What Do We Look Like in Your Mind? – Kat Tanaka Okopnik
Welcome to what I believe will be the final guest blog post on representation in SF/F. In addition to working on Invisible 2, I also plan to put together a round-up of links to all of the guest articles, and if I can make the time, to pull together a reading list as well, based on comments and conversation around the posts.
In the meantime, my thanks to Kat Tanaka Okopnik for bringing us to a close with her personal and powerful piece about seeing your own children shaped by problematic tropes and stereotypes, and the urgent need to do better.
Before you read further, indulge me please. Picture, if you will, a young (East) Asian American protagonist. If you can, do a color drawing, or write down your description. If you feel ambitious, please do the same with White, Black, Latin@ friends for them.
What made that character seem plausibly East Asian to you?
Was it the golden skin, and the tilted eyes?
Where do they live? What do they eat? Where did their parents grow up?
I hate writing this essay.
I wish there wasn’t such urgent need to write it.
I wish I were writing about it in the past tense, rather than as a pressing need that I’m finding exhausting. I have two young children who are surrounded by media that are leading them to perform the very same problematic tropes about (East) Asians that I grew up around. It’s 2015. Aren’t we supposed to be done with this?
I wish all the blithe pronouncements of our colorblind, postracial society were real. I wish there were actually enough mention, by other people, of the issues facing Asian America so that I could write sense of wonder stories instead—but my child has said to me, “Mommy, my skin is ugly!” Further discussion reveals that he’s come to think of lighter and darker skin than his own as beautiful, but his light olive is unacceptable in his mind. I spend months working even harder to make sure that people who look like him are presented as attractive, too.
It’s a rare week when I don’t see yet another case of yellowface and exoticization of East Asians dismissed as a non-issue. The excuses are predictable: it’s historic, it’s satirical, it’s humorous, it’s tribute, it’s realistic, why do we complain when there’s representation? it’s not just East Asians! actually it’s punching up, hey my Asian friend said it was okay, oh it’s someone East Asian doing it.
I’m known to have an interest in finding non-problematic media, and so I’m offered a pretty steady stream of recommendations. The majority of “diverse” stories and shows that are offered to my children come in two categories: East Asian kid as a member of the tokenized team of sidekicks to the white protagonist, or stories of East Asia or the recent diaspora. Often, the indicators of East Asian identity for the team player are an East Asian-language name and “golden skin and straight black hair and slanted eyes.” There’s a parent or grandmother who speaks in fortune cookie Wise Oriental proverbs. Unfamiliar words are dropped into the conversation, with an echoed translation into English immediately afterward.
The rest of the stories happen long ago or far away. They’re just as much unreal fantasy as dragons or turtle ninjas. Actually, my son seems to want to become a ninja partly because that’s the expected pipeline for “an Asian kid”. (His peers mostly want to be turtle ninjas because that would be cool.)
They’ve been taught by the culture around them that “Chinesey” is a performance based on wearing cultural artifacts, and that East Asians are defined by accents and tinkly background music. There’s a continuum from Tikki Tikki Tembo through The Runaway Wok and The Mikado that portrays Asia as a place of silly sounding names and illogical people. And yet these are the things that well-meaning educators are presenting to them and their peers.
My children don’t see themselves in these stories. They know that people from all sorts of backgrounds have small or slanted or “slitty” eyes, because they’ve grown up in a diverse community—they’ve seen living examples in peers whose family heritage is from Africa, or Europe, or more southern parts of Asia. They see the range of skin color in the families around them, including the ones they are most closely tied to by genetics and history. But they are getting a persistent message that’s showing through in their expectations and in the behavior of their peers: skinny blonde girls are the heroes, except when the hero is some sort of white boy. Asians speak funny and are from far away. Sometimes there’s a character who’s black, and the world is divided into black and white. My children have no context for Asian American protagonists. They resort to identifying themselves as white, and my daughter wants her hair to be “yellow.”
I can work hard to give my children a healthy sense of belonging and potential, but I can’t change the world they’re interacting with on my own. It’s their peers’ sense that Asianness is defined by otherness that causes me the greatest concern.
Now that they are reading fluently, I wish I could just hand them an age-appropriate book. Where’s the “Heather Has Two Mommies” of cultural etiquette for the single digit set? It may be out there, but it’s buried under the pile I review and reject for my children. I know we can do better as a society.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik started writing about Japanese American history at age 13 and has gone on to write about geek culture, food, parenting, social justice, and stepping outside the confines of narrow social expectations.
She’s pleased to note that she has an essay forthcoming in WisCon Chronicles 9. Her current big project is the Dictionary of Social Justice.
She’s available as an editor, copy editor, and writer, and offers private consultations and group encounters on facilitating difficult discussions on social justice topics. She also does cultural consultation for writers, editors, and others on East Asian representation, with a focus on Japanese diaspora history and contemporary issues as well as for general social justice pitfalls.
April 6, 2015 @ 12:55 pm
An (ex) friend of mine once told me that I was not, and could never be, “really” American, because, despite having never lived anywhere but here, I was actually (East) Asian. American culture, she said, was white culture, and I didn’t have a right to act like it was mine.
Jim C. Hines
April 6, 2015 @ 12:56 pm
So. Much. Facepalm.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
April 6, 2015 @ 1:29 pm
We have been here for a long, long time. My children, counting up my paternal line, are the fifth generation of Nikkei in the US. Chinese labor built the Western railroads. Asian American activists, South and East Asian both, are part of the legal history of civil rights in the US.
We are American. We look like and sound like Americans, no matter what our individual appearance and accent.
April 6, 2015 @ 3:38 pm
Looking at my own immigrant ancestors, some of them came to the US more recently than some of my Chinese-American (or Japanese-American, or Indian-American, or Thai-American) neighbors. Looking at someone you cannot tell how long they or their family have lived somewhere.
Growing up, I know there was a dearth of books with anything other than European or European-American heroes. Andre Norton’s _Dragon Magic_ and some of her other books were the rare exceptions.
April 6, 2015 @ 4:05 pm
I’ve noticed that from the other side. I’m the daughter of a (white, Anglophone) immigrant, but I’m not the one who gets ‘where are you from, no really’; my East Asian friends whose parents (at least!) were born on US soil do.
April 6, 2015 @ 4:57 pm
I had trouble with the first part the character request was so VAGUE to me. I am (by law) Asian American. I don’t see folks classed or grouped like this so I had to think.. ‘hum, East Asian, ok, that probably means just the folks east of my kin. My mind begins flipping through possibilities, modern? Ancient ?(jt is a character after all) oh wait ‘Asian American’ so that’s modern. Hum, base it around friends then, Sue in her uniform behind the desk, big grin on her face. Kathy, with the wild curles, the way her eyeliner smudges funny the reverse of how mine does, and how she likes to add ‘chi ‘ to words to make them diminutive, how its like my friend Maxine who added ‘cha’ to my name for the same reason. Kathy’s handsome grandson, a killer soccer player, excellent student and wicked wit. My friend ‘Chef’ whose real name I know longer know, Chef who gave me my Chinese name. ‘Bird Lady.’ I began amassing other folks to fit the other catagories. (Fyi, in my opinion if you have an America birth certificate your just American. So all these folks are just American’s of whatever descent, except maybe Kathy who moved here, my Dad and his friends, my cousins, oh, Andrews wife, Rosa and Sebastian, they moved from south america, and my new neighbors, the y came from Barundi but the youngest ones (we call them the mice ) they were born here so they are straight American in my book .
All that amassed and ready I read on. 🙁 crestfallen I saw it was about the tired old boring tropes. Drawing people with grade school crayons . More people need to grow up and see not all trees are grey, the sky isn’t always blue. *sigh* to see the world and all who dwell on her as such is a sign of an underdeveloped mind.
I am so sorry this e ven has to be discussed .
Sorry for the typos, just woke up, getting ready for work. Not even gonna correct it. Just leavin these thoughts here.
April 6, 2015 @ 6:00 pm
I went with the eyes and the straight black hair and that was it. Because that’s the only way most of the Asian-Americans I know can be told apart from the non-Asian-Americans. If I speak to someone on the phone or at the fast food drive-through, I don’t usually have any idea of what ethnicity they are.
But then I live in a town which is not majority anything. And doesn’t everyone’s grandma cook slightly-odd stuff and use old-fashioned sayings?
But as I am not familiar with the current state of children’s books and entertainment, I’ll take your word for it. Since representation of anyone not SWM or SWF largely sucks, I probably would have guessed it, though. 🙁
April 6, 2015 @ 6:02 pm
I would have facepalmed too. And considered applying my palm to their face, swiftly.
Yes, yes, we have to be the bigger person, but we’re allowed to THINK about it.
I can’t imagine how much that hurt at the time, but I’m glad they said that so you didn’t waste any more of your life with them.
April 7, 2015 @ 9:42 am
Luckily for me, I was old enough to have figured a lot of stuff out, and so there was a lot more righteous anger than hurt. I actually ended up designing a t-shirt logo that says YOU DON’T GET TO TELL ME WHO I AM. Still haven’t *made* it, but I will some day I swear 🙂
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
April 7, 2015 @ 11:03 am
We have Asian Americans with non-straight non-black hair, and so many different sorts of eyes! Most of us have an epicanthic fold, but people tend to think that means an outside corner uptilt rather than the inside corner skin that covers the tear ducts. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicanthic_fold#/media/File:Epicanthicfold-highlighted.JPG)
Grandmas in general represent a generational cultural difference—it’s the exoticization of all Asian grandmas as foreign that bugs me. My father’s mother (Japanese American born in California) made me silver dollar pancakes and used American slang from the 40s.
April 7, 2015 @ 3:30 pm
To be honest, I mostly think of Americans of East Asian decent as being urban. That is the strongest correlation in my mind despite the fact that I grew up in a rural area where there were at least of few families of East Asian and South Asian decent. They were recent additions to the community back in the 1980s/1990s and had moved there from more urban environments. I suppose that is where the urban association comes from, though I know it is ridiculous.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
April 7, 2015 @ 3:40 pm
Japanese Americans were a major part of the modern agricultural wealth of the US (especially on the West Coast), and “chick sexing” used to be a significant revenue stream for Japanese Americans. That agricultural wealth was one of the covert drivers for the Internment, in fact.
April 7, 2015 @ 3:52 pm
I’m intellectually aware of the importance of Asian immigrants in the agricultural and infrastructure boom on the West Coast and the deeply racist depictions of Asian immigrants and laws that restricted them. I am not so blind that I haven’t noticed the large number of Hmong farmers at the local farmer’s market. And yet, I still have this ridiculous, knee-jerk association between Asian Americans and urban environments. I will continue to mentally correct myself.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
April 7, 2015 @ 6:25 pm
Fascinating, isn’t it? I’m guessing it’s all the “Asian immigrants as the population of Chinatown” tropes without a lot of other representation.
I’ve been told repeatedly by people who didn’t grow up in areas with a large Asian American population that they were stunned the first time they encountered an Asian appearing person who had a standard American English (“non”)-accent.
April 7, 2015 @ 7:19 pm
Kat, it broke my heart to read that your children have shown the effects of colorism in 2015 at such a tender age. It saddens me so much to see this perpetuated globally. Is the cult of “white is right” the lasting legacy of imperialism? Why do various cultures around the world cast their lightest citizens as heroes, models, people to look up to? Meanwhile darker skinned folk are seen as ignorant, ugly, criminal.
Oh yeah, and as a Black woman I stand with you at being sick to death of “Where are you from?” Where am I from? Brooklyn, ya rat bastards. That’s all you need to know.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
April 7, 2015 @ 9:15 pm
Oddly, in his case it wasn’t classic colorism, it was specific to his skin tone vs. all others.
Paleness as a marker of luxury is the usual explanation. I note that the legend of Tomoe Gozen, long before European colonialist contact, refers to her white skin.
I’m seeing my kids not have colorist assumptions about darkness and attractiveness. It’s nice, and I hope it lasts into adolescence.
April 8, 2015 @ 2:06 am
Yes, to clarify, I was thinking the epicanthic fold, not the outside of the eye. I mean, everyone’s eyes are round, as are the eye sockets. If someone actually has tilted eyes, they probably need to see a doctor.
40’s slang is kinda exotic. I understand it but don’t speak it.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
April 8, 2015 @ 1:40 pm
The ways in which someone’s eyelids come together can create the appearance of “tilting up at the outside” (i.e. closer to the ears) or tilting down. There’s a stereotype that all have an upward tilt, possibly due to the epicanthic fold eliminating a sense of flatness that the tear duct would provide.
Exotic-by-time and exotic-by-perceived-foreignness feel very different to me. I understand that people collapse the two in an effort to find similarity and reach empathy, but … all of our grandmas are separated by time. When some grandmas are characterized *by stereotype* as foreign, that ends up creating a myth of foreignness that’s reinforces Othering.
Daniel von Brighoff
April 9, 2015 @ 5:53 pm
I’ve seen similar reactions to Asian-Americans with non-standard American English accents *even from other Asian-Americans*. For instance, there was a Japanese-American student from Georgia at my university and one of the local (Chicago-area) Japanese-Americans said upon meeting him, “But Asians don’t have accents!”
April 9, 2015 @ 6:12 pm
A lot of my coworkers are Asian with very thick accents, but that group is also mostly immigrants to the US. The one real standout was born and raised in Ottawa, and despite living in the US for at least a decade he’s still identifiably Canadian (as in another friend of mine, born and raised in Toronto). (There’s a subset of East Asian coworkers who came to the US under the age of 10 and if I didn’t know that American English wasn’t their native language I couldn’t have told you from the way they spoke).
They do mostly have straight-ish dark hair, though.
That said, I grew up in the suburbs of New York Ciry. There weren’t a lot of East Asian families in my immediate neighborhood and my school district growing up was very white (although now it’s got a heavy Korean and Indian/Pakistani presence — the parents are immigrants, but the children were born here and sound and act like any other kid). There was never any question that they were easily as American by birth as I was.
However, going back to your original question, I immediately pictured a university student (for all ethnicities, actually). I suspect it’s because that’s the age of my kids.
April 9, 2015 @ 6:59 pm
I did create this list of SF and Fantasy for middle grade readers: https://shanshad1.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/a-tuesday-ten-asian-speculative-fiction/
Can’t vouch for everything on there being ideal, but I wanted to see what was out there.
I do a lot of read alouds for classes at the library. I’ve found myself dropping Tikki Tikki Tembo off the list of reads in place of Ruby’s Wish, The Seven Chinese Sisters, Juna’s Jar, Tree of Cranes etc. Allen Say, Laurence Yep, Grace Lin . . . these are my immediate authors that pop to mind for picture books.
April 9, 2015 @ 7:02 pm
Even now in this day and age I run across books just being published that contain awful depictions of “other”. My experience lies more with MG fic than anything else, but I still see it.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
April 9, 2015 @ 7:35 pm
I confess that the Three Strong Women in particular makes me itch, although I have not seen the inside…naming the boy “Forever Mountain” is one of those exoticizing things that is not standard in the way that Japanese in diaspora have ever referred to themselves.
Thank you for the list, and I will have to see what I can find of Japanese stories to add to your list, which is very Chinese. (This is both understandable and unfortunate for my children.)
April 9, 2015 @ 7:54 pm
Please do. I work primarily in an area with a lot of Chinese immigrants and first gen American kids so those tend to be at the top of my knowledge. There is Tasty Baby Belly Buttons (which is more fairytale picture book and a reworking of Peach Boy).
I admit Three Strong Women falls into hyper tall-tale area and isn’t as ideal–but I’ve a fondness for it as being one of the few tall with women showing off this kind of physical strength.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
April 9, 2015 @ 9:27 pm
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
April 9, 2015 @ 9:30 pm
I should ask you again in ten years, then?
Kat Tanaka Okopnik
April 9, 2015 @ 9:33 pm
I refuse to give my children books that translate Japanese names into English words. My friend’s name is Hanako, not “Flower Child”.
April 9, 2015 @ 10:43 pm
Makes sense. It’s a neat story . . . wonder if there’s a version out there with better naming traditions? Or maybe one could be written? Now that would be awesome.
April 14, 2015 @ 8:30 am
You might want to check out Bear Bergman’s Flamingo Rampant press (http://www.flamingorampant.com/), depending on how “single digit” your kids are. The books might be a bit too young for a 9 year old.
“Flamingo Rampant is a micropress with a mission – to produce feminist, racially diverse, LGBTQ-positive books, in an effort to to bring visibility and positivity to the reading landscape of children everywhere.”
April 14, 2015 @ 4:15 pm
I guess I recognize what people mean about the tilted eyes, but I don’t actually (ha) see it.
April 14, 2015 @ 5:16 pm
I’m not sure how old your kids are (although from your post, they sound single digits), or even if this is a good idea, but I’ve seen some parents use it in other areas where there is something objectionable (often, in older “classic” kid’s lit, where certain things would certainly not be acceptable today — also, often on the fly, when the parent didn’t remember the problematic bits as they read it, or it was read to them, as a child). If the story is otherwise good, with the exception of the name, and you’re reading the story aloud to your kids, could you perhaps insert the appropriate name instead of the Anglicized version?
This may not work for you, and I would absolutely understand if you didn’t want to support a story that does that in the first place; I make this suggestion only on the strength of the other commenter’s recommendation of the story as generally well-written and having many other redeeming features. Best to you, and I wish I had recommendations for you and your child. 🙁