I am processing a metric ton of grief this week. I am at once in pain at the violence that the Singaporean state (and many states) is inflicting upon trans people, with the support of transphobic people of all backgrounds, including gays and lesbians who really should know better than to weaponize their own identities towards our trans siblings. I am at a loss for words on how to process the fact that a man shot and killed eight people in Georgia this week, most of them Asian women. That not one, but several, Asian and Southeast Asian elders were randomly targeted and assaulted no more than 15 minutes from where I live.
It’s a lot.
Because I am from everywhere and nowhere, sometimes at all at once, I feel the grief of all of these communities simultaneously as a queer Southeast Asian lesbian cis woman of Chinese ethnicity currently now living amongst the Chinese diaspora in America. All of the different shapes of grief simply collapse into one giant mess.
There are many reasons why I don’t feel like I get to participate in any of this. I am not the same kind of immigrant, therefore I don’t feel like I get to speak for the Asian women of a different background whose lives in America are so different from mine. I am not Asian-American, and I therefore don’t carry with me the same degrees of pain that many Asian-Americans have felt since birth or since they got here. I speak English and am not singled out very often for being ‘different’, where I live here, because “I sound American” (I have different English accents, you should listen to me speak at home or elsewhere in the world. My English accent is a chameleon with of a life of its own that I do not understand). I am Singaporean, and not generally perceived to be a threat by other governments; extremists of most persuasions do not have a specific beef with me.
None of this week’s grieving is specifically about me.
I watched with horror as I see a list of victims presented with mangled names. Soon C. Park. Hyun J. Grant. Yong A. Yue. It was a mistake that was quickly corrected, but I could not help but feel the indignity of having their names mispronounced in death on a literal medical examiners' table, after a lifetime of mispronunciations. After already having made the concessions of taking on easier names, of putting your family name at the end of your name, even if it didn’t make any sense.
I am ashamed that I paid two hundred and fifty dollars to delete my Asian names from my legal papers, that I kept a hint of the name that my grandfather gave me as initials: L T, just so that I can have an easier time at the DMV. At the time, I did not feel like anybody else needed to know. It would be mangled, anyway.
I am a queer woman who has moved to this country not for more money or more opportunities, I did not move here to escape war or political oppression (well, kind of, but I cannot possibly compare it to the people who have literally fled for their lives). In the grand scheme of things, the math of my intersectionality still works out for me: Queer English-speaking cis women with the right passports working in tech = there aren’t many other places that we can call home.
But it doesn’t help that some weeks more than others, things don’t make sense precisely because of all of the other things. What will my life be like as an Asian elder in this community? Will I have to learn kungfu so that I can beat up my assailant? What will our children’s lives here be like, as the mixed children of Singaporean-Malaysian-Chinese-Indian-American lesbians? Will someone make the leap from overt benign racism, into simply overt racism, when I least expect it? Will the person who keeps calling me Chinatown as I walk past him one day, when he’s having a bad day, do something a little more? Do I represent the kinds of opportunities he feels I’ve taken away from him?
I recall a conversation I had in my teens with a teacher. I had written a letter, never sent, to the US ambassador of Singapore. Dear ambassador, it went, I think I am gay and I cannot think of any country I can be myself in other than yours.
A teacher caught wind of it. A teacher who had lived in America, to be clear. For her faults (she was extremely nationalistic, to a fault, and also probably a racist), she explained that I would be giving up one part of myself for another. Sure, you can be gay there, but you’re going to be a minority in other ways. At the time, I was outraged. What a thing to say! If anything, I should be ashamed of being a member of the oppressive ethnic majority here in my own country! (I am! Still!)
But it means that I am never really in fear of anything overt or covert back home. That many people trust people who look and sound like me. It also means that I don’t really have anything to prove. I don’t have to be particularly successful. can be a doctor lawyer engineer if I wanted to. If I wanted to, I can be anything I want to be back home. Or nothing, if I chose. There is no expectation riding on me to represent my community. My community is my society.
Here, even if I feel like many of the struggles of the Asian-American community are not my own, I am starting to be subsumed by it. The things that live in my head: am I Chinese? Am I Southeast Asian? Am I (some very specific group of some ethnicity)? Are really just my struggles. I am reminded me the Singaporean Chinese people like me, who, unlike me, were actually victims of racial assault elsewhere. I am reminded of Vincent Chin, who was killed by people who were angry at perceived Japanese domination in the auto industry in Detroit, despite not being Japanese at all. I am reminded of the Chinese-Filipino Asian elder who was beat up, obviously, because he looked Chinese, even if they might not see themselves that way. I am reminded of all of the micro-aggressions of the ni-haoing crowd directed at all people who look like they should know the term and who sometimes face violence when they do not respond, even if they are Thai, Hmong, Vietnamese, Korean.
Ultimately, we all play our bits in white supremacist structures that overtly support these acts of violence by calling them ‘just a bad day’; that covertly support more acts of violence by playing down our grief. If you are grieving this week, and I say this particularly to the people who don’t feel Asian enough, who don’t feel Asian-American enough, to Black-Asian people who have to hold the grief of all of their communities at once, your grief is valid. I won’t pretend there’s a single imagined community here that will support all of your grief, but your grief and despair is valid and you can feel whatever you want to feel about any and all of it.
We shouldn’t have to be attacked for how we look or who we are; and we shouldn’t have to minimize our grieving because of how our cultures are perceived, grossly and inaccurately, by the same people who are the cause of our grief.
Maybe one day I will have more eloquent thoughts on this topic, but for now, this is it.