As someone who writes personal narratives, I feel a certain safety in focusing my work on my own life: there are many things I’m not expert in – foreign policy, economics, riding a bike – but I’m the definitive expert of what I’ve experienced and how it has shaped my perspective. There is a safe feeling also in that people can get upset at you for a hard-hitting opinion piece, but not for simply sharing a little slice of your life. Or so I thought.
I realized how wrong about this I was after publishing a personal essay on Huffington Post two weeks ago. The piece was about how my fiancé and I navigate being an Asian female/white male couple, and it ended up on the Apple News, Yahoo News, and MSN news homepages. This visibility exposed my partner and me to the underbelly of the internet: trolls and all their vitriol. They found every way to contact and harass not only me, but also him. I, in particular, was flooded with messages from people who felt they knew my life better than I did, telling me I’d gotten it all wrong, some more gently and some more furiously. Many were clearly very angered and offended by what I shared. They took my personal experiences to be a direct judgment on who they were, and fired back accordingly.
By now, there are more messages than I have time or stomach to catch up with. They’ve become redundant, generally falling into a few categories:
- You’re racist against white people. These messages usually come from white people who feel generally besieged in today’s political climate, and personally hurt that I expressed any complex feelings about my relationship dynamic. This category makes up the majority of negative messages I’ve received.
- You worship white people. These messages usually come from Asian people, who are upset that I have chosen a white partner. They see my essay as a justification for turning my back on my own race. There have been fewer of these messages than expected, given the harassment Asian American women writers often experience for marrying non-Asian men.
- Race doesn’t exist or matter anymore. So don’t talk about it. These messages usually come from older generations who probably saw much starker racial tensions, and want me to let go of my relatively small and nuanced feelings of discomfort.
While I understand where each of these camps is coming from, they are providing opposing messages. If I changed my story to better suit one group, it still wouldn’t be pleasing the others. And the bottom line is, I can’t change my story – it’s what I’ve experienced. I write first-person pieces as a way to better understand the life I’ve been given, to accompany others who may be on similar journeys, and to shed light on experiences for those who have different views.
The intent is not to shock or offend, but underlying many of the messages I received was a feeling of shock and disbelief – how can you feel this way? How dare you say these things?
What this reaction told me is that mainstream media is not used to hearing from Asian Americans. “Weirdest thing I’ve read…” one man wrote to me.
What I expressed in HuffPost is not actually so uncommon though – I also received messages from people who felt the same way. These came mostly from Asian American women and Asian American gay men in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I also heard from interracial couples of different make ups across the states. Some even told me they were using my essay as a framework to have conversations with their partners.
These are the things that make the vulnerability of writing worthwhile. So if you are Asian American and want to write about race or identity, I encourage you to do so. You are needed. Expect a slew of backlash that tries to silence your experience, but speak up anyway. People are not used to hearing Asian American perspectives, and it shakes their perception that we’re simply a model minority with nothing to say. Hearing from us makes some people feel uncomfortable, threatened.
Say things anyway. Whether you see things similarly to or completely differently from how I do, I want to hear from you. Others want to hear from you. Those who don’t want to hear from us need more exposure to the fact that we are here and have our own points of view. We are not a monolith and don’t always (or even often) agree, and it’s important for the world to see that. Only by speaking up will we create a space for our stories, in all their diversity, unity, discord, harmony, and full dimensionality.