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The award-winning poet Ocean Vuong spoke the following chilling words on Glennon Doyle’s podcast, We Can Do Hard Things, about the plight of Asian Americans today: “If we are visible at all, we are visible as a corpse.”
While I refuse to take those words literally, I understand why he said them. He made his remark in reference to the rising xenophobia and violence directed toward Asian Americans—particularly elderly women—during the pandemic. Vuong asks the questions “Why do you have to read our stories in order to value us enough not to kill us? Why do you have to read eight Asian books in order to say, ‘Now I realize how valuable they are to us’?”
Part of the answer rests with Asian invisibility.
In mainstream writings, “Asian American invisibility” manifests in a variety of different ways. For example, consider the following stereotypes about Asian American individuals, steeped in the model-minority myth, foreign objectification and other ways we are glibly and carelessly pigeonholed.
- Asian Americans have successfully assimilated, as evidenced by their achievements and contributions to the American way of life.
- Asian Americans are good at math.
- Asian American students are hardworking and high-achieving.
Invisibility is a byproduct of society assigning blanket assumptions to an otherwise heterogeneous group of people. Those statements are more than simply problematic—they are gross and often inaccurate generalizations. (For counternarratives, see here, here, here and here, among many others.)
In fact, I dislike the very term “Asian American” and use it reluctantly while assuming a shared understanding of its limitations, because it collectivizes a diverse group of individuals into a container of sameness. Using this label discounts the social, cultural and political differences within and among our communities. It contributes to marginalization and invisibility.
A Physical Phenomenon
In this article, I’ll explore a rarely addressed form of such invisibility: the physical invisibility that some Asian Americans face in academic and workplace environments. While some readers may dismiss invisibility as “no big deal,” this phenomenon is so strong that it’s as if the person does not physically exist.
Take, for instance, two Asian students, Hiuyan Wang and Shing Yue Jiang (pseudonyms), who both requested letters of recommendation from the same professor—let’s call him Dr. Worth—for graduate school. He graciously agreed, but a month passed, and no letters had been sent. When Hiuyan followed up with the professor’s administrative assistant, Dr. Worth apologized for the delay. He immediately wrote the letter and submitted it. Dr. Worth then followed up with Shing, attaching a copy of the recommendation letter for a student named “Shing Yue Wang.” When Dr. Worth’s assistant mentioned the mix-up, his reply was, “Oh my God. I thought they were the same person.”
This incident was hardly an isolated one. Some time ago, I remember a friend alerting me to the Twitter handle #SorryWrongAsian. I discovered too many examples to sift through adequately.
To cite just a few:
- Three different Asian women experienced being called “Dr. Phan” in the workplace.
- A principal called an Asian student to their office only then to realize they meant to call a different Asian student.
- People repeatedly addressed an Asian individual by the wrong first name, which happened to be the name of an Asian co-worker.
Just recently, I revisited that Twitter page. Dave Kung, professor of mathematics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, had posted a picture of himself with Francis Su, Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, at a 2016 conference of the Mathematical Association of America. From Kung’s remark, it was clear there was a mix-up between the two Asian men. My jaw dropped. At the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges 2019 conference—where Su was a featured speaker—an attendee called me “Dr. Su” in the restroom. While I can now laugh at the coincidence of Kung and I both being mistaken for Su, it is a strange feeling to be identified as someone else. The feeling grows more solemn and hurtful when you navigate through much of your career this way.
Around the same time that I had been introduced to #SorryWrongAsian, I read the New York Times article about the “Interchangeable Asian.” Imagine not being seen as a person but as a collection of physical traits: fine dark hair, slanted narrow eyes, yellowish skin. I remember asking myself, “How is it that otherwise ‘good’ people confuse me with other Asian people? Exactly who am I if colleagues call me by a name that is not mine?” When these episodes replay themselves over and over with different actors, it only cements our feelings as valid and all too common.
The Wedding Album
A story from my own life experience is especially emblematic. One random morning some years ago, an unusual email message arrived in my inbox. A person I’ll call by the pseudonym Jason, a faculty member in the chemistry department, had lost his wedding album. Apparently, he had brought it to the college, shown it to some colleagues and friends in and outside his department, and then somehow managed to misplace it. He was sending out an institutionwide email of desperation in hopes that someone—anyone—on this campus of 16,000-plus students would find it and return it.
Later that day, I was hurrying to a different building, navigating my way up the central staircase to teach a class. I ran into a top administrator of the college coming down the stairs at the same time. He knows me very well, as I had served on committees with him and I had been nominated for an award. We are on a first-name basis. “Jason,” he said, “did you find the album?” At this moment, time stood still, as I literally had no idea how to react. Correcting this top administrator did not seem to be a viable option. Given the expectant look on his face and the fact that we were both rushing to our respective destinations, I simply replied, “Nope. No luck yet. Have a great day.” I sprinted the rest of the way to my classroom, but I am not sure why. I remember thinking, “What just happened?”
Two days later, a colleague in the English department shouted from about 50 yards away, “Hey Jason, album turn up?” I shook my head no but also offered an acrimonious gaze. Deep inside, my reaction was a resounding, “Are you f****** kidding me?” I had lunch with this person when he first started at the college, and several times thereafter. We spoke frequently.
Here are the facts: Jason and I are both Asian American. We had both been teaching at the college for many years. That is where our commonalities ended. Jason is considerably taller than me, has a muscular physique and is affectionately boisterous. I am 5'6" and reserved. We have worked in different departments and traveled in different friend circles. It seems bizarre that I would have to compile a list of differences to justify my individuality.
The most significant detail is that Jason and I look nothing alike. We are different people. I was experiencing what I know today as #SorryWrong Asian or the “Interchangeable Asian.” For those readers who may not realize it, this is a microaggression. Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has defined a microaggression as “the everyday, subtle, intentional—and oftentimes unintentional—interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.”
I am certain my colleagues meant no harm. In fact, they were expressing their concern for Jason. It’s just that they did not really know who Jason was—or me, for that matter.
I thought my case of mistaken identity had become a thing of the past until the following week, when a support staff member stopped me in the hall and said straight to my face, “Jason, I’m so glad you found your album. Your wife will be relieved.” My eyes grew wide, and I nodded and smiled. I waved as I gently walked away. I had no words to offer. I realized at this point that my co-workers did not recognize me as a person. They recognized me for my race.
What Should I Do?
Making my invisibility visible to others feels confrontational. It seems as if I am accusing a friend, colleague or manager of an egregious fault. But I realize now that by saying nothing, I am only contributing to the problem.
I’ve found that it has not mattered where I’ve traveled in the world of academe; I could be anywhere and still be branded as “the Asian.” Long after the incident of the wedding album, I was teaching at a smaller institution. A faculty member whom I’d not previously met—I’ll call her Jane here—approached me, gestured warmly, and said, “Dr. Wong, congratulations to you. You are an asset to this institution.”
I kindly and bravely told her there must be a mix-up and I was not Dr. Wong (another pseudonym). Jane was humiliated and deeply apologetic. I crafted a spontaneous lie by telling her it was no big deal and that these things just happen. When I arrived back at my desk, curiosity got the best of me. I searched the economics faculty webpage, and there he was: Corey Wong. He was the only individual of Asian lineage on the webpage. We looked nothing alike. Later that week, a campus news story revealed that Dr. Wong had received a large sum of grant money for undergraduate research.
My experiences seem to point to one hard truth: most non-Asian people have no acquaintances from Asian American communities. Some colleagues have told me I am their one Asian friend. When we fail to engage with those who may be different from us—economically, politically or racially—our understanding of those individuals remains primitive, collapsing into a generic “other.” We consolidate and collectivize.
We have all heard the tasteless falsehoods: Black people are criminals. Latino people are drug dealers. Asian people are good at math. After many years of profound disbelief, this is now something I understand. But that’s not saying I accept it.
Invisibility is passively violent and dehumanizing. Unprovoked attacks on Asian Americans are an example of what can happen when this invisibility simmers and goes unchecked. Invisibility and violence are two sides of the same coin. I encourage people throughout higher education to learn about the stories of San Francisco resident Anh “Peng” Taylor or the late University of Utah student Zhifan Dong. Taylor’s story is about the pandemic. Dong’s story is about domestic abuse. But invisibility factors into both narratives.
It is helpful to return to Ocean Vuong’s words in this light: “If we are visible at all, we are visible as a corpse.” Addressing invisibility means embracing the humanity of Asian American people. It means seeing people as more than a caricature of their race. It means not collectivizing all Asians as the same.
For those who are committed to dialogue with people who are different than themselves, discussions should begin with listening to the plight of others. Honest conversations lead to understanding; understanding leads to trust. Trust then leads to empathy. And empathy leads to healing.