Making ourselves at home

by Patti Kameya

Our message. Waiting for the #6 Jeffery Express to downtown Chicago.

Hey you. You with the white balding head, drab jacket, and gaze that glistens on contact with young Asian women. We need to talk to you, as well as the bystanders who look away as you slide up to us, lips dribbling tales of your backpacking adventures in China.

But we are in America. We have a right to ride the bus in peace. Our rights are as important as your right to “be friendly,” as you say you are doing. Our words bear as much truth as those of the riders who support you with “He’s not hurting anybody.” Why do others deem your intentions and feelings so fragile that they need protection from the likes of us? Should you show any distress, you would have aid from law enforcement, the legal system, and the most powerful voices in public opinion. But they all easily join the mute spectators as you threaten our feeling of safety and freedom every day. Although you create a public nuisance, we are not enough of a public for others to care. Every day we board the bus wondering if we will find you hovering over us at the next stop. Gentle observers, do you assume that we are foreign students who will just go home before this man causes us real harm? On the other hand, does he remind you of that creepy uncle that everyone still invites but the cousins avoid? In fact, we Asian women have been in North America for over a century. Some of us have buried grandparents and great-grandparents on American soil. Some did sex work, but most labored for the most basic needs of American homes. We harvested food. We cleaned clothing. And houses. It is high time that we make ourselves at home.

Although we never look for you, we’ve observed your remarkable behavior. In half-empty buses, at the local Chinese takeout, you seek only young Asian women. You sit too close, and we change seats. We warn each other about you. At best we might tolerate you, but don’t mistake our politeness for permission to harass us. Every time, you enter our personal space as if we were your assigned seat cushions. Or props for reenacting your Chinese memories. The rural young women you met there thought you looked like Robert Redford. Did you stamp their foreheads with the word “MINE”? Once you returned to the US you were nothing special, but reminiscence of your Chinese conquest kept you going. As your wrinkles deepened and belly thickened, images of the lovely women dispersed like ink drops in water. If you had Asian women sitting at your feet again, you could relive the peak of your personal and sexual power. You show signs of a narcissistic personality, but fortunately for you this sexual dynamic replicates the historical white supremacy that protects you now.

How did we reach this conclusion? We notice you shun any group of people who might spoil your self-image as a virile heterosexual man. For example, why don’t you befriend other old white guys who enjoyed themselves in Asia? Would their stories threaten your own feeling of sexual power? Or, perhaps you might try talking only to young men for a while. Do you fear that young men might interpret your interest in their company as sexual? If so, how can you and your defenders insist that your preference for Asian women is not sexual? And what about older women? Older women would make more interesting conversation. If you do not want to talk to them, reflect on why. If they do not want to talk to you, reflect on that too.

Why favor only East Asians in multicolored Chicago? Deep down, do you believe that you are not good enough for white women, and that we colonial pupils make a comely second prize? And do you fear what would happen if young white women sounded a dirty geezer alert on you? Invisible white privilege protects white women from you and leaves women of color to their own devices. Until we address the white privilege sheltering your deviant conduct, no one can soberly claim that we all enjoy the same rights here in the United States of America.

Our intervention. At Nicky’s Takeout, East 53rd St.

Oh, you again. We’re not surprised. Let’s make a deal. We will listen to your stories if you agree to leave us alone. Perhaps the middle-aged mix of black and white Nicky’s customers will watch with interest. Most likely, they also have seen your usual routine.

As we all wait for your response, you might stammer something like, “I helped the people by telling them about our American freedoms. I made many friends there.” We would guide your reenactment toward a conversation. Are you still in touch with your friends in China? What are they doing now? What do they think of US-China relations, or China’s power growth over the past thirty years? Do you keep up with the news? Have the changes that you hoped for in China materialized since you left?

Perhaps you will show us the China that you carry with you. From your jacket you may produce a tattered palm-sized photo album with pictures of Chinese mountains, children, and young women. Folded inside may be a slip of mulberry paper on which you had carefully written the Chinese character “ai” for love. We ask, what is love to you? What is love for China? Can you say it is love if you feel this toward any woman who looks Chinese, even if she has never trod on Chinese soil? Is it love if we do not want you around?

Now consider this. Isn’t it peculiar that you enjoy American freedom at home, and that you also had freedom in China? Everywhere you go you can act as you please. When you respect the customs and protocols you earn brownie points, but when you flout them no one calls you a “bad hombre.” Your freedom in China rests on a bed of historical distortion. You were not the first to discover China. Before Europeans there were Syrians, Persians, Indians, and others who plied the Silk Road and Indian Ocean for China. They sought China for its wealth, its manufactured goods, and its rich cultural life. And in the twentieth century the US and other industrialized nations saw China as a backward country steeped in too much tea and Confucianism one year, too much Mao and communism the next. For this reason the America-dominated world order allowed you to roam at will throughout China. And now China deploys the same tools Europeans used to subjugate it in the nineteenth century: cheap mass-produced goods and wildly addictive synthetic drugs.

The Asia in your mind and memory are no more. For us young Asian women that you encounter here in Chicago, it never existed. We invite you to move beyond your fantasies that retread old oppressions. Start by recognizing our humanity. Open your eyes to behold our everyday legacy of empire, from harassment to workplace immigration raids. From luxury hotels in impoverished paradises to endless wars in oil-rich Muslim lands. Indeed freedom is not free, and neither are we.



About the Author
Patti Kameya writes about Japanese and Asian American history and identity in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She tutors young children and encourages them to write about real and imaginary worlds at the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute. Her work recently appeared in The Good Men Project Immigration and Xenophobia series. She has also read her work at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.