Token Asian: A Glossary by Jen Soong

Emerging Writer Series

Every two weeks, (in September, it is every week), I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “Token Asian,” by Jen Soong. This essay was edited by Brooke Obie.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen Soong grew up in a small town in New Jersey and has been on the hunt for extraordinary stories for as long as she can remember. An alum of Tin House and VONA, her writing has appeared in The Washington Post and GAY MAG. She recently earned her MFA in creative writing at UC Davis. Her memoir-in-progress is about family ties, depression and the silences we learn to break. Find her work at jensoong.com.


YELLOW:

n. color like that of egg yolk

On my birth certificate under race, it reads in all caps: “YELLOW.” Typed as fact.

My parents never questioned it. In our old wood-paneled station wagon, they drove me home to a New England Colonial and followed their doctor’s orders to put their jaundiced, five-pound preemie in the sun. Vitamin D would cure my yellow skin.

My parents were happy I was born in America. They had fled with their families to Taiwan from mainland China during the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Those who had stayed behind were relocated to forced labor camps, or worse, killed. Unlike my parents, American citizenship was mine from birth. Belonging was another story.

A scrawny second grader with pink glasses and thick lenses, my head was usually nestled in a book like Harriet the Spy. “Stop reading,” my mom scolded. “You’re ruining your eyes. Look outside at green things, trees, grass.”

I ignored her and kept on reading, imagining I was Harriet with cases to solve. I invented my own mysteries, convinced my parents were hiding secrets from me. Was I adopted? Was I really an only child? What were they whispering about in hushed tones in Mandarin while I eavesdropped? Hunting for evidence to confirm my hunches, my footsteps echoed as I stomped up and down through our house.

On the second floor, I looked in the file cabinet in the extra bedroom we called “the raccoon room” after a family of raccoons made their nest in the chimney. Nothing. I went back downstairs, then crept into the chilly, damp basement. When I opened a file drawer, I thought I heard a squeaky, rustling sound. Was it rats scurrying between the walls? I quickly abandoned my search and dashed to the safety of my bedroom. I never found my birth certificate or any evidence of a hidden document stash.

When I was in my 40s, married with two kids, I pulled out a stack of old files, photo albums and journals from my cluttered closet. Spreading out all of the memorabilia in a semi-circle, I sat with my legs criss-crossed on a tufted blue rug and came across a manila folder labeled “Important.” Inside, I pulled out my original birth certificate.

Six capital letters stopped me. The black ink had faded over time but there was no mistaking the label. Race: Yellow. Did the secretary at Yale Hospital pause before typing? Were there other color choices–white, black or brown? My parents never pointed it out to me. They simply accepted it as a truth of living in America.

It’s official. I am yellow.

MOTHER TONGUE: n. native language

My dad is a precise man who took a freighter ship from Taiwan to America in 1956 to attend graduate school in the Midwest. Eventually, he became an electrical engineer at a phone company. For thirty years, he wore dark suits and silk ties to work, carrying a leather briefcase and bringing home Pink Pearl erasers as gifts for me. He read the newspaper while shelling pistachios and watched Jeopardy! religiously every night. He was dismayed when he couldn’t perfect his English even after taking accent reduction classes.

Though I was born in the U.S., my first language was Mandarin, which is full of commands and directives. There is no softening of prepositions or questions. The penetrating one-syllable words have harsh edges. Orders are barked out like a general preparing a soldier for battle. There is no room for gentleness, no room for pauses, no breathing space. So, I heeded its cues and became the quiet, obedient daughter, soft-spoken, listening but rarely speaking up, impossible to coax out of my shell.

“Bù yào pèng.” Don’t touch.

“Bù yào ji.” Don’t rush.

“Bié wàng le.” Don’t forget.

“Bù yào!” Don’t want.

So many don’ts.

It wasn’t until I went to preschool at age five that I learned English. My mom says the first day she dropped me off at school, I sat by the front window crying, not speaking a single word. I don’t remember. How is it possible that a memory that’s not mine anymore still haunts me?

In elementary school, I learned how to write in cursive, took vocabulary quizzes and diagrammed sentences like a champ. The other competencies weren’t spelled out in textbooks, but I learned them by heart too:

Don’t ask questions.

Don’t speak out of turn.

Don’t offend.

Don’t break the rules.

These rules forced me to swallow my words. I learned them through parents, media, TV and watching everyone closely around me, especially white people. It was rare to see Asian faces on TV or in the news unless served up as a “model minority.” Obedience, politeness, respect—those were the values drilled into me, along with multiplication flash cards. All of the Chinese parents I knew desperately wanted their children to follow some predetermined formula: study hard, stay out of trouble, grow up to be surgeons. Success surely equaled happiness.

Sometimes the don’ts screamed in my ears. Sometimes they played like bedtime lullabies. Today, they still thrum in my throat. As a mother raising mixed-race children, I try to use a softer tone with my children, showering them with hugs, kind words, singing and laughter. I relish in their playfulness, encouraging their creative sides and whispering “sweet dreams” before tucking them in at night. I feed their curiosity about their heritage with family stories and make sure they can ask me questions about identity and race. I want them to know their worth is not measured in achievement. But for me, the don’ts are never forgotten, never completely erased.

MODEL MINORITY: n.stereotypical term used to describe Asian American economic success and assimilation (coined by a sociologist and used in a 1966 New York Times article)

Growing up in a predominantly white town in the Jersey suburbs, neighborhood kids teased me for looking different than them, making slanty eyes at me. Ching-chong, ching-chong, they sang gleefully. Church kids scooted their chairs away from me, afraid of catching cooties or a foreign disease. I ignored their stares, slouching my shoulders or sinking in my seat in an effort to disappear. If I stayed quiet long enough, maybe then I could be invisible. Or, I could simply pretend I didn’t exist, a never-ending game of hide-and-seek.

Like a dutiful daughter, I went to Chinese school on Saturdays, practiced piano and scored high on math tests. But by junior high, I typically responded to my parents in English instead of Mandarin. In high school, the gap between us grew. On weekends, I begged them to take me to the mall and let me stay out late with my friends. They wanted me to focus on my grades, SATs and college applications, not worry about going to the prom. They might have been dubbed “tiger parents” if the moniker had been coined then. The gravity of expectations fell squarely on my shoulders, and I hunched in to make myself small, knowing I would never be “enough” for my parents, or my white peers. The weight was crushing.

In my bedroom, flipping through the pages of Seventeen, I never saw any faces that matched mine. Preoccupied with shopping at the makeup counter, I obsessively applied blue eyeliner and eyeshadow staring into the mirror, wishing I could lose any trace of my Chinese-ness. I longed for fair skin, long blonde hair and blue eyes just like the glamorous Wakefield twins in fictitious Sweet Valley. In the five or six times a year I saw my cousins, they’d call me out on my identity crisis. Twinkie or banana, they chuckled—yellow on the outside, white on the inside. They had each other and many more Asian peers in their neighborhood than I did growing up. They didn’t have the burden of being the Token Asian, the only one. To fit in, I attempted to blot out any signs of difference and stubbornly chased an ideal of whiteness, always out of my grasp.

ORIENTAL:

adj. an outdated descriptor relating to, or characteristic of the Orient, or East

Picture high school in New Jersey, 1993. Pearl Jam playing on boom boxes. Hallways teeming with skinny teens, laughing and hooting, decked in stonewashed jeans, wifebeater tees, sports jerseys, gold chains and big hoop earrings. Inhale the scent of Aqua Net hair spray, CK unisex cologne and hormones.

Mr. Zuck, a white man with gold-rim glasses, unruly blonde hair and a beard, was the director of our high school’s international studies magnet program and played dad to many of us. After class, I was sitting on a desk, chatting with a few friends when Zuck overheard me describe my parents as “Oriental.” He stopped in front of me with a stern look and spoke with a low, authoritative voice.

“Oriental is used to describe rugs, Jen,” he said, “Not people.”

I stared up at him, reddening and bit my lip. “Okkkay.”

It would take another twenty-three years before Obama signed a bill eliminating the word “Oriental” from federal laws.

Language matters. How others refer to us—and how we refer to others and ourselves—matters. But I wonder, does changing a word or two change the way others think about me? Does it allow for years of racism to be swept under the proverbial rug—because isn’t that also the American way—to sing the anthem of change while hate and discrimination rage on?

YELLOW PERIL: n.racist and xenophobic ideology, involving scapegoating of Asian immigrants common during the 19th century

At a summer barbecue, I was adding toppings to my burger when a white guy in a polo shirt, khaki shorts and a faded blue baseball cap — the frat boy uniform of the ‘90s — sidled up next to me.

“Where are you from?” he asked with a grin. There it was—the emphasis is on “you.” I heard the question behind the question, but I didn’t play his game.

“I grew up in New Jersey,” I responded, trying to sound neutral and halt any more probing. I fiddled with the ketchup bottle.

“No, no, where are your parents from?” he continued.           

I paused. Some variation of this question—where are you really from?—has dogged me my entire life. You are the default. I am the other. You are the majority. I am the minority. You are the norm. I am the deviation.

What I wanted to say is this: I am from America. Unlike you, because my skin color and features are different than yours, I have to spell out my ethnicity whenever you ask.           

But I gave him the short answer instead: “My parents are Chinese immigrants.”           

He nodded, as if confirming his hunch.

I smiled politely, pretending to wipe up spilled ketchup. A reflex. I had been taught not to make waves from years of internalized conditioning. Whether I remained calm or let fury rise to my cheeks, it didn’t matter. The questioning wouldn’t stop with this frat boy. Shielding my head from the sun with my hand, I shrunk inside, knots of shame tangling in my gut.

I cannot hide my face nor my features. My skin color gives me away. In this country, I will always look like a foreigner, an outsider, an interloper. It doesn’t matter that I was born here or have lived in America my whole life. To my ears, the question sounds like a challenge about what it means to be American, what it means to belong.           

The question, whether spoken or unspoken, is one Chinese immigrants and their descendants have faced since they first came to America to build the railroads in the 1800s. In an Asian American lit class, I learned about 20 Chinese men who were lynched by a mob of angry white men in Los Angeles during the height of Yellow Peril. I wonder what happened to their bodies. I wonder if whites today who “want to make America great again” inherited their toxic rage.  

INTERGENERATIONAL TRAUMA: n.psychological theory suggesting trauma can be transferred between generations

When I was a senior in college at Cornell University, three months before my twenty-first birthday, I fell into a major depression and landed in a locked-down psychiatric wing of a small hospital after a suicide attempt.

In a windowless office with beige walls and flickering fluorescents overhead, I sat facing a white, male psychiatrist in an overly starched coat with a dark, trimmed mustache. Behind a metal desk, he clutched a pen and paper, prepared to take notes.

“Where are your parents from?” he asked. His interrogative tone was off-putting, his skin was almost as pale as his coat.           

Sitting in a rickety chair, I scanned his office, searching for a personal effect, something that would make him seem more human, less robotic. But there were only file cabinets and forms, not even a fancy framed diploma on the wall.                     

“China,” I mumbled. “Mainland.” What does my parents’ immigration path have to do with me and why I’m here?

I shifted awkwardly in my seat, staring blankly into space. As numb as I felt about my life, his line of questioning felt familiar. His question signaled how he saw me—as a problem, an other, a formula to solve. He made it easier for me to play a role—one that I knew the script for.           

In that moment, I knew I could lie. It didn’t matter what I said to him.

No, I didn’t try to hurt myself. No, I won’t do that again.

I didn’t know then that Asian American women face a higher suicide rate than their white counterparts. I didn’t know then the profound ways trauma and depression were passed down through my genes. I didn’t know then that the walls of silence and shame were part of my inheritance.

My paternal grandmother died before I was born; my father rarely mentioned her. In a black and-white photograph, she was seated on a porch chair in a silk qipao looking serious and beautiful. Her dark hair framed her head like an onyx crown, her lips were drawn in a tense line and her arms were crossed in front, one hand clutching the chair’s arm as if to steady herself. My mother had told me she had died by suicide, but I didn’t know anything else. 

What I know now is that the silence surrounding my grandmother’s death held me captive. Although we never met, we shared an illness that led us to believe that living was harder than dying. How I wish I had a chance to sit with her on a porch with a pot of chrysanthemum tea and tell her that her granddaughter would one day tell her story.    

REFUGEE:

n. a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, in times of political upheaval, war, etc.

At a potluck, balancing dumplings on a paper plate, I chatted with my friends’ Chinese parents, who are from the same generation as mine. I recited the abbreviated version of my family history. My dad was born in Shanghai, my mom in Sichuan province; they fled with their families to Taiwan and then came to America to study, where they met, married and stayed.           

The dad said, “Oh, your parents were refugees.”

Refugees? “No,” I huffed. I had never heard that term applied to my parents. Immigrants, yes. Nationalists, yes. My maternal grandfather was a general who fought for Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army (Kuomintang, or KMT). They believed they would regain control and return to mainland China. My paternal grandfather became the last elected senator from his province who then held office for a lifetime in Taiwan—the first and last politician from Guizhou.           

It’s only more recently that I’ve started to ask about my grandparents to try to learn about our family history. Five years ago on his birthday, my dad gave me a stack of five fire-engine-red hardbound books, which had been gathering dust in the garage. Our last name was embossed in gold on the cover, glistening in the flickering light.           

We flipped through the onion-skinned pages. I had thought that any trace to the past had been wiped out by war, but there were thousands of names from our family tree dating back to 200 BCE. Traditionally, women were not named but designated by wife or daughter, so I stopped, half-stunned when we got to mine.

My dad explained that my grandfather had added my name when he compiled these books in the ‘80s, to preserve our lineage. I felt a tingling in my fingertips, electricity coursing through my body connecting me to my ancestors. In my hands finally, I held proof of my existence, filling me with a warm sense of belonging. 

HATE CRIMES: n. criminal acts motivated by bias against race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration and Muslim ban, my dad sent me a link to a Wikipedia entry on the Chinese Exclusion Act. The 1882 act blocked Chinese laborers from entering the country for ten years under penalty of imprisonment and deportation. For the first time in the country’s history, a federal law barred entry to an ethnic group. The law was finally appealed in 1943, only a decade before my father made it to this country. It was a miracle he made it.

As I sat at my kitchen table reading this history, I started to weep. The sudden flood caught me off guard. The political climate had unleashed a rush of tears, dammed up for many years, for the innumerable victims of hate.

One summer day in 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit with a baseball bat. Chin had been celebrating his bachelor party when two white men attacked him at a bar, shouting racial slurs and bludgeoning him in the head. They mistook Chin, a Chinese American, for Japanese, and retaliated violently for the perceived loss of their jobs to Japan’s auto industry. They later claimed it was a bar brawl and in a deal with prosecutors, the assailants were sentenced to three years of probation and fined $3000.

On what should have been his wedding day, Chin was buried instead. “Remember Vincent Chin” became a rallying cry, spurring a movement of Asian American activism.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought a lot about Vincent Chin, while sheltering at home with my family. Every day I checked the headlines and followed the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. A 23-year-old Singaporean man studying at the University of London was walking down busy Oxford Street when he was attacked, kicked and punched in the face by a guy who said, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.” In New York City, an Asian woman was kicked and punched at a subway station for wearing a mask. In the San Fernando Valley, an Asian American teen was physically attacked by high school bullies, sending him to the emergency room. In Midland, Texas, a man stabbed an Asian American father and his two children while they were shopping at Sam’s Club because he thought they were infecting people with coronavirus.

On a video chat shortly after these incidents, my dad warned me, “Be careful. You look Asian.” I scoffed. He said it like I had forgotten. As if I could ever forget.

For months, I checked my phone for daily news and my anxiety, already on high alert from the pandemic, rose. Asians were being targeted and attacked on sidewalks, parks, subways, cities and small towns, while passersby did nothing. Some victims were hospitalized, others died. I felt a growing queasiness in my gut. While there was a trickle of coverage in mainstream outlets, the alarm I felt did not match the reports. Look, I wanted to shout, our grandmas are being beaten in broad daylight. Pay attention. Why doesn’t anyone besides my Asian friends and family care?

On March 16, 2021, a white male gunman walked into three Asian-owned businesses around Atlanta and killed eight people—six of the victims were Asian women. The next day, I watched in horror as a white sheriff defended the shooter, safe in custody, as having “a really bad day.” The suspect claimed he had a sex addiction and visited spas to eliminate “temptation.”

This language—and denial of racist motivations—stirred painful feelings of what it’s like being an Asian woman in this country: fetishized, treated as an object, invisible and less than human. White supremacy, misogyny and systemic racism at work. Another day in America.

Before dinner, I sat in bed, surrounded by balled-up tissues, my face blotchy from crying. “What’s wrong, mama?” my 12-year-old son asked when he entered the bedroom.           

I sobbed as I explained what happened in Atlanta, not far from where we once lived. “I’m feeling sad and mad about racism in this country,” I said. “There’s been a surge in hate crimes against Asians since Trump used hate-filled language to blame us for Covid.”           

He nodded. We talked about how there is a deep-rooted history of violence against Asians, from mistreated Chinese railroad workers to innocent Japanese Americans including children who were forced to relocate to internment camps. How words matter. How there are groups working to keep our communities safe. How police do not always protect us. How we must stand up for injustice. And violence is never the answer.           

He hugged me and my tears fell onto his blue cotton tee. “We’ll be okay,” I said, knowing this would not be our last conversation about standing up for what’s right.

MIXED-RACE:

adj. having parents or ancestors belonging to different races

One morning after breakfast, I was filling out the 2020 Census with my husband (box: white) and two kids (box: white, Asian). As my kids watched intently, I checked the box for “Asian.”           

“You’re not white, Mommy?” my daughter said, confusion clouding her eyes.           

Suddenly sweaty, I bit my lip to curb my frustration. “No, sweetie, I’m not.”

Three years ago, we moved our family from Georgia to California so that our children could grow up seeing more Asian faces in our community. One Christmas, I had used our holiday cards from friends and family to teach my daughter how to recognize Asians, so I was genuinely surprised when she asked me if I was white. Had I somehow failed her? I wondered how to tell my kids about my experience growing up in America, where white is always the default.

In the summer of 2020, my kids and I were sprawled out on our living room rug with Sharpies and stencils, making signs for a Black Lives Matters protest. We colored in letters, spelling out the words “I CAN’T BREATHE” with a picture of George Floyd below. Another sign said: “No justice, no peace.” Together, we marched with other families in our town to show solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters. The sun’s rays were strong, and as sweat trickled down behind my mask, I felt hope rise in my chest seeing young people emboldened to chant: enough is enough.

My deepest hope is that my children, unlike me, will grow up unafraid of speaking up and use their voices for change. That they will feel whole—not half anything. That they will stand tall, proud of their heritage and know the names of their ancestors. That they will be part of a new generation creating inclusive language of their own—complete with definitions that look vastly different than mine, rich with nuance, complexity and humanity. That their stories will become embedded in our collective DNA and together, we will sing loudly a new anthem about belonging as our birthright.