Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 17.10: Asian American Histories of the United States: “Come, meet us in our wounds.”
By Ravi Chandra
August 29, 2021
I am restless on the bed of history, a bed made by other hands, trying to shed the conditioning of these sheets, this frame, unsure what will become of me in the morning. Nightmares haunt me. The day, still on me, haunts. I commune with ghosts: resentments, angers, betrayals, losses, grief; the pressures to perform, produce, heal; longings; regrets. Painful pasts are undeniable. Suffering is tenacious, but must be tended. Attended. Mended.
Do I have enough warmth and spaciousness to hold what I bear? What others bear? Do I have enough in the way of friends? Who will have warmth and spaciousness enough for me? Who will catch me, when I fall? Who has? The catching has been ample enough, for me, for the unseen dramas that harmed; but the needs ahead seem great, and there have been far more than me who have been harmed by this rack of nails, this complex of simple lacks, that when made total was and is unsurvivable.
Probably the biggest professional risk I carry as a psychiatrist and caring human is simply missing people, and wishing for an as-yet undefined more-ness to our scattered connections and disruptions. I wish for returns and re-relations, advancement and cultivation of the best of what we shared, many moons ago. But we are slower to warm than I’d prefer, than we were when I was young. Time, our varied voyages, and difficulties have come between us. I have hopes we can meet again. I have hopes we can find ourselves on the same emotional page, and finally, read each other, remember each other, help each other feel safer and healthier than we were without each other.
Psychologist Thema Bryant-Davis, in a soundbite on the persistent ghost of resentment, cautioned against asking people to meet us in our wounds, rather than in “who we truly are.” But who among us does not want to be met in our wounds? Our wounds are where we most need to be met. Do we have any other choice? Our wounds are in fact a large part of who we are: our womb, and sometimes our tomb. And anyway, our wounds are so present with us, if not always Instagrammable. Latent for some kind of meeting, meaning and remembrance, because they do not die. They are silent guards against the American drive to power on, let go and get over it, just forget about it, and blindly and blithely move “forward,” wherever that is.
The bed of our histories – personal, familial, cultural, global – can feel like an inescapable coffin. The only release could come from caring, caring enough to pry the nails out of our own torment, caring enough to help someone else with their lid. I am glad to know that caring comes quite naturally for we humans as a whole, though details, depth, and breadth seem painfully out of reach.
We ask always ask for help. We can always learn new ways to care. Love more deeply. See more clearly.
What’s been especially clear during the “years of the great hatred,” as UC Berkeley historian Catherine Ceniza Choy calls them, is that history can rise up and hobble us, its spirit catch us and we fall down, unless its forces are named. We cannot have our “great reckoning,” as others have called it, unless we steep ourselves in awareness of all that we have been, are, and want to become. And what we want to become, we must become together, if we are to be at all. Our lives have been ignored, repudiated, denounced, misconstrued, violated…ended. We cannot live unless we give each other life, and love.
Choy gives us that life and love, in her stellar, compact-yet-expansive, rich, timely, and moving Asian American Histories of the United States (Beacon Press, 2022). Choy’s volume is artful, strident, meaningful, and highly readable, with pressing, contemporary, practically torn-from-the-headlines relevance, remarkable for its thoughtful blend of affecting individual stories, and also remarkable as a heartfelt lookback at our heterogenous “origin stories” and “stories in progress” including Filipino nurses, living, dying, and inspiring during the COVID pandemic; refugees from Southeast Asia; the many examples of inter-ethnic solidarities, particularly Black-Asian and Latinx-Asian solidarities and confluences, and continuous threads of activism; post Hart-Celler immigrants, with attention for the undocumented and those deported and those at-risk; interracial couples; multiracial children; transnational adoptees; and a multiplicity of narratives of Americans of Chinese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Burmese, Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, and other heritages that stretch from early continental history to the moment we precariously inhabit.
Choy includes an “interlude” of small plate shout-outs, if you will, to the many ways Asian Americans have been involved in food, from agriculture to food service to restaurants, from labor activism to politics to delivering meals to homebound elders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have fed, we have nurtured, but this country has not fed and nurtured us in equal measure. This is true of all marginalized peoples, and indeed all people who have cared. As a 55-year old psychiatrist, I am well aware of the devaluation of nurture and care that extends throughout our culture, from individuals to institutions. Can the time of the great hatred also become the time of great compassion, when the processes of caring become more valued than the processes of ignorance and uncaring? Blaring seems to have top billing over caring, but I still believe in the primacy of the latter.
Choy skillfully brings in poets, dance companies, and novelists as star witnesses to our distress and progress, our past and our promise. Choy also pays special attention to the histories of Asian American women, from exotification and exclusion, to empowerment, visibility, and vision; Page Act and Korean and Japanese picture brides to media misrepresentations; Anna May Wong to Patsy Mink, Grace Meng, and Kamala Harris. She caps her volume with an homage to the late, beloved photographer Corky Lee, and his lifelong mission to document our stories and elevate us from America’s willful, cruel, self-serving, narrow-minded, and brutal amnesia. Choy calls out by grim report how militarism, imperialism, colonialism, and exploitation have affected and continue to affect us all. All of these stories are framed in themes of violence, erasure, and creative resistance. Choy’s history is a forget-us-not for a people still striving for cohesion, survival, and transcendence, in a culture that raises, praises, and ransacks us on the regular, or uses us against each other or other BIPOC peoples whose marginalization and subordination are more visible, clear. We have been proposed as comfortable solution, but compliance ensures extinction in us of what we should hold most dear.
Choy provides poignant example in her stories of Filipino American nurses during COVID.
“31.5 percent of registered nurses who died from COVID-19 were Filipino American, although the group makes up only 4 percent of this labor force…Since the 1960s, Filipino American nurses have worked on the front lines of major disease outbreaks including the AIDS epidemic and SARS.”
Movingly, Choy continues:
“Filipino frontline nurses have responded to these challenges in creative and spiritual ways. Nurse Mauricio eased the anxiety of one Burmese mother, who did not speak English and whose baby had just been admitted to the hospital, by demonstrating and encouraging the mother to gently touch her baby’s feet…[O]ther Filipino frontline nurses have relied on prayer and spiritual beliefs to give them the strength to care for others. Arlin Fidellaga, an RN and Northern Regional vice president of the Philippine Nurses Association in New Jersey, recited the ‘Nurses Prayer’ in a nine-day novena for those affected by the coronavirus, including healthcare providers. She and fellow members prayed:
When we enter the room, allow us to project an image of confidence and warmth,
So that our patients will feel at ease with us and trust our judgment.
No matter how many times we see fear in their eyes, or recognize that they are in pain,
Remind us that we should never become callous to their needs.
During the pandemic, the needs of Asian American healthcare workers ranged from adequate PPE to the availability of mental health resources to combat a new deadly disease. They also included the need for safety from anti-Asian hate and violence.”
These stories make Choy’s book a necessary companion for our journey onwards.
Choy also highlights and lifts art as creative resistance. Many more of us are striving to find artistic expression for feelings, histories, and futures – but we have always made art.
In the Movement is a heartfelt and explosive dance piece focusing on the separation of families and mass detention of immigrants as forms of incarceration. It serves as a meditation on reconciliation and restorative justice, speaking to the power of individuals and communities to transcend.
“Unknowingly, an individual’s creative force of resistance sparks imaginative thinking and resilience beyond themselves and across generations. For example, Chinese detainees at the Angel Island Immigration Station sought to express their isolation and anger by carving poems on the barrack walls beginning in the 1910s. This creative spark lives on in the more recent performances of Within These Walls by the Lenora Lee Dance Company. In 2017, the performance took place inside and around the Angel Island Immigration Station, its choreography creating time and space for healing and compassion in the year commemorating the 135th anniversary of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.”
“Writer Janice Lobo Sapigao’s debut book of poetry, microchips for millions, weaves binary code, English, and her family’s Philippine language, Ilocano, to make visible the thousands of immigrant women who help produce our ubiquitous tech devices, yet who we rarely acknowledge. It is dedicated to her mom who, in the poem ‘the assembly line,’ works in the shadow of Silicon Valley. In the poem ‘the tech museum of innovation of 2012,; Sapigao refers to an exhibit called ‘reface,’ which combines visitors’ eyes, noses, and mouths to create various expressions. The poem ends with the question: ‘even though we are small do you see us?’”
We are all on journeys of identity, belonging, wellness, and meaning. America emphasizes autonomy on these journeys – but relative autonomy seems both privilege and potential selfishness. If interdependence is in fact reality and path from suffering, how do our journeys relate?
We need affirmation. This history book, like all history books, is not a conclusion, or an all-encompassing definition of our possibilities and timelines. But it is an important recognition and validation of the relational journeys of conscience and consciousness that many of us are on. Choy’s book is as close to a psychohistory of us as I have seen, outside of more purely artistic endeavors which are also burgeoning more than my eyes can keep up with.
Trauma leaves memories. But the selfishness of memory denies agency to the unconscious. Memory, particularly traumatic memory, is ultimately about one’s own perspective, which is held until heard, until joined with the voices of others who have suffered. The ocean of our unconscious has capacity to heal, if we tend to the troubles we have stored in it, as salt, as histories, as unnamed memory, that Choy helps us name.
Dream and Vision also live in our unconscious. Dream and Vision can inspire History and Memory into transcendence. But History and Memory also battle Dream and Vision. Can Dream and Vision befriend History and Memory, instead?
The answer might emerge as we remember all that we are, and all that we can be, together.
“Take two books to the beach, sleep on it, and call me in the morning.”