The Lasting Legacy Of Growing Up Post-9/11 As ‘The Wrong Kind Of Asian’
On January 6, I was skimming the live blog on FiveThirtyEight.com while site contributors discussed the impending drama of challenges to the electoral college votes in Congress. Then, abruptly, the news coverage changed.
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As the Capitol riot unfolded, others watched with anxiety and trepidation. I stood apart, feeling only an odd sense of relief. The events on Capitol Hill, to me, represented a national catharsis, an earthquake that exposed the fault lines running through the American social contract — not only between citizens and government, but also between citizens and insurrectionists. It represented the true culmination of the looking glass through which I myself had passed two decades ago, in 2001.
In other words, I was not surprised.
I feel sympathy for those who have found the recent national narrative involving our government, legitimacy, power and democracy to be disturbing. But it is a relief to finally know that others are seeing this country as I have since I was 12.
The Before Time
As far as non-white childhoods in America go, I think it's fair to say that mine was quite idyllic. My parents, who are immigrants from India and Japan, met at UC Berkeley, then a common instigator of interracial, international marriages. They put down roots in Pasadena, and I was nurtured by the academic community of Caltech.
My childhood memories consist mostly of sunset summers in the shadow of the Santa Monica pier, family drives to Joshua Tree and Vasquez Rocks, of winter poppy fields, donning yukata in the summer heat, dancing in front of the reliefs at the Venkateswara temple in Calabasas, and falling asleep surrounded by the scent of incense during zazen at the Zen Center in Koreatown.
These early years were a curious time to be a child in Los Angeles. The 1992 riots were still a fresh memory for every adult I knew. Even I was aware that a Black man named Rodney King had been assaulted near what is now the Barack H. Obama Highway. Even I knew Los Angeles had burned, and yet, growing up, I thought little about race. People regularly mistook me for Latina or Filipina or Middle Eastern, but there was no felt meaning attached to any of the labels, so my awareness of what race "meant" was low.
The Pasadena school I attended was a good mix of white, Black, Hispanic and a smattering of everything else. Any overt racism was often resolved through playground justice, and the closest I came to acknowledging race was when a Puerto Rican classmate remarked offhand that we were the “only two mixed race students in our class.” Huh. So we were.
'The Wrong Kind Of Asian'
September 11, 2001 marked the beginning of the crucible through which the true nature of this country would be revealed to me.
In comparison with my first decade, I have no good memories of the Bush years. In the months that followed, numerous experiences made it clear to me that I was no longer welcome, had never been welcome. Nativism began to mount.
A few months after 9/11, a boy followed me and a desi classmate after school, throwing rocks at us as he yelled, “Taliban! Taliban!” This was also the year white supremacist groups like National Vanguard would regularly leave hate literature on our doorstep.
As I type these words, it seems strange to me that my alienation from America seemed so natural at the time, but perhaps I have my family to blame for that. My parents, a biochemist and an astronomer, were students of world history: unflinching in their depiction of the scars left on the world by oppression in the form of colonization, war and genocide. Among my childhood picture books are stories about the Trail of Tears, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese internment, the Nanjing Massacre and the Underground Railroad.
The first Noble Truth in Buddhism is that life is suffering, and I took that lesson at face value. Despite the many slights that marked the years between 2001 and 2008, I had been taught from birth to view extremism as inevitable, fear of the unknown as a typical human instinct, and to expect hatred from those who perceived me as “not them.”
「我慢しなさい!」or "Endure it!" is a common reproof in Japanese households. My coming of age was an object lesson in learning how to endure the role of outsider.
If narratives of white American versus non-white immigrant (or “illegal” immigrant/“terrorist,” as the terms went then, depending on one's flavor of xenophobia) weren't enough to already contend with, one year later I also had the dubious pleasure of encountering the full force of intra-community racism in the greater Los Angeles Asian American community.
My school district for middle school and high school was majority East Asian, and I vividly recall one classmate saying to me at 13, “Everyone here hates you because you are only half Asian.”
When I corrected them that I had one Indian parent and one Japanese parent, they corrected themselves, “The wrong kind of Asian, then.”
If pressed to choose between such a flat rejection and thrown rocks, I will choose rocks every time.
I expected bigotry from white America. I was not prepared for it to come from a completely different field, from people with whom I thought I had much in common. The shootings in Atlanta, and subsequent news coverage on hate crimes against East Asian individuals over the course of the pandemic, have captured the attention of many friends and family. However, looking like I do, it hits me in a different place.
Perhaps what made all of these experiences more distressing was that what seemed obvious to my child self was dismissed as normalcy by the authority figures in whom I was supposed to place my trust.
It wasn't until I was in college that my Japanese mother realized many East Asian and white store clerks in the San Gabriel Valley and West L.A. would speak to her, but never with me. Parents of classmates, most of them East Asian, rarely allowed me over, and often made it clear my presence was unwelcome. The TSA made no pains to hide that my South Asian father and I could expect very different treatment compared with my East Asian-presenting sister and Japanese mother.
Coming Of Age In The 'War On Terror'
More seriously, my many well-meaning white teachers, bless their hearts, were not equipped to discuss the state of the country during the "War on Terror" with a student who looked so very like the individuals the politicians and news anchors quickly condemned.
I remember with acute irony the English teacher in whose class I read Elie Wiesel’s "Night" and "The Diary of Anne Frank." This teacher took great pains to arrange annual field trips to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and yet never once voiced issue with the language of the Patriot Act, the creation and subsequent activities of ICE and DHS, nor the invasive government regulations that I would later find landed some of my Muslim peers on no-fly lists, even as minors.
Speaking for my self-righteous adolescent self, if you want to breed rebelliousness in a teenager, teach them about democratic government and civics — and then say nothing when their government exploits the spirit of its own laws. If you want them to oppose war, start a war in which they have no say, but pressure them with military recruitment when they are 18.
If you want them to lose faith in a nation, show them voters who prioritize nativism and racial inequality, and make it clear that everything from their name to their face to their ancestry means that they can expect no better than grudging acceptance, no matter how hard they try to obtain it. By the age of 18, I viewed America as a joke. The only things I learned that mattered were one's race, connections and wealth, and those unfavored were simply out of luck.
To that effect, Obama's election was a godsend to me. Perhaps more crucially, it was my first general election. I have consequently participated in almost every election since. It gave the alienated American within me a respite from what I believed America to be. The relative diversity in the UC system was similarly a blessing.
At UC San Diego, where I majored in international studies, I had the privilege to meet many classmates who had faced their own versions of loss, ostracism and disillusionment.
Being racially profiled by police officers on suspicion of being undocumented, and experiencing regular harassment by white nationalists and evangelists — all things I experienced while living in San Diego — go down differently when everyone knows that a Black man leads the country, and one has friends with whom to commiserate.
Even during the devastation of the Trump years, my peers and I continued to encourage each other through a combination of grim determination, nihilistic cynicism and sincere empathy.
After all, we were no longer 12, and at least now, we could vote.
The Intractable Fault Lines
I have no illusions about the intractable nature of these American fault lines, embedded in a history of slavery, xenophobia and nativism that many in our country can't acknowledge. I also know I am not the first person to realize they exist.
My coming of age simply precipitated a political awareness that is common knowledge for many people whose family histories are tied to these distinctly American forms of oppression and marginalization.
However, this awareness has left me tired and angry. I’m not Latina, but I’m treated by most strangers as if I were. I’ve been spoken to in Spanish, even asked which part of Latin America I come from. As such, I greatly empathize with the many Latinos who face racism and nativism. My family is both East and South Asian, so I understand the worries and concerns many Asians have about American xenophobia. When it comes to anti-Blackness and white supremacy, I have a working imagination.
After all, the many East Asian views on race and racial purity I myself have experienced are strikingly similar to white supremacy.
The ambiguity of my appearance means that all of these different groups speak freely with me about what they think about each other. Thus, I regularly mourn how people with so much suffering in common are unable to muster the willingness to understand each other.
I don't believe I am special. In fact, I rate my ability to reason as exceedingly average. Thus, I find it infuriating when others don't see the harm in allowing prejudice to flourish, that they tolerate the failures we invite when we cling to structures that bolster marginalization.
My rage is superseded only by a deep, existential loneliness that deters me from making connections with others for fear of rejection. I worry about not clearing the bar for one of the conditional forms of acceptance reluctantly proffered by a world that prioritizes crude notions of "us versus them."
My struggles with race and identity in L.A. stem from similar conflicts and assumptions held by the various groups that claim me and reject me in turn. As a biracial child of two immigrants from different places, it has been hard to bear three countries’ worth of animosity, with their varied messages of who to hate, who to love, what to wear, what to eat, and how to live.
The many masks and roles I have adopted to cope with disguising each facet of myself as a member of “us” to avoid being treated as “them” are stifling.
Either way, for a multiracial individual such as myself, singled out and simultaneously excluded for the identities I hold, there’s no room for me in a world where people are concerned with picking sides and protecting their own, regardless of the cost to others.
The Richness In Rejecting 'Us Versus Them'
That said, I already know how many small miracles happen in L.A. that would be unthinkable elsewhere. As a person of Indian Hindu and Japanese heritage, extremists back in my parents’ home countries would have me think I'm supposed to fear Muslims, despise Christians, hate Koreans and Chinese, and look down on just about everyone else, unless they are white and especially if they are Black.
However, that's not what my life has been.
A Black couple were the only people willing to rent to my Japanese grandparents when they first lived in the U.S. in 1957. The Zen Center established by a Japanese priest, where I learned about Buddhism, sits in L.A.'s Koreatown. My childhood friends regularly invited me to celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, and Christmas. A Black bus driver protected me from bullies every day to and from school for over four years. The godmother who showered my sister with unconditional love is Persian. My Muslim desi friends and I bond over politics and food.
My Indian father supports BLM. My Japanese mother studies Chinese so she can better speak with our neighbors.
For my part, I haven’t allowed my own adolescent experiences to stop me from engaging with the diverse members of Los Angeles’ fractured East Asian diaspora. My whole life is proof of the richness to be found in rejecting "us versus them," in reexamining the biases we hold and jettisoning those without substance.
As I sit here in L.A., a city that waits for the next big quake, tracking these American fault lines with my mind, I hear others who seemed astounded last Jan. 6 plaintively ask, "Is this who we are?”
My answer is, "This is who we have always been." I first saw the cracks when I was 12, and they have not disappeared or changed in size.
The fissures are now simply at the surface for all of us to acknowledge together.
Where we go from here is not something I can answer, but I know what I will be doing. I've chosen public health as my career because I think we all do better when all of us are given the opportunity to thrive. I believe this is the best way to help create a more just, more interlinked world where our respective roots can better grip the soil to withstand the tremors of the future.
Hindus and Buddhists talk a great deal of dharma, one's duty in life. I am not so virtuous as to believe the worldview I have chosen is a moral obligation. It is simply the only vision of the world I can see in which someone like me will flourish.
Much of what I know of L.A., and California as a whole, suggests that such a future is possible. Where I remain unsure is how many people share my perspective.
Anju Kulkarni is completing her Master’s of Public Health for epidemiology at the Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences at University of California, Irvine. She is currently an academic intern at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Born and raised on Tongva land in the San Gabriel Valley, she ponders cooking and cocktails in her spare time.