Thank you so much for inviting me to be interviewed for your 9th-grade oral history project about representation and what defines “American” from my perspective as a Burmese-American mother, artist, writer, teacher, and daughter of immigrants. I’m honored to be included, and I appreciate your list of thoughtful questions.
Your first question about where I grew up is a little complicated. I was born in Allentown, PA, but I grew up in several cities: Grand Junction, CO, Sparks, NV, and Los Alamitos, CA.
My parents and two oldest sisters were born and raised in Burma (now Myanmar). Our parents were physicians and moved to the U.S. in the early 1960s. They left my two sisters with the grandparents, thinking their daughters would be able to come in another year or two after my parents completed their medical residency training.
Unfortunately, there was a military coup in Burma in 1962, and my sisters could not leave the country for 13 years. In the meantime, my parents had three children born in the U.S.–two more daughters (I am the youngest of their four daughters), and lastly, one son. Our father worked as a surgeon for the Veteran’s Administration Hospital, and that is why we moved so often.
Regarding your next question, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of race. One of my earliest recollections is memorizing, but not understanding, this sentence: “My ethnicity is Burmese, but my nationality is American,” always followed by a big grin.
I grew up in the U.S. during the wars in Southeast Asia and at a time when most immigrants were pressured to fit in with America and not talk a lot about their home country. So my parents encouraged the three of us kids born in the U.S. to speak English and not Burmese. (This also let our parents talk/worry/complain about us kids without our being able to understand them. Sometimes I wish my husband and I had a secret language, too. Ha ha!)
When we lived in places like Grand Junction and Sparks, there were almost no other Burmese families near us. Actually, in Grand Junction, there was one Burmese woman named Sybil, a school principal who was married to a white American man named JB. They became some of my parents’ closest friends soon after we arrived. But besides Sybil, I don’t recall meeting any other Burmese families besides my cousins in Minnesota (their father was my dad’s uncle, and he was married to a Canadian-American woman). We only visited each other a few times, but I remember being somewhat fascinated by them because they were also the only mixed-race Burmese kids I had ever seen.
As to representation in the media when I was growing up, I mostly remember Connie Chung, the journalist and news broadcaster, who I wanted to emulate. There was also Mrs. Livingston, played by Miyoshi Umeki, the nanny and maid in the early 1970s sitcom, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. I was always confused by Mrs. Livingston–her obviously fake accent, why she was named Mrs. Livingston, but was a Japanese woman working for a white man that she called Mr. Eddie’s Father. Mrs. Livingston always seemed one step ahead of everyone else on the show, but somehow was always the one sweeping up. Other than Connie and Miyoshi, there were very few Asian Americans on television that I remember as a kid.
As a young adult, I became aware of stereotypes of Asian women in popular culture as being nerdy, sexualized, sneaky, or submissive, which always made me angry. I addressed these stereotypes in some of my artwork in my 20s. One installation, Pearl, was made of oyster shells mounted in a circle against a black wall. Glued onto each shell was a pearl, and on each pearl was a tiny photograph of an Asian woman. I had taken the portraits of Asian students from Mills College yearbooks from the 1950s, which they were throwing away when I was in grad school there in the 90s.
Despite the stereotypes of Asian women, I have always been proud to be Burmese. I’ve appreciated being raised as a Theravadan Buddhist and exposed to loving-kindness and mindfulness.
Today things are not ideal regarding representation, but they are better than before. This morning, I read an NYT piece titled, “Asian Actors Have Been Underrepresented at the Oscars For Decades. Here’s the History,” by K.K. Rebecca Lai. She writes, “Of 1,808 acting award nominees [since the 1930s], only 23 could be identified as Asian. Just four have won.” Finally, this year there are four Asian actors nominated, primarily for Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s about time! Go, Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu!
As to experiencing shame of my identity, I remember when I was living outside of the U.S. in Amsterdam, and I had to explain the actions of our government to various EU citizens. These were mainly about bad decisions made during the last presidency, but also our country’s history of slavery, imperialism, and global neoliberalism.
People worldwide admire us for our democracy, which I am proud of. America has aspired to democracy and equality, but it has not been equal for everyone, as in BIPOC folks, women, LGBTQ+ communities, immigrants, religious minorities, people with disabilities, the elderly, the unhoused, and people living in poverty. So America is not truly equal in practice. Growing up in several of these categories, I have often felt like I was not truly an “American.” Even typing that name reminds me I should probably be saying the United States because Canada and Mexico are also part of North America.
However, something happened last week that surprised me. I was at the market with my teenager, and he joked about the greeting cards having a giant American flag above them and a sign that said: “Made in USA.” As though even the cards felt compelled to fly a patriotic flag. But I had a different response. I felt in that moment a particular pride for the makers and innovators. And an appreciation for the people trying not to outsource everything for profit at the long-term expense of our country and our planet.
Later, when I tried to explain this feeling to my kid, I said, “I was born here, so I was Made in the USA. I am an American, too. I have every right to be here, and it is okay for me to make space for myself and my family.” Perhaps if I had grown up seeing more Asian Americans represented in the culture, it would not have taken me until my middle age to feel like I, too, am an American.
Thanks again for including my voice!