If I once vaguely knew that maybe-perhaps things weren’t so swell outside of my beloved bubble, that date just blasted my eyes wide open.
Background: He’s Filipino-Korean and grew up in Ohio; taught theatre for two years after college before moving to New York to become an actor, and now is a playwright [recently won a competition with his latest script].
My background: Oftentimes when I read other people’s revelation posts about Asian identity and finding confidence in themselves, I would look askance because for me it was always the norm. Why wouldn’t you be proud of being Asian? I struggled a bit with the gay part back in middle school, but the whole self-hating Asian trope mystified me; I grew up in a community that was almost 60% Asian [school was worse because AP/honors classes were literally all Asian except for token white/latin@ kids], spoke Mandarin at home, and regularly visited Taiwan/China for summers at a time since elementary school. Race wasn’t an issue because there were no other races; I’ve never felt remotely attracted to white people, or felt that my looks/body were inadequate.
After I briefly went through the above, he kind of gave a “Oh you optimistic naive child” look and floored me in return. He grew up in rural Ohio; hard racism began instantly in elementary school [name-calling, rock-throwing, “You can’t be Batman because he’s white”, etc]. He had to learn to defend himself early on [dad taught him how to fight], joined the wrestling team. Regardless, people gave him shit constantly; I made a joke midway about his necklace looking like a prison chain, and he deadpanned that it was because his dad taught him never to be caught without something that could be used for defense—chains wrapped around the fist made impromptu brass knuckles. I’m not even sure if I can do it justice, but it seemed like every day was a struggle against a constant stream of blatant racism: being spat at by people, being rudely told “Can I get someone who speaks English?” as the waiter, beating down bullies and brawling it out over epithets, having to suffer taunts from the wrestling captain/frat bros/any dumb white dude.
On top of this was the gay factor. For reference, he told me the story of a boy who was outed as a freshman, while he was a senior. That boy had been the freshman class president, but was instantly ostracized [stink bombs in locker, constantly picked on], and was ultimately hounded out of school and had to move to another district. When I expressed shock and explained how unthinkable that was [my little sister resurrected my high school’s Gay Straight Alliance her senior year, to much support], he trumped it again: a female student was the daughter of a lesbian teacher at his school, and so she started a GSA in solidarity and shaved her head to raise awareness. All hell broke loose on this girl; she was universally scorned, food was always thrown at her in the cafeteria, people would rough her up after school. Even my date had internalized this hatred so much at the time that he would roll his eyes at her, despite the circumstances.
Over this still was the constant deprecation of body image. My date once did an experiment where he made three dating profiles: one with pictures of some plain white dude, one with a model-level sculpted Asian, and one of his own torso only [he was really fit from wrestling]. In an hour, plain white dude got 19 messages; model Asian got 2. His torso got 12, but the moment they asked for a face picture and found he was Asian he got “Sorry not into Asians” and was blocked by all but one.
It was worse when he got into theatre. Constantly being judged by old white men, he would always get shit like “Can you be more/less Asian?”, “Oh good, you’re tall for an Asian”, and rejected for roles repeatedly until he thought his skills were deficient and it was really his fault [it wasn’t; he got roles two weeks after he moved to NY]. He mentioned being rejected from lead roles because he wasn’t “All-American” enough, and getting instantly cast as Harvey Johnson in Bye Bye Birdie because it was the nerd role—one guess why. Again, I relayed my flabbergastation; when I was in my high school musical, we did Oklahoma! [about farmers and cowboys in the eponymous state] and basically everyone in the cast was Asian.
For my date, Chicago [as the only major city in the Midwest] was a haven of diversity; for me, it was my first glimpse of America beyond my bubble when I got there for college. Although some racism crept in for the first time there [getting threatened on the train with “Go back to your country, damn chink!”; dealing with murmurs of “immigrant” from the kids at the afterschool program I volunteered at], it never actually affected me because I’d grown up with an adamantine sense of self and they were just strange blips instead of the norm.
Things started to change for him after he started dating Asian guys in New York. First one was with a Korean American, who self-loathed several degrees worse than he had; the guy put up huge shows of machismo to mask his insecurity, and wasn’t even comfortable touching him in public. Seeing that mirror threw him into a “Am I really like that?” soul-search, and helped him start on the path to get more comfortable with himself. Now he’s taken up playwriting because he was tired of waiting for roles to come up; better still to just produce them himself.
Sometimes I’m almost thankful that I’m gay because I just get to meet so many different kinds of people. So strange though—on the way to get on the train to meet him, I actually bumped into my current crush on campus, a convivial/considerate/well-connected/cultured 官二代 that feels like such a safe choice, back in the bubble that I’m so comfortable in. Decisions…maybe fate is telling me to stop testing waters and just commit.
Somewhere along the way was this fascinating conversation about one of the date’s friends who is interested in doing a Fulbright to look into starting a Birthright program for Asians, like the one that Israel has for Jews. Hopefully will get to talk more about that later if I get introduced to his friend.
…I also have a draft open for the rest of my previous week [now a tumblr black hole, but QUICK HIGHLIGHTS:
1. Work-study is a drag because I’m an office bitch again, doing basic shit like watering plants and making coffee, but money is money?? I should be investing that time better but lord knows I probably wouldn’t anyway. Besides, it’s at a prestigious institution.
2. Sunday was a house brunch, and then a dinner party for Canadian Thanksgiving where I helped co-host/organize socialization! I really just want to be a socialite tbh
3. Saturday: Chinatown with high school friends [wow people age fast], grad school mixer in the afternoon, then a Hindu festival in the evening. I LOVE INDIA OMG we got to dance and it was SO EXCITING I love Indian dance it’s so wonderful. One of my biggest regrets from undergrad is not trying out for Raas :[
4. Friday: I spoke at a panel for my program in Japan, and omg it felt so wonderful to say so many good things about my two-year dream. Afterward was a dinner party at Larry’s place and omg can he cook [such A++ house husband material]; ended up skipping karaoke that evening because I was too exhausted and overstayed at the dinner party anyway…
Ugh I don’t remember anything else of note beyond this…I should just start posting screenshots of my Google Cal as substitute. :[ OK SLEEP TIME OMG I HAVE A PRESENTATION ON THIS AWESOME ARTICLE and still haven’t finished preparing urgh
Another anecdote from @sapiencespire on the power of stories to break down preconceived notions and open one’s eyes to the diversity of the world. The story of racism and bigotry as culture shock is a familiar story from my California friends and peers where we were raised in an environment with significant Asian representation. In those moments, we take stock of our fortunate circumstances to be shielded from the heavy toll of racism on our self-worth. For some, that is where their empathy ends but I encourage each one of us buoyed by our confidence in our “Asianness” to go one step further and extend a supportive hand. Because we can be the conduits of redemption and affirmation to help others love themselves.