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-Joséphine.”
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.