As a three month old baby, I spent an evening in my mother’s arms at Tan Son Nhat as bombs fell for hours and hours, shaking the dark bomb shelter around us. My family was huddled with many other Viets as the airport was shelled all night long, trying to wait out the bombardment, waiting for our chance to escape.
With the aid of Lutheran sponsors we tropical people settled in Phillips in South Minneapolis, unprepared for a life of snow and English speakers and hot dish made with hamburger meat and little tater tots on top. When we came as the first wave of Southeast Asian refugees, local papers ran articles about how we kidnapped pets in order to eat them, how Viet gangsters had taken over Coffman Union’s basement and plotted murders over the pool tables and would kill you for looking at one of ‘our women’. I remember debates in my neighborhoods about the Naturals versus the Guardian Angels. There was a dude on my block who stood by the payphones by the 7-Eleven and every time I scraped up enough money for a Big Gulp or 5 cent candy he’d ask me if I wanted to join the Lords, which didn’t make me feel particularly tough or special since he asked everybody who walked by if they wanted to be in the Lords. I pretended to practice kung fu by punching 50 pound bags of rice in my garage. Both my parents worked full time, usually two jobs apiece during my childhood, raising 6 kids and taking care of my elderly grandfather in Phillips while doing their best to complete the mountains of paperwork and endure the emotional strain of the bureaucracy of bringing those left behind in Vietnam and bringing them to the States.
My father very cleverly taught me how to walk a few blocks to the Franklin Avenue library (just go down to CUHCC clinic where you get your teeth cleaned, then take a left) and fostered in me a love of books. This kept me out of gangs, drugs, and most other forms of trouble, as well as kept my begging for an Atari 2600 at a manageable level. In 5th grade, a school friend of mine introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons which, if not the precise beginning of my nerd-dom, was certainly what kicked my geekness into overdrive.
It’s over 30 years later, and not much has changed. My parents still live in that house, two blocks from the Little Earth projects. People are still saying Asians eat cats and dogs, except now it’s plastered all over billboards for certain wealthy white eateries and they’re winning national advertising awards for their blatant racism. My father, a Vietnam vet who is, you know, Vietnamese and whose experiences in the war are therefore invisible, has tons of stories where he fought off muggers and thugs a third his age while they tried to rob him while he waited for the bus to take him to work. My mom likes Korean dramas these days instead of the Chinese martial arts serials she loved back in the day. A heavy weight bag, given to me by a friend when I really started taking martial arts in my teen years, sits in the same dark garage that held the bags of rice I punched and kicked. The playground where I had my first kiss at Anderson Elementary has some new equipment, but the block is pretty much the same. I’m still a nerd, still love books, still feel too poor to be part of the petty bourgeoisie but nowhere near hood enough to be romanticized as either noble savage or sexy dangerous gangster.
Understand that, at this point in my life, I feel more privileged than I ever have. My partner and I bought a small, fixer-upper house in Powderhorn. She and I are not rich but we are not starving, and I have a steady job which I absolutely love. My career as a spoken word poet, while not giving me George Clooney-esque wealth and fame, is far beyond what I could have ever imagined when I was that angry weird kid performing his own poetry on the South High speech team. Poetry has taken me all over the country, and connected me with a larger Asian American community that I am fiercely in love with and loyal to. So basically, I have it pretty good, right? This blog is going to be all about celebrating multiculturalism and educating others on my culture in the most non-threatening way possible, right?
As much as I am grateful for what I have, I can never escape the feeling that I’m one misunderstanding away from being abused by police. Money anxieties are still frequent, and I’m close enough to poverty that I don’t romanticize it. I certainly don’t want to go back to the hours upon years I spent working at a multitude of jobs for low pay and no benefits. I have daily guilt that I can’t support my family the way they’ve supported me. And there is that horrendous feeling that my people, Asian American people, are not taken seriously at best and are hated at worst.
One of the insidious benefits of being a person of color raised in Minnesota is to be acutely aware of how race impacts you on several different levels. The fact that I have to explain much of my story before people can even accept that I have the right to call myself a Minnesotan is telling in and of itself. I can’t tell you the number of times that artists who have moved here from other cities have been considered Minnesotan or honored with trailblazer status before me, even if I’ve spent all but about 6 months of my life being raised in Phillips, and even if I’ve been a performer right here in Minneapolis since 1991. Because I’m seen as Asian, not American, I can excel at things but I can never be considered a creator. And then I’m told by people of all races that Asian Americans are the most privileged of all minorities and in fact most people don’t even consider us people of color, and in order to be down, we have to show solidarity with other communities (who are never pressured to show solidarity to Asians). Even if we have proof that overwhelmingly shows that these are false assumptions, they are still believed to be the truth even amongst those who would pride themselves on being leftists and community organizers.
Throughout my development, I have felt that pressure, to conform or assimilate to a population more visible, more respected, more feared and envied than mine. And in the past, I have. I dissed my own communities for my own gain, and dealt with the immense wells of self-loathing I harbored for myself and my people. And that temptation, to submit, still exists in me, because really, who wants to be hated for bringing up that loathsome specter called race? Especially for a group of people who are continually told that we have no right to complain, that we should be thankful for what we have?
A friend of mine just emailed me about this strange phenomenon we face, that we are intensely scrutinized while remaining completely invisible. People talk about us, hate us, and we aren’t expected to ever talk back, fight back. We belong nowhere. We have no rights to anything. Our bodies are not ours, and we have no voices. Well, dear reader, if it’s one small thing I can do with this blog, it’s fight back the way I do best: with writing. We’ve got to write about Fong Lee. We’ve got to write about racist representations of Asians in local theater and we’ve got to write about yellow peril in science fiction. We’ve got to give props to our Asian American community leaders because most people don’t even believe they exist.
Being an Asian American writer, writing about Asian American issues, is to risk going unread. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is, we need to exist.