Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 16.6: Asian America – from Alienation to Allyship, Reconciliation and Palpable Belonging
October 9, 2021
Ravi Chandra, M.D.

No one wants to be defined solely by their struggles or what was done to them. But struggling and having things done to us is a big part of being Asian American. This leaves a mark: invisible yet gaping; inchoate yet aching; denied yet undeniable. The mark is impossible to explain or excise. It is so interwoven with a reality that minimizes our existence and concerns such that we have minimized these ourselves. Our wounds implicate all of this. So, we burn, too often at each other. We toss and turn, in suffering and upheaval. Can we break this miserable spell of disapproval? When will we approve of ourselves, for once and for all? When will we truly live, for one and for all?

The visible upsurge in anti-Asian incidents, violence and rhetoric has propelled our communities to find voice and agency, deepen solidarity, become more rooted in history, and demand change. We are increasingly aware that we do not struggle separately. From what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced, the level of commitment to Asian American identity and collectivity has never been higher, especially amongst younger people.

But our critics decree that we are not an entity at all, and that our community is destined to founder on its divisions. They say we will melt into Whiteness, because we will not allow ourselves to feel the burn of racism and conscience as we strive for economic survival and success. They say we will dilute solidarity as we preen and perform for White attention, which will grant us status and access as “the good minorities.” They say we will deny and minimize racism, and climb over our Black and Brown and poor brethren without seeing their plight as our own. Black, Brown, poor and others who have been challenged in their existence and identities exist within our own community, by the way, yet are often unacknowledged and unintegrated into our whole.

They say we will not stick our necks out when it really counts, that we’d rather practice standing back in hopes of appeasement, personal safety, status, and “face.” That we will achieve nullification through mollification, and self-annihilation through subordination. That we’re not the types who get worked up, and that there’s something wrong with those of us who have and still do. That we are ultimately cowards at relationship, and will only stand up when it’s popular to do so, and for whom it’s popular to do so, when we have safety in numbers, the cover of a crowd. That our penchant for avoidance is greater than our appetite for justice. That when history rings, we will block the call.

That our fear is greater than our love.

Asian American women are inspiring, including Zahra Billoo, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Pramila Jayapal, Maya Lin, Maxine Hong Kinston, Grace Lee Boggs, Naomi Osaka, Kalpana Chawla, Satsuki Ina, and Mazie Hirono

But I am not living a white life in an other-colored body. I have common humanity but also specificity which is undeniable and significant, and ties of conscience and history which require standing by, with and for others who have also been harmed by the central cruelty of America, racism.

The strategy of the dominant culture is to avoid emotional, cognitive and political labor by making ours more difficult, in hopes that we will give out and give in, and this will give them the day.

They think diversity is our weakness. I know it as our superpower; difficult to tap, but transformative and profound in its benefits. Diversity, and relating to diversity and its adversity forces us to think outside the box, outside of all boxes. In the process we cultivate a deeper knowledge, a deeper reason, a deeper feeling. They think we are rolling stones, attendant only to the gravity of the divisive delusions they force upon us. But as we deepen our commitments to one another, we gather moss.

Our chief and most necessary labor is of allyship, community and belonging, and even as we take two or twenty steps forward, we remain three or thirty steps back. We are advancing in the visible virtual realities of film, the arts in general, and social media, too, I suppose. Political advance is palpable but frighteningly tenuous. Feeling, conscience and consciousness are leaders, yet their work is in progress; possessing insight but as yet a sight unseen.

Cathy Park Hong asks in her book Minor Feelings “Is there even such a concept as an Asian American consciousness?” as she forges it within herself, building on the work of many other conscious culture creators, simultaneously inspiring the kilns of Asians and Asian Americans worldwide.

Is there even such a concept as Asian American consciousness?

Consciousness always comes against a gradient. There are so many ways to be diverted from the flow of commitment to the cause of universal liberation, or its partners, friendship and communal feeling. The concept of liberation can be so vast that it can become hard to even find a grasp. Personal setbacks, a lack of support, and the necessities of survival can challenge progress on our communal and societal goals. I wrote in MOSF 16.3:

Asian American identity formation is complex and multifaceted. To me, Asian American identity is a relational persuasion. Our good experiences with each other awaken us, persuade us into caring for each other, and the cultivation of that care naturally extends to all who suffer and struggle. Our journey in America, in time, becomes tangled between fitting in, making a difference, making our own way, and helping others make their way. Many of us want to help, but all too often, no one is helping us, and there are those who oppose us. Even members of our “family” oppose our struggles to care and to speak. Will we decide to become “selfish, ugly Americans?” Will we participate in the overwhelming American drive to not care, the drive to unbelonging? Or will we participate in the upending of that nihilistic, narcissistic paradigm?

Asian American men are inspiring, including Dalip Singh Saund, Bao Phi, Philip Kan Gotanda, Norman Mineta, Hasan Minhaj, Viet Thanh Nguyen, George Takei, and David Henry Hwang

There are challenges to our belonging. In an earlier essay (MOSF 15.2) and in my recently released documentary, I ask:

But how can you belong to a community that has itself been deprived of belonging, that has anesthetized itself from its possibility, yet remains in denial of the surgeon’s knife which threatens to carve us apart as if we weren’t one body at all?

I stand resolutely against the surgeon’s knife, even as it tries to carve and diminish me.

***

But how will we sculpt ourselves? Will we affirm and validate each other on our journeys of identity, belonging and wellness, which are complicated, nuanced and often uncomfortable? Will we welcome each other, and seek reconciliation, or fall into frustrations and antagonisms, winners and losers? Audre Lorde wrote:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Playing at power, rivalry, accumulation of followers, and personal “success” will only go so far. Genuine change must come from how we hold each other in our journeys, proving and creating community in the process. But we cannot deny the impact of racism and other forms of aggression on our journeys, aggressions that divide us and challenge our willingness to gather, our capacity to love.

***

Psychologists and psychiatrists have proposed schema for identity and race-consciousness development for every ethnic group. I propose four areas of interest for all, but especially Asian Americans:

  1. Specificity: Derived from one’s uniqueness as an individual, one’s drive for self-hood.

  2. Relatability: Our capacity and drive to relate to other Asian Americans, unique others and their groups, and to create belonging.

  3. Resonance: Our visible affirmation of and concordance with the project of understanding and alleviating suffering, primarily the project of overcoming racism, discrimination, subordination, marginalization, alienation, and other tools of abusive power. This is, of course, through empathic resonance and compassion.

  4. Areas (and relationships) of difficulty, avoidance, withdrawal, exasperation and turbulence.

We are all works-in-progress.

“We could change/The whole story of love/Same old play/I’m getting tired of/ No more acting/These predictable roles/Just us living/Unconditional love”

Asian Americans in particular can lose ourselves to our other superpower of relatability. We can lose our cultural specificity and resonance with the oppressed and marginalized to the task of fitting in, thus silencing our qualms, slow-walking justice and equity, putting human dignity on the back burner if it is on the stove at all.

We can lose our relatability to our trauma. We can deny relationship to the traumatized and the traumatized parts of ourselves.

Alternately, our queerness can bounce off our queerness. We fear we might be lost to the otherness we see mirrored in one another. We are at once boring, exciting, comforting and terrifying to each other, in what we imply with our relatedness. Where will we take each other? Where are we going? Do we measure up? Do we answer this call, or block it?

We measure our days. We calculate. We withhold. We downplay significant emotions. We retreat from vulnerability, proximity, validation and affiliation. We seek a smooth and quiet passage. We are unwilling to fully face this uncomfortable ride that calls for participation, for embodiment, for validating our own unvalidated lives and the unvalidated lives of others. We are immobilized, overwhelmed, insecure. Because, though our superpowers are relatability and diversity, we are as yet unrelated to ourselves in our diversity and not fully related to the call to expansive, uplifting community. We might be led there, but not, we think, by each other.

Community and belonging have been accordions for me, expanding and contracting, feast and famine, at their peak in my several youths, now distant in age and COVID times. But in relative maturity, they are an ambient sound I can call to mind if not always hear, sometimes a ghost, sometimes a zeitgeist.

The zeitgeist calls me to the mind of reconciliation, made possible when we affirm our humanity and identity as Asian Americans. We will only survive if we can recognize our common humanity, born from our vulnerability, and the compassion that springs from it. We can deviate from compassion and relationship into power plays, personal advancement, and the devaluation of compassion and common humanity themselves. We can remain mired in our own suffering and antagonisms.

Hands image by freshidea, Adobe Stock image licensed by Ravi Chandra, words by Ravi Chandra

What will we choose, and keep choosing, as we shuffle, anguish and cherish on this mortal coil?

Every traumatized person, every traumatized community, seeks allies and affirmation, safety and healing. We seek each other. We need each other. We depend on each other. And we have choice.

What will we choose? Affiliation and reconciliation? Or a cold and withering distance, staunchly committed to our selfish, separate journeys, avoidant of what we might become, together, thus falling apart?

What will we choose?

Do the little aches of how we need each other ever fade away? I hope not; they keep us tender and human. I hope we choose these aches, and learn to fill them, on this earthy path of heart and care.

Bonus: here’s a teaching and meditation on allyship, particularly for BIPOC people:

Photo by Bob Hsiang

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist, writer and compassion educator in San Francisco, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. For fourteen years, he was lucky to have his MOSF posts published by the Center for Asian American Media, and now looks forward to broadening and building a diverse creative community and coalition through reflecting on culture and psychology for East Wind eZine. Sign up for updates here, and see all the posts hereHe writes from the metaphorical intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian communities have mingled since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. He literally works there, between two Indian restaurants, go figure, though one has permanently shuttered during COVID. His debut documentary was named Best Film (Festival Director’s Award) at the 2021 Cannes Independent Film Festival. The Bandaged Place: From AIDS to COVID and Racial Justice is available on-demand. You can find him on Psychology Today,  Twitter,  Facebook,  Instagram,  YouTube,  SoundCloud, or better yet, in the IRL.

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