My name is Duy Tran. I work in social services in Seattle for an organization called Downtown Emergency Services Center. In 2016, my friends and I planned an “international friendship smuggling” (my friend's designation, not mine) trip to China. After many months of hyphy - and hella overtime shifts - I departed with three dear friends of mine on an all-too-brief adventure in China. This is our story.
Kunming was our playground as us four boys wreaked havoc throughout Yunnan (and on our bodies) charging and at times trudging from one destination to another. During the day, we explored the novel surroundings, peppering our walks with childish jokes about penises and vaginas. At night, we stalked the city, consuming an inordinate amount of red bull and cheap grain alcohol. The gang went to China and we managed to make it back in one piece, sans a pair of shoes lost after “Jaeger night.”
In between the numerous jokes about genitalia, my friends and I had discussions about our cultural observations. You gotta. When you encounter an unfamiliar cultural practice or novel object, you’re inclined to suss out its meaning. At one of the nights during our trip, we were hailed by some locals and all but coerced to drink with them. The reason we were roped into drinking with them was because my friends were tall white dudes. The locals took so many selfies with my white friends that you’d think that my friends were traveling celebrities. As for myself, the Asian looking dude, I sat in the corner bemused by the spectacle and resigned to my designated non-American, Chinese-passing status.
What was just another night of partying – albeit partying in a foreign culture - for my white friends was another instance of having to confront my Asian-American identity. I felt like Lindsay Lohan's character in Mean Girls when she introduces herself as being from South Africa (“Oh my god, Karen, you can't just ask people why they're white!”) I was in cultural limbo. I passed as Chinese but did not identify as such whereas my American-ness was put into question. Frankly, I was a bit frustrated at my friends and the locals. Obviously my friends did not choose to be white, but neither did I choose to be Vietnamese, yet I am punished for it. I mean, the punishment was fewer shots being offered to me, but still. The point is that there is a discernible difference between how I was treated during the trip – and just writ large – and how my white friends were treated. Whether it be fewer shots being offered to me at the bar or having my US passport being examined just a tad bit longer than my white friends, it was often enough for me not dismiss as chance.
Some of you readers might classify this as racism or as acts of microaggression. Please don't do that. Racism is not just something to be theorized, but something that is viscerally lived. My experiences might have been racialized, but I ought to hold the power to designate my own encounters with racism as such. Oppression is already messy as it is, I/we don't need someone else telling me/us what I/we should be feeling. The wonderful thing about talking about these experiences with my friends was that they listened without projecting their own expectations (see how I dropped the white modifier? I don't know why I did it, but it seems appropriate.) I talked and they just listened, just like I hope you are doing reader.
That is my call to action to y’all Millennials: listen, listen, listen. Try not to be defensive. Once you become defensive then you have concluded you have listened enough. Instead, you probably need to listen some more. Only then can we hope to form some participatory language where one party does not feel intimidated to say how they really feel. This is particularly important for the audience of this website because we have one, probably more, of these traits: white, decently financially secure, college-educated, and liberal.
If we want to change a hurtful system, we must listen to those that are injured by it. We cannot presume to know what is best for the injured voices and speak for them. We cannot stand in solidarity without listening. I don’t speak on behalf of folks of color; hell, I can’t even speak on the behalf of Asian immigrants living in America. However, I do speak. Listen to me and to the plethora of voices that are affected by the varying discrimination and violence exerted by the status quo. In return, I’ll lend you my ear (and/or beer). Please share your letter with us.