My teenager walks in while I’m half-heartedly moving my legs on the elliptical, but mostly watching TV. He asks me if it’s weird that I am watching Never Have I Ever, a Netflix series created by Mindy Kaling and aimed at teenagers. It’s about a nerdy Indian-American high school student, who has a crush on a mixed Japanese and white popular swimmer stud, and whose besties are an Asian-American drama kid and a queer Latinx.
It probably is weird that I’m an adult watching this series, but I try to explain that when I was a teenager growing up in the 80s in Southern California, I rarely saw people who looked like me on TV. I grew up watching shows like Three’s Company and the Brady Bunch. That’s not entirely true, there was the CBS news anchor, Connie Chung—I guess it’s not surprising that at that age I wanted to be a news broadcaster when I grew up. Anyway, today whenever there are shows featuring Asian American kids, I find myself drawn to them.
Now that I am an adult, I also understand how this lack of representation contributes to the general erasure of Asian Americans in not only American pop culture, but in the culture at large. It’s why Asian America as a political category had to be invented—there is power in naming and numbers.
So the different Asian ethnic groups that might have once battled each other in Asia, in the diaspora in the U.S., are often perceived to have more in common than not—despite differences in language, religion, socioeconomic level, or generation and condition of immigration. People of Asian descent are sometimes seen as being interchangeable by non-Asians, so it is strategic to come together in solidarity if you are being mistaken for, or worse, accused of, belonging to another Asian ethnic group.
All this despite the specific histories of the Koreans and Burmese resenting the Japanese colonizers, the Thai and Burmese at war during the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the Taiwanese and Tibetans oppressed by the Chinese, the Hindus, Muslims, and now even the Buddhists, killing each other in the name of religion—just a sampling of heartbreaking yet familiar histories of domination and clashes for power, resources, and ideology.
In the U.S., Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims, Chinese for Japanese, Southeast Asian refugees for third-generation Chinese and Japanese Americans. Being seen as perpetual and transposable foreigners has real consequences—from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the incarceration of Japanese Americans to the targeting of Muslim Americans to the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes.
When I was growing up, being mistaken for my Japanese-Hungarian best friend, Yurika, used to happen to us all the time at school, even though we looked nothing alike. At the time, I’m not sure I understood the racist implications or even took offense, since it was less hurtful than more explicit racist incidents from my childhood. For instance, the time when I was 13 and helped an older white man who had fallen in the Safeway in Los Alamitos. I asked him if he was okay, and he replied, “Hey Harry, when did they start letting slant-eyes in here?”
I remember running and crying to my mom, who was waiting in the car outside. She kept asking me what had happened, and when I finally got it out, she laughed at me. She said, “That’s it? You can’t be so sensitive!” In hindsight, compared to my mother’s experience growing up in colonized Burma, being a third-class citizen after the British and the Indians, and attending a Christian missionary school as a Theravadan Buddhist, she must have received more wounds from racism than I had.
Throughout my life being mistaken for another Asian person has happened to me so many times that sometimes I’m not sure it actually happened, but it brings up awkward feelings nonetheless. Recently, an Asian American mom from a middle school social group sent an email to invite our kids to a light show at Lake Merritt. About 7 or 8 parents responded—they discussed Friday versus Saturday, and whether or not we needed to order tickets in advance. I responded to the group that my kid was booked both nights, but thanks for the invite.
Another mom, who is a white woman, wrote back to the group and said, “Thet, is there any reason we shouldn’t buy tickets in advance?” I have no idea if she mistook me for the other Asian American mom, but I believe there were only two of us in the group. From previous experience, I couldn’t avoid thinking it might be occurring again. I replied to the entire group. “Hi [white mom], I haven’t been to this event before, so I’m not sure about the tickets. [Other Asian American mom], what do you suggest?” I didn’t want to embarrass the white woman who mixed us up, and regardless, I was pretty sure it was accidental. Luckily, the other Asian American mom responded and said everyone should buy their own tickets and just meet at the door. Afterward, the white mom sent an email to the group explaining she had just been looking at an old email from me, so she emailed me instead of the other Asian American mom.
These are issues of representation, exposure, and cultural shifts, and perhaps things have improved since my mother’s time. My oldest kid, who is mostly Burmese and British, experienced this mistaken BIPOC identity issue last year at their elite private high school in Marin, but at least my kid felt empowered to speak out about it, even if it was not received well by the school administration.
All this to say, when I get excited by seeing Asian American faces and names highlighted in the arts, pop culture, or the media—it is foregrounded against these particular histories. Histories that compel me to offer my Lahpet Thoke Writing circles for BIPOC communities.
Of course, in this moment I can’t explain all of this to my younger teen, at least not without sounding like I’m lecturing, so I just keep pedaling and turn up the volume.