A funny thing happened to me today. I walked into a nearly empty café and stood in line behind a woman who’d just finished giving her order to the barista. The two, both of whom were white, continued to have a conversation after the customer’s order was taken. Not wanting to be rude, I waited for them to finish what I thought to be a brief exchange.
Shortly after, a young African American man entered the café and the barista immediately looked over to him and smiled (this man was obviously a regular) and began trying to guess his order. At that point I stepped forward and said, “Excuse me, I was here first.” I repeated myself three times before she heard me and looked over with a wide-eyed expression of shock, as if I were a ghost that appeared out of nowhere, and apologized profusely for not having noticed me sooner.
There were no other customers in line and I was wearing a bright red T-shirt. How could I not have been noticed? How do I interpret this kind of invisibility? It’s because of situations like this that, when I am introducing myself to anyone, anywhere, I feel I have to introduce myself as being a Hmong American writer.
It’s one thing to be an ‘other’ writer whose physical traits are easily distinguishable, but when most people who meet me for the first time just assume that I’m Chinese/Japanese, a group of ‘others’ considered by mainstream America to be the “Model Minority,” I feel obliged to note my other-otherness. What’s doubly problematic about this, for me at least, is that according to Hmong oral history, the Chinese destroyed our written language, and now I’m being lumped in with this group of people who I look like, but have oppressed my people for thousands of years.
I have a white American friend who moved to China to teach for a few years who knew the Hmong were called “Miao” there. He asked some of his new Chinese friends if they knew of any Miao, to which he was responded with, in his words, “a confused, disgusted look, as if the Miao were just mythical, disgusting beings.”
Yes, I know this is just one person’s reaction, but because one person can react this way I find it easy for others to hold this same view. This does not make it easy for me to think about what little relationship I have with China and its peoples, but my being a part of the Kundiman Fellowship, and having developed warm, real friendships with Chinese American fellows has helped me to believe true peace is possible.
Many have told me to just “forget the past and just look at the things the future has to offer,” but it’s hard to do when so much of my people’s future has to do with its history. We have to be bold enough to acknowledge the past for the future’s sake. I acknowledge my past and see the potential of our collective future, what it can be if everyone works with one another, cross-culturally.
For example, I am organizing the second annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Reading Series at Fresno State this year, which is a program sponsored by the Chicano Writers and Artists Association (CWAA), a student organization of which I am also a member, whose goal is to “(p)rovide a venue for Chicano and Latino thought, voice and artistic expression; offer a space to discuss, explore and identify the Chicano and Latino experience…” It is organizations like CWAA, and its members, who not only advocate their own right to exist, but also make space for other ‘others’ that are the true advocates of diversity.
As for my café incident, the African American gentleman kindly stepped aside and waited for me to make my order. He later nudged me with his elbow and jokingly said, “What’s her problem, huh?” in an attempt to alleviate any ill-feelings I might have harbored. I smiled back and brushed the air toward the barista while shaking my head to let him know there were no hard feelings. We are, after all, working to better understand one another, to better live alongside one another.
Andre Yang is a Hmong American poet from Fresno, California. He is a founding member of the Hmong American Writers' Circle (HAWC), where he actively conducts and participates in public writing workshops. He received a Creative Writing (Poetry) MFA program at California State University, Fresno, where he was a Philip Levine Scholar, recipient of a William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustees Award for Outstanding Achievement, and the Graduate Dean’s Medalist. He works on the editorial staff of The Normal School literary magazine. Andre is a Kundiman Asian American Poetry Fellow, was awarded a Ucross Residency, and has attended the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. He co-edited How Do I Begin - A Hmong American Literary Anthology (Heyday, 2011), and his poetry has appeared in Paj Ntaub Voice, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Lantern Review and the chapbook anthology 'Here is a Pen' (Achiote Press).