Reclaiming Asian Names
I read an interesting article yesterday about Asian Americans reclaiming their native first names, giving some background into a recent Twitter trend of adding your Asian name into your display name. A common theme in the stories shared by people interviewed for the piece is having had to change their names in order to make it easier for white Americans—or, more to the point, to give white Americans fewer opportunities to exclude them. I love the idea of taking pride in Asian American culture and identity, and displaying one’s Asian name is something I can understand as empowering for people who have been othered or shamed. For me, personally, it doesn’t feel completely applicable.
One of the people interviewed for the article was Susan Kiyo Ito:
Susan Kiyo Ito from Oakland told me Kiyo is legally her middle name, despite the fact that her parents had wanted to make Kiyo her first name.
“My parents had wanted to name me Kiyo after my late aunt, but then they changed their minds and decided to make that my less visible middle name because they didn’t want me to be teased," said Ito.
Her father had a similar story about his own name.
“My father’s name was Masaji (Mas), but white people struggled with his name, so he joked that they could call him Sam — Mas backwards — to make it easier for them to remember and pronounce.”
“Many of my Japanese relatives used English names in public for assimilation and white folks,” she added.
For me, like Ito, my Japanese name (Kenji) is legally my middle name. I think of it as my Japanese name, but I have never felt comfortable going by that name. And, more to the point, no one has ever called me by that name, inside my family or out. Being gosei and biracial, my relationship to Japan and Japanese culture is very different from someone who has immigrant parents. It’s always been a lot more… tenuous? Neither of my parents have Japanese names, and neither they nor I speak Japanese. Three of my grandparents also didn’t or don’t speak Japanese (though, of those, one was my white grandfather). My Japanese American grandfather also didn’t have a Japanese name, as far as I know, though some of his siblings did.
In some ways, my relationship with my name feels similar to my relationship with identity in general. It’s not that I have ever tried to hide my Japanese-ness (nor is that something I could do even if I wanted to), and my parents didn’t pick my name for assimilation. They didn’t have to pick my name based on some idea of making it easier for me to assimilate because assimilation is something that my family already did fairly thoroughly several generations ago. I think of myself as “Mike” or “Michael” because that’s my name.
It’s not that “Kenji” isn’t also part of my name and my self. It’s just that there isn’t a conflict or separation between “Mike” and some more authentic version of me. “Mike” isn’t a mask that I’ve assumed (or that was put on me) to make “Kenji” more palatable or to make things easier for white people to understand. It’s just my name.
I think that the discourse around Asian American identity tends to very entwined with the immigrant narrative, with things like assimilation or rejection of assimilation. And there are good reasons for that. That sort of leaves someone like me out of the discussion, which used to bother me a lot. But as I’ve grown older and learned more I’ve come to understand that there are good reasons not to center my personal experience with identity in what is fundamentally a political discourse. I guess I do think that there is room for an interesting discussion about the ways Asian American identity discourse can be, I think, a bit essentialist. Or about what is or is not my “authentic” culture. But that isn’t and shouldn’t be the center of the larger discourse.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I really like seeing other people put their Asian names in their profiles, or including their names written in Asian characters, and I support everyone in doing that. But I don’t think it’s something I’ll do, myself.
I Don't Want to Have to Talk About This Again
So, yes, I have been thinking about anti-Asian violence. I’ve been thinking about it all year, and after the shooting in Atlanta, I am sad and scared and so, so tired. It’s on my mind, of course. But I haven’t been talking about it much online.
Partly, I rankle at the idea that I as an Asian American need to talk about anti-Asian violence in America. I’ve talked about racism a lot over the course of my lifetime, and I’ve talked about it a lot more as an activist over the past few years. I think it’s important to talk about. And certainly I know that waiting around for white people to fix racism is untenable. But I still feel that the time it’s most important for me to speak up is when my own communities are the ones perpetrating or benefiting from injustice. It shouldn’t need to be Asian people speaking out about anti-Asian racism, just like it shouldn’t need to be women speaking out about misogyny or queer people speaking out about homophobia.
But also, I find myself just getting tired of yelling about things online, and wondering how much it ends up mattering in the first place. There’s a conversation to be had about bearing witness, I think. And I think that there are ways that increasing awareness can affect the world in more material ways. But shouting on Twitter isn’t the same as organizing or activism, and at least for me it’s not even particularly cathartic anymore.
What I want to know is what can we do on a practical level to actually make things better? Donating to a GoFundMe for a victim’s family or to a grassroots organization working in vulnerable communities is a good thing to do, surely, but I’m thinking about how often small orgs end up being overwhelmed by donations after a tragedy, and, even more, how many people let a small donation be the end of their involvement. What’s the amount of money you can donate before it’s okay to stop thinking about an issue? And is it okay to just throw money at a problem and hope that someone else will do the work? My point here isn’t to shame anyone else or discourage you from donating, these are questions I’m trying to ask myself, too.
I’m skeptical of calls for more policing or hate crime enforcement, not only because of the ways that our law enforcement and criminal justice systems so often treat white suspects so differently from BIPOC suspects, but also because of the ways that our criminal justice and immigration systems are often the sources of violence against marginalized communities to begin with.
I’m skeptical, too, that just talking to our racist uncles is going to stop racist violence. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t talk to our parents or uncles or spouses or kids—I think we should have those conversations, assuming we can do so without putting ourselves or others in danger. It’s just that I don’t think the people who most need to hear these messages are likely to be open enough to receive them. Maybe I’m wrong about this, and I’m glad people want to try, but I just don’t have it in me most of the time to be the one to try to educate people about why racism is bad, or what racism even is.
Maybe it’s just because my activism focuses on legislation and public policy, but more and more I find myself thinking that the best thing we can do is make policy changes that materially help marginalized communities. And not through things like hate crime laws or increasing police presence, but rather things like immigration reform or healthcare reform or policy to address wealth inequality. In California right now there are, for example, bills to provide universal healthcare regardless of immigration status, and to establish a pilot program for community-based alternatives to policing. There is a bill to provide food assistance to all residents, regardless of immigration status. There are a number of bills to try to provide affordable housing. Those are all things we could advocate for to our elected officials—and I plan to do so. It’s not that immigrant and BIPOC communities having access to housing and healthcare and education and other resources will stop a racist gunman from opening fire. But it makes more and more sense to me that racist attitudes change after material conditions change for marginalized races, not before. That racism is not the cause of inequality but a tool invented to justify inequality, and so by addressing the inequality first, we provide a path to addressing attitudes.
But, look, I am tired of having to talk about racism and injustice. I want to talk about art and books and podcasting and interviewing. I want to talk about nostalgia and longing and the bittersweetness of watching my children grow up. I want there to be a good time to talk about things that aren’t dire and global. Maybe it’s a selfish desire to have and insensitive to admit it out loud—probably it is, I don’t know—but I am just worn out. The world goes on being awful no matter what I want, of course, but sometimes I need to look away for a while.
And I think that maybe what drives my feeling of resentment is that even still, the people who should be taking responsibility and should be the ones looking and speaking up, many of them aren’t. It’s not to say that none are—indeed, I’ve been glad to see lots of white and other non-Asian people speaking out over the past few days. But as heartening as it is to see non-Asian allies stepping up, I still have to know and even see that there are so many people who think America doesn’t have a racism problem, who throw around the model minority myth, who are just shut into their little bubbles and refusing to see what they don’t want to see.
I don’t have a big conclusion to wrap all this up. I’m tired and angry and sad and scared. I’m heartbroken for the victims and their families. I want people to be better. I’m trying my best.
Love, Care, Responsibility
Recently I was listening to an episode of Carrie Fountain's podcast This Is Just to Say, which was a tribute panel to poet Tony Hoagland, who died last year at the age of 64, due to pancreatic cancer. I don't really know Hoagland's work—it's possible that this podcast was the first time I'd ever heard one of his poems. What awareness I had of him came from some references some of my poet friends had made to his problematic public exchange with poet Claudia Rankine.
If you're not much involved with the world of poetry—which, to be fair, most people aren't—then you might not be familiar with that incident. To summarize: In his 2003 book What Narcissism Means to Me, Hoagland—who is white—included a poem called "The Change," in which the speaker of the poem (which Hoagland may or may not have intended to be himself) describes a tennis match between a white woman and a black woman, and his reaction to it, and does so in language that is, to say the least, problematic. In 2011, Claudia Rankine—an acclaimed and important African-American poet, and a former colleague of Hoagland's—gave a talk at the AWP Conference in which she read Hoagland's poem and then presented an open letter in which she described the dismay she felt upon reading the poem, and talked about why it was hurtful. About a month later, Hoagland responded with his own open letter, which was... not great. Subsequently, Hoagland was pretty widely criticized for both his poem and his letter—and rightly so, in my opinion.
I had known all of this before but had mostly forgotten about it by the time I started listening to that This Is Just to Say episode, though as the episode progressed my memory was refreshed. I found the episode to be an interesting and nuanced discussion about a person and poet all of the panelists loved, but who they acknowledged also said and did problematic things. Interesting because I think it's interesting and necessary to consider what it means to love someone who has flaws, and what our responsibilities are to the ones we love, and how to keep loving someone even when they are wrong or shitty.
I don't want to say "We all have our flaws" or "We are all problematic" because that flattens the discussion and draws the kind of false equivalence that we cannot afford in this political climate. Because there are lines that shouldn't be crossed, which have been crossed, and which continue to be crossed, often with real and terrible consequences. To simplify the world we live in by saying "we all have our flaws" is to engage in the kind of both-sides-ism that has plagued our political discourse for years.
Except that we all do have our flaws and we all are problematic, and we do engage in and uphold a culture in which we expect purity, which is neither reasonable nor sustainable. And we especially do that online. Online spaces are not and never have been and probably never will be good for nuance. But I feel like it should be possible to distinguish between unforgivable harm and everyday thoughtlessness. Not in a way that ignores the latter, but in a way that allows for judgment. And when I say "judgment" I mean a process. I mean an individual process of weighing and balancing and looking at as much context as possible, context that includes both the personal and the global. I mean deliberation and care rather than snap decisions. I mean to say that one's bad deeds don't erase one's good deeds, nor do their good deeds erase their bad, but each filters each, and there are more ways to hold the totality of a person than to either defend them or throw them away.
In saying this, though, it is important to understand the broader context of such rhetoric, and the instances in which it is most often deployed. It is not lost on me that the thing that is prompting me to talk about nuance and care and deep judgment is a white man's misdeed. It is important to understand how rarely the marginalized and oppressed are offered the opportunity for deliberate consideration, for care, for understanding. And it is important to understand how often white men are offered that opportunity. It is important not as a way of castigating white people or men for being white or male. It is important because we cannot work toward a world in which the humanity and dignity of all people is affirmed unless we first understand that such affirmation is not given equally now, and unless we understand why.
But I suppose I feel that the path to justice lies more in offering care and understanding and context to the vulnerable than it does in denying it to the comfortable. Again, there are lines that we cannot cross or allow to be crossed. But I think that when we love someone, or when we love the things they've done, whether that be a friend or a relative or simply someone we admire, we owe it to them and to ourselves and to each other to reckon with their misdeeds and hold them accountable. Sometimes that means walking away from them. But sometimes it means pulling them closer. And either way it doesn't necessarily mean ceasing to love them.
And, yes, those whom we love bear a responsibility as well, to listen, to learn, to do better. It's a responsibility that so often they (and we, and I) fail to live up to. But I believe we can rise to it, even if sometimes we might need to be shown how. It's not about erasing harm or giving passes. It's about trying to get past binary thinking, to get past good/bad, right/wrong, stay/leave, and to get toward care and responsibility.
As an addendum, what I am doing now is considering how much of my feeling on this is or might be driven by my own biases and privileges. And considering whether and how having and expressing these opinions might contribute to further harm.
Nothing is ever as simple as I'd like it to be. But I do my best.
• • •
Some other news:
- A couple of weeks ago I released an episode of Keep the Channel with poet Yanyi. We discussed his book The Year of Blue Water, which is part poetry, part essay, and part journal, a document of self-discovery and human connection. We also talked about Hannah Arendt's seminal book The Origins of Totalitarianism.
- On this week's episode, I talked with poet Rachel Zucker about her book The Pedestrians and about her podcast Commonplace, which is one of my favorite literary shows. It was a particularly interesting episode for me in that Rachel and I approach interviewing in very similar ways and with similar concerns (and similar anxieties).
• • •
My family has been up in Canada without me for the past week, visiting J's relatives. They're coming home tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to it. I hope that you get some time soon to be with people you love, whether that's family or friends or even yourself.
Am I Actually Defending Thinkpieces? I Guess I Am.
Twitter brought me a Jezebel article this afternoon called “Damn, You’re Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That’s So Freakin Brave and Cool”, by Jia Tolentino. The gist of it is that reading more diversely is good, even necessary, but that writing thinkpieces about doing so is just another way of othering underrepresented writers and making diversity about yourself. It’s an interesting perspective, and based on who I saw retweeting the link it’s certainly one that seems to resonate with a lot of minority writers. Still, it doesn’t really sit right with me.
Now, I imagine that the easiest, quickest negative response would be something along the lines of “Can’t win for trying.” And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t briefly go there myself, especially given the goals I recently set myself. The thing is, though, in her larger point about majority engagement with capital-D diversity, I agree with Tolentino. “If only it were possible to do something good and rewarding without publicly prioritizing what effect that act has on you,” she says. Moreover, like so often seems to happen with corporate diversity initiatives, there’s a real danger of people assuming that simply having some sort of diversity policy is the same as solving the actual problem. It reduces normalizing diversity in literature to something like a fad—here today, forgotten tomorrow.
Still, as much as I agree with Tolentino on one level, I’m much more ambivalent on another. The problem for me, I think, is summed up in the last few lines of the piece:
If you were a queer writer, or a woman of color writer, would you want someone to read you because they thought they were doing something dutiful about power structures? Or because they gravitated to you, not out of any sense that you would teach them something about diversity that they could then write about in a year-end essay—but that they just read you because you were good?
How similar does that sound to some of the arguments against affirmative action, ones I especially tend to hear from more privileged minority groups? “I don’t want to feel like I got a job just because someone was trying to fill a quota.” But just as with the affirmative action, it presents a bit of a false dilemma. The choice here isn’t necessarily between being read because of your talent and being read because of your gender or color or sexuality. In the real world, the choice can often be between being read because of a diversity mission and not being read at all.
In a perfect world, women writers, writers of color, queer writers would rise to the top and gain a following on the strength of their writing in much the same way that we imagine straight white men do. But we are just not at that point yet. If diverse writers are seeing any uptick in readership and stature in the industry, if there is any push right now toward a more inclusive mainstream, it’s only because the need to actively seek out diverse books is being called out so loudly, and that that call is being repeated widely enough to gain momentum.
Of course it would be great for underrepresented writers and artists to be sought out solely on the basis of their talent. But at this point, without an active effort to bring those writers more attention (and therefore more sales, the only signal with any meaning to the publishers and retailers who determine what actually gets onto shelves) then it’s difficult to imagine the status quo ever changing.
One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me how beautiful my mother is, often using the word “exotic” in their description of her. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot with Asian women, but with my mom’s high cheekbones, narrow nose, and eyelids that are somewhere between single and double, it’s hard to place her racially. Most often people assume she’s some sort of Native American. In fact, according to family legend, her great-great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee woman, but no one ever mistook her mostly-English father for an Indian.
My mother grew up—as I did not—in a town with a strong Japanese-American community, but this was not often a comfort to her. When she was young, she’s told me, the Japanese kids rejected her for being too white, and the white kids rejected her because she looked like a Mexican. And, of course, the Mexican kids knew she wasn’t one of them, either. She told me once when I was in college that it had been a relief to her that my brother and I would be more than half-Japanese. “At least you’d know what you are,” she said.
I’ve been trying to write this post for months now. In that time, first the Internet exploded over Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair photo, then about Rachel Dolezal’s appropriation of black identity. I had been mulling over questions about race, gender, identity, and social constructs, and suddenly it seemed like all of Twitter was either asking the same questions or taking those questions apart and hanging the askers out to dry as either racist or transphobic or both. The more prudent part of me thought it might be a good idea to stay quiet and listen. So that’s what I did. I listened and read, a lot.
I listened to Gene Demby and Steve Inskeep talk about whether Rachel Dolezal’s story should change how we think about race. I read pieces from Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker and Jonathan Blanks in The Washington Post about blackness and race and appropriation and America. I learned that “transracial” is a word with a 40-year history in the adoption community, and that people in that community—such as Martha Crawford and Lisa Marie Rollins—object to the word being misused and appropriated by people wanting to make a joke out of it.
The question that has been asked hundreds of times over—and later derided and ridiculed and called out for its biases—is, “If Caitlyn Jenner can be a woman, why can’t Rachel Dolezal be black?”
It’s a flawed question for a lot of reasons, as so many people have pointed out. Inherent in a question like that is a comparison between a person who transitioned to an authentic expression of the gender she feels inside—that is, the gender she is—and a person who pretended to be a race she isn’t in order to gain something. Many people quite reasonably found the analogy between the transgender experience and Dolezal’s cynical falsehood insulting, even irresponsible.
A great many people also pointed out that Dolezal’s appropriation of black identity allowed her to take all of the benefits of blackness without having had to suffer the negative consequences that actual black people deal with every day. Growing up white, Dolezal would never have had to deal with increased police scrutiny, the threat of racist violence, or the entrenched structural racism that keeps millions of black people impoverished and disenfranchised even today. Here things get a bit more complicated, because as valid as this criticism appears to me, it’s uncomfortably similar to some of the so-called “trans-exclusive radical feminist” arguments that some people use against the acceptance of trans women—trans women, these people say, benefited from the privileges of a patriarchal society while they presented as male, and therefore it is unfair for them to be accepted as women. Many TERF statements also come back to the idea of falsehood, that trans women aren’t “real” women, merely men pretending to be something they’re not. To me, the arguments against racial appropriation feel valid, while the arguments against gender transition feel bigoted, but I can’t fully articulate why. Needless to say, the idea of having to “pay your dues” in order to be accepted is incredibly problematic, or at least it seems so to me.
Eventually we come down to a question that I’ve been watching play out over and over again on Twitter over the past week: is it possible to be born the wrong race?
We hadn’t been to Michi’s in a long time, but my brother and I had a hankering for sushi and when we arrived at our usual place only to find it closed, I thought of the restaurant we’d always gone to when I was little, so my dad took us there instead. It was pretty quiet when we stepped in—a lot of the customers had left when Shogun had opened on Main Street, leaving just the die-hards and the old-timers. There were just a few other guys at the sushi bar, Japanese-American like us, and from the looks of them, they were probably regulars.
The three of us sat and ordered, and soon enough the food arrived. We had just started eating when one of the men at the bar turned to my dad and said, “What’s the matter, Dean? Did you forget how to use hashi?” My dad didn’t look up or make eye contact, didn’t respond to the taunt at all, just put down the fork he’d been using to eat his salad and sipped at his miso soup instead. We ate in uncomfortable silence, and eventually the other man left.
Is it possible to be born the wrong race? What does that even mean, really?
The problem with a question like that is that race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality are not the same things. These are all social constructs to some degree, but the way they are determined isn’t the same. Some are based on some form of heritage, whether genetic or cultural. Some are entirely political, based on law or place of birth or external classifications. They’re not the same. Still, it’s unsatisfying to simply point out that they’re different, because they’re not entirely separate either.
Identity is a complicated phenomenon, and part of what makes it so is that it’s not just personal; it is also in large part shaped by and in reaction to the way we are treated by others. Community is a huge factor in how we define ourselves, both the communities in which we participate and are accepted, as well as those from which we are excluded. And, right or wrong, the way you look does influence the way others perceive and interact with you. That, in turn, has implications for how you receive and participate in culture, which parts you are able and allowed to access. It affects how you think about yourself. It certainly has affected how I think about myself.
The first of my grandmother’s grandparents to come to America arrived in San Francisco in 1892. The last of them got to Hawaii around 1900 or 1901—the records aren’t clear, and much of the family history was lost during the Internment. My grandmother, herself, was born in 1928 in the same town as her parents, her children, and all of her grandchildren, including me.
By the Japanese method of counting, my grandmother is sansei, or third-generation American. She’s proud of her heritage, and more than any other person, she has been the one that taught me what it means to be Japanese. Foods and customs, of course, and songs and children’s games. Being respectful and humble, obedient of your elders and of the laws, and, most of all, being part of a close-knit family.
But being sansei had its connotations, even back before the war. “Us third-generation kids were always the dummies in Japanese school,” she told me once, “compared to the nisei kids, because they all spoke Japanese at home and we didn’t.”
When people ask me what I am—which has happened for my whole life, and will, I’m sure, continue to happen—I tell them that I’m three-quarters Japanese. I imagine that most people, hearing this, will interpret it to mean that I identify with my Asian ancestry. In truth, though, what it means is that in my whole life I have met exactly one person who is like me in terms of race, and that is my brother.
I don’t know what race and culture mean to other people. I don’t know if anyone ever feels comfortable or at home. What I do know is that I don’t belong. The condescension at the Japanese market when I need help reading a label, the side-eye from the community-college language teacher when I call myself nihonjin instead of amerikajin, the insistence that I’m a “twinky” or “banana”—that is, yellow on the outside, white on the inside—these have had no less impact on my perception of myself than the wrinkled noses at the nori in my lunch in elementary school, the angry shouts to go back where I came from in middle school, being beaten and spit on in high school by people calling me a chink.
My mother likes to tell a story from my kindergarten year, perhaps the moment I learned about race. I had come home upset, asking why the other kids made slanty eyes at me. She tried to explain that I looked different from them, comparing my features and theirs in our class photo. “No, I don’t. I look like that,” I insisted, pointing to a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy. “I look like that, and I look like that, and I look like that.” I pointed to them all.
It is exhausting, feeling defensive both when white people complain about minorities and when people of color complain about white people. Feeling uncomfortable even calling myself a “person of color” when I’ve never been harassed by police or kept down by government policies; when my wife, my step-parents, and almost all of my friends are white; when I listen to white music, read white books, watch white television and movies. To constantly be questioning what parts of my heritage are mine to claim, and which I must accept being beyond my reach. To know that, even now, I will always feel on the outside of any group, no matter how much welcome they extend to me, because part of me will never believe someone won’t take it back, the way someone always did when I tried to be white or Asian.
Was Rachel Dolezal entitled to take the identity she took? I don’t know her history, her culture, her circumstances, but I feel in my heart that what she did was wrong. And it frustrates me because it has provided so much opportunity for other people to dismiss and mock the alienation I have always felt.
Was I born the wrong race? No, I was born the way I am, and the way I look is part of how I feel. I wouldn’t want to claim whiteness even if I were allowed to, not if it meant turning my back on being Japanese. I’m both, even if in so many ways I’m neither.
I don’t know if inclusion and representation are important in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know if the pain and isolation I’ve felt ought to matter to anyone but me. But if the past few weeks have taught me anything, if I’ve learned anything in all the responses I’ve read to this stupid, messy racial controversy, it’s that I’m not the only one who feels the way I do. I don’t know if I have a community of my own, but I am not alone. And if you recognize any of my experiences in your own, you’re not alone either.