Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “Used 2 Love U,” by Kenny Ng. Kenny is a writer and educator in Los Angeles dedicated to providing high quality arts ed for students of color. He has written criticism and essays about music, food, and education published by The Rumpus, Thomas Keller’s FINESSE Magazine, and the Hammer Museum. He writes social content for KCRW’s Good Food and his writing is forthcoming in Whetstone and MIT's IMMERSE. You can follow him on Twitter @kennethjng. His last name is pronounced “ing.”
This essay was edited by Brooke Obie.
I used to want to be loved by white people. The past year of anti-Asian hate crimes and media scapegoating for COVID cracked the wound wide open.
My parents are immigrants. They came from Hong Kong to San Francisco looking for a better life, one of opportunity and possibility for themselves and more so for me and my brothers when we were just a thought, an idea of what their future could be. They left their home to make a life in a place that, four decades later, is still ambiguous about their belonging.
When we were growing up, my mom would always tell us from the passenger seat of our minivan that we were not like white people. No matter the segue, my memories all loop down that same cul-de-sac of conversation. After weekly Cantonese dinners with my grandparents, I’d sit in the back-row bench and listen to the Immigrant Parent Proverb: Thou shalt have to work ten times harder to be recognized for half as much in this world because you are not white. That they would never see us as equals and would never for that simple fact reciprocate a steady gaze. Their warnings played over a constant stream of Sunday Night Oldies playing on the Bay’s hip-hop station WILD 94.9.
But as a kid, I saw the boundaries of my own American-born identity as separate from the limbo of what I thought was my parents' particular experience in migrating to this country. This wasn’t their home in the same way as it was my brothers’ and mine; it was the only one we’d ever known. It wasn't right, I thought, for my parents to chart the trajectory of first-generation fate onto the origin of our birthplace.
I grew up rooted in Chinese heritage, from the doorstep to the dinner table. But I still had to move through predominantly white spaces when I stepped outside of it. I ate the hair vegetable and celebrated every Chinese New Year with family friends, and then I boxed up my red packets and went to school on Monday to work on group PowerPoints about Third Eye Blind for a purpose I can no longer recall. I didn’t think so much about this as a kid. I operated in the fog of squaring off edges in the double consciousness of daily life.
But everything I did back then stemmed from a blunted need to prove to my parents that I could command equal space. I was just as American as I was Chinese. Their fears would be unrealized, unwarranted. I thought I could will my way out of that inevitable cycle where American Dreams, balloon-popped from broken promise, return to shore. But at a certain point, after enough time lapses in the delusion of the deep end, you have to lift your head.
A few years ago, I was at a friend's place playing Heads Up. Not the rainy-day whodunnit from elementary school with thumbs on desks; the app-based Ellen DeGeneres one, which even at the time was the first red flag. During a round in the category of guessing countries, Japan queued up. Before I could conjure words for a clue to prompt my friend's guess, her boyfriend sitting across from me said, without flinching, in a broken Breakfast at Tiffany's accent: "I hab-uh small penis." I stared in silence. It was so stunning to me that if he just wanted to win, he could have easily said "sushi" or "Tokyo." But we were, as I’d often come to find with whiteness, playing very different games. I was the only Asian person in the room and nobody said anything to separate themselves from his comments even after Long Duk Dong hung in the air for a beat. They just kept guessing with their phones on their foreheads until I left.
Two years before that, I was sitting in my car with a girl I liked, parked in her driveway at the end of some night. We started in on the topic of toxic masculinity—how men will stand in circles and talk about sports because they feel like they are supposed to, and how expectations in society forecast so much of the behavior we perform. As we waded down deeper, I shared bits about what it's like to be an Asian American man in a culture that has always found fundamental ways to write us out of its construction of masculinity. To be in skin like sculpture, carved from hollow scraps of who you are before people will chip away at their blocks of lazy assumptions—a fact that up until that point I would barely allow myself to admit in full, let alone say out loud to white girls in the dark.
But my comfort around her was misplaced. She straight out rejected my quiet disclosure, dismissing the experience I shared as not even pain. It was, to her, no different than her experience walking down the street as a white Jewish woman. “People make assumptions and stereotypes about everybody,” she said. We continued to hang out but we never really recovered.
In my early twenties, I was sitting on the couch at my friends' house waiting for a late-night Garage Pizza delivery when one of my friends started taunting me unprompted with the racist "chink in the armor" ESPN headline about NBA player Jeremy Lin who was in the news at the time. He kept repeating it the more visibly annoyed I became until I decided the pizza wasn’t worth it. A few weeks later, while I was texting with another friend, he took her phone and texted me emojis and phrases like "orange chicken" and "slanted eyes" because it was funny to him that saying hateful Asian shit bothered me. He was one of my best friends.
There was being called a “Chinaman” by my friend Vince in 6th grade while enjoying my lunch. Or “Jackie Chan” by neighbors in college because that was the only famous Chinese person they knew. Or the time my Homecoming date said my house was "so Asian.” Or when my 10th grade art teacher sat down to help me with my self-portrait and told me that Asian people have flatter noses than "Anglo-Saxons" do, so why didn't I flatten my drawing of myself too? Or when one of my roommates looked me in the face and told me she wasn’t attracted to Asian men when I never asked for her thoughts. Or the day I wore a yellow button-up to the office and a director at that job told me she heard Asians don't wear yellow because it makes their skin disappear.
My parents’ words activated: “They will never see you as equals;” They will never see you.
The collateral of white supremacy is not a series of unfortunate events. It is a continuum in the motion picture of life for so many people of color who have had to exist in worlds imagined by white people, a static inexplicably on every channel. But what does this burning image do to the guts of growing bodies? To organs succumbed to the venom of lowered expectations in order to make it through a life without being disappointed every day for the sake of saving a bit of yourself?
"I think you need to lighten up about that stuff," my friend said to me about this once. He was visiting from Sri Lanka and we were in a bar under the red glow of dragons and a general theme that reeked of spilled cocktails and Big Trouble in Little China. Like my parents, his expectations of the promise of this country for people of color were different than my conviction as a homegrown citizen of the country where that promise was made. I told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about, as I sipped another drink served to me in a tiny Buddha.
Though I spoke up in that moment, what I recall more than anything about most of these encounters with overwhelming whiteness is an absence of sound, much of it my own, because the first thing white supremacy ignites is a spirit of silence inside of you too. When words get swallowed to maintain relationships, it allows your friends to say brutal things to your face and sip their beer; it makes a thriller of your own memoir where the details of who you are casually dissolve into the atmosphere. It's the gasoline eking out of cans you don't know you're holding until your forest of resistance becomes an inferno.
Once, I worked at a non-profit organization supporting the voices of students of color. There was a series of anti-Asian incidents that went unchallenged by our work community and the organization’s leadership. I’d had enough. I went to the only director on staff at the time seeking support in addressing these incidents, but she put me to work instead, giving me the responsibility of speaking up about the anti-Asian racism within the organization at an all-staff retreat. So that’s what I did. “We’re doing a disservice to the students in our care when we do not hold them to account for the community we create every day.” For 15 minutes, I spoke up for myself, and for the volunteers and for the staff, and the few students who looked like me. And it didn’t matter. Not a single person in leadership followed up with me about it after that day. In fact, it was never mentioned again.
Even with this country's long history of brutalizing Asian people, the amnesia that comes from the smog of white supremacy has convinced too many of us to buy into the myth of a model minority. East Asians in particular have the stereotype of success, achievement, and wealth in America; so much has been made of our supposed proximity to whiteness. But we were always just pawns in the game, statistics manipulated to drown out both our history and the realities of the Asian diaspora in America.
If they would hide our history from us, that was reason enough to learn it all.
Chinese immigration to America began in the west in the 1850s during the Gold Rush. Twenty thousand Chinese laborers helped to build the risky Central Pacific track of the transcontinental railroad that plotted this country’s first ascent to a global superpower during the Gilded Age. They shoveled through forests and blasted tunnels through the Sierra Nevadas, losing limbs and lives along the way, while being forced to live in tents and get half the pay of their white counterparts who were accommodated with train cars. That track would cut cross-country travel down from a month to a week and represented American unity and expansion into the west. The famous 1869 photo celebrating the Golden Pacific’s final golden spike shows only the white workers. The thing about white supremacy is that it’s easy to be supreme when everyone else is erased.
In 1871, eighteen Chinese men and boys were hanged in Los Angeles right around where Chinatown now begins. It was one of the largest mass lynchings in American history and "an act so savage that it bumped the Great Chicago Fire off the front page of the New York Times," according to LA Weekly. The story was lost for 140 years until writer John Johnson, Jr. uncovered the records at the Huntington Library.
During the Civil War, California passed a law that prohibited Chinese people from testifying against white men. In the period of Reconstruction after the war, Black, Hispanic, and Native American children were frequently educated alongside white students, but California state law required separate schools for "children of Chinese and Mongolian descent." Between 1871 and 1885, my hometown of San Francisco would not provide public education for Chinese children, a time during which Chinese people faced intense discrimination. California didn't repeal the law that authorized segregated schools for Chinese until 1947.
The Chinese Exclusion Act began in 1882, barring all immigrants from China, the first time that race had been used to exclude an entire nation of people from entering the country. What followed was a period of unprecedented mob violence and brutality towards Chinese Americans and people of color. In 1882, 39,600 Chinese men, women, and children emigrated to the United States. Three years later, only 22 emigrated.
When the policy was re-enacted more severely a decade later with the Geary Act of 1892, all Chinese in the U.S. were required to carry government-issued photo identification papers from the IRS or face deportation unless they could get a white person to vouch for them, like owners identifying tagless dogs. Many Midwest and Southern senators and congressmen who voted for their exclusion had never seen a Chinese person themselves. Over 100,000 Chinese Americans refused to get their identification papers, one of the largest instances of civil disobedience at the time. Chinese Americans fought back for decades through the courts because they did not have the power to vote at the ballot box.
It wasn't until 1898, thirty years after the passage of the 14th Amendment, that the Supreme Court in United States v. Wong Kim Ark ruled to establish birthright citizenship for all, even if your parents were immigrants and ineligible for citizenship as the Chinese had been.
Chinese Exclusion was extended indefinitely in 1904 and was not repealed until 1943 when China helped the U.S. to fight Japan in WWII. The U.S. government finally acknowledged and apologized for this in 2012, yet many of ICE's deportation laws today are rooted in its precedent—as is the surge of attacks on Asian elders this past year in the shadow of "the China virus.”
On March 16, 2021, six Asian women who worked at Atlanta spas were shot dead by a white man on a rampage who shouted that he was there to “kill all the Asians.” Corporate media went on to smudge their identities with headlines of “eight dead people” and questions of whether it was even a hate crime because it may have just been A White Man’s Bad Day. Sex addiction had been floated when fetish and murder were the feather and the stone. Teaming with excuses and no lessons learned since 1852.
Soon Chung Park, 74. Hyun Jung Grant, 51. Suncha Kim, 69. Yong Ae Yue, 63. Xiaojie Tan, 49. Daoyou Feng, 44. Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33. Paul Andre Michels, 54.
I helped my mom study for her U.S. citizenship test when I was ten. She worked hard to memorize rights and responsibilities to declare loyalty to a land where she wasn't really included in the “We.” Even if she didn't believe that hard work could purchase parity without the privilege of complexion, she still wanted the flicker of whatever illusions first brought them here to burn it its place.
My parents grew up in Hong Kong, a British colony subjected to a mix of imperial values and the deceptive freedom of laissez-faire capitalism at the time when they were raised. They were familiar with the basic law of life in a port between two worlds—of one country, two systems. They rented VHS tapes of television dramas and variety shows imported from TVB—Hong Kong's biggest broadcast network and cultural force in the pre-streaming age. They also read the Sunday edition of the Chinese newspaper, Sing Tao, every week to stay connected to their homeland 7,000 miles away across a completely different Bay, a distance reaching nearly the diameter of the Earth itself.
I got to see where my parents came from on a visit to Hong Kong in 2016. It was our first family trip in over a decade. I got to see the buildings they grew up in, one I looked up at that read “Ng” in red—truncated from “SPRING”—the color in our culture of family and life and the blood from which it flows.
I had never asked my parents before that hometown tour where their warnings came from, what life experience had hardened hope into their worldview, what their childhood stories were. But like so much of what immigrant parents communicate about before and after they left home, it transcended the fragments of a learned language.
In the streets of Hong Kong, I found the ghosts of my own story in the former school my grandpa founded that was no longer there. I tasted memories in the packets of beef jerky and boxes of egg tarts I wandered the city to find. And I felt oxygen begin to percolate beyond the callus formed from years of guarding my own skin.
I unearthed the meaning for my mom in that multiple choice test. It wasn’t about belonging in a new place, but preserving what is brought in the blood flow, foraging to find what we lose when we migrate.
History, I’ve learned, is not an account of what happened, but the stories we tell about what happened that survive the fugue of time. The truth of what we carried in hand is usually much more complicated. A real history requires telling the truth over and over again so that stoic minds can better understand what our bodies had already known.
While the exploration of epigenetics traces the space between scars of generational experience—malignant traumas expressed in the silent echoes of our DNA—it's also important to not lose our will to negotiate new terms of our existence every day. "It's so easy for a small yellow child to vanish. The hard work, the real work that requires innovation, is to be known," Ocean Vuong said in a PBS interview about On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous.
Now that my parents are getting older, I take screenshots of their thoughts about a country that had never embraced their liberty at home the way America projected it wholesale abroad. And I'm holding more and more in my body the human act in roaming for your children when they’re still just thoughts in your brain, of needing to settle in a new place in so many ways. I didn't know it then but those minivan TED Talks were ways of bringing us into their worlds by telling us truths as they had seen them revealed. What I understood as sermon was a revelation of their pain. They had used the language of success but were really talking about the theft of history and identity they had to undergo when they came here. Excellence, then, would be a reclamation of that history and identity. Knowing would be the love language of my life.
I measure hope in the knowledge that we have been freed up from the confining space of seeing ourselves through the lens of white folks. They are no longer in possession of our biographies. We tell our own stories, deprogramming and reprogramming ourselves to alter the bloodwork in our veins, for ourselves and everyone who will come after us in the worlds we build every day. The rebellion for a future's better past starts with a shift of power from within:
I used to want to be loved by white people but I don’t anymore.