Michelle Yeoh’s historic and well-deserved Oscar win for Best Actress for her incredible performance in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once was one of my great delights of this last week. But in discussing the historic nature of an actress of Asian descent winning for the first time, I also learned about Merle Oberon, an actress of South Asian descent who was nominated for Best Actress in 1935.
She hid her South Asian ancestry, claiming to have been born in Australia where her birth records were destroyed in a fire. As a woman of color, there were explicit rules on the books that would have prevented her from having a career.
This got me thinking about the Asian diaspora. When I was growing up, I enjoyed the other (few) Asian diaspora stories I came across; they resonated with me. But one of the things I found was that there was a particular kind of Asian diaspora story-telling that seemed to predominate.
It was the one where there was a culture clash between the parents, who wanted to hold on to their identity, and the kids, who wanted to just “be American.” This was, I think, my mom’s journey. She was the first generation of children to be born in the US and not go back to China. (Her mother was born in Oahu, but was sent back to China from the ages of four to fourteen. Her father’s family had been in the US for two generations, but their wives stayed in China, and her father was born in China and came to the US at the age of eleven.)
My mom just wanted to be American. She spoke very little of any Chinese dialect (her sisters learned more, at their mother’s insistence, but my grandmother died when Mom was very young). Most of the food I grew up on came from recipes she mined from her favorite store of wisdom: Adelle Davis, an American nutritionist wildly popular in the mid-twentieth century.
My mom didn’t hide her racial identity the way Merle Oberon did—she wouldn’t have been able to, for one thing—but she did buy into the world view that in order to fit in, she had to give up on the culture she was born into, but for special occasions and celebrations. (Even then, my mom sometimes outright panics about some aspects of her heritage—she was told when she was young that it was idolatry to burn incense, and her reaction to being told I had some was pretty astonishing. She doesn’t read my newsletter, I hope; her reaction feels like a pretty strong trauma response.)
When I was younger, it took me a long time to feel like I was “authentically” Asian. How could I consider myself Asian, when I didn’t have to go to Chinese school like some of my Asian-American friends? When we didn’t speak the language? When my mom wouldn’t let me drink the tea if we went out to dinner with her sisters?
It has taken me a long time to understand that not knowing is in fact an authentic part of the Asian Diaspora experience: that ancestors erasing their heritage in order to fit in has a long history, and it doesn’t lessen me to learn these things as an adult rather than as a child.
It’s made me want to write Asian diaspora stories that don’t fit the mold of “wanting to fit in” with the dominant culture. Those, I think, are a product of a world that I hope is dying, one in which there is a dominant culture.
I want to know the things my mother had to erase in order to fit in.