So, on January 24, I gave the concluding keynote speech a the 30th Annual Asian Pacific American Awareness Conference at UC Irvine. It was not my usual conference, and I admit I was nervous to address a event with an Asian-American, rather than LGBTQ focus. But I had such a wonderful time, such a healing and affirming time. Through it all, the warmth and hospitality of the people there, were evident.
Here’s the keynote I gave:
Thank you—to UC Irvine Asian Pacific Student Alliance for bringing me here today.
When I speak at colleges is usually queer or trans or feminist events… It’s far less common to talk about being Asian. And though in some ways, I miss that, for many reasons why it has been both better and more painful for this relative absence.
So it is a very mixed bag of feelings that I bring to this keynote. No part of my identity has raised me, defined me, held me as close as being Asian American. No other identity has taught me how to go fishing, each sashimi, take my shoes off before going in the house. No other part of my identity has given me miso soup when I was sick, rice candy when I was well, and sang to me in the park:
Otete tsunaide/nomichi o yukeba,
minna kawai/kotori ni natte,
Yet is it also an identity that threw my aunt out of my father’s house because she was dating a white person. Gossiped behind my cousin’s back because he was gay. Would disown me and berate me for being transgender, yet marks me so that everything I produced as an artist will be labeled “Asian American” by someone, whether I desire that label, or not.
Along with the love, the great food and even better anime, much fear and antipathy and guilt comes from being Asian American. Judgment—Too fobby, too American. speak too little you’re a banana, too much, you’re a FOB, and lord help you if you go out with a white guy (or lord help you if you don’t.).
And gay? Wow, when I was growing up, gay wasn’t even part of the evaluation—it was bad enough wanting to major in English.
Don’t even mention queer or trans. Asian-American enclaves are the hardest groups for me to pass in—and offer the most shame if I am detected as trans.
So I leave the people I know, then come back, leave, come back—seeing friends and family my queer Asian American life is like nothing so much as going away for school or a new job or some opportunity or another–so you’re leaving your hometown and find yourself learning new skille, new perspectives—maybe even something exotic like cross country skiing—then come back for the holidays and meet your old friends and realize some people still live the same way, think the same way as they always have—and you’ve just been elsewhere.
Yet even the term returning is loaded. I recently was contacted via Facebook by some of my classmates from high school who said they didn’t care what I was (what, not who), what I did in bed, or how kinky I was—that I had nothing to apologize for, and that they wished I would return to them. It really bothered me. It hurt me. What of my journey, my growth? What if I had been seeking my own way—that I wasn’t spending all of my time wondering what I had to do to make my high school friends accept me back into their circle? And why on EARTH did they think I was kinky? Where the heck did that come from—and what I did in bed–a little personal, don’t you think?
I would hope, that as we seek to find each other in that mixed bag of Asian American Identity, that we do a little bit better than my high school classmates. To expect that queer Asians should somehow should return—kaerimasu in Japanese—assumes that what they have been doing has been drawing away from their Asian American Identities, which in turn assumes that it would even be possible for them to stop being Asian American at all.
Of course this isn’t true, neh? Chigau chigau chigau! As if people in queerland haven’t noticed I was Asian. As if now I am not being regarded as an Asian woman whenever I drive down the road. As if my poetry doesn’t yet borrow heavily from my childhood lullabies, that I still eat rice porridge when I am sick.
As if I had somehow forgotten how to night fish, or slice raw fish, or make tsukemono. As if I somehow forgot four decades of practicing judo, or that I still can’t drop into pidgin English at the drop of a hat and make you think you’re on the Big Island.
As if the police officer who pulls me over doesn’t still ask me if I speak English. I have never really stopped being Asian American, have I? Does it surprise you?
And rather than returning to you with my head deeply bowed, saying please forgive my queerness, perhaps I might be waiting for you, to show you what being Asian American is to me.
Because I love being Asian-American. I never want to be Japanese Japanese. I’m so American that the thought of that makes no sense. However, my cultural roots come from Japan. My progenitors, artistic, cultural, spiritual, come from Japan. It’s only been 120 years or so since it was any different. That means, I have as much of a claim to the Japanese literary tradition as anyone currently in the old country.
Thanks to the Internet and a renewed interest in learning kanji, I’ve been able to reconnect with a part of my heritage that I never new existed. And it is full of queers and poets and actors. People who write beautiful calligraphy, or dance in truly peculiar fashion. All the stuff the white people in Asian studies departments are so fond of.
But of course, growing up I never heard such things. No—I got samurai shows and honor, and a few words here and there about sugar cane. Not surprising—who came here from the old country? Farmers. Laborers. Not a poetry-writing courtesan, or samurai with a young male lover in sight. Farmers—who knew how to work the land and needed money. The living national treasure tea master did not come to the US. The noted kabuki actor and onnagata stayed put.
Immigration is almost never even-handed across economic and class divisions. Castes, strata, whatever you may call them, the emigration of Asians to America is as much a tale about class separation, as it is about race, even moreso.
So what is this Asian America we are talking about? Let’s imagine, if farmers—great farmers, amazing farmers—but overwhelmingly farmers—moved from, say, Kansas, or Iowa (remember California Ag is still booming, so THOSE farmers are staying put), to another country. What sort of US-based culture would they bring?
They would bring the culture—and cultural values—they already possessed. I can bet it they would not be bringing be Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde. Probably not Toni Morrison, Noam Chomsky, or even Yo Yo Ma. Based on what sells where, it would be more likely be Keith Urban, Martina McBride, very large steaks, the Bible, and the NFL.
And their children, and children after them—what America would they hold in their minds? How would they strive—and fail—to maintain their “roots,” to remain, at least in part, as “real Americans?”
Fail, because they were not working with a complete culture to begin with.
When Japanese farmers emigrated to the US, what the US got was the Japanese equivalent of male farmers from Kansas—coming to a new country and defining its own community. At least for the early Chinese immigrants, the same general pattern also holds—the legendary calligrapher, or the radiant star of the Chinese opera does not come to the US to pound railroad ties.
I know sooo many Asians worry about losing their culture or becoming too Americanized. Yet I keep going back to this–what culture are we talking about? Samurai movies? Melodramatic tales of chaste and noble love? Where good and bad and male and female and right and wrong is simple, easy, not deviant or disturbing.
I mean, does all of my cultural heritage end with subtitled copies of Seven Samurai, Asian American bible study, introducing my white friends to J-town Ramen joints, vaguely remembering tales of Momotaro and a sack of kibidango? Endure my father’s beatings, reading Amy Tan, reading other Asian American critics getting mad at Amy Tan, stumbling through hiragana, apologizing for not knowing any kanji except the numbers and mountain—and cheering for John Cho?
The elephant in the room is that straight labor-based immigrant culture—was never a complete nor unbiased section of its mother population or culture at all.
And perhaps it is the queers and the artists and the eccentrics who are recreating, reconnecting, and regenerating the very qualities our stratified Asian American communities were forced to leave behind. Consider that queer itself is less a set of behaviors and identities as it is state where not or cannot conform to the behaviors that are available.
In this way, the presence of queerness is not a symptom of “Americanization” of dispersal or forgetting; it is a testament to the resiliency of an Asian American community and the hard-won success of our forbearers. The queers, the deviants, the black sheep—are not a transgression, but an evolution to wholeness, a natural outgrowth of community, a sign, not of spoiling, but of growth, of a seed that has taken hold in fertile soil.
Every oddball, queer, outlier…every black sheep cousin in every family—I wonder—what if they are also not running from Asian America, but reinvigorating and reclaiming our cultural birthrights? What if there is no more reason for queer Asian Americans to return to the Asian American community?
What if they are already contributing in ways that are present, valid, unerasable, and vital? What if they are needed?
Because, without growth–as human beings, as culture, there can only be only loss. And within Asian America, there is always that talk, that fear, the fear—of each generation losing more and more of its culture—parents thinking kids are to American, kids thinking parents are too backward.
Isn’t it often the case that populations most afraid of losing their identities can become the most unyielding? Right down the provincialism, the close-mindedness, the hatred—that an Asian man should be sexist, an Asian woman should be submissive, because it’s somehow traditional. Ugh!
I worry about the level of futility, the level of hate—even abuse. Let’s be real—so many of us know households where you just wish you could say stop!! And hate between Asians? Oh geez– growing up, many of my Japanese American schoolmates couldn’t speak a lick of Japanese. But we could say shit about Koreans. That was easy, and it became a desperate pathetic toehold in an identity that we were so afraid of losing, yet so unable to inhabit.
Queerness caused me to leave this version of Asian America, yet it is queerness that gives me tools to address some of the less addressable points in my personal and cultural history—sexism and imperialism and racism—not to blindly follow nor dispute it—but to absorb it, learn from it, and produce from it.
Denial is not the answer. Hate is not the answer, feeling unworthy is not the answer. The trick to surviving and growing is—as many queers would know from experience—to use what we have to work with. Not to hide from our differences—but to own them, add sparkle, and make them shine.
So, let me come out of the closet to you. I have no intention or desire to be more Japanese. As a child, I didn’t learn anything in Japanese school, but I’m learning now—not because I’m Japanese, nor even because I’m an adult–but because I’m an queer artist with a good internet connection, and that means I get to study whatever I want.
Nor do I have any desire to return to an Asian American identity that I left years ago—because I think I’ve found one that suits me better, that has grown with me, that I hold dear and tight to my heart. There’s still sushi and oyako donburi and seoinage, and for me, even huli huli chicken and kalua pig–but in addition, I have discovered an Asian American self that I love so much, that I want to share it.
I used to joke to my cisgender friends that I am trans so you don’t have to be. Because being trans is such a pain sometimes… No one would do this needlessly, I think. But I do have a bit of wisdom from my experience, that we all can share.
Exploring queerness allows me to sidestep old propriety to grow, to learn, to make peace with who I am—as Asian American in a very complex and seemingly ever more intolerant world.
Being queer means living under pressure, but also means demystifying fear–my parents and their parents might have been limited by past ideas about caste and class, but at this moment, I mean to reclaim as much of my past as I can. I have lived under the threat of being disowned by my family for so many years—a few awkward moments at the store are not going to stop me from getting my awesome new yukata and a copy of the Hyakunin Isshu.
And should someone say I’m not really Japanese, or not Japanese enough. Folks, when you’re trans, you get used to people doubting whether you’re a boy or a girls or a god knows what. So “not Japanese enough? Not Asian enough?” That’s minor.
Misrepresentation in the media? Got it. Sexual deviance, belittling, objectification? No problem. Been there. Forming allies and alliances, yet being eyes with suspicion and even resented?
Heck even the problems and limitations of Western straight male masculinity—all hung up on strength, brute force and penis size? I know some amazing Asian trans men who turn those preconceptions upside down every day.
Because it’s not just me or the queer running the workshop with me or the gay cousin, or even the uncle no one mentions–there are simply so many queer Asian Americans—some you may know, some you may not know, some whom you may even intentionally or unintentionally shunned.
So many have developed a perspective that not only preserves—but enriches, protects, and re-visions what it means to be Asian American. And like their queer ancestors in Japan, Korea, India, China, and every other Asian mother country, they’ve managed to create bodies of work full of elegance, beauty, and genius—work that goes far, far beyond justifying being Queer or Asian or American, or all of the above—to what elevates all that is Human and Alive.
And you should be proud to know them.
As a writer, a teacher, and just a trans girl bopping around from place to place, I’ve noticed that people tend not to lose their identities. They may hate them; they may resent them, but it’s rare to see people completely lose them. More often, they lose their limitations, which have been falsely linked to their identities—but I don’t know many Asian Americans at all who completely reject being Asian American, even when it hurts.
When you go off someplace, even if you change, it may seem like you’re losing parts of yourself, but that’s far from the whole story. You are growing and gaining in so many others. A child outgrows her baby clothes and becomes—what?
Whether it is being queer or different, or eccentric or somehow different from expectations, a child grows—and similarly, our community has so many members that have grown out, but not necessarily away. Wherever they are, they bring something with them—of us.
So when you see an Asian American doing something different from expectations—remember that that person is there so you don’t have to be. As they grow, they take their identities with them, and in their journeys, we also can rejoice. In a way, isn’t that even a bit like why our ancestors came over in boats in the first place?
I wonder our immigrant parents upon leaving their villages, themselves felt a little of this same conflict—the fear of losing, yet knowing on some level they had to move outward, not to forget or to diminish—but to grow.
I wonder if on some level, if our immigrant elders in their own ways, could not have felt a least a little bit queer.
I’d like to think so. And I’d also like to think that one can’t expect the plant to remain a seed, or the person to remain a child. No mother I know wants her offspring to be consumed with everything they lost in childhood, and paralyzed and blinded to the identities they have the potential to be.
In that sense, our future lies exactly there—the future. Don’t futilely ask what can be done to find other who we think we have discovered, and try to bring them back– back, but instead imagine what we can do to if we tried to support each other along our inevitable journey together.
(c) Ryka Aoki, 2015. Please make sure you credit me if you’d like to cite or use any part of this. Thank you!
UC Irvine Asian Pacific Student Alliance Keynote 2015 by Ryka Aoki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.