When I was a kid, someone said if I dug deep enough in the ground, I’d end up in China. I stopped digging. China was the last place I wanted to go and it stayed that way until I was 20.
I’ve wanted to write about my meet-cute with Asia for a while now. Girl meets continent. Continent has bad reputation and isn’t her style. As girl spends time with continent, something blossoms between them.
Next to God and my family, there is nothing I have loved as long or that has gripped my interest so completely as this part of the world. Though my mailing address has often changed, my weight has fluctuated, and my resume appears “unfocused,” for the last 17 years, I have maintained my gaze on that wonderfully diverse continent, exploring her, investigating her, and not being able to tear myself away.
But it started with me calling China the instant conversation killer. For nearly two years, a friend from college tried to convince some of us to move there with him after graduation. Dinner at his place? Chinese food. Playing in the background in his car? Chinese Pimsleur CDs. Trip to the zoo? Start with pandas. For nearly two years I pushed back, growing increasingly exasperated with the constant suggestion. China was no place for someone who looked like me. I didn’t speak the language. Who would do my hair? I was going to become a music teacher or go into ministry somewhere—anywhere, really, but there. The future I saw for myself did not have China in it.
There was some truth to these excuses, but a little digging would unearth that my opinion of China was actually negative, having been shaped by what I’d heard about it on the news (which—surprise—was never positive) and by what I hadn’t heard about thanks to the gaping hole about the broader region in our curriculum. It was both disfigured and veiled. I knew very little about the region and what I did know wasn’t good.
Part of the problem was me. In the fall of my senior year of college, my ex-boyfriend actually broke up with me because he said I lacked curiosity about the world. While I am 100% sure that’s not the real reason he broke up with me, the statement was more or less true at the time. I wasn’t particularly interested in the world and what of the world I was interested in was less distant, both culturally and geographically. I’d taken six years of Spanish and watched telenovelas and listened to Spanish music. Beyond that, I had a thin interest in Europe, as my education had cultivated.
Turns out all it took was me finding out China had its own ethnic minorities to ignite an interest that eventually led me to move to the very last place I’d always imagined for myself. I’d been waffling between going to China and working for Wycliffe after graduation, but decided I didn’t like languages enough to want to spend the rest of my life studying them. I couldn’t have been more short-sighted.
I arrived in China and the first few months were, shall I say, quite the adjustment. My beginner language class was taught completely in Chinese, none of the food agreed with me, and everything different felt wrong or rude to me. People were direct when they should have been indirect and indirect when I sought a straight answer. It took forever to check out at the convenience store because people didn’t queue and I didn’t push my way forward.
My ignorance was region-wide. I still remember very early on sharing a cab with a Korean classmate to a class dinner and telling her that Korea, Japan, and China were more or less the same since they all used chopsticks after all. I’ll never forget those next few explosive minutes in the back of the cab, I spoke no Korean at the time but her response needed no translation.
As I began to make friends, learn the language, and experience more of the country, the disconnect between what I’d heard about China before moving there and what I’d come to know by living there widened. The China I’d heard of and the China I lived in were two different countries.
The China I Lived In
The China I lived in had a long, rich history of literature and arts. It had strong family units devoted to intergenerational care, scars from foreign aggression, a populace eager to prove itself on the international stage as no longer poor and “backward.” And its language—oh, its language!—was (and is) the most marvelous thing I’ve committed my mind to comprehend. Besides standard Mandarin, there were tens of dialects spoken and distinct regional cuisines, unlike anything I’d eaten back home. China had kind and hospitable students eager to learn English and teach me about their pride in being Chinese. It had karst mountains and cold deserts, a beautiful coast and a lively interior. It had its own stories to tell in its own ways, pop singers, movies about everyday life and not just martial arts, and its own classics and unique ways of showing honor. It contained multitudes and I’d barely scratched the surface.
In fact, I didn’t want to leave. I remember nearing the end of my second year and the end of my contract with a U.S. company, staring out a taxi window on a tree-lined street in the Gobi Desert where I lived, trying to soak up every last detail along the way. Surely, if I just didn’t blink and opened my eyes wider more memories would get in, right?
I made up my mind during that ride to stay at least one more year on my own. Not only did I want to learn more about those people and that place, but I wanted them to learn more about me.
It struck me in my three years there—during which I also traveled to Thailand, Japan, and Korea—that this part of the world was a stretch for people who looked like me. I knew there weren’t many black people living there at the time: my second year I was one of two black people in the city and my third year I don’t recall seeing others.
My One Wild and Precious Life
Looking back on how I’d arrived in China, the misconceptions and prejudice I’d unknowingly brought with me, and how thoroughly it’d won my heart the longer I stayed, I resolved to devote my one wild and precious life to helping educate people about that part of the world. I especially wanted to raise awareness and appreciation among the black community.
I considered museums the best approach to catch the widest swath of people. I ruled out higher education because it’d limit my audience first to those who could afford school and then to those with sufficient pre-interest in the region to sign up for a class. I wanted to catch the unsuspecting, as I’d been. So, I returned to the States and got my Master’s in China studies with a certificate in museum studies. After I finished, a job opened up at a museum in Laos about Lao ethnic minorities that was too good to pass up. Once more, I arrived with misconceptions in tow, like a second carry-on, for even more education about the region.
I actually had known very little about Laos before moving there. I couldn’t have named any city in the country besides the one I was moving to, I knew no one there, I did not speak the language and I assumed—hilariously, in hindsight—that it was just a hotter, smaller version of China. Once again, I quickly learned how wrong I’d been. And once more, my understanding of the region expanded. In my two years there I got to travel to Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and back to Korea and Thailand.
Working in a museum gave me special insight into the country, more so probably than expats who worked in other fields. As the director of programs, I helped plan all of the activities the museum put on from school programs and adult education to performances and exhibit and book launches. I also helped train the local staff research methods and got to read all of their research projects. I was involved in a project that worked with women to document the role of women in the community called Women at Work. By this time I knew I had just scratched the surface of what there was to know about Asia.
The end of my contract saw me returning to the United States, this time to work at a museum about Asia here. When that job ended after a couple of years, I tried to pivot to other work that still somehow helped Americans better understand that part of the world. I now work for an international education organization to bring students and scholars from East and Southeast Asia and the South Pacific to the United States. I get to help facilitate people-to-people exchange and the placement of individuals from across Asia across the US.
A Second Home
At times, Asia does not feel like a second home. It just feels like home. After seven years with no international travel, I spent a month in Korea last summer and it felt like a homecoming. At other times, I’m painfully aware of my outsider status there and of the almost universal preference for fairer skin and straighter hair. I’m aware that there is a limit to my welcome.
My heart swells with a kind of pride at the celebrated accomplishments from the region and when they gain recognition. But at the same time, I’m aware that it is not the Western gaze that gives Asia its value. Though we may act like we are the official appraisers of beauty and art and progress, in truth, we have no power to legitimize—with awards, think pieces, or tokenization—what they have to offer the world. I want them to gain recognition, but I also want them to believe that they don’t need our stamp of approval to be worth something. I say this as a black woman who for a long time believed the lie that acceptance or acknowledgment by white people meant I’d arrived.
I also want more for Americans than seeing Asia as a monolith or China through the primary lens of rivalry and geopolitical antagonism. I want Americans to see China as more than its political system and CCP choices. We have so far to go.
Dear Fellow Citizens
I also celebrate the varied contributions those of Asian descent have made to this country. As someone acutely aware of the power of representation, I want this for Asian-Americans as well. I want Asian-American men to be more than the butt of jokes and to be seen as more complex than the caricatures of them I often see. I want Asian-American women to be viewed in their full humanity and not just fetishized or seen as docile or submissive. I want more for both of them than the model minority stereotype just as I want more for my people than being seen as bringing up the rear. I want them to be valued and accepted as they are free of bias as much as I want this for myself.
And I want both of our groups to want that for each other. I dream of a future where we are more than painful statistics to each other and free from deep-seated suspicions that each keeps the other from the quality of life we desire. I’d love to see solutions to disparities and inequality benefit both our groups and bring us together rather than set us at odds with one other.
My heart breaks at the recent anti-Asia hate incidents, at the loss of life and surviving friends and family, and at the rattling and unsettling of a community dear to my heart. As a black woman, I know what these incidents do to a community. That is also why I am always especially struck by the painful irony that a community well acquainted with the trauma of race-based discrimination would afflict that pain on another. Shouldn’t we be the least likely to discriminate? But then again, shouldn’t Israel have been the least likely to oppress and practice injustice? We humans are a really short-sighted bunch.
One of my biggest fears is not being seen. A few months ago I was doing a reflection exercise with a life coach and he asked me to describe one of my fears. I said standing in front of a mirror but not being reflected. I sometimes feel like I go through life like this. I also know that one of the most powerful ways to be there for others is to simply say I see you. Your pain is not hidden from me. So to my grieving, on edge, weary Asian-American countrymen and women, I see you.