Hello everyone, I hope you’ve all enjoyed the fantastic panels and speakers today. I know I’ve certainly learned a lot, let’s have a round of applause for the students who put this conference together!
Now just to give you all some context. I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona. I think it was on a list of least diverse cities in the United States at one time. And growing up in a white suburb in Arizona…well, it definitely led to some very interesting identity formation. I remember, I knew I was Chinese. I also knew I was American. But at the same time, I remember not quite understanding why my school put me in English as a Second Language classes, or why people asked if I knew how to make sushi. Or why I got weird looks for the lunches I brought from home. I also remember writing “I wish I was American” on my bedroom wall over and over and over again because even though I knew I was American, my classmates and peers never once let me forget that I was also Asian. Because at the time, I didn’t know that to them — American meant white.
I want to share a story about my mother. She came to the United States in 1986 with just a small suitcase of clothes and photographs. She met up with my father, and for the next ten years they lived off of what they could find on street corners, the generosity of friends, and pure resilience in pursuit of the American Dream. I didn’t know any of my parents immigrant story until I got to high school. Then little by little, my mom started telling me about her life, as if suddenly realizing that if she didn’t tell someone, those stories would be lost forever. She talked to me about how scared she was one night when the man living next door banged on my parents door screaming at them to go back to where they came from, that America didn’t want them. She told me about how one winter, she and my father lived in a small room above a slaughterhouse where the walls were sheet metal. We would sit in the car together and she’d twist her wedding ring while telling me how different life in America was from the dreams she had as a teenager.
I remember one of the first things she taught me was how to say no. She said to me when I was around 6 that “people were going to try to take advantage of us because they think we’re weak. We have to be loud and we have to be strong when we say no”. I also learned how to handle the age old question of “but where are you really from?” From her. She would always answer Phoenix, Arizona. Or Louisville, Kentucky. Or Binghamton, New York. She never gave an inch. My mothers stories live on in me through my life. Her influence shines through me.
I feel the same way about the rich, beautiful, colorful history that I became aware of after high school. An impulsive google search of “what does Asian American” mean led to open door after open door, my blinders had been taken off and I started to see the world as it really was. With every new face, name, and date that I read about, I felt more alive than I ever had before. It felt like coming home. There was no turning back. The stories of the people who came before me live on in me and thrive in the work that I do online and on the ground.
One thing I’ve always believed is that in order for us to move forward and grow, we have to know where we came from and where our roots are. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. How much of our own history as Asian Americans do we not know? Are we not aware of?
Our stories have been erased, whether it was by negligence or intent. But they will never be forgotten. We carry their legacies in our hearts and their work on our backs. We keep the fight going because they built the blueprints we rely on, we could not be here without them. And that’s why storytelling is so important. I use my blog and my privilege of having a microphone and a platform to tell my stories, my mothers stories, and to bring awareness to others stories. With every life experience that we share, we archive it in our minds, on paper, online, everywhere. They will never die.
But they do have to be accessible. Now, I’ll be honest — I have never been the “smart Asian”. Just as Mee Moua talked about earlier, I felt a way about some of my Asian American classmates. I actually ended up working at a nonprofit with one classmate, and I was shocked to learn that she felt that there wasn’t that much racism or discrimination in our hometown. And then I started thinking, wow either I’m over sensitive or she’s delusional. But what was the difference? She was in the cocoon of the international baccalaureate program, in all honors classes, etc. I was on academic probation and getting detention for truancy. I go to a lower tier public school where I’m pretty sure very few of the students know what the words schema or oppression mean. We as activists, or as academics who have a passion for social justice, have to remember where we came from. We have to remember our communities and our roots and be able to use our privilege as politicized and educated individuals to go back to our communities and keep fighting.
In my journey of identity and social consciousness, I’ve gone through a few phases. I remember when I first started Fascinasians there was so much anger. I felt so much hatred and bitterness because I felt like the peaceful childhood and adolescence I remembered had been a lie. All the microaggressions, the racism the sexism, the classism, it had all built up inside me because I didn’t have the words or perspective to talk about it and process it. I was so angry that my history had been kept from me, and I was bitter that I went through everything seemingly alone. Coincidentally, this was around the time my mother and I started sharing our stories with each other. So I eventually could learn from her resilience and her strength and her endurance. I found my voice through blogging and writing about my experiences as an Asian American woman, an Asian American feminist. Words are our weapons: they are our shields and our swords and we have to yield it deliberately and with consideration.
I think that we, as activists, have to remember one important thing in all that we do. We don’t have to be the first to do something, we don’t have to be the pioneers. What matters is that we take action. Period. We are privileged to have access to the history and information that’s led to our social and political consciousness. Privileged to be surrounded by mentors and elders who can guide us. Privileged to be able to learn about what identity formation even means. And especially privileged to be in higher education institutions. Build off of that foundation, so we can grow bigger and stronger and taller than ever before. So that in the future, our community can keep feeding off of these legacies. With a hope like that, who knows what we’re capable of.
I’ll never forget the urgency in her voice when my mother told me these stories. I wanted to tell her that these stories wouldn’t fade away or disappear, they live on in my memory and in my life. One day I’ll tell my own family about where we came from and what we went through. Oppressors can try to erase us from history to keep us down, but we will never forget where our roots are. We will never forget the sacrifices it took to reach where we are today.
I was lucky to hear Mee Moua speak at ECAASU 2014. She said, “we must never let the activist in all of us die. We must never let that fire go out”. Our shared history resurfaces in the way we live our lives. I intend to live well, and to do my mother, and the many many Asian Americans who’ve inspired me, justice.