But of course I’m not one of you
When imposter syndrome turned into something a lot more sinister
The first day of my class at Harvard, I felt like an imposter. I was out of element, with classes that started on the hour (where was my MIT time?), Canvas (suddenly LMOD and Stellar made sense), and a sea of unfamiliar faces (no built-in project buddies for me). These were all things I anticipated, and was looking forward to, being outside of my comfort zone. It took me three seconds to scan the class and realize I was the only MIT student.
It took me six weeks to realize I was the only Asian student.
We were discussing the most recent film on our syllabus, Indochine (1992). It depicted French-colonized Vietnam in the throes of a communist revolution, with a familial love triangle thrown in for good measure. Historical fiction is my favorite genre, and I thought the acting and editing was well-done enough for the time.
“I liked the end. Because it ended.” Nods around the room. Oh. Maybe it wasn’t as good as I thought? “I just didn’t get it. Like why they made the movie.” More nods. An uneasy feeling crept into my stomach for the rest of the class.
One of the most poignant characteristics of the movie was the mix of very proper French (spoken by the colonialists to distinguish themselves), French with a Vietnamese accent, and Vietnamese. There were the young adults who could speak both French and Vietnamese and code-switched at lightning speed. I saw myself in Thanh and Camille, in between two cultures, learning from both. One of my classmates liked it, because the French was spoken very slowly and they could understand it.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to ask, “That's what you got out of the entire film?” Of course they didn’t understand why a thriving rubber plantation also traded opium under the table. They don’t have the same understanding of the insidious role opium played — introduced by the West — in debilitating Asia’s economy. They can’t, because I grew up listening to the stories of my great-great-etc.-grandfather Lin Zexu and the Opium Wars, and who else’s parents care that much about Lin Zexu?
I pulled up a distinct memory from a mere 5 days before, a painful proclamation that “it hurts to see a black guy get beat up.” We were talking about La Haine (1995) — a movie about the harsh reality of the suburbs of Paris — from the point of view of three teenagers, one of whom is black and is tortured by the police in one of the scenes. I remembered hurting while watching that scene. I remembered empathizing with how deeply that must have struck my classmate. Where was my empathy now, when Asian characters were being gunned down, their corpses uncensored, in the very same class?
Now, I know it’s dumb to expect empathy, especially in return for my own empathy that no one had asked for. A little bit of me hoped, though. But the longer I sat there silent, the more I wondered if I was perpetuating another stereotype: the submissive Asian female. Should I tell them how the movie affected me like La Haine did them? Was it even my responsibility to show them the consequences of their words? Was I just being overly sensitive about nothing? They probably weren’t trying to dismiss the Asian experience in a Westernized world anyway.
We’re on to the next movie and operating remotely, so I guess I’ll never know what would have happened if I had spoken up. Yet now, more than ever, I want to reflect on the negligence of American society in recognizing, and protecting, Asian-Americans. There are bad people everywhere. And there are good people everywhere. That is not, and never will be, correlated with race. Asian-Americans are facing more hate crimes and micro-aggressions than ever because of ignorance surrounding COVID-19. So please, stop calling it the “Wuhan virus”, stop boycotting Asian businesses, and stop refusing Asian doctors. It isn’t helping you, and it definitely isn’t helping us.