Did or do you ever keep secrets from your close elders?
Secret-keeping from elders is a long-held tradition for any young person, and hit some next levels with children of Asian immigrants. In fact, young AAPI folks keeping secrets from the elders in their lives is part of the trope–I dare say, racist stereotype–of AAPI people. I see and experienced this stereotype particularly regarding AAPI girls. That we were sheltered from the world by our over-bearing “Tiger Moms,” and this is why we need white American friends who can bring us into the real world.
In reflecting on this question I want to push beyond the limited areas we see in the media: booze, drugs, and sex. Don’t get it twisted, there have been many secrets regarding booze, drugs, and sex that I’ve kept from my Asian Indian elders. Many of these secrets definitely involved white American friends and were absolutely messy situations. The heart conditions I have likely developed from being so terrified that they’d expose me.
Inevitably there came a time when I wanted to remove the walls of secrecy, particularly with my Amma. We had endured and found joy through so much pain, it felt unnecessary to keep hiding parts of myself. Admittedly, I had entered my 30s when I finally decided to share more of my life with her. I had taken off extra time from work to support her in recovering from a surgery. Last I spent this much time with her had been years before, when I was a completely different person. I had learned a lot about myself since then, and I wanted her to know more.
Even deeper, determining that I needed to share my truth with her helped me to learn more about myself and my internalized shame. Now in my late 30s I have come to realize that I needed to be a messy college kid turned even messier 20-something. Those experiences have shaped me, as has the work to move through the shame. Sure, my mom is not necessarily happy about the decisions I have made, but she does not love me any less and at least now she knows me better.
A desi family with a tiffin or two at a public event surrounded by non-desi people is the absolute best sight.
I laugh because it starts as a nostalgic smile about my own family showing up to Oakland A’s games with containers of lemon rice, idli, vaious curries, and pickle. I laugh at the amma usually giving absolutely zero fucks what others think or smell or judge on about, she is going to make sure her family is fed well. It is hilarious (and often correct) for South Asian parents to assume that public events won’t have good food, especially for families used to flavorful, spicy vegetarian food. I laugh because standard American fast food is so basic and South Asian parents are so much better at food.
Plu, awkward Americanized kids will always make me laugh. I think about my brother and me just somehow goofily existing in the world. Now as a happily childless adult, I out loud guffaw when looking at the little kids with ridiculous haircuts, usually done at home with a bowl and craft scissors. (I promise I don’t point and laugh!). These little Brown beings so uncomfortable about the smell of their food or others staring. They just don’t know yet how to truly appreciate these gifts… and I’m sitting there with the flavorless vegetarian option from the food stand because I don’t take the time to cook. I just want to soothe their nerves but also I am so happy their awkwardness is gracing my presence.
Also an honorary mention must go to seeing uncles standing around anywhere, and especially in an unexpected place. Recently I saw a gaggle of uncles at a mall in Prague. Hands folded at the small of their backs. Having a conversation that is hybrid verbal and nonverbal language. Throw in strong mustaches and I’m completely sold.
Describe a form of media in which you see yourself.
There have been some individual artists who have opened doors and windows for my self-reflection. People like Margaret Cho and Mindy Kaling knocked me out with being prominent funny Asian women. Being funny and not reduced to physical appearance was very important to me as I was developing. I had mostly only seen Indian women in Bollywood and Tollywood movies, where they were typically expected to be small, light-skinned, femme, tattoo-less, and demure. Margaret and Mindy threw that out the window in the 1990s and 2000s.
Margaret’s 1990s show “All American Girl” was hilarious and the first time an Asian American family was the focus of a U.S. sitcom. I saw parts of my family in that show; when I see my unique family, I see me. Mindy’s role in “The Office” was absurd and nothing like me, but she was so spit-take funny that I was in awe. On a solo road trip I once listened to her narration of her 2011 book, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” I almost slammed my brakes laughing several times.
When I really think about it though, one movie really had a hold on me in high school into college: “Bend in Like Beckham.” Man, I am not British, I am not Punjabi, I don’t play soccer, and at the time I only knew David Beckham as Posh Spice’s husband. But, that movie is so funny and the main character is a dark-skinned tomboy so I was invested. The queer undertones of it I think is what really got me. Gossip that Parminder Nagra’s character was lesbian… I wanted aunties spreading rumors that I was dating Kiera Knightly!
Different media has reflected parts of me throughout my life, but nothing has been fully representative. I’m not sure that is possible and often that is too much pressure for artists and actors. The fact that I have had such a hard time seeing myself in any media is part of why I put my writing in public spaces–for me to see myself through my own words.
Today in 1869, the “golden spike” completed the transcontinental railroad. Asian laborers were excluded from ceremonial photos. Reflections?
From what I understand, this historic day is a reason policymakers in the 1970’s used to advocate for recognition of AAPI Heritage in May. During these federal bill hearings did politicians and advocates clarify that Asian workers–primarily Chinese indentured laborers–were excluded from the ceremonial photos? Was the creation of AAPI Heritage Month motivated by the exclusion of Asian laborers from the historic documentation? While this is a disgusting and classically American way of re-writing history, is this such a significant transgression against Asian and Pacific Islander peoples that it requires a federally recognized month?
All in all, exclusion is the glaringly obvious reflection here. Let’s keep in mind that this was a time when snapping pics wasn’t as easy as using our handheld future machines. This was a whole process with glass and fire and shit. Let alone the eternal struggle of setting up a group photo. The work it takes to be like, “hey guys could you all just stand way over there? Okay just a little more to your left… more.. okay like 10 more feet.” As we know it was more like they threw some derogatory remarks to the Asian workers to get out of the shot or something else horrifying.
To not go down the road of my sarcastic conjecturing and enraged flippancy too far, I will redraw back to the harm of excluding these workers and a process of repair. In a quick Google search I found this heart-warming 2014 NPR piece, as they are known to produce when it comes to “fixing” racial tension. This is where the “heritage” shows up for me in “heritage month.” In 2002, a Chinese-American student led a project to recreate this photo with decedents of the Asian laborers, 130 years after the “golden spike” was set in the ground. That is badass. Then in 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor inducted the Asian laborers into its Hall of Honor. That part is great, but more annoying because of all the ways that the millions of other Black and Brown people who built this country are not respected in such ways.
Yet, I digress — this is an interesting case study for the importance of critiquing how we are told and shown history from the oppressor’s perspective, and strategies to repair those harms.
Heritage is weighty. In my most difficult times of childhood identity development, “heritage” felt like a burden. Desire for independence heighted anxiety around obligations and expectations. I felt beholden to those who came before me and I was overwhelmed by the responsibility of this concept.
Heritage is manipulated. It is used by blood seeking white people and high-caste Hindu people to determine worth and access. Conservatives abuse it to indoctrinate masses in the name of tradition. To shape and hoard power on the basis of legacy.
Heritage is shared. It is connection across diasporas with never-ending branches. Memories made tangible and current and future. A sense of belonging that opens doors to self-perception. It is clarity, consequence, and cause.
Heritage is ownness. What is owed to those of us whose ancestors’ riches and dignities were stolen. It is the cause for State reparations to Black people descended of enslaved Africans. It is the right of Indigenous Americans to ignore borders drawn with blood through their lands.
Heritage is history manifested in this current moment.
I’ve circled around many terms since I first began to identify my racial group as early as middle school. Growing up in the 1990s South Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area, I was raised among many vibrant, proud immigrant communities. My neighbors, classmates, friends and chosen family were first, second, third generation Asians and Pacific Islanders. Yet, we didn’t necessarily identify as a collective or an “acronym” together. In fact, we tended to identify quite separately. In school, we had “cultural clubs” which were more specifically connected to our family’s nations of origin. The Pilipino Club was the largest at my high school and its members, including many of my friends, claimed the term AZN. Keep in mind, anything with a “z” in the 1990s or early 2000s was awesome. I would clamor towards that term, screaming, “I’m Asian, too!”
As a Sociology major in college, I learned about the history and politicization of the term “Asian-American” having been borne out of 1960’s racial justice organizing in Berkeley, California. Students who came together from across nations of origin and generations, bonded under the term “Asian-American” knowing that together we are stronger. Since learning of these roots, I have connected with “Asian-American” beyond any other terminology — because of what it means in the broader movement for social justice.
I want to be respectful to the umbrellas we create; political terms must always evolve. In developing this project, I stuck with “AAPI” because I have seen this acronym used most commonly and, for most of my life, May was federally recognized as specifically “Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.” Only this week I learned that in 2021, President Biden actually extended it to be “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.” In scrolling Instagram only hours ago, I just learned the term “Asian Pacific Islander Middle Eastern Desi American (APIMEDA)” which appears to be burgeoning from university and college student groups and programs.
No matter what, I want to feel connected to others with a shared political history in relation to the United States. I want to belong to a wider group and I feel really seen by Asian-American content that is not focused on people of Indian heritage. So, I will accept all terms as long as they accept my whole dark-skinned second-generation Telugu South Asian-American self.
Week 1 of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month has been made deeper and more fulfilling because of this daily writing activity I’ve conjured up. I am grateful to my creative brain for curating something to keep me grounded (or at times very distracted) amidst an ocean of nonsense, shenanigans, and emotional chaos. While I am unsure if any fellow AAPI folks in the world are using these prompts as well, I hope that my musings are getting some synapses moving. I know mine are running laps! Below I unveil the daily writing prompts for week 2. May we continue to reflect for ourselves and not for the performance.
I wonder how we define “nickname.” They have typically been thrown at me because people are too impatient with themselves to correctly say my name. White supremacy encouraging simplicity and not respect. My spouse and I have silly endearing words we say at each other, but I would consider that too private to be considered a “nickname.” Has there ever been a nickname that I truly love? One that doesn’t feel like a mockery? Like an attempt for me to be approachable to white people at the sacrifice of my own self-respect?
There is my family name: Munni. The thought of this name brings warm joy to my skin. In my family’s culture, people often have formal names and family names. I don’t quite know the history or reason for family names, but I’m curious to learn. From what I understand, “Munni” means “baby of the family.” My family name has been used by my parents and brother since before I could remember, but only at home, never with their co-workers or at the doctor’s office. Those were places for my formal name: Rajani. Extended family would ask after me on landline long-distance calls and postal mail, “How is little Munni?” More recently Ravi’s partner Nicole asked to call me “Munni,” which just made sense because I see her as a sister.
To me, the family name is a signifier of something deeper than a “nickname.” While Rajani is mine to use and mold as I carve my space in this world, Munni is about me but beyond me. It is unconditional love baked into my DNA. It brings me back to protected moments in my childhood. Munni is a reminder that no matter what paths move me or harms pause me, I have a place somewhere.
It was often used for me during 20 years of my early life. When I convinced myself to accept white American pronunciations of Rajani. Ruh-JAW-nee or RAJ-aw-nee or RAH-JAW-nee. Still not sure the best way to illustrate it, but no matter what, it often led to, “Can I call you Raj?
In college in Oregon, my second year RA put nicknames on everyone’s door before move-in day. Mine said “The Raj Mahal.” I laughed and made it my own. Told it to my friends. I was a deeply wounded Brown kid who didn’t want to feel so alone. So I accepted what got laughs and attention.
It took my mom’s loving request when I moved to Baltimore for graduate school for me to go by my correct name: RUH-juh-nee. To fight for it. So I did. And I have made amazing, loyal friends in the process.