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Hungry For Home

 

Food has always been an integral part of the Asian American experience for me. Food is not just sustenance, it is always an experience, tied to distinct memories. Boba has always been attached to my late night study sessions, sushi is part of my family’s complicated past with Taiwan, and roti canai reminds me of the loneliness of the immigrant experience. All together, they remind me of who I am, and where I come from.  

Part I. Boba and School

A lot of my social life revolves around boba. That’s just how it is when you call an Asian American suburb your home. There’s a boba shop adjacent to my school, a boba shop next to the Vons—heck, there’s a boba shop on the other side of my block. No matter where we go, my best friend and I always order the same thing—peach green tea with lychee jelly (half sweet) and milk tea with mini boba. If it’s a good day, we’ll get sweet potato fries to go. Going out for boba was a great way to start off the weekend on a Friday afternoon, but boba also reminded me of the crushing academic culture that many of my peers and I grew up in. Boba shops often stay open late, making it the ideal spot for a six hour AP Calculus study session, a place to cram for finals, and last minute college-essay writing. In an academic pressure cooker, boba tasted like three more hours until I can get to sleep, four more chapters to study, one more practice test, two more college essays…The hours filter by as study partners jostle each other awake, pulling up an extra chair next to the booth for the friend who shows up two hours late. Boba was both a relief from school and a reminder of it.

Part II. Sushi and Grandparents

My grandparents speak Japanese, a remnant of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in the 1900s. So my grandmother brings sushi to Christmas every single year, along with a gigantic pot of miso soup. She embraced Japanese values and education as a means to rise in a tumultuous time, and each sip of soup and bite of sushi is a reminder that home is complicated, and sometimes painful. In my grandparents’ lifetime, Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese, then the Kuomintang, and is still currently claimed by China and not officially recognized as a country. On February 28th of every year, my grandfather invites me to the adult table and tries to remind me of his generation’s pain, and the university professors he lost in the White Terror. Certain words and opinions, whispered to the wrong person, or said at the wrong time, cost them their lives. His table, with his friends, has slowly shrunk over the year. He fills the seats with his children and grandchildren, and whispers his stories to us. In his broken English, he tries to say that home is hard, and he misses his home—what it was, and what it could have been.

Part III. Roti Canai and Chinese New Year

I forget that America is not my mother’s home, and it’s never more obvious than during Chinese New Year. Hours are spent on the phone, calling her mom and sister, apologizing about how she can’t go back this year. The pain in her eyes when she knows that there won’t be a seat saved for her at the family table. She grew up in Malaysia, and still ends some of her English words with la. When we go back, I always gorge myself on roti canai, a traditionally Indian food that fills the streets year round. Roti canai isn’t as good in the States, and I miss it—but I know my mom misses it more. It’s not true roti if it doesn’t come off a stand, still flaking and steaming in the cool of the morning, a relief from the impending humidity of the afternoon. Roti is a reminder of her home, and how she is always an “other” in America, an “other” in my Taiwanese church. When I hear her on the phone missing her family, I remind myself that no matter my relationship with my family—I’m going to call home every Chinese New Year.

Home is complicated, home is painful, home is stressful. But, I remember that wherever I call home, wherever I am—there’ll always be a seat for me at the table.


Created by: Yumei Lin

About the Author: Yumei is a student at Tufts University, passionate about social justice, movies, and finding the best boba shops.

 

from-to & everything in between

In three days, I will board a plane back to my passport land, a place I’m supposed to call home. It’s not. It’s my birthplace, my upbringing, my privilege. This poem is my attempt to my 20 months serving with migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, finding community among them, and leaving my newfound home for an uncertain one.

From MNL

From JFK

to HKG
I leave
Husband, children, parents behind
For better work abroad
Hopes of a better income, so
Shacks can become houses,
Food can fill stomachs,
Education can bring opportunity.

I leave
Friends, family behind
For the mission field
Hopes for justice and peace, so
Night becomes the day,
Ashes turns to beauty,
Love can bring change.

I arrive
Suitcases full of pictures, cards, letters –
Memoirs of where I came from.

She waves to me,
Recognizing me from our video chat.
“Welcome to Hong Kong!”

“You’re so dirty.”
“Stop being so lazy.”
She yells at me,
Hits me, starves me.
Nothing I do is right.

“You’re so American.”
“I didn’t realize you’re so Asian.”
They assume my Western upbringing,
Surprised by my Eastern values.
Nothing I do fits.

Presidential election:
Promise of a better future –
Job creation, poverty alleviation.

Presidential selection:
Reality of a worse present –
Violence, deaths, a divided country.

Useless abroad –
What can I do?

“When can I get my pay, ma’am?”
She doesn’t give a clear answer.
I hope next month.

“Who do I ask?”
She doesn’t give a clear answer.
Indirect communication confuses me.

I miss my
Food, friends, family,
Speaking my native tongue.
I am sick of Chinese food.

My nose bleeds from speaking English,
But Cantonese isn’t any easier.
I want pansit and adobo.
I miss my husband, children, parents.
But here, I am.
A slave.

My mother language no longer familiar,
Tongue unable to pronounce correct tones.
I want tacos and pizza.
I don’t even like pizza.
But here, I am.
Homesick.

“We are workers, we are not slaves!”
Our chants heard
From Causeway Bay
To Central
For better pay
For better working conditions
“Domestic work is work!”

Unwelcome looks
Of disdain
Wherever I go
The pain of always knowing
I am a foreigner.

Mistaken for a migrant worker
In the summer
Ambiguous Asian features
In the “winter”
I am a foreigner.

We fight, we advocate, we unite
Despite our differences,
Because of our similarities,
For ourselves, for our countries, for others.

If not us, who?
If not now, when?

I find a new employer
Because filing a case means
No work, no money.
I hope she treats me better –
Feeds me,
Pays me.

I find my place in the space between
Asian American –
The awkward tension of being
Neither,
Both,
Betwixt and between.

Hong Kong is not home.
I don’t belong here.

Gusto ko uwi.
I want to go home.

下一步呢?
What’s next?


Created by: Jennifer Sushi Au

About the Author: Sushi is a missioner/social justice advocate/adventurer. She dedicates her life to serve with those in the margins of society and doesn’t mind the nomad life. She dreams big and lives Ordinary Adventures full of Amazing Days. She is finishing her term in Hong Kong as a Young Adult missionary with the United Methodist Church and returns back to her passport land. She has no idea what comes next but is excited!

Dear America

TW: emotional and physical abuse, trauma, violence

***

Dear America,

It’s been awhile, I know. I’ve been away from home for a long time.  Fifteen years, to be exact.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but I’m not so sure. Living abroad has given me some distance. Some perspective.

I spent my childhood in your embrace, suckling on the milky white supremacy flowing from your bosom. You may have sustained me, but you also kept me dependent. You kept me strong enough to tell yourself you were doing a good job raising me. You kept me weak enough to keep me in my place.

As I grew older, I hated the way you held me up as a model child during family gatherings, bragging about my accomplishments and comparing me to my black and brown cousins.

            You used me to feel good about yourself.

Even now, I hate the way you put on a face of respectability when we are out in public together, pretending to be a happy family. In reality, you pat me on my back when I submit to your wishes but rage when I don’t comply. You don’t want a grown child with her own thoughts and feelings.

            You want a puppet.

You think I should be grateful. You think I’m being unfair. You feel like I’m attacking you.

Most narcissistic parents feel the same way.

You expect me to be invulnerable to pain, yet you yourself are so fragile.

I know I’m being raw, but I’m trying to tell you something here.

I want to have a relationship with you, America. I really do.

But I don’t know how to do that when I feel so unsafe and insecure in your presence. I don’t how to bring all of myself to you when you’ve rejected me time and time again.

What I want is to be fully loved and accepted as I am—all the contradictory and complex pieces of me—not just the parts that make you comfortable.

But it doesn’t seem like you’re ready to do that.

I don’t know if I can come home.

Yours?

Estranged

***

Dear America

You say you’re sorry. You say you didn’t mean it, that you’ll try harder next time.

I don’t know whether to believe you.

When it was good, it was really good. The exhilarating high of infatuation and intimacy.

I remember being so proud to belong to you. All those times we walked down the street together, with your arm possessively slung over my shoulder. You showered me with opportunity and expensive gifts. You opened doors for me. You intoxicated me with your compliments and attention. I thought you loved me.

Was it all a lie?

When it was bad, it was ugly. Violent. Deadly. The shaming of my body that you both eroticized and emasculated. The unexpected punches while walking down the street. The cruel beatings for looking at you the wrong way.

I have the scars to show for it.

I found the videos too. The ones where you’re acting out your sick fantasies and fears on others. Horrific images of handcuffed victims whom you violated and brutalized.

I’m shaking right now—from fury and from fear. You disgust me. You’ve broken my trust and you’ve broken my heart.

I’m scared to be in my own home.

Stop trying to appease me with your empty words, America. I don’t want anything from you right now.

        I just want you to take a good look at yourself.

Own your own shit. Open your eyes to the trauma of your birth—the abuse, the rape, the hate, and the violence that are part of your story. Stop running from the pain.

        Get help.

I’ve already packed my bags. 

Love/Hate,

Abused

***

Dear America,

You’re lashing out. You’re distressed.

“I hate you!” you say.

“Get out of my life!”  

“It’s his fault!”

I can see you’re having some big feelings.

Your brother asked you to stop hitting him, but you didn’t. He asked you not to take his Lambikin, but you took it anyway.

Now you’re upset because he won’t play with you. You’re mad because he wants his favorite toy back.

It’s tough to hear no, isn’t it? It’s hard when you don’t get your way, I know.

Come, let me hold you. Shh, it’s okay to feel frustrated.

You’re not ready for a hug, I see. You don’t want to be comforted right now.

I’m going to have to hold onto your arms. You don’t seem to be in control of them right now.  You’re hurting people and I can’t let you do that. We don’t do that in our home.

Oh America, America! How I want to gather you in my arms as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you won’t let me.

You push me away. You run off. You slam the door.

But I won’t give up on you.

I’m here. Arms open.

Come home…

Waiting,

Love


Created by: Iris Chen

About the Author: Iris Chen is a Chinese American blogger who writes about her adventures as a deconstructing tiger mother. An advocate for gentle parenting and unschooling, she currently lives with her husband and sons in China.

Photo Credit: Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

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Burden and Gift

The band is introducing their next song when I hear someone speaking in the audience behind me. “That guy’s definitely Japanese. I don’t know what that guy is,” bellows some undergrad. Knowing my surroundings, I ignore him, but my wife shuts that shit down. “Not that it should matter to you, but they’re all Korean-American. Maybe you shouldn’t guess people’s ethnicities,” she growls, as he gets visibly cowed. I ready myself to hold back my beloved in case she feels the need to rip his head off.

We’ve driven an hour in a snowstorm to catch Run River North in concert. They have accompanied me through many important seasons of life. I played their songs on my iPod the day I moved to America for graduate school, the day I married my wife, and even the day my father died back in my home country, half a world away from me. Everyone who loves music has a band like this – staples on their life’s soundtrack.

On this night, they’re playing at a Christian liberal arts college in rural Western Pennsylvania that leans heavily conservative and Evangelical. Unsurprisingly, the college (and surrounding town) is also a very white space.

This is an unusual place for three Asian-Americans from Los Angeles to play a show, which they mention lightheartedly between songs. I smile knowingly at their self-awareness, but also feel the sadness of the truth underlying their words; as the ignorance of the undergraduate behind me suggests, it’s clear that the few non-white people in the room (me + the members of Run River North) are other here.

Despite this, Run River North’s performance is received enthusiastically in large part because they sound like this (and even better live):

I also suspect that part of the reason they’re received so well at this particular Christian college is because there’s discernible Christian language in the lyrics of some of their songs. Bands like Run River North – those with possibly Christian members, but not a “Christian band” – are valuable for people with Christian identities, but who also recognize that most of what is explicitly sold as “Christian music” is artistically and musically inane.

I didn’t see a single other Asian audience member; perhaps I was alone in feeling pride as I watched people who look like me completely own and rock a space that tends to be monochromatic. It empowers me in the way I imagine watching Black Panther might for African-Americans. I would never qualify Run River North as an “Asian-American” band, as if their music did not stand on its own merit. But I cannot deny that the shared identity affords me a deeper resonance with their craft.

I surely can’t do justice here to their nuanced stories that are easily labeled “Christian” and “Asian-American” and the undoubtedly complex ways they embrace the different parts of their identity. But I can’t help but notice what’s on display as Run River North commands their audience; those with more than one-dimensional identities are able to flourish even in environments where they appear as outsiders.

Many of us who live in and navigate religious/ethnic/cultural/national worlds other than our own have learned to do so by drawing on different aspects of our identities. Let’s call this duality.

Duality was sometimes thrust upon us as an unavoidable burden: learn to assimilate – i.e. speak/act/eat like them – or remain an outsider. Some of us did so as completely as we could, and yet were never completely let in. Some of us did for a time and only later learned we could not whitewash the deepest parts of us. This duality in our souls could feel like a fracture, as we learned to move back and forth between our identities, highlighting different dimensions at different times.

I instinctually view my own duality as a burden, forever resigned to be part-this-part-that, only ceasing to be an outsider if I can somehow suppress those particular parts of me that the mainstream culture considers foreign. But once in a while, I glimpse others using their duality to cross those barriers that would make them outsiders, as Run River North does in venues like this.

If the whiteness of a space results in some failing to see beyond the ethnicities of Asians, how else can connection be forged? A band like Run River North has multiple well-springs to draw upon: a shared Christian vocabulary if needed and music that gets people rocking hard enough to temporarily forget their ignorance. Multidimensional identities allow the breaking of barriers that make us other (even if only for a moment).

This duality is fittingly known by many names. Psychologists and linguists speak of code-switching. Theologians speak of “double-vision” – the capacity to see from perspectives other than your own. Anthropologists refer to this as liminality – not belonging fully to any one culture, but inhabiting the spaces “in between”. This opens us to opportunities to experience the new (for we are not beholden to a single culture), to radical community (because outsiders share experiences and intimacy by necessity), and allows us to take prophetic stances against the dominant culture (because we see it without being beholden to the baggage of the status quo).

It is a fight to see and exercise my own duality as something that saves me from the forces in the world demanding assimilation. Those who have never been forced to confront the dualities inherent in their identities will easily collapse into caricatures. Is it any wonder the ethnicity-guessing undergraduate feels the need to label the identities of others, as if someone’s identity could be summed up by one dimension?

Being multiple things (Christian/Asian/Progressive) can feel like I am not any one thing, but it saves me from viewing myself and others as one-dimensional categories. It grants me the freedom to see boundaries of ignorance for what they are and to defy them. It grants me eyes to see and ears to hear.

Duality is nothing more and nothing less than the capacity to see the complexities inherent in the world and human beings. So maybe even the ignorant undergraduate is more than he shows himself to be (and more than I can see). If only he could see this and embrace it, rather than reinforcing the caricatures he breathes.

On good days, my own duality helps me glimpse the duality in God’s character and promises. God is one, but a Trinitarian community. Jesus is human, and somehow also God. We are citizens of earth, and also heaven. God’s Kingdom has come, though not fully yet. If such duality is inherent in God’s being, I can trust that my own duality is crucial to bearing God’s image in the world. I can hold it as a gift.

To hold it as a gift, I need others who share in it. I need others to affirm it in me. I need to celebrate others as I see them living it. Even better if that’s done at a rock concert in the whitest of spaces. Our duality shines in the whiteness, and the whiteness will not overcome it.


Created by: Kevin Soo

About the Author: Kevin is a graduate student in cognitive psychology, who often finds himself immersed in data and statistics. He has learned to love dwelling in the intersection of his Asian, immigrant, and Christian identities.

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Borrowed Language; Borrowed Land

Once upon a time, I read a fairy-tale about a woman who looked in a mirror for the first time since she was a girl. She stared and stared. She couldn’t believe it was her beautiful reflection in that bottle-green cracked glass.

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I stare. But I’m in the wrong fairy-tale: I look the same as I did when I was 16. Everyone tells me so. I’m 16: I’m ugly; I’ve sold my feminine soul to try and become the most brilliant and witty and successful and interesting person I know. Now I look in the mirror and wonder that even if I failed at half my 16-year-old dreams, how could I not see I was beautiful? And why should I still care?

***

My brother has a simple explanation for why we undervalue our looks, like he does for everything: “racist white people in high school who weren’t attracted to Asians.” He’s probably right. He moved to California and he left his half-ness and never looked back. He sends me photos all the time of dumplings or hot pot or his APIA mentoring job or his Asian church friends or his Taiwanese girlfriend and I think – or maybe hope – he’s finally found somewhere to belong.

I’m different from him. The classics are my problematic faves. I’m obsessed with Kant and Eliot and Yeats and lots of dead white guys who would’ve thought me inferior by half. I was a high school libertarian, drink my tea with milk and sugar. I can quote Milton in my sleep and Pascal in French. I like cafes and Switzerland except that time I was harassed by the police because they thought I was a Tibetan asylum seeker.

“Where are you from?” “Boston,” “No, really from?” “Scotland,” “No, really from?” “Ireland.” I grin my whitest grin. White teeth, white eyes, white face. They don’t believe I know the old songs, that the first things I fell in love with were the hills and roses and rolling sea. They don’t believe in my blond cousins who grew up on soda bread and calzones, raised also to long for some mythical home where the sidhe walked the land and the English never colonized anyone.

Once I met someone who played the pennywhistle better than I do, but he was actually from Britain and Shanghai. Nothing to make you feel more like a fraud, I guess. Some sort of bizarre American hybrid who pretends to be from everywhere but is really from nowhere.

I learned Irish and Arabic because I was sick of white people thinking I could speak Chinese. “I can speak five languages; Chinese isn’t one”. Besides, Mandarin wasn’t my ancestors’ language anyway. But now I meet people and their faces light up when they see mine and they start asking for directions or where to find food or something else I can’t understand, and every time I say “sorry, only English,” I deflate a little more.

“Why are you so obsessed with identity? Are you an SJW?” Well, sometimes; I want to be a warrior for justice. But the identity stuff, that’s more selfish. I can weep over Scotland, and still, if I show up there and think I’m going home, I’ll be a stranger. And my brother can join all the Asian groups he wants, and he still can’t talk to his girlfriend’s parents because, well, we’re fourth gen. We can’t even pronounce our middle names.

***

My brother and I are more similar than I think. I haven’t identified as white since I was five and living in the South Pacific, because the world makes you define yourself as what you’re not. Some of my Asian friends say I look white, flippantly say I’m lucky I don’t get microaggressions. They’ve never been me on the street: I’m Asian there, not even Chinese, because on the street “ni hao” and “konnichiwa” and “annyeonghaseo” aren’t greetings, just ways of saying “you’re different from us. We know where you’re really from.”

When I walk into unfamiliar places, I find the faces that look like mine and I sit with them, and for a moment, I feel at home. And then they ask something, vulnerable, like how well can I read Chinese because they can’t and sometimes that makes them feel disconnected, you know, and I say, loud and white, “I can’t even speak it. In Hawai’i, it’s different. That’s where we’re from.” Sometimes I speak pidgin, and sometimes with a Scottish accent. They look uncomfortable. I want to say I understand, maybe, but instead blurt, “My Popo is trying to learn Mandarin.”

My favourite books as a kid and teenager were by Bette Bao Lord and Gene Luen Yang and Maxine Hong Kingston; my favourite movies Miyazaki. After I watched Chungking Express I thought, I never have to watch another movie again, even though I didn’t speak the language. I read Zen Cho and Sarah Kuhn and Courtney Milan and Stan Sakai and Justina Chen, and sure, they might not be as profound as The Woman Warrior, but they’re great within their genres and I wonder if they’re like me, walking the razor’s edge. The book that changed my life was Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Some white guy asked me, “does he even count as an author of colour? He’s a French Catholic.” I simmered.

(My Murakami- and Melville-reading cousin thinks my interpretation of Endo is wrong, and that agreement or disagreement with a character in a story is no reason to wholly reject faith. She, like Endo, is more comfortable with ambiguity. My mother, when I was seven, told her friends that I saw everything in moral absolutes. Things like “I reject Calvinism, and therefore Christianity. And if I perish, I perish.” But now I’ve been talked back onto that razor’s edge of little faith – make my heart restless until it rests in thee even when it means rejecting St. Augustine. My cousins are better at balancing.)

I’ve always disappointed everyone in my Chinese-ness (and my faith). But I am Asian American through and through: my skin, my blood run with butter mochi, my voice telling my brothers to close the lights, my memories…

***

In Hawai’i, I don’t look in the mirror and wonder that I’m beautiful. I look in the mirror and wonder that I’m normal.

I lived in Hawai’i only three months. If you count all the time I’ve spent there, it’s a year. I don’t tell people this at first. I don’t want to explain, Hawai’i is the only place I can dress colorfully and walk down the street, and no one will look at me. I don’t want to explain, how in Hawai’i, cousins kind of appear out of the woodwork. Last week, I discovered dozens more. They have a fleet of canoes and teach surfing. “No, I’m not actually Hawaiian,” I make sure to tell people. But apparently my cousins are. Do they support sovereignty?

We settled in Hawai’i, we Asians, because we could not survive in our homelands and we were chased out of the US. These stories weigh on us still. My cousins are Chinese and Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian, Chinese and some other white race, except, like me, they might get annoyed if they called them white. I’m not white, I’m Irish. And maybe I’m not Chinese, but Asian. Is that reductionistic? The cousin I’m closest to is Korean. We’re not actually related, but in Hawai’i we can be, and everywhere else, people think we are: I’ve borrowed her ID because her name looks more like my face than mine.

When I speak in favour of land reform in South Africa, I wonder if I remain a hypocrite because what of us, what do we do, we who cannot speak our ancestral languages, whose blood relatives are now part of the land and sea? We didn’t colonize; we made our cake noodle and spam musubi and manapua to survive. We are mixed.

But even there, I can never understand. I can sing only two songs in an Austronesian language. My cousins from the sea, unlike me, have a home. Our presence on the island is fraught as our presence on the mainland: borrowed legends, borrowed language, borrowed land.

Even there, the one place they have a name for my race, they call it half. Half one thing, half the other, like we can be so easily cleaved in two.


Created by:  Siobhan McDonough

About the author: Siobhan was born in Scotland. She lives in Zambia and works in international development. She loves her dog.