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Daddy Tries to Explain Asian Identity to Asian-American Child
Kid insists she is from New York, demonstrates awareness of intersectionality
Kina identifies as four. She identifies as a New Yorker. She doesn’t know she’s Asian because she doesn’t know what Asia is, nor what it means to be Asian—in all of its many expressions. Even if she did, it’s more complicated for her; her mother is Filipina and I’m half-Chinese, which makes her three-quarters Asian? Half-Filipina? One quarter Chinese? Asian Americans are often asked where we are from, and most of us (knowing where the question is headed) answer truthfully—we are from the place where we grew up, or where we live today. The first time you have to reckon with the fact that somebody is asking What Sort of Asian You Are is profoundly othering, but you get used to it. This morning, we were talking about where we all were born—Laurea and Lala and her Lolos, in the Philippines; Yeh-yeh, in China; Grandma, in Maine; Daddy, in Florida; Kina, in New York. I found it surprisingly hard to figure out how to get to “Asian” from there; it’s a long road.
How do I explain to her what it mean to be an Asian American? I can’t even figure out, on some days, what it means to be American. Both these identities—Asian and American—encompass so many lived experiences, and so the intersection is vast. We are much more easily identified by others than by ourselves. By being lumped in with each other, we find community and shared experience. She’s just spent an entire month in school talking about the ways in which people are the same and different from each other—the dotted lines that cross over each other and connect us, in our identity, to the people who surround us. She’s learned, in the last month, about the myriad accomplishments of Black people in this country, but she hasn’t learned about the four hundred years that made those people Black. As a preschooler, she hasn’t got the frame of reference to understand struggle in the context of race—and I’m not sure I’d put that on a four-year-old (or the teachers of a four-year-old) to do that. Kina knows that we are different, but she doesn’t know what that means.
We’re lucky that she still has no lived understanding of the ways in which entire races of people are subjected to violence every day because of the color of their skin and where they come from, but I read about it at work every day. Violence against Asian Americans has been on the rise now for a year, a quiet epidemic of hate that parallels the pandemic around which that hatred has formed. The long-standing fear of Asian people—from early nativist fears of a “yellow peril”, to the internment of Japanese Americans in the Second World War, to American’s more contemporary abuse of Asian Americans in the era of COVID-19—comes and goes, pushing Asians in and out of the circle of American belonging that has given us a leg up as a model minority, and to which a few of us cling with virulent jingoism. Kina, again, knows none of this history, none of this fear, nothing about the circle.
Moments like this one remind us that there is a very present threat to all brown people in this country—to every person, in fact, who finds their dotted lines to the dominant (and increasingly threatened) power structures of American society broken in some way. If we don’t address that threat head on, in any of its manifestations, we’re no better off as a society than any other failed civilization. I don’t want Kina to live in a world like that. I don’t want her grandparents to live in a world like that. I don’t want to live in a world like that.
Kina is four, and she’s from New York. She’s also an Asian American, but she doesn’t know it yet. I’m trying to make a world for her—a city, even—where that’s not something she’ll have to worry about. My hope is that you are, too.
Today’s Parade, thank god, is a sharp sword. It’s She-Ra’s sword, decorated with precious sticker gems and signed by the artist. Kina will defend us with that sword if the monsters come. She was going to write “ME” on the blade, but she got mad when the “M” went poorly. Better luck next time, She-Ra!