly protect us from male infection. The bullying began as an innocent extension of this. On the paved lot at recess after lunch, when our teachers vanished and volunteer monitors were left in charge, my rival would hurl racially tinged insults at me. Foreigner! Chink! Go back to your own country!
Of all the off-color nicknames, “foreigner” stuck. Lining up in two parallel single-file lines—boys and girls—for recess, lunch, gym, music lessons, or dismissal, we were usually across from each other because our last names fell in the last quarter of the alphabet. He’d whisper “foreigner” under his breath, flitting a smarmy gaze in my direction—much like I had done to him when triumphantly yet discreetly noting my superior intellectual acuity. His message was unequivocal: I may be smart, but I was manifestly different from the rest of our classmates; I was Other. The gist of the earlier minor encounter came barreling back, and I finally understood that identity was largely governed, it seemed, by my physical appearance.
I don’t know for how long this went on—maybe a few days? a week?—but one day, filled with indignation, I retaliated with enough boorishness to warrant a trip to the principal’s office. Conveniently, I have no memory of what I did. Legs dangling, I sobbed in detail my side of the story to Sister Mary So and So, concentrating my gaze on her taut forehead as I relayed how this new boy was not only mean, but wrong. I was born and raised in Shaker Heights; just because my father was Chinese didn’t mean I wasn’t American; I had a right to be here as much as anyone else. My undeniable penchant to argue a point that I’m positive I am right about—defying authority to defend it because surely everyone else is as flabbergasted as me—had been unleashed. I waited anxiously, expecting to be marched out of the office with the principal’s arm around my shoulder to signal the sorted misunderstanding.
Instead, I was stunned when I was admonished with a harsh warning and told that I’d be expelled if something like this happened again. Not an utterance addressing the racialized insults, not an iota of concern for the nature of this boy’s ostracizing taunts. I faintly recall being fed a platitude of the sticks and stones may break my bones variety, but not even a nominal reprimand for his choice of language. It was crystal clear: this racial mockery was not the type of complaint that would be taken seriously. I was not physically harmed. We are not different; love is blind; we are all the same because of God’s love.
Photographs for Remembrance of the Fond Reunion of the Five Branches of the Wú Xìng「吳興」 Family
Introduction by Zhòng Fāng「仲芳」and Yín Fāng「吟芳」, eighth-generation Shěns
Cranes and doves in the fields, brothers in urgent need Men of today, not like those as brothers.
As one reads the pages of Chang Di《常棣》in the Book of Odes《詩經》, it is hard not to clap shut the folios, sigh three times over, and wonder if—given it is said that people nowadays are not like people of old—it is possible nevertheless for people today to match people in the past? Our folks from Wú Xìng「吳興」have grown to such a great lot and have always shown friendliness and love towards each other from all generations in the past up to our own, where we are reaching into the fifties in ages in our lives, and as the ancient sage Boyu「伯玉」says, “one can then see things in better perspectives and make amends for previous misgivings.”
From 1955 to 1965, my dad remained in Manila and diligently pursued Jesuit formation. He was sent to Toronto to complete the final stages of his candidacy, and in 1968, he was ordained a Catholic priest in the order of the Jesuits. With Jesuit sponsorship, he enrolled in a PhD program at the University of South Carolina, graduating in 1972 and thereafter completing a yearlong internship in Birmingham, Alabama. After certification, my dad applied to jobs in the US and Hong Kong. The Jesuits arranged a job for him in Hong Kong, urging him to return, but to their consternation, he accepted a position in Cleveland, Ohio, at the teaching hospital affiliated with Case Western Reserve University. Part of his job included supervising medical students, and before long, he became familiar with the CWRU campus and its Catholic Center. In 1975, he left the Jesuit order, pivoting more fully into his new life in the US, which came with a strong desire to start a family.
When my parents met in 1978 at the Catholic Center at CWRU, my dad was 42—a full twenty years older than my mom, who had just completed her first year at Case’s law school. They married in the spring of 1979 after dating for less than a year. As we liked to tease her growing up, my mom’s last year of law school was free because her husband was still teaching there. My older brother—also John Thomas—was born in January 1980, followed by my sister, Mary Kathryn, in 1981; me, Frances Holly, in December 1983; Andrew Nathaniel, the youngest, was born in the fall of 1985. Though my parents loved the name Holly—my mom thought it was fitting for a baby girl born in December, reminiscent of the boughs of greenery that signal Christmastime—Catholicism requires a child to be named after a canonized saint, so Frances was put first on my birth certificate, after my dad’s father’s Catholic English name, Francis.
My maternal grandfather, born in Prague to Moravian Jews, narrowly escaped the Nazis, eventually landing in New Jersey. His blue eyes were as much an asset then as they are today. These blue eyes were passed to my mom, but all four of her children arrived with dark eyes and dark hair. Thus, my relationship with whiteness is complicated by the simple fact that my father isn’t white, but my mother is. Very white, as I learned to say when asked by new friends or acquaintances; very white as in blue eyes, fair skin, and hair. This explanation became necessary because my physical traits are predominantly East Asian to the point that I can usually pass as 100 percent Chinese. If my mom and I were shopping or dining out by ourselves, I was often mistaken for an adopted Chinese child—an undesired but extraordinarily lucky baby girl born in China, spared death via adoption by Westerners, as was sometimes inferred, or even directly asked, especially in the mid-1990s after The Joy Luck Club became a movie.
The convention of assigning racial percentages to individuals is absurd yet crucial to the understanding of contemporary identity; the practice defines an individual with irrevocable, often violent force. Poet and author Caroline Randall Williams recently noted in a New York Times opinion piece that the rule of hypodescent—or the practice of assigning the child of a mixed-race union to the socially subordinate group—has upheld confederate ideals in the South, which deny the truth of plantation rape and the mixed-race children abandoned and exploited by their white fathers.
Before now, I probably wouldn’t have allowed myself the exercise of thinking about how this concept might apply to me. So, like Hong, I preface this rumination with the full acknowledgment that there is no comparison in the detrimental effects of hypodescent when considering Blacks and Asian Americans. Yet I can’t deny the urge to wonder: Do I have more to gain with a 100 percent Asian face now than I did over three decades ago, when I was born? What do I lose by never being mistaken for 100 percent white—or at least partially white like my sister? Conversely, white people regularly mistake me for all stripes of Asian—Korean, Japanese, and less often, Southeast Asian. I think about how this objective fact makes me at once analogous to and discrete from 100 percent Asian Americans. Am I “more white” than Asian because I was raised in the US with one white parent, and under the conditions of assimilation?
Reading Minor Feelings the first time, I told myself that I, like Hong, avoided identity politics in my chosen field—art history, museums, and cultural production—because I was enraptured with modernism. I wanted to understand the nuanced relationship between representation and objecthood. I was uninterested in leveraging or exploring identity because I considered it juvenile, already passé by the time I was in graduate school in 2010.
The truth is so base that I must nearly force myself to write these words. The truth is, I was ashamed of my Asianness, both physically and culturally. I just wanted to be normal. I hated that I would always be the Asian in a group of friends. I was determined not to be Other, to avoid letting my physical appearance define me. The truth is, I wasn’t interested in identity politics because it meant having to engage in my Asian Otherness.
Despite the fact that my small world was mostly white as a child, I wasn’t completely alone in my strange half-Chinese otherness. There were Asian American families at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where I took piano and violin lessons, yet I didn’t feel totally comfortable in these surroundings, where most children had two Chinese parents or two Korean parents. When I was in preschool, my dad and mom forged a friendship with another biracial half-Chinese/half-white family in our neighborhood. They also had four children, one of whom was my age. Though we did not attend the same schools—Alison went to Shaker Heights High School, the objectively cooler and equally academically rigorous public school in our town, while I was forced to attend Beaumont School for Girls—we became very close during the two summers we spent as lifeguards (ironically, at Thornton Park).
Flipping through old boxes of my childhood belongings recently, I stumbled across a homemade scrapbook Alison made for my seventeenth birthday. I laughed at the intentionally random Britney Spears references, the yearbook photos of crushes, and the enumerated lists of high, hilarious times. But I had completely forgotten that she devoted an entire section to the racism we experienced as teenagers. In addition to the lyrics of “Got Rice?”— a parody song about Asian pride set to Tupac’s “Changes”—one page was titled “AP: What Does This Stand For.” It describes in detail how we were often referred to as the “double Asian Persuasion,” a double entendre for “Advancement Placement” because we were also smart. Another page reads, “Do you remember our conversation about all those RACISTS? Glad we’re in the same boat.” I hadn’t forgotten so much as repressed these things; seeing them, the memories came thrusting back.
Memories fade, families disperse, before long there will be a gathering of passersby and strangers rather than a closely-knit, supportively bonded large family.
When I first approached your grandpa about this letter, I was consumed by the precarity caused by the global pandemic. I was also intensely aware that President Trump’s intentionally racialized rhetoric (constantly focusing on China as the initial source of the virus) would resuscitate Asian and Asian American stereotypes across the US and beyond. Guardedly, I asked my dad to share his reflections on being both Chinese and Asian American—especially with a background as varied and complex as his. But in his typically vexing manner, he demurred by means of a conditional. First, he wanted to hear my evaluation of growing up as a second-generation Asian American. Already anxious at gauging the emotional capacity required to provide him with a sufficient response, I—lazily?—told him to read Minor Feelings. It’ll give you a good primer into some of my feelings, I said. Send me the name and title later, he relented.
When I saw him in person a few days later, your grandpa wanted to know if I really felt singled out or treated differently during my childhood or adolescence. He seemed genuinely surprised when I responded, of course I did. I knew a long soliloquy, protracted by his recent brain injury, was coming. But when you are in the middle of a months-long lockdown caused by a global pandemic, what else is there to do?
I think we started by bickering about whether or not America has a racist past with regards to slavery—at least in comparison to pre- or post-Communist China. Eventually, he carefully pointed out that some of Hong’s perspective is at least colored by the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her Korean parents, a fact alluded to obliquely in Minor Feelings. He explained that he never really felt discriminated against because of various factors, chief among them his unwavering faith and participation in the Jesuit order, which he noted, is an elitist rank among Catholics (because they’re highly educated). And because his mother always reminded him, in the years he remembers before she died, that he was descended from a noble clan.
When I was leaving his house later that day, he handed me a piece of paper with a short, numbered list scrawled hastily on the back of a medication print-out folded in half:
The left column noted “three racially tinged incidents” (he had originally written down “three incidents” and then gone back and added the modifier with a caret). On the right was a short list of major life events, untitled, but presumably referencing what he had previously expressed about the factors that had made him resilient to racism.
A few days later, your grandpa sent the following email:
Thank you very much, Hol, for the visit yesterday and for the conversation on our individual experiences as an American of Asian origin. I have felt regrets since coming to California and learning that all four of you felt unease about being Asian amidst a majority of Americans. It was naiveté on my part to assume that my self-confidence would automatically transfer to my children. Hopefully yesterday’s conversation will lead you to some kind of resolution on the issue of self-identity. Hopefully too my story will provide a broadened perspective in assessing the experiences and reactions of other people of Asian origin.
Nuance—I’m obsessed with it lately because I feel like it’s slipping away from me. No matter how carefully I move from one thought to another, one moment to the next, I can’t avoid extremes. I crave simple binaries like forbidden food, like the innocent themes and effortless melodies of a pop song. Love and loss, good and evil. Sometimes, locating myself within these emotionally charged clichés satiates a primal desire; I rationalize this penchant as an outlet for my natural “energy.” At the same time, I worry that crusading for a cause is a harmful denial of powerlessness. Or that my desire for extremes is fueled by inertia—that it is a way to default to a certain moral (Catholic) code of behavior.
Is it part of the reason why I didn’t turn down the unplanned opportunity to bring you into this world? Understanding and acknowledging every fragment of our family history, every layer of my perspective on Asian American identity, how it’s colored by my experience and how it differs from those who have come before me, is tedious and exhausting. I’m embarrassed at how much attitudes about Asian American identity tend to shift, both in the short term and long term. Those who have the emotional and mental endurance to keep pace with the glut of information and perspectives—to parse it, understand it, reveal nuances, note contradictions, internalize perspectives, and learn from the discrepancies—thrive. Those who are lazy choose a side and stick to it. I’m tired. On my best days, I summon the assuredness of the vibrant Asian American voices and positive examples I hear around me. This enables me to ruminate on my own success as due, in part, to my resolve to not be defined by my Asian American identity. On my worst, I’m the self-hating, dreadfully egotistical version of myself, the same ghost that tortured Hong. Somewhere between these two spaces, I start to approximate my own definition of Asian American.
But I am nowhere close to having this all figured out. My mind is plagued by abstract questions—Are words nonviolent by definition? Is representation more important than de-normalizing the use of racialized language? Or are we shaped most by the physical spaces and tangible realities of bodily harm that surround us at any given moment?—as well as concrete ones: Why am I so angry?
I try to tell myself (or remind myself?) that emotions can be simultaneous as well as discrete. But if non-cathartic states of feeling are associated with situations in which action is blocked or suspended, then shouldn’t my anger displace envy, paranoia, and irritation? “I always thought my physical identity was the problem but writing made me realize that even without myself present, I still couldn’t rise above myself, which pitched me into a kind of despair.”3 Reading this was like watching the evolution of my emotions sped up and played back for me. I had a pretty good run at fooling myself, believing that I had somehow risen above myself or beyond my racialized perspective.
I wish I could tell you that I live in hopeful patience, that love triumphs hate, or that God will save us all. My own experience has revealed the paradox of deception: when it is so blatant it becomes thick like a fog, hard to identify because it is so normal. Sometimes the last people and things on earth you’d ever suspect are complicit in systems of hegemony designed to differentiate us according to arbitrary hierarchies, deny us our personhood, and harm the individual at the expense of the collective.
It is impossible to enumerate all that I fear or don’t know. Today I’m hopeful enough to start by offering this letter and in it, this message: Love is ubiquitous, not universal. If we are one, the well-being of the fragment is essential to the success of the whole. The way you come to love someone is learned over time and yet inexplicably inherent.
I love you the most and I worry about you the most because you are the first me and I am the first you. I’m tired and sad, but not nearly complete. You and I will be OK, or as Grandpa likes to say these days when I ask him how he’s doing, my kind of OK.
Shěn Clan Genealogy as translated by the author’s father. ↩
Many recent articles on Asian American identity in the last few years have noted how the term Asian American was developed in the late 1960s as a political tactic to create a unified coalition of various immigrant communities. ↩
Hong, Minor Feelings, 42. ↩