In January, Sarah Howe, a writing research fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute (previously a research fellow at Caius) won one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary awards: the TS Eliot poetry prize. Hailed for its exploration of the complexities of a dual British-Chinese heritage (Howe was born in Hong Kong and moved to Britain when she was nine years old), Loop of Jade is evocative, rich, and for me, intensely relatable – reading this collection of poems made me nostalgic for home, but also forced me to think about my fundamental inability to experience life as a local, due to my – let’s face it – whitewashed education. When I read that Howe was the recipient of this award, I was so happy – happy for the representation, happy for the amplification of a voice that is so rarely heard in mainstream English-language literature.
Imagine the anger I felt, then, when I came across Private Eye’s (“the UK’s number one best-selling news and current affairs magazine” – figures) suggestion that Howe was awarded the prize based on “extra-poetic reasons” implying that she was only successful because she is “a successful and very ‘presentable’ young woman”. Imagine my disgust at Oliver Thring’s (Sunday Times) patronizing description of Howe’s verse as “pummel[ing] the reader with allusion, scholarship, and a brusque, sixth-formy emphasis on her own intelligence” in an interview with the poet. As would be expected Thring was almost immediately called out on social media for his belittling comments. As would also be expected, his terrible reply elicited even more uproar – the sentence “this gentle interview with a leading young poet has led various deranged poetesses to call me thick, sexist etc” was greeted by the creation of the hashtag #derangedpoetess, used by women writers to criticize the plainly misogynistic undertones of Thring’s critique. (I mean, I’m not one to speculate, but something tells me that Thring would have no problem with the male British Eliot’s own The Waste Land, which drips so heavily with allusion that it is almost incomprehensible without a full working knowledge of the Western canon, Buddhism, and the Hindu Upanishads. I mean, God forbid a poet reference Jorge Luis Borges.)
What this debacle made clear to me, however, is that it is almost too easy to forget that Sarah Howe wasn’t just criticized because of the fact that she is a woman poet who happens to be beautiful and young. The title of Thring’s article, “Born in the rubbish tip, the greatest poetry of today”, does not read solely like an eye-catching hook; the sentence “[r]egardless, what she calls ‘the fluidity of my racial experience’ seems destined to remain the central theme of her work” does not seem like a wholly unbiased criticism of the content of Howe’s poetry. It’s a kind of prejudice less pronounced, more implicit, than that often seen in the media, but one that demands to be discussed; it’s an experience of race not very often taken up in forums and discussions, even those that champion intersectionality, but that is still so important and so pervasive. In castigating Thring’s reactions to Sarah Howe’s success, people are often quick to forget that his view is indicative of a certain kind of racialized misogyny. It is this neglect that has been one of the missing pieces of intersectional discourse, the lack of recognition that yellow is a colour, too.
To be East Asian – to be yellow – is to live with a certain detachment from conversations about race while experiencing racism on a day-to-day basis. To be East Asian is to have one’s experiences continually negated or undermined through references to individual countries’ economic successes, to be constantly looking for spheres of solidarity despite our communities’ false consciousness of the nonexistence of racism. Drawing on an example from my own life, the FLY Hosts Men of Colour event in Lent term demonstrated to me the current lack of discourse on East Asian identity politics. The event itself was fantastic – I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to listen to and learn from the experiences of men of colour in Cambridge, given that it is difficult enough to find like-minded activists in this University who want to engage in meaningful dialogue rather than pointless, abstract debate, let alone people who want to share their experiences of racism, alienation, and micro-aggression (for good reason –1 as was discussed, our responsibility is, first and foremost, to ourselves). And personally, I found this forum so important in developing an understanding of my own privilege as an East Asian woman: while oppression does find visible expression in my life, with many of my frustrations originating from microaggressions and hurtful and damaging stereotypes, FLY Hosts Men of Colour gave me the opportunity to listen to stories about how the intersections of gender and race make ‘the Cambridge experience’ even more impossible than it already is for some people of colour. But the fact that the event brought together so many people of colour that there weren’t enough chairs to accommodate us all made it more than a little disappointing when I realized that there were no East Asian men in the room.
Or more precisely, the most disappointing aspect of this realization was that rather than feeling frustrated right away, I immediately blamed myself for even having entertained the notion of representation: of course no one would show up – I mean, barely anyone had indicated interest in attending the event (I checked), and out of all the East Asian men I knew, none were even remotely interested in discussions about race. If I was being completely honest, the lack of presence of East Asian women in FLY should have set me up for a similar dearth in similarly-engaged men. Maybe the stereotypes were right – maybe we East Asians were just less interested in the world around us, less political… or maybe we just wanted to (justifiably) get on with our degrees, without involving ourselves too much with the vagaries of student politics.
A couple of conversations after the fact knocked some sense back into me: laughing incredulously (and perhaps nervously) with others who also noticed the lack of East Asian men, my self-doubt turned into something like anger: anger at the apparent indifference with which East Asian people treated intersectional issues, anger at the general East Asian community’s inability to carve out a meaningful space within the BME community at Cambridge, anger at our apparent adherence to stereotypes of passivity and apoliticality. Running in my mind were the following questions: why are we so reluctant to join in the fight for liberation from oppressive structures of racism, sexism, cissexism, classism, and disablism? Why, at a place like Cambridge, where we constitute a large part of the BME intake, do we amount to such a minority within groups like FLY?
My anger was assuaged when I realized that I myself questioned for half a term whether I could be considered a BME woman. Internalized racial hierarchies, ideological insularity, personal indifference – my anger was not unjustified, but it may have been misplaced. I realized that there may have been and there may be a good reason for the general lack of East Asian people at these events. Maybe it wasn’t egotism. Maybe it was respect for space. Personally, what deterred me from FLY in the beginning was the fear that I had no right to be there. And perhaps that was and is why so few of us want to get involved. We do not see the intersection of race and gender as particularly damaging to our existence: this is not our fight, and moreover, to claim it as such would be selfish. As a middle-upper class woman from Hong Kong, I embodied privilege in the city – I constituted the majority. After arriving in Cambridge, there were just enough people who looked like me on the streets that I didn’t feel like my sense of alienation at being one of maybe three East Asian women in my subject was valid. Having an elderly woman at Sainsbury’s tell me to go back to where I came from didn’t seem as legitimate a concern as the constant threat of Islamophobic violence experienced by hijabi women. Constantly bearing the brunt of racist jokes at which I felt like I had to laugh in order to show that I had a sense of humour, being told “if you didn’t want to study European (read: white) thought, why did you come to Britain?”, and being pigeonholed into the ‘model minority’ myth, with all of its accompanying baggage, was, at the end of the day, less oppressive than the structural perpetuation of isolation, alienation, erasure, imperialism, and hegemony experienced everyday by black women.
Over time, being in FLY has made me realize that to hierarchize oppression is to participate in its perpetuation. Because if these comparisons prove anything, it is that oppression affects every individual that doesn’t fit in with the white, cis, able-bodied, hetero patriarchy. Oppression moves from strength to strength, from visibility to invisibility, so that in the end we cannot see so much as feel it directing our lives – when we wake up, that’s when the unlearning begins, that’s when we realize that the forces we cannot control are those that find most purchase in our lives. If we are to be allies – good allies – with one another, if we are to truly claim solidarity, we must realize that inasmuch as we have our own areas of struggle we are also linked by that collective struggle.
I’ve found that international students in particular often do not feel a need to participate in student politics, as if our identities here and our identities back home are fundamentally disconnected – suffering from the effects of racism and feelings of isolation here is just “a part of growing up”, “a part of learning to live in the “the real world” (things my parents have actually said). But what we must all realize is that the oppressive structures that we have been plunged into are pervasive, and they matter in the context of our lives and the lives of people at home. Of course, it’s easier to stay uninvolved, to find pockets of home and acceptance in those communities designed specifically for this purpose – I can’t begrudge anyone for seeking solace among people like them. But this demands the question of why there must be two extremes: be white, or at least act as white as possible so that you may one day assimilate; or be in touch with your roots, and stay forever pigeonholed in people’s ideas of what constitutes your culture. International students need to participate in politics, to be political, to carve out spaces where they don’t traditionally belong – how else are we going to stop future students from feeling the same feelings of loneliness, of alienation?
We East Asians have a responsibility to be informed about the struggles of other people of colour and the intersections that affect groups and individuals differently. But we also have a responsibility to reflect on our own histories, our own privilege, our own oppression; we must, first and foremost, claim that struggle for our own. My existence is my act of resistance against this world which has been built not for me but specifically against me in more ways that I can count – in this way, being ‘woke’ is an endlessly empowering and strengthening force (the term ‘woke’ has its origins in black resistance, with recent examples being the #StayWoke and #BlackLivesMatter liberatory movements; here I have appropriated it to mean the awakening of someone to the systems of oppression that exist around us and against us). But resistance implies that there is a force much stronger than me, much more present than I could ever fathom, that constantly threatens to press down and annihilate my very being – this is the feeling of being acutely Other that any ‘woke’ person lives and breathes. Of course it would be easier to stay asleep. But I think that now, more than ever, we need to see that East Asian existence is wrapped up in a locus of power that will not easily go away: East Asian oppression is entrenched and invisible, and the first part to solving it is becoming aware that it exists.
Because a statement as innocuous as “You work in the library until late at night? That’s so Asian!” makes it possible for people to link our individual drive for success to our inherent “Asian-ness”, as if it is that “Asian-ness” that got us into Cambridge and not our own proaction and determination (notwithstanding a whole assortment of other privileging factors, as well as obscuring mental health issues that are then pushed back and seen as deviant).
Because the propagation of the model minority myth leads us to internalize the idea that our success is a metonym for that of our entire race, leading to constant insecurity over whether or not we are, ourselves, individually important, whether or not we are perceived by others just to be one part of a monolith of East Asian people.
Because the promotion of stereotypes about the East Asian community alienates anyone and everyone who does not fit into the studious bookworm trope (a phenomenon that is founded upon general stereotypes within East Asian cultures as well): an Asian who likes clubbing becomes the “edgy” Asian; an Asian who has multiple sexual partners becomes the “exotic, slutty” Asian; an Asian who has a passion for the arts or the human sciences becomes the “disappointing” Asian.
Because the continuous reduction and appropriation of our cultures to and via “celebrations” of “symbolic” objects such as cheongsams, qipaos, kimonos, and chopsticks (to name a few) completely undermines the histories of imperialism and exploitation that have played out in countless countries in East Asia as undertaken by Western powers, and that continue today in the form of the commodification of artefacts which are consequently stripped of their significance.
Because the stereotypical assumption that East Asian women are weak, demure, and submissive, while being a source of privilege because we are unlikely to be stopped in the street for questioning and to be targeted by institutions under the auspices of “eliminating danger”, leads us to exist on the margins of political society. Because too many of us internalize the notion that we must be apolitical in order to be attractive, or more commonly, we must have palatable opinions that do not diverge too much from the most conventional lines of thought in order to be successful. (I myself was asked by a few people during Freshers’ why I would want to study Politics, given that I came from China.
Because the Madonna–whore complex that polarizes East Asian women’s existence is the most disgusting form of fetishization; because there exist specific websites targeted towards setting old, white men (purely conjecturally, of course) from Western countries up with “Exotic Asian Beauties”.
Because the East Asian LGBT+ community is too often derided or made the butt of jokes (The Hangover, anyone?) that severely alienate people in the wider world who have already suffered the weight of societal oppression.
Because while East Asian men must come to terms with their privilege in terms of patriarchal conceptions of family and society and how that perpetuates misogyny in their communities, white hegemony perpetuates damaging images of them as undesirable, predatory, chauvinistic, unclean Orientals.
Because this was literally published this week, with such hilarious quips as:
“So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simple days of chow mein but no stress,
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met.”
Because while the white, racist, violent, imperialist colonial project that shaped us all irrevocably continues to endure, no child in Britain is taught about the Opium Wars, or the burning of the Summer Palace. No child studies the “yellow peril”, or the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the only U.S. law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race, after hundreds and maybe thousands of Chinese labourers helped build the First Transcontinental Railroad. No child knows about the coolie trade – that is, the large-scale slavery-like trade that sustained the colonial project by indenturing men and women from South China and the Indian subcontinent and transporting them to work on cotton and sugar plantations in the 19th and 20th centuries. No child learns about the Philippine-American War, which lasted 10 years and which led to the deaths of 400,000 to 600,000 Filipinos and 10,000 Americans. No one remembers the internment camps that relocated and incarcerated between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese people living on the Pacific Coast of the United States, 62% of whom were American citizens. No one remembers the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, or if they do, they’ve blocked it out. History exists in a vacuum for those privileged enough not to be affected by it today.
As a community, we have a moral duty to understand the structures that simultaneously privilege us and oppress other people of colour, to deconstruct the internalized racism that causes us to see ourselves as white enough to not suffer the consequences of being people of colour, to unpack what it means to be continually posited under the white gaze. Our responsibility is not only to ourselves but to others – to join in the struggle for liberation is not to selfishly take up space but to attempt to tackle oppression on our own terms.
Our existence is an act of resistance. It’s time we thought of it that way.