Negotiating Identity In Asian Spaces

“She’s white? What is she doing here?”

For the past few weeks, I’ve had to wrestle with various different Asian-American spaces from the Bay Area Solidarity Summer (BASS) to the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) dinner to the Asian Pacific American Labor Convention (APALA). There were new faces, old faces, missed faces, not-so-missed faces.

“What are you doing here?” was the most frequently asked question directed towards me at the Asian Pacific American Labor Convention. I didn’t know how to answer that. What did it mean? What am I doing in this country, in the Bay Area, in an Asian-Pacific American space, in a male-dominated setting, in a space devoid of Fiji-Indian faces, at a conference of big labor organizations?

I left the conference space on both days with a dull, throbbing headache. The speakers spoke down at us, the agenda was heavily heterosexual male-dominated, misogyny was served cold for lunch and dinner in immigrant youth spaces, and not-so-shockingly, no one even mentioned the word “capitalism” in a space about labor rights. I got the idea that Asian Pacific American referred to a geographically and culturally different Pacific Ocean than the one where I grew up. But I’m glad I finally got to meet Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas, who was very sweet and gracious, and gave me a shout-out during his keynote speech, stating that “there are people in this room who have shown more courage than me.” While courage is certainly relative and I think I am a coward in many ways, I thank you Jose, for the acknowledgment and the honor.

Then, I had the incredible opportunity to meet these amazingly savvy desi high-schoolers and college students at Bay Area Solidarity Summer, that one of the organizers has done a write-up on here. It was also the first time someone has offered me money to talk, which I had to turn down immediately. My reward was simply in being invited there. I was scared and nervous and everything else in between. It’s configurations of desi anxiety — Am I smart-enough, accomplished-enough, pretty-enough, desi-enough?! Will I hold up in front of my own community without the need to get drunk?

I turned up sober. I didn’t want to lecture about abstract concepts so I simply told them my story. It has bits and pieces of everything: colonialism, migration, violence, sexuality, education, resistance and empowerment. The personal was political but the political is also quite personal. I hope everyone heard something they could take home with them. I hear a 17-year old high school girl took a poster of me at the end of the workshop. I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that there are murals, paintings and posters of me, that people actually own some version and appropriation of me that even I don’t own. I can hear my mom scoffing at the thought but also vying to get a copy for her home.

I’m rebelling against the political images of me and trying to hide in plain slight. A femme version of me went to the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance dinner last weekend. I had forgotten what it was like to have unwanted attention from straight cisgender men. No one ever harasses me while I am in plaid, jeans and leather. But in a dress, I actually felt unsafe while traveling to and from the conference. At the dinner, hardly anyone recognized me. If they did, they were too flabbergasted to talk or gush all over me – Thank Goodness.

Right now, I’m spotting pink nailpolish. It’s a bit strange especially when I am eating. Yesterday, I licked the nail-polish thinking it was ketchup. But it is different and no one owns this version of me. It isn’t for your consumption. Yet.

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