Asian American Life by Isabelle Rideout

A Cry for Acknowledgement of All Us Asian Americans (For My Mother)

  1. Introduction

My mother has taught me many things

about race and racism

She has many opinions

many stories

many facts

that she shares with me

I know not how to turn them to prose

So I write these lines instead

 

  1. Asian-American

My mother is ABC:

American Born Chinese

Her parent immigrated here 

a very long time ago

She was raised in this country,

Born in this country

She speaks English

Her Mandarian twice as good as mine

But not nearly as good as her parents’

 

She is American

She is Chinese

She is Chinese-American

 

The hyphen connects her identities

My identities

It connects the country her parents come from

My grandparents

and the country she comes from

The country I come from

It represents her

and me

 

But the hyphen also

makes it seem like

one must qualify 

what kind of American they are

“I’m American and also Asian”

With a space, it becomes 

“I am Asian and a American”

fully both

All at once

 

I will use 

a hyphen for us

because I’ve already made it poetic

and a space for everyone else

because it’s trendy

and what I said above

 

III. Omitted Narratives, Forgotten Stories

But sometimes people don’t see that

my mother is American

 

Sometimes people don’t tell

the stories of her people

the stories of Asian Americans

Stories of America

The same America 

of the Gold Rush

of the Civil War

of the railroads

of basketball

of jazz

of NASA

 

That America chooses to leave us out

 

Some of these stories I only hear now,

In my idle searching

Our landmarks are so erased from the books

I never learn of

so many

Asian American firsts

So I will tell you now

how these stories go

 

People know many Chinese miners

came for the California Gold Rush

But do they know the Chinese miners’ distinctive clothes

made them the targets 

of white miners’ violent frustration

at all foreigners?

 

We have all learned about the Civil War

Asian Americans 

so often forgotten,

ignored in their small numbers,

were there too

Along with Pacific Islanders,

They fought 

Mostly for the Union

Sometimes for the Confederacy

Often without citizenship

Always for a country

that told them they were

Not American

 

The railroads represent

the peak of steam power

A shining accomplishment 

and a demonstration of America’s superiority,

they have fallen into

Disrepair

Rusting

Lying unused

When they were the future, 

Chinese workers built them

Many were killed or injured 

But they were not allowed 

to be in the picture

that was taken when

the two lines finally met

Connecting a country

that would soon stop all people like them,

Chinese laborers,

from entering it

 

The same year

Jackie Robinson

became the first African American

to play for Major League Baseball

Wataru Misaka,

a Japanese American,

broke the color barrier

for professional basketball

Why have I heard one’s name but never the other’s?

 

Jazz was created by African Americans

its history is filled with 

their stories

their pain

their sounds

I never knew Asian Americans

had a whole Asian American Jazz movement

in the ‘70s and ‘80s

infusing jazz 

with the sounds of our classical instruments 

 

When the space shuttle Challenger broke apart

killing seven people,

including Christa McAuliffe,

Ellison Onizuka was onboard

He had been the first Asian American 

and the first person of Japanese descent

to reach space

 

These are omitted narratives,

Pages never put in

Words no one thought to write

But still only a few

of the stories tossed aside

For not being dramatic enough

For not being revolutionary enough

For not making America better enough

 

Whose heros could have been found within these tales?

Who could have found the first person 

to do the things they wanted to do

if they only had heard this?

Who would have been inspired, 

knowing there was a place for people like them

all along?

 

  1. No, I’m Telling You it’s Racist

When my mom was at school, 

Classmates would mock everything

from Asian eyes

“Chinese, Japanese”

while referencing Asain stereotypes of laborers and beggars

“Dirty knees, skinned knees”

to her parent’s language

her language

my language

“Hahaha, what does ‘ching chong’ mean anyways?”

 

They reduced 

an entire language

filled with delicate sounds

and intricate idioms

A language that so much had been 

said in

written in

invented in

To a few silly sounds

“It’s just a joke”

 

I don’t really know

how often this happened

what the kids’ intentions were

or how much it hurt my mother

(One thing many children of Asain American immigrants 

have in common

is keeping their feelings hidden)

 

But I do know

she understands

Kids don’t say stuff like this to directly tease anymore

but it still shouldn’t be said at all

even by Chinese kids themselves

(my mom told me, clearly quoting something, that it’s called “self-hating racism”)

It is

at its core

in its origin

to the point of inextricability 

racist

And I shouldn’t have to be the one to tell people this

 

  1. Hey, is Anyone Even Listening?

I have heard

Asian American kids

don’t bother to speak up

about the racism they face

Because they know no one will listen

(I have my sources)

 

I know of people

who are speaking up

But no one is listening

 

My mother listened,

last year,

to a panel on Asian American health

It focused on the children of immigrants

but could apply,

to an extent,

to all Americans of Asian descent

When she tried to share what she learned

it seemed like 

No one was listening

 

Did you know that 

Asian Americans

have the second highest rate of depression?

Native Americans,

another “invisible minority,”

are first

 

But the symptoms of depression

are different

in Asian Americans

They keep showing up

They keep “doing well”

They keep getting good grades

There are stories

where kids show up

Until the day

they can’t take it

and disappear

because of a breakdown

or hospitalization

No warning signs

 

Asian Americans see themselves so little

in the media

in their curriculum

in their teachers

in their idols

that they often end up thinking of themselves

as white

There is nothing for them

so they take what they can get

and twist, 

smear,

hide, 

distort

themselves

to fit in

 

There is no place

for Asian Americans

to talk to each other

and form their identities

So they drop the “Asian”

They drop their parents and/or grandparents stories

of sacrifice and hard work

They drop amazing cultural legacies 

they were never told of

They drop who they really are

Even though they can never drop 

the way they are seen

stereotypes and microaggressions

high expectations 

(parents, people, themself)

and become just 

“American”

 

Some of the other things my mother learned 

that apply to me 

(to an extent):

Asian Americans internalize perfection and allow performance to define self-worth

There is no emotional crash 

like thinking I’ve done something poorly 

that I thought I was great at

Asian Americans don’t ask for help

I think of it as waiting 

until there is solid proof I need it

And I’m not lying

It’s because we don’t want to be a burden

If you want me 

to admit I need something to be explained again,

you need to ask twice

Because I hate bothering anyone

Ever

 

My mother tells me to speak up

So here are my words

Are you listening?

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