I’ve had a very emotional week, but every night this week, I’ve come home, sat down, turned on YouTube, and watched Jeremy Lin play basketball.
I’m not a basketball fan. I was team captain of a coed team in middle school gym class, but that’s about it. I have, however; tracked J-Lin’s career for a long time now, on AngryAsianMan.com. I first heard about him because during a Harvard game, students from the other school started yelling “chink” at him. They chanted things like “go back to China" at him.
Today he is because he is the first Taiwanese American to play for the NBA. Kicked to the curb by three teams before being picked up by the New York Knicks, the system doubted he could play and put him on the court as a last resort.
After his four straight wins and asskicking to the Lakers, people no longer want him to go back to China. In just a few days, he has managed to overshadow victimized nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee to be the most famous Taiwanese American in the United States of America. Not everyone knows the names of the Taiwanese American founders of YouTube, Yahoo!, or Zappos. Now they know Lin.
My boyfriend, who is not Taiwanese American, but white American, doesn’t know why I am excited about this. He isn’t at all interested in basketball. It isn’t about basketball for me.
Sometimes I wonder if I would be happier dating a woman of color, if I didn’ have to navigate internalized racism or sexism or power imbalances. My boyfriend is a descendant of t he Pilgrims of the Mayflower and the Revolutionary War. The brunt of the racism he experiences are circumstances such as when I doubt his ability to understand the part of me that is Taiwanese. The brunt of racialized sexism that he faces is scorn for the privilege he has as a white male. He is an ally, he has empathy, he tries. I try, too—but I couldn’t share my excitement about JLin with him, and it reminded me of how different we are.
I said I wished I could be at home sharing this trivial basketball victory with my father. My boyfriend asked me why I said “home” when speaking about my slightly estranged family. Wasn’t my home with him? This home, where the language of my family of origin has slowly eroded…
My father, who is older, gradually becoming shorter than me, who can’t stand to be in America for more than a few months at a time anymore. He is fragile. He couldn’t handle the racism here, being taunted for his broken English, his competency being tested and taunted, the eye rolls he got when he tried to speak American.
There is a novel about this now, you know. It is called “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.” It is written by a Taiwanese American named Charles Yu. In the book, the main character, also a Taiwanese American named Charles Yu, watches his Taiwanese immigrant father struggle, broken English, trapped in the past, recursive loops. The book has been made into a play, which has been optioned for a movie. The play stars a white actor. I think I may have to exhaust myself again, fighting against yet another movie.
My father used to love playing basketball. I wish Jeremy Lin could have barged in 25 years ago, shattering stereotypes. Maybe if he had, the clients I worked with at the public works office yesterday would not have called me and people like me “those Orientals.” This is wishful thinking. I stood there, with a vacant, tolerate smile, suffocating the part of my spirit that wanted to scream back.
To me, so much about being an Asian American woman of color, particularly one of Taiwanese extraction, is about sharpening my dragon lady claws and clawing back. This week, I had to fight to cut off a white female professor in my critical race theory clas tried to play an expert on Asian American demography. When I tried to explain, the professor cut me off by snapping, “No, no it’s not.” As if she knew better. I had to counter a narrative proposed by a white female student who spoke about how whitening creams and eyelid surgery about Asians abroad wanting to be white, clearly, glorifying whiteness, make it all about that, all about white people, never looking at other cultural contexts, write the story for us.
I’ve been thinking lot lately about what it means to be Taiwanese American.
Do I even know what I am talking about, since it has been fifteen years since I have even stepped foot on the island?
Yesterday I met some classmates who were also of Taiwanese descent. One of them, who is half white, half Taiwanese, said. ”I am Chinese, though don’t let my mom hear that, she would want me to say that I am Taiwanese but I really don’t care.”
This week,I have seen video of people setting themselves on fire in Tibet. Last month, I stayed up until 4am trying to track Taiwanese election returns. ”How can you not care?” I exploded, trying to keep a smile on my face, trying to stay benign. ”How can you not fucking care? If you’re Taiwanese, you are fucking Taiwanese.”
I wish I could have added, “There are billions of people in this world, in China, in Taiwan, in the United States, who would gladly strip that identity from you. They would tear it away from you in a fucking heartbeat! Don’t just give it away like that.”
I started telling my classmates about my grandparents, telling me about the way they suffered and the people who died and how fiercely they care about being Taiwanese and being allowed to say things that are considered seditious (is speaking out against imperialism “seditious” when you are the ones threatened?)
"Are you sure sure that really happened…that the communists did that?" my classmate asked, when I told them about how much my grandparents wanted to tell me about their past. "No, no, my grandparents said the nationalists did that, during the White Terror," I said. That drew blank looks.
Speaking to this classmate, who is only half Taiwanese, and has never been to Taiwan, was really eye opening. It confronted me with the reality that my kids, no matter whom I have them with, probably won’t care.
My kids won’t care. They won’t even know.
They won’t know what it is like. Communicating with my grandparents with our shared broken Mandarin. UnderstandingTaiwanese but unable to respond, to speak with them in the language of their choice. Always standing silent, reverent smile, those guttural syllables loaded on my tongue, tiny outbursts of fake Taiwanese staccato, unable to speak a language people from China have tried to kill off, weighed down by an American accent.
Realizing that my kids will never know Taiwanese at all, that they will be lucky if they even know Taiwanese Mandarin, but that they will be perfectly fluent in English like me. Maybe they will even be “English majors” like me. They will read hundreds of books written by white British and American men. Perhaps “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” will be the first book they ever read written by a Taiwanese American.
If I stay with my white boyfriend of five years they will be hapa and grow up in America surrounded in a culture of white supremacy—not the colloquial definition, but the academic one. The one that taught me to hate my dark haired dolls and glorify the blonde ones. Always wishing my skin was lighter, practicing standing in front of the mirror to make my eyes rounder. The culture that has exhausted me with constant questions about where I am “really” from, assumptions about my ability to speak English without an accent, assumptions about my patriotism. The dominant culture that taught me that I am either a submissive doll or a dominant dragon bitch, that I need to have skinny tinny voice and a cute attitude, tight sideways vagina, war trophy, otaku trophy, Madonna whore.
I wish I had kept a running lifetime tally of all the times white people and Chinese people and American people have told me that I don’t get to identify as Taiwanese.
Without their parents having to do anything, my children will learn from osmosis from their surrounding cultural environment that their white side is better. They will identify with predominantly white television characters, they will learn nothing about Taiwan in school. People will tell them Taiwan isn’t real, just as they told me. Their textbooks will treat Taiwan—the strongest democracy in East Asia— like the United Nations treats Taiwan, like the World Health Organization treats Taiwan, like China treats Taiwan. Maybe even like how China treats Tibet.
Their wealthy white grandparents will be warm and speak English to them, buy them gifts and take them to Disney World. Their middling Taiwanese grandparents will feed them strange food and speak a strange language with their mother, smother them and awkwardly communicate with them through hand gestures and broken English.
I will be their brown mother, the one with the baggage about a tiny island across an ocean, miles and miles away, words in my throat fighting to come out. People will think I am their nanny. I will defer to their own self identification; identity diffusion only breeds dysfunction. But if you are a person of color living in the United States, that gun has already been loaded for you.
Walking up to the Taiwanese American club on campus and getting blank stares, not finding kinship, buying boba and Vietnamese sandwiches from them. ”We try and keep our club neutral, we don’t take a political stance,” without realizing that being neutral means being subsumed.
I considered myself lucky to find one other Taiwanese American friend who was willing to sit up late with me on Skype watching the elections, hoping for the first woman democrat to be elected president of Taiwan—not the Republic of China, but Taiwan.
It didn’t happen. I watched as America subtly pushed and pressured and played the election, all while claiming neutrality. Realized that President Obama will never host a special White House dinner for Taiwanese diplomats, that Jeremy Lin will never be seated at a banquet table with Lucy Liu, Michelle Obama, Steven Chen, Jason Wu, Jay Chen. Unlike my Chinese American, Korean American, and Indian American friends this presidential term, I will never peruse leaked seating arrangements or pour White House publicity photos and see people who identify like me smiling back.
It hurts, barely knowing anyone who cares, barely knowing anyone Taiwanese who cares. Am I the only one who feels like this aspect of my identity is being suffocated?