"No person from Asia shows up in the U.S. and automatically feels linked to people from other Asian countries. What binds us together? American racism. Racism is about dehumanizing us, but racial identity isn’t bad. Racism strips me of my humanity, and racial identity hands it right back. Racial identity is beautiful. Racial identity is powerful. God made us different and lovely and through the ugliness of white supremacy, some of us have found belonging.”
—Laura Mariko Cheifetz, Race Gives Me Poetry
My second daughter got married in April. I had never been in such a place filled with Asian Americans. My husband and I are from Japan, and the groom’s parents are from Taiwan. Most family members and their partners looked East Asian, and so did most of the couple’s friends. There were also quite a few South Asians. Black and white people were few and far between. Almost everyone was speaking “perfect English.”
As we were eating, drinking, dancing to American songs, photo-boothing, singing, laughing and talking, I soaked up the Asian American energy. It was distinctly American, yet distinctly Asian. The couple included a Chinese tea ceremony in the wedding to honor their Asian heritages. It was unfamiliar to me, but my heart was warmed while the groom poured tea for my husband and me. There was sushi and Chinese food at the reception, and their Indian friends presented a Bhangra dance, which the couple joined in! I felt comfortable, unlike in my usual spaces that are dominated by whiteness.
Then it dawned on me that such a space probably existed only in this country. I grew up in Japan surrounded by Japanese people. I have been to Chinatowns in the U.S. and Canada. But this was much more inclusive and multicultural.
Immigrants come to this country with our own languages, cultures, national and ethnic prides, histories and views of each other. I hardly knew anyone but Japanese in Japan and was ashamed of the atrocities my people had committed in various parts of Asia. For a long time I tiptoed around other Asians because of my shame. Yet I did not socialize with Japanese people, either, because they reminded me of things I did not like in Japan.
I also struggled to find my place in the black-and-white dichotomy of race relations in the American South. In the meantime, my children had to figure out their place on their own while being exposed to daily Othering in school. By the time they were in high school, they were mostly hanging out with Asian American friends.
As I was dancing and laughing, I could feel why they chose to claim their Asian American identity. It felt great not having to constantly explain who I was, apologize for my Japanese-ness, or cater to the needs of white people. Each of us at the wedding had unique stories about their life, but most knew how it felt to be an Asian American in this country. That was enough for me.
I wonder if the day will come when someone who looks like me—in any part of this country—might feel as liberated as I was on that day. It would take a lot of hard work on the part of the dominant culture to decenter whiteness. Meanwhile, we on the margins continue to assert our places in this country.
Eternal love, give us courage and strength to carry out this hard, messy work of multiculturalism so that we may expand the circle of love and solidarity beyond our family, friends, tribe, nationality and race.