Thursday Writing (on Friday): Who are my people?

I was hanging out with VONA people last night, and every time this happens (including at VONA itself) I look around and wonder, “where are my people?” By this I mean East Asians, a group as underrepresented at my VONA session as the five men, but far less remarked upon. I feel so ungracious pointing this out, because the wonderfulness of VONA is that it is all people of color, which is rarity enough, and makes for a beautiful and supportive community for which I am intensely grateful. When I sit with my fellow VONA writers and look around, I think, “these are my people,” and by this I mean writers, readers, artists, supporters of the arts, children of immigrants, people who meditate, people who speak honestly and seek the truth, women, lovers of food and cooking, and of course, people of color. But not my color exactly. Even while I recognize, “these are my people,” at the same time I also ask, “where are my people — my other people?”

The obvious response is that I need to seek them out: Asian and East Asian communities of writers, readers, artists, and so forth. But this goes against the grain. Quite frankly, I dislike groups and tend to avoid them; VONA was an accident that showed me that groups don’t have to be trouble. But this is the way I grew up. My family — my mother’s family, who were dominant in my upbringing — is independent by nature, going back to my grandfather, who in his first years in the US was offered a job by a wealthy Texas politician and refused, and his father, who struck out from China for Canada. We like to do things on our own. But my family also holds itself apart on purpose. The family philosophy is that we are not like other people, which I believe is true, but we take it further by extending that belief into our behavior. Throughout my childhood I was in constant contact with other Chinese people, but my parents were truly close to no one but family. Maybe the situation happened by default, because all the families we met at Chinese school were actually from Taiwan, and the background they shared was not shared by my parents. Or maybe the Cultural Revolution permanently instructed my parents and their siblings in the dangers of getting too close to others. My relatives do not join groups. They may appear to be part of a community, but the impression I received, growing up, was we are not of them. We may look the same and speak the same language, but we are not of them. It was easy for me to accept this because my parents spoke Shanghainese at home instead of Mandarin like everyone else’s parents, because they spoke Cantonese to my grandpa, because my own Chinese in any dialect has always plainly sucked. That I was not of them was manifestly obvious whenever I spent time with other Chinese kids. For years I went through Chinese school with only one friend in my class, and I had to get a new friend every few years, because the other girl inevitably dropped out. She was always someone else whose Mandarin was terrible, and if I was lucky she could also draw. While the other kids answered the teacher’s questions, we sat in the back, silent, drawing, non-participating. This is the feeling I took with me into college, when I neglected to take Asian American Studies or join any Asian American clubs.* Even though since fifth grade the vast majority of my friends have been Asian, even though I married a Taiwanese American man, my gut reaction to any gathering of Asians or Asian Americans is still these are not my people. Until I go into a group like VONA, and wonder where my people are.

Actually, now that I think of it, this is exactly the way I feel about rice. I’m a noodle person, unlike my husband who doesn’t feel he’s eaten unless there’s been rice in the meal. I practically never want rice; sometimes I even say I don’t like rice, and it always feels true when I say it. Then I’ll go on a trip to someplace where there aren’t many Asians, where there isn’t Asian food on every corner, and I start to crave rice like nobody’s business. On a road trip a couple of years ago from LA to Portland I went happily along eating fish tacos and road food until suddenly nothing sounded good except rice. We stopped to fill up at a gas station near Eugene, and behind the station there was a little restaurant serving hamburgers and teriyaki. At the time the only meat I was eating was seafood, but after I saw that restaurant menu, I ordered a chicken teriyaki and gulped down rice like the water of life.

“Oh my god, we can never move to Oregon,” I told Erik through mouthfuls of sauce-covered rice. “I need to be around Asian food.” As with the food, so with the people. I may not want to hang out, but I miss them when they’re not around.

Of course the VONA community is not without its East Asians, but when they are present I can’t help but feel that we are not very together-y. I have never met another East Asian woman whom I can imagine coming up to me and saying, “Hey, sister,” and touching my arm, the way I see black women doing with each other. (Or is this my idealized interpretation?) When I see other East Asians we smile at each other in this friendly way that I read as, “Hey. Don’t tell my parents I’m here.” There is a little in-thing there, but it’s noncommittal. Or so I imagine; I don’t know. When there aren’t any East Asians in the room I have this feeling of being alone with the my-people who are not my-people, but when there are East Asians, the feeling doesn’t dissipate. I watch them closely, unable to distinguish between my genuine observations and those informed by stereotype. Is it true, or am I just imagining that all the East Asians are quieter than we want to be, and more aloof than everyone else? Do I imagine we are just a little more invisible, or is that really happening? I feel incredibly boorish even asking these questions. It’s not just my Asianness that makes me a minority with VONA people. I’m also among the youngest writers I’ve met there, and I am more financially comfortable than most of the others. When they talk about struggle, sometimes I feel a little awkward, like I have no right to include myself in this conversation when I’ve been so well-fed and well-kept. It’s also a little uncomfortable for me to talk of community. When I hear the black members of the group discussing the Alvin Ailey repertoire or the Chicanas speaking Spanish to each other, I think, I don’t have that. I don’t know my cultural folklore or have a shelf of Chinese American writers in my office. My family doesn’t do that. When I’ve bonded with other East Asians it tends to be over food and a shared history of nagging parents and overachieving. I still feel weird among other politicized East Asians, and I have no way of knowing whether this is because I’m weird, because my family is weird, or whether we all feel the same way and the ones who’ve come together have only done so because they know this kind of community is important.

Maybe this is the real reason I have never joined an Asian group. If I match up the two my-peoples — the writers-artists-etcetera and the East Asians — and I continue to feel awkward among them, then it will only confirm what I have suspected ever since the back of the classroom at Chinese school. That there may be community and a strong “my people” for others, but not for me. That wherever I go in the world, I’m always going to feel some not-belonging, whether it’s a little or a lot. It might be okay. In the past few years I have spent a lot of time living in this space of not-quite-belonging, enough time that I’ve gotten used to it and even learned to see it as a gift. I have to throw up my hands; I just don’t know. Who am I to go on and on and on about not belonging, when I have these incredible communities around me and a large circle of people who love and support me, and I love all these people so dearly and vitally? Does it matter, this awkwardness I feel around others? I always come back to that drawing I did a few years ago. Maybe there is no belonging for any of us, except with ourselves. Even with ourselves. Maybe this is the way it is for everybody. I don’t really have an answer. Maybe that’s why I write.

Wonderful Open Mic guest post forthcoming today! Stay tuned!

*I’ve picked up some Asian American Studies since then, and even TAed the intro course in grad school.