Don't Blame Me For Being "Whitewashed"
an article by Chris Fong Chew
Dear Asian Youth,
If you follow Asian creators on Tiktok, you might be aware of the recent controversy that truly hit home for many Asian Americans. The controversy came about when one Tiktok creator, named Dallas (@dallasofkoty), created a “clapback” video in response to another creator, Young Kim (@youngquim). Kim is a Korean American creator that creates content commonly surrounding the Asian American experience. He created a video that called out people who move to Asian countries and act as if they know everything about that culture or people. The video addressed the problematic culture of those studying abroad in foreign countries who return home to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of a culture or country based on their short time there. While it was not directed towards anyone in particular, @dallasofkoty, after being tagged by multiple users, created the “clapback” video that essentially blamed Asian Americans for being “whitewashed” and out of touch with their own culture. Now, to provide some context, Dallas is a White American living abroad in South Korea.
While I don’t want to get too much into the details of the drama, the “clapback” video struck a chord, not just with me, but with many people in the Asian American community.
As a third-generation Chinese American, I have struggled with my cultural and ethnic identity my entire life. I vividly remember the first time I was called “banana.” I was in middle school and I was sitting with some friends discussing our families. Most of my friends were second-generation, and I was considered a lot more “Americanized” than them because my parents had been raised and educated in the U.S. The comment was said in jest; however, it has stuck with me to this day because I have often felt ashamed and embarrassed over not being “in touch with my culture.” The fact that I never learned to speak Chinese fluently, or that I felt that I was being dragged away from my cultural roots living and growing up here. A part of me has always rejected my “Americanness” because I felt that my American identity was the antithesis of my Chinese identity.
Growing up,I sometimes felt like I was blamed for being the way I was. This is why it often hurts so much to be called whitewashed or a banana. I was blamed for not learning Chinese, for being Americanized, and for being “white”. My peers shamed me for not being “Asian enough” while refusing to understand why. While so many people are quick to play the blame game, we need to truly understand why so many Asian Americans are “out of touch” with their cultural roots.
My family immigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s and 50s. This was before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which allowed many highly-skilled Asians to immigrate to the U.S. Many of my family members wouldn't have been considered skilled workers, so my family came to the U.S. for a better opportunity and to support their village and family in China. My family members had to come through Angel Island and other countries to get here. To them, the U.S. was a land of plenty, a land of opportunity to climb the social ladder compared to how things were in China then.
When my family came to the U.S. They arrived in the post-WWII era, post-McCarthyism, post-Japanese internment. There was considerable pressure to assimilate to American culture. Although Asian Americans were finally granted the right to citizenship in 1952, there was still a lot of anti-Asian sentiment stemming from government propaganda demonizing Japan during WWII. At this time, there was considerable pressure for Asian Americans to assimilate to american culture and be seen as all american, to reject their cultural and ethnic roots to avoid racism and discrimination. My maternal great grandparents exemplified this in many ways and deeply instilled this sentiment within many of my great aunts and uncles. The push to speak English, to get a college degree, to be “successful” in all things deemed American. For them, it was not only a show of pride in their new home country but in some ways, it was also a survival response to racism and discrimination faced by Asians, as well as wanting to forget the trauma and horrors of WWII in China.
My grandparents, eldest of their siblings and Chinese-born, had even greater pressure to assimilate to the culture in the U.S. Unlike their younger siblings who had the opportunity to be educated here, they either lacked the resources to go through higher education or were deemed too old to attend school here. My parents faced a lot of struggles with being second-generation Americans growing up. Having to learn English in elementary school because they grew up in a Chinese-speaking household, having to help my grandparents fill out job applications and government forms, having to navigate the college application process as the first in their families to attend college.
By the time I was born, my family was pretty “Americanized” in numerous ways. We spoke English at home; we watched American movies and TV shows, and we celebrated American holidays. The fact that my grandparents have lived with my family since I was young kept me connected to my cultural roots; I grew up eating my grandmother's dishes,celebrating Chinese holidays, and listening to my grandparents speak Chinese with my parents and other relatives.
When I think of the struggles that my family went through and the struggles many immigrant families go through, it pains me when another person blames me for being “whitewashed” and when a person, especially a white person, blames the Asian American community for being “out of touch” with our culture, regardless of the context.
When you call me “whitewashed”, you erase the trauma my great grandparents and grandparents went through, fleeing violence, war, and persecution during WWII in China. You forget the struggles that my family had to go through to immigrate to the U.S., seeking a better life for their children, grandchildren, and me. You forget the racism and discrimination they faced because of anti-Asian propaganda and racial scapegoating. You discredit my family’s struggles to assimilate to American culture not necessarily because we wanted to, but because we had to survive.
You also discredit every moment I have had growing up in a multigenerational and multicultural household, every Chinese dish my grandmother cooks, every trip to Chinatown, and every Chinese holiday and tradition my family celebrates. You reawaken the inner turmoil that so many Asian Americans experience when we feel that we are losing touch with our culture because we cannot speak our native language or understand our ethnic roots. Many of us wish we knew more about our home countries, but we grew up in a country that was founded based on racial and ethnic cleansing and assimilation. Just because you have the privilege and opportunity to live abroad doesn't mean that you understand that culture or the experiences of growing up and living in it.
So don't blame me for being “whitewashed.”
Cover photo source: https://www.columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2020/04/13/dont-call-me-whitewashed-not-now/