The Micro and the Macro

So what are you?

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in the pursuit of social justice by our 2017 Mike Honda Writing Fellow, Amanda Ong. Read her first piece on identity, second on Tam v. USPTO, third on power, fourth on feminism, and fifth on Columbia’s xenophobic vandalism, sixth on activism, and seventh on voting access.

Every time a teacher called me by the name of another East Asian girl in my class, the same sharpness would always pinch me in my underbelly. It was something that happened again and again over teachers and classes and years. “Sorry,” the teacher would always say to me hastily. “Amanda, not Sophia.” “Amanda, not Jane.” “Amanda, not Michelle.” They would always try and cover quickly as if it was really just about the name. Of course, it was never just about the name.

But there was always the moment right after they said the wrong name, and right before their apology, that held all of the tension of centuries of erasure. And even when I would hear their apology and the collective breath being held by my class would be released; there would still be something that lingered in me. There was still the knowledge that my teacher’s apology wanted to be an apology for all of the racism they had internalized, but knew not how to or cared not to change. There was the knowledge that my teacher’s apology wanted to be an apology for the history that has existed, a history that lives deep within them and they have not been able to unlearn. That is the sharpness that pinched me in my underbelly, and it is not one that has ever entirely left me over teachers and classes and years.

For most of my life my experiences with racism, and even my experience with my Asian American identity, have come in the form of microagressions like these. If you have not heard of microagressions before, they are the kind of statements that happen often in casual conversation: but they veil indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination toward marginalized groups.

When I think of microagressions I think of the way people have always asked me, “Where are you from? China? Japan?” I think of bringing dumplings to school and being asked by children with crinkled noses, “What is that?” I think of the time in elementary school when I confided to a white friend about my insecurities around wanting to look white, and she said, “At least your eyes aren’t too small for an Asian girl. Small eyes are the ugliest.”

It took years of microagression upon microagression until I began to become aware of the way in which I was being “otherized” for my race. As I got older, I learned that these small instances of alienating comment reflected a larger history of oppression that has come to paint the way we view race today, even on an implicit level.

Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, the modern world as we know it has been built on and around a history of racism, of the exploitation and exclusion of people of color. And whether or not we want to acknowledge it, that history is embedded in the way we think. In many ways, I am lucky that in childhood I only had to face this truth through the hidden prejudice of microagressions and not through overt hatred and violence.

But even as I say this, a recently released study, one that was the first of its kind, revealed that hate crimes against Asian Americans tripled from 2014 to 2015. And with news of the assault of an elderly Korean woman by a white supremacist in Los Angeles earlier this month, I feel that the Asian American community is at risk for becoming victims of more vehement acts of hate than the microagressions I faced in my youth.

I don’t want to dismiss the hurt that microagressions cause—as I have said, I have more than known the deep-seeded kind of pain they leave. But right now I fear that Asian Americans bodies and lives are more threatened than they have been in years. In the months since Trump’s election and then inauguration, many white supremacists have been afoot, and there has correspondingly been a rise in hate crimes, many done in Trump’s name. And as the President has not condemned any of these crimes, it feels as if hate crimes now happen almost flagrantly and are dismissed with equal indifference.

However as these crimes come to affect the Asian American community, I ask us not to hide in fear. I realize that the threat to our lives right now is daunting. But in the years I have spent facing microagressions, I have learned that the only thing one can do to stop such actions is to speak out against them. We must address these issues at their and educate each other first, and we can do that by talking about our experiences with hate. If we can I believe it is imperative that we must not retreat into our homes or even inside of ourselves. We must go forth and fight, it is the only thing we can do if we want others to learn our names and respect our bodies.

Amanda Ong – 2017 Mike Honda Writing Fellow

Silence, memory, and endurance: a personal family history

China kleptocracy

Sometimes I look at the abyss we’re headed into and I shiver. We are going to have unqualified kleptocrats running this country, which has thus far survived because of a strange mix of democracy, special interests, and forward thinking by our nation’s leaders.

Then I remember what my family has been through on both sides, and I know that we have been through worse and survived. Over the past few months, I have been collecting the oral history of my 92 year old grandmother, who was born in 1916 (Chinese years start at 1 – East Asian counting of ages.) I regret that I started so late, for she is the only one whose memory of these years is intact.

Consider the chances: on both sides, my grandparents fled China for Taiwan, and then decades later, my parents migrated to America. This dual migration has led to many silences that ring through our family’s history and the loss of important historical documents. My paternal grandma, or Nai Nai, was the only one from her village who was able to leave China before the Cultural Revolution. My paternal grandfather, or Ye Ye, manned the flight controls on a plane for the Kuomingdang (Nationalist) Army, and was even sent to the United States to train for a period. Which I guess places him in this era of Taiwanese pilots who trained in America from 1937-1945, as my grandma cannot recall the exact years.

They had been placed into an arranged marriage at an early age, and knew each other growing up. Nonetheless, the fact that my grandpa still called for her to come and join him was a rare opportunity. When my grandmother arrived at the departure point, it was a month before her name was called to go on one of the few planes leaving for Taiwan. When I asked if she was scared, grandma laughed and said, “No, I always had a lot of courage. Even when my siblings didn’t want to go outside, I wanted to explore.”

For a young woman, Nai Nai was able to attain a certain level of education and even studied accounting. As a child, she and her sisters had managed to escape the traditional footbinding because they were set to start school, and had to walk there, so her mom opted not to begin. Over the years, Nai Nai kept in touch with her family in China – parents, brothers, and sisters – through letters. Through missives, she learned that her parents, and her brothers all died, mostly due to starvation. One younger sister, or mei mei, remained by the first time she was able to return to China in the 1980s. She had never expected the war and the distance to last for so long. While grandma was heartbroken she didn’t get to see her family altogether again, she is grateful for the life that she has lived, and for all the experiences she has enjoyed. My grandpa Ye Ye was one of three sons, one of whom was sickly and passed early. His eldest brother passed when he was in his 30s. So Ye Ye became the only one to go to Taiwan, and then America.

My father and mother were both born on the emerald isle of Formosa, also known as Taiwan. On my mom’s side, my Gong Gong and Poa Poa were set to give her up for adoption as she was the 4th child born into the family, it was wartime, and there wasn’t enough food. The elderly neighbors were looking forward to taking my mother into their family, but when she was born, my Grandma decided my mom was too cute, and our biological family kept her. In the time that they grew up, Taiwan was subject to the longest stretch of martial law that any nation has ever had.

She would meet my dad in elementary school, and then they would go on to date as young adults. After college, my dad’s professor needed help with research in the United States, and asked him to assist. Much like my grandfather did, my father came to the US and then called for my mother to join him. It was in the United States that they settled and raised one child.

Three generations, spanning three different countries. If it had been for any of these experiences being different, or chance intruding, my life wouldn’t be what it is. So I am grateful to the generations that come before – to their strength and resilience, and I seek to preserve these memories for the generations that come after. In recognition that they survived when so many didn’t, and of the nimble and enduring spirit that sustained them, I vow to remain resolute and strong. The things that I have seen and experienced are dwarfed by the alignment of luck that it took for generations on both sides to come across three countries to America.

Like most Asian American families, we came here after the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, and now there are three generations of us living in the United States. We are here by law and by policy, as teachers and doctors, as professionals and creatives, as people of faith and people on a journey, giving back to the country of our birth and adoption. To know history is to know yourself. We are here as free citizens, whose ancestors fought wars in search of freedom. No one can take that from us unless we let them.

On Appearance, Identity, and Thanksgiving

Editor’s Note: Amanda Ong is currently an undergraduate student at Columbia University in the City of New York. She was born in Hong Kong to Chinese-American parents, but grew up primarily in Southern California. At Columbia she works on the Daily Spectator and is a member of the Asian American Alliance. She is very passionate about writing as well as social justice, and is continuously trying to work towards activist causes.

mixed Asian-American family

Actress Diane Farr poses for a family portrait with her husband, Seung Yong, and their three children. Credit: CNN

“The only person who can tell my kids are part Asian is the haircutter,” my cousin laughs. “He says their hair is so thick and full, they had to be Asian.”

When I visit my uncle for Thanksgiving, all of the attention is on my nephews and niece; all three are blue eyed, bright, and under five years old. They are still at an age where the world is full of unfathomable wonder: They look at every rock, every plant, and every animal bare of assumptions. There is endless potential. They look and see a world where everything has the capacity to be anything. But the world looks at them and sees kids who are white. They are three and five, and already boxed into this construct. My uncle was the only one of both my mother and father’s siblings to marry a white person. His two kids, my cousins, are both nearly twenty years older than I am. And their kids, my nephews and niece, are beautiful, one-quarter Chinese children, over ten years younger than I but possessing twice my vivacity.

Big blue eyes and thick blonde hair—we share blood, and yet there is no symmetry in our features. I want to look at them and never question our relation, never feel like ties of race separate us. But in the back of my mind, I can’t help but be perplexed. I can’t help but see them and see things I am not. I can’t help but see our differences. It is hard for me to look at the three of them without thinking, “How is it we’re related? How is it they’re Chinese American too?”

But they rush up to my uncle and hold his hand in a way only grandchildren and their grandfathers do, and they call him by the same name I have always called my grandfather. It is in moments like this I have to remind myself that being Asian American, being Chinese American, is about much more than hair, and eyes, and skin. While my Chinese and Asian identity has grown around the fact that I “look” Asian, and around other’s ability to see me and see Asian, there is so much more to this identity than that. And my nephews and niece share that. They are white, but they are Asian American too. They are Chinese American too.

Still, they are perceived as only being white. It is easy to forget that the lines of race we try to divide ourselves with are ever ambiguous. There is no distinct point where a person’s eyes become definitively “Asian looking” or “White looking”. Humans have been migrating and mutating and mixing for thousands upon thousands of years. No one is of a pure race: A pure race does not exist. But our connections to family and culture are greater than all of these constructed divides. Family reflects not just shared blood, but shared experience. It reflects shared upbringing. Shared childhoods. Shared art, and food, and values.

The blood I share with my nephews and niece matters far less than the food we share at the dinner table. And our lack of shared facial features matters even less than that. We are family—an Asian American family, a Chinese American family, a White American family. We are all of these things and none of these things. In this moment of Thanksgiving, perhaps all of us are just people who share a meal.

And yet in that alone we are a powerful force. We sit together. We eat together. We stand together. We fight together. As we came together on Thanksgiving I thought hard about what it `means to be Asian American: what connects us, what divides us, how we are the same, and how we are all different. Still, I always find the bonds we share will always be stronger than the rifts between us. But the fight we fight together—that is what transcends all. And that is something I could not be more thankful for.

In defense of libraries, now targets of hate crimes

As a child, I spent many hours growing up in the library, nestled in the safety and security of kind librarians and a plethora of books. I took great comfort in being able to explore the range of Greek and Norse myths, science fiction, and Sweet Valley High. Libraries were a great refuge growing up since my parents were and are working class, and I could never hope to own all the books that I voraciously read.

Libraries have been under attack for costing too much, even as they have transformed from simple centers of learning and education to community centers (some of which house makerbot centers as well.) They have learned to stay nimble and offer ESL classes, job placement, and community movie nights on top of traditional author readings. At my hometown library, immigrant families gathered on the weekends and then spread out to gather their individual spheres of knowledge. Outside of work and home, they are some of our strongest community gathering places and safe spaces for families and young people. Libraries now stock graphic novels, cds, video games, and the like to attract youth. The central downtown library even houses a recording studio in its basement.

This is why it’s highly disturbing that instigators of hate crimes have chosen to target libraries for hate crimes. From defacing public copies of the Quran with swastikas to individuals wearing hijabs being harassed inside, libraries and what they stand for are increasingly under assault. In NYC, libraries are some of the main application centers for the municipal ID program that provides undocumented New Yorkers (and many hipsters seeking museum discounts) with badly needed government identification. In general, libraries are diverse microcosms of our communities.

“In the last year, we have had startling increases in the number of hate crimes,” Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association, said in an interview last week.

“I am stunned that I have seven or eight examples, because we have never had these kinds of crimes before in libraries,” she said. “We are in an increasingly difficult situation, because the communities are as divided as they have ever been.” (NYTimes)

Libraries and librarians provide publicly accessible knowledge and serve as safe spaces. They stand for free learning and community building. It is worth remembering that librarians and the American Library Association were one of the main opponents of the PATRIOT Act, because of the provision that libraries had to turn over lists of patrons and their reading habits. Those who seek to attack libraries are not just seeking to disrupt safety and community, but also are attacking learning and freedom of thought.


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