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These autobiographical essays were written by students for Asian American Studies courses at a number of colleges and universities. They are offered here as "voices" often not heard.
The Jade Circle
The jade circle embodies the fundamental principles of Asian society. When I was a young child, my grandmother sat me down and handed me a jade bracelet. The surface was smooth and round and cool. There were no sharp edges; it was a continuous circle, no beginning, no end. It was simple, and unbroken.
She said to me, "This bracelet represents the continuous circle of life. It illustrates the perpetual love and hopes that I hold for you, and the simplicity of the desires which you will strive to obtain. " As I held the bracelet, its once cool surface began to warm. As I slipped it over my wrist, it felt like a hand embracing my arm.
As a child, when people asked me what nationality I was, I boldly announced, "American," without further thought to my heritage or my birthright as a Chinese American. My outward Caucasian appearance has enabled me to walk through life as a person of unidentifiable origin. Many people of ethnic appearance have told me that this is a blessing that has saved me from antagonism and prejudice, that I am lucky and that they wish they could look as unidentifiable as I do.
But to me, this is not a blessing but a curse. As an Asian in American society, I do not fit in as an Asian, nor as an "American." I have felt as though I am an American of dual cultures, yet with no culture at all. In China, I am an "American;" in America, I am Chinese. Yet somewhere along my journey, I realized that I could and wanted to be both. The most difficult part has been the struggle to balance the cultural differences in my family. Never before have I understood the reasons why my parents look at the world so differently. Although as my grandmother prophesied, I would be granted the opportunity to achieve all of my goals, she never saw what a difficult task that would be to attain such goals in a family of dual cultures.
The study of Asian American history and culture has given me the gift of understanding. Understanding the values that the Chinese possess and why they possess them. I have always been resentful of the simplicity and the understatedness by which my mother lives. As a typical American adolescent, I have always valued the ostentatious displays of wealth and independence that predominate in American society. The Chinese value that which is humble and courageous and good, not that which is strong-willed and pretentious. The simplicity of the jade bracelet that my grandmother gave me holds new meaning and value. It is simple and understated. It is refined and valuable. It is a simple circle, yet it is continuous.
Exploring my heritage, I now realize the customs and values which shape my identity. This exciting journey into my past has enabled me to understand my family's unique values and beliefs. My own belief system has been influenced by my Asian roots and members of my family much more than I ever realized. The study of Chinese Americans has given me the ability to gain insight into my own personal past and present. It has given me the chance to claim my "Asianness," to be proud of it, and to grow culturally and spiritually. I have gained the ability to look within and therefore beyond.
Yet my journey is not complete. I must continue to search into my past and look towards the future to claim my identity as an Asian American. My study has given me that warm hand of reassurance that my grandmother's jade bracelet embodies. The jade circle is continuous, and I will continue to learn.
-- B. BUTLER
Silenced No More
I'm an Asian American woman --
Strong and fragile,
Bright and dull,
Happy and sad.
I'm a Chinese American woman --
Aggressive, but shy,
Confident, but humble,
Independent, but inseparable.
I'm an Asian American person --
Proud and powerful,
Survived and empowered.
I'm all of these, and more.
I am who I am and I am what I
want to be.
Passive and submissive, I'm not,
Foreign and exotic, I'm not,
Suzy Wong and China Doll, I'm not.
Remember, don't believe what you
see on TV.
Don't mistake me for Bruce Lee.
What I am is not what you see.
Don't mistake me for what they want you to see.
Silenced no more.
By breaking the silence, I unlock the chains
which enslaved me for twenty years.
I speak from the heart and I speak from what I see.
I see my father in front of a
Working 15 hours a day, making 1500 dishes,
Giving up his dreams so that his children
Can have a better and brighter future.
I see my mother changing white
ladies’ bed pans
So they can make ends meet.
I see my people stuck in Chinatown for life
Illiterate in English, illiterate in their own language.
I see Asian Americans dropping
out of high school
Working in Chinatown garment factories
To help support their families.
I see Asian Americans committing
Because they can't live up to the model minority myth --
"SuperAchievers: The American Success Story."
I see my people struggle --
Tribulations, hopes, and dreams.
I see their pain and I see their pride.
What I see and what I hear may be
From what you're familiar with.
But if you listen closely, you will hear
The many voices crying out
Waiting to be heard by America.
Listen, listen close:
Yellow is beautiful, red is beautiful,
Brown is beautiful, black is beautiful.
These are the colors of the earth.
-- MARTA HO
Let My Voice Be Heard
It is 1969 and I am three years old. My obachan and I are lying down on the bed and she is reading me stories in Japanese. We read The Emperor's New Clothes, Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, and Momotaro. The sun is high and we doze off into the afternoon. When I wake, Obachan is asleep and I grow impatient waiting for her to wake up. I stare at her intensely hoping she will open her eyes and read me more stories. When that does not work, I take my fingers and pry one of her eyes open. She is startled awake; I ask, "Motto yonde kurenai ka?"
I am ten years old on a cool evening in July. My mother sits by my side at the round kitchen table and the smell of rice crackers rises with the steam from the green tea. Mrs. Lee sits across from me, her over-permed, wiry hair sticking straight up toward the ceiling while her loud obnoxious voice bellows with the chomping sound of her gum. Next to her Obachan is with her snow white hair and waxy skin. Her four-foot tall body, shaped by years of poverty and hard work, bends over the table and she squeals with delight as she matches two cherry blossom cards for a total of twenty points. "Katta!" she shouts as she greedily drags the pile of pennies toward her.
I am twelve years old and my father and I are watching a Jacques Cousteau Special. During the local news break, there is a special report on some prisoners who have taken over a local penitentiary. Scenes of helicopters bringing in S.W.A.T. teams are shown. My father suddenly says, "You know, I was in prison once." "No way. You're kidding, " I say. "I'm not kidding. I was in prison for three years," he goes on. I could not believe what I was hearing! Did he kill someone? Is he a rapist? Does he steal? "What did you do to deserve prison," I ask nervously. "I am Japanese American," he answers. This was the first moment that I learn of my father's Japanese internment experience. My feelings range from disbelief to embarrassment and shame.
I am fourteen and a "jock" at my junior high school. I am on the varsity volleyball, basketball, gymnastic, and track teams, and I have a lot of "jock" friends. Obachan, or should I say my grandmother, has not lived here for a long time. As a matter of fact, I have not seen her since last Christmas. It is no fun being with her anyway. She does not understand me and I do not understand her. She should learn how to speak English, God knows she has been here long enough. I do not enjoy being with her and my mother because they always speak Japanese to each other and people stare. I walk away because I do not want people to associate me with F.O.B.s (fresh off the boat).
I am nineteen years old and am at Yale University. I am both surprised and honored to find myself here on the East Coast and am determined to make the most of my education, because my parents sacrifice a lot to send me here. My mother is so excited about my being at Yale, she quit the job she had as an airport gift shop cashier to work the graveyard shift in an airline kitchen just so I could fly home cheaply. Also, when I graduate, I will be the first in my family to get a college degree. My favorite course here is Japanese. Although intense, it is extremely gratifying. Relearning the first language I ever spoke revives many old memories, feelings, and the smells of my grandmother. I am finding my real identity again.
It is the summer of 1985 and I am sitting on a train in Tokyo. Something feels different, strange. As I look around, I see a familiar scene: a mother next to me is talking to her child trying to get him to behave, men in suits reading books, high school students in uniform reading comics, and an old woman sleeping upright. But it is also unfamiliar: EVERYONE is ASIAN. I feel totally relaxed as if my guard is down for the first time in my life. I am part of the woodwork and no one notices me nor do they stare, point, or ask questions. In one respect, I am not unique or different anymore, but I feel total acceptance and peace. It is as if a stone has been lifted from my back and I can relax.
I am twenty-one now -- a big girl, an adult. I am sitting in a dining hall and an elderly man sitting next to me smiles. He asks, "What are you?" I answer, "American," and he looks confused and does not understand how I can say that with my slant eyes and straight black hair. I shout at him silently over and over, "I AM AN AMERICAN! I AM AN AMERICAN!" And the kind of American I am is not "cool," "jock," or "white." It is the kind of American that is free from the camps, free from guilt, free from shame. I am the kind of American who recognizes that this country did not welcome my people with open arms, and it told them that their customs were strange, heathen, un-American, that they were ugly, short, and non-human, the "enemy," and that their language was funny and weird, And while my father's generation tried to please them and become a part of white America, I refuse to. I will go back and learn Japanese and be proud of the colorful American I can be. I am Asian American of Japanese ancestry and I will refuse to drink from the fountain marked "White." I will make waves and let my voice be heard.
-- S. TAKEMOTO
April of 1975, we were all waiting for the bananas, pale pale green nestled fetal position one within another. Growing weightier with each day's sun, they were easing toward the river bank soil. It was April of 1975 and we were caught in a waiting period. I waited for swaying bunches to color sun yellow, while my parents and Vietnam waited for the end of the war that had accompanied their lifetime.
The banana trees had been planted in a receiving line of the Mekong River's breezes. Earlier in the season, we had used their leaves to wrap bundles of sticky rice cakes. Steamed in tradition, some held promises of seasoned pork and mung beans and others of bananas and white beans. The latter I can still taste, sweet and pink with the honey released from the bananas.
The banana trees had survived untouched through the periodic, late night bombings. So had the achingly tall palm trees and coconut trees that rose here and there around the property of our house. We, too, remained untouched. I can still hear the high screeching of the bombs as they arched and passed over us. One second, two, three seconds and then the rumbling and pounding of lives and livelihoods. During those late nights, my father's arms would carry me sleepy and limp to the bomb shelter with its steel doors and concrete shell. My body would yearn for the quiet sleep of six-year-old girls.
With slow care, my mother had been placing pieces of this and that of our lives into boxes and sending them away. She had also packed a dozen or so suitcases, a few for my father, for herself, and for me. Morning; and my mother took hold of my hands and spoke whispers of vacations. My father would stay home and work, she said. For all her detailed planning and packing, my mother grabbed two random suitcases and said good-bye to my father in less than a few unscheduled hours.
We rode to the airport sitting on the floor of a scooped-out blue van. A driver and a diplomat rode in the front seat and told white lies about empty vans. My mother and I stopped briefly at my grandparents' house. I remember little more than shadows of who else I saw and who else I kissed good-bye. I wasn't paying attention, enough attention to the departure.
The plane was an army cargo plane, cavernous and empty-bellied. My mother and I resettled into yet another scooped-out interior and held tight as it took off. The flight lasted for almost twenty hours with turbulence inside and outside. Cramped people shifted their discomfort from one position to another, left to right and up and down. Our cargo landed on Guam during the early morning hours and we were allowed to disembark as the plane was being refueled. The glare of the florescent lights in the army base terminal flickered with rapid intensity while the Red Cross served little paper cups filled halfway with a choice of fruit punch or grape Kool-Aid. My mother declined while I sipped.
Headed for another army base, the cargo plane island-hopped towards Hawaii. Sleep waited there in empty white rooms with mattresses covered with PROPERTY OF U.S. ARMY blankets. There, I played vacation while my mother waited for news of my father and news of Vietnam. There, my mother heard the news that Saigon had fallen and that the rest of Vietnam would follow. There she heard no news of my father. There we became refugees.
The U.S. army played its relocation game and this time Camp Pendleton, California was the destination. The colors of everyday life changed into shades of army green and khaki. We lived in army green tents and slept on army green cots. We wore army green coats and ate from the back of army green eighteen-wheelers. The food was khaki. Boiled chicken parts, Minute rice, and "egg foo young."
Morning; and May 13, 1975 brought my first birthday in the United States. I was seven. Still no news of my father, and the only thing my mother could do was check daily with the relief agencies' office. Still, they had no record of his name at any of the other relocation camps. With every day new refugees would arrive and with every person there would be strapped to them fragments of information about friends, family, places and things. Someone said the Shell Oil depot in Can Tho had been attacked. Someone said the director's house had been looted. Someone said the Americans left by boat. My mother waited for confirmation. Confirmation came. My father called my mother from a relocation camp in Arkansas and spoke of life and how to begin it again.
He had escaped after the collapse of Saigon on a boat headed for the sea. The journey out to sea separated and severed the Americans from the Vietnamese people. The Americans on the top deck and the Vietnamese on the lower. After their rescue from the open sea by a tanker, the Americans joined its crew above deck while below deck my father remembers times at sea when a single packet of salt or sugar was a commodity worth fighting for between strangers and friends. Privacy, then, was a sheet or clothing strung on a line to mark a living space. Food, then, was an allotment of rice according to the number of people in your family. Helicopters came to airlift the Americans off the tanker. Below deck, cramped quarters and fatigue played tricks on people's minds. Below deck, someone stole my father's only pair of shoes. The journey of these Boat People ended in Thailand, and my father's journey ended in a relocation camp in Arkansas.
First. My father said we must find sponsorship. He could no longer sit and wait for the various relief agencies. He resurrected the same American friends that my mother had called for assistance. They hawed and hummed, but stayed beyond reach behind the barbed wires. Years later they would apologize and excuse themselves, for they said at that time the memories of Vietnam were still too raw. They said that they, too, had to piece together their lives -- squatting in their own country, living in their own houses, eating their own foods, and sleeping in their own beds, piecing together their lives.
My father contacted a friend: a sergeant in the army. He said yes. The paperwork began and the destination soon would be North Carolina. May 1975; my mother and I waited in California and my father waited in Arkansas, each planning step one, two, step three, step four of our new life.
-- MONIQUE T.D. TRUONG
The poem, "Silenced No More," by Marta Ho was published in The Hartford Courant Magazine, May 17, 1998, p. 14.
The essay, "April-May 1975," by Monique T.D. Truong was published in its entirety in the Viet Nam Forum 14 (1994:292-296) by the Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies and the Yale Center for International and Area Studies.
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