The Trouble with "Asians" (1995)

1995. In Monica Dorenkamp and Richard Henke (Eds.), Negotiating Lesbian and Gay Subjects, pp. 123-130 New York: Routledge.

The Trouble with "Asians" by Richard Fung

When invited to participate on panels that address issues of sexuality and race, I am very rarely asked to speak from the position of artist or video producer. Sometimes, but still quite infrequently, I am situated as the lone gay person among other Asians or people of color. Most often, however, it is as an Asian that I am strategically included in the lineup of speakers, whether gay or straight, and I am usually the only Asian in a one-of-each selection of the shifting list of requisite "minorities." In the United States this also includes African Americans, Latinos, and sometimes Native Americans; in Canada, where I live, the register is similar, but with the addition of South as well as East or Southeast Asians. Since the Gulf War, there is an increasing recognition of Arab Americans and Canadians as part of the inventory of "people of color."

When I find myself in these situations, I feel a burden of representation, not only from non-Asians who might desire an authentic account of an "other" experience, but also from Asians in the audience, who demand that I correctly convey whatever their individual experiences and concerns happen to be. Whenever I detect this expectation and it is often I feel like an imposter. For one thing, I am fourth generation Trinidadian Chinese and my claim to Asian authenticity is very tenuous: I grew up with carnival, calypso, and Cat Woman, along with the broken Cantonese of my parents—my father being Hakka, my mother having never set foot in China, it was a second language for both of them. In all fairness, however, I am never simply accosted on the street and dragged against my will to represent Asians. So how and why have I come to identify myself, or at least to allow others to situate me, as a gay-Asian man? For even though I grew up with a full awareness that I was Chinese, and one of my earliest memories was of kissing a poster of Ricky Nelson in my sister's closet, it was only in my mid-twenties that I adopted this particular formulation to describe myself.

I learned that I was "gay" before I learned that I was "Asian." I must have been about fifteen at the time. One evening while performing the ritual of bringing the Evening News to my father in the upstairs back porch, I spotted a picture of men with placards. They were picketing in front of a statue somewhere in America; some might have been hugging each other. I quickly read the short "gay liberation" item on the staircase and, with heart pounding, delivered the paper to my father. I had seen the word and I knew that it was to me that it referred. "Gay" put a name to my previously nameless transgression. Nameless, or at least named in ways I could never choose to describe myself; names of violence, pain, and ridicule. Even now I type the Trinidadian slang word "buller-man"—sodomite—as a sort of challenge to myself; it carries so much shame for me I still cannot say it without blushing.

It took several years and the move to Canada before I actually uttered the word gay in describing myself. As awkward as it often felt at first, that act was both a means to, and a sign of, feeling comfortable with my sexuality. It was the result of a short period of therapy and of joining a gay liberation group-before I had ever slept with another man.

"Asian" involved a slower and quite different process. In Trinidad I was Chinese. Anyone who looked like me was also Chinese. They could be "local born" Chinese, "home" Chinese (born in China) or half-Chinese. But in Trinidad there were no Filipinos, no Koreans, no Vietnamese, and no Japanese-except in the war movies. When I arrived in Toronto, however, Trinidadians who were black or (East) Indian, or even Chinese as well, did not recognize me as their own unless I opened my mouth. At the same time, people on the street or at school, approached me speaking in Cantonese, Korean, and Vietnamese. White Canadians, assuming that I came from Asia, commented on the baffling peculiarity of my accent. They would ask me if I felt more Trinidadian or more Chinese—a question I had never been asked in the West
Indies. I felt a rupture develop in my identity between my look and my voice, my "race" and my "culture." I suddenly found myself a walking contradiction, and it was my look (my visibility) which predominated in everyone's perceptions.

Whereas I had to make an effort to be included as West Indian, I found myself easily organized into groups with people whose origins were in Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, or Korea. These groupings seldom included people from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, with whom I share a significant cultural and political affinity, both because almost half of Trinidad's population is of South Asian origin, and because of the common reference point offered by British colonial culture. I also found that in Toronto my lack of facility in Cantonese put my Chinese cultural credentials in jeopardy, whereas in Trinidad most Chinese people communicate in English. What I shared with East and Southeast Asians was a similar experience of being "oriental" in white society. The passive construction of my identity as an Asian—through the way others perceive me—became inextricably tied up with an active choice—of political solidarity—to identify as such. It is in this way that I became Asian in Canada after having been Chinese in Trinidad.

When I reflect on my own process of self-naming I realize not only the political significance, but also the constructedness and fragility of "Asian" identity. Asian consciousness only displaces specific national or regional identities and allegiances under the conditions of white racism, either expressed here in the diaspora, or through Western colonialism and imperialism in Asia. The term "Asian" after all corrals together people with heterogeneous, even violently antagonistic, histories. Neither is this the only contradiction the category glosses over. Let me offer an example from my video producing experience.
A couple of years ago I attended a safer sex session of the recently-founded Gay Asian AIDS Project in Toronto, of which I am a member. I went with a friend, an Asian immigrant who had recently found out that he was HIV positive. He was looking for support from people who shared his culture and language. But while the men in the room intellectually recognized that Asians were susceptible to HIV infection, it was clear that having not had any "proof"—either through people they knew, or in any of the representations of PWAs that were in common circulation—they had not taken that fact to heart. The unspoken consensus was that no one in the room could be HIV positive, making it impossible for my friend to find the support he needed.

To address this problem, and the lack of any explicit reference to gay sexuality in audiovisual AIDS material geared toward Asian communities, I decided to produce a videotape about and for gay Asian men living with HIV and AIDS. In doing so, I was impressed with the necessity of actually showing the faces of Asian men whose presence declares "I am gay, I have HIV." I wanted to break that cycle of denial. Yet, precisely because of this criterion of visibility, the men who appear in the tape—men who were willing to go public as people with AIDS or HIV—were relatively secure in terms of economic and immigration status, as well as in their facility with English. They were also engaged in AIDS activism and were therefore hooked into the informational and personal support that accompanies that involvement. The tape does not, therefore, directly express the issues of Asian PWHIVs who are isolated, confused, illegal, closeted, or non-English speaking. All the men in the tape are unquestionably Asian, but that visible "Asianness," while necessary to counteract the invisibility of Asian PWHIVs, also serves to obscure the issues of other Asians. Because the men are Asian PWHIVs they can be seen to speak for all Asian PWHIVs, and their concerns can be read as the issues for Asian PWHIVs. In the voice-over introduction to the tape I explicitly indicate these limitations of my selection of interviews. Nevertheless, I do not believe this gesture of signalling absence is sufficiently powerful to disrupt the regime of presence at work in such a piece.

An unspecified Asianness can serve to generalize Asian cultures into an amalgam not unlike the mishmash of Hollywood orientalism. It can also conflate the realities of Asians in the diaspora with those living in Asian countries. In North America, our condition of living as "visible minorities" in a society in which whiteness is normative, means that a sensitivity to racism is always at the forefront in the agenda of politically-aware Asians. Living in Asian countries, however, where gender, class, regional, ethnic, or linguistic differences contribute more directly to one's chances of success and to the regulation of daily life, white racism has little of that urgency. At gatherings of "third world" filmmakers and filmmakers "of color," I have seen the tension level rise as the "continentals" view the "diasporics" as unproductively obsessed with the single issue of racism, and the "diasporics" see the "continentals" as naive and unpoliticized because they collaborate with inappropriate individuals or institutions in their bid to have their work produced and distributed. North Americans of color may use the term "third world" to describe ourselves only in a metaphorical sense; if not, we risk appropriating other people's struggles. For in spite of the barriers of racism and the mere crumbs we might receive, we benefit indirectly from imperialism: there are more films produced by West Indians abroad than are able to be made in the West Indies itself, for example. And of course not all Asian countries are part of the so-called third world.

It is possible to romanticize the East—the third world—only when we are far from it. Many of our ancestors left their homelands to escape political repression, male domination, stifling class structures, as well as poverty. Many of the same reasons (in addition to homophobia and heterosexism) propel people to leave Asia today. It may be true that sexism, homophobia, class exploitation, and political repression are all present in North American society as well. It may also be true that many of these oppressive social forces are maintained in Asian and other third world countries because of the imperialist foreign and economic policies of the United States, and to a lesser extent, Canada. Nevertheless, our experience of racism in North America and the racist devaluation of who we are cannot allow us to fix and romanticize Asia. When third or fourth generation Canadians and Americans of Asian ancestry embrace "Asian" culture, it is often with a self-conscious nostalgia that distorts history, ignores regional differences, romanticizes and essentializes. So I ask myself, what do stories of emperors sharing peaches with their beloved pages really have to do with me, the descendent of peasants? Or what does it mean for me to wear Chinese clothes or take up my Chinese name when I cannot pronounce the tones correctly? There are many problems with the born-again-Asian project.

On the other hand, if I concentrate solely on the appropriateness of my (re)appropriation of things Asian; if I scrutinize the use of Asian motifs in my work but take the rest for granted, am I endorsing the notion of the Western as normal and universal? In denying the "oriental" do I, by default, perpetuate Eurocentrism and white supremacy? There is a thin line between refusing the constriction of the stereotype and denying difference. The liberal declaration that Asians (or other people of color) are just like everyone else is as erroneous as the overtly racist precept that we are fundamentally different—for "everyone" is undoubtedly the white subject by another name. Yet if we look at North American history we can detect why some Asians might not want to emphasize their difference from the "mainstream." The internment of Japanese Americans and Canadians during the Second World War was justified by their assumed allegiance to the Japanese government, their untrustworthiness as true Americans and Canadians. Similarly, one of the grounds for excluding the Chinese from immigrating to this continent in the latter half of the last century was the impossibility of their assimilation. Witness a piece of testimony by John W. Dwinelle, "lawyer, and a resident of California since 1849." It was taken in 1884 by Canada's Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration, which led to the institution of a Head tax on immigrating Chinese:

I do not consider it desirable to have the Chinese here. They are not capable of assimilating with us. They do not come here with the intention of growing up with the country, but only acquire a certain amount of money and return to their own country. They have no desire to acquire our language, or assimilate with our institutions, as they are incapable of doing so.

During a conversation about the seventeenth-century invention of racial categories as we know them in the West, a friend of mine stated recently, "there is no race beyond racism." An antiracist politic, she suggested, could only develop through the negation of race; to celebrate racial identity entails the perpetuation of racism. I disagree. First, I do not experience my Asian identity only as racism; neither is my homosexuality only apparent to me in the face of heterosexism. Our identities are sources of pleasure as well as oppression. Second, "pride" in ourselves as Asian, gay or gay-Asian does not preclude a political awareness. It is often, in fact, an important feature of political development.

The problem arises when we take the categories of race or sexuality for granted as real and as natural, and when we slip into smug nationalisms, from which people like me are inevitably excluded. And it is not because my identity is any more "multiple" than that of a straight white man, who is also raced, classed, gendered, and sexually oriented. It is that the burden of "identity" falls on the socially devalued half of the binaries white/colored, male/female, hetero/homo, abled/disabled, and so on. Thus the identity of a middle class, gay, white man is seen as gay, but my race, culture, and sexual orientation are seen to compete with each other. The affirmation of identity through organizing as gay Asians is therefore necessary because that description exists for much of society as an oxymoron, this being particularly so for Asian lesbians. Of course, the notion of the binary is only a crude model for conceptualizing the mess of social relations, and the reality of anyone's life is far more complicated and fluid. It is this space between politically useful categories such as class, race, gender, and sexuality, and the shifting, contradictory ways in which these social forces are played out in the everyday, that I am interested in exploring in my video work.

I have found that the significance of speaking as a gay-Asian man shifts, depending on whether my audience is primarily defined by the venue as gay, Asian, or neither. Lesbian and gay audiences are far more receptive than those at (non-gay) Asian-oriented events. This is possibly because the lesbian, gay, and bisexual movements need to show that we cover the spectrum of society; straight Asians feel no such pressure to include queers. Audiences primarily defined by the venue as "mainstream" or "general," that is, primarily straight and white—at a large public gallery, for example—seem merely baffled by what I or my tapes have to say. I have referred to the venue as gay, heterosexual, or white, but I am aware that the audience as viewing, listening, or reading subject is always more complex, varied, and nomadic than this may imply. People in a particular setting, no matter how superficially homogeneous, will therefore intersect with my words, my tapes—the text—in a multitude of ways, as they will bring different histories, experiences, political priorities, and tastes to the interaction.

So speaking as gay, as Asian, or as a gay-Asian man is a tricky proposition. For one thing, speaking as any one thing too often implies not being listened to on any other terms. As Gayatri Spivak observes: "The question of 'speaking as' involves a distancing from oneself. The moment I have to think of ways in which I will speak as a woman, what I am doing is trying to generalize myself, make myself a representative, trying to distance myself from some kind of inchoate speaking as such."

In making a videotape or speaking on a panel I cannot escape the burden of representation; it is already inside the accumulated knowledge that allows an audience to make sense of my work or of my words. This burden, which accumulates over the history of representation, cannot be transcended any more than the socially defined categories of race or gender can—they affect our lives whether we recognize them or not. Nevertheless, in foregrounding the burden of representation and in making its dilemmas explicit, we have the opportunity to clear a space where we might tentatively begin to close that distance between our socially mediated lives as "minorities," and the dominant privilege of speaking "as such."


Thanks, as always, to Tim McCaskell for words and wisdom.