I remember it distinctly, and thanks to this blog, I can tell you the exact day: December 18th 2008. I was mad at people at work, and I called up Jim, and he told me to meet him and his crew at their favorite hot pot restaurant in Xujiahui.
I was sitting next to this dude, a photographer, who was Asian American. Of course I asked him his ethnicity, because I care about that. Ethnic identity is important, mine certainly is to me.
He smiled a tired smile and started to tell his story…. he’s half Korean on his dad’s side, he’s half Chinese because of his mom, but he was born in the New York, and he continued about the languages that he does or doesn’t speak, and which side he does or does not feel closer to, and I could tell I was getting a well rehearsed story he was tired of telling.
I’m not usually so direct, but I had had a hard day, and I have a soft spot for Asian Americans. I told him, “You know you don’t owe anyone your fractions.”
He looked at me with that Korean look, the one where you don’t know if you’re in trouble or if they didn’t hear it right.
“You don’t owe anyone your fractions. You don’t have to explain that you’re half this and have that and all the ways that you’re somehow less than whole. Instead of saying “half” you can say “and.” You can say that you’re Korean AND Chinese American. You should try it.”
“Korean and Chinese American….” he said, repeating just to indulge me.
“See?” I asked, “Doesn’t that feel better?”
“Actually… it does.”
We became facebook friends after that, but I’ve never seen him again. I wonder if my little lecture on West Coast identity politics has stuck with him. I hope that I had been a blessing to him on that day, on a day that I myself felt cursed.
Honestly, who does it serve to label oneself as “half” anything? Apparently, that fraction matters to the US government; if your fraction of Native American is too small, you don’t get to live on the reservation anymore. I, personally, do not sit down at the feet of the US government and let them tell me what my ethnic identity is. Last I checked, they wanted me to check a box that did not say Filipino American.
So Chinese people and expats in China have a special way of showing their hatred. They often talk about ABCs… “American-Born Chinese.” The Canadian version is CBC, of course. When Chinese people or expats talk about ABCs it’s always about how clueless they are, or how they think they’re better than other people or some other hateful bullshit.
Chinese Americans are Americans. They carry US passports and have rights that are protected by the Constitution of the United States of America. They are a kind of American: specifically, they have Chinese heritage.
“American-Born Chinese,” in contrast, is a way to say that they are, in fact, Chinese people who happened to be born in America. The implication is that they are somehow a lesser kind of Chinese; somehow more clueless and more arrogant than Chinese-born Chinese. American-Born Chinese asserts that they are a) not American, b) not really Chinese.
I have cousins whose father is Chinese, and if you tried to call them ABCs, I would push you to the ground… although those boys are big enough to push you to the ground themselves nowadays. The point is, there would be a fight. My cousins are Filipino and Chinese Americans; their father is Chinese American. They don’t owe anyone their fractions, and they shouldn’t be called ABCs.
And when someone tells them to check an ethnic box, they should check “other” and write in “suck it.”