In A Cage Made of Bamboo

(14 min read)

By Albert Hur

America has a problem. We’re her problem. The only reason she has a problem is she doesn’t want us here. America has a Chinaman problem.

Yes, even today.

Let me tell you a story. It’s not a tale of assimilation, or integration, or inclusion. It’s a story about exclusion, about alienation, about being a perpetual foreigner. Spoiler alert: it does not have a happy ending, or at least, not yet.

I grew up in the Midwest. When I was young, I attended a public school in a prominent university town. This being the breadbasket of America, the demographics were about what you would imagine — primarily white, with a sizable scattering of black, and maybe one Native American. Asians were as rare as the dodo.

I remember about the 1st or 2nd grade, kids started to split into their own small groups. Like oil and water, we all separated into our own little color-coded gangs. Since there was a dearth of kids that looked like me, I fell in with a crew of white rugrats. These guys rode the bus with me, lived next door to me, and shared desks around mine. It was a natural sorting.

I still remember, clear as day, when I realized I was different. We were all walking together in a single file on the playground when one of the kids, I forget his name (Daniel? Michael? John?), turned around and, for no reason whatsoever, punched me in the stomach.

I was so shocked that I couldn’t react. Breathless, and slightly embarrassed, I remember confusedly trying to make sense of things. I hadn’t done anything wrong. We didn’t have any beef; no insults had been slung, no toys had been fought over. It was just a regular, normal day, same as any other day, but for whatever particular reason, that day my so-called friends had decided to fuck with a chink (I’m actually a gook, but whatever).

Apparently, my story is not unique. From The Leadership Conference, a civil and human rights coalition:

Across the nation, the Associated Press found that Asian students say they are often beaten, threatened, and called ethnic slurs by other young people, and school safety data suggest that the problem may be worsening. Youth advocates say these Asian teens, stereotyped as high-achieving students who rarely fight back, have for years borne the brunt of ethnic tension as Asian communities expand and neighborhoods become more racially diverse. “We suspect that in areas that have rapidly growing populations of Asian Americans, there often times is a sort of culture clashing,” said Aimee Baldillo of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (now the Asian American Justice Center).

In 2005, while waiting on a subway platform in Brooklyn, New York, 18 year-old Chen Tsu was accosted by four high school classmates who demanded his money. After Tsu showed his classmates his pockets were empty, they assaulted him, taking turns beating his face. Tsu was scared and injured — bruised and swollen for several days — but hardly surprised. At his school, Lafayette High in Brooklyn, Chinese immigrant students like him are harassed and bullied so routinely that school officials in June agreed to a Department of Justice consent decree to curb alleged “severe and pervasive harassment directed at Asian-American students by their classmates.” Said Tsu after his beating, “Those guys looked like they could kill somebody. … I was scared to go back to school.”

In South Boston, 16 year-old Vietnamese student Bang Mai was killed on July 11, 2004 in a massive brawl between white and Vietnamese youths. The basketball court brawl was the result of weeks of tension between the two groups. Mai was fatally stabbed as he attempted to walk away from the brawl. Sixteen year-old Keith E. Gillespie was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.

In Fresno, California at Edison High School, Hmong students had been taunted and had food thrown at them during lunch. On February 25, 2005, the taunts escalated into fights involving at least 30 students, resulting in numerous injuries, suspensions, and expulsions. Eight students were convicted of misdemeanor assault.

The incident stuck with me. It’s what psychologists call a “flashbulb memory” — an event forever seared into my brain. I remember nursing a grudge, filled with growing anger and hate, to the point that the next time I saw DanielMichaelJohn during PE, I threw a basketball into his face apropos of nothing.

What happened afterward was telling. DMJ immediately went crying to the school’s principal, and I was sent to an after-school counseling session where I voiced my frustrations at my growing awareness of the racial divisions that I saw during recess as articulately as a prepubescent toddler can manage. The result? I was told that I was crazy, that I had anger management issues, and that I needed to go to therapy. My parents were called in; my mother shrieked at me, my dad just laughed. I always loved my dad.

The funny thing is, I used to get into it with black kids too. On the basketball court, playing on a 7-foot rim, a black child would call me “chink”, I’d call him “nigger”, and then we would scrap. Nobody broke us up. Nobody stopped us, even when my hands were around a kid’s neck. No parents got involved. We duked it out, dusted ourselves off, and went back inside dutifully when the school bell rang. Most of my friends from high school were black.

Speaking of high school, I played a lot of sports. Football, wrestling, crew. I wasn’t particularly athletic, but I thought that these were just natural pastimes of young male students everywhere, and I wanted to belong to something. I remember watching as my teammates all went through hormone stages and puberty, and locker room tales started circulating about girls.

I never joined in on those conversations. You see, I had no clue what they were talking about, with their lurid whispers and tales of high intrigue of sneaking into some young chick’s bedroom while her parents were away on some weekend getaway. I couldn’t even tell what was real and what was fiction — I never got the looks, the giggles, the whispers. My first girlfriend in high school was Mexican, and she didn’t even attend my school.

When I went away to college, I spent my freshman year in an all-white dorm. It played out exactly the same as the scene from elementary school. We’d just be chilling, hanging out, and then when we got drunk/high, the words “nigger” and “chink” and “spic” started being slung around at an alarming rate. What was alarming was not just the frequency, but the casualness of it. Despite being a huge, public, liberal institution, these young college-educated Caucasian males who were all aspiring to be this country’s next sports stars, presidents, and CEOs (well, considering we were a D1 school, maybe a step below all those things, but you grok me) were racist as fuck. They just were racist behind closed doors now; apparently, their parents had scolded them into behaving themselves in public.

I didn’t hook up or get laid at all that year, despite me attending a shit ton of house parties and fraternity orgies. I was often the target of racial barbs and slurs, to which I reacted – overreacted, in fact, quite violently. Eventually, for my own mental health, I decided I needed to walk away. I received competing bids for both a White fraternity and Asian fraternity, and I decided I’ve done White my whole life. Let’s try something different.

Joining that fraternity saved my life. I felt like I went through a second adolescence, except this time, I actually experienced the things that an adolescent should – partying, camaraderie, late night drunk talks, impromptu pickup games in our parking lot, first (second and third) loves, etc. I met friends, some of whom became life-long, and fundamentally grew into the person I am today.

Eventually, college ended, we all grew up and moved out to different parts of the country. Nowadays, I toil away in an air-conditioned cubicle inside a giant ant farm sticking out from the center of a Midwestern heartland city like an angry zit, while racial tensions seethe beneath the surface. Working as a corporate management drone in the back office, I see things that most worker bees don’t, and what I see is alarming. Same shit, different day. It’s elementary/high school/college all over again, except now I don’t have any brothers to reach out to.

So what, right? So what, everybody has problems. Every race has problems. What is your problem? What is the Asian-American problem? Don’t you guys lead a relatively cozy life? Aren’t you all the highest earners in this country as a demographic? What the hell do you have to bitch about? Is it bullying? Immigration? Not getting laid? The struggle with poverty by Southeast Asians? So what?

So what, indeed.

Let’s talk about the bamboo ceiling. The term “bamboo ceiling” was coined by Jane Hyun in her book focusing on Asians in the workplace. Like many sisters who achieve mainstream recognition, Jane is a straight Anna Lu. Her book The Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians sits on a bookshelf right outside my work elevator. It is defined as “a combination of individual, cultural, and organizational factors that impede Asian-Americans’ career progress inside organizations”. This impediment is said to arise from the importance (White) America places on subjective factors such as “lack of leadership potential” and “lack of communication skills.”

Eyeroll. You know my take on this (Berdahl 2012). “Communication” and “leadership” skills are just dog whistles. See the below excerpt:

In Cheng’s (1996) studies on masculinities in organizations, college students had to select among their classmates people who would serve as leaders for group projects and what values they needed to possess. He found that all the leadership values students were looking for were based on hegemonic masculinity. What naturally followed was the selection of mostly White men to be group leaders followed by White women who emulated masculine behaviors. Of all the racial and gender groups, Asian American men were the least likely to be chosen for leadership positions within their class. Students cited meritocracy to rationalize their decisions. However, when Cheng analyzed all the selected leaders based on merit alone, the Asian American men were more qualified than the students who were selected.

Source: Asian American Masculinity: A Review of the Literature

Of course, articles regarding the subject written in popular rags like CrainsFortune magazine, and the Atlantic have all reinforced this textbook whitesplaining. Let’s just call a spade a spade — the bamboo ceiling is a result of racism. Period. End of.

Or maybe not. I mean, yes, our sister Jane was onto something, even if her explanation of it was misguided. There is a very real bamboo ceiling. Even the US Department of Labor came to the same conclusion (Woo 1994).

In sum, personal, cultural, or other group deficits are reasons which have been offered to explain promotional barriers. Survey responses have underscored Asian American employees’ perceptions of barriers, which include not only language deficiencies but external barriers such as arbitrary or subjective evaluations, the absence of mentoring or sponsorship, and exclusion from informal networks. Obstacles to career advancement cannot be attributed to simple cultural parochialism or clannishness.

In terms of negative long-term consequences for mobility for Asian Americans, the culture of corporate America was identified in one study as “the most serious type of impediment by far to upward mobility.”

Straight from our government’s own mouth. Btw, my Master’s was in Industrial Labor Relations, so this study had me geeking a bit. To hear the perspective of some voices from within our own community, check out this NPR transcript.

Back to my original point. If the US government itself, and the numerous articles about Silicon Valley published recently point to there being a clear case of racial discrimination in the workplace, why do I say this is not a case of race discrimination?

Because it isn’t. Jane saw the ceiling, but she didn’t see the bars. Sure, there’s a bamboo ceiling, but there are also bamboo walls and a bamboo floor. This tiny jail cell we’ve all been crammed into by virtue of being born with yellow skin and slanty eyes.

This is caste discrimination. In America, race is caste.

The social disparity between Negro classes and the White classes is particularly disconcerting to upper class Negroes.

In his own personality he feels the conflict of two opposing structures, and in thinking and feeling of the members of both groups there is to be found this same conflict about his position… Although he is at the top of the Negro class hierarchy, he is constantly butting his head against the caste line.

American Caste and Class (Warner 1936)

Asians do not have it “better” than other minorities. In fact, we’re touching on something that we’ve known since birth. Why is it that we as a demographic are treated differently when it comes to issues of race in America? How come, despite all our educational attainment and high median income, we’re still constantly insulted, harassed, bullied, jailed, and killed? Why is racism towards Asian, particularly Asian men, okay?

It’s because we’re the motherfucking Dalit.

You see, this goes beyond “micro-aggressions” or “hate crimes”. This goes beyond class, where, yes, we seem to superficially be doing well on average because of demographic gerrymandering. The fundamental fact is that America is just as much a caste system as the old Hindu order.

Varna may be translated as “class,” and refers to the four social classes which existed in the Vedic society, namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Certain groups, now known as Dalits, were historically excluded from the varna system altogether, and are still ostracised as untouchables.

Except we call them Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBT, Asians. Unlike class, which is defined by averages, the mark of your caste is how high you can rise to a position of social and cultural prominence in society. Do you know when we’ll see an Asian American POTUS? According to 1 in 4 Americans, never.

The survey found more Americans were uncomfortable voting for an Asian-American for president (24 percent of those surveyed) than for a candidate who was African-American (15 percent), a woman (14 percent) or Jewish (11 percent).

Nearly one half, or 46 percent, of those surveyed felt that with Chinese-Americans “passing secrets to the Chinese government is a problem,” according to the survey, sponsored by the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese-Americans.

Thirty-two percent felt Chinese-Americans were more loyal to China than the United States, it said, and 24 percent said they would not approve of intermarriage with an Asian-American.

Still don’t believe me?

Jāti may be translated as caste, and refers to birth; that is, the caste into which one is born. The names of jātis are usually derived from occupations, and considered to be hereditary and endogamous

Asians: Engineers, Doctors, Lawyers. We grow through immigration, not reproduction. And the bulk of that immigration come from very specific, rigidly defined occupations.

You want to be an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer? Great! Come through to our country, we have a spot on the sugar plantation for you. Just make sure you’re neutered firstdon’t ever breed with any of the locals unless you want trouble, and make sure you die nice and quietly without leaving behind too much of a mess.

Want to be President, CEO, a superstar? You’re out of luck, sorry, those roles were not meant for you.

Oh, and while we’re keeping you down, let’s not forget to poke you with sticks through the bars.

By making it harder to find housing.

By making it harder to find a job.

By paying you less than you’re worth.

By firing you first.

By relentlessly bullying and harassing you with no consequences.

Oh, and are you getting too uppity? Have you forgotten that you all made a deal with the devil and swore to become palace eunuchs and concubines? Well never forget that the floor you’re standing on is a trapdoor, leading straight to a dungeon.

Harold and Kumar knew what was up.

Let me tell you our problem is. We’re lepers. We’re the untouchables. We are the BOTTOM CLASS IN A DE FACTO CASTE SYSTEM. Again, the only reason we don’t feel full-blown White rage is because we pay tithes to our White overlords and give them our daughters as tribute. See how fast they’ll crack down on you once you stop paying them off. Their badged goons will descend on you so fast that your head will spin. To protect and serve… White people, never forget.

So what should we do? What can we do? How do we tear down a social order that’s as old as the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock?

We build a nation. There’s a reason brother CN Le calls his website

You see, I’m a nationalist. But not a traditional Asian nationalist, like some of these guys with their heads stuck in the Old World. I’m an Asian-American nationalist. I believe that we need to come together in solidarity, as a community, and fiercely fight the fight that previous generations lost and left to us. I believe we need to stand together, and no longer accept our societal role as neutered housepets, destined to die as the last of our kind. I believe in Yellow Peril.

First things first, get thee to an enclave. We need demographic majorities in the cities we live in if we want to build a nation. Los Angeles is a start. New York City is good too. Some parts of Texas are decent. The more numbers we have, the more shoulders and backs, the easier it is to create a counterculture to fight back against the dominant White supremacist narrative.

Second, if you have the stomach for it, go into entrepreneurship. But no more of these blind ass “colorblind” hiring practices, please. Focus on hiring and promoting each other, particularly our Southeast Asian brothers. Out of all of us, they’re the only ones that kept their balls, and you can see White Supremacy already trying to “gentrify” them. It’s all over our mainstream AAPI activist organizations hat have been hijacked by the enemy. They want them to turn into passive, docile, obedient servants like many East Asians that come here fresh off the boat with a Master’s degree and the delusional fantasy of a better life.

No. We should uplift our own community. We should pour our money, not into white laundering fronts like Louis Vuitton, and Gucci, and an E-class Mercedes, but into these poverty-stricken groups who are the only ones serving as our militia. They are the frontline against the police, bros, understand that. We should take care of our soldiers.

Finally, get involved. We need more brothers and sisters to speak for our community. Our political apathy must fucking end. Our sisters are either drifting along in opium dreams or have turned traitor. We need more uncompromising brothers and sisters like this one to shout down the palace eunuchs:

“Did you read the book?” I asked. “If you can find any crumb of a complete thought in the book that remotely infers ‘America is great,’ I’ll read the line.”

“Eddie, we need it for the episode. It’s a big moment! You have a black kid and a Chinese kid breaking bread over a Jewish hip-hop concert. Where else could this happen? America IS great!”

“Of course you picked a Beastie Boys concert. That’s what you people do — you make Asian sitcoms for white people praising Ill Communication because we’re both acceptable, unthreatening gateways to black culture. These kids couldn’t break bread at a Gravediggaz show?”

“How about a compromise? What about ‘Ain’t America great?’ or ‘America’s not half-bad!’”

I’d known Asian-Americans like Melvin my entire life. Those Booker T. Washington –Professor X–Uncle Chans, willing to cast down their buckets, take off Cerebro, and forget that successful people of color are in many ways “chosen” and “allowed” to exist while the others get left behind. They spout off about the American Dream or Only in America as if they’re about to rob the next great fighter from Brownsville. I empathize with Melvin, but Uncle Chans are basically born-again-Christian felons who will praise anything as long as they don’t get sent back to Rikers. I’d rather be Tunechi, “Left Rikers in a Phantom, that’s my nigga.”

Props to Eddie, he’s a real brother.

And if you no longer have the courage to step up to White Supremacy because they’ve taken your courage, or they turned you into such a bitch that you start apologizing for them, at least turn to internet spaces and Twitter. If you can’t set the streets on fire, the least you can do is be active on Twitter and engage in hashtag activism. Remember Suey Park? Remember the hullabaloo around #NotYourAsianSidekick?

Well, let’s go one step further.


Related Reading:

A Message From a House Chink

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