When I shaved my head in anticipation of chemotherapy, two things happened. First, just like that, I stopped looking like a woman. Second, I turned into a monk. My husband, peering in the mirror, said, “Hey, you look like a cute monk!” I am pretty sure the “cute” part came out of love, but the “monk” part, echoing my thoughts, struck me as a notable coincidence. In the spirit of camaraderie, he, too, shaved his head. But he did not look less male, nor did he look like a monk. Being tall and white, he looked… well, military. So there we were: the monk and the soldier.
Given how complex gender and race are as embodied experiences, it is remarkable how simplistic and crude their visual expressions are. Could hair, a minor loss in the violence of cancer, make such a great difference? I knew, at least intellectually, that “woman” has always been reducible to her body parts, but to see such an insight so viscerally and mundanely demonstrated in the bathroom mirror stunned me. And what’s with the monk? Would my husband have thought I looked like a monk had he not grown up watching kung fu movies? Would I, had I not immigrated to the United States? Have I come to see my own Chineseness through Western tropes?
In the 1990s, when I lived in Northern California, the San Francisco Bay Guardian ran an article about relationships between Asian women and white men. The article quoted an undergraduate from the University of California at Berkeley who, asked why she preferred dating white men over Asians, said, “Well, it kind of feels incestuous to me…like dating my brother.” A friend who read the article poked fun at this admission, saying, “Good thing people in Asia don’t think so!” But there’s something behind what that young woman said—a thin line of grief or maybe of querulousness, an expression of familial allergy—that has stayed with me.
Scholars have long pointed to the hypersexualization of Asian women and the demasculinization of Asian men in American popular media as a leading cause for the high rate of Asian American women marrying outside their race. But it is also common wisdom among Asian American women that if you discover that your white boyfriend has been exclusively dating Asian women, you should run for the hills. The fetishization of white masculinity is thus not necessarily the obvious other half to the fetishization of Asian femininity, and racialized gender is not simply a problem about the politics of representation.
The young woman’s confession in that interview seems to me to speak more to a dilemma of intimacy for the diasporic subject, a wound in the experience of kinship itself. Kinship, after all, is all about determining who is a stranger and who is not. It is generally agreed, certainly in Western cultures, that the social norm of marrying outside one’s community, clan, or tribe creates biological, economic, and cultural advantages. The injunction to marry outside one’s bloodline to ensure genetic diversity and create social alliance, however, takes on different and confusing meanings when your clan or community has been truncated or displaced, at once insulated and under assault.
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For many immigrant communities, marriage within one’s ethnic group ensures cultural and familial continuity in the face of fragmenting, geographic dispersal. Here, then, is the double bind for the racialized minority: Marrying out means selling out, while marrying in can feel like giving in to conservative familial demands on the one hand and xenophobic prohibition on the other. Only within the peculiarities of American racial dynamics can traditional, racist white anxiety about miscegenation find a ready ally with traditional Asian family values. Both sides apply patriarchal and racial restrictions within which the Asian American woman must navigate.
Love can be challenging. Add being Asian and a woman in America, and you get a vexing picture. As Cathy Park Hong sums it up in her recent book Minor Feelings, “In the popular imagination, Asian Americans inhabit a purgatorial space…distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we are being used by whites to keep the black man down.” Used as pawns in the game of racial divisiveness, Asian Americans are often despised for their reputed adjacency to whiteness and economic privileges. In a 2012 study, psychologist Susan Fiske showed that most Americans rate Asians and Asian Americans as highly “competent” or “intelligent,” but almost all found the latter to be “cold” or “not warm”—that is, unloved and unlovable. The result is not surprising, especially since the very terms of the survey (competence and likability) already scripted the limited grounds on which Asianness gets judged.
The Asian American woman would seem to fare better than her male counterpart on the likability scale. She at least can claim access to erotic or exotic appeal. But this privilege also spells her downfall. At once the lotus blossom and the dragon lady, the celestial being and the pestilential prostitute (according to 19th century immigration laws), Asian beauty in America is, historically and now, an ugly business. To this day, the Asian American woman occupies a weird place in the American racial imaginary: She has absorbed centuries of the most blatant racist and sexist projections, yet she hardly registers in the public consciousness as a minority, much less a figure who has suffered discrimination.
The writer David Xu Borgonjon once wryly observed, “You can only be Asian outside of Asia.” For the Asian American woman, I would add, she can be neither wholly Asian nor wholly American, seen as both a prize and a liability. She is caught between sets of double elimination that make the question of love—and the stranger versus family distinction—confounding, even perilous.
Years ago, when my husband was shopping with our newborn girl, a woman in the store approached him to ask eagerly, “I got my daughter from China. Where did you get yours?” My husband was amused by the encounter, but I recall being pained by the story. Did my husband, even for a second, feel our daughter to be foreign to him? Did the incident jar him out of the cocoon of our new family? I also remember not being able to bring myself to ask these questions out loud.
My husband and I had taken on so many challenges beyond becoming an interracial couple: getting married as older adults; learning to meld two full, separate, and idiosyncratic lives; buying a house we could barely afford; confronting parenthood for the first time. So why was I unsettled by a stranger’s perception?
That’s the power of the third gaze. I can dismiss the woman’s clumsy assumption, itself most likely driven by a longing for community, but her misrecognition is not unlike what haunts my extended family. Members of my side of the family invariably remark how white my children look, while my husband’s side observes how Chinese they look. There’s what the world out there sees, and then there’s our lived, affective reality. The two are not the same, but they are also not wholly disconnected from each other, either.
Familiarity and intimacy are in fact strange, complex, and fragile conditions of being—at once magically capable of being forged and terribly easy to rupture. Sometimes the dance of strangeness and familiarity in my marriage (those tiny shifts of reality) baffles me, the ways in which quotidian intimacy can energize or hinder our togetherness. We come in and out of focus in everyday living. The more familiar we are with each other, the more intimacy becomes both a lifeline and an obstacle, something we rely on but also something that foils us when we most need to see each other afresh. In minor, daily acts, like chatting over washing dishes, we swell in the luxury of shared rhythm and private language, but a particular turn of phrase or a tone that the other recognizes all too well can abruptly open up a jagged breach. This, too, is difference at work.
In 1920, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a haunting story called “The Comet,” a dystopian vision of the end of the world in which, at long last, interracial love (between the last white woman and the last Black man) could be redeemed. Only with the apparent end of the world and the breakdown of all societal rules, according to Du Bois, can love between the races be imaginable. But in the story, it turns out that only their city was destroyed, her family returns in the end, and all that was between the lovers is dashed, erased as if it had never been. But do we need to face death or disaster to own interracial love or risk its ruptures?
My husband and I are such opposites. There are times when I feel the insurmountable wall of our differences—his stubbornness, his maleness, his whiteness. Yet I have also grown from his determination, his unshakable faith in our ability and right to thrive in this world. When cancer and chemo stripped me down to the core, there was no one else on earth on whom the bare skeleton of me could lean other than him.
My husband’s ease in the world is both who he is and the result of how he moves in the world. His presence in most spaces is rarely questioned. I enter a room and immediately scan it for Asians or other people of color, their number (whether none or too many) calling for different social arsenal. Over the years, I have developed enough of a mask of composure to be highly functional. Few people know how much mental energy it takes for me to enter a room full of people or to talk to a stranger. A very old friend once observed that watching me at a dinner party was like watching a duck on a pond: above the water, smooth gliding; under the water, the frantic flutter of feet.
Family lore tells of a different child in Taiwan, one who talked back whenever she was told girls are disposable, one who wore a glaring yellow and orange bell-bottom suit to a uniformed school on picture day. That cocky girl disappeared around the time of our move to America. I think I lost her to immigration and puberty. Her departure was so gradual that it was not so much a loss as a forgetting. She disappeared behind little punctuating moments: Adrianne—pink, blond, green-eyed, and one of my first American friends—pinching my skin and exclaiming, “You are not yellow at all,” my father telling me not to call him “Pop-pi” anymore because in America it sounded as if I were calling a puppy, the only other Asian American girl in my high school snubbing me because people assumed we would be friends.
It took years for me to acknowledge my deep sense of unbelonging in America. Such admission would feel like a great failure. It would mean I have fallen into the petty trap of the disgruntled other, like the child who, in demanding to know why she was not invited to a party, exposes her longing. Or it would mean that I have not worked hard enough or have not been good enough to master my limitations. To this day, I fluctuate between trying to own categories I occupy and trying to resist categories that own me. Recently, after working on a yearlong committee with a group of colleagues, I overheard one of them say, “And we even had a Chinese woman on the committee with us.” What feels so terrible about social alienation is that it can divide you from yourself.
Even as I grow older and kinder to myself, my body seems intent on repeating the habit of dis-ease. First came the entire day that I lost; they call it transient global amnesia. (Wasn’t I, an immigrant, already a globally transient subject?) When my short-term memory suddenly refused to dump itself into long-term memory for 18 hours, I was stuck in a loop, restarting every few minutes. My brain hiccuped like a broken toy. I would have preferred to be out cold over that unreliable consciousness. For months afterward, I could not trust myself to drive or stray too far from home.
Then came a series of auto-immune issues. “It’s as if your body thinks it is under constant threat, so it attacks itself,” the doctors explained. Nothing quite like being told that your body is working against you—that is, until you are told there is actual malignancy in your body. After my cancer surgery, I woke up in the operating room. I could not speak but could hear loud noises, metal clanking, and people murmuring. Someone pulled something hard out of my throat, and my body told me hands were pulling and pushing parts of me that I could not really feel. In a moment of panic, I wondered if they knew I was awake.
There are many ways of being made a stranger to yourself. When the chemo began to leach my interiority, empty me out like a used bag, I took on a transparency, a ghost behind glass, unreachable even to myself. In those nondays, the only anchor against my vanishing was my effort to approximate being a parent and a person.
All the words we have around cancer—militarized ones like “fighting” or euphemistic ones like “treatment”—really end up sealing an experience that is nearly impossible to describe, because it is all about merciless eradication at the very cellular level of your being, not pain as we know it but an awful erasure of your mind, your being, you. The truth was I felt indifferent, unmoored from everything and everyone, even from the life I was laboring to save. My body sat on me like an armor even as it refused sanctuary. When I could read again, I found these lines from the poet Jacqui Germain:
My body is a haunted
house that I am lost in.
There are no doors but there are knives
and a hundred windows.
The tail end of my treatment coincided with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. My self-isolation blended into the world’s quarantine. It was heart-sinking enough to confront my mortality; now, almost every week I have to process news of the death of family members, friends, former teachers. We all know we are going to die one day, but the force of that knowledge can be felt only when death breaks into your path and sits on your chest.
Covid-19 has made it clear how interconnected we all are. It has shown that the question of life itself is not only a biological one but also an ethical one: Whose life counts? How do you take care of yourself and others? What is your responsibility to those most vulnerable? Constraint and responsibility have always been conditions of and not exceptions to freedom. Yet this shared proximity to disaster and the huge losses incurred because of the pandemic have not been able to protect us from old enmities—the fact that we in 2020 still have to argue for the value of Black lives, the eruption of attacks on people of Asian descent since the pandemic began.
I was wrong to think a shared global health crisis would save us from racial antagonism. It’s the opposite: The viral crisis has become a vector for the racism that has always spoken in and circulated through the language of contamination. Anti-Black and anti-Asian sentiments are born from at least three centuries of American racial strife, the enduring, knotted legacy of systemic and cultural racism. They become only more vivified in the presence of other disasters.
More and more, I fear Du Bois’s vision remains prophetic; even the end of the world is not enough to warrant love between the races or to make claims for a fundamental regard for life.
My husband and I did not come to be the monk and the soldier in this world accidentally. As I write, it occurs to me that, aside from the exotic Asian woman, the monk and the soldier may be two of the most iconic and loaded figures to emerge out of East-West entanglements. US militarized presence in Asia for the better part of the 20th century has made the soldier the representative American figure for many people outside the United States, while the monk has become for the West the very symbol of Asian passivity and outdatedness, whose extinction has been safeguarded against only by its occasional usefulness as an appropriable source of Eastern mysticism. Given the contemporary rhetoric of contagion (surrounding both disease and the immigrant) and the anti-Chinese xenophobia revived by Covid-19, the monk is hardly quarantined from the stigma that is as old as the Yellow Peril and as recent as the “China virus” or “kung flu,” in the words of our sitting president.
That my husband and I, in the darkest moment of our private reckoning, in the face of a threat to our very future, should end up reproducing the flat outlines of these mirror images has everything to do with the racial and gender formulations that inevitably shape and fall terribly short of who we are. It tells us how powerful and yet also how impoverished cultural images are. How they move us and how we move through them can be at once coercive and unpredictable. There are days when my husband is my most cherished interlocutor, and there are days when I feel keenly that he will forever remain a stranger to the immigrant in me. Both are true and are the conditions of our intimacy and our separateness.
The shadow of disaster (cancer, a global pandemic, racial violence) makes and unmakes the monk and the soldier, both figures of endurance in their own way, just as my husband and I have had to readjust, moment to moment, our ideas of what constitutes survival, what kind of strength is needed to let go and what to hang on. (Write it!) I may live for several more years or a few more months. For the time I have, I want to live honestly. I want to stop proving my worth to a world that treats the diligent but tiresome Asian American woman with expediency and contempt.
It is crushing to be reduced to a cancer patient or the Asian wife of a white man or yet another woman of color. I feel like none of those things, yet I live the reality of all of those things. I want to shore up my energy and concentrate on things and relationships that give me meaning and joy. (I would say I am going to Marie Kondo my life, except this lifestyle guru and her enormous popularity draw from so much of what haunts me about being Asian in our culture today—the lingering myth of Eastern simplicity and restraint, the fantasized beauty of self-reduction.) It takes too much psychic effort to be always good and disciplined, constantly self-curating, and vigilantly tuned in to the minefield of multiple consciousnesses. I want to own a life to which I am directly connected.
Two months after my last treatment, my hair started to grow back. The dream is pixie chic, but the reality more resembles a lapsed monk. When the unruly fuzz started to appear, my husband and this time my son, too, shaved their hair so we could have a hair-growing contest. Every evening after dinner, at the same time and in the same spot in the house, we take a picture of our naked heads to document what grows. We know we are tracking the imperceptible. We know we are running an unseen race. Death now forever moves through the center of our days. The little bubble of our family, so clearly drawn by the quarantine, holds its own slow time.