Lost in translation

Redefining what Asian American means to me. By Dylan Lee.

Recently, I was assigned to write a five minutes speech for my Rhetoric class and I chose to take a closer look at my mixed heritage. “What are you?” might just be the most commonplace question every multiracial mixed child learns to respond to, dodge, or deflect, depending on how they feel about the person who’s doing the asking. Ethnicity, race, and personal identity continue to forge an inexplicable link the world over—often highlighting our differences rather than bringing us together. It would certainly explain why mixed-community marriages are still considered a huge break away from the majority mindset, or why minority groups still feel so targeted. It’s a method through which people easily gauge what part of the world somebody is likely to be from. 

My mother who is a Tamilian descent was raised as a Catholic in a Muslim country, as a second generation Malaysian. (Prominent Bay Area Tamilians include Vice President, Kamala Harris and CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai). My father who is a White-Korean mix grew up in Texas for most of his life surrounded by conservative republicans from the South. Six  months after they had met, they eloped during their lunch break at the City Hall in San Francisco and returned to their dot com offices as Mr. & Mrs Lee. 

I was born a couple of years later in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. People didn’t think my mother was my mother because of how lightskin of a baby I was. They would think that she was my nanny and often would not allow her to enter restaurants with the stroller until my father arrived (a common practice in the Middle East to not allow caregivers and maids enter business premises). Last week, I was at the pet store with my dad and while leaving, the cashier called after me, “Oh miss you gotta pay for those.” I kept walking because of course I didn’t think he was talking to me. I was right behind my dad when he paid and I picked up some of the food while he picked up the rest. The cashier assumed I was shoplifting because my dad and I don’t look alike. My dad is North Korean – White mix but he looks pretty White and while I am quite pale and light skinned, I am still not White enough to look like my father’s daughter. So basically, I’m too White to look like my mom and not White enough to look like my dad. This is a pretty common experience mixed kids have especially with two parents whose identities look physically very different. People would always just say that I looked like a mix between my parents, I was the middle ground between two identities and that created some duality inside.

Growing up I was raised deeply immersed in all of my cultural heritage. I learned all 12 consonants, 18 vowels, 247 sounds/sets of sounds in the Tamil script since age 5 and went to Tamil school every Sunday. I can also sing every single Korean song by the BTS and have watched all of Surya’s Tamil movies. We celebrate all cultural festivals of Korean, Indian, Malaysian and American celebrations. It is quite common to see us salivate for dried squids for snacks, dollop a large spoonful of plain yogurt over rice, sprinkle kimchi on hotdogs and eat plain dosas with nutella! And when we went to visit grandpa in Texas, he’d bring out all of his guns and take us to the shooting range in his white pick-up truck with a mounted American flag on the right side of the vehicle.

Until this particular assignment for class, I had never once heard of or even thought about having a designated time to celebrate my mixed heritage. Despite this, Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month has been celebrated throughout the month of May since 1990. With further research, I found that a period of time dedicated to Asian and Pacific Islander recognition was not passed in the United States until 1979, and until 1990, it was only observed for a single week. For context, Black History was commemorated for a week as early as the 1930s, and International Women’s Day was first held in 1911.

These figures are yet another example of the invisibility of Asians and Pacific Islanders. Throughout my life, I have seen our stories cast aside and overshadowed, whether it be in the classroom, the newsroom or even the movie theater.

I did not learn much details about Japanese Internment until high school. After the Japanese government attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Americans of Japanese ancestry (many of them citizens) were rounded up and sent to internment camps, where they were victims of suspicion and unable to return to their homes and businesses. This belied its importance to the Asian community and the history of the United States.

This incident underlines the dogma nearly all immigrants face — the message that “you don’t belong here.” It is particularly painful for those from Asian families. At a recent protest in the East Bay, I saw a fellow multiracial Asian choke up when trying to describe the odious mistreatment American citizens faced in internment camps.

This invisibility is exactly why Asian Desi Pacific Islander Heritage Month is so essential. It is time for us as a country to recognize our mistakes and also celebrate the Asians and Pacific Islanders who shaped and built our nation.

I also find it quite ironic that this month of celebration is during a time when many Asian-Americans feel so unwelcome in America. There has been a surge of anti-Asian hate crimes throughout the United States due to the fears of the coronavirus and its origins in Asia. President Trump repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” Thousands of Asian Americans have reported being yelled at to “go back to China,“ and have been spit on. South Asians and Middle Easterns are frequently profiled as terrorists and there have also been an increase in the number of violent attacks throughout the country. 

Throughout our history, Pacific Islanders and Asians have been routinely silenced, mistreated and ignored. To end this mistreatment, we have to acknowledge all that the immigrants from those areas have done for our country and, frankly, our world. This month is not only for those of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. Asian heritage and culture is meant to be appreciated respectfully by everyone. No matter what your heritage is, our country has given us a chance to recognize more than 19.4 million Americans who often feel like their stories are pushed aside and their heritage is ignored.

In fact, you probably know many more Asian or Pacific Islander Americans than you think. Keanu Reeves, Bruno Mars, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Olivia Munn all proudly identify with Asian or Pacific Islander heritage and there are hundreds of other examples through the film, music, politics and art industries.

I ask everyone to try and celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander Americans this month. Watch a subtitled film, an anime, or even an American movie with an Asian lead. If you haven’t already, watch Oscar 2021 contender, Minari which is my family’s favorite this year. Read about Asian-American history. Follow Asian activists like Malala Yousafzai and George Takei. Order from local Asian and Indian restaurants which may be struggling with lack of business due to COVID-19. Learn a new word in an Asiatic language.

But most of all, I implore every single American to be respectful of Asians and Pacific Islanders no matter what month it is. Don’t erase our history or silence our voices. See us. See our culture. And hear our stories.

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