The Lonesome (Asian) West

If we took the fraught and misguided approach of trying to categorize Asian American experience by geography, much in the way we do with the flora and fauna of this vast country, I would not be a common varietal. In college, I met another Chinese American girl who grew up in rural Iowa. For some reason, this startled me. She spoke with the same clean, no-accent accent of American English that I do, and wore her North Face jackets and leggings with as much nonchalance as any white college student I’d ever encountered. And yet, when I looked at her, my imagination failed me. I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to grow up in the Midwest, amidst presumed farmland and corn-fed white folks, as a Chinese American. She seemed to me an anomaly, and it didn’t occur to me then that how I failed to imagine her was also, more acutely, a failure of imagination towards myself, and towards Asian Americans more generally.

As I have facetiously proposed, I am the New England/Rocky Mountain varietal of the Chinese American. This can be understood as related, but distinct from other varietals, like the Californian Chinese American, the NYC Chinese American, or my friend, the rare Iowan Chinese American. I was born in, and would continue to visit Colorado, as paternal visitation rights permitted. The rest of the time I spent in the Northeast, invariably one of the two or three Asian students in any given public school. If I could look at myself the way I looked at my Iowan friend, I might equally be an anomaly, a detour from how we commonly imagine the physical landscape of Asian American experience.

Luckily, I can look at myself. My father, a camera enthusiast from the beginning of his time in this country, has cycled through every generation of point-and-shoot and DSLR that has come to market in the last twenty years. Something of our experience is recorded in his pictures, in ever-increasing resolution and clarity. And I think it is especially important to look, now.

I recently moved from New York City to New Haven to start my MFA. The last thing I heard before I left my old apartment for the last time was a passerby, who yelled from behind his face mask, “go back to China!”. Any Asian American will tell you that this diatribe is old hat - a laughable, absurd, and easily dismissed blip in day-to-day existence in this country. Maybe it was because I was literally between homes at the moment that it was leveled at me, but it gave me pause this time. What would it actually mean for me to “go back”?

The simple answer is this - I am American, for better or for worse. I wouldn’t even have to open my mouth for people in China to clock me as definitively not one of them. If I went “back”, China would not have me. When I think about that, I sometimes feel profoundly, rootlessly alone.

The more difficult answer is this - what is important about my encounter with this garden variety racist is that his prejudice and my surprise at my Iowan friend operate along the same fault line. The difference is a matter of degree, not kind. A bigot lacks the nuance to tell the difference between a Chinese person and a Chinese-American, doesn’t read the visual codes that my fellow Chinese Americans and I self-consciously trade in as we variously posture in relation to both our Chinese and American identities. But that is a niche skill, the kind you could clumsily learn through a Fung Bros. video if you wanted to. Fundamentally, the bigot cannot imagine that a person who looks like me could have been born in this country. And so I am collapsed into an Asian otherness to which I belong, but only partly, and in more complicated ways than the bigot could ever think.

I often commit the same error of judgment. This is why I have continued to think of myself as a rare varietal, rather than something of a norm. This is why I look at my father’s pictures of us, scattered across the quintessential landscapes of the American west, with zoological fascination.  There is the anachronism of seeing myself amidst the Ansel Adams-esque trees and knowing that my family’s roots in this country are not even as old as some of my favorite movies and albums of the early eighties. There is knowing that this place might be awfully fresh in generational memory for me, but not so for every Chinese American, and particularly not for the Chinese Americans who helped build the infrastructure of the American West. And there is knowing that this land is stolen land. None of it adds up. Even though I have lived this, and even though I am in most of the pictures. Even the veracity of my own experience, as confirmed by the indexical medium of photography, cannot shake the feeling that what I see doesn’t compute, just like the image of my friend in the middle of an Iowan corn field. So I keep looking. So that maybe, one day, I will be inured to the oddity of my own familial history. So that I can resist erasing the esoterica of experience in favor of some more homogeneous, more digestible understanding of what it means to be Asian American. And so that I may begin to chart a path of belonging from it.

Using Format