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Published on June 2nd, 2017 | by Lisa Lim

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How I Went From Being An Apolitical to A Little More Political Asian

When I was a child, I remember writing Nancy Reagan about the pretty gowns she wore. I got back a generic letter with a lovely black and white photo of her and Ronny fishing in the Finger Lakes. I taped this photo to my wardrobe to remind me of how they brought Hollywood style to the White House.

I didn’t understand their politics, but I also wasn’t raised to question politics.

You often hear the term “Apolitical Asian.”

My education began with stories told by my grandmother of the horrible things the Communists did in China. One story that remains ingrained in my mind was about my grandmother’s dear friend, Strong Paw. We spent many a sunny day with her roaming the streets of Queens when I was a child. I’ll never forget her. Strong Paw had a large perm that looked a gray tumbleweed had landed on her head one windy day and never left. She collected cans with us. She was the muscle. I was the hands. My grandmother was the hustle. Strong Paw held a large stick across her back and carried two bags, which I would fill with empty cans I handpicked from the neighborhood trash. The neighbors hated us for disrupting their garbage. Then my grandmother would hustle her way through the homeless crowd at the A&P to deposit her cans, fiercely elbowing and pushing anyone in her way. Needless to say, the homeless hated us, too.

My grandmother told me about a Communist leader named Mao Zedong, who promised to bring food and wealth to the Chinese peasants who’d been starving and living in extreme poverty for too long. But with this promise came torture and murder for anyone resisting his authority. My grandmother told me Strong Paw was passionately against Mao, and yes, she spoke out.

The consequences of speaking out were terrifying. The Communist militia ransacked her home and made her and her husband kneel on broken glass. They tortured them for days on end under the hot scorching sun. Strong Paw’s skin was peeling and burning, but they showed no mercy.


Those days, there were many ways of standing out that induced the wrath of the government. Scholars were called out for being too smart. They were dressed in dunce caps as their faces hung low. And they were forced to bark like dogs. Being too smart, being too wealthy, being too vocal, being too much of anything got you in trouble with Mao.

Now that I look back, I often wondered if Strong Paw collected cans so people would think she was poor, so no one would ever ransack her home, like they had in China. Maybe it’s why my grandma and so many of her friends sewed money inside their clothes. They also stuffed pillows and mattresses with dollar bills instead of saving them in banks. They didn’t trust banks and they didn’t trust the government. This way there was no official count of their money. No one would ever know how much they had. The goal was to be undocumented wealthy. To be invisible.

These stories frightened me, to every bone in my body, as a child, and continue to frighten me as an adult, when I decide to speak up or stand out, whenever I am “too much.”

But then something changed in me. It was the day of Trump’s inauguration. It woke me from my apolitical coma. The camera panned across the sea of people and what I saw was a sea of white. It felt like the only “dots” of diversity seen were of Barack and Michelle Obama. It saddened me to think how far we’ve come and now it looked like we were going backwards.

It reminded me of when my parents were thinking about moving to Westchester, when I was five years old. The principal gave us a tour of the school and she opened the classroom door and it was a room full of blue and hazel eyes and alabaster skin. I remember screaming so hard, like I was auditioning for a Hitchcock film. I was scared by the lack of color and diversity. It was all I had known growing up. I was so glad when my parents decided to stay in Queens.

At my high school in Queens, every culture was represented. And it felt like home.

There was Anita, a Guyanese girl whose long ponytail would whip across multiple faces as she walked briskly down the hallway. Gemal, an African American boy who sat next to me in class talking about life in general, making each other giggle. There were Mohamed and Mikel, South Asians with slight mustaches and glasses, which made them look older, like distinguished accountants. They were inseparable and always telling what seemed like charming Dad jokes. There was Eddie, a Mexican kid who was the class nerd–we all cheated off of his page during important state tests. I remember his Dad owned a tourism van, and he was kind enough to drive us to the prom in style. There was LoAnne, the Vietnamese beauty. She stole all the boys’ hearts while the rest of us struggled with pimples, bad perms, and raging hormones. There was Dawn, an Irish girl who used to come over and yak with me about the Mets, even though I didn’t know anything about baseball. We would trade lunches. I’d give her my beef ramen, which my grandma packed in my Popeye thermos, and she’d give me her Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich and Dipsy Doodles.

In Trump’s vision of a Great America, I wondered, Where did I fit in? Where did my friends from Queens fit in? Would we have a voice?

This is not what my America looks like.

That’s when I decided to march in DC. It would be my first march ever. It was both exhilarating and a little frightening, all at the same time. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew it was important for me to be a part of. So, I booked a bus ticket from Penn Station to DC and lined up to march with a gang of women with pussy hats and signs, all ready to make history.

As I marched through DC I thought of my Grandma and Strong Paw. I thought of how I had internalized this fear of standing out too much for too long. And how it kept me from a voice, and making waves of any kind.

Head down. No conflict. That was Asian.

As I marched through DC, I thought of my 2-year-old son Miles who delighted in making perfect squares and triangles with Playdo, singing the alphabet and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to his crew of stuffed animals. But the mother in me knew he sensed some iota of adult pain and anguish over the election. It’s probably why he insisted we watch Elmo over CNN.

I thought about the divided America he would come to know over the next few years. I wanted Miles to grow up in a better world.

I wanted Miles to learn to embrace and demand diversity. I wanted him to know there was no place for bullies, that includes the presidency. I wanted him to respect all people regardless of gender and culture. I wanted him to know that if it was your body, it was your right. I wanted him to be brave in his voice.

I wanted him to be ruled by hope not fear.

I knew it was time to keep marching.

So, I called my local Congress people and left messages at the sound of the beep. Against the nomination of DeVos. Against the travel ban. Against the school voucher program. I spoke out against what I thought was unjust. I shared. I liked. I even commented on posts. And I donated to those organizations in jeopardy over the new administration, and to those organizations that amplified the collective voice of justice. I wouldn’t say that I became the biggest activist, but I became transformed in my own right. I cared about what was going on in my world and tried to change it in my small ways.

One favorite memory  reminds me that I can’t stop fighting for what’s right. Every Sunday, my Dad would drive me and my family to the East River. We’d eat wonton noodles while sitting in his red Dodge Dart 75’. We’d pop in a cassette tape, crank the volume, and we sang at the top of our lungs to Neil Diamond’s “America.” I remember our bodies filling and bursting with a sense of freedom. I would imagine my father as an 8-year-old boy with my grandmother coming to America on a boat from China. They had “a dream to get them there.”

Today Miles and I play Neil Diamond’s “America” at full volume at home, and we sing and dance without pants. We feel so free. Like America. We sing “They’re coming to America . . . My country ’tis of thee. Sweet land of liberty.”

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About the Author

Lisa Lim

Lisa Lim is both an artist and a writer. Her art and fiction have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Kill Author, InDigest Magazine, Nashville Review, and Pank Magazine. Find more of her storytelling here.



28 Responses to How I Went From Being An Apolitical to A Little More Political Asian

  1. Pingback: Read These Blogs – Marcus M. Wise

  2. AggieSoon says:

    Thank you for your post! Loved hearing about your journey. Keep fighting the good fight!

  3. esperare says:

    Good for you! We need more people to speak out, like you. I also believe that diversity is such an important thing. I also feel uncomfortable if I’m in a white washed area (even being white myself). I grew up in Southern California, so full of diversity, and now live in Central Iowa. My town, my area, are now predominantly white but the school my children go to is not and that is one thing I’m so extremely grateful for. Two others are my 7 year old daughter’s aversion to Trump and my 5 year old son’s constant question “why hasn’t there been a girl president?”. They’re not very old but they too have been hurt by the Trump presidency. My daughter even told me that her friend’s family were afraid for their life on inauguration day. They’re African American. So thank you for your turn around.

  4. Danielle says:

    Question: how do you think there is a lack of diversity in our nation? Where I live, at least, if you go to the nearest school, there are so many African-Americans as well as Asians and Mexicans. So many of accomplished over-achievers and valedictorians are Chinese, Korean, etc. etc.
    I’ve been all across America, and wherever I go, I see so much diversity. When I visited Texas, I saw more Asians and Mexicans than I did White American-Europeans.
    I’m just wondering how you think there’s not enough diversity.

    The one thing I do know is that a lot of Asians, especially, that I know, don’t like voting which is why they don’t show up to political events. They are definitely here, but they don’t really care that much about politics and voting, sadly.

  5. Yahya says:

    Very nice story and thank you for sharing

    Some of your grand ma story remind me of a great book that I read recently
    “Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an elegant, nuanced and perfectly realized novel that, fugue-like, presents the lives of individuals, collectives, and generations caught in the complexities of history. Tracing the intertwined lives of two families, moving from Revolutionary China to Canada, this ambitious work explores the persistence of past and the power of art, raising meaningful questions for our times.”

    Keep up the good work

    Yahya

  6. Lil' says:

    Dear Lisa
    I am also of Chinese descent. I know they feared much to even talk about China. I was really lucky to grow up in Poland. Now I live in Ireland, with my family. I am often thinking of what world we are sending our children to. I hope the world with will become a better place…. And I truly do not trust now politicians and majority of press.
    Ideally, people who really are concerned with the fate of others will be vocal and strong in politics, but also smart, very smart, otherwise truly, they would not be able to distinguish between the truth, and the lie.
    I read your story about Strong Paw and my heart was burning with their skin, but out of sadness that flows from empathy.
    I hope we will live in Happy Diversified world….

    It was touching and very interesting story. Thank you for sharing it here, so in this way you shared it also with me…

  7. akpama oju says:

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  8. Petit fr says:

    I never thought your fight could be long and also so powerful. You made it, to some extent, that you had successfully transmitted your ideas to me, an Asian too, and others to do things valued the same. Thank you for your work!

  9. Lisa Lim Lisa Lim says:

    i am happy it resonated. it’s weird. when i first started writing this piece, i wondered if i would get backlash from other asians. because to be fair, this is solely my experience and mine alone. i can’t speak for anyone else. i always felt a sense of shame for not being too political. and then when the march came it made me question my apolitical second nature. and that’s when i started deep diving into the why.

    • BettyB says:

      Hi! I enjoyed your post. I’m also Chinese and have memories of being in China in the early 80s as a small child and stories about the Cultural Revolution. I had a different experience from you though. I’ve always been more political than my family members. I felt that we had come here for the right of speech and to vote yet my parents never voted and never talked much about politics. Drove me nuts. Now I kind of get it. As adult immigrants they never fully felt at home. As guests they did not feel the right to make waves. Maybe being political is an entitlement. Anyway thanks for sharing this.

  10. Henni says:

    Your blog is fabulous

  11. Great post! This election woke a lot of people up and is the only silver lining I have found so far. Surround yourself with like-minded activists and pace yourself. We’re in for a long haul — but we can be change-makers.

    • Lisa Lim Lisa Lim says:

      reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from obama’s farewell speech “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change. But in your’s”

  12. This is so inspiring! Thanks for sharing!

  13. myris says:

    I love how you express your story… its professional, its interesting and it has a sense of humour of its own. I would say… a variety of everything

  14. Bravo! Nicely expressed without being preachy. I agree 100%.

  15. Ewongie says:

    Very good post, we need more people out there like you.

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