First Go Back
The first time I experienced racism was when I was 9 years old.
Admittedly, I find it rather impressive that I went almost a decade without coming across it, but I was young. Maybe it had slapped me inadvertently, or I lacked the language to label it.
It was Valentine’s Day, and it fell on a Saturday that year. My mom decided to take me shopping at Burlington Coat Factory so we could buy a last-minute present for my dad. And because it was on a weekend, everyone had the same idea, meaning the parking lot was packed.
My mom drove in and out of the rows of cars until she saw someone pulling out just three spots away from the entrance. She zoomed immediately to it, which proved needless because we ended up having to wait as the previous parker took their sweet time reversing.
However, as they drove away, someone speedily cut into the spot before my mom could. Annoyed, my mom rolled down the window to let the driver know we were there first as he got out of one side of the car and a lady from the other.
“Excuse me, sir, we were here first,” my mom called from the window.
The man turned around and yelled back without any hesitation, “go back to China, you fucking chinks.”
My mom hurled a couple of indignant words and sped away, with me sitting in the back seat. I’d never seen her like that.
I think about my mom. She never talked to me about it afterward. How did it make her feel? Was this the first time this happened to her? How come she never talked to me about it afterward? Does she ever think about this day as much as I do?
I think about the man who told us to go back to China. Did he just keep on going about his day? What made him choose to comment on my mother’s race? Has he done this before? Did he do it again? Does he ever think about that day as much as I do?
“Go back to China...”
Well, first, my family is Filipino, not Chinese. Before I moved to New York to attend graduate school, my family would go back to the Philippines nearly every summer. We’ve changed our preferred airline over the years, but the pattern is still the same: Atlanta and then due west, which magically lands us in the East, usually Korea. I’ve had my passport since I was very young, with my earliest flight back to the Philippines around 7 years old.
I think about how one of my white classmates finally got a passport during her senior year of college for a study abroad program. The stopover flight to Atlanta was her first time on a plane.
I think about how some of my friends are the children of immigrants but have never visited the land of their ancestors. Sometimes, they still have family over there. I wonder if our elders would roll in their graves at such disconnection.
Coincidentally, we vacationed in China years after this incident. We were in China for a week, visiting Xi’an, Beijing, and Shanghai, along with a pit stop in Hong Kong before flying back to the Philippines.
But in that moment in that Burlington Coat Factory parking lot, I had never been to China before. And here stood a man who was telling us to “go back” to a land we’re not even from.
I wasn’t from China. I’m from these United States of America. I’m so American that I hate going back to the Philippines, because I look like I belong, like I’m Filipino, like I’m Asian, and I’m so frequently reminded that these islands are not my home. My English is unaccented, and my family says I speak so quickly. When I try speaking Filipino, my family makes fun of my pronunciation, and I struggle to put together even the most basic of sentences. A grown adult who can’t communicate.
My uncles and aunts make exceptions for me from doing the mano, the honoring gesture of taking an elder’s hand to your forehead. As if an honor that came from me is worth less.
And my parents? They love America so much they decided to leave their childhood homes, their friends, their families, to move to a country where they lived in a windowless and leaky basement for years. It took more than an hour to get to work. My mom had to stay home to take care of me, and my dad got paid so little to do his second residency at a hospital that they only ate Taco Bell when it was their birthdays. They rewashed and reused Ziplock bags. My mom calls these years the most pait, the most bitter of her life.
I grew up in this country. But if I speak openly, and I try to frequently do so, I can’t tell you I would give up nearly everything I had to move here in the way they had. This is not to be ungrateful for their struggles and sacrifices but rather to emphasize them. Somehow they had decided that this country would be better than the one they grew up in and that their daughter could be both Filipino and American.
“...you fucking chinks.”
Then I found out my family was actually Chinese. I didn’t know until several years later, maybe in high school. Or perhaps it’s better to say I didn’t understand how I could be.
By culture and practice, my family is Filipino. We speak Bisaya at home, not Chinese. We frequently fly to the Philippines, where the rest of our family is. We eat Filipino food. Jollibee over In-n-Out and Shake Shack, son! My family in the States is not my family, but rather a “family” of titas and titos my parents went to school with and all somehow ended up in the same place.
Yet, identity is complicated — somewhere earlier up the Lim line, someone immigrated to the islands from China. Then, once in the Philippines, our family kept marrying other Chinese people who were there, which explains why several generations later, I still look Chinese — light skin that never holds a suntan and, indeed, monolid eyes — as opposed to Filipino.
It’s unsettling that, in a way, this man in the parking lot knew more about me than I knew about myself.
I would later find out that even in our family practices in the Philippines, these were Chinese things. The burning of incense, how each uncle or auntie had a specific name according to birth order and relation to my parents, or the wearing of obnoxious red on birthdays. I probably should have been tipped off by the Chinese on my angkong’s tomb. Or the fact that I say “angkong” and not “Lolo.”
“Go back to China, you fucking chinks.”
It captures the experience of being Asian-American in one swift blow. A reductive assumption of being Chinese, combined with a reminder that you look like an outsider, that you present as someone who does not belong, unwelcome in these United States, so go back to a land you do not know.
The label “Asian” is minimalizing in itself — to reduce half of the world’s population, 48 different countries, and countless languages and cultures, into a single word. How much more of that is lost in translation to America?
One time when I was younger, I upset my mother. I can’t remember what I did, but I distinctly remember that specific incident, because she reminded me that I couldn’t act that way (toward her) since I’m “Filipino, not American.”
Growing up in the States, I spent most of my childhood trying to compartmentalize these identities. I thought being Asian-American meant acting Asian at home and American at school. For many, arguably all, people of color, there comes a time where they realize they cannot squeeze these things, these parts of themselves, into neat boxes. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, it’s essentially an identity crisis — one that, for me, occurred in college and became a mad scramble to make up for the time I had lost hating those parts. My Asianness is inseparable from my Americanness, and these things interplay with other parts of who I am. We are not our individual parts, but the sum of them.
There’s a difference even in being both Asian and American versus Asian-American. When I see Asian-American, the place I see myself is in the hyphen between the two words. My American experience is defined by my Asianess, and my Asian experience is defined by my Asianness. My Chineseness intertwines with my Filipinoness, and both these things function in an American context. Not only are we the sum of our identities, but we are also the intersections of them.
As a queer Chinese-Filipino-American woman, who was born in the South but now lives in the North, I wonder how many more identity crises I shall have in my life and am reminded of Bo Ren’s tweet: “My parent (sic) were tasked with the job of survival and I with self-actualization. The immigrant generational gap is real. What a luxury it is to search for purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.”
I think about the 9-year-old who sat in the back of her mom’s 1999 Toyota Forerunner as a white man yelled a racial slur at the two of them, maybe in a way, three of them. How the path unfolded from there, and the winding road it took to get to where I am and where I’m going.
I think about the things I’ve done, the lands I’ve visited, the people I’ve met. Especially the people I’ve met— how many others have I bonded with over this (not exact but) similar experience?
I think about the things my parents did, the lands my parents left, and the people my parents love.
I think how beautiful it is that my Asian-American self holds a Chinese-Filipino-American multitude within me. I wonder if I really am my ancestors’ wildest dreams. I wonder what my descendants will be like.
I think about how I have never been the patriotic type, but that understanding the journey, time, and sacrifice it took to get all these parts in the same place at the right time to make me who I am today would only be possible in this country.
There is no way to quantify one’s Asianness or Americanness, because there is no right way to be Asian, American, or Asian-American. What immigrants claim when they come to America, like those who have come before them, is there are many (essentially infinite) ways to be American. Perhaps not having a precise place to belong means you get to carve out your own space, and home is where you call it. That things are what we make of them. That when a white man tells you to go back to where you came from, you can tell him you’re right where you need to be.
About Gerrie Lim
Gerrie Lim is finishing up graduate school at Columbia University for a Master's in Public Health. She runs a photojournalism series called the Chasing Color Project (IG: @chasingcolorproject) about POC experience. If you're a person of color living in NYC, hit her up for a free photoshoot in exchange for your story. You can catch her latest projects on her personal Insta @chopstickgirl. Additionally, she performs stand-up, and you can read some of her jokes on Twitter at @noitsgary. In the words of Sandra Oh, “it’s an honor just to be Asian.”