May brings Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month once again—but this year feels different. A shift appears to be taking place in the U.S. toward Asians as a racial and ethnic group, in both positive and negative ways. The increased violence and murder of Asian Americans since the beginning of the pandemic has heightened the visibility of the population in an unwanted way. Being Asian in America in 2021 does not feel like a celebration but a sentencing of violence and hate. Instead of celebration, a shroud of mourning hovers over us. After a year of deafening silence from media, institutions, colleagues and friends, the cultural shift that happened in the wake of the Atlanta murders also makes this year’s month seem more necessary and urgent.
The U.S. certainly has not celebrated Asians during our history here. Indeed, the Chinese do not appear in the official photo of the 1869 Golden Spike ceremony at the completion of the transcontinental railroad, even though 13,000 of the 15,000 Central Pacific workers were Chinese. Instead the U.S. passed the 1875 Page Act and then the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first immigration policy against a racial group. Historically the U.S. has not viewed Asians in a positive manner unless to use them as the model minority against Black and brown communities.
American pop culture certainly has not celebrated Asians. Instead, a shamefully intentional racist body of work includes caricatured buffoons, emasculated unsexy men, or fetishized dragon ladies. Even worse, many “Asian” roles were, and still are, played by white actors in the long running practice of yellowface.
I struggle to celebrate and embrace Asian heritage. As a transracial adoptee with white parents, I was not given the Asian handbook provided by Asian parents or an Asian community; I had no idea how to be Asian, or Korean more specifically. I did not identify with my Korean or Asian heritage; I felt white, insulated with some privileges from my white adjacency.
But I navigate the world embodied as an Asian woman, and the world does not let me forget it. The world will always read me and react to me as Asian, not as American. Asian are unable to “pass” for a racial identity other than Asian. Indeed, our identities are influenced by how others perceive us whether that perception is accurate or agrees with our own self-perception.
I navigate the world embodied as an Asian woman, and the world does not let me forget it.
I have lived most of my life in a constant state of unease—the kind you feel in your gut accompanied by sudden nervous or anxious feelings, with sweaty palms, increased heartbeat and light nausea. I feel it around other Asians, who remind me I do not belong with them either. When I visited Korea as an adult, locals did not accept me since I do not meet Korean standards for weight, skin color, and other desirable physical characteristics.
The unease also rises to the back of my throat around non-Asians when a racist comment or action blindsides me as I go about my daily life. In those instances, I am reminded yet again I do not belong. I am Asian enough to live in fear of violence from others and easily become another victim added to the over 6,600 incidents over the last year. I am Asian enough to be a perpetual foreigner, exotic, submissive, quiet, compliant. I am Asian enough to have my race weaponized against me by strangers, colleagues and friends.
So how do I celebrate a heritage when I have no permanent, tangible, uncontested membership in that racial group? While I have found some membership in the Korean adoptee community, that is not heritage or tradition. The country of Korea includes adoptees as members of the Korean diaspora, but this is simply to rebrand and atone for their past sins against adoptees. After all, members of a diaspora are scattered as a group but typically benefit from the shared knowledge of the group’s heritage, tradition and culture, which they then pass down to future generations. The great majority of the 200,000 plus Korean adoptees grew up in cultural/racial isolation within white homes and communities. Other transracial adoptee groups face this too.
Even as Asian adoptees participate in activism around the #StopAsianHate movement, our legitimacy to take part, to speak our experience as Asians is contested. The unease rises—perhaps I do not have the right to add my voice to what real Asians face in this country. Does my experience echo theirs? Is the racism I know so well the same as theirs? Does commonality exist in the ways our Asian-ness differs?
At the same time, I do have a legitimate right to speak out. I am part of the broad Asian identity that is not a monolith, regardless of how we are aggregated into just “Asian.” I am a part of the fastest growing racial and minority group in the U.S. Violent attackers will not be persuaded to spare me because of my adoptee identity. The vulnerability to violence, objectification and racism I have as an Asian woman still exists first and foremost because of my Asian identity.
I wonder too who benefits from heritage months—whom do they serve? Should cultural groups relish positive attention one month out of the year? Do tangible benefits come from this kind of awareness, such as access to quality education, a livable wage, affordable health care and housing? I am Asian 24–7, 365 days a year.
So the question remains, how to celebrate or even embrace my Asian heritage? Educating myself on Korean culture and Asian American history is a good place to start. Expanding media consumption of books, films and TV and sharing them with non-Asian friends is another good option. (Fortunately, the age of streaming services provides more diverse content, finally.) Although much work remains to be done in the entertainment industry, strides have and continue to happen.
Engagement with non-adoptee Asians, of all ethnicities, in meaningful and vulnerable conversations about Asian culture and traditions helps to grow my knowledge and develop richer friendships. Exploration of authentic Asian cuisines provides a wonderful way to celebrate too.
Lastly, I can embrace and hold my head high as an Asian American who adds to the rich fabric of this country. I can use my voice to speak out, educate, and advocate for and with all who face injustice. Let the celebration begin.