Asian-American Identity (Part II): Call me “China Doll” No More | Haiyun Lu | 5 Min Read

Many people have called me “baby doll” affectionately on different occasions.  I always took it as a compliment for my youthful look.  Now, after traveling down the 170-year history lane of Asian Americans, I have uncovered many negative stereotypes of Asian women in connection with “China Doll”.  It leaves me frozen and numb at the same time.  I don’t want to question my friends’ affection for me.  I also could not stop wondering if I were not Chinese, would they still call me “baby doll”?

After the reference in Part I of this series, I continue asking why, after 20,000 Chinese railroad laborers that took on the backbreaking work and the most dangerous jobs of drilling, explosives, and cutting through tunnels, and connecting the tracks in 1869, that these workers didn’t gain any recognition from mainstream society? It only resulted in the erasure of their contribution, violent massacres, and eventually the one and only immigration law, the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting immigrants solely based on one’s race. Was that because we didn’t look like the white European descendants? 

I keep imagining the times, during Wong Kim Ark’s five-month-long detainment. What was Wong feeling and thinking when he was detained in a tiny room in a steamboat off the coast of San Francisco?  The United States was his birthright home; he often visited his family in China and came back to the States without any problem.  But in 1895, upon his return, he was denied entry; because his parents were Chinese and he looked different from European Americans.  So, was it his facial features?

I was relieved to learn that Wong fought his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. It was because of him that the United States finally defined the term of birthright citizenship.  It was because of him that the United States finally accepted all children born on U.S. soil, regardless of their parents’ origin, would automatically become U.S. citizens. 

I keep wondering whether Anna May Wong wished to be born a few decades later.  Then she would not have been the first Chinese movie star in Hollywood.  She would not have been limited to only portray the yellow peril on screen.  She would not die “thousands of deaths” in her films as a villainized, dehumanized, demonized, and sexualized Chinese woman that only cared about a white man’s wallet and how to steal him away from all the beautiful white women.  It was her race that caused all of the turmoil. Had she ever wished to reject her own race at some point?  Her family and community were not kind either as they viewed her as a disgrace and a humiliation. 

If there hadn’t been anti-miscegenation at that time, I wonder whether Anna May Wong would have married one of her white co-stars and even had children together?  Would her life have been easier and happier?

Too many questions, too much unknown.

May 6 is my anniversary.  My white European descendent husband has already begun planning a quick getaway.  I want to ask if anti-miscegenation still existed today, would he and I still have found each other?  Would our son, just like Trevor Noah, be born illegally? Completely by coincidence, it was on the same day, May 6, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law in 1882. 

It hurts to know that the Exclusion Act was effective for more than 60 years.  It was only repealed by the Magnuson Act on Dec. 17, 1943, which allowed 105 Chinese to enter annually. It hurts to know that the Magnuson Act also served as a catalyst of the Asian Minority Myth.  The 105 elite Chinese who were carefully selected out of millions could accomplish so much, so easily in the United States.  Soon, this small group’s success was magnified for all Asians, prompting white citizens to oppress other racial minorities.

It hurts to know that the diverse Asian groups were at odds based on the turmoil of wars: Japanese Imperialism, the civil wars in China, the Korean War, and then the Vietnam War… It hurts to know that it was the brutal murder of Vincent Chin that prompted Asian Americans to wake collectively from their own prejudice and hatred against each other.  They were all viewed as one by other races; it was time to heed the call to unite together as one.

It hurts to know that the core benevolence and harmony practiced in Asian culture was used against Asians since they seek to avoid confrontations. It hurts to know that the newer Asian immigrants after the 1980s simply do not know Asian American history.  Nor have their children learned about it in schools since it is not included in the curriculum.  Without this knowledge and fuel, their needs for survival overtake their desire to speak up.

So much pain, so much hurt…

One of my favorite Chinese poets wrote once, “The dark night gives me the dark eyes, I use my dark eyes to seek lights.”  In the midst of pain, hurt, despair, anger, and frustration…, I get to know the Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama and her fight for black people. Then I read about the black activist Jesse Jackson and his fight for Vincent Chin and Asian people, and my anguish begins to subside.  By the time I learned about the joint force of Larry Itliong, Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta during the Delano Grape Strike, how they collectively broke through the trap of “divide and conquer…” Through all the tears and heartaches, I see hope. I see the wisdom to break down the racial barriers by standing in solidarity for each other so all people of color seek advancement together.

Nelson Mandela has said, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” 

Breathe, breathe deeply.  I smile to myself.  I also remind myself of Victor Frankl’s words, “Between the stimulus and response, there is space.”  Mimicking Mandela, I keep saying to myself, “A wise person is not one who has been tricked, fooled, or manipulated, but they who break through the veil.”  That’s where hope and optimism take root in meager soil and turn it into fertilizer. That’s when we can all become wise and advance in solidarity.

Haiyun Lu

Haiyun Lu, a Chinese language teacher at the University School of Milwaukee (WI), is also a writer, blogger, trainer, curriculum designer, meditator, and Co-Founder at Ignite Chinese.

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