Where the Asians Live

by Elison Alcovendaz

You've likely not read (if you're not Filipino and not in California) about the criticisms of the Cesar Chavez film that debuted in theaters last month. First, let me say that Cesar Chavez was a great man, certainly worthy of a film, and this blog post doesn't seek to take away from that. Since the film was about him, it follows that he would be the central figure; however, several critics have pointed out that Filipinos who played a central role in the farm labor movement have essentially been erased from the history the film portrays.

Google the name Larry Itliong and you will find this: he was leading farm labor strikes up and down the West Coast long before Chavez enters history. He led the mostly Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, the group that started the famous Delano grape strike. Sources state that Itliong had to convince Chavez to have his mostly Mexican National Farm Workers Association join the strike, for Chavez mistrusted that growers would negotiate fairly. The growers typically pitted races against each other - if Mexican laborers went on strike, Filipino scabs were brought in, and vice versa - so the union of both groups into the United Farm Workers was a significant event in the farm labor movement. Itliong served as Assistant Director to Chavez and was beside him at the negotiations table with the grape growers, though in that scene in the film, Itliong is reduced to a bystander, which critics say is the role Itliong plays throughout the whole movie. I haven't seen the film, so I can't confirm whether Itliong and other Filipino leaders of the farm labor movement were pushed to the side, forgotten, made Other, but honestly: do I really need to watch the film to know if Asians were once again relegated to the realm of the invisible?

I don't. 

Itliong and Chavez. From http://www.cetfund.org/node/1452.

Itliong and Chavez. From http://www.cetfund.org/node/1452.

As I'm won't to do, let's start with Facebook. I look at my news feed and see many Asian-American friends. This is atypical of most of the country - most of these Asian FB friends are family, people from the Filipino club in college, or people I knew from the Asian basketball leagues I played in most of my life. But content? Status updates? Articles? Nope. The only posts I see that even sniff at anything Asian are photos of sushi and satirical articles about North Korea. This is why I was completely floored when a couple of Asian-American men recently rose from the vast reaches of the Internet and appeared, as content, on my news feed.

In the first, a "plain-looking" (we'll discuss later) Asian-American young man most of us wouldn't grant a second look reminded us, via slam poetry, that Asians do deal with racism:


In the second, another "plain-looking" Asian-American young man wrote an article about how he had spent his American youth feeling unattractive.

The video and the article reminded me of when I student taught an introductory fiction class at Sac State. I read about 50-60 student papers that semester. Looking at the paper, essay, story, etc., there's the main content at the center of the "white" page. This is the necessary, the part that draws your eyes and your attention. To provide feedback, you had to write in the margins. What I wrote there pushed back at the content, seeking to fight their way to the main page, fighting for change. These are the marginalia - immigrants, LGBT, non-whites, females, disabled, etc. Eventually, some or all of the marginalia ends up on the page as main, necessary content, worthy of being looked at, discussed, thought about. But even if you looked all over that page with a microscope, even if your scoured the margins, studied the other side of the page, you would never see any Asians.

Let's start with some facts: Asians are generally small. This is not a stereotype. The average height of Asian men is around 5'6" or 5'7" and Asian women around 5'2" or 5'3", depending on which source you consult. Physically speaking, Asians are the easiest to forget. We can stand behind another human being and you probably wouldn't see us. If you're standing next to us and glance sideways, you might look right over our heads. We generally have brown eyes and straight, black hair. Therefore, we generally don't have the "must be looked at" height, stature, or skin/eye/hair color that society suggests MUST be noticed. This is why people say all Asians look alike. This is a facetious argument. This is not a facetious argument.

Another fact: Asians only make a little over 5% of the American population. Math! No wonder Asians are so forgettable! Take a guess at what % of the population African-Americans and Hispanics comprise. Go ahead. Yes, 13% and 17%, respectively. African-Americans comprise  a little more than twice of the population as Asians and Hispanics comprise slightly three times as much. And yet, what percentage of the media, social, and political attention do African-Americans and Hispanics have over Asian-Americans? Ten times? Twenty times? Fifty times? Maybe more? 

Let's continue with some arguable-but-not-really truths: many Asian cultures value respect, which often presents itself in quietness and deference. An Asian man performing a slam poem is almost unheard of. You likely have at least a few Asian co-workers who generally don't speak too loud, who pass through the hallways without making eye contact for too long, who get their work done, often requiring minimal supervision. Another arguable-but-not-really-truth about many Asian cultures, they value education. You know about the good grades stereotype, only, is it a stereotype? As a personal statistic, probably 81.7 percent of my Asian friends had parents who droned on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about a B on a report card. SAT scores (even though we know standardized tests suck) show that Asian Americans outscore other racial classifications, sometimes by a wide margin. It's not a stretch to say that Asians often value education more than other cultures, so they often do better in school. I know there are myriad other factors that could explain why some population groups do better in school then others - all I'm saying is that cultural values play a huge role. On a recent trip to Boston, most of the Asians I saw were students attending any one of the 50+ universities in the area. Asians make a statistically larger percentage of the population at "top" schools (16% at Ivy Leagues, according to this report) than they do of the country, so it shouldn't surprise that technological/IT companies and several hospitals have populations of Asian workers that more than surpass the 5% of the American population that Asians comprise. Have Kaiser as your health insurance? Take a look at the roster of available Primary Care Physicians. Calculate the percentage of doctors that are Asians. 

And then there's the point of the aforementioned article, another reason Asians are rendered forgettable: we're not sexy or worthy of pop culture attention. Again, we're "plain." Think of all the Asian celebrities you know. After five minutes, all you've come up with is Bruce Lee, Lucy Liu, and Yao Ming? Can you imagine an Asian man as People's Sexiest Man Alive? An Asian woman as Esquire's Sexiest Woman? How about a Bravo show that follows Asians (you KNOW they have shows for every other group of people)? An Asian winning Best Actor? A Grammy? When Asians are sexy or stand out for their looks, it's because we're Exotic. We're Other. Otherwise, we're invisible.

This is all to say that generally, Asians assimilate well, so well in fact that they blend so fully into the white page that they disappear. There's the physical stature, which probably, even on a subconscious note, plays a role in people often not accepting an Asian in a dominant role, especially in an American culture where size (of burgers, of breasts, of houses, of muscles, of almost everything) is king. Do we need to discuss the stereotype of Asian men "being small?" Because of quietness and deference, Asians may not make waves, challenge authority, or speak up often. Because of their value on education, they navigate the education system well, often excel in math and science, end up in jobs that society has determined should pay well but aren't the most public. 

You hear that's it not kosher to use the N word or call someone a "wetback" or call someone a "fag" but you never hear it's not cool to call someone a chink, or to ask them if they're eating dog for lunch, or to talk with a staccato "FOB" accent that always ends with "One dollah, too dollah." I grew up with such comments, but didn't hear them as much as my friends and cousins. This is because, as someone once told me, I was "lucky." I'm 6'1" and have some white and Portuguese mixed with my Filipino genes, so I never felt like I was fully Other. I didn't feel ugly or unattractive to girls outside of my race. I wasn't picked last for sports because I was short. But I did have many of these friends who were not only passed over by taller girls and picked last on teams, they were often not considered for leadership positions because they lacked an "authoritative" stature. And the girls, well, they were overlooked, too, unless someone thought they looked exotic. And still, most of them got their good grades, ended up going to good colleges, getting good jobs, having good lives… or did they?

To compare one group's experience with another's is dangerous, so I'm not comparing the Asian experience to those of African-Americans, Hispanics, the struggles of the LGBT community, or other groups, to say discrimination towards Asians is the same. It would be unfair to compare. Still, I do believe that being treated as Invisible is a terrible kind of racism. Because Asians are supposedly doing well, we're pushed aside. When people see Asians as graduate students and doctors and computer engineers, they say it's cool, they have what they need - even if that means, at once, that we cannot be actors, writers, musicians, athletes, or anything where we're put in the public eye. To say we're smart also means we're not artistic; to say we're good workers means we're not aggressive enough; to say we're respectful means we're docile. This is the binary view of nearly everything in American society. If you're one thing, you can't be something else.  

This doing "well," this "they don't need help," this is why when people talk about socioeconomic struggles, when political pundits debate racial gaps, when government decides on public policies, Asians are almost always ignored. They've forgotten that Asians also populate low-income schools, that Asians are also homosexuals, that Asians deal with gang problems, that Asians deal with immigration issues, that Asian women often face even stronger patriarchal issues than other American women, and on top of all that, Asians have little or no clout in media and thus, almost no presence in the national conscience. To say we're doing well is an easy way to not have to deal with us. But the kicker is, we're also at fault. While other groups are willing to speak up and fight to be seen and heard, we're often too content to sit back and remain silent. We play a big role in our own invisibility; we're the biggest agents in creating our residences outside of the marginalia, where we sit quietly, leading our American lives.