I have been meaning to write about my experience as a person of colour in not-so-post-racial America and, with the subject of race in relation to law enforcement (police) and the justice system (grand juries) dominating all American media at this point, I think it’s an opportune moment. (It’s actually funny how ebola and ISIS completely disappeared from the headlines and no one can even bother to talk about the so-called War on Christmas, since people have become so obsessed with proving their personal righteousness with regards to racial politics.) At the same time, there is little I can contribute to the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement. True, it was black women who taught me and demonstrated to me about the social inequalities, social injustices and social stratifications in the modern United States and I understand how the devaluation of black lives have gone on forever in this country. However, it has been hard for me to actively participate in the movement or engage in conversation because: (1) (I don’t feel) I am in a position to start a conversation and, along with everybody in my immediate vicinity, I feel comfortable with the silence and not being directly exposed to any threat; and (2) in ongoing conversations, there are more educated and articulate people in action – people who are more knowledgeable of the US’s racial history and culture, and the workings of law enforcement, the justice system and the penal system. If I can contribute anything effectively, it would be to the understanding of racial culture in America. The recent killings of black men, I believe, are strongly connected to racial profiling – seeing black men as naturally threatening and overreacting to specific scenarios – so I am going to touch on racial profiling – and culture is sometimes associated in the process – and I want to elaborate on what my experience has been like in relation to racial profiling. There have been enough records about racially profiling black males. Maybe people of different skin colours, different genders and different sexualities can reflect upon their experiences with racial profiling, parallel to my observations.
I do NOT have a racial profile. Surprise, surprise! But honestly though, it is no surprise. Burma is a geographically obscure country for most Americans and they thus have no preconceived stereotypes. I am more Chinese than Burmese in blood, but I don’t quite look either. I harbour very Burmese cultural values, but I had a somewhat British (British colonial) upbrining. You may be able to tell on sight that I am Asian, but I don’t quite look East Asian or South Asian – coz I’m Southeast Asian/Indo-Chinese – and you can’t distinctly identify my mannerisms culturally. And I’m not even gay or feminine, as people might expect me to be. So I don’t seem to manifest any stereotype whatsoever. BUT that does not necessarily make things easier, because more often than not I catch people trying for form a stereotype out of this token Burmese friend of theirs (me) than actually getting to know me or about my people. I’ll focus more on my race than my gender expression at this point, but I’ll also bring up gender expression whenever relevant. This lack of a profile has been both a blessing and a curse. Yes, people do try to develop a racial profile when we first meet, but in the process those who are not trying to do it quite so actively get to know me as a person/as an individual. On the flip side, those who try to develop this profile and yet cannot reject me from their social circles because they don’t know how to treat me and they are not willing to learn. This has happened everywhere – from college campuses (class, dorms and dining hall) and workplace to airport security. Examples? Leggo!
BTW, you can read the stories one at a time – coz they get pretty long.
Story #1 :: Nails Backstage
If you know me personally – or more specifically, have interacted with me over the past 3 years at least – you’d never catch me without my nails done, unless you live with me or we’ve done nails together. This happened backstage of the first show I ever did at my current school. I was allowed to keep my nails and, in fact, the costume designer had me in my own personal look, because we were not playing characters, but were doing a staged interpretation of a long poem from the Depression era that talks about the highs and lows of humanity. One night, we were in the green room ready to go on, and this white girl randomly drops the question: “Hey, Han Zaw, are you good at doing nails because you’re Asian?” (Yes, I called her a white girl coz she’s white. No, I’m not trying to stereotype her. And if you went there since I called her white, lemme tell you this: she’s not blonde.) The whole room went silent in shock. The silence was broken by this black girl – who has been the only black girl in the department for a while – when she interject: “You can’t say that; that’s racist. It’s like asking if I’m good at doing hair because I’m black.” The white girl didn’t stop there. She had more to say: “No, that’d be like asking you (the black girl) if you’re good at frying chicken.” Done! The conversation was cut short since we all had to go on stage.
I was taken by surprise and I was dumbfounded. I could not defend myself or reply in any way; I just stood there checking my nails, looking at her with my mouth open and looking around the room with an “Is this happening for real?” look. A perfect sassy response would have been, “Bitch, I’m good at doing nails coz I’m gay – not because I’m Asian. Getcho sterotypes right.” There are three parts to what transpired in that moment: (1) my direct interaction with the white girl; (2) the black girl coming to my defense; and (3) the response of other people (mostly white) around. Like I said, I don’t have a racial profile as a Burmese. In American culture, it is almost a taken-for-granted that Koreans and Vietnamese people are in the manicure and pedicure business. Why? I don’t know: Mexicans clean houses; Chinese serve buffet; Indians run convenience stores/gas stations; Vietnamese and Koreans do manicures and pedicures; etc. Probably because these immigrants are not wanted in other businesses – for one reason or another. Even when they are able to rise beyond cultural barriers and get to do other than these stereotypical jobs, you get questions like, “Can you do my nails?” if you’re Vietnamese and, “Can you do my hair and fry me some chicken?” if you’re black.
This small exchange was an attempt at profiling me racially. I couldn’t see it in the heat of the moment, and I could have shrugged it off as something that doesn’t pertain to me – since I am neither Vietnamese nor Korean. But it hurt me inside, and only reflecting upon it enabled me to see what actually happened. It was a perfect moment for teaching and learning. I could have explained there and then how the manicure/pedicure stereotype was a racial profile for Vietnamese and Korean people, and maybe – just maybe – the white girl might learn something and stop asking these microtrangressive questions to other races in the future. I failed to do that; everyone in the room did, given the circumstance that our show started in a mere matter of minutes. Looking back, what’s even more sad about the exchange was that the black girl who came to my defense, instead of being heard out, got racially profiled as well. She used a stereotype relevant to her race to stand up for a fellow person of colour – and dear God, I thank her for that – but her point was devalued (probably because the white girl does not understand about the history and culture of black hair) and another stereotype of fried chicken was thrown in her face.
Now, our cast had one black girl (the one who stood up for me), 3 Asian males (including myself), and – if I’m not mistaken – everybody else was white. When the white girl (at the centre of the incident) posed that question to me, silence took over the room. (I don’t think the other Asian guys were in the room at that point.) It was a moment of shock and the silence was one of disapproval, but no one articulated their disapproval nor initiated to explain why the question was racially-biased – or to put bluntly, racist. I could tell most, if not all cast members, were on my side but it was unproductive dead silence. The black girl came to my rescue and her input was invalidated. If it were another white person speaking to this white girl, it might have been effective. I’m not complaining that they didn’t. I’m merely noting on the fact. And I can understand how unnerving it can be to break the silence, especially when the subject matter does not directly affect you.
As for the thought out sassy response that I wasn’t able to dish out, I accept and celebrate the feminine/girly “sissy” gay stereotype. I own it. It cannot and will not hurt me. Yet at the same time, I am glad I did not throw out that response, because adding gender expression and sexuality to the racial obscurity would have definitely further complicated the situation. However everything went down, I can draw this conclusion: stereotypes are not fun when they are thrust upon you. You can claim/reclaim it if you wish, but when they are thrust upon you, it is not some Shakespearean greatness. Rather it’s like being fisted anally, without lube. The end!
Story #2 :: “BURMA SHAVE!“
This past summer, I landed on this great internship by chance. The production company was producing its first summer season and they needed a board operator and somebody to run errands. I was wanting to write music for stage, we reached a win-win agreement and I got hired. I ended up doing stage carpentry and stage management, besides running light and sound, and composing music for 3 out of the 5 shows of the season. I got free room and board, lived with the bosses, and got paid a decent amount. Party!
The theatre we worked in was in a small ghost town in a red state in the American southwest. I know how to please people and I know how to “behave”, but still I had concerns mainly about my sexuality and my gender expression. The town wasn’t as small as it was empty; its glory days of mining, trains, rodeos and racing were in the past. The young generations keep moving out and what’s left of the town are the older folks, and those who are rich enough to be patrons are, of course, elderly white folks – who are also more or less religious. Except in life-threatening scenarios, I still need my nail polish and perfume at all times. And if possible, I wanna wear makeup and heels at least once a week. I took some of my stuff there. The plan was to try out my look once or twice at social gatherings and/or special occasions, and feel out the reaction. The thing I had not taken into consideration, however, was: race. It’s the American Southwest and people are generally anti-immigration – or anti-Mexican in particular – but I did not know my race and being a foreigner would come into play in social interactions. On the business side, my bosses had to go through some extra paperwork to hire me since my student visa did not allow me to work in the US legally, unless my job pertains to my studies and the school approves.
First social gathering there was on my first day in town; it was a Memorial Day barbeque, very American. These people already probably formed impressions/expectations of me since they knew I was coming, weeks before I got there. Here are my striking identities: Burmese/from Burma, gay, college student from the Midwest, and Buddhist. The first question that got posed to me at the barbeque was: “So you’re from Burma. Is that where they make Burma Shave?” I had no idea what Burma Shave was and I was taken by surprise; all I could say was, “No, I don’t think so.” And it was a white man of about 60-something that asked me this question.
Again, before diving into scene analysis, here is a sassy retort (that was also not said out loud): “Um, you obviously haven’t met Asian men. We don’t grow facial hair. So we neither need nor produce shaving cream. Bye, Felicia!” If you don’t know what Burma Shave was a popular shaving cream from the first half of the 20th Century and it had these silly ads in verse on the highways, and you read the lines one by one as you drive along. Click here for examples of some non-Burmese signs.
Dude, I know your question was supposed to be funny but it wasn’t. The advertising gimmick was funny, but Burma Shave itself isn’t – coz it really has nothing to do with Burma; it was merely an appropriation of my country’s anglicized name. I used to be frustrated when people ask me what Burma’s like, coz it’s such a broad question and my logical and civil response is, “What do you want to know about it?” at which point they either specify and a conversation advances, or they lose interest in what I might have to say and we change subjects. But asking me what Burma is like seems like a preferable and easier question to tackle than being asked whether Burma makes Burma Shave, although specific and with comic intent. You would rather reduce my country to association with an outdated product of a bygone era. Great! I don’t think you want to get to know me or plan to; and thus I don’t want to get to know you either.
The absurd thing is what followed all summer: most everyone in the company and the patron circle picked up that “Burma Shave” joke. Whenever we’ve come to an awkward halt or a silence in our conversations at social gatherings, somebody would yell, “BURMA SHAVE!” (like the ending of the nonsensical Burma Shave ad verses) to break the silence. Call me sensitive, but it gets annoying when it happens over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. (Did I just prove my point?) It’s called microtrangressions – or microaggressions or microabrasions. They build up over time and they fucking hurt – like being fisted anally without lube, except it never hits the prostate.
Story #3 :: On Getting a Visa
Again in the workplace … This was with coworkers at a cast-company party, the Friday or Saturday of the opening or closing of the first show of the season. I can’t recall exactly when. This first show was a musical and we had a band of local musicians joined by a Canadian fiddler. The fiddler boy was particularly impressive in his skills and professional in his trade, so everybody doted over him – and so did I (maybe even a little more than others did, ahem). I had no significance or relevance as a musician, because – although I had worked with the principle actor on the music and singing for the show – my music was not to be featured until the second show and I wasn’t going around showing off my work. But I had gained some respect as a company member; I was very willing to take on whatever task was thrown at me and I did it well; I finished writing music for one of the shows I was assigned within 4 or 5 days of arriving in town, before tech rehearsals even began for this musical; and I was starting to take on stage management duties. I was on top of my game! So I was also in the spotlight as the new kid in town.
Halfway into the night, we were standing around the in the kitchen with beers in our hands and just chatting the night away, and the topic of acquiring visas to get into the US comes up. The Canadian fiddler had some complications with the paperwork, because he’d only toured with his family as a musical act before but not as an employee. They play a Canadian version of Irish folk/traditional music, by the way. Since I’m the other non-American in the room, the conversation turned to me and I was asked how it was getting a visa and getting this job. There were 2 parts to the process: getting the student visa to go to school and getting the school’s approval to work. The former was more difficult, I explained, because I’m from a third world country and the US (and its embassy in particular) doesn’t want people from the third world countries coming over in fear that they’d stay and mooch off the first world amenities and riches. And yes, I used the word “mooch” in particular, coz that word has been used to describe me whenever I ask for favours from my American “friends”. Convincing the US embassy that my sole purpose for being in the US was to go to college was so damn fucking hard; I had to prove that my family had money to pay for more than 4 years of college, that I had good enough reasons to return home after graduation, that I was qualified to study in an American college even after I’ve already proved to the school that’s admitted me that I am very well qualified, that I had no relations I could rely on in the US, etc. It’s a policy that comes from both reason and xenophobia, and I can live with that. I ended up blurting out how things work, and one of the cast members who was part of the band decided to run his mouth: “So are you here to mooch off?”
Oh, you shady ape! People in the room started to laugh, coz apparently they thought it was funny – or everyone was getting tipsy. Miss thing, if you wanna come for me, Imma let you have it. I finally threw out a sassy response: “No, sir. I’m here to take over and I have already started. I am stage managing the whole summer season already.” Or something along those lines. People probably took it in as some witty exchange, coz there was laughter. It’s true what I said. It was probably the first time I referred to myself as the stage manager, although I’ve taken up the work a week or so before and I have been labelled as such. I’m not here to clean your houses, serve you buffet, run your gas stations, paint your nails, trade drugs or fly planes into skyscrapers, if you’re thinking that. I’m in college, learning shit I can’t in my own country, and I’m working a good job and am appreciated for my work. You were hired coz you were easily available in this town, and you aren’t even on top of your game and people dislike you for that. You are in one show and won’t probably come back. But me, sir, I am here for the whole summer: I’m stage-managing all 5 shows, writing music for 3 of them, coaching at a children’s theatre camp and more. Don’t you dare call me a moocher! I earned this. Okurrrrrr?
On a serious note, I would welcome that question with open arms if it were from the likes of Bianca Del Rio or Joan Rivers, and I would have responded the same way also. It just depends on the direction in which the comedy is going. If it came from either of these queens, I would know in a snap that, although the question is coming toward me, it is directed at the international politics that created this “mooching” to happen and call the systems into question – not a personal attack by any means. The question from this man has the undertones of, “What are you doing on my lad?” and trying to see me as a one-dimensional person – an immigrant – and he was trying to lump me in with the negative stereotypes of Mexican immigrants.
A different question on the same subject of “mooching” could have led us to an intellectual conversation on international politics also. For example, questions like, “What would make Burmese visitors/immigrants undesirable in the US?” or even, “What do you plan to do in the US besides going to college?” I think those questions are perfectly valid, and we could shed light on the relationship between the US and Burma and about myself. But you obviously would rather see me as this one-dimensional immigrant character than an actual person, so …
Story #4 :: “You haven’t …?“
This is not one story; it is multiple and it happens all the time and I have lost track. It’s people people being shocked when I haven’t consumed/experienced something significant in gentrified American pop culture.
What do you mean you haven’t seen Mean Girls?
You haven’t had curly fries?
I’m gonna have to revoke your gay card if you haven’t listened to Alanis Morisette.
How come you don’t know about Le Cage aux Foilles?
Why don’t you like Lady Gaga? You’re gay.
You’ve never read Shakespeare in English before?
You don’t know the difference between state governments and federal government?
Of course, I don’t know these things. But you don’t need to look down on me for not knowing these things. And I’m willing to learn if you’re willing to show me around without an air of superiority or authority. And don’t force feed me all this culture; it’s not like I need to know everything, although you might feel the need for me to. You know what these people make me think of? White people who would do the chicken dance around Mexicans, yeah. Don’t measure my gayness with how you would define white American gays! The only qualifications I need to be gay are: (1) to identify as male; and (2) to be romantically and sexually attracted to other males, period. Better yet, don’t measure how cultured I am on the basis of what you know. Let me judge you in an international context. Answer me these:
Did you know ABBA before Mama Mia!?
What is the political significance of Aung San Suu Kyi?
Are Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi related?
Where is the next Eurovision Song Contest happening?
What is the political and cultural significance of the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Verdi’s opera Nabucco?How did WWII influence the fight for independence in British colonies in Asia and Africa?
What are Leslie Feinberg’s contributions to the LGBT movement in the US?
Why do you feel the need for soy sauce when eating all Asian foods?
You also don’t need to act shocked when I don’t live up to the standards of Asian stereotypes. I possibly can’t. I don’t stir-fry all my food, and the stir-fry you’ve been eating and are accustomed to is is fake as fuck. No, I don’t know any martial arts. I really don’t like discussing my country’s politics, coz I don’t like American foreign policies, but I’ll answer if you have specific questions. If you really want to learn about Burmese culture (food, religion, people, etc.), ask me. I’m open to conversations. Also I know some Sanskrit, so you can approach me for pronunciations and such. I’m just adding this in particular coz I’ve sat through a class where the professor butchered the Sanskrit and I didn’t dare intervene. I grew up saying prayers in a Burmese version of Sanskrit. I can at least pronounce anglicized Sanskrit.
Do you realize how hard it is to legitimize myself as a cultured person in both Burmese and American cultures? In order that I may be able to study in an American college, I had given up a lot of cultural activities even before I left home. And it is practically impossible for me to know what your culture is about after having lived here for only 4-ish years. In fact, I am never going to be a 90s kid, even though I grew up in the 90s. I’m never going to get into cult films, coz they are usually for people with very specific tastes and particular backgrounds. One thing in particular I had to admit to myself this semester: I can communicate in English pretty well, BUT I suck at English literature. I use a Burmese version of British English (dating back to the Colonial Era), and it’s not always going to translate into modern colloquial American English and I’m not going to be able to grasp old English or new American very easily. But it’s fine. I can live with it. It’s my burden to bear. I have things like these to worry about. I don’t need your judgy attitude crashing down on me for not getting a Mean Girls quote. You’re not gonna be able to gentrify me, just because you have neither interest nor intention of learning about my own background and getting to know me as my own person.
Ok, I’ll stop … I admit I’m a very bitter person. But at least I’m analytical. I look back at these incidents and think about what happened and how, but I rarely ever come up with how to deal with them in the future. One thing for sure is: they’re not gonna stop happening. When they happen, I can either do a sassy response, sit down and have a civil conversation or just walk out. I guess I need more incidents to learn what works when, but at the same time I’m not sure how much my little heart can handle these microtrangressions.
Back to my workplace over the summer, I don’t think anyone but my bosses – who are a couple and I lived with them – actually got to know me as a multi-dimensional person. The employment was not racially charged – like the admission of some colleges, which seek to increase “diversity” on campus. I doubt if they even had specific expectations of me, and I just threw out my skills one after another as the opportunity came: composing music, stage carpentry, painting, stage management, graphic design, lighting design and common courtesy. The only thing I probably did badly at was perhaps child wrangling – or at least I don’t think I did well. I even got to talk to them about my struggles with mental illness and my love life. I can’t comment on other company members. But for the patron circle, I don’t think they got to know me well, but they did get to see my work – only because it went on stage. I actually fit in with the locals quite nicely surprisingly, but I’m afraid they might no longer like me once they read this entire post. I think here’s why I fit in: they couldn’t profile me racially they didn’t try to get to know me by my racial and/or cultural background; they couldn’t see me as gay, coz I wasn’t stereotypical; I went to church a couple of times as common courtesy although I absolutely hated the experience; and I did my job well. It was all professional interactions after all and what’s there to not like about me as long as I’m doing my job well? Although a lot of them did not get to know me well, I can live with that. I left somewhat a good impression. I know for a fact, they won’t be describing me as Burmese or Asian or gay; but I fear they might even have forgotten I’m from Burma.
This lack of a profile takes a different toll, however, on campus. These young kids at college are supposedly more open-minded and progressive. YET since I do not have this racial profile as a Burmese gay male, they don’t know how to treat me. And they aren’t willing to learn either. They’re rather just cut me out of their social circle. On this campus in particular, it has been hard for me to form friendships with people unless we have been forced to spend an excessive amount of time together – e.g. class projects or theatre rehearsals – so much time that they can’t but pick up on the different traces of my identity. If they like what they see, they come back and we become friends. I guess it’s good in a way coz, although I have few friends, they know me for who I am and appreciate me.
Being a racial minority in America is hard, but good thing I don’t have a racial profile. It is sad people generally don’t want to learn about my racial background. But this lack of a racial profile has been some blessing in disguise.