This article is part of Mochi’s Fall 2022 issue on politics. In the late ’60s, the slogan “The personal is political” came out of a second-wave feminist movement, presenting an alternative thought that politics is about one’s dignity and agency. As Asian Americans, we know this to be true, since even our identities are political. In this issue, we talk about what politics mean to us — from the politics of our identities to political dynamics in our relationships and communities. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
The first time I came across an Asian as angry as I was, it came in the form of poetry. “Listen, a–hole!” shouted the duo known as Yellow Rage, yelling over one another and yelling together in a grainy YouTube video.
“What the f— do you know about being Asian?” Michelle Myers and Catzie Vilayphonh demanded.
I was in high school at the time. I’d never seen anyone who looked like me acting so unapologetically furious — a feeling vocalized through screams and sharp jabs and everything impolite, the antithesis of what I’d grown up thinking Asian girls were supposed to be.
Of course, I had my outbursts. Frustration could boil over anything: parents who didn’t understand me, hopeless breaking news, stolen shirts, or grief. But in the aftermath, I always felt embarrassed. Anger was shameful, and shame brought guilt because I was a bad girl, a bad person, and a bad Asian.
But Myers and Vilayphonh showed me then and now, even 20 years later, that anger, especially Asian anger, is acceptable. It can even be celebrated, and perhaps it should be.
What Anger Looks Like in the Asian American Community
Rage has always been a part of Asian American identity, which is an appropriate response to the discrimination and adversity our community has faced since first arriving in this country.
“Anger is an activating force there rather than a kind of dissipating or purely negative force,” says Michelle Huang, Northwestern University’s English and Asian American studies professor. “It’s something that creates coalition there.”
According to Huang, the label “Asian American” is fundamentally political, influenced by both the Black Power and anti-Vietnam War movements in the 1960s. Activism, by our own communities and others, played a crucial role in our identity formation. But at the same time, Asian Americans are often confined to a box of docility. The model minority myth flattens us into a monolith, silenced by the idea that we can overcome racism by being obedient. It’s a caustic, pervasive idea that Asian silence should be lauded, and it is further used to oppress the Black community in particular, positing them as “bad” minorities in comparison.
“There’s this notion that Asians, by nature, are quiet, and that Asians, by nature, do not speak out or are not active in social justice projects,” says Joanne Rondilla, a sociology professor at San Jose State University. “But there’s nothing more counter to the actual history of Asians in the United States.”
Anger and, moreover, understanding that we deserved better was at the heart of our activism when students banded together to fight for ethnic studies, when Chinese immigrants boycotted American goods to protest exclusion, when Filipino farm workers were at the forefront of union strikes, or when Asian Americans came together nationally to mourn Vincent Chin.
The Only Way Out is Through
Yet, it’s important to acknowledge that our anger is a double-edged sword. Rondilla calls it “cultural baggage,” the idea that there are certain ways to be Asian, and “angry” is not the palatable kind.
Our acceptance into American society has long been conditional, used against us whenever convenient to uphold white power structures. To embrace our anger is more complicated than simply being outwardly angry all the time. We bear not only our own wounds but also the raw injuries and survival strategies of all the generations that came before us, and these aren’t easy to balance.
Particularly within Asian immigrant families, different generations and cultures have unique ways of expressing or holding in rage. My parents might get mad at me, but I can’t remember a time when they were angry for themselves. But silence does not mean nothing exists.
“Silence is often misinterpreted as obedience when silence can also be a form of anger. Silence can also be a form of reacting to anger,” Rondilla says.
More complications arise when considering language barriers, and the risk of losing complicated or immobilizing emotions in translation can cut off our tongues before conversations even begin.
“It wasn’t that my parents were not angry. It’s that they were not comfortable in English,” Rondilla says about her own experience. “And in order for their anger to be heard, their anger had to be articulated in a language that was not their own.”
If our rage is our resilience, then our resilience has many faces and lives.
Rondilla explains, “If erasure was my parents’ survival mechanism, unearthing what was lost is my survival mechanism.”
I sometimes worry that I haven’t found my own survival mechanisms yet, that being angry until it festers and suffocates is the only way I know how to move on.
Professor Huang, however, believes that the only way out of this anger is through.
“What I really see in people your age and other young folks is this kind of embracing of critical hope,” she comments, “which is more like saying that things are not alright and being kind of justifiably angry while maintaining that they can and they must be better.”
Perhaps if anger is passed down in our community, so is this hope. And when we look back at our history of activism and endurance, we can see exactly how to carry on our critical hope precisely because it has been done before.
Now, newer generations of activists, such as AAPI Youth Rising (AYR), aim to educate young kids about the untold histories of the AAPI community.
“Because of factors that I can’t control, I’ve had experiences that aren’t really fair compared to a lot of different people,” said Saanvi Mukkara, AYR’s Texas chapter leader. “I think working with that anger in a really positive way would be using it to work towards change or ensuring that all those experiences don’t happen to other people.”
AYR is taking small steps to further bigger changes, advocating for teachers and community members to sign pledges to spend at least a day teaching AAPI history and creating lesson plans for those days.
For founder Mina Fedor, it is not only anger that drives her work but also the kind of hope Huang sees in our generation.
“Even though there’s a lot of bad things, you also get to observe other people doing great things as well,” Fedor said. “Another one that definitely drives all the work that we’ve been doing is hope for the future and hope that things will eventually change.”
Many other activists have channeled their anger into even their names, like Lela Lee’s “Angry Little Asian Girl” and Phil Yu’s “Angry Asian Man.” That is only one way of many to channel our rage productively. Huang finds her fulfillment in mentoring the next generation of students, paying forward all that she has learned from women of color before her.
“Asian Americans are not just forever students who learn to become American. They’re not just docile, obedient bodies that are passively assimilating into America,” she states. “We are actually authors of what Asian American identity means.”
One of Huang’s biggest pieces of advice is this: Stop being good. When she says that, I think of Yellow Rage, their harsh swears, steel-tipped insults, and burning hot ire. I think back to the instinctive flinch I’d held back at their first yell and the relief of being seen that had chased it all away by their last yell.
“It can be really empowering and kind of fun to think about what it might mean to embrace being bad,” Huang says. “Once you let that chokehold of being good go, it’s like, okay, what if I am bad?”
We do not need to confine ourselves to being model minorities anymore. In the same way that fires generate new growth in forests, anger is how we have, can, and will survive.
Asian Anger and Asian Joy
But of course, as complex as our rage is, so are ourselves. To be Asian is to be angry, but I don’t want to keep reopening wounds forever because bleeding is such a powerful way to get attention.
I want to be happy too.
There are different ways of going about that. Huang suggests reading, for one. Some of her recommendations are Karen Tei Yamashita’s “Tropic of Orange” or Grace Lee Boggs’ “The Next American Revolution.” Stories and poetry remind us that even with our heavy histories or pains, we can cry and laugh and stride toward our futures.
At the end of my conversation with Rondilla, she told me that it’s far easier to be angry than to feel happy, and I agree. Think of it like the five stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. Sometimes I feel as if I’ll never move past the second step. I like to stew in my anger and relish in my helplessness because it’s comforting. It’s the feeling I grew up with. I’ve always been grieving, harboring the sorrow that because I am Asian, there will always be some kind of uphill battle in my life.
But someday, I hope to channel my anger into something like a companion rather than a guest who never quite wants to leave.
So I’ll read. I’ll talk. I’ll be bad and listen to others and find comfort in little things.
I’ll practice healing just as much as I practice anger.
“In order to engage in the practice, it comes down to a very fundamental reminder that each of us is worthy of joy,” says Rondilla. “We deserve joy.”
Cover credit: Katie Godowski/Pexels
Last modified: September 19, 2022