Since my return to blogging, I’ve been trying to push myself with different content forms so here’s #JessInAMinute, a new video series on my Instagram account, because I’m not meant to be a YouTube vlogger. It was my first time filming and editing anything so I hope you can pardon the shaky footage.
Sometimes I’ll stop and think how exciting it is to find Asian food popular because in elementary school and I’ll never forget this, I brought dumplings to school for lunch and a classmate said loudly, “What is that? It smells gross.” From then on, I never packed lunch, which lasted until mid-high school because I wanted to be like everyone else.
It unnerves me though, that sometimes Asian food becomes an exotic thing that needs explanations about how to eat it (see last year’s Bon Appetit pho video where a white chef tells the viewer how to eat pho “properly”) or publications that detail how they’ve “found” the next big food trend (see New York Times coverage of boba tea where they called it tea filled with blobs, originally titled, “The Blobs in Your Tea? They’re Supposed to Be There“). Bad coverage doesn’t stop there though, with a LifeHacker article earlier this year in September calling chopsticks an “underrated kitchen utensil” that’s relegated to people’s drawers.
It’s interesting to me that conversations about how to cover Asian things and how to approach the Asian-American market are only discussed now. In a recent conversation earlier this year with an editor of a major publication, I was asked what people are doing wrong when targeting the Asian-American market. It threw me for a loop for a second and I thought, “Wow, this is a loaded question.” The first thing that came to mind was obviously representation but another thing that also came to mind is how Asians, like most minorities are targeted as “other” in publications, and how we’re grouped together as the same.
This recent Twitter thread by May 2018 debut author of The Poppy War (Harper Voyager), Rebecca Kuang is eye-opening and really tragic at the same time, especially the following tweet (Her post on what happened is also a good read):
but also, marginalized works that don’t fit the mold of the “classic” diverse story don’t make it through.
— Rebecca Kuang (@kuangrf) November 4, 2017
Even more telling is this tweet:
Someone please tell me how Asians act because I sure as hell don’t know. Apparently to be “Asian”, I need to look myself in the mirror and think about how my eyes are slanted and consider my Asian-ness every time*.
It makes me angry, it really does. It’s not as simple as, let’s stick a character in here and the character will be a minority because hashtag We Need Diverse Books and this book needs to sell. We don’t exist to become a checkmark off of your list on how to sell books nor does the diversity issue and movement work like that. If you’re going to feature diverse characters, try to understand what that character feels and make it realistic. Talk to people of that descent if you can. There are so many bloggers (and also people who are of minority descent) who would be so willing to help. However, also know this, one person’s experience may not be another’s experience.
It’s exactly why there will never be a great “Chinese-American” novel (or any variation of minority-American) novel. Celeste Ng puts it best when she says in a conversation with the South China Morning Post:
“I don’t believe that there is such a thing as ‘the’ Great Chinese-American Novel, because the Chinese-American experience is so varied. There’s no such thing as “the” Great American Novel either, and though we’re often asked to think in those terms, anointing any particular novel as a kind of “chosen one” perpetuates the myth that there can only be one big writer of any given group, and that there can only be one kind of story that’s acceptable to tell.”
I related a lot to Celeste Ng’s novel, Everything I Never Told You, and find myself mentally going through familiar parts of Shaker Heights when I’m reading her latest book, Little Fires Everywhere since I went to college in Cleveland and occasionally went to Shaker Heights (it’s a suburb of Cleveland).
I didn’t quite start to understand my Asian-American identity until a few years ago when I started to write for Mochi Mag, a digital magazine for Asian Americans, and took a seminar with one of my favorite professors, Dr. Nielson, who created a welcoming place to talk about race, identity and what it all meant. It was the biggest shock of my life when I moved to Cleveland for college from the East Coast and people would randomly shout “Ni hao” to me down the street. It didn’t matter that they got my race right (I am Chinese-American) because I’m not quite sure that getting my ethnicity right was a priority. I love the college that I went to but experiencing that opened my eyes. I have friends who grew up as the only Asians in towns full of Caucasians and talking to them, I realize how different our experiences are. I sometimes forget about how when I lived in a less-diverse town, I was once asked if I ate dogs and being confused. My favorite animal then, and even now, is a dog and I couldn’t understand why someone would ask me if I ate my favorite animal. Looking back now, perhaps they were trying to be well meaning since I was the only Asian girl, apart from the adopted Chinese girl, in the Caucasian class but in those moments, there were nothing more that I wanted than to be American and not Chinese, so I could blend in. Cognitively, it’s easier to group people because that’s how our brain works but it doesn’t mean we’re incapable of adding additional information to the shortcuts.
I talked about the need for diverse books back in 2014, over three years ago, and I think the sentiment is still the same. I’m happy for the increase in diversity in books and understanding that the push for diversity has created. Yet, the need for diversity doesn’t just exist in the publishing industry; it goes beyond it. There are still problems with internalized and perceived stereotypes as well as the bamboo ceiling. There are problems in medicine with minority care, especially with patient prejudice for Asian and African-American physicians, and representation.
While this country right now is a confusing place, I also have believe that people are listening and creating change, despite everything that’s happened. I hope that in the space that I have here, I’m also able to create dialogue and thought.