I've been running from classification my whole life. In fact, the path to triathlons began in a prayer meeting. I forget the context, but I mentioned somehow that I would like to do the NYC Marathon at some point in my life. A friend found this hilarious and laughed with such a keen edge that I still rankle at the memory.
"You? Run marathons? As big as you are? Stick to beating up kids in football and bodybuilding, Stan."
I fumed through the rest of the prayers, smoldered through the sermon and then made myself a plan for not only answering his laughter, but doing it in such a way that he wouldn't dare laugh at anyone's dreams again -- not mine, nor anyone else's.
So reading this article sparked a few thoughts for me.
I could identify with what Ken was saying, but only as if viewing it through strips of gauze. I went through that. But its alien to even think of that happening now. Plenty of people have asked me "Where are you from?" as if I could not be from America. I perhaps hear that twice a year now. Nobody tries to mock the fact of my lineage anymore. Or at the very least, no one, acquaintance or stranger, has tried to do that around me in the last five years or so.
It helps that I'm not what people think of when they hear the word 'Asian.' I'm 6 feet tall. As a friend's father put it, "and built like a brick shithouse." (I just wish he knew that the meaning has changed somewhat over the past 60 years.) People hearing my voice over the phone wouldn't know where I'm from genetically or geographically -- just plain, straight, unaccented English. (You can hear a slight Gotham brogue when I say names like 'Sarah') And most importantly, I look people in the eye when I talk. All of this played a huge role in my experience as an Asian-American. If I was a smaller man, if I spoke any less articulately, or dressed differently, what would my experience be?
Needing no more than his picture and his interview, I already have a profile of the guy ready in my mind. I have no idea if it's accurate or not, but I would be more than comfortable moving forward upon these assumptions.I would guess him to be around 5'6 to 5'8, about 160 lbs. He's either wearing khakis or slim-fit jeans in that picture, most likely khakis with Converse all-stars, and the rest of his wardrobe carries a similar aesthetic, hangs around mostly Asian-Americans of a certain socio-economic class, probably has eating at interesting restaurants as a hobby. I can't imagine him living in the 8th Ave. section of Brooklyn. On the other hand, I can imagine him crossing the street when a large group of scary locals congregate on the street.
But perhaps I'm wrong. There's a significant non-zero chance that's the case. After all, I have maybe 200 words and a picture to go off of. That's not very much. I haven't heard of him prior to the interview. And really, more than trying to know who he is as an individual and a person, I'm taking a tiny amount of information and comparing it to a lifetime's worth of categories and memes. It's the same process happening as we walk down the street everyday. I hate it when it's done to me, yet I can't seem to shut it off.
What I wish to really talk about is what kind of Asian-American I am. What do others see as they pass me by on the street? You see, the kind of Asian-American that I described, the kind that I can easily imagine Ken Chen fitting into, is an accepted kind of Asian-American. You know where you stand with them, what you can assume, what you can expect. There's a different kind. Poor broken English, blue collar job, dresses the way he speaks, serves you your General Tso's chicken in a styrofoam box. He too has a place, a much less enviable place, but a place nonetheless within the category of Asian-American (even if many would dispute the American part). And then there's the Asian-American who hardly has Asian friends, can't speak a lick of the mother tongue and whose stomach churns at the thought of pig's blood cake, chicken feet, stinky tofu or any cut of an animal that Tyson doesn't sell in his supermarket. He too has a place within the larger rubric.
But what of me? Is there a place for those who want to hold on to their heritage without being identified by their heritage?
I think others would place me in the same sub-division that I filed Ken under. I'd just have a footnote: "Great flavor when paired with Blacks and Hispanics!" Is that all? After an entire life lived trying to resist being understood, being classified, is a footnote all I have? I don't want to think so. More than marginal, I'd like to think of myself as liminal -- at a place of transcendence. It's haughty to say that of myself, but I'm not shy about saying that's where I want to be.
I don't want to be an Asian-American anything. I want to be as human as I can be, in as inclusive of a sense as that term can handle. I joke with my girlfriend that she's dating a Black, Mexican, Indian man trapped inside a Chinaman's body. But in all honesty, I wish to, like Whitman, embody multitudes. Of course there are going to be contradictions. I'm not forfeiting my claim to gunpowder, spaghetti, a big wall, terra cotta, jade and won ton noodle soup. I'm not forfeiting my claim to Ha Jin, Haruki Murakami, Chang-Rae Lee, chicken wings and french fries for $3.25, decades of being oppressed and marginalized, and the still-coming-day where we rise above it. All of these are equally my heritage and I want to honor it all. It's hard to get where you're going, if you don't know where you're from.
But at the same time, I don't want to let go of the fact that my sincerest moments of fellowship have come from my Black and Hispanic and Indian αδελφοι at Intervarsity, that I'm madly in love with a white girl whose family, dog, diet and culture endlessly fascinate me. If the Southern China of rice paddies, of expected academic success, of hustle and drive, if that is part of my heritage, then I too want to lay claim to Trinidad, Guyana, Moldavia, Jamaica, Kerala, Puerto Rico, la Dominicana, Nigeria, Norway, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney. I don't take lightly the fact that so many streams have flowed into me. I want to transcend, if only in a minute way, and if only for a moment, the limitations of genetics and become that wide shoreless ocean.
When I look at my church and how racially homogenous we are, even in the English-speaking segment, I feel so utterly alone. Doesn't anyone else find this too restrictive? How can you breath freely in such a small space? But it's not just my church. I look around at every segment of life and I want to ask everyone around me, how can you breathe in such confined quarters? There's such beauty out there in this world. How could you not want to breathe it all in?