Monday, December 25, 2017

Tidying Up

I recently spotted Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing on sale for $2. Tidying is a self-help staple. What Dr. Spock was to nervous new mothers in the 50s and 60s, I imagine Marie Kondo is to millennial women trying to get the #minimalist #aesthetic for the 'gram.

I've read the book before, but $2 was hard to beat. I snatched it up to bring to my parents' over Winter Break.

Kondo's book advocates aggressively removing any items from your home that do not "spark joy," in the pursuit of creating a more fulfilling, functional, and minimalist living space. Grown out of those clothes ten years ago? Sell them. Don't know why you own twenty-eight dysfunctional pens? Throw them out. Finish reading a book and think you won't read it again? Give it away.

"I'm going to start consolidating around the house. I bought The Life-Changing Magic-whatever book on sale," I announced at dinner.

"You already had that book," my mom said.

I didn't let the ironic origins of my cleaning mania stop me from attacking an old bureau, opening drawers to complain loudly about odds and ends being in the wrong places. There was a mysterious key. A bubble mailer just filled with nails. Behind this year's Christmas cards and some of the stars of our family's inexplicable collection of owl statues (actually explicable: inherited from a great-grandmother) were two fluorescent tubes.

"Yo Dad, do these work?"

He shrugged. "It's not the kind of thing you can just throw out. You'd have to take that to a toxic waste facility or something."

I moved on to easier targets, sorting books no one wanted to read into boxes.

"Isn't 1984 a classic?" my mom asked.

"Yeah, but we have two copies. And this one's font is too small."

Decluttering felt good. There was something cathartic about putting books that had gathered dust for ages into a clear plastic bin, for new lives at used bookstores or the Prisoners Literature Project, a Berkeley-based non-profit that sends books to inmates in California jails. Even more fulfilling was recycling: mounds of old receipts, Post-It notes with scribbled reminders from years past, brochures and guides for places we didn't want to go.

"Are you doing all this cleaning so you don't have to when we die?" my mom said suspiciously.

"No!" I protested. "I'm doing it so that you have a better quality of life."

In the middle of all the cleaning, I went to the backyard patio to check on some line-drying laundry. The landscape that day was picturesque--the sun shone over the distant hills and illuminated the dry leaves fluttering around my feet. Everything looks prettier bathed in sunlight. Even all the random odds and ends lying around gained a bucolic Kinkade painting quality. There was the half-broken table that had practically come apart when my grandfather and I tried to move it, some vase shards, too many cast-off wooden planks to count.

Chief of all the odds and ends was one woven together: what looked like an old bedsheet or maybe something of a stiffer constitution, like a curtain, strung up into a shape approximating a hammock. It hung from the patio roof beams by a sort of composite rope. It was several old lanyards and pieces of yarn, tied to one another.

Growing up, my sister and I played in a backyard littered with the ambitious skeletons of house repairs and landscaping projects that never were: broken bricks and rusting nails and dried-out paint pans. We ground things up and made bad sculptures with Found Materials before we knew that was a thing some fancy artists in museums did. There is a Life-Changing Magic to Making Random Things Out of All That Shit Lying Around, too. There's clearly a line to be drawn between having some bric-a-brac and being featured on A&E's "Hoarders," and in general I agree with the principle of getting rid of stuff you don't need. But part of me also wonders what happens to the kids who grow up in immaculate homes with tame grass-lawn backyards. What happens when you live in a Marie Kondo-ized house?

On my quest to throw away all the random things lying around the house that no one could describe as functional or "sparking joy," I realized that I would have thrown away the old lanyards that made up the improvised chain link holding up the hammock, and probably the half-falling-apart wooden table and bag of rusty nails, too, all banished off to some land across the sea where our unwanted things go.

And I couldn't tell, then, if I missed them.

I stared at the hammock for a long time. Then I went back inside, and I kept on tidying.

Monday, December 18, 2017

An ode to BART

I recently met an SF resident, a friend of a relative, who I'll call Trina. She said blithely that she had never taken BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, our local subway system).

"I just Uber everywhere," she said, shrugging.

To well-heeled Bay Area tech workers, the cost of Ubers everywhere might be chump change. But it's actually incredibly costly in terms of its effects on governance and society. Folks like Trina choosing to never step foot on a BART train has detrimental consequences for the system's maintenance and further development--as Keith Barry writes in Wired, public transit is underfunded because the wealthy don't rely on it.

On another level, there's something about public transit that teaches you about how to be in the world, how to sit with people who look and talk and think differently from you. After high school and college, where people from different kinds of family backgrounds get squished together in lunch periods and dorm rooms, there aren't a whole lot of opportunities to meet people who are different. (Side note: educational systems aren't exactly always shining paragons of diversity, either.) Place of worship? Millennials are less likely to attend religious services than older generations. Relationships? Modern folks are increasingly likely to marry someone of the same education level.

But then there's public transit. Riding BART, I've heard couples fighting and tech bros talking about weddings in Napa. Smelled tobacco and vomit and bergamot perfume. Seen shirtless street performers and hipsters in orange Patagonia puffers leaning on their bikes, kids in polka-dotted strollers and weathered old men with belongings in plastic bags. I've rested my head on the window and considered my reflection, swimming in the scratched-up glass next to the towering container cranes of the Port of Oakland.

In Ubers or Lyfts, I squirm on leather seats and charge my phone. Sometimes I talk to the driver, if they're game, if I'm not too tired. The last time I took a Lyft, back to my apartment from a pre-birthday dinner with my sister, our driver started with "You're my first passengers--ever! I just started driving!"

"Congratulations," I said, "uh, welcome to Lyft, I guess?"

As we went the wrong way and our driver pulled over to do a U-turn, she commented again, "Sorry, this is my first time, thanks for being so patient." She apologized a couple more times, asked us if the music was too quiet or too loud or if we wanted to listen to anything else in particular and if she should turn the heat up.

Drivers for Uber famously can get kicked off the service for getting less than around a 4.7 rating; I'm not sure about Lyft. It made me feel icky about our driver's solicitousness. It felt like it was something out of that Black Mirror episode "Nosedive"--in a dystopian, pastel-colored land of seemingly perfect people, everyone rates each other on their phone after every interaction, and your rating, much like a credit score, determines the class of goods and services you can access. It's certainly not quite Black Mirror, but Uber and Lyft link your behavior to access, too.

On BART, you have to think about what we owe to each other when it isn't mediated by ratings and money. How to share space and give directions to a lost tourist and when to stand up and offer your seat to someone else. You can't pay a premium to get a roomier train car or skip stops or quiet the train's metal-on-metal scream on the tracks in the tunnel under the Bay. When there's no more space for hands on the center pole, you'll learn how to stand upright in a crowd. And when you're grumbling in your head about all the strangers around you, you'll realize that it's those strangers who will catch you if you fall.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Half a Motherland Part 3: Vote

“The faceless, sexless, raceless proletariat. The faceless, raceless, classless category of “all women.” Both creations of white Western self-centeredness.” - Adrienne Rich

In spring semester, campaigns for elected student government positions at my school are in full swing, and I’m reminded constantly of the identities we prioritize with every candidate's Facebook post. Someone promises to represent the South Asian community at Berkeley, posting Instagram photos from Holi and a “Dosas and Mimosas” night hosted by the South Indian students’ group. A frat guy I've never met, poised to uphold the interests of the ROTC and International Relations communities. I’m kind of shocked that IR even counts as a “community”; when I think back to my last Development Studies class, I remember looking around at a group comprised of profoundly disparate elements: a few international students who rarely spoke up in class, a lot of white girls in athleisure leggings and Birkenstocks who sipped iced chai lattes out of mason jars.

One year a professional co-ed association hosts a raucous blacklight party for Halloween. Everywhere are transnational elites in training--there are Asian products of American schools in Middle Eastern expat compounds, people whose neutral-sounding English exists on a geographically unplaceable plane of its own. They grind on each other and down Jell-O shots, sold 4 for a dollar.

I look around this room of Cheshire cats--our grinning teeth gleam purplish white in the blacklight--and muse, Is this my community?

Before I’m even done asking the question, I’m shaking my head.

If my academic interest can’t define my identity group, then what should? Ethnicity? That doesn’t work either. There are some Asians who are scions of industrialists made rich by post-market reform prosperity in their home countries. These kids pay enough tuition to sustain the rest of us. I see them walking in big groups sometimes, swathed in Burberry trenches and wearing Nike Flyknits. Their rapidfire chatter is familiar and yet, their skin color and language render them no more “my people” than bushmen in a NatGeo issue.

Then there are the Asian-American students who remind me of old friends and high school classmates. They discuss carrying the weight of the “model minority” and the expectations of eager parents on their shoulders. These are expectations that I can’t fully relate to...partially since I think the “model minority” is a myth that engenders continued racial oppression of other people of color, but mostly because my parents never toed the Tiger Mom line with me. (I got a C in a class once and they congratulated me on passing.) The most burdensome expectation they had for me? That I would challenge traditional hierarchies and oppressive norms. But if I sought to build community based on that expectation, I’d be left high and dry. Despite that whole Communist Revolution thing, “resisting hierarchy” is not an experience that I find widely relatable among Asian-American friends in describing their families and upbringing. Rather, a sort of apolitical inoffensiveness rules the day.

One girl running for student government at Berkeley even says in her campaign literature, “Growing up in a traditional Asian family, I’ve been taught to always care about others and respect others’ backgrounds.”

After all, Confucius say: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Jokes aside, this student government election is a microcosm of broader tendencies in American politics. It is frequently cast as the Holy Land of left-wing politics in the United States, but it’s less liberal than you might think. While some college Republican groups across the country (e.g., Harvard’s) broke with the national party to disavow Donald Trump’s candidacy during the election, the Berkeley College Republicans supported Donald Trump. In the wake of protests surrounding right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous’s visit to Berkeley, the campus magazine where I’m an editor hosted a debate between the Cal Democrats and Berkeley College Republicans on the subject of free speech. The Cal Dem representative was a white guy, while the spokesperson for the BCR was an Indian student (from India, not Indian-American).

During the audience Q&A portion, I asked a question that many were probably thinking as they looked at these debaters: had President Trump done enough, quickly enough, to respond to hate crimes in the wake of his election? I alluded to hate crimes against Asian-Americans, including the killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas, or Harnish Patel’s murder outside of his home in South Carolina.

The BCR debater took the microphone and said that Mr. Trump should have acted more quickly, but that people should not be so quick to blame Trump for all the actions carried out by his followers. An Indian-American friend and I exchanged a glance. She rolled her eyes, and in a look, a sentiment passed between us: how can he be a Republican? After all that has happened? Conservative journalist Michelle Malkin has said, “Minority conservatives hold a special place of gutter contempt in the minds of unhinged liberals, who can never accept the radical concept of a person of color rejecting identity politics.” I guess that in that moment, we were those unhinged liberals.

Once upon a time, to try to be a Republican politician and the member of a racial minority at the same time meant purposefully denuding yourself of anything that reeked of the “ethnic.” Bobby Jindal changed his name from Piyush to Bobby, converted to Christianity, gave a speech in which he said that he was tired of “hyphenated Americans,” and commissioned a gubernatorial portrait widely mocked on social media for its skin tone, far whiter than Jindal is in reality. Although these actions elicited scrutiny and derision from many in the Indian-American community, they were good politics in Louisiana: Jindal served two terms as governor.

Today, perhaps you can be a player in Republican politics without needing to disavow or minimize your racial identity in the same way as Jindal. For some Asian-Americans, supporting Trump made sense not in spite of identity alignment, but because of it. During the 2016 election, some Indian-Americans with ties to Hindu nationalist groups saw Trump as a natural ally due to his rhetoric on Muslims, securing the borders, and tough talk that evoked comparison to India’s right-wing prime minister, Narendra Modi. Trump appeared in an advertisement where he said, in Hindi unintelligible to native speakers (as Jimmy Kimmel would document in one of his show’s man-on-the-street segments), “Ab ki baar Trump sarkaar,” or “This time, Trump government”--a nod to a famous Modi campaign slogan.

Relying on minority groups to uniformly be good Democrats had lulled me into false security. I was shocked every time I learned that an Asian-American friend’s parents were supporting Trump. Trump’s rhetoric may have stoked the flames of white supremacist indignation, but this was not frightening enough for highly-educated men and women with college-aged children begging them to vote for Clinton; they chose instead to vote for the man with the bad hair, three marriages, and infamous lines on pussy grabbing.

Then there are people for whom race doesn’t register as an important identity category that affects daily life.

At the invitation of a friend I went to a meeting of a campus group called South Asians for Social Justice once. The meeting was at her house. In its cozy, carpeted living room, we sat around on couches and ladled hot chai tea out of a massive pot. Despite the welcoming environment of the SASJ meeting, I felt like a bit of an intruder as a non-South Asian. I messaged my boyfriend and his roommate (both Indian-American) for backup. I didn't expect them to come, but they messaged back, shockingly: “On our way.”

The group had started a silent writing session about the prompt “Write about a time when you felt brown/racialized” (i.e., a time some external impetus had made you aware of your difference, your non-whiteness). We were all quietly scribbling things down on pieces of paper when the door creaked open and my boyfriend and his roommate bounded in. The roommate was wearing a giant Seahawks jersey and high-top shoes; in the midst of this quiet living room, he seemed like an especially loud interloper. As my friend re-explained the prompt and they shot each other blank glances, I started wondering if inviting them had maybe been a mistake.

We finished up writing and people began to share their moments. Listening, I sat aghast. Some had been the only brown kids at school. They had had classmates who called them curry-eaters, “sand niggas,” and terrorists.

Neither my boyfriend nor his roommate described an incident from their own lives.

We all walked out of the house after the meeting was over, and it didn’t take long for them to begin talking.

“These kids, way different,” the roommate said.

My boyfriend nodded. For them, he explained, it was difficult to write about the “moment they’d felt brown” because they’d grown up in an area where they were part of a sizable, and empowered, Asian-American population.

In the Seattle area, the Asian-American community is well-developed and prosperous. When racism and Redmond come up in the same conversation, it relates to anti-blackness: the Seahawks player Kam Chancellor had the police called on him for “suspicious activity” after he looked through the windows of a gym, and a black-owned business received a KKK uniform in the mail. These incidents highlight the dark underbelly of a community where kids ride their bikes around wide suburban streets and people come out every summer to cheer on parade floats and eat cotton candy at the Derby Days festival. But these incidents also highlight the extent to which the Asian-American community in Redmond has been immune; no one would tell me to “go back to China,” or make comments about the shape of my eyes, if I were sitting at a bus stop in Redmond.

We went to high schools where there were countless classmates who looked like us. If the guy calling you a curry-eater or a chink looks like you, it’s not an expression of racial superiority as much as an expression of in-group-ness--the girlfriend-to-girlfriend “sup bitches” of racial groups. After high school we’d landed at Berkeley--where the freshman population in 2016 was 42.3% Asian.

But I’d spent a lot of time outside of Redmond and Berkeley--and I had white family members, so my understanding of myself as a person of color had happened early. It was a revelation to me, that my boyfriend and his roommate had never had some moment of looking in the mirror and seeing themselves as racialized subjects, thinking, “Society sees me differently from someone white,” thinking “this is something that could harm me.”

I wonder if Srinivas Kuchibhotla or Harnish Patel had.


Trump’s win highlighted the extensive mobilization of white nationalists, with the rise of the “alt-right” in public consciousness and the growing normalization of many of its main figures. For participants in these movements, non-white people pose a spectral threat to the integrity of a nation figured as necessarily white. Steve Bannon, Trump’s controversial political aide, has made repeated references to the racist French novel The Camp of the Saints in speeches about his political ideology. The novel features the shores of Europe being overrun with hordes of dark-skinned foreigners, and it explains a lot about the sentiments of white nationalists. If you feel under threat, of course you would form an identity group. But the obvious problem is that white people in America are not under real, material threat; you need look only at any picture of a Trump cabinet meeting to reassure yourself that the position of (particularly old and male) white people is on top of the world.

Then there are MRAs, or “Men’s Rights Activists.” Like claiming that whiteness is a status that needs to be protected from destruction, claiming that being male means being a member of an oppressed group in society is what some might call an “alternative fact”--but one with harmful consequences. MRAs have spewed vitriol at female writers and gamers on the internet, preached the acceptability of violence against women, and advocated for sexually aggressive tactics that frequently venture into the realm of harassment and even assault.

Columbia professor Mark Lilla writes in the New York Times, “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”

Centralizing identity and the role it plays in life has led to substantial political gains for many marginalized group, and society as a whole; therefore, unlike Lilla, I am not prepared to reject it wholesale. We must have some bulwarks to keep ourselves from falling into the trap of casting ourselves as universal subjects--the “faceless proletariat” or “all women” that Adrienne Rich critiques. If we really mean “male workers,” or “white workers” (as many trade unions historically did), or “white women,” or “rich women,” then we do truth an injustice by claiming this language of universal membership.

And the truth is that in many situations our outcomes depend on facets of our identity. It’s harder to get a job with a “black name” (National Bureau of Economic Research), harder to get your pain taken seriously by a doctor if you’re a woman (The Atlantic). These realities are something that the “identity politics are divisive” camp of people would be wise to pay attention to. Political coalitions have a duty to interrogate their own impulses to universalize, and acknowledge the role that our various identities play in our lives. It’s just the right thing to do.

Ironically, many critiques of identity politics and its divisiveness come from white men; but no one does segregation by identity quite like white people in America. Today, you can still see the legacy of housing policies that prevented black Americans from living in certain neighborhoods. You can go to places where housing is so racially split that you can walk from one end of town to the other and see a sea change in skin tone. Developers created all-white suburbs, and there was “white flight” out of urban areas. Housing isn’t the only staging ground for segregation; marriage is another. 2013 Pew Research Center data shows that white people are the group least likely to “marry out” (just 7% of white newlyweds in 2013 married someone of a different race, compared to 28% of Asians).

This wouldn’t be surprising if you knew what white social circles looked like: a non-partisan research group, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), shows that a full 75% of whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence.”

Two-thirds of white people in America have completely white social circles.

For minorities, there is tremendous value in groups of other people of color; in some spaces, a certain kind of self-segregation may be protective. But in places like where I grew up, self-segregating was not so much about consolidating power for solidarity in the face of racist society (Asian-Americans were doing well in Redmond) as it was about the economic reality of our ZIP code that placed us, largely, in proximity to wealthy white and Asian families.

I want to be cautious about following the historical impulse of a dominant social group trying to protect its “purity” or its property values. No matter the rationale for forming clans around ethnoracial identity, we must always consciously seek encounters--pushing for everything from increased media representation of minorities to mixed-income housing--with people who are unlike ourselves.

All of us must resist the impulse to segregate.

After all, self-segregation relies on a belief that our fates are not all inextricably bound up with each other’s; Hindu-Americans for Trump cheered on the idea of a strongman who talked tough on banning Muslims and being “strong on terror,” forgetting or ignoring that many white nationalist Trump supporters can’t tell the difference between a Muslim and a Hindu, or a Muslim and a Sikh--to them, all people of a certain skin tone are part of the same Camp of the Saints-esque invading dark horde.

I hope that we can build political discourse that is inclusive of a wide range of identities, that gives individuals space to discuss how their many varied categories and allegiances produce the realities of their daily lives. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both met with leaders of the Black Lives Matter, and Clinton talked about implicit racism in one of the presidential debates--exposing some Americans to the concept for the first time. It is possible, and indeed necessary, for politicians to dialogue with identity-focused groups in good faith and bring their concerns to the national political stage. And it is the willingness to do that actively and consistently--not the color of their skin or the community they come from or the languages they speak--that should win votes.

The expectation of dialogue should apply to relations between minority groups as well. Letters for Black Lives builds solidarity for Black Lives Matter by offering a letter that minority folks and children of immigrants (especially Asian-Americans) can send to parents, grandparents, and other elders struggling to understand the necessity of supporting BLM. The crowd-sourced letter has been translated into numerous languages

From the Letters for Black Lives Matter project:

“In fighting for their own rights, Black activists have led the movement for opportunities not just for themselves, but for us as well. Black people have been beaten, jailed, even killed fighting for many of the rights that Asian Americans enjoy today. We owe them so much in return. We are all fighting against the same unfair system that prefers we compete against each other.

When someone is walking home and gets shot by a sworn protector of the peace — even if that officer’s last name is Liang — that is an assault on all of us, and on all of our hopes for equality and fairness under the law.”

What I appreciate about the Letters for BLM project is that although the letters cite the profound debt owed by Asian-Americans to African-American civil rights leaders and community organizers, the primary logic of the argument that we should support BLM comes not from a self-serving or clannish place but rather a sense of universal humanity--that an assault on a black person “is an assault on all of us,” that we are all fighting against the same injustice. Let’s follow the lead of projects like Letters for Black Lives and build solidarity across identity groups on the basis of our shared hopes and shared humanity.

During Spring Break, I leave Berkeley for my parents’ home in suburban Sonoma County--a place of rolling verdant hills, chicken farms, and houses with manicured lawns and “Black Lives Matter” yard signs. My Ye Ye and Po Po are visiting, and Ye Ye asks me one day what my plan for the day is.

“I’m going to work on an article that I’ve been working on for a long time,” I manage in broken Chinese.

“What’s the topic?”

“It’s--uhhh, it’s really hard to say in Chinese,” I fumble for Google Translate on my phone and type in “identity politics.”

Ye Ye looks at my screen and his brow furrows. “What does this mean?”

“I don’t think this translation is correct,” I say. “Um. It’s...people using, themselves? Their culture, their habits, ethnicity? that a politician should be supported?”

“What’s your argument?”

“That people should support people who can improve society as a whole and other groups, not just their own people. Like, even if you’re Asian-American, you should support black people.” I suck in my breath, waiting for a disapproving response from the man I associate most with Chinese nationalism. “We’re all Americans.”

“Not just Americans,” Ye Ye says. “We’re all renlei.”

“What does renlei mean?”

“Human,” he says in English.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Half a Motherland Part 2: Pride

"In order for a culture to be really itself and to produce something, the culture and its members must be convinced of their originality and even, to some extent, of their superiority over the others" -Claude Levi-Strauss

I'm proud to be X.

Insert what you want for X: Asian-American, mixed-race, woman, descendant of ridiculously long-lived Chinese people except for one unfortunate soul who died from dysentery, descendant of a Czech orchestra player whose violin my sister inherited and plays, and--according to my grandma--also a descendant of Mayflower dude Miles Standish. 

“I’m proud to be X.” 

Insert what you want and I still can’t say it. 

Maybe it’s a vestigial hang-up from my white side. Racial pride in the hands of ethnic minorities is the wholesome material of multiculturalism in modern liberal democracy, of urban parades and campus celebrations. Racial pride in the hands of white people is combustible material. But accepting this set of facts in my own divided body--throwing myself at Mao while ignoring Miles--always felt awkward and contrived. Some artists and activists attempt to bring us ethnically confusing folk into the proud-of-my-identity fold: there are books like Kip Fulbeck's Part Asian, 100% Hapa, a collection of photographs of people of mixed/partial Asian descent. As much as I appreciate seeing media representations of people who look like me, it feels...well, kind of weird to express a pride for my ethnic identity. 

I could be like my sister, who went to Chinese school briefly with me but also picked up a Czech phrasebook and attempted to learn the language (well, for maybe a month). But learning everything about all the histories of my inheritance would be a life’s work. It felt easier to just run away from it all. 

What would I be running away from, though? The same labels that can be used to stereotype and exclude also give people a vocabulary to express love and support. (See #BlackGirlsMagic.) 

Plus, many would agree that some measure of pride in your culture is a necessity for its continuation. If you don't like it, why bother carrying out its rituals or sending your kid to weekend school to learn the language? It's in this context that I finally understand my Ye Ye (grandfather) and his constant, fearsome lectures on the civilizational supremacy of China (including several entreaties to read the complete works of Mao). 

Maybe these weren't lectures about the past and the present so much as an insurance policy for the future--trying to instill some kind of innate pride in me about my culture, so that even if I inevitably ran astray and married some non-Chinese-speaking foreigner (foreign to him, not to me) the anchors he'd dropped would always pull me, and hypothetical descendants, back to some version of a Chinese identity. 

Did those lectures work? 

To this day, I cringe at exceptionalism--even when it wears new and prettier masks. 

My suspicion of the impulse to say "This [nation/culture/language] is [super great/uniquely blessed/the best]" probably comes partially from childhood; my parents never did the sorts of things that Other People's Families did, like watch Sunday-morning football and cheer on a favorite team, wear their college sweatshirts, say "God bless the USA," or imply that one religion or philosophy was better than the rest. Sometimes, I think that what my parents were proudest of was not being proud of anything. 

And in some ways, they had good reason to be. The very pride, or school spirit, or religion, or nationalism that glues some groups together can also drive wedges in humanity. 

Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, one of India's most prolific poets, was a fierce critic of nationalist and ethnocentric sentiment; in one of his poems in Gitanjali, he wrote of a vision "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; / Where knowledge is free; / Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls." Through his novel The Home and the World, Tagore critiqued nationalism and ethnocentrism as being opposed to more universal values of justice and fairness. One of the novel’s characters, the ill-fated and mild-mannered nobleman Nikhilesh Chaudhary, says, "To worship my country as a god is to bring curse upon it.” 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to bring curses upon the things I love. 

Nations are imagined communities. Their boundary lines are often drawn by outsiders as the product of colonialism and violent conflict, not any special logic of geography or progress. Our cultural identities, too, have tenuous grips on reality; what binds us to our identities aside from our adherence to a set of norms, adherence informed by a certain kind of pride? 

But having pride in my heritage as special and unique is an act of resistance in a society that constantly belittles Other-ness. Pride is about cultural survival, I think. Every day, we see evidence of how minority groups in the US come under pressure to assimilate by shedding parts of their culture that don't fit neatly into the dominant culture: think of the way some teachers will say "I don't even want to attempt to pronounce that" if they see an Asian name when they're calling roll (or the more recent and widely criticized instance of Jimmy Kimmel joking about Mahershala Ali's name at the Oscars). 

Let me be clear: this is super shitty. 

But isn't it possible to counteract these pressures without teaching little kids "Your culture is [this essentialized definition], and oh by the way, it's the best"? Because exceptionalism in the name of cultural preservation still falls into the trap that Gary Younge, writing on identity politics, decried: presuming a "fixed notion to who and what we are," essentialism even while the "meaning and relevance" of identities are constantly in flux. 

Many of the modern-day essentializations of culture that we reproduce, knowingly or unknowingly, may be products of colonialism. For instance, if you ask someone what a Sikh looks like they may mention turbans, uncut hair, and long beards. Historically, this physical presentation was not always a kind of synecdoche for the Sikhism; when Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) introduced the khalsa (meaning something like “pure”) order in Sikhism, most Sikhs were not part of it. The British recruited Indian soldiers with a belief in the concept of "martial races," or the idea that certain “races” were more predisposed to the military arts than others. Khalsa Sikhs, with their swords and turbans, were considered one such group, and more people had an incentive to present as Khalsa Sikhs. To this day, 20% of the Indian Army identify as Sikh. 

Last summer, when I was interning in India’s capital, I met a young girl while staying overnight with a family in Gurgaon, the concrete jungle southwest of New Delhi. She and her brother had perched themselves cheerfully on my bed, asked me a great deal of questions about life in America, taught me the name of “the best” cricketers, and somehow started on the subject of religion. “The Muslims of the North are the bad Muslims,” she told me confidently. “The ones in the South are OK.” She paused, then chirped, “And the Sikhs are just angry Hindus.” 

There was a lot to think about in what she said, but I thought the "angry Hindus" was perhaps the (darkly) funniest. Angry Hindus? I wondered. Where does a young kid get that description? 

Family, I assumed. But it was later, in a South Asian history class at Berkeley, that I learned (at least part of) the real answer: the British. 

No culture exists in a vacuum. Rather, we live in complex feedback loops. The example of Sikhs and the British conception of “martial races” evidence the fact that how peers, elites, and governments view culture all construct the daily lived reality of what culture is. 

In many cases, the weight of expectation can be oppressive. Elizabeth Povinelli writes in The Cunning of Recognition that the multiculturalism of the modern, liberal state may inadvertently hold ethnic minorities to high standards of “authentic” culture. These standards breed stagnancy: the answer to how Chinese culture is performed--in the Chinese restaurant in A Christmas Story, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in suburban Seattle--in is the same, year after tiresome year. The psychological burden of this is difficult to encapsulate. Maybe it’s something like when white people travel abroad and find that people assume they love eating hamburgers and drinking Coke, and that everyone owns a gun. You’d protest that it wasn’t true. You’d try to make people see the you underneath the American. 

But to face such stereotypes in America because of the relentless essentialization and freezing-in-time of your culture means feeling like a perennial visitor in your own home. You are that guest whose inner life remains illegible, written in invisible ink between the lines of filial piety and Tiger Mothers, dragon festivals and dumplings. At some point, maybe the strokes blend so much that even you don’t remember the difference. 

To some degree, culture makes all of us. I think a lot of people fear that if we unmake what we have learned is our culture, we unmake ourselves. Maybe that’s true. But it’s also necessary--because culture doesn’t stand still, even though every day, we treat it like it does. 

Our nation is multicultural, and interactions in our modern world are increasingly transnational. The winners of this world order will be those who know how to travel. This point is belabored by travel brochures the world over, but encounters with the Other can elicit positive change. 

An Asian-American student wrote an article in Berkeley’s student-run newspaper, describing a childhood filled with traumatizing corporal punishment from parents. Notably, she wrote, "Being beaten by your parents and grandparents has become a sort a twisted joke in the Asian American community. Comparisons of the creative and painful punishments that they have conjured up are punctuated freely with laughter and smiles. YouTube personalities have made “on the street” videos asking Asian American millennials about their experiences with physical punishment. Being hit with metal coat hangers is not uncommon, and the interviewer himself lightheartedly recalls a time he was sent to the emergency room by his parents’ hands." 

Growing up, I had it easy. (Look, my parents didn't even demand good grades.) But we still had our twisted jokes. My sister would tell friends about how when she was very young, she would walk out of our room and stand at the top of the stairs, refusing obstinately to go to sleep. It became a tradition: she would stand there, our mom would come up the stairs and slap her, causing my sister to cry. Subsequently, she would get sleepy from all the wailing and go down for her nap. Rinse and repeat. (Don't try this at home.)

This whole story registers as hilarious to Adrianna and me. 

Retelling stories like this, laughing about them--it’s the kind of thing you do with people to signal that you’re part of the in-group. It's as if the long-faded sting of a slap is the ghost that takes you arm in arm to march you through the gates of identity. It's screwed up, sure, but sometimes I’m grateful for the stories I have of miserably sitting through patronizing lectures on morality (“only bad people go to clubs to drink and dance”) from my grandparents or my sister getting slapped by my mother--it’s my proof that I, too, at least somewhat went through that same boot camp of Asian childhood. 

When I went to a Stanford summer camp in high school, I met a new friend. He had curly hair, a guitar, and an obnoxiously cool name--in short, everything I didn't. But I didn't realize how divergent our lives really were until we started talking about family. I told the same old story about how our mom would slap us in the face if we were misbehaving (or, in Adrianna’s case, refusing to nap). 

He was horrified. “That’s awful. Your mom hit you?” he said, eyes widening. 

Our relationship at that point was mostly composed of sarcastic banter and deprecating jokes and talking about Fight Club, which I had borrowed from him to read the other night. I was surprised that someone who would gleefully stomach the violence of that book (I’d summarize it, but first rule of Fight Club…) would be so alarmed by the revelation of a kind of violence that I saw as far more normal. His tone had become suddenly serious. 

“No, no, I mean, it was literally nothing,” I said hurriedly. “Like just a slap.” I mimed the motion and smiled extra widely, as if to try to re-emphasize the nothing-ness of the whole thing. “Especially not compared to what she had--I mean, she really got beaten up by her parents.” 

He shook his head. “Dude, that’s still, like, child abuse.” 

“What? You mean your mom never slapped you, or spanked you?" I asked in disbelief. 

He shook his head. 

"Not even once?” I asked, aghast. 

At that point it just seemed unfair. Mischievous-eyed and audacious, he seemed like someone who would have been a profoundly spankable child. Maybe that's why he seems so free, I ruminated later. The rest of us have it slapped out of us

For all my traveling, it took that summer camp encounter to teach me that there was a world outside of the families I knew. Despite my parents being unorthodox people in many ways, all their best efforts could not contradict the environs of a company town. In Redmond, it seemed like everyone’s parents worked for Microsoft. Everyone’s home was glossy, vacuumed, and immaculate. Everyone had an SUV that had never seen mud, sparkling in their garage. 

The more I touched the edges of my friend’s world, the more it seemed a distant utopia--a place where atheists had godparents, dads went to Burning Man, and magic mushrooms could be the mundane subject of dinner-table conversation over wine. A place where lesbian Jewish moms homeschooled long-haired sons, wore their Chacos inside the house, and drove Priuses where mud-crusted dog hairs and breadcrumbs commingled. A place where you could watch Orange Is The New Black without any awkward fast-forwarding through the naked bits and studious avoidance of eye contact with everyone else sitting on the couch. 

I always found it difficult to explain my wide-eyed sense of wonder (or occasional tight-lipped shock) in this world, biting back my instinct to take off my shoes or affect a studious innocence I had long since lost. The rules in Delhi, where everyone was an uncle or an auntie, bhaiyya or didi, somehow felt less inscrutable than the norms at my friend’s house. None of the rules I had once learned about Other People’s Houses applied there in Berkeley. It was disorienting, and it was glorious. 

Thankfully, what my parents did instill in me was to try to reject the impulse to self-segregate. If my parents had told me, implicitly or explicitly, that I should stick to my own kind, that people who seemed like me were where safety lay, I never would have questioned the corporal punishment that many people inadvertently normalize. If I had had the same conversation that I had at summer camp with an Asian-American friend, the response might not have been a shocked “your mom hit you?” but a distinctly un-astonished “mm, me too” or even a “oh my god once I had it so much worse.” 

What does this echo chamber do for culture? What does this do to who we are, and what we think “being Asian” means? 

As a child, I thought that the gatekeepers of identity guarded temporal heavens. I now see that jealous gatekeepers only guard places of excarnation. If we breed insularity in the name of “preserving” culture, we are only huddling in our towers and waiting for the vultures to come. We think that by doing this we are keeping our bodies of culture alive. 

We do not see that, in doing this, we have already declared them dead. 

What "Chinese-American identity" means can and should change. It doesn't have to forever mean a staid, essentialized grouping of beliefs and customs--the Confucius lite of fortune cookie slips, cloying mooncakes crumbling in my hands, cash in red envelopes. 

Cui Jian understood this. China’s “godfather of rock n’ roll” heard something he liked in the recordings of American music that friends smuggled. He started learning guitar after hearing performers like Simon & Garfunkel, John Denver, the Beatles, and the Talking Heads. His songs blended influences from American rock, Chinese peasant songs, and even Communist sayings. When students marched in Tiananmen Square, his song “Nothing to My Name” became a rousing anthem for the protesters. Cui Jian said in an interview with the Washington Post, “Back then, people were used to hearing the old revolutionary songs and nothing else, so when they heard me singing about what I wanted as an individual they picked up on it.” 

I like Cui Jian’s story because it reflects that cultural change does not need to be unidirectional, constantly the product of Western repression or appropriation. It implies that we “ethnic” people of the world--whether members of diaspora communities or of non-Western countries--can jump out of our cultural lanes too, pulling strands out of foreign cultural experiences to thread together new creations. There are people like Paris-born Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose Silk Road Ensemble includes Armenian duduk, Korean janggu, Galician gaita, and countless other instruments from around Eurasia. 

There’s art like the designs of prominent Beijing-based fashion designer Guo Pei, which evince the influences of both Chinese motifs and European icons; Vogue wrote “each passage represented a different rarefied archetype: ice queen, Art Deco diva, Belle Epoque enchantress, Russian princess, first lady, neo-Jos├ęphine.” 

Maybe Chinese identity means singing along to Cui Jian in the shower, turning Silk Road Ensemble up on Spotify, or admiring Guo Pei’s designs in the pages of Vogue, and maybe I do it not out of fear--whether my grandfather's, of lost culture, or mine, of identity gatekeepers--but because I like the art. 

I like that version of the story better, because it feels more free. 

Marisa Meltzer writes in New York Magazine about how, to some, the movement for “body positivity” only creates new, more exacting pressures--some women now not only blame themselves for failing to regulate their bodies physically, but emotionally, as they look in the mirror and fall short of the high bar of self-love. Therefore, some women seek instead to cultivate “body neutrality” instead--what Meltzer terms “a kind of detente, a white flag, a way station between hating oneself and loving oneself.” 

I related to the article, in thinking about identity, because my cultural agnosticism has always felt like a kind of identity neutrality, a failure to wave some brightly colored flag with any genuinely felt enthusiasm. That’s why I am happy with white flags and way stations. I don’t believe in climactic clashes of civilization and culture wars. All I know, as a biracial person, is the messy business of becoming a certain kind of person around one set of relatives and a different one around others, of dancing in between worlds and trying not to disown them all. 

I recently added my Chinese name in parentheses after my English name on Facebook. I did it not out of pride, but self-recognition. 

The name, I realized after too many years of running away from it, was mine.


Next up is Part 3: Vote. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Half a Motherland, Part 1: Labels

Should I get this "Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders for Hillary" shirt? I mused last November, my finger hovering over the laptop trackpad as my eyes darted back and forth between t-shirts on the Hillary Clinton Store webpage. Am I Asian-American enough to wear it?

I asked an acquaintance once about the topic of identity politics and group affiliation. We were hiking in a group, and I remember thinking about the subject, wondering who to ask, and immediately looking at her--the sole other half-Asian in the group. The other girls had golden ponytails that caught flecks of burnt amber from the setting sun.

"Do you consider yourself Asian-American?" I asked her.

She shook her head. "Not really."

I ended up just buying a black shirt, with "Hillary" in printed in blue on the front. I went running in it once. There was a man out on a walk with his 5-year-old daughter, all pink puffer jacket and strawberry-blonde hair. I smiled at her; he saw my shirt, and gave me a spirited thumbs-up. I wondered briefly if he would have, if the first words he had seen were "Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders for"; would he have even kept reading, or would those words have been a signal: This shirt is not for you?


These posts are not for you.

High school: summer rolling around meant seeing a spate of posts on Facebook from Asian-American friends about "going back to the motherland" and "HEADED BAAAACK to [insert country name here]." I always hit "Like" with a kind of wistful feeling, the way you like that Instagram photo of a beautiful classmate in athleisure who you simultaneously envy and wish to be. I hit "Like" knowing that there was something of these posts that was of, and yet not of, my world.

Posts about internships and research grants quickly replaced those posts about trips to the motherland as the grasping hand of Gainful Employment snatched away college students' summers wisp by wisp. But those posts made me ask a question that I still haven't been able to answer: if that non-US country is my friend's motherland, what's mine?

This question became much more important in college, when I started wondering about what identities I fit into, what associations I could claim. Coming to Berkeley it seemed profoundly important to have one, maybe a couple. There were clubs for every ethnicity, interest, or desire. Call it prejudice or snap judgment, but you learn quickly what identities can be divined from a glance: what sexual orientations, group affiliations, majors, origins could be ascribed to someone with the right color of hair or a certain number of piercings, second language or favorite conversation topic. Maybe they'd even announce those identities themselves.

Especially as the American right persists in dismissing identity politics--throwing it into the same refuse barrel as their dreaded "PC culture" and "liberal snowflakes"--it's crucial to celebrate identity politics and its potential to bring vital stories into the light of public consciousness. Think Black Lives Matter, public support for trans students, or protests against Islamophobic policy--the sustained energy in all of these movements stems from a willingness to make recognition of identity central to your politics.

At the same time, identity politics are not infallible, and I argue that we need to carefully consider the origins of many of our classifications of identity and how reinforcing them may be counterproductive; the dangers of overzealous "gatekeeping" of identity; and the potential for cultural "pride" to become dogma, and our identities, far from being liberating, to become gleaming cages.

Edward Said writes in Orientalism, "No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life," and true to form, the questions about identity politics that have motivated this Half a Motherland series of posts all stem from a selfish root: that perennial question, where do I belong?

Part 1: LABELS

Whose classifications are we using? 

The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. - Audre Lorde 

I'm living in New York with my sister one summer. We sit down at the bus stop near Columbia University and a black woman in a deep purple skirt suit sits beside us.

Without any prompting, she declares, "Ni hao!" and waves at us. "I could tell you were Chinese," she says cheerily, "you know, from the eyes." She reaches up to her eyelids and pulls them to the side, making her eyes slanted, narrow slits.

Adrianna and I exchange shocked glances and laugh uncomfortably. The woman (a Jehovah's Witness looking for converts) later got on her bus. Adrianna and I sat there and discussed in shock how one never expects that egregious of a comment from a fellow minority--the horror!

In her 1993 article "How Native is a "Native" Anthropologist?" Kirin Narayan writes,

"For those of us who are mixed, the darker element in our ancestry serves to define us with or without our own complicity. The fact that we are often distanced--by factors as varied as education, class, or emigration--from the societies we are supposed to represent tends to be underplayed."

Therefore Tiger Woods (half-Asian) is "black."

And the one-drop rule applies to Asian-Americans too: one Harvard Gazette article discussed this with the subtitle "biracials viewed as members of their lower-status parent group," and adds that "individuals who were a 50-50 mix of two races, either black-white or Asian-white, were almost never identified by study participants as white."

Therefore I (half-white) am "Asian." The lady in NYC was no fluke; she thought about my race the way most people would. She only made the mistake of saying it out loud.

I blame history. There's something of identity politics that relies on the colonial logic of the dominant race: that is, understanding race as a static, scientific sort of classification resistant to change. Scientific racism implicates many disciplines, from physical anthropology to biology; the idea that races are fixed biological categories, with their own characteristics, has been used to justify countless abuses throughout history. UNESCO said in its 1950 statement "The Race Question” that "'race' is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth,” one that has “created an enormous amount of human and social damage."

To build a sustainable politics based on race, you need endogamous association (ingroup marrying other ingroup members) to assure inheritors to that politics; otherwise, you end up with people neither of one world nor the other, unsure of their allegiances. That's why endogamous association is so important to groups that feel the continuance of their specific identity under threat, and there are a lot of them: whether Orthodox Jews, high-caste Indians, or racist white people on Stormfront forums who laud men of certain minorities for staying away from white women (yo NSA, my internet history is all because of research, OK?)

Mindy Kaling even took a jab at the subject in an episode of The Mindy Project, "The Coconut Question": in one scene, she's walking with an Indian-American friend in a store when a white woman calls them adorable and she comments to her friend, "Why do white people love seeing people of other races date within their race so much?"

Mindy answers her own question with this: “I think it’s because it’s segregation that they can feel good about.”

I find it amusing how terrified white nationalists are of mixed-race children. But I can also see how our existence makes it hard to lean on the same old easy categorizations. A childhood friend recently posted 23andMe results on Facebook with the caption: "Got the results of the DNA test back and I finally have an answer to the age old question, "what the hell are you?"" What followed was a breakdown of ethnic ancestry from Europe, East Asia, South Asia, and Oceania, prompting a flurry of excited comments and one that stuck out to me--"Oh my god dude, I'm glad I'm not the only one who can't easily answer this ["what the hell are you?"] question."

What are the identities that these "what the hell are you?" people should cleave to?

The existence of people like my friend, and his friend, complicates race-based politics. They also reflect the reality that without endogamous association, identities won't remain static across multiple generations. Indeed, identities may not even be static within one generation: Hanna Haddad writes in this Berkeley Political Review article about the problem of defining Palestinian-Americans for Census purposes as white, and the popular emergence of "SWANA" (Southwest Asian and North African). With a change on a form, people could be rendered non-white, presented with an official recognition of a new identity.

But new forms of recognition don't provide solutions for those of us who can't justify forming new categories of identity in the first place. You'll never find a "1/4 South Asian, 1/4 Oceania, 1/4 East Asian, 1/4 European People's Club" on a campus anywhere, because the cartography of identity was never charted for the people born on the borders.

Instead, the cartography of identity was charted for the people in power. Historically, the American government has been intimately interested in quantifying what it means to be "ethnic." Take Native Americans for example: “blood quantum” is a term used to refer to the fraction of your ancestry certified to be Native American. This fraction is used to answer a binary question: are you Native American, or are you not? It’s tremendously politically loaded. Whether or not you get to "count" as Native American can determine whether or not you receive certain benefits and protections under law, not to mention the psychological and cultural importance of being seen as authentic in your identity.

Prior to the Civil War, the Cherokee and some other Native American tribes enslaved African-Americans in a pattern similar to their white counterparts. Black slaves accompanied the Cherokee in the wake of the Indian Removal Act. After the Civil War, the Treaty of 1866 ensured that these freed men became full-fledged members of the Cherokee nation.

But in 2007, the Cherokee Nation decided to expel descendants of these African-American freedmen, citing their lack of “Indian blood.” In one New York Times debate on the subject, Syracuse law professor Kevin Noble Maillard wrote, "Real Indians were created by Real White People," going on to say that white policymakers wanted to

"take away Native communal ownership and replace it with private possession...But to give away all the land, federal officials had to answer the question: "Who is Indian?" White bureaucrats (not natives!) classified applicants of mixed Afro-Indian ancestry as Freedmen, while full-blood and mixed-blood white Indians became Citizens by Blood. Paradoxically, white European ancestry did not categorically threaten membership, but black ancestry was a likely trigger for Freedmen status. The Holy Grail of "Indian Blood" comes from the federal government."
Associate professor at Hofstra Law School Rose Cuizon Villazor stated bluntly, "It is ironic that tribes that have themselves been subject to racial discrimination through the federal government's use of blood quantum rules have now adopted the very same rules to promote their own sovereignty." My sister wrote an essay on the subject of blood quantum in which she argued that its modern-day applications force Native Americans to play the often uncomfortable game of gatekeeping (a role once occupied by white Americans, like Henry L. Dawes of the Dawes Rolls fame). Ultimately, the color of the gatekeeper really doesn’t matter. The power is the same: these temporal St. Peters stand at the not-so-pearly gates of cultural and racial identity.

This gatekeeping makes the writer Gary Younge, who has written an entire book on the subject of identity politics, uncomfortable; he said in a Salon interview that

"gatekeepers...affect the material conditions of people's lives...A gatekeeper's job is to say you can only do this and you cannot do that. There is the price of entry to be what you are, so if you want to be a member, this is what you must pay. And if you transgress this, then you're cast out. In order for that to work, philosophically, the nature of the identity has to be fixed. It can't change with time and circumstance. For gatekeepers to make sense, the identities that they evoke cannot be fluid."
When I was a child, the spectral figures of these gatekeepers terrified me. I ran headlong toward whiteness every time I looked in the mirror. I thanked my lucky stars that at least I had an eyelid crease, while desperately wishing for the green eyes and red hair of an Irish lass. Sometimes the ghosts of those desires traipse between my lashes again. In the university Counseling and Psychological Services meditation group I’m in one semester, we look at ourselves in mirrors and I find myself thinking back to a messy tangle of thoughts that resolve themselves in the sharp clarity of the glass: Too Asian.

At other times, I wonder if I’m Asian enough. In childhood I slogged through 4th grade in Saturday-morning Chinese school with a puppy-like desire to fit in, to be as Chinese as the girl with the perfected Beijing accent. In high school, I sat with a largely Asian-American lunch group. I wished that my family were conventionally Asian enough to be invited to the boring “Asian parties” that my friends had the luxury to complain about.

During Halloween in Berkeley, I see posters on cultural appropriation, scattered everywhere in the dorms, declaring “MY CULTURE IS NOT A COSTUME.” White Berkeleyans are (mostly) too “woke” to dress up as Pocahontases or Mulans. I wonder what I’m allowed to do.

One day I shop for costumes at a vintage store near campus. I look down at the thick lustrous pile I have clutched in my hands, rayon and taffeta and gingham all spilling out between my fingers, and realize that I don’t know if I’m overstepping with the spate of vaguely Chinese-looking dresses I hold in one hand. I frantically look up articles on about appropriate situations for “ethnic wear” and realize that there’s nothing about people of mixed backgrounds. Do we get to wear more? Are we supposed to wear less? Aside from the elementary “stay the f**k away from blackface,” what are the rules?

I wonder, too, about the idea of culture as a costume. My freshman-year roommate once explained her abiding disgust for cultural appropriation this way: “In elementary school, these white kids would make fun of me for my food ‘smelling funny’ because it was Indian. And now I see them getting likes on Instagram because of henna on their arms. You don’t just get to make fun of me for being Indian and then turn around and wear a bindi at Coachella.”
Fig.1 for "What Not to Do at Coachella." 
But what about those of us who never paid our cultural dues, in suffering or in pride? People like me, who ate sandwiches and pasta for lunch, didn’t speak much of a foreign language growing up, never got bullied because of ethnicity, only rarely participated in anything vaguely “cultural?”

Do you get to wear a culture as a costume if the only tenuous link you have to that culture is the color of your skin? For some, culture is skin-deep. It’s a glittery outfit to be trotted out of the closet when it’s “cool,” it’s the “sari not sari”-captioned Instagram photo before going home to jeans.

Maybe my discomfort, standing in that vintage store in Berkeley, was less with my divided race and more with my undivided cultural agnosticism. I didn’t feel Chinese enough to feel that I wasn’t appropriating if I were to dance out a dress with a Mandarin collar.

I have never dressed up as anyone non-white. Felicity this year, the Greek goddesses Nike and Athena the years before, Little House on the Prairie’s Laura Ingalls Wilder before that, a spate of cliche drugstore-Halloween-costume witches before that. The most ethnic I ever got was when I was three years old and my aunt and mom wrapped my sister and me head to toe in Kirkland Signature toilet paper. We were mummies.

There are non-white folks in history, mythology, and activism who would make for more interesting Halloween tributes. What about Cleopatra, Nur Jahan, Empress Theodora, Rosa Parks, the Mirabal or Soong sisters?

When one Chinese-American friend told me that she was thinking of being Frida Kahlo for Halloween I remember warning her that it might be interpreted by some as cultural appropriation. She raised her eyebrows in surprise.

That Halloween, I minced into a party wearing a pink-striped vintage frock that swished at my feet--I was Felicity Merriman, the Revolution-era American Girl doll. I twirled. I curtsied. I reveled in period costume and the feeling of not stealing anyone’s culture.

But when my friend waltzed in, red shawl draped artfully on her shoulders, flowers in her hair and a dark unibrow flawlessly penciled on her skin, I felt a twinge of envy.

Next October 31st, I probably won’t stray from my prairie girl/Greek goddess tradition. Somewhere, there is always someone who is much better at performing Chinese-ness, Asian-ness, POC-ness, than me, someone who will never question their own birthright to a costume, a hairstyle, an accent. I am not that person. If I weigh in on issues of cultural identity, an Asian friend will quickly remind me, non-maliciously, that I’m half white. So when I come running toward those vaunted gates of cultural entry, I pause when I get there. I look a gatekeeper in the eye. She looks like me.


There are other strands of identity, not just cultural, where gatekeepers play a role. In LGBTQ movements, people who identify as bisexual frequently have to reiterate their authenticity and fight for visibility. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject of “Bisexual erasure.” Then there are groups of people for whom the rigidity of existing labels may cause challenges--Amy Sohn’s light-hearted New York Magazine article “Bi For Now” describes the challenges of women who came out as lesbian, only to later end up in heterosexual relationships (who Sohn describes as “hasbians”). In this narrative, “hasbians” present a threat to the marginalized communities they step out of, while male partners interpret their unclear sexual orientation as threatening. The article quotes comedian Deidre Sullivan, saying: “The hasbian is very threatening because she crosses in and out of a sacred space.”

No wonder some are drawn to larger terms of identity--Maya M writes in Bustle that she uses the word “queer” to identify herself, rather than lesbian, because it is “a word that actively resists definition.”

The first time I met someone my age who identified as queer was in high school. We were sitting across from each other at a table in a Redmond Regional Library meeting room, talking about an event that we would collaborate on planning. She stated it -- “I identify as queer” -- flatly, without even the hint of a pause. In my head, an exclamation point lit up in neon pink even as my face stayed neutral. What does that mean? I thought. I was not a “woke” fourteen-year-old--no Tumblr, no forays into radical feminist theory. It was 2011, and I didn’t know what to do with a term like “queer.” So I translated it to something more easily digestible: lesbian. I guess she likes girls, I assumed, and thought no more of it. Assuming that “queer” equaled “lesbian” meant some form of knowledge, some form of power--it was a term that I could look at and say “I know who you like,” neatly filing you away with Ellen DeGeneres and Wanda Sykes. But “queer?” What a mysterious, big-tent sort of word. It lets you render yourself more unknowable to the casual observer, and this is a powerful thing: in a word, it lets you say that someone else has no especial right to know the composition of the bodies that live in your dreams.

But even such an umbrella term quickly falls prey to the same forces of gatekeeping and exclusion that render other labels intimidating to those unsure if they make the cut. In “Am I Not Queer Enough for the Queer Community?” Sarah Gladstone writes, “Sometimes I have to amend the assumptions about my sexuality by clarifying that yes, I like girls, but I like boys, too. I’m left feeling sheepishly ashamed, apologetic, exposed. No one’s ever said it, but I feel like I’ve let them down, like I’ve tricked other queer folks into believing that I am queer enough to share their spaces. The outline of my being blurs, my mirage settles into angles that just don’t quite seem to fit, and I’m left feeling like I’m occupying a space I’m not queer enough to take.” Jennifer Wong writes in “Not Queer Enough,” “People beg queerness to be visible in a way they would never demand of heterosexuality.” There are entire advice columns geared toward the individual struggling to be seen as queer by others.

Berkeley is home to a number of people who wear queerness on their tattoo sleeves, comb it through neon-colored undercut hair or reflect it in gleaming steel piercings. I felt like the odd girl out in my freshman dorm room; I was the only one without a tattoo or a piercing, the only one who, one Valentine’s Day (how sappy of me) started steadily dating a cis hetero man. “You’re so straight, Adora,” my roommates would say lightheartedly, along with disappointed sighs that they hadn’t managed to “turn” me.

They hadn’t been there at Student Orientation, in a dusky room with a bunch of newly admitted students students noisily daring each other to strip and kiss and make out. They hadn’t seen me lean in toward another girl on a dare--she had a boyfriend then, but she said “he says girls are OK”--and kiss her. The noise stopped. And then she pulled away and gave me a momentary, eyebrow-half-raised glance. “Woah, don’t get too into it,” she said warningly, and then she laughed. I wondered if there was something wrong with the fact that I had liked it, that a moment practically engineered for the teenage male gaze had felt like something I would do without anyone daring us first.

They hadn’t been there at the last hurrah of my post-high school summer, the last party I threw in the old Redmond house where I grew up before we moved away forever. I wrote in my journal, “I ended up kissing her twice that night, S. once, B. once, and H. once. They were all brief, free kisses. We cuddled on my bed like so many pigs in a pile and it was warm and beautiful in all senses of the words…”

They hadn’t been there in Berkeley’s Hearst Gym pool, the day we got to play water polo. None of us knew how to play, so we all gathered by the wall like fish in a tank clamoring for food, waiting for the PE teacher to explain the game. There, gripping the slippery black marble ledge with wet hands and panting from the exertion of too much treading water in the deep end, I caught myself staring for a moment at a classmate. All about her head, animated droplets of water caught the sun, and they adorned the ends of her close-shorn hair like a net of jewels. I drank in the picture for a moment. Suddenly I grew self-conscious of my gaze and looked bashfully away.

Once I stand in line for pizza with a friend and she jokes about wishing she were lesbian, because it would be “easier” than dealing with the flaws of the opposite sex. Later we look at art and she comments that our light-hearted banter on the subject was probably insensitive. After all, people don’t choose their sexual orientation, she commented in the tone reserved for Things That Are Certain.

I wondered out loud, “If someone’s sexuality was fluid enough that they, like, could be lesbian, it just wasn’t as easy, could they make the joke about wishing they were?”

She looked at me blankly. “I think if it takes work to be something, then you’re not that thing.”

I tried to explain, feeling acutely aware of not having presented enough identity qualifications, or perhaps the wrong kind. “No, not ‘more work’ exactly...just like...they don’t know? Like their sexuality feels kind of moment-dependent? So sure, they’re straight for all intents and purposes now, but maybe once, they could have not been?”

She shrugged.

It occurred to me, too, that I could have said something clearer: “Well, I might be queer; I don’t really know, and anyway, I’m in a straight relationship.” But it would have been clearer for her, not for me.

In the end, I wondered if this ineloquent sexual indecision registered to her, just as “queer” had once registered to me, as simply another version of some more rigid category that she could understand and then file away--a knowledge built on a lie, gathering dust in the card catalogue of her mind. 


Edited on May 18 to add an additional section.

Next up is Part 2: Pride.