The Good Asian:
"When All This Is Over, We Will Be Free."
"It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere." (Marilyn Frye)
BY MICHELLE FAN
“I do not know how to write about what happened in Atlanta. I am not able to fully realise the eight human lives, six of them Asian women, now publicly memorialised in tragedy.”
15 July 2021
On the first sunny day of 2021 in London, Victoria Park is alive and packed. Large families stroll with frolicking dogs. A group of friends huddles over cigarettes by the canal. Cyclists brush past people’s shoulders. No one wears a mask.
An air of anticipation. The pandemic, now in its second year, has an end in sight. When all this is over, they seem to think. When all this is over, there will be no more lockdowns. When all this is over, things will be good again. When all this is over, we will be free.
On January 31, 2021, a 91-year-old Asian man is shoved to the ground by an unidentified man at a sunny street corner in Oakland, California. While the elderly man is taken to the hospital to recover, the same attacker, face covered by a mask and hoodie, shoves two other people in the same area, both Asian.
In a freeze frame from the first attack, the elderly man lurches toward the concrete sidewalk, almost perpendicular to the assailant, who stands upright, calmly looking on, waiting for him to hit the ground.
They are not the first victims, and they are not the last. Four days later, Noel Qintana, a 61-year-old Filipino man, has his face slashed with a boxcutter on the New York subway. On February 26, university lecturer Peng Wang is assaulted by four white men while out for a jog in Southampton, England. On March 31, an Asian woman is spat on and called an “Asian slut” in front of her children. There are many more.
In the US, MSNBC reports that anti-Asian crimes increased by 1900% since the start of the pandemic. In the UK, by 300%.
The children and relatives of elderly victims take to social media to demand justice. The daughter of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who was pushed to the ground and died from his injuries, is in the news: “When people [see] me because I’m Asian, they blame me that I bring Covid to this country.” The attacks continue.
During the pandemic, Netflix releases a new show called Emily in Paris, about a sprightly young American girl who charms her way through the French capital, gathering a slew of wealthy suitors and good-looking friends along the way.
Her basic grasp of Instagram wins her recognition as a strategic genius; her bold American disruptiveness shakes France from its sleepy conservatism. Emily is not stressed about assimilation. She does not even speak a word of French. She wings it and wins, conquering Paris while flaunting a lack of cultural curiosity that only privilege can afford. Even though she is a ringarde (rube), her foreignness is aspirational.
Image courtesy of Rita Cheng
Writer Wesley Yang in The Souls of Yellow Folk: “If you are an Asian person who holds himself proudly aloof, nobody will respect that, or find it intriguing, or wonder if that challenging facade hides someone worth getting to know. They will simply write you off as someone not worth the trouble of talking to.”
I am a student in Paris, I am looking for my classroom, and I am lost. A woman passes by. I attempt, in passable French: Excusez-moi de vous déranger, madame, mais-- (I am sorry to disturb you Madam, but--)
Mais non, je ne parle pas chinois ! (No, I don’t speak Chinese!) she barks, walking away.
“Consider a birdcage,” says Marilyn Frye, the feminist thinker. “If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire anytime it wanted to go somewhere.
It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere. [...] It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.”
I do not know how to write about what happened in Atlanta. I am not able to fully realise the eight human lives, six of them Asian women, now publicly memorialised in tragedy.
In a world different from ours, I wouldn’t have to. I would not remember the waves of grief that came and pulled us away and pushed us under. I would not recall a flurry of voices calling out to one another: are you in the water? I’m here too. I would not have memories of reaching toward one another, in rage, in loneliness, in tears, no, I would not remember the tears, nor the questions, so many questions, and nowhere to put them, no one to hold them but us, and nothing to do but breathe. In unison, breathe.
I would not have to remember my head emerging from the water from time to time, only to hear waves crashing hard, then harder against a wall, stony and impenetrable.
No, I wouldn’t have to remember any of that.
In a world different from ours, these eight lives went on. Where is Hyun Jung? She’s listening to music in the other room. Where is Soon Chung? Oh, she’s planting more sunflowers out back. Where is Mom? She’s at work. But she’ll be back soon.
At a January screening of his new film Minari, actor Steven Yeun is in tears as he speaks about what it took to play his character, a Korean-American father named Jacob. “The pain of making this film was not just the difficulty of the circumstances. The most difficult part was being caught in the middle, balancing the Korean way of doing things and then the American way of doing things.” Somewhere between the two, Jacob’s humanity, so much of it felt in the unsaid, the endured, could easily slip away unseen, even as it barely contains a sea of rage, seething just beneath the skin.
It is 2020 - we stroll through Richmond Park, talking about the pandemic. Cases have fallen sharply in South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Cases have risen sharply in the UK.
I wonder how culture plays into it, someone says. Some societies just value freedom over the collective, says someone else.
“Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans:” writes Wesley Yang in “Paper Tigers”. “An invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people ‘who are good at math’ and play violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.”
‘Inscrutable Asians.’ For 92 years, the Academy Awards nominate zero Asian-American men for Best Actor. In 2021, Steven Yeun becomes the first. Along with his Minari co-star Youn Yuh-jung, who wins for Best Supporting Actress, they break a ‘tradition’ of Asian and Asian-American actors being ignored at local US film awards. For 92 years, films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Last Emperor, and Parasite could sweep the Oscars, but have their entire cast overlooked, deeply felt performances clumped together as an ensemble of Asian faces, never to be granted the dignity of individuality. Always the doer, never the visionary.
I do a Google image search for “parasite Oscars”. Nearly every photo is of the entire cast, 10 to a frame, holding the film’s golden statues up high. Look at those achievers, they might whisper. They are so happy they won.
Image courtesy of Rita Cheng
In Emily in Paris, Emily befriends a Chinese girl called Mindy, an aspiring singer working as an au pair. After refusing to join the family business, Mindy flees to France and is promptly cut off by her father, a zipper billionaire.
Mindy isn’t like other Chinese girls. She’s brash! She makes dick jokes! She gets drunk with her rich Chinese friends, who pour champagne all over themselves! She calls her father an asshole! To his face!
Like Emily, Mindy defies the conservatism that holds her back. But unlike Emily, who is celebrated for her unwillingness (or inability) to adapt, Mindy can’t have it both ways. She cannot enchant old-fashioned naysayers just by being herself. She must choose: her family or a new, freer identity.
Code-switching between the two would be far too complicated.
In 2020, three white women in Dallas launch a business selling mahjong sets, redesigned with a ‘modern’ and ‘stylish’ aesthetic. In place of the iconic blue-green-red motif, acidic pastels spell out “clever witticisms”: bamboo becomes BAM! and flowers (plum, orchid, chrysanthemum) have been replaced with a white flour icon. The website does not mention that the game is Chinese until after the public outcry.
I scroll through the sets, each named after an archetypal female muse. “Who is our Cheeky Gal? She laughs easily and often. You’ll find her cruising on her bike with a flea-find stuffed in the basket, earbuds playing Blondie. Equally happy in LA or Austin. Loves a wild wallpaper, millennial pink, and her many sneakers.”
The new owner of a California ghost town called Cerro Gordo posts pictures of a recent haul from exploring abandoned silver mines nearby, dating back to 1865. I scroll through a pair of jeans, some faded documents, and - two copper coins with square holes in the center. Chinese. I send a screenshot to a friend. We were always here.
A Stanford news report: “Culturally, mahjong was important in Chinatown in the 1920s and 30s, as it gave Chinese Americans a cultural bond at a time when many other Americans saw them as ‘perpetual foreigners.’ In many cases, mahjong also became an important way of navigating the internal, gendered, and generational divides within Chinatown. Mahjong offered the opportunity for people of different backgrounds to sit down and play together, creating a shared heritage.”
In 1871, Los Angeles is a small town with fewer than 6,000 people, including 172 Chinese immigrants. Anti-Chinese vitriol is rife, stoked for decades by newspapers depicting laborers as weak and wicked, a collective peril on white communities.
On October 24, one Chinese tong leader confronts another over the kidnapping of Yut Ho, a young Chinese woman. Soon a duel breaks out, and a stray bullet kills Robert Thompson, a white civilian and owner of a local saloon.
After news of his death spreads, a mob of 500 descends on Old Chinatown, where the two tong leaders have taken cover. Once there, the mob robs, beats, and drags Chinese townspeople, many already beaten unconscious, and hangs them at makeshift gallows nearby. In the morning, 18 bodies are laid out unceremoniously in the jail yard, mangled and bloodied. One is the community doctor, Gene Tong, who is missing a finger where a gold ring once was.
In the wake of the lynching, one of the worst in US history, 25 of the attackers are indicted, of which 8 are convicted of manslaughter. Two years later, the California Supreme Court overturns all charges based on a legal technicality, letting all the men walk free.
Image courtesy of Rita Cheng
Even in a pandemic year, the K-pop boy band BTS keeps cementing their status as the most popular musical group in the world. In June 2020, they set a Guinness World Record for the biggest online concert, with 756,000 viewers from over 100 countries. In September, their new single earns a historic No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In November, they become the first K-pop artists to get a Grammy nomination.
In February 2021, in response to their cover of a Coldplay song on MTV Unplugged, a German radio host lashes out at their audacity. “These little pissers”, he rants, are “some crappy virus that hopefully there will be a vaccine for soon as well.”
“Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking of you,” says Steven Yeun, the actor, in the New York Times.
In a breakdown of ethnic representation behind the camera in the UK TV industry, east Asians were so few that the numbers were redacted from the final report, explains Variety. Screenwriter Emma Ko: “When we say BESEAs are working with zero inclusion in the TV industry, we are not being impressionistic or metaphorical - we are being literal.”
In Victoria Park, I sit on the grass to call a friend. She’s writing a story about a British Asian girl who grows up in a mostly-white community. I’m in the middle of a sentence: “...white people--”, as a pair of young Caucasian women walk by. One looks back, muttering to her friend and glaring at me, the one who dared to name her fragility.
The very things that make Emily in Paris absurd also make it a hit. The nonsensical French cliches, the glossy postcard Paris, the Boomer fantasy of millennial frivolity all add up to an un-reality that people find “addictive” (the Arts Desk) and “irresistible” (the Atlantic).
It’s a harmless escape. An escape to a world where nothing bad ever happens. Where consequences don’t exist. Where we can still do the least and win the most. Where self-exceptionalism is not only acceptable, but the way forward.
An escape from a world with the inconveniences of resistance. Where self-exception leads to violence. Where the silenced demand the dignity of visibility. Where we all have to pretend to give a shit.
There is an outcry when the show is nominated for two Golden Globes, including Best Television Series. There is an outcry when Minari, a film about a Korean-American family in 1980s Arkansas, is categorized as a Foreign Language Film.
The morning after the awards ceremony, I wake to see that Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland has won Best Picture, and that she has become the first woman of colour to win a Golden Globe for Best Director. A few months later, she becomes the first woman of colour to win an Oscar for directing, too.
In her film, an American woman in her 60s named Fern traverses the country in her van after losing her livelihood at a Nevada mine. Hers is a story about perpetual outsiders, who find a home in the in-between spaces - always there, rarely seen. It is a modern portrait of the American West, whose explorers weave themselves into its chimney canyons and roaring plains and yawning skies. Returning to old places, awake to new wonders. Together and alone, brave and frightened, they venture, reaching, escaping, returning - telling each other that they are born of this land, telling themselves that they are already home.