It had been about three months since my freshman-year suitemates and I had taken out the trash. Our suite was adjacent to another that was currently uninhabited, and so what we did was basically hurl whatever garbage we had into the vacant common room. The only downside to this was that the accumulated heap started to attract flies, cockroaches and rodents.
One night as I was sitting at my desk in boxers bent over a Norton Reader, my suitemates Whitaker and Carlos, stumbled through the door with several members of the lacrosse team. They were all drunk and loud, which was fine. But I wasn’t exactly pleased. I was unprepared. I’d been caught defenseless, virtually naked. I thought of my morning routine — the one I followed to avoid feeling, specifically, like this: the frustrated hours spent tossing and gelling my hair; my favorite leather jacket that is too thin for winter and too thick for summer; the chunky glasses that frame my mole-spotted face.
They gathered on the couch and kicked off their shoes. Carlos began to rap, as per usual:
The people call me Carlos,
And I hail from Brazil.
Girl, why not let me be
The pickle to your dill?
And as they applauded I remembered a comment Whitaker made as he and the rest of them filed in: “This guy claims to be from L.A., but I saw an Air China ticket on his desk.” Several of his friends laughed. It’s one of the great ironies that East Asians of all nationality and ethnicity — so intolerant of one another back on the home continent — are indistinguishable in the eyes of the mainstream. Honestly, I could have forgiven him if the joke were funnier. Maybe it’s the English major in me, but it pissed me off to feel demeaned by a remark so trite.
“Noah, are you a self-hating Asian?” one of my current suitemates (a hapa) asked me, one brisk November eve.
“Yeah,” I admitted, without hesitation.
“Same,” he replied.
And so it goes. I’ve had innumerable conversations like this, with Asian Americans of all genetic composition, most of whom routinely ignore emails from the Asian American Cultural Center. I even have a friend who has a filter set up on her Gmail that automatically redirects the AACC’s weekly updates into her spam folder.
Anecdotes of racially charged encounters make for good dining hall conversation, especially with my more radically leftist friends, who ask me with hushed, respectful voices to catalogue the circumstances of my offense. They remind me of youthful pirates asking a wizened old salt of a captain to tell them about his battle scars (“Arrgh, Noah. Tell us the yarn of the TA who forgot yer name, and graded yer class participation as the other Asian in the section, arrgh.”). Otherwise, I don’t rant often, scared of becoming a self-righteous parody.
At Yale, I’ve noticed that second- and third-generation Asian Americans seem hesitant to own up to their racial identity. We want somehow to imply that we exist as individuals, that we are exceptions to a general trend. Usually, we do so by voicing pointedly indifferent declaratives: “I don’t typically think along racial lines”; or “I guess I just don’t let it bother me”; or (from a philosophy major), “I have always held tight to my chest the conviction that the soul is neither gendered nor ethnic.” Personally, I only ever acknowledge my ethnicity as part of a punchline.
Much of my life, I fought to prove my assimilation. In high school, I adapted. I quickly did away with the demure, deferential temperament my parents had ingrained in me from the beginning and told loud, irreverent jokes in class. I reclaimed and used liberally the word “oriental.” Some nights, I snuck out of my house to drive stick up Angeles Crest with girls who wore flower crowns and listened to Patti Smith and Kathleen Hanna. They dumpster-dove for the hell of it and shotgunned beers as part of their method-acting research for their cameos in short films.
My gradual evolution pained my mother much more than it did my father. She had immigrated from Korea and was more aware of the rich and textured cultural heritage that I was purposefully trying to reject. She told me stories of the sugar vendors in Korea, who would melt sugar and make candy right before your eyes. She didn’t miss the candy so much as the experience of watching the sugar liquefy then reform. Something to nothing to something again. (“That’s the thing about Korean food. They make it right in front of you.”). But at the time, none of that moved me.
Mostly, she passed off my assimilation as a joke. Last spring, during an otherwise unexceptional phone call, she said with gentle derision: “Noah, I didn’t know it was possible, but you somehow turned out to be even whiter than your father.”
At other times, however, she seemed dismayed. I still remember the look of deep sadness on her face when I announced loudly to an acquaintance that I didn’t speak a word of Korean.
“Why do you seem so proud of it?” she asked.
In 2011, Wesley Yang, a pugnacious and sporadically brilliant Korean-American essayist, published an article in New York Magazine entitled “Paper Tigers,” which discussed Asian-American alienation in agonizing, gory detail. The essay, an embarrassingly vulnerable melange of memoir and reportage, sparked a heated discussion among the Asian-American literati and went unnoticed everywhere else. Some hailed it as a nuanced, refreshingly candid portrait of the Asian-American experience. Others lambasted it, claiming that Yang was playing the race card to explain away his personal flaws (in reference to a confessional paragraph about the sexual anxiety of Asia-American males, Nina Rastogi wrote: “Do [these sentences] describe most Asian men? Or do they describe the dweebs?”). When I scroll through the responses to Yang’s piece and the responses to those responses, many strike me as eloquent rewordings of those indifferent declaratives: “I don’t typically think of myself along those lines.”
Last summer, I taught an English class made up entirely of Asian-American high-school students. They were all awash in that special brand of existential despair that only the college application process can evoke. During our third week together, we read and discussed “Paper Tigers.” Their reactions varied widely, and in many ways mirrored the online conversation. Some appreciated the specificity of Yang’s observations, while others seemed to take umbrage from them. As I listened to them debate, I felt as if I were hearing the conflicted feelings in my own head, externalized for me to evaluate.
In hearing them speak, I felt at least for a moment that the intricate messes of my thought process had begun to sort themselves out. It was a startling, scalding experience, one that I still return to, nightly. I left the class that afternoon in a daze, and caught the next 2 train uptown to Harlem.
The students articulated an intense confusion as to their place in the culture. They felt distant from their parents and adrift in the country in which they’d been raised. They were angry and hopeful and proud and doubtful and ashamed and defiant. But I realized at the center of their jumbled sentiments was a basic desire to be taken as themselves, and nothing less. That’s, in a nutshell, as simple as it should be.