Awhile back, Josen Diaz wrote her letter (below) and noted that a part of inspiration came from me. I, in turn, was greatly inspired by her words and her work. Her phrase, “I see you” touched me in a way that words could not comprehend; never fully understanding the spaces in-between social complexities and intimiate fragility. And so, in lieu of Josen’s subtle but grasping words, I began my own love letter with her phrase: “I see you.”
“I see you,” is how Josen Diaz—a friend and colleague I respect dearly—began a piece she wrote recently and I felt it appropriate to mimic her introduction.
Awhile back, I came up the idea of using my thesis as a platform to immortalize and construct a love letter to my parents and the Thai/American community. I think the imagery of the love letter exudes something individuals in our community have lost: optimism, intimacy, and the belief that there is something more for the people we fight for. For the past three years, I’ve been entrenched in the Asian/American academic, activist, and nonprofit world. Every day I hear epithets of anger, disillusionment, and even longings for retribution. Especially in the Masters Asian/American Studies and Ethnic Studies programs, for the most part, I would hear “fuck this” and “fuck that.” People would be so angry about the things that have happened as well as trying so hard to be analytical of the past that they would not imagine themselves or the people around them beyond these haunting narratives.
Of course, I am not innocent of these ideologies. Similarly to my colleagues, I am just as guilty of the condemnation and almost self-loathing holes we dig ourselves into. These are the tools and vices we are given and taught. It is the anger that is bestowed upon us by our predecessors that “invigorates” us to do what we do. I was even once told by a professor that to be angry was my most valuable weapon in academia. However this anger is not always the most productive, nor is it the most viable route to take. Take for example my thesis: a critical look at the ways in which the West and United States tried to extend and immortalize racist sentiment and imperialism upon Thailand and Thai/America through propaganda and the arts.
In the beginning, my studies centered on defaming and debunking the narrative of Anna Leonowens and how horrendous her stories were to the Thai community. However, as I dwelled deeper into my research, I came to understand the facts behind her legend(s). Leonowens was initially a woman named Anna Harriet Emma Edwards of Anglo-Indian blood. She was a single mother and concocted this very amazing individual—Leonowens, the English Governess—to protect both herself and her children in a Victorian world which would have cast them aside. Although my research is heavily structured around theory and pages upon pages of arguments against Victorian literature, sexploitation, and subtle racism against the Thai and Thai/American community created by the adaptations of The King and I, I came to terms and understand who the woman behind the façade actually was.
So my research evolved and adapted to this newfound revelation. I understood that there is beauty in her story just as there is beauty in the identity formation of Thais in America as well as other communities in America. Instead of holding displaced anger within, I re-visualized my initial argument and rewrote my paper to include an underlining poeticism that I would hope my family and friends would discover. From my study on the evolution of Anna Leonowens’ narrative, it came to pass to further include a self-reflected account of my parent’s life in the U.S.
In the opening to my conclusion I wrote: “As a child, my father used to tell me stories. They were personal accounts of how hard life was in Thailand and how harder it was for him to come to the United States. He would sing me songs about his dreams, my mother’s ambitions, and the shared promises his friends and many Thai immigrants had while making the trek to this apparent land of opportunity. My father, probably the love of my life, would tell me chapters upon chapters of these stories about endless dreams and uninhibited goals. However, these tales of personal ambition and conquest slowly became filtered and altered by the reality of the Asian-immigrant narrative in the U.S.” My parents gave up a lot to survive in the United States. They gave up the world they knew, the friends and families they loved, and the land that gave them uncompromised senses of belonging and security.
Here, in the United States, my parents worked hard beyond measurement. Through worn bones and tired faces, I would see them. I would see them hurt in pain; worry about how much next month’s tuition bill would be; their mortgage and expenses; as well as how much longer they would have to endure maintaining a self-run restaurant. But my parents’ struggle is no different than the struggle most of our parents’, our relatives, family friends, and our communities have gone through. Their story is just one more chapter about the inconsistencies and disparities that welcomed many, when so many dreamt about opportunities that were promised when embarking towards the west.
I do not know if I can properly articulate what it means to be Asian/American, nor can I fully encompass all the stories of my parents as well as yours to depict what it means to be Asians in America. However, in her book on the Hmong-refugee experience, Kao Kalia Yang wrote it best when she said, “And the adults kept saying: how lucky we are to be in America. I wasn’t convinced. I saw them walking in the snow drifts, their backs bent, their hands curled to their sides. I felt the humiliation of not knowing English, and a bubble of hurt began. But when I saw how hard they all worked to keep us in school, to put warm food on the tabletops, I could not, no matter how discouraged, say: This is not enough. This is not the life I had wanted for myself or you in this country or any other. We’ve come too far for this. Haven’t we?” This isn’t enough and there is more. Looking beyond our society and people’s past mistakes and blunders, another world is still very much possible.
Amongst my cohort, professors, and friends, I am sometimes known as the cheerleader. I want people that are within my world and even beyond it to know that amazing things are possible even if they are coated with tinges of hate and memories of pain. Regardless of the cultural troupes or identity markers that define us—race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender, academic standing, and much more—we are viable bodies to create difference for those we care about. We can be angry and hungry for justice, but that anger has to be a productive instrument to re-imagine the terrain of our people. I think and believe the key to change is in how we fight—in how we fight for one another.
In this small rant and ramble, I am not sure what I am truly getting at, but I do know that there is validity in my voice and my choice of words. Truthfully, in many aspects, the world is a fucked up place but it doesn’t have to be. I believe that what needs to happen is that we, as contemporary Asian/Americans as well as communities of color and/or marginalized, must look to our histories and (as journalist K.W. Lee states) “the voices of our ancestors” to remedy past mistakes and the hardships we damn ourselves in. In this and this small naivety, I suggest that the same (and at times, blind) optimism our parents gave into when migrating out of their homelands, is the same optimism we give ourselves and our futures. It is a clean slate—a belief and hope that the world holds unimaginable piles of opportunity for you and for the people you love.
Returning to my parents, I never really understood their story, or how hard they worked until I finally reflected back during my first semester in graduate school. I came to realize that my parents’ sacrifice carried me further than I could ever imagine—farther than limitations of the U.S., deeper into my cultural history, and shaping my future.
And so I see you. I see all the ghosts which haunted us. I see all that you’ve sacrificed and the dreams that still linger overhead. I see all the ways—the numerous ways—in which your dreams and love for me are unconditional and more brilliant than any star in the sky or academic degree I could ever earn. And just like I see my parents, their struggles, and the lives they have formed here, I understand yours—you who are reading this now. In hindsight, this is not only a love letter to my parents and my community, but a love letter to you. This is a love letter urging you to be loved, and to be remembered as immortal as love letters can be. This is a love letter to remind you to be strong and be brilliant. This is a love letter for you to dream big, and moreover, dream forever. And like Josen whole-heartedly suggests and I pushed, this is a love letter to remind you that, “I see you and you are seen.”