While walking briskly on a cold night, the kind that is humid and frigid right before a morning snowfall, my eyes scanned Nostrand Avenue’s permanently shuttered and closing storefronts. Caribbean hair salons taped with handwritten signs advertising “Free Hair Conditioning on Wednesdays” and a deli with a slightly disheveled awning selling grapes for half of what Whole Foods charges per pound are just some of the small but significant defining characters of the Brooklyn neighborhood Prospect Lefferts Gardens. A largely Caribbean neighborhood, Prospect Lefferts Gardens is a place where residents pass by and spark conversations with their neighbors and their kids on Sundays and almost everything—except for the local late-night fried chicken and burger joint—is dark and packed up for the day by 8 P.M. In this place, I had miraculously encountered a sublet on Craigslist upon my return from studying abroad in Shanghai and convinced the tenants via Skype that I wasn’t a crazy person.
That is how a girl from an Asian-dominated suburb near Boston, Massachusetts ended up in the east outskirts of Prospect Park, an area where I have yet to count more than three Asian residents or passers-by on my daily commutes for the past month. My roots do not lay here nor do I belong here, but for the first time in a long time, I have not been told that I do not belong. To my surprise, in the entire 30 days and nights I have walked to and from Prospect Lefferts Gardens, I was not verbally harassed, shamed, catcalled, microaggressed, or hurled racial epithets on my way home. And what’s even more shocking is that I find this abnormal.
I felt out of place because of my identity, but not for the obvious reasons, but rather, for the absence of the verbal reminders of my otherness, events so frequent that they had become commonalities. I was not incessantly prompted the idea that I did not belong, that the shape of my eyes, the tint of my skin, the languages I speak, and my mere physicality had offended those who labeled me when my being slipped through the chinks of their molds. In all my twenty years of growing up in between three cultures, I had become accustomed to having my identity constantly labeled, defined, and limited to check boxes, as if the markers of who I am were restricted to what others laid out before me. I have read the articles that marked me as one of the “Tigerchildren,” the “Model Minority,” the overachieving Asian student, and the submissive and passive Asian girl, all of which did not bother to ask for my voice nor my consent.
Back when I lived in Alphabet City and the daily commute required a stroll past Saint Marks on weekend nights, there was always the bigot who felt he had the liberty to righteously exclaim that “I should go back to my country” or that he’d sure “love some Asian pussy.” I frequently held in my frustrations, not because I was a “submissive and passive Asian girl,” but because I realized that being furious at society for injustices was easy—coming to admit that they affected me and hurt me was the difficult part. The process of navigating and articulating these societal constructs did not come with instructions. I had entered the world with two minority identities and even though I knew I could hurt those people as much as they have cut me, I refused to engage in name-calling for the sake of name-calling. I walked on undeterred, but not without a visceral reaction. I scrunched my face and produced a disappointed frown as a shield, much like during the passing of a revolting odor.
The social constructions of identity and their legitimization through consistent perpetuation—through popular culture, institutions, and the everyday—feed the idea that if I am being called the comparatively harmless label of the nerd (which I can fully embrace and own) but also that of the “chink” or “gook,” I am also socially defined by if not associated with these labels, whether I liked it or not. These problematic labels, tightly linked with histories of oppression and exclusion, limit the possibilities for Asian Americans in social, political, and economic spheres. Recent discussions concerning the “bamboo ceiling,” highly set SAT score expectations of Asian American high school students, the de-masculinity of Asian men, and tokenism of Asian characters in the media come to show the many gears that critically shift and reposition the Asian American identity so that it lies in a space outside myth and truth—a gray area, a flux of liminality. These false representations are going to take more than scrunching my face to deconstruct and reframe for truer perceptions of a people who have the right to dismantle the labels, definitions, names, and assumptions put in place by a place that promises “freedom.”
The objectification of people of color, the socially produced belief that I, as the “other,” the “perpetual foreigner,” am unworthy of marking my own nametag, makes me hurt. It makes me small — small in the way that makes me wish I could contract my body, wrap my arms around so tightly that I could disappear. So that my existence was not offensive, invading, belonging. I want to feel small in the way like when I stared at the cauldron of stars and watched the forces stir them, feeling in awe of the universe’s enormity and massiveness close enough to gasp. I want to feel this kind of small to believe that there is something bigger than myself and that my being—with my unsexy, rejected, unpopular definitions of identity—feeds into a greater change in how we see the world and how we see people.
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day,” David Foster Wallace said. The way I understand it, having the freedom to be, become, and belong warrants great responsibility. It is an active, taxing experience that forces you to feel both kinds of small, to be feel lost in states of in-between, but also to heal in order to rebuild, to reconstruct, to redefine.