I’m currently jobless.
A couple of weeks ago, my boyfriend at the time – also a social justice activist – asked me, “Have you thought about being a translator?”
“For what? French to English? I’ve studied it, but I’d definitely need to become more familiar with the particularities of the language.”
“No, for Mandarin to English,” he said.
I scoffed – that didn’t even cross my mind because I definitely don’t have the level of fluency in Chinese required for translation. At most, I can speak “Chinglish,” a mélange of Mandarin sprinkled with English for all the words I don’t know.
“You’re such a bad Asian,” he teased, because that’s soooo clever.
“Yeah, I know,” I replied instead of going in on him. We often teased each other about race because it’s exhausting to bear our visible racial identities as burdens since they’re such a core part of us, affecting how people treat us (he’s Black).
Besides, once upon a time – not so long ago – I would’ve agreed with him and been ashamed of “not being Asian enough.”
In my twenty-some years, I’ve heard many variations of: “You’re not Asian enough. You’re a bad Asian. You act so white. You’re not a real Chinese, are you?” And these messages taught me to be ashamed of myself.
These messages aren’t harmful because they offend me. They don’t. I’m used to them – and for your comfort and my energy retention, I’ll probably smile and let it go if you express such sentiments.
These messages are harmful because they’re seemingly innocuous, repeated frequently, and believed.
They hold so much subtext about dominant attitudes and understandings of race in US society (just like the mere fact that we can still freely joke about Asians without it being socially distasteful does).
These expectations and messages about me have tried to crowd out my very existence.
Over time, I was taught to mind my social position, a position that has been predetermined within a racial hierarchy.
I learned that I’m not allowed to take up space and be whoever I want to be.
I’m reminded that nothing I do will ever satisfy anyone’s picture of who I should be because I’m not an amalgamation of stereotypes about “the Orient.”
These messages also disappoint me, when they’re bandied about – by Asians and non-Asians alike – without awareness of how based they are in white supremacy.
I’ve long stopped the exhausting endeavor of trying to live in line with expectations of how I’m supposed to behave based on the way I look, but what if I didn’t grow out of it?
Here’s six ways calling me a “bad Asian” or “not Asian enough” reminds me that the white gaze is in power and that the colonial mindset cultivated via white supremacy retains its dominance in shaping societal attitudes, even if you’re a person of color – and why that hurts.
1. You Invalidate My Lived Experiences
My inherent “Asianness” has nothing to do with the extent to which my behavior and appearance conform to your expectations of what an Asian person would do.
Yet my lived experiences are muted instead of amplified because they don’t fit your narrative of how I (and other people of color) play the sidekick to the white, cishet, American hero.
By calling me a “bad” Asian because I don’t conform to your expectations of me says you think I’m supposed to behave a certain way – and in fact, that I need to behave that way in order to be treated with respect.
It says that you’ve imbued my embodiment of stereotypes with a moral value of good or bad.
By the way, I’m Chinese by default, whether you consider me to be doing a good or bad job of it.
2. You’re Most Likely Erasing Anyone Not of East Asian Descent
One of the advantages of privilege is that one can be completely oblivious to certain issues taken personally by marginalized identities.
I call it an advantage only because the burden of empathy causes people to become activists or to realize that leading comfortable lives within a faulty system brewed in white supremacy is valueless.
Such awareness is not easy to bear – although people of color have been doing it for centuries. One such privilege is not realizing whose identities are erased.
According to the US Census Bureau:
“Asian” refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.
It includes people who indicated their race(s) as “Asian” or reported entries, such as “Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Other Asian,” or provided other detailed Asian responses.
There are many issues with such a definition (who counts as an “original” peoples?) but also with how we generally see Asian American as referring to East Asians, when in fact, Asian is such a broad and non-descriptive term that it’s similar to the false belief that Africa is one monolithic culture.
So when you call me a bad Asian, you’re probably only thinking about who you think I’m supposed to be based on played-out stereotypes of East Asians.
And when you support Asian American issues, you might not be truly supporting the issues of all Asian Americans.
3. You Don’t See Me As American
When I was young, I didn’t see my yellowness, but it was always apparent to my white peers as a marker that I’m somehow fundamentally different.
This is known as the perpetual foreigner effect, and it’s deeply felt by people of color who don’t pass as white and whose appearance is often associated with cultures that don’t originate in the United States.
Embedded in the way the US treats people of multiple cultures or cultures that don’t reflect the values of the dominant religious ideology is the message that one must shed all other cultures that aren’t related to whiteness (or Christianity) to be a true American – despite the myth of the “melting pot.”
This is clear in the way the US has always equated citizenship with whiteness, broadening the definition of whiteness over time to include more cultural groups (Germans and the Irish, for example), and then iteratively broadening the definition of citizenship to include people of color through changing the language of immigration laws.
Yet, whiteness is still the primary characteristic of being American, as Michelle Kwan, who was born and grew up in California to parents from Hong Kong, found out in 1998.
When Tara Lipinski, an American of Polish descent, beat her to win an Olympic skating gold, MSNBC published the headline, “American Beats Out Kwan.”
This definition of American based in whiteness has always been terrifying for those of us who aren’t in that select group because we’ve seen that it’s possible to intern American citizens of Japanese descent when their appearance somehow dictates something about their patriotism.
We’ve seen that Latinx Americans are racially profiled, especially near the Mexican border. We’ve seen that Muslim Americans are inundated with suspicion about their Americanness especially post-9/11.
Yet, the truth is that being American ought to be based in complexity, not in our proximity to whiteness.
When you say I’m being a “bad Asian” or “not being Asian” enough, you’re saying I must relinquish all other cultural and ethnic identities to be American – and, even then, I can’t shed my yellow skin.
And while you can easily dismiss my American identity and deny me full access to opportunity through systematically advantaging white people, I can’t discard the way I grew up or accept being treated like I’m a stranger in a country where I grew up.
4. You’re Quite Possibly Sex–Shaming or Fetishizing
Okay, this point doesn’t seem directly related to white supremacy and a colonial mindset upfront, but Western imperialism is inseparable from the patriarchal roots of their misogynistic rationale.
Gender normative attitudes have been passed down alongside attitudes about racial superiority.
East Asian women and folks misgendered as women are often fetishized as obedient, domestic, and virginal (whatever that means).
East Asian men are often emasculated. East Asian men are also often portrayed in media as being less sexually attractive because society enforces the idea that male sexuality has to do with conformity to masculinity.
If you call me a “bad Asian” because I’m sex-positive and you don’t like it, you’re sex-shaming.
If you call me a “bad Asian” because I’m sex-positive and you do like it, you’re fetishizing me based on my disconformity to the stereotype. Both are gross.
Worse, both leave me with no room for my own sexual expression by rendering me an object of your desire, only existing as a sexual being on this typecasting dichotomy.
5. You Most Likely Have Stereotypical Expectations of Other Ethnicities
If you call me a bad Asian, I’m going to think that you probably give weight to stereotypes about other races as well and that you expect them to behave in certain ways because of their race, especially if you “can tell” what race they are via their appearance.
This ownership of certain characteristics also applies in reverse – there are behaviors considered “white” that are also often correlated with proper assimilation in America that can’t be applied as one of my traits unless I’m “acting white.”
6. You’re Perpetuating the Model Minority Stereotype, Pitting Us Against Other People of Color
I grew up in a neighborhood where I could afford to believe that the US was honestly a country of equal opportunity for East Asians. When we called each other “bad Asians,” we meant we got low test scores.
But many also don’t get to believe that for so long. Asian American describes a diverse group of people with connections to 48 different countries.
Although some statistics may show academic and financial achievement, they often bundle all of these different groups together, instead of disaggregating the statistics for a more nuanced representation.
Yet, white people will use us as an example of how people of color can succeed in the US, equating the experience of upper middle-class Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Japanese people of color with that of all Asians and of all other people of color.
This suggests all of our struggles are rooted in the same historical contexts of oppression – they’re not.
The fact that many Asian folks buy into this “model minority” stereotype and believe in the American myth of meritocracy ultimately accounts for our small presence and lack of allyship with other people of color in social justice movements.
For this, I truly carry resentment.
Our “achievement” is often used as a basis for respectability politics, but no matter how “successful” we become, we’ll never be seen as white, and we’ll never transcend a government founded on the genocide of indigenous people and the chattel slavery of Black people.
We’ll continue being complicit in letting our country avoid confronting how deeply embedded imperialism is in its very roots until we stop taking pride in being associated with the model minority myth.
White supremacy has pitted us against other minorities – as if any of us belonged on a two-dimensional axis of who is closer to being acceptable in society when the truth is none of us will ever belong.
I love Yellowstone National Park. And Montreal. And the city of Ganzhou in Jiangxi Province.
And New York pizza. And dim sum. And ghormeh sabzi.
And NSync will always have a place in my heart over Backstreet Boys.
I grew up in a family with a culture rich in its own five-thousand year history and ideologies.
I wasn’t raised with the same cultural norms as those raised by white, middle-class guardians who could trace their bloodline’s time in the US over many generations. I’ll never find my ancestors’ names at Ellis Island.
Calling me a bad Asian or not Asian enough reminds me of the differences and tells me these differences are not okay because “white is right.”
Calling me Asian at all reminds me that my differences are actually a big deal and then makes them a big deal by playing out my differences through policy design because we live under white supremacy.
No matter how many times you tell me I’m causing the divide because I’m pointing out these constructed differences, I’m not the one who built legitimate institutions around them.
I’m Asian enough.
I’m American enough.
I’m so much more.
Jessica Xiao a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a self-proclaimed nerd and book hoarder who is guilty of tsundoku. Often inaccurately described as Canadian, she thinks of herself more as a Montrealer with US citizenship living in Washington, DC, after having obtained her BA & Sc. in Psychology and the dark art of Economics at McGill University. She is a grant writer for the Montreal-based international women’s economic development nonprofit Artistri Sud and the former assistant editor and writer at The Humanist. She believes in empathic action and bringing our whole selves to every aspect of our lives for transformational social change. She frequently quotes Dorothy Parker and writes bad poetry at stillsolvingforx.tumblr.com. You can also find her on Twitter @jexxicuh or follow her on Facebook.