Imagine that, while riding the bus, a passenger approached you and told you to “go back to your country”.
That’s what happened to a friend of mine during her brief stint living and working abroad in the United Kingdom, a time that shattered the idyllic notions she once harbored about the West.
The animus behind this and other similarly racist encounters she experienced had shocked her. She had never thought people could be capable of behaving like that in public.
Her story, however, didn’t surprise me－and not just because I had seen many reports over the years on racism in the UK, or that I had read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge’s award-winning deep dive into race relations in her country.
Rather, it was because I had lived a version of it in the United States with my husband Jun, when we resided there for nearly eight years. That period served as a painful education in just how widespread racism and discrimination was in my own country. I saw the many ways, both covert and overt, in which people treated him worse than his white peers.
I shouldn’t have needed an education like this to realize that the scourge of racism and discrimination still thrived in the US. And my friend shouldn’t have had to spend time in the UK to discover the truth there.
The protests that have emerged in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other people of color have made it impossible to ignore what has been dubbed the pandemic of racism, an epidemic that didn’t begin in 2020. It has infected societies like the US and the UK for hundreds of years－and it is not a relic of the past that has magically disappeared.
Yung Wing (1828-1912) stands out in history as the pioneering overseas Chinese student, the first from China to graduate from an American university (Yale, class of 1854). He also went on to champion higher education for his fellow Chinese compatriots by establishing the Chinese Educational Mission, which helped send other Chinese students to US schools (including Yale) for a period of time. And countless students, scholars and lifelong learners have benefited from his generous donation of over 1,200 books to Yale, which formed the heart of its celebrated East Asian library.
But Yung Wing’s life also stands as a tragic example of how Chinese exclusion brought about needless suffering — and in his case, the death of his beloved wife, a European American woman.
Yung Wing, who had become a naturalized US citizen in 1852, married Mary Kellogg, from the town of Avon, Connecticut. In a 1875 photo from their wedding day, Mary looks graceful in a long, flowing white gown adorned with garlands of flowers, just like any beautiful bride. (In his memoir, Yung Wing states that, much like the Chinese Educational Mission, it was one of his daydreams while at college to marry an American woman.)
Yung Wing and Mary Kellogg went on to have two sons together: Morrison Brown Yung and Bartlett Golden Yung. Yung said of them in his memoir My Life in China and America:
They are most faithful, thoughtful and affectionate sons, and I am proud of their manly and earnest Christian characters. My gratitude to God for blessing me with two such sons will forever rise to heaven, an endless incense.
Unfortunately, their marriage took place amid growing the anti-Chinese sentiment gripping the US — as Yung Wing described it in his memoir, “The race prejudice against the Chinese was so rampant and rank….” The era culminated in one of the most discriminatory laws ever enacted in America: the Chinese Exclusion Act, which passed in 1882.
…the Chinese Exclusion Act [was] overtly designed to impact and even destroy the existing Chinese American community. Yung’s citizenship was stripped, and when he traveled back to China to continue his work as a diplomat, he was denied readmission into the United States under the law’s bigoted pretenses. In a painfully blunt letter relying this decision to diplomat Charles Denby, Secretary of State John Sherman admitted that the exclusion “would on its face seem unjust and without warrant. … Nevertheless, … the department does not feel that it can properly recognize him as a citizen of the United States.”
This denial of Yung’s citizenship, and indeed of the fundamental truths of his half-century of inspiring and influential American life and work, profoundly affected his family and final decades of life. Deeply traumatized by their extended separation and by fears for Yung’s life, Mary passed away, leaving Morrison and Bartlett to be fostered out to family friends in New England.
Mary’s death came in 1886, which meant their entire marriage lasted only a scant 11 years. She would never live to see other indignities visited upon her husband, as TK Chu noted in the work 150 Years of Chinese Students in America:
[Yung Wing’s] life at old age was lonely (his children were working in China) and at times humiliating. He was asked to leave a boarding house when fellow boarders refused to share a dining table with him. After that he found his last residence at 284 Sergeant Street, Hartford; he entered his second floor quarters through a side entrance.
#1: The Court granted Jun Yu’s motion to amend his present complaint; the newly amended complaint now has 18 counts against ISU
Last year, after doing research and reading the expert reports, our lawyers determined Jun’s case was much stronger than the initial complaint (and its 3 counts) reflected. However, since the Court’s set deadline for amending complaints had passed, in April 2016 we filed a motion to amend the complaint (meaning, we were asking the Court’s permission to amend), which ISU opposed.
This Court decision, allowing us to amend the complaint, strengthens Jun’s case. The newly amended complaint now has 18 counts of wrongdoing against the university — six times what we initially had — and truly reflects the egregious harm ISU inflicted upon Jun.
It also means we’ve just added some very significant counts to the case.
One of the most important counts is number four, the denial of substantive due process rights. This count was supported by the reports from Jun’s leading experts in ethics, cultural competence, and aversive racism, who have all concluded that ISU’s actions towards him were “a substantial departure from accepted academic norms.” Why does this matter? Because the Supreme Court ruled (See Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing) that universities cannot substantially depart from accepted academic norms in their judgments regarding students.
The opinions of Jun’s experts are significant. It is the rare case where a plaintiff presented expert witnesses who belong to faculties to conclude that an academic institution behaved in an arbitrary and capricious manner that was a substantial departure from accepted academic norms.
Besides the denial of substantive due process, we’ve also added in a number of breach of contract counts. A notable one is count number seven, Failure to Adhere to the Code of Ethics of the American Psychological Association (APA) (as per Idaho licensing law). This count comes from the conclusions of our leading experts in psychology, including one of the most renowned authorities on ethics in psychology, who determined ISU violated a number of APA Ethical standards in their treatment towards Jun Yu. (You can read the full reports detailing APA Ethics violations here and here). That’s how serious this is; leaders in the psychology field are standing up to condemn the behavior of ISU.
The Court finds the records requested by Plaintiff are relevant to his claim of discrimination based on national origin and his allegations at this stage in the proceedings are sufficient to warrant production of these materials. Plaintiff’s need for these records sufficiently outweigh the students’ privacy interest…
There’s still another pending motion before the Court, a motion for summary judgment that was filed by ISU back in September 2016. Before the case even gets assigned a trial date, we need to overcome summary judgment. It’s one of the most critical hurdles for a civil suit.
We already believed we could overcome summary judgment last year. We feel more confident after these decisions from the Court — particularly the Court’s decision granting us the leave to file an amended complaint, adding many critical counts to the lawsuit.
There’s still much to do before a trial would happen, including sorting through seven years worth of student records from ISU (which could end up costing a lot of time and money). That’s why your support, in whatever form you can provide, is so important.
Linda Ogutu, a Kenyan living in Scotland, shares what happened to her when she applied to be an au pair with a family in China. She writes, “I think I ‘knew’ that discrimination does take place, but now I KNOW based on experience.”
I applied for a job. A cultural exchange job as an au pair in China. I enjoy traveling and desire to explore and experience cultures which are different from my own. Going to China would have been one way to begin traveling around Asia as I had always wanted to do that.
I applied for the job being hopeful, but also reminding myself that nothing may come of it.
I received a response much sooner than I had expected. Oh how I was giddy with excitement!
We arranged a time to video-chat. We exchanged pleasantries and then we were off to official business. I was asked where I was from and following my response, the interviewer apologized profusely and said I unfortunately did not fit what they were looking for.
“Oh! I am so sorry but unfortunately we will not be able to take you. My partner does not like black people. I was going to try and convince them if you were from the West, but since you are not, they will not accept it at all. I am so sorry, really.”
Of course I understood and wished them all the best in their search.
I was disappointed the family did not want to take me as the husband of the lady that interviewed me probably had ingrained in his mind all the negative stereotypes of black people. I wasn’t angry at her as she knew I was black (we have to provide a profile photo on the au pair website). I also surprisingly wasn’t angry at her husband because I knew he just had the wrong idea of what black people are like.
I thought about their response and honestly was not surprised by it.
I have been prepared for experiences like these as my father always told my siblings and me that a day would come when we would unfortunately have to experience discrimination based on either our gender, the colour of our skin, or our religious beliefs. He had experienced his fair share whilst studying in the West when he was younger. He always reminded us that when people discriminate it is because they don’t know.
I think I ‘knew’ that discrimination does take place, but now I KNOW based on experience. Granted it wasn’t extreme as in most other cases. I suppose now it has made me more aware, but I don’t want to ever get to a point where I lash back or hate those that discriminate against me. I’d honestly rather fight hatred with love; MLK and Gandhi-style (haha).
I would still apply for another au pair job in China. I know not all Chinese still view black people in a negative light. Also, I could probably au pair for a foreign family living in China as well.
As for the Chinese family who interviewed me, I wonder if the husband’s mind will ever be opened. Someday. Perhaps.
America’s discrimination laws have been on the books since the 1960’s, putting all Americans on notice that they’ll be in deep trouble for using overtly racist language. So nowadays, people who want to do something motivated by racism (which might even be racism they’re not aware of, aka aversive racism) will hide their intentions. They’ll usually fabricate seemingly reasonable explanations, even when they might totally contradict the facts in the case.
The school’s official reasoning for terminating Yu’s doctorate was “unsatisfactory progress.” However, as Dr. Chavez-Korell noted–“The assigned grades and formal evaluations across semesters are inconsistent with unsatisfactory progress.”
#2: You can still be racist even if you work in a field that embraces diversity and advocates against racism and discrimination
If there was ever a field that cared about diversity, it’s professional psychology.
The American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code has three standards regarding diversity and discrimination – 3.01 Unfair Discrimination, 3.02 Sexual Harassment, and 3.03 Other Harassment (which says psychologists should not harass or demean others based on factors including “age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language or socioeconomic status.”).
While in ISU’s clinical psychology PhD program, my husband spent an entire semester studying diversity, and the class covered topics on racism, discrimination and prejudice. One of his textbooks was Overcoming Our Racism by Derald Wing Sue, which actually begins with the words, “Are you a racist?… Are you willing to look at yourself, to examine your assumptions, your attitudes, your conscious and unconscious behavior, the privileges you have enjoyed as a White person, and the way you have treated people of color, even with the best of intentions?”
Yet the program behaved in racist ways towards my husband, Jun Yu.
… it is hard to imagine a situation that more strongly demonstrates all of the hallmarks that are typically present when aversive racism is occurring, whichstrongly suggests thatthe behavior of the ISU Psychology department was influenced by Mr. Yu’s race and international status. [emphasis added]
It just goes to show that working in a field that purportedly promotes diversity is not a “get-out-of-being-a-racist-free-card” by any means.
#3: Modern racism can be devastating, destroying your entire life and even your dreams
It took Jun 5 years of hard work to earn the degree. But it only took the university an arbitrary decision to deny it. ISU has robbed Jun of his past achievements. They have stolen his dream of becoming a clinical psychologist. They have ruined his career and future.
People have been asking, where is the discrimination in Jun Yu’s case? The answer is, modern discrimination and racism usually lurk behind more obvious wrongdoing.
While ISU committed acts of aversive racism against Jun (see aversive racism report), at the same time, they egregiously violated professional standards in how they dealt with Jun.
Why does it matter that ISU violated professional standards? The answer is, because universities cannot substantially deviate from accepted academic norms and professional standards are academic norms. (See Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing, 106 S.Ct. 507, 513, 474 U.S. 214, 224-25 (U.S.Mich.,1985). See also Emerson v. North Idaho College, 2006 WL 3253585, at *8 (D.Idaho, 2006).)
Let’s look at how ISU blatantly violated professional standards in psychology.
One of the strongest aspects of Jun’s case is the fact that ISU blatantly violated the professional standards in psychology.
The Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct from the American Psychological Association (aka the APA Ethics Code) is a set of standards that every licensed psychologist in the US is bound to follow. Every psychology board in the US has adopted the APA Ethics Code as part of their laws that govern the work of every licensed psychologist. Furthermore, the ISU clinical psychology PhD program has been accredited by APA since 2001. Accreditation standards also demand that department faculty follow APA Ethics.
The APA Ethics Code includes a standard (7.06) about supervising students:
7.06 Assessing Student and Supervisee Performance
(a) In academic and supervisory relationships, psychologists establish a timely and specific process for providing feedback to students and supervisees. Information regarding the process is provided to the student at the beginning of supervision.
(b) Psychologists evaluate students and supervisees on the basis of their actual performance on relevant and established program requirements.
When discussing serious criticisms with supervisees, one should invariably offer these in writing, followed or accompanied by a dialogue about expected changes with a remedial plan…. [Students are] certainly entitled to feedback and would be justified in asserting the inappropriateness of saying nothing about shortcomings until the final evaluation. Such behavior, if true, afforded [the student] no opportunity to attempt remediation of his defects and denied him due process.
During Yu’s fourth year in the program, John Landers was his supervisor for the fall 2011 PSYC 7748 Clinical Externship class at the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.
The externship was not a required course, but Yu was recommended by the CTC to the externship to gain experience “critical for students to compete for national internships,” according to the complaint.
According to the contract, the externship was planned to last for one year.
But just two months into the externship, Landers dismissed Yu from the externship, alleging that Yu was “unable to grasp the communication nuances.” This was despite Yu meeting the English proficiency standards for admission at the university.
Yu received no prior, specific feedback regarding alleged areas of concern or remediation. [Emphasis added] Landers wrote that “this site could not afford to engage in remediation efforts” and he acknowledged that “daily feedback may have been too indirect.”
I would also add to this that Jun received his first and only evaluation from this supervisor 10 days after the dismissal. Yes, that’s right. He was dismissed first, and then 10 days later the supervisor did the evaluation.
All of this — no prior, specific feedback regarding alleged areas of concern, no remediation, doing an evaluation 10 days after a dismissal — is apparently a flagrant violation of APA Ethics Code 7.06, as described by the authors of that ethics textbook.
If the allegations made by the ISU faculty are to be believed, they clearly failed to perform appropriate timely assessments; provide timely feedback; propose and assist with necessary remediation; or provide timely monitoring of off-site placements….As previously noted, there were no written documentation of substantive guidance, remedial feedback, or corrective action. (Docket 22-1 p. 24 of 44.)
In other words, they didn’t ensure proper supervision in accordance with 7.06.
You’re probably now scratching your head and asking yourself, how in the world could ISU do this to Jun? How could they completely disregard ethics in how Jun was treated in a supervisory situation? It’s a question Jun and I have asked ourselves again and again.
There are many ways in which Dr. Leslie Speer violated the minimal due process that was available to Mr. Yu (Plaintiff Document 000053-000059) – ranging from not offering a second assessment until after his dismissal to not working with him to develop a remediation plan in the face of performance concerns to not assembling the group of supervisors in Ohio to discuss his performance before dismissal – and the ISU faculty used the decision of Dr. Speer to justify dismissing Mr. Yu from the program. The ISU faculty’s decision to privilege the opinion and decision-making of a supervisor who was violating accepted standards means that the decision was, at least in part, based on a violation of accepted professional norms. (Docket 24-1 p. 28 of 33.)
So, once again you have a supervisor who 1) dismissed Jun first and then did an evaluation; and 2) didn’t do any remediation.
A number of ethical and accreditation standards have been violated in Mr. Yu’s case. These include ethical violations by faculty members related to following through with program descriptions (Code: 7.02), flaws in assessing and responding to student performance (Code: 7.06), and avoiding harm (Code: 3.04). (Docket 22-1 p. 23 of 44)
Ethical violations by ISU faculty and clinical supervisors, as guided by the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (American Psychological Association, 2010), include boundaries of competence in training international students who speak English as a second language (APA Ethics Code Standard: 2.01), avoiding harm (APA Ethics Code Standard: 3.04), and assessing student and supervisee performance (APA Ethics Code Standard: 7.06). (Docket 22-1 p. 34 of 44.)
It’s very disturbing that an APA Accredited Program would apparently violate the very standards they are supposed to model and train students in.
But more importantly, it shows a substantial departure from accepted academic norms. (See Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing, 106 S.Ct. 507, 513, 474 U.S. 214, 224-25 (U.S.Mich.,1985). See also Emerson v. North Idaho College, 2006 WL 3253585, at *8 (D.Idaho, 2006).)
“Taken as a whole, the actions of the faculty at ISU in dismissing Mr. Yu as they did constitute, in my opinion, substantial arbitrary and capricious and departures from accepted academic norms in clinical psychology doctoral programs.” (Ethics expert, Docket 22-1, page 25)
“On the basis of these facts, it is my opinion that the behavior of the members of the Idaho State University psychology department was arbitrary and capricious and deviated from accepted professional norms in psychology.” (Aversive racism expert, Docket 22-1, page 31)
“In my opinion, the actions of the faculty at ISU in dismissing Mr. Yu as they did, was a substantial departure from accepted academic norms.” (Cultural competency expert, Docket 22-1, page 36)
So, how is all this discriminatory?
Look at it this way. ISU had an obligation and responsibility to adhere to APA Ethics in their treatment towards Jun — particularly as a clinical psychology program responsible for educating students in ethical and professional behavior. Yet, they flagrantly violated ethics, the most important professional standards for psychologists.
Anyone who knows APA Ethics would find the violations I mentioned above abhorrent, particularly for people in psychology (often referred to as “the helping profession”). This is a field that supposedly cares about safeguarding the rights of others. Yet, as Jun’s ethics expert wrote, “the program…did not adequately respect [Jun’s] rights.” (Docket 22-1 p. 24 of 44.)
It’s as if ISU believed, when it came to their behavior with Jun Yu, professional standards and ethics no longer apply.
Ask yourself, why would an APA-Accredited program so blatantly violate these standards? And why did the wrongdoing happen to the one student in the program who was Asian, from China, spoke English as a second language?
P.S.: Based on feedback in the comments, I’ve since edited the article to make things clearer to readers, particularly noting the importance of Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing in Jun’s case.
As experts noted, what ISU ultimately did to Jun is part of a pattern of unethical, incompetent and discriminatory behavior by the program towards Jun.
Jun worked hard for 5 years as a clinical psychology PhD student at Idaho State University (ISU). He had successfully defended his PhD dissertation. He had a 3.69 GPA, earning satisfactory grades in all required coursework. He was in good standing and not on any form of academic probation.
On May 3, 2013, ISU abruptly dismissed Jun from the clinical psychology PhD program without any warning or remediation, alleging unsatisfactory progress.
However, ISU’s alleged reason was made up, and is directly contradicted by the facts. (An expert reported, “The assigned grades and formal evaluations across semesters are inconsistent with unsatisfactory progress; due process was not followed. In regards to accreditation standards, in all matters relevant to the evaluation of students’ performance, programs must adhere to their institution’s regulations regarding due process and fair treatment of students.”)
The university also denied him the PhD he rightfully earned, as if all the hard work he did for the past 5 years was for nothing.
To add injury to insult, Jun is still making monthly payments on the student loans he took out for his education.
Universities are supposed to facilitate students’ careers, yet ISU wrongfully destroyed Jun’s future and seriously damaged his life.
The opinions of Jun’s experts are significant. It is the rare case where a plaintiff presented expert witnesses who belong to faculties to conclude that an academic institution behaved in an arbitrary and capricious manner that was a substantial departure from accepted academic norms. See Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing, 106 S.Ct. 507, 474 U.S. 214 (U.S.Mich., 1985).
It took Jun 5 years of hard work to earn the degree. But it only took the university an arbitrary decision to deny it. ISU has robbed Jun of his past achievements. They have stolen his dream of becoming a clinical psychologist. They have ruined his career and future.
This never should have happened to Jun. But if ISU isn’t held accountable, this could happen again — to you or someone you know.
Jun and I have been fighting this injustice for over 3 years. Although it is a long, exhausting and expensive battle, we are determined to fight to the end — and we need your help.
The legal fees have been substantial. In the past five months legal bills have ranged from over $12,000 in a month up to over $40,000 in a month. No, that was not a typo — over $40,000 just in one month where the legal team billed 124.70 hours and other expenses associated with litigation were accrued.
We have already had to pay out over $200,000 in legal costs. ISU’s wrongdoing has thrown us into extreme adversity, where ISU has inflicted great financial stress (we are in major debt) as well as emotional duress upon us. Should ISU drag the case, we could easily be forced to pay $200,000 more in legal fees, not including the costs of appeal by either party.
Jun’s lawsuit could have lasting implications for all graduate students in the US and the profession of psychology. We need your help to continue this very important fight.
But what I love most about Big Little Man is how Tizon tells the story. He’s painfully honest about his own struggles with things such as identity and feeling inferior in an America that has traditionally marginalized Asian men. He also keeps you turning the pages with his superlative writing and storytelling skills, which is where his journalist credentials especially shine through (Tizon received a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1997).
Ultimately, this is a memoir I’ll cherish for years – and chances are, you will too. You must read Big Little Man. And if you’re like me, you’ll want to peruse its compelling pages again and again.
During his 20 years as a journalist, Tizon worked first for the Seattle Times and then the Los Angeles Times. A graduate of the University of Oregon and Stanford, he now teaches journalism at the University of Oregon. You can learn more about him and his writing at AlexTizon.com.
In this interview with Alex Tizon, I asked him all about Big Little Man – from what it was like writing about yellow fever and his own insecurities about penis size, to what he thinks it’s going to take for Asian men to be seen as desirable romantic partners.
You offer one of the most devastating critiques of Western men with yellow fever seeking Asian women that I’ve ever read. While you acknowledge at the end of the book that you’re now more accepting of these relationships, for a time this phenomenon actually angered you. How did it feel to revisit your past feelings on this issue?
It didn’t feel very good. It felt terrible, actually. And the feeling wasn’t limited to just this phenomenon. The writing process itself is painful to me, and when you combine it with the probing and remembering that were required to tell the story, the whole enterprise at times seemed too much to bear. Remembering the sense of exile that I felt as a young man actually recreated the feeling of exile. Remembering the indignation I felt upon seeing rich old white men buying the affections of impoverished 15-year-old prostitutes in the Philippines filled me once again with anger and resentment, and I walked around that way. It put me in a snarly mood. I wasn’t fit to be around people. I withdrew and took a lot of naps. I really hope my next book won’t be such a torture.
In your memoir, you courageously confront the pernicious “small penis” stereotype of Asian men in part by sharing your own very personal and intimate experiences. When I was reading this section of your book, I almost often felt as if I was sneaking a peek at your diary! What was it like writing so honestly about something most men would never dare to discuss?
People are surprised to hear that it wasn’t that difficult to do, really. There were sections of the book that were much harder to conceptualize and write about. If I were thirty years younger, I might not have been able to write about this topic because of adolescent ego and vanity that are still so powerful at that age. But I’m in my 50s, with a respectable record of romances, and am happily married. I’ve sufficiently proven myself, at least in my own mind. My insecurities have moved on to other areas.
The challenge in writing the penis chapter was to do it in a way that elevated the discussion, at least a little, from the junior high locker room level to something that addressed the symbolism of the subject. I don’t know if I succeeded. My wife thought the chapter was extraneous and a little puerile. In my defense, I was more interested in exploring what the penis represents in the various mythologies about race. It would be incomplete to talk about the Asian male experience without addressing the idea of his mythically small penis, just as it would be incomplete to talk about the black male experience without addressing his mythically large one. These myths exert social force. Both myths are hollow, of course. “Asian” covers too many people over too large a swath of geography, as does “black” or “African.” The riotous diversity in those swaths! When you make simplistic generalizations about such immense sections of humanity, you’re bound to be wrong half the time. Nevertheless, the myths endure.
You devote an entire chapter to exploring Asian men in American TV and the movies, from the embarrassing stereotypes to “yellowface”. It’s one of the most comprehensive takes on this subject that I’ve encountered. How do you feel about the state of the Asian man in American movies and TV for this year?
There are promising signs. ABC will have two primetime comedies this fall starring Asian leads, including one, Selfie, in which actor John Cho plays a lead role, and some predict a romantic lead role. We’ll have to wait and see if that pans out. There’s Steven Yeung on The Walking Dead, and Daniel Dae Kim in Hawaii Five-O; both of those are supporting roles but good ones.
Cultural habits are hard to break, though. One show on TBS, 2 Broke Girls, that was called by the New Yorker as “so racist it’s baffling,” features an Asian male character straight out of KKK central casting: a diminutive, sexless, bumbling, language-challenged restaurant owner who is a constant butt of jokes, and he takes it like a true spineless loser. He’s the 2014 version of Lloyd Lee on Entourage, and Hop Sing on Bonanza. White America needs at least one per generation to remind itself that, oh yeah, this is what we think of Asian men. Chop Chop!
A few weeks ago, I watched a movie called Edge of Tomorrow in which the lead character was played by Tom Cruise. I like Tom Cruise. But the movie was based on a Japanese graphic novel, written by a Japanese author, in which the lead character is Japanese. There’s another movie coming out soon – same situation, based on a novel out of Japan, but the lead role was given to blonde, green-eyed Garrett Hedlund, who I’m sure is a terrific actor. When Hollywood starts casting Asian men in roles originally conceived as Asian men by writers who are also Asian men, then I’ll know we’re making real progress.
Regarding your romantic life as a young man in college, you wrote, “My sense was female eyes did not see me…I was undesirable.” The three distinguished young Asian men you profile in your book, who you single out as examples of progress, also admit to challenges of dating at universities where most women are white. What do you think it’s going to take for Asian men to be seen as desirable partners?
Time. And a re-positioning of the world order, which is happening as we speak. Desirability in men is so often tied to power. As Asian nations and diasporas, and Asian Americans, both male and female, continue to accrue power – economic, social, political, corporeal – the more appealing they’ll become, and the more influence they’ll have in affecting ideals of beauty and desirability, which will be redrawn in their likeness. It’s a matter of time. Of course I’m talking about historical time: decades and generations rather than weeks and months.
While your entire book is an incredibly fascinating portrait of Asian manhood, I especially enjoyed your chapter on the Chinese concept of Wen Wu (文武) as it relates to masculinity: “For the past two thousand years in China, you could not be merely a tough guy to be considered an ideal man. You also had to be scholarly, poetic, and wise. The manliest of men were philosopher-warriors, and more philosopher than warrior. A cultivated mind was more highly esteemed than big biceps or deft swordsmanship.” How did it feel to discover this tradition of masculinity, and that it had such a long history?
It really put in place a missing piece of the puzzle for me. But it was more a sense of re-discovering it rather than discovering it. Because I grew up with it in my family, only I didn’t realize it at the time. We didn’t have the language for it, nor sufficient knowledge of our own history. But when I realized that the dynamics of our family, specifically the ones that shaped my father and brothers, were part of an old tradition of masculinity (I like the way you put that: a tradition of masculinity) that went back to the ancient Chinese, whose teachings influenced the whole continent, it made sense of things I’d been trying to figure out. It also liberated me in a very real way. I was freed to be the man that I was raised to be.
You write briefly about your first marriage to a white woman, which ended in divorce. You stated, “I don’t believe our ethnic and racial backgrounds played a huge role in our breaking apart, but they may have played a role.” How much do you think ethnic and racial backgrounds matter in relationships?
I have to believe that it will matter in different ways and in different intensities for different couples. I can really only speak to my own experience, and I’m more and more believing that I underestimated the influence, on a subconscious, molecular level, of our families or, as I put it in the book, our clans. I think the Emerson quote I use in the book, that we’re each a quotation from all our ancestors, is true. The wider the gulf between our ancestors, the greater the potential for disconnect in present-day relationships.
But I also know of a few interracial and interethnic marriages that are as solid as any I’ve encountered. They make it work. They do the impossible work of bridging impossibly wide gulfs. And let’s face it, the gulf between men and women everywhere and in all times can seem impossibly wide. But these couples seem to have what it takes for any couple of any background to last a long time: humility, deep friendship, an ability to create a spark now and then in some area of life. A little luck doesn’t hurt either.
You write about initially feeling uncomfortable with being lumped together with all the different ethnic groups from Asia under one label (“Oriental” when you were growing up, and “Asian” today), as if Japanese and Filipino is “the same thing”. At the end of your book, you state, “For the time being, and until we collectively move on to more enlightened ways of identifying ourselves, I guess I am an Asian guy.” What do you think would be a more enlightened way to identify ourselves?
Almost anything other than “Asian” or “Black” or “White” would be more enlightened. Nationality or ethnicity or geographic location would be an improvement. Perhaps the more specific the better. I am a fisherman from the Pacific Northwest of the North American continent. When I traveled to my mother’s home province in the Philippines in the early 1990s, I was enchanted to meet people who identified themselves, not as Filipinos or even as Tarlacenos (from Tarlac Province), but as people of such-and-such mountain or such-and-such river. They harkened from a very specific place, and identified themselves accordingly.
I’m watching the HBO series Game of Thrones, which is roughly based on medieval Europe, and I love the way the characters identify themselves with these very long, compound sentences: I am Alexander of House Tizon, Son of the First Men, Subject of the Seven Gods of Hodor, Squire for the Protector of the Realm, Native of the Andals and Ally of the Cebuano Fishers of the Black Sea, etc. I mean, it gets a little long-winded but it’s so eloquent and beautiful and rich, and so multidimensional. Wouldn’t it be great if we did the same in identifying ourselves. It might require the creation of a new language and a new tradition. Might it actually enrich our experience? Because what we name ourselves, I believe, profoundly affects how we see ourselves as individuals, and in turn how we conduct our lives. “I’m Black” or “I’m White or “I’m Asian” seems to open the door to such a limited reality – small and ridiculously vague at the same time.
Among some Indian tribes in New Mexico, there are over a hundred words for sunlight. There’s a word for the light that peeks over a hill in the morning. There’s a word for the light as it moves behind a particular kind of cloud. There’s a word for the sun just as it disappears below the horizon, and so on. You have to believe that their experience of the sun had more dimensions to it, was richer, and more poetic and precise. If we can figure out how to identify ourselves in ways as textured and layered and nuanced, we’ll have done a kindness and maybe come closer to the enlightened approach I hint at in the book.
A huge thank you to Alex Tizon for enlightening us all about Big Little Man through this interview! For more information about Tizon and his writing, you can visit his website AlexTizon.com (where you can also find links to him on social media sites). You can purchase Big Little Man at all major online retailers including Amazon.com.
Many years ago, when my husband first received clearance in China his US Green Card, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. “Now the greatest challenges are finally over,” I thought.
Oh, how wrong I was.
It was only after I moved to America with my Chinese husband that I finally learned the truth — that the most challenging things happen after you set foot in American soil.
Here are 7 major challenges we faced after we moved together from China to America:
1. Nobody really cares about what you did in China
Returning to the US with a new spouse after years in China is like coming home from the greatest world adventure ever. You’ve both seen and experienced incredible things you’re dying to share with everyone you meet, from old family and to new friends. You want to enlighten your fellow Americans about the “real” China.
Except, there’s just one problem — nobody really cares!
Those closest do care, and job interviewers take a keen interest in my unconventional background, but for the most part I feel it’s a polite interest, not a deeply profound one. I’m a lone wolf in the sense that I don’t really know too many people, acquaintances or otherwise, interested in China. Many have a hard time placing Xi’an, even when I mention the Terracotta Warriors.
John and I felt like the odd-couple-out at hundreds of social gatherings in the US, surrounded by Americans who would rather talk about TV shows neither of us had ever heard of.
It was a sad reversal of what we experienced in China, where friends and family would remain rapt with attention when we spoke of America. They were always hungry to hear about what things were really like in my home country, and excited to discuss the latest news headlines, movies and even TV shows.
Ultimately, the few people who actually wanted to talk China were usually from the country, former expats, or traveled there once upon a time. And sadly, there were never enough of them to go around.
2. Americans are incredibly judgmental towards non-native English speakers
Growing up, I often gravitated towards foreigners in the US who didn’t speak native English. When a young girl from Belgrade joined our high school orchestra for a period of time, I loved hanging out with her in the hallway and hearing her spin stories of the former Yugoslavia through her splendidly imperfect English. In college, I used to enjoy green tea with a couple of Japanese guys who sometimes paused in the middle of a sentence, and once helped put together a party to welcome a gaggle of Brazilian girls who spoke English with heavy accents.
None of these imperfections in their English bothered me in the least. After all, we could communicate and in the end, that’s all that mattered. Right?
Then I returned to the US with my Chinese husband who speaks English as a second language – and discovered the shocking truth. Most Americans were not like me at all.
Americans are extremely judgmental towards non-native English speakers – even when they speak outstanding English (as my husband does).
They’re even judgmental when they haven’t met your foreign spouse. People who had never even heard my husband speak a single word automatically assumed his English must be poor because he’s Chinese. (Sadly, in the hierarchy of non-native English speakers, Chinese place somewhere at the bottom.)
If you’re a white American like me, get ready to experience a new kind of education through your Chinese spouse: discrimination.
As I’ve written before in this piece published in Hippo Reads, discrimination is real for Asians of all stripes in the US (including those born and raised on American soil). But it’s going to be that much harder for your spouse because they’re not used to it – and, if you’re white, neither are you.
Even worse, if you’re like the vast majority of white people (who have no people of color as friends), you’re going to feel incredibly isolated when your spouse finally experiences the worst. Most whites don’t believe discrimination still happens in America today. Suddenly, the friends you thought would always be there for you just don’t get it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll grow tired of trying to convince them of the fact that it’s a real thing – and will be forced to move on and forge completely new friendships.
My advice? Be prepared. Read about how modern discrimination and racism in America really works (Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists is my favorite, but it’s not the last word on this). Make more friends with people of color – they can share their experiences with you and will become your allies when the worst hits your spouse.
4. Deep cravings for authentic Chinese food that are tough to satisfy
Call it the American Chinese food conundrum. There are literally hundreds of thousands of Chinese restaurants that cover the US – and only a small fraction of them can deliver anything close to the ambrosial delights that you fell in love with in China.
It’s a nightmare for your Chinese partner, accustomed to the incredible diversity of Chinese food you can find in most urban areas in China.
On the streets right beside our apartment, we can dine on cross-the-bridge noodles from Yunnan, spicy BBQ from Chongqing and Hunan, Lanzhou-style pulled noodles, and at least four or five different specialties from cities in Zhejiang province you’ve probably never even heard of.
When you move to America, you’re trading in that kind of rich culinary heritage for a blandly bastardized version that’s either breaded and deep-fried or drowning in some unnaturally pink glop.
If you’re lucky, one or both of you can actually cook decent Chinese food and satisfy those cravings on a regular basis. Even then, you’ll never cover it all. There are some things that are WAY too complicated to prepare on a regular basis (Beijing duck, anyone?). There are others you’ll struggle to buy or never find at all, such as fresh Spring bamboo roots, tang hulu, and Suzhou-style mooncakes.
(Well, at least it’ll give you something to look forward to when you return to China for visits, right?)
5. Teaching your spouse how to drive a car
Unless you’re one of the fortunate few Americans returning to a city with excellent mass transportation (like New York City) you’ll need a car to get around. So will your spouse, except for one small problem: chances are, he or she doesn’t know how to drive.
Guess who will become their teacher?
This is a dangerous proposition – “dangerous” as in it could seriously wreck your marriage.
Anyone who has ever listened to the popular NPR show Car Talk knows that many a couple gets into an argument over something as simple as how to drive (and we’re talking about two adults who already have their license). There’s nothing more nervewracking than sitting shotgun as your sweetie is swerving in between lanes and on the verge of clipping someone else’s car – and it’s your job to yell at them and get the car under control.
In the end, I helped my husband successfully earn his US driver’s license. But ask me to do it all over again? Please…no!
6. Helping your foreign spouse through the exhausting task of finding work while you’re finding work
Anyone who recalls that demanding post-graduation job hunt knows it’s not easy to land on your feet with that perfect job and apartment. Just imagine how much harder that whole process is when you have to do it as you’re guiding a foreigner through the ins and outs of a whole job hunting culture that’s not second nature to them.
If you haven’t already, you’ll soon learn that the process is NOT as universal as you imagined. You’ll also learn that America puts a premium on appearances (aka job interviews) so even if your spouse is wholly qualified for the work, they still might not get the job. Sadly, discrimination (especially language-based discrimination) looms large in subjective situations like interviews, leading to a lot of potential disappointments and frustrations that you never even expected.
Worst case scenario? You’ll give up on ever finding employment for your Chinese spouse.
That might sound easy enough if you’re an American man with a Chinese wife, but it flips the traditional marriage expectation on its head for American women with Chinese husbands. Still, I know of American women who have returned to the US with their families, understanding that their husbands will either be underemployed or become stay-at-home dads.
7. Realizing the American dream isn’t always what you imagined
One of the most painful things about moving to America was when the experience shattered all the fantasies I ever had about settling there with my husband. My own country crushed us and let us down in countless ways.
I know of couples who pushed past the imperfect and frustrating reality to eventually build a “good enough” for themselves and their families.
As for us, we’ve had it with the American dream, trading it in for our own China dream instead.
Have you moved from China to America? Are you planning your own move? Weigh in with your thoughts on the challenges of bringing your family to the USA!
The accomplished Kaitlin Solimine (she’s also a contributor to the new anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit) asked me a few months back about doing a piece for HIPPO Reads, a website known for “Real World Issues, Academic Insights.” Originally, it all started when I shared an article about the bias against Asian students in academia (one of the most shocking findings from a recent Wharton School study) and she brought up doing a guest post for HIPPO Reads. So I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.”
Well, the article soon morphed into something far beyond the problems that Asians face in higher education in America, and now offers a more comprehensive snapshot of the many ways Asians just aren’t getting ahead in America (despite the “model minority” label Americans love to attribute to Asians).
In April 2014, the public was collectively shocked when University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School unveiled the results of a study examining racial gender biases in faculty mentoring. This finding particularly struck a chord: “We see tremendous bias against Asian students and that’s not something we expected. So a lot of people think of Asians as a model minority group. We expect them to be treated quite well in academia, and at least in the study and in this context we see more discrimination against Indian and Chinese students than against other groups.”
For most of the American public, such a finding was confounding. After all, for many Americans, it seems Asians reign at elite colleges and universities and go on to live the American dream. Eugene Volokh, for example, in this Washington Post piece, points to the overrepresentation of Asians at the Silicon Valley behemoth of Google as an example of “how the Asians became white.”
Statistics can be deceptive, just like our own stereotypes about Asians in America. If Americans think Asians have truly made it—or even have an unfair advantage—perhaps it’s time to think again:
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