Asian-American characters and me
Note: this post was inspired by Steph Su’s “Why I Want More Asians on YA Book Covers.” Except the following isn’t about book covers.
When I was young, I didn’t notice a lack of children’s books with Asian-American characters. Maybe it was a willful ignorance, maybe I just assumed that stories were only written about white Americans, maybe I was aware of enough Asian-Americans in a variety of roles that it didn’t make a big difference to my self-worth if I read about Asian-Americans in books or not. I don’t know.
Here’s what I do know: I went to a public elementary school where nearly all of my classmates were Asian-American, Pacific Islander, or hapa. Until the fifth grade, all my teachers were Japanese-American or Chinese-American, and even my haole fifth-grade teacher was married to a Japanese-American. Most of my friends were Asian-American, and, like myself, most of them were from families that had lived in Hawaii for several generations. I watched Asian-American athletes playing for the University of Hawaii, saw Asian-American newscasters on tv, Asian-American politicians, and Asian-Americans in pretty much every occupation.
During this time, the only Asian-American character I can remember reading about is Claudia Kishi, and she wasn’t my favorite member of The Baby-Sitters Club. I came across a couple more Asian-American characters over the years, and I’d get excited every time, but by the time I was in high school, I had begun to avoid books about Asian-Americans altogether. Yeah, the books I’d read had been well-written, but they were also all about racism and prejudice or “the immigrant experience” or some other thing that just pissed me off because I couldn’t relate to it at all. For all that I grew up eating Japanese food and going to the Okinawan festival and watching some Japanese tv on NGN and being proud of my Japanese-Okinawan heritage, when it came to books, I related more to the white characters I read about than the Asian-American ones.
Of course, I didn’t relate to *all* the white characters I read about. But perhaps the difference is that 1) the reasons I didn’t relate to the Asian-American ones were often similar (racism, immigrant parents), whereas there was so much more variety in the types of white characters I read about; and 2) I *expected* books about Asian-Americans, especially Japanese-Americans, to reflect my life and I’d get upset when they didn’t, whereas it didn’t matter if white characters were nothing like me. After all, it’s not like I was white to begin with. On some level, even if I didn’t consciously recognize it and couldn’t articulate it as a kid, I knew that novels should depict more than just one reality, one type of experience. I knew that I could find these differences in books with white characters, but I couldn’t find the same in books about Asian-Americans.
When I was in library school, I took a course on Asian American Resources for Children & Youth. One of the books we read was a short story collection, American Eyes, and I. Could. Not. Stand. It. With one exception, every story in there was about an Asian-American teen who was discriminated against, ashamed of their race/ethnicity, and/or fighting with their immigrant parents who just didn’t understand what it was like to be an American teen. (Although, the book was published in the mid-’90s, and I’d like to think this wouldn’t be the case today.) Let’s just say, if I had read this when I was a teen, and I was a teen when the book came out, I might have been scarred for life and refused to read any other book about an Asian-American. (On the other hand, I adored another book we read, a picture book called Dumpling Soup by Jama Rattigan, because I had an experience just like that. Not as a kid, though. And involving andagi, not dumplings.)
All of which explains why I am so desperate for more books about Asian-Americans in which race is not a big deal. Books about Asian-American characters who are proud of their heritage, who don’t (at least over the course of the story) struggle with racism or conflicts with immigrant parents. Because the message I got from American Eyes, even reading it as an adult, was that the only Asian-American experiences worth writing and reading about were those in which race/ethnicity was a problem.
As I’ve grown up (and hopefully matured), I’ve realized the importance of books about racism and immigrant experiences. I know that my experience is just that. My experience. It may be similar to many other Asian-Americans born and raised in Hawaii, but not for Asian-Americans from other parts of the country. Yet this doesn’t make my experience less valid or worthy.
I don’t read many children’s books, but it does seem like things are changing in children’s and middle grade fiction. Please, please, let this trend age up and become more than just a trend.
We deserve a variety of books with a variety of characters about a variety of experiences—books about racism and books in which race is not an issue. And we deserve to see a variety of faces on book covers that accurately reflect the story. Because whitewashing covers negates the acknowledgment—acceptance?—that this story is worth telling and this experience is worth sharing; it implies that only one group is deserving of the attention. And that is a blatant lie.