“What are you?”
I get asked this question all the time, wherever I go. “What are you?” I got so tired hearing it that I once answered on a whim: “Guess!” The man who had asked me proceeded to list off all the Asian nationalities he knew: “Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Mongolian…” It was around the tenth guess, that I nodded. Oddly, he was not satisfied with my answer. To be honest neither was I. He looked at me incredulously and walked away. I felt his disappointment, perhaps he was hoping to achieve some sort of confirmation for his painstakingly-built system of racial order, at the very least, he made a good effort to pin me down.
In all honesty, I don’t really know what I am. On paper, I am a two-time immigrant, my husband is also an immigrant and my children are even more multicultural and multiracial than I am. However, inside, in my mind—my idea of self, I don’t use a specific race or even the term “multicultural” to define myself or my family.
As a child, I was often surprised when someone pointed out that I was something definite, something different from them: “Asian”, “Chink”, “Foreigner”. It felt so odd to be so enclosed within a word, like I occupied a space—a space as small as their tongue. A coin perhaps, my value etched on the surface: gender: female, race: Asian, worth: half a regular person?
The hardest part for me growing up as an immigrant in the US was that my identity was so malleable, so unformed. As a child, when I was confronted with bigotry or when someone disrespected me outright, I could not separate it from my own sense of self-worth. My parents were ill-equipped to help me; they were authoritarians who instilled in me the idea that the best reaction to hostility was compliance. So when someone called me names, labeled me at first glance, I often put my head down and tried to make myself disappear. I hid from name-callers and if I couldn’t avoid them, I tried to act as non-threatening as possible. This was very painful for me growing up, it felt like I was slowly suffocating in a dark, narrow box, unable to communicate that I was a human being—a human of intelligence, value, emotion. If I were to disappear no one would ever know that I ever existed in the first place.
This feeling of suffocation would engulf me whenever someone treated me like an inferior or whenever they said that I didn’t belong. A particularly poignant experience was when I was sixteen years old, attending high school in Seattle. My English teacher, Mrs. V., who normally spent class time chatting jovially with the popular kids, strolled the aisles one morning and casually asked everyone: “What does it mean to be an American?” We were all silent for a long time, then she specified, “Who is an American?” A cheerful boy answered, “Everyone who lives here is an American, immigrants too. They can be Americans if they live here and work hard.” A few of the other kids nodded in agreement, but Mrs. V. was not satisfied with his answer. She continued roving the room, searching for another opinion.
A tall, sporty boy raised his hand and she nodded. “No,” he said firmly, “Only whites and blacks are true Americans. Everyone else is a foreigner.”
This answer made Mrs. V. stop still. Several kids in the room nodded, agreeing with him.
“Why?” Mrs. V. asked.
“Because only whites and blacks contributed to this country, they made the country what it is today: the most powerful country in the world,” said the boy confidently.
As he spoke, he gave all the nonwhites and nonblacks in the room an icy look. It was then that I realized why that particular boy always ignored me—even when I spoke to him directly, and why he only associated with an exclusive group of people. His eyes caught my gaze and his lips curled in disgust as he looked back at me. It was as if he was daring me to contradict him, as if any rebuttal coming from me would be automatically self-serving and feeble.
“You’re wrong,” yelled another outraged student vehemently, “That’s not true! Other races have contributed too!”
But Mrs. V. interrupted her, “No, no,” she said, “I didn’t call on you. He’s entitled to his opinion. Everyone is entitled to form their own opinions.” With that she put an end to further discussion.
That was the only time that nationality was ever brought up in my high school.
At the time, I felt a hot rage boiling inside me, some of it at the boy, but most of it at Mrs. V. It was one thing to have an opinion when you weren’t informed, everyone could form an opinion with little knowledge, but she was our teacher, it was her job to educate us. She did not question the boy or challenge him in any way, merely nodded and accepted his opinion, in the name of “showing everyone respect”. She did not question or even explore the meaning of “race” or the meaning of “contribute”. She did not question why a newly born or newly immigrated white or black person could take credit for the accomplishments of other people purely on the basis of shared skin color or ancestry. And if they took credit for all the accomplishments of their so-called race, why not all the failures too? Should a son be praised or punished for the actions of his father or his grandfather? She said nothing about the accomplishments of other “races”. Nothing about the interdependency or cooperation of countries in the world. Nothing.
Throughout my life this would be the kind of prejudice and complacency I would be confronted with in many forms. I became well-acquainted with certain views of immigrants as pests, leeching off the wealth of the country and degrading the purity of national identity. There have been crude and underhanded attempts to demean me—the micro-aggressions of daily life. Extended staring, hateful looks, refusal to talk to me, balky service, complaining about foreigners in my presence, these are all the ways I can expect to be treated when carrying out daily tasks.
I have also been treated to impromptu lectures, as if I represent a whole country of wrongdoers. My presence has become an outlet for the grievances of globalization. When I vacationed in Alaska, several fishermen glared at me as they loudly complained of the Japanese overfishing the waters. In Germany, a baker complained vociferously about the “Chinese destroying small European bakeries by flooding the market with cheap flour and baked goods.” I have tried to see it with compassion, tried to find the kernel of validity in their overwrought fears. But I strongly doubt I could fix things if I actually was a citizen of either of those countries, or even if I was an employee in either of their companies. I doubt I could even secure my own job from outsourcing (I have lost a job in this way myself). These kinds of big decisions affecting jobs and resources are out of any individual’s control. I would have better luck if I was a room full of CEOs, or a computer projecting numbers from the stock market. But it’s so much easier to blame a defenseless person than a computer or a boardroom—to scapegoat a foreigner than the actual, less tangible culprit.
Advances in technology and transportation have shortened the once great distances separating nations, separating people. In many ways, the changes have been positive, my life as I know it today and the important relationships I have made would not have been possible without technology, especially the Internet. Major cities now boast the wealth of cuisine, art and knowledge from a kaleidoscopic array of cultures around the world. But the pervasive hostility that I have encountered as an immigrant has shown me that our minds, our ideologies have not kept up with these changes. And there are, of course, the all-important negative changes: companies and jobs are now as movable as emails, everything seems to have lost its permanence, opposing cultural beliefs are brought to friction by their now close proximity. I can understand the desire for stability and security fueling the anger behind populist and nationalist movements, it is the same desire that immigrants know all too well.
In my experience, bigots do not differentiate between a legal or an illegal immigrant, when it comes down to it, all migration is considered wrong because “everyone should stay within their own country”, this is an argument I have heard often. I have been likened to a traitorous opportunist for failing to stay within the borders I was born in. I can feel the rage and fear behind the hate, especially in this time of terrorist threats. I can hear the note of despair behind the yelling and the insults, the primal desire to go back to a simpler time, to simple rules, to simple borders on a map—the simple desire to sort people by their outward appearance or religion.
After all, I am sure no one wants to their identity, their sense of entitlement, their sense of worth, their connection to the land—to the earth itself to be tested in the ways mine has. The cumulative experience of being a two-time immigrant was akin to putting my identity in a blender and spinning it at maximum. Whatever positive attributes I thought I had, whatever good I thought I could offer society, whatever values I had cultivated in my previous home, all of it would be put to question under the corrosive effects of prejudice and social isolation until one day I came to a stunning realization: I realized that I had unwittingly absorbed all that hate over the years. So much hate, that when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself anymore. What I saw was a worthless person, foreign, ugly, pathetic, a burden in all aspects, not worthy of anyone’s time or respect. But then I looked closer, there one more thing about my reflection that became glaringly obvious, it was definitely a clear reflection, but not of me. The answer to “What are you?” was staring at me all along: I am you.
“What are you?” For people determined to hate me, there would be no answer good enough, no argument valid enough, no amount of information could prove that I was their equal. They saw only that ugly thing, a monster of their own making: a taker of jobs, a waste, an inconvenience. For people who genuinely wanted to get to know me, they also saw their own reflections: a person of value, worthy of respect—a possible friend. Obviously, I can’t actually say, “I am you” without inciting some sort of dramatic reaction. So whenever anyone asks me that question now, I just reply with whatever comes to me in the moment. Then I watch that other person, I really watch them and it’s them I can see.
The forces of hate, the online trolls, the bullies of the world may think they have recently won sweet victories; they may feel emboldened, empowered, validated. There may be nothing anyone can do to stop them or change their minds. But what they don’t realize is their cover has been blown. If you ever find yourself the victim of unprovoked hostility or if you ever witness someone spewing degrading insults, ask yourself this: Who is really being exposed here? Who is really being described? I guarantee you, you will find it is not the victim being defined. No one is qualified to assign another person their value.
Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a world where people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It may be too stupidly idealistic to say that a tolerant, inclusive society is a peaceful one, but he succinctly outlined the important caveat of such a freedom, “the content of their character”. No one, be they black or white, Muslim or Christian, man or woman, straight or gay, should impede on the rights of another. Protecting refugees, allowing immigration, striving for equality, treating humans as humans—these are not burdens but privileges. What country, what nation, what people in the history of the earth has ever really strived to uphold that beautiful ideal that “all men are created equal” or respected the rights of the “other” if they were not forced to? Can it even be possible? Now, perhaps for the first time in history, in the midst of unprecedented economic and technological change, countries that have suddenly become more diverse are poised to answer that question. Some have already answered with a resounding no. But for the future of my children, I strive to belief that these are not victories but the death throes of an obsolete and antiquated ideology.
Hate, racism and supremacy is a negation of life, a denial of a shared reality. It is to impose false assumptions, hierarchies and beliefs over Nature itself. Somewhere in the distant past an important decision was made that altered the course of our development as humans: Figuratively speaking, Eve made the decision to eat that apple. She chose knowledge. We, her children, irrationally strive for the simplicity and the ignorance of the past, to go back to an idealized time. But what if we stop trying to make anything great again? What if we stop denying reality its true form—stop denying anyone their humanity? What if we stop trying to go backwards and finally digest that apple?
Text and images by M.P. Baecker © 2017
In response to all the positive feedback I have received for this story, I have written another story The Mirror of Love.