Fun Facts About Asia #1: Not All Asians Are Half White
My mom is ethnically Chinese from Myanmar (Burma) (so she identifies as both, as do many people with her background) and my dad is Mexican and Kittian (St. Kitts and Nevis, so he’s Afro-Caribbean). Because of colonization of the Caribbean, I might be 1/16th White. Doesn’t that make me super exotic?
“How is this possible?”
When I tell people I’m mixed, people assume I’m half White + “the other”. “The other” meaning any group that has originated in the Global South, otherwise known as the countries that Europeans colonized and plundered to the point of destroying these economic and sociopolitical systems for their own benefit.
The assumption that if one is mixed that one must be half White is an embodiment of White supremacy in itself. Imagining people of color coming together and uniting without a White person being the middleman of some sort threatens the status quo: it shows that White people are not the gatekeepers between people of color. However, this obviously does not mean that mixed kids will end racism, because they won’t, and you shouldn’t depend on them to.
“Are you more Chinese than Mexican or vice versa?”
No. I do not identify with one of my ethnic heritages over the other. Being mixed means I have a different experience than the stereotypical person from that background you have in mind. Even then, we all have multidimensional identities and none of us are monoliths.
Considering I am a lighter-skinned (note, not White-passing) mixed person, it’s still important for me to stay in my lane when it comes to certain issues and to point out Sinophobia (the specific discrimination against and or fear of Chinese people), anti-Blackness (racism that is specifically targeted at Black people), and other forms of Orientalism (the disparaging way that European societies look at societies from Africa and Greater Asia) and racism when I see it.
Fun Facts About Asia #2: Chinese People Were Massacred, Lynched, And Instrumental In The Civil Rights Movement
Many people I’ve come into contact with assume that Chinese aren’t oppressed in the U.S. because of the model minority myth. In reality there are more Asian-Americans in New York City living in poverty than any other minority group, check out the facts here if you don’t believe me.
Chinese people were also the targets of racist and White supremacist policies in the United States. Let’s start with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first major law restricting immigration to the United States. It was enacted out of economic fear: Native-born Americans (a.k.a White people ), “… attributed unemployment and declining wages to Chinese workers whom they also viewed as racially inferior,” according to this publication. Sounds familiar, right? Chinese were also targeted and lynched in race riots, the most tragic incident being the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles where nearly 20 Chinese immigrants were murdered. Anti-miscegenation laws (aka laws regarding interracial sex and or marriage) weren’t limited to Loving vs. The State of Virginia either. Mostly Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and other East Asian men were forbidden from marrying White women out of fears the Asian population would grow “out of control”, however, white men could marry women from these areas.
Another misconception about Chinese Americans is that they’re passive and aren’t engaged in politics or any civil rights movements. Grace Lee Boggs, for example, spent the majority of her life advocating for civil and labor rights and became a noted figure in the Black Power movement in Detroit, where she focused her activism on empowering individuals to change their own worlds as opposed to just focusing on overthrowing a system of oppression.
Fun Facts About Asia #3: Anti-Blackness Is Not Limited To China And Sinophobia Is A Problem
A tertiary misconception is that Chinese are more anti-Black than other Asian groups or other cultural groups. There is obviously a lot of anti-Blackness in Chinese media, but it’s no different than White Latinos or mestizos wearing Blackface on television, or even Arab comedians wearing Blackface to make fun of Sudanese people. Anti-Blackness is everywhere and isn’t limited to China.
A final misconception is that Chinese people aren’t racially targeted at all. I was very surprised when I was confronted with Sinophobia in Europe and Morocco. Many people in these areas have come up to me doing the infamous slant-eye motion, or if I pointed out how merchants were overcharging for their product, I would be called “stupid Chinese” when they welcomed me just 15 minutes before into their shop before as a “Mexican sister”. Many tourists also accuse Chinese tourists of being extremely aggressive, but at least Chinese don’t have a penchant for getting plastered and destroying private and public property in the wee hours of the morning *cough cough* @ the English.
If you weren’t able to sit through Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda, I strongly suggest you skip over the next three sections.
Fun Facts About Asia #4: The Japanese Attempted Ethnic Cleansing At The Same Time As The Holocaust.
When I was about seven years old, my cousins and uncle took my brother, my dad and I out to a sushi buffet in San Francisco. It would be my first time having sushi. I remember walking into my aunt’s kitchen where my grandpa was sitting drinking his jasmine tea and reading a newspaper. He asked where we were going. I said, “Gung Gung (transliterated nickname for maternal grandfather in Chinese) we’re getting sushi! Do you want to come?” He stared at me and said something in Cantonese to my aunt. I was sad that I had upset my Gung Gung, but I piled into the car. I asked my dad why my Gung Gung was so upset and he said, “Well, your grandparents did live through World War II.”
I didn’t realize the weight of what living through World War II meant in Asia. I heard about the Holocaust and about Nazi-occupation through school, but rarely had the privilege to learn about my own history because of eurocentric academic standards. And, living in Florida, there wasn’t a lot of other Asian diasporic members to talk to. Eventually in school we did learn about how Japan was part of the Axis Powers, but it would take my own initiative in asking my grandparents and great aunt about our family’s history.
Over the past decade of my life I’ve begged my grandparents and great aunt to tell me things about the War for various papers in school. If the curriculum wouldn’t teach us about non-European history, I would inform my peers and even my own teachers about it. When I was 12, my Po Po (transliterated nickname for maternal grandmother in Chinese) finally thought I was old enough to hear some of what she survived.
My Po Po was born in Guangdong Province, China and no one in my family is sure if my Gung Gung was born there as well or in Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar) because his family traveled between the two places frequently. They were married in the 1940s and spent the early part of their marriage running between Myanmar and China fleeing the Imperial Japanese Army.
Japan was highly influential in Myanmar because they had trained General Aung San (considered the George Washington of Burma and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) and his 30 Comrades to fight against British occupation of the country as a means of decolonizing it. However, the Japanese soon became occupiers of the country and it became one of the many battle grounds of the Pacific Theater in World War II. China was also a battle ground and a site of ethnic cleansing.
The Nanking Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking) resulted in the death of between 40,000-300,000 Chinese by between December 1937 and January 1938. Systematic rape was used as a tool of psychological and physical warfare. Japanese troops raped Chinese women as a means of asserting toxic masculinity: showing Chinese men were inferior because they could not protect their own women and, of course, resulted in the life-long trauma of survivors. In addition to the physical trauma of rape, children potentially born from this violence would be considered Japanese due to patriarchal ideals of bloodlines. Although the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal) found generals guilty of failing to prevent rape during war time in Nanking, the reality is mass rape occurred across Asia during this time period. “Comfort women“, girls and women who were forced into sexual slavery, were taken primarily from Korea, China, and the Philippines. No “comfort women” to date have received any legal recourse or monetary compensation by the Japanese government.
Although my Po Po did not recount traumas of witnessing mass rape to me, she told me of one instance of being trapped in the mountains of Chongqing (a city in Central China) during the winter. Food was scarce on the mountain, but they couldn’t descend otherwise the Japanese military would kill the men and rape, then kill, the women. My grandparents and many others were forced to eat cadavers that were frozen by the winter snow to survive. One would think that my Po Po would break down and cry after telling me something as terrible as this, but she simply changed the conversation to gossip. Later, during my high school years, I would understand why my Po Po did not seem to be traumatized by recounting that. She had experienced far worse.
Fun Facts About Asia #5: The Japanese Trained The Burmese To Ethnic Cleanse The Chinese Long Before The Rohingya
Have you ever watched the animated version of the King and I? It’s truly a classic. Anyways, besides food and hearing about how beautiful Burmese rubies are, that movie was the first introduction I ever had to my mother’s country of birth, Myanmar. In one scene Prince Chulalongkorn falls in love with Tuptim, a Burmese servant given to the King as a gift. In one part of the movie, the Prince wants to go public with their relationship, but Tuptim is scared that she will be sent back to Burma if the King finds out. I asked my mom why Tuptim was scared of going back to Burma. She simply said that there was a lot of bad people there, the bad people being the Tatmadaw (the official name of the Burmese military).
Long before Western media decided to hold Aung San Suu Kyi solely accountable for the genocide of Rohingya in Western Myanmar, the Tatmadaw was terrorizing ethnic and religious minorities. Countries like Israel and the United States have supported the Tatmadaw and Buddhist-Burman nationalism by selling weapons to the military and funding programs that promoted Buddhist nationalism to curb communist influence in Southeast Asia during the Cold War, respectively. That’s what I like to call intersectional colonialism!
But, how did the Tatmadaw learn to terrorize people they sought to oppress? The founders of what would become Myanmar’s military were trained by the Imperial Japanese Army. Sound familiar? You just read about it a few paragraphs ago. General Aung San and the Thirty Comrades, young revolutionaries that banded together for the cause of a Burma free from British rule, left the country in early 1941 to train with the Japanese and returned in December of that year.
The joint return of the Japanese and the 30 Comrades, reformed as the Burma National Army, resulted in the Myaungmya Massacres. The massacres resulted in over 1,000 deaths of Karen (a minority ethnic group in Myanmar) and an unknown amount of uses of rape as a tool of warfare. Not to say that other groups in the region hadn’t “raped and pillaged” before the Japanese, but the Japanese were well-known for utilizing rape in particular as a tool of torture and ethnic cleansing. The Tatmadaw has continued to use tactics of rape as a means of ethnic cleansing against various groups including the Karen, Shan, and many other minority ethnic groups.Tatmadaw and communal violence against my family, and the greater Sino-Burmese community, took a similar form.
Western Complicity In Ethnic Cleansing In The Past And Today
Wikipedia will tell you that the, “The 1967 Anti-Chinese Riots in Myanmar were a number of days of conflict between Chinese expatriates in Burma and Burmese nationals. The trouble flared in Rangoon on 26 June 1967. The cause of the trouble was the spread of China’s cultural revolution ideology amongst Chinese expatriates in Burma.”
1967? Wasn’t this around the Vietnam War and the Red Scare? It sure was. During this time period, the United States government promoted the use of Buddhist nationalism in Southeast Asia as a means of countering the encroachment of communism in the region. The U.S. targeted Myanmar in particular in promoting Buddhist and Burmese nationalistic propaganda. I’ll let you connect the dots. You can read more about this in my article, “Understanding Western Complicity in the Rohingya Crisis” for the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy.
I had the opportunity to write about my maternal family’s experience of these Anti-Chinese Riots in high school after we read an excerpt from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear in class. Pairing my mother and aunts’ narratives of events, alongside documents about the massacres that were even documented by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was horrifying to say the least.
Fleeing Myanmar For Ohio
My aunt recalls being transferred from a high school that was partially run by the Catholic Church and Myanmar’s government to a Chinese school. One day, she saw students passing out red books, books promoting the ideas of who would become Chairman Mao of China. Although the school wasn’t affiliated with the communist party, fighting broke out and students were dismissed. More violence followed. My aunts and uncle went to the roof of their home several days after my aunt was dismissed from school- Burmese people began killing Chinese people in the streets with guns, machetes, and other implements. One of the more horrific instances of violence occurred at the Chinese school. There were accounts that men stormed the women’s dormitory there with knives and raped all of the girls. The men subsequently burned all the dormitory furniture and the girls alive.
My mother told me of how she saw Chinese women gang raped, and later, dismembered in the street. Burmese men would gather around a bonfire and tie various women’s arms and legs together so they couldn’t move and took turns raping them. If a woman was pregnant, they would cut her stomach open and kill her fetus in front of her, oftentimes by stabbing it and subsequently throwing it into the fire. My mother was between the ages of seven and nine when she witnessed these horrors.
After the first few weeks of violence, my mom and her seven brothers and sisters, parents, aunt, and grandmother, were forced into hiding. My grandmother and my great-aunt started an underground sari-making business. Luckily, the Indian community in the area were supportive of their endeavor. Eventually my grandmother was forced to close shop as the violence against ethnic Chinese became increasingly bad. In 1969, my grandmother and my eldest uncle fled the country for Cleveland, Ohio to make enough money for other family members to join them. The rest of my family was forced to hide in their neighbor’s basement for several months. Soldiers would regularly check to see if their neighbors were hiding anyone. Eventually my family was given $10 by the Burmese government to leave the country. My grandmother brought all of her jewelry to the airport in Rangoon to pay for plane tickets.
“Wow, I should totally boycott traveling to Myanmar then!”
In my opinion, that’s not going to help anyone. It might help you feel better about yourself for posturing wokeness, but that’s about it, especially when you may be complicit in supporting companies and policies that support the genocide of the Rohingya. Just like economic sanctions, boycotts of traveling to countries rarely meet their stated means. I was interviewed by Lola Mendez about this last year for her article, “Here’s why you shouldn’t boycott travel to Myanmar”.
“How can I learn more about/advocate for issues impacting Myanmar?”
First of all, recognize that it’s fairly useless for non-Myanmar people to focus on bringing down the hammer on Aung San Suu Kyi considering how many countries and companies have been complicit in funding Buddhist nationalism and selling arms to the Tatmadaw. Additionally, Aung San Suu Kyi has no constitutional power over the Tatmadaw, so I’m not even sure if she could be prosecuted for their crimes.
I write for Politics Unmasked, a non-profit start up dedicated to compiling information about conflicts you don’t often hear about in the news, about ethnic conflict in Myanmar. You can check out my work here. Also, I help run the Instagram account, Decolonize Myanmar (@decolonizemmr), to make the public more aware of other nuanced issues impacting Myanmar people, such as neo-colonialism. We’ll be compiling a list of organizations primarily owned and ran by local-Myanmar people, so stay tuned!
On semi-lighter notes…
Fun Facts About Asia #7: Traveling As An Asian Woman Is A Mix Of Internalized Racism And Fetishes
Prefacing the following two sections with a content warning of racial harassment and examples of sexual harassment and assault. If you would like to skip over, please skip to the section starting with, “I checked out your Instagram captions…”
“What’s it like being an ethnically ambiguous woman traveling abroad?”
I haven’t been pickpocketed and members of diasporic populations assume that I’m one of their own, so there’s always an auntie that feels the need to sit next to me to make sure I’m safe. Also, getting discounted food or extra food at restaurants? Amazing. Getting the student discount at various tourist attractions is the ultimate scam.
On the other hand, the overt exotification and racialization of my body is something I experienced abroad to a level I have never experienced in the United States. Sure, I’ve been called “spicy” or a “geisha” here, but there has always been a random person to: point out to my harasser that it’s not OK to say that, whips out their phone and asks them to repeat what they said, or at least someone that offers to ask if I’m okay after the fact.
In London, however, men have told me they’ve never been with a pikey, paki, or towelhead before, but people around me who heard what the harasser said refused to confront him. In Paris and Vienna, I’ve been asked for my papers (passport, visa, basic identification, etc.) by random people on the street, or if someone sees me approaching them they moved to the other sidewalk, or even men yelling at me in English that they want to try, “tight Chinese p*ssy” and make the slant eye gesture towards me, which I found interesting as I have large, double-eyelids and very wavy hair which, in the United States would lead people to just call me a “spicy Latina” rather than presume I’m Asian.
Again, people looked at me and then looked down at their phones, refusing to engage. It seems that labor strikes and organizing is strong in Europe, but the organizing White people in particular for the goal of achieving racial justice is much weaker than it is in the United States, and that’s saying a lot. The only times I’ve traveled that I didn’t experience sexual harassment directly linked to my race (from the local population) were in Spain, Italy, China, Thailand, and Myanmar.
“What about being a POC traveling to POC-majority countries?”
Repeat after me: internalized racism. It’s great not getting *that* ripped off at markets or even being able to have more honest conversations about politics and racism, but it really is stressful seeing the colonized kissing up to the colonizer out of need for economic survival or wanting to improve the public image (you know, White people’s perception) of their country in likeness to how POC in the United States play into respectability politics, the concept that marginalized communities need to police themselves so that the majority/the group in power deem the marginalized group more acceptable. Examples of this would be Black people denigrating each other for using African American Vernacular English (AAVE), women teaching girls to cover their bodies so that they are not sexually assaulted (as opposed to teaching boys and men to not assault them), etc. Building on this, let’s not forget the privileges experienced by White people (and yes, this includes White women) in POC-majority countries that have impacts on POC traveling abroad:
- White privilege follows White people wherever they go. Yes, even if the people in the local market are ripping you off a bit, that’s because they assume you have more access to capital than they do, so calm down.
- “I’m more attractive because I’m White,” is the battle cry I have heard by both White men and women when they get more romantic attention in POC-majority countries then they do at home. Maybe it’s not because you’re more conventionally attractive, maybe it’s because of internalized racism and eurocentric beauty standards. Maybe it’s because someone just wants to say they’ve been with a foreigner and you’re just another notch on their belt. Maybe realize you are complicit in advancing socially-acceptable forms of White supremacy because of your assumption that you are inherently better than POC in the local population you’re in because you’re White.
Another issue that POC women face abroad in particular is sexual harassment and assault. As a POC woman traveling abroad in POC-majority countries I’ve faced many instances in which I was targeted for sexual harassment and groping because I was mistaken for a woman of the local population, and men assumed they would be able to get away with it (jokes on them because I can throw a punch). In many of these instances, people did not stop to help because they assumed I was a local sex worker (because I was alone or people had seen me with groups of White men) and therefore, deserving of such treatment. I had to yell in English to get any form of outside help. The only exceptions to this were older women who were always willing to put harassers and assaulters in their place.
Here Are Some Solutions To Everything You Just Learned
“I checked out your Instagram captions, @decolonialdiscourse. Why do you want to #decolonize everything? What’s #intersectionalfeminism?”
Decolonizing ourselves is a form of self-healing, care, and love. It can take many forms such as unlearning Eurocentric beauty standards, embracing foods of our cultures, etc. Specifically when traveling in the Global South I think it’s important to understand how colonization has shaped and continues to impact people living in these regions.
Intersectional feminism is a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw that, “… examines the overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination that women face, based not just on gender but on ethnicity, sexuality, economic background and a number of other axes.” This is vital to think about when discussing oppression of women of color. For example, people of various education and socioeconomic levels love to tell me how much Islam oppresses women and how I have been complicit in these women’s oppression by even going to Muslim-majority countries. Sure, there are patriarchal elements to Islam, but there are plenty of patriarchal elements in Christianity as well. Also, people are scared of pointing out how capitalist ways of eliminating poverty, such as structural adjustment programs, exacerbate patriarchy and further exclude women from economic and political positions.
“I want to travel, and learn, but I don’t have the $ for that.”
Luckily for you, the U.S. State Department has fully funded-programs for people to study abroad and more POC and/or people from various socioeconomic statuses need to apply! I skipped out on my high school graduation to study with the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLIY) the summer before going to college and I’ve never regretted it. Here are some resources, in full:
- National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLIY): focused on acquisition of what the State Department terms “critical languages”.
- Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Abroad Program: more focused on cultural exchange for U.S. students to go to Eastern Europe and the Global South
- This program also has programs for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to live and study in the United States for an academic year.
- Congress-Bundestag High School Exchange Program: academic year-long program perfect for 15-18 year olds interested in German language and culture.
- Congress-Bundestag Vocational Exchange Program: for graduating high school seniors (18-19) with vocational training.
- Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals: provides intensive German language training, classes at university or a college of applied sciences, and a five-month internship in a chosen career field.
- Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship Program: specifically for students of limited financial means to enable them to study abroad. I think you need to be a Pell Grant recipient for this, but double check the website for more info.
- Critical Language Scholarship: basically the college version of the NSLIY program.
About The Author
Mary Marston is an aspiring human rights lawyer. In addition to quality Instagram captions, she writes about foreign policy through an intersectional feminist lens at the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy and is creating online resources for people to educate themselves on conflicts in Myanmar at Politics Unmasked. You can follow her on her social media below