Dear Non-Asian Writer of Asian American Characters,
I am delighted that you are including an Asian American character in your book, without hyphens and everything, too. You have my word that I will delve into your book, confident that you've done your best to be respectful, thoughtful, and diligent about your portrayal of Asian Americans and our varied experiences.
For example, in crafting your characters, I know you have kept in mind the factors that have ravaged the Asian American psyche, little things, like the discriminatory laws that prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the US as recently as the sixties, while not limiting the immigration of other races. Or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. More than a hundred thousand Japanese, most of those American citizens, were forced to give up their homes/lives and imprisoned in ‘relocation centers’ surrounded by barbed wire.
But back to you and your Asian characters. Please remember the microaggressions we battle on a daily basis, like being asked where we are from, really from, as if having an Asian face means we must be foreign. Microaggressions provoke feelings of shame and inferiority. One high school friend came to dread school photo day because the photographer would inevitably tell her to open her eyes. Despite assuring them that her eyes were indeed, open, they would make her stretch her eyelids as wide as they could go. Inevitably her photos would return with her looking as if she’d just sat on a pizza. To this day, she refuses to be in pictures.
Of course, you know all of this, because you’ve slipped on your most comfortable pair of socks for some serious walking in other people’s shoes, or at least have listened to others with your listening ears. You've also not relied on Wiki to give you the answers to questions that one billion people might be able to answer for you if you just asked them, because, many of us speak English. That you’ve gone to the library at a bare minimum to do meaningful research, and even better, spent quality time with a particular subject chatting up witnesses and shaking down experts. Even I, who have lived 40+ years in my Asian American body, still trip up sometimes writing within my own culture, so I can only imagine how hard it must be for you.
I know you’d like some tips on writing about Asian Americans, but yikes. I’m uncomfortable with speaking on behalf of more than a billion people. However, I can share a few things that push my buttons.
Things That Push Stacey’s Buttons
- Asian American women who are: submissive, weak, overly aggressive, exotic, have magic vaginas, are overly sexualized, quiet, tigers, dragon ladies, prostitutes, fixated on our looks, submissive, dolls, bad drivers, gold diggers, concubines, fixated on shoes (okay that one's okay), backstabbing, geishas, nerds, or tragic heroines who might kill themselves when their lovers don't return to them.
- Asian American men who are: nerds, gangsters, cruel, effeminate, video gamers, geeks, shy, introverted, mute, asexual, wimps, kung-fu mastah!, sinister, ineffectual, women abusers, not well-endowed, kung-fu mastah!, math-y, victims of white man stealing their woman, cheap, dirty, and kung-fu mastah!
- Focusing on the Asian American experience as one of defeat and humiliation. We're not all burning with wrath and indignation, and those who are can still lead very happy lives. In fact, not all Asian Americans know about their racial history, and some know, but could care less about it. Shocking as it is, some would rather be eating snickerdoodles than reading this article.
- Asian American overachievers. Sure, it's great when Asian Americans characters are smart and talented, but most of us are just people who worry about our expanding waistlines and struggle to make the grade like everyone else. Southeast Asians have the highest dropout rates in the country. This ‘overachieving’ trope holds Asian Americans to higher standards than everyone else, and falling short of the mark can have both grave physical consequences (e.g., poverty, homelessness) and psychological impacts (e.g., depression). Remember, but we have our share of ignoramuses, too!
- Chinese restaurants. Books are littered with them. Unless you have a compelling reason to keep them, consider deleting. An easy way to remember this is: take out the takeout. Not only is it an overused trope, it calls to mind an era when the only jobs Chinese people could find were as cooks/launderers, and reinforces a hurtful stereotype that Asians are servants and belong in the kitchen. Also, we don’t all eat rice. At the risk of blowing your mind, when my sisters and I were young, we shunned rice. I would hide it in my pockets so I wouldn’t have to eat it, which not only runs counter to the stereotype of Asian frugality, but also leads to pockets that are stuck together.
Things That Push Other Asian American Authors’ Buttons
“That Asian women are submissive. We're bossy as hell. Not to stereotype or anything.” —Maureen Goo, author of Since You Asked, and Fever Dreams
“That we are reserved. Stoic.” —Renée Ahdieh, author of The Wrath and the Dawn, and The Rose and the Dagger
“That all Asian parents are oppressive.” —Tara Sim, author of Timekeeper
“That we’re homogenous, robotic, diligent, obedient math nerds programmed to become doctors.” —Fonda Lee, author of Zeroboxer
“That Asian women are, or should ideally be, delicate, docile creatures.” —Charlotte Huang, author of For the Record and Going Geek
“Growing up, that Hmong people ate dogs. Also, that we all received free houses and cars from the government.” —Lori M. Lee, author of Gates of Thread and Stone, and The Infinite
“We all look alike.”—I.W. Gregorio, author of None of the Above
“That we won't push back or that we don't even understand their English.” —Karen Bao, author of Dove Rising
“That every Asian is Chinese.” —Erin Entrada Kelly, author of Blackbird Fly
“That Asians are bad drivers. I'm an excellent driver, and I even taught my fiancé how to drive stick, thank you very much.” —Sarah Jae Jones, author of Wintersong
“That Asian men are weak and sexless.” —Rahul Kanakia, author of Enter Title Here
As we close, gentle reader, let me assure you that I will assume you took writing an Asian American character seriously, since you know how much we as readers will measure their value by what they find (or don't find) in your book. That it hurts to be invisible but misrepresentation hurts just as much. That non-Asians will internalize the things they find in your book about Asian Americans. Much obliged for fighting the good fight with us, and happy writing!