Is there a place in animal rights for a kid from China?
Part II: Orphans of the Left
by Wayne Hsiung
When I was growing up in central Indiana, my family, like many immigrant families, was alienated from the white communities that surrounded us. My parents have never had a white friend. Heck, they have never, as far as I know, been invited to a white social gathering. Worse yet, living in central Indiana, where people of color were basically nonexistent, there was not even a ghetto for us to retreat to. We lived, for all intents and purposes, in isolation.
Isolation breeds fear. Fear of the uncertain. Fear of the unknown. Fear of those tall, sun-splashed, statuesque white people who seemed to effortlessly walk through a world that, to us, was terrifying and foreign. From our broken English to our sloppy immigrant clothes, we stuck out like sore thumbs. So it was with great trepidation that I made my first entrance into the white world: first grade.
It did not go well. On the first day, the kids looked at me with curiosity. I could see their strange glances, and hear their whispers. And it did not take long for one of them to finally pop the question.
“What’s with your eyes?” a girl asked me at lunch.
“My eyes?” I mumbled in broken English.
“I mean, what’s with your eyes?” the girl asked again, this time with a slightly mocking smile.
Fighting tears, I looked away from her and tried to focus back on my food. But the chatter continued. I noticed the girl and her friends using their fingers to bend their eyes upward, to mimic the slanty shape of the stereotypical Chinese eye. They later pulled me over to perform the infamous limerick -- “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees” (with eyes pulled up, then down, then hands placed on the knees) – that to this day makes no sense to me at all.
Except that it sort of did make sense because, from that day, the pattern was set: I was expected to perform whiteness, i.e. to normalize and privilege Western attributes and perspectives above all others.
It would take a book to describe the humiliations I faced over the next 10 years. But though I suffered many episodes of physical violence, the worst incidents – the incidents that remain deeply engraved in my mind and that still wake me up screaming in the night – always involved the way I looked. Eyes were only the beginning. Kids asking why I dressed the way I did. Why my hair was so “geeky” (i.e. stiff, straight, and un-stylish). And whether my “cum was yellow, too” – an insult that, being a naïve Asian kid, I did not even understand until I went off to college. It got so bad that, for years, I would hide in the stalls of the bathroom. There, I would sit on the toilet, trembling, and tear at my own hair and skin (sometimes to the point of bleeding). I would sit, trembling and crying, and plead to myself, “Why can’t I just be white?”
The strange thing about all of this was that the town I grew up in, Carmel, had a reputation for being less ignorant than the surrounding areas. It was where the “educated” people lived. Indeed, that was precisely why my parents chose to make Carmel their home. But while discussions of racism did enter into our curriculum – even in conservative, white Indiana, Martin Luther King, Jr. was lionized as a hero – it was something that was remote, abstract, and almost mythological. It was never something that students, particularly of Asian descent, could actually be hindered by.
And so, even when a bully was battering my face and screaming that I was an ugly chink – which happened on more than one occasion – it never occurred to me that the problem was racial.
“It’s just me,” I told myself. “If only I weren’t so stupid, so ugly, so clueless.” If only I could properly play white.
And my experience is not unique. Millions of Asians across the country face the same struggle. The mainstream media loves to promote the myth of the model minority. We are the chosen colored people. The people who have assimilated, adopted Western norms and habits, achieved social and economic power, and succeeded beyond our wildest dreams! Bill O’Reilly blabbed to Jon Stewart recently about so-called “Asian privilege,” and even some progressive writers have begun talking about “Asian as the new white.”
There’s just one little problem: the facts.
- A frightening 68% of the American public has “very negative” or “somewhat negative” views of Chinese Americans, and those views extend to Chinese in leadership positions (with over 50% more people saying they would be uncomfortable with a Chinese president than a black president).
- Asians are represented at lower rates in positions of power despite having higher educational status. Asians comprise 0.3% of corporate officers relative to 5% of the population – a 17x difference. (The comparable rate for women, who are also discriminated against, is 14.6%, relative to 50.9% of the population -- a 3x difference.)
- Asians are paid lower wages for equal work, even in industries such as Tech (where Asians make $8,146 less than white workers, compared to a $3,656 gap for Black employees, a $6,907 gap for those whose race is "other,” and a $6,358 gap for women).
- Asians have far lower representation in the mainstream media and other public roles than other races. (One prototypical example: in its four-season run, the popular television show The OC did not have a single Asian face, despite depicting a region of California, Orange County, filled with over half a million Asian people. The Asians literally just disappeared.)
- Victims of bullying in schools are “disproportionately Asian.” Those of us who grew up in white schools know this very well: we are perceived as weak, and the first targets on every violent bully’s list.
- Asians (particularly men) suffer from the strongest bias in measures of attraction. ("[O]ur main finding is that Asians generally receive lower ratings than men of other races. In fact, when we run the regressions separately for each race, we find that even Asian women find white, black, and Hispanic men to be more attractive than Asian men.")
- Asians are socially excluded at higher rates than any other race in simple tests of implicit bias, even in the ivory tower. I saw this when I was in graduate school. Asians had to work twice as hard as white kids to get attention from star professors, and even then, we were invariably perceived as robotic drones.
And then there is, of course, what happens in, well, Asia. Nearly one billion people in my home continent (70% of the world’s total) live in extreme poverty, defined as less than $1.25 a day in income. That is just the tip of the iceberg because millions more don’t meet the criteria for “extreme poverty” but nonetheless suffer under the crushing weight of Western hegemony.
Some recent examples: Twelve hundred people are killed in the collapse of a dilapidated garment factory for huge American corporations such as Sears and Walmart (who don’t even bother to compensate the grieving families for their loss). Employees at an Apple factory toss themselves off the roof of their workplace, in a desperate attempt to escape slave-labor working conditions. (Apple CEO Steve Jobs responds by saying, “For a factory, it’s pretty nice.”) Hundreds of workers are locked into a factory making American handbags, for all but 60 minutes a day, and face beatings if they dare challenge their confinement.
Every now and then, ever so briefly, the suffering of Asia blinks into American view. But it is just as quickly forgotten.
We tell ourselves that what happens in Asia is a product of Asia. But it’s not. In fact, the abuses in Asia are the direct result of, not just corporate practices, but widespread indifference to the plight of people who are seen as “perpetual foreigners” even in our own country. It’s a result, in short, of the global pull of performing whiteness. Consider some perspectives from Asians in America.
“The West has taken our best and our brightest – the leaders of Asia – and turned them into servants to white people.”
- A friend of my father’s contrasting life in Asia with life in the West. Like so many Asians, and despite exceptional performance, my father and his friends were relegated to non-leadership roles throughout their careers.
“I have no idea where we can live if we have to leave here. We're hoping not to sleep in the street.”
- Poon Heung Lee, an 80-year-old retired hotel housekeeper, after being evicted from his San Francisco apartment along with his 48-year-old mentally disabled daughter. Countless other families in historically Chinese neighborhoods have been physically forced out of their homes due to the Ellis Act. (Yes, the very neighborhoods that the racist tour guide last week told to “F--k off.” She, and many other people, are getting their wish.)
“I’m in pain, but they don’t believe me. They tell me, stop faking.”
- Hiu Lui Ng, undocumented immigrant who was shockingly seized after 17 years in this country at his final green card interview, taken from his wife and two young children, and thrown into a grim detention center. After nearly a year languishing in the facility, and despite his cries of excruciating pain, Ng was dragged from his cell because he could not stand on his own power. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with a broken spine and liver cancer, which killed him five days after the diagnosis. As with the Vincent Chin beating and death, the government responded with a collective, “Who cares?"
In short, Asia and Asians have been forced into the most humiliating positions, used to serve Western capitalism, confined in spaces no living being should be forced to endure, kicked out of our homes when the land is needed for more powerful peoples, and even murdered in cold blood. And yet the American Left is unmoved. Indeed, the American Left hardly even remembers that we exist.
Sound familiar? It should. Because there’s another group that suffers from the same problem to a much more severe and horrific degree.
Readers of this blog do not need me to recount the horrific details. 10 billion land animals killed in the United States. Hundreds of millions more for fur, experimentation, and entertainment. Even dogs and cats, our beloved family members, are murdered by the millions every year – all for the crime of being born to a different species. But the most heartbreaking stories are always those of individuals. Two are particularly salient.
In a recent video, a poor cow is forced to witness violent men murder her friend. She struggles to escape the slaughter line, to stay as far away from the room where death awaits. But she is eventually shocked with an electric prod into the chamber where she will meet her end. You see the fear in her eyes, as she desperately tries to turn and escape.
The second is the story of the so-called last pig. A baby pig, surrounded by the dead bodies of her friends, screams and scrambles desperately as men approach to take her body and flesh. These are not screams of physical pain. They are screams of terror and fear… the screams of a gentle soul who cannot bear to face her oppressors alone…. the cries of someone who desperately needs a friend with her as she faces an unspeakable end.
When I see the world through these animals’ eyes, I can barely maintain my composure. I think back to the moments in life where I have lived in fear, in isolation, in terror of imminent violence, and I can barely stop myself from screaming out, at the top of my lungs, “JESUS CHRIST! WHAT THE F--K IS GOING ON? SOMEONE STOP THIS NOW!”
My friend Lisa put it very well, when I talked to her recently about her evolution towards animal rights consciousness. When she first saw what happened in a slaughterhouse, she cried out in her head, "Nothing could be more evil in the world!" I wholeheartedly agree.
And yet, despite the horrific evil that surrounds us, oppression of animals, like discrimination against Asians, is largely ignored. Approximately 2% of the American population has taken the small step of declining to consume the bodies of animals. Even in that small sliver, only a small percentage endorse true animal rights or species equality. And finally, there is the sliver of the sliver: those proud few who have committed to take a stand.
Abandoned by the Left, you might think that Asians and animal rights activists would be allies. But instead, we have the opposite.
In fact, a list of the most hate-filled animal rights campaigns almost invariably includes a long line of Asian targets. The slaughter of elephants and rhinos for "trinkets." The deforestation of orangutan habitat for palm oil. The primate trade in China. The list of Asian targets is like the animal rights movement’s Most Wanted. And even when the organizers of such campaigns expressly disavow racism, hateful sentiments always bubble up.
Take dog meat. Perhaps the most prominent international animal rights organization on the planet, with a reputation for being effective, ethical, and thoughtful, took on the issue last year. And they did so with the highest and most ethical purpose in mind – to extend consideration and equality to all animals, not just the dogs and cats that Westerners traditionally have loved.
And yet a brief perusal of responses to their campaign media shows a torrent of violent and racist rhetoric. A commenter (approved by 225 people) calls the Chinese “weak cowards” and asks “Why are they allowing these scum bags to exist?” (One wonders if Americans are cowards, too, for killing and eating over 100% more animals than the average Chinese.) Another comment with the text “Go to hell, China!” and “Hang them all, devils” is approved by an astonishing 131 people on the page. (Ironic, given the hanging dog in the image.) And perhaps most perversely of all, “I always wanted to go to China, I will not set foot in that place! They are a disgrace to humankind and in fact don't deserve to even to referred to as human!” (A strange thing for an activist for non-human animals to say. After all, while we Chinese are, in fact, human, what’s wrong with being non-human?)
And this, of course, is by an organization that is doing a “foreign” campaign as ethically as it can possibly be done. For example, the campaign included Chinese activists and voices in its materials, emphasized that Western countries also engage in violent practices toward animals, and expressly disavowed any sort of racist rhetoric or messaging.
But if you have been following this blog, you should not be surprised. After all, when 68% of the public un-apologetically holds negative views of Asians, when many more who disavow conscious prejudice nonetheless show dramatic evidence of implicit bias (e.g. refusing to even talk to someone simply because of their ethnic face or name), and when an entire continent remains under the heel of the Western powers that have ruled the world for hundreds of years, should we be surprised when campaigns that target foreigners... trigger anti-foreigner hatred or even violence?
It should also be no surprise when Asians, and other minority communities targeted by the animal rights movement’s ire, don’t take well to these campaigns. Indeed, one begins to wonder what self-respecting person of color would even consider becoming an animal rights activist in the first place. My cousins asked me if I was performing whiteness. But perhaps they should have been harsher on me: Am I betraying my own heritage, culture and people… betraying my own non-whiteness…. by fighting for animal rights?