An excerpt by Elaine Cha
This is a photo from my sixth birthday.
It was 1982. My parents ran a corner store called Norma’s Variety in Dundas, Ontario and our multi-generational family lived in the flat upstairs. (No, there wasn’t a Norma in our lineage. Yes, Kim’s Convenience is “real.”) The friends around me were neighbourhood playmates and schoolmates younger/peer/older. And a few of them were there the very first time I got “chink”-ed… and fought back.
At this point, this text could go so many places. The storyteller in me urges vivid detail (“F bombs! Shin kicks!”); the conventional journo, just the facts. Yet in this historical, cultural moment, I feel less inclined to explain what happened re: that ugly (and inaccurate) slur and more compelled to ask,
“Reader ~~ Where does the story go for you? What are you thinking, imagining, maybe remembering or recognizing? What does that reveal about who or what you know? And how might your responses point to things bigger than individual choices, independent actions, or isolated experiences?”
I was invited to write about how I self-identify. After several scrapped drafts, however, I found myself at Questions > Statement because identification – even when I do so for/about myself – depends on where I am. Whom I’m with. What’s necessitated descriptors I deploy or avoid. And as my half-told kindergarten tale shows, there are times who I say I am doesn’t matter when people and institutions decide that mistaking me suits them just fine.
Clearly self-identification’s too much to cover in a few expository paragraphs. But it isn’t too much to explore in a space of caring, respecting relationship. That can be a place where inquirings are openings, not demands or pressures, and responses aren’t answers so much as reflections that can change over time.
I started this post with an anecdote about being a kid in Canada – and now, an adult in Midwest USA whose Korean American son’s the same age I was in ‘82 – with an East Asian face. I could’ve left it at “I got ‘chink’-ed,” but I chose “fought back” because the grown-ups and friends in my corner asserted my power to raise my voice (and, in a couple different ways, my foot).
So if you’re reading this post and/or absorbing the May 2021 “Healing & Humility” RRR webinar to support an Asian Little, Parent/Guardian, Big, agency colleague or partner in your life, I offer these few encouragements:
As you listen to understand (not fix), remember there’s no single story to being Asian or Asian American: that includes everything from responses to rising reports of anti-Asian violence and positions on hate crime legislation to critiques of Asian representation on-screen and “authentic” Asian food.
Make room for what Asian folks are ready to discuss with you, not just what you don’t get or what’s blazing across social media or news coverage.
Take time, on your own and in relationship/community, to explore Asian American and Pacific Islander experiences and perspectives. Take advantage of all the content out there in May, but resist turning attention off when 6/1 comes. The end of AAPI Heritage Month will inevitably put media focus elsewhere; I hope your attentiveness to what your Asian friends care about holds way beyond this May and all Mays to come.
You ready to do this? Let’s grow, and fight, together.
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