About twenty years ago, I had become a vegetarian and occasionally went to the potluck gatherings of the Boston Vegetarian Society. It was a small group where I felt reasonably welcome. Only in retrospect did I realize that its members were almost entirely white. The president was personable and always chatted with me every time I was there. When I left Boston for an academic position near Chicago, he gave me the phone number of a friend of his, who happened to be active in Chicago Vegetarian Society.
I met her at the Society's vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner, held in a huge banquet hall in a fancy Chicago hotel. After so many years I have forgotten what we talked about, except for one thing. Knowing that I was new in town, she suggested that I join the Asian American Association. I do not remember what I said in response, but for a long time I was thinking: What for?
That watershed moment marked the beginning of the end of my "pre-racial" self. Of course China was part of Asia, therefore I am Asian, but Asia being huge and diverse, I did not know any more about India than Canada. There have always been many Chinese friends in my social life, which occurred most naturally, as I had spent twenty-five years of my life in China, but it had never occurred to me to feel a special bond with anyone simply because he or she was Asian.
On the contrary, during the short amount of time when I roamed the world more or less unattached, I tended to choose where I went based on what I wanted to do, which sometimes landed me with groups in which almost no one else looked like me. During my last year in Boston while finishing my dissertation, I joined an international folk dance group. It was a friendly group welcoming to new members. I ran into them a sunny summer day when they danced at Copley Square during a summer festival, after which I regularly danced with them on weekend nights.
The group had mostly East-European village dances, easy to follow on the fly. I had never been to East Europe or known any real villages, but the idea of village dances appealed to me, much more than night clubs with loud music where everyone seems so perplexingly excited. I nostalgically imagined a village square where people who danced together belonged to the same community. The group boasted a large repertoire of dances, so I was never bored. I also made friends who invited me to some other folk dance venues. My favorite place was a small historic town hall for square and contra dances. I found square dance dazzlingly beautiful, while contra dance made me feel exhilaratingly happy and free, perhaps because as dancers move from one end of the room to the other, they get to dance with other people's partners.
I never joined the Asian American Society as I did not know what I would do there if all we held in common was the fact that we came from somewhere in Asia, not to say that whatever shared history we may have does not necessarily unite us. I considered "Asian American", with or without a hyphen, a politically constructed identity: it combines vastly different racial and ethnic groups which otherwise would be, even more, statistically overlooked. I did not go back to the Chicago Vegetarian Society either. As I put down roots in America's heartland where I originally knew nobody else, I realized that vegetarianism was just a small piece of my life's puzzle and could not compete with more powerful forces that formed its web.
My pre-racial self was partly shaped by my first few years in the U.S. in a PhD program specialized in the French Enlightenment, "living and breathing in French literature", as one of my fellow students jokingly remarked. I was selected to participate in the exchange program with the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, after being assured by my professors that their choice would be made solely based on academic merit, "regardless of students' nationality or ethnic background." When against all odds, I landed a tenure-track position in French close to Chicago, I gratefully and sincerely believed myself to be an embodiment of American dream.
Leaving the high-minded academics in my PhD program to settle in the larger society has not always been easy, but I had an ample supply of meek resilience. Born in a small city in the remote Sichuan province in China, I completed my first grade in an elementary school in a rural town where my mother was "sent down" to teach. As I gradually moved to better schools and finally entered Peking University, I had learned to tune out subtle or not so subtle messages from those who looked down upon "outsiders from small places." Along with many people in similar situations, I had been used to living in the margins and learned to shrug off the unpleasant to focus on the positive. One of the few times when I felt outraged was when horrible things happened to other people: when I read about Danny Chen's suicide, I was so overwhelmed with grief that I cried, in a crowded airport.
As a mother I tried to raise my daughter in an intercultural environment, with an earnest post-racial mindset. Before she started high school and became too busy to travel with me, we spent roughly the same number of summers in France as in China, immersed in the languages and cultures. In fact, for three summers, she had month-long stays in three different host families in Blois, France, the first time with me, and twice by herself, while I directed my university's study abroad program. In middle school, she opted to study Spanish instead of French, because she wanted to learn one more language. She chose to celebrate two of her birthdays in her favorite Chinese restaurant, which happened to be a Sichuanese restaurant with mostly spicy food. Watching her joyfully interacting with her friends of various races, I felt relieved and grateful thinking that my daughter was, literally and figuratively, comfortable in her skin, and well integrated.
The spring of her junior year, however, she applied for and got a summer internship with Asian American Advancing Justice, a not-for-profit organization that helps disadvantaged Asian Americans, including refuges. How come a "post-racial" mother did not raise a "post-racial" child? Was it because when she was seven, a girl in her dance class asked her how she could be American since she was Chinese? Was it because when she was in second grade, a white girl refused to sit by her in the bus during a school excursion? Was it because she had to deal with derogatory jokes about Asians by some of her schoolmates? Was it because in middle school, her friends were all encouraging her to date a Korean-American boy because they were oh so similar, except she did not think they were? Was it because she ended up making friends with many Asian-American teens and realized that they do share similar challenges?
Those who complained about "hyphenated Americanism" would do well to remember that it is derived as much, if not more sometimes, from other people's perception than from self-identification. It may be the experience of growing up being perceived as others that makes Asian American children acutely realize their hyphenated identity – deleting the hyphen does not make a substantial difference. They became Asian not because of what happened in that immense continent where their parents or ancestors came from, but because of their shared experience in the country they call home. Their moral outrage about racial inequality is also deeply rooted in American egalitarianism. They are not born Asian, but paradoxically, it is by becoming Asian that they become more American.
(Drawing by Bendu)