Do the Eyes Have It?

Guest Post by R. Scott Okamoto

I submit this post as a reminder to myself the state of things for Asians in America. Even as we support Black Lives Matter, fight for humane treatment of immigrants, and do everything we can to help white men adjust to their shrinking dominion (no, not really), I raise my hand and ask America, "Do you see us?" I still don't think you do. Things are changing, yes. Having a couple of television shows with Asian American principal casts has felt like a revolution in mainstream America. My congressperson is Judy Chu. In so many ways, life is great and getting better. And yet...

My parents tell a story of life in Omaha, Nebraska, where my dad went to dental school in the mid-1960s. While at a gas station, they noticed a family staring at them. The mother pointed and said to her kids, "Oh, look at the cute little chinaman!" Today, I live in Pasadena, California. I play guitar in a band. I played baseball. I grew up hunting and fishing. I was an English professor for 15 years, and I was born at Fort Dix, New Jersey where my dad was a Captain serving his second stint in the army. So much Americana, it is to laugh.

A few weeks ago, as I made my way out of a crowded taco shop, an older black man made room for me, put his hands together, smiled, and bowed. It seemed a genuine gesture on his part. When I didn't return the bow because I was still trying to figure out what the hell he was doing, he just kept smiling and bowing as I exited the shop. And then I felt kind of bad for not bowing back. And then I felt kind of pissed because he saw me as a foreigner. One block from my house. In Pasadena. In 2016. I'm a 4th generation American, but it often feels like this is how people see me (thanks to my son, Ethan, for the graphics):

And yet, as humorous and annoying as this is, I don't mean to make light of the very real dangers of prejudice Asian Americans face here. On this very blog, I've read about assaults on the streets, hateful graffiti, and even murders, all based on hate towards us. On a daily basis we encounter the gaze from others who either don't see us, or project some stereotypical version of us dancing around in their heads.

We all know the experience of walking with other Asians into a bar, restaurant or event to face a sea of gazes searching us, lining us up against lazy assumptions or hostilities behind judgmental eyes. It's a universal experience for all people of color in America. On the 4th of July, six of us went to watch our JA friend play at a bar in Hermosa Beach. I felt like we didn't belong at first, feeling hyper-aware at being in an almost entirely white space, but then I relaxed and enjoyed the music and ate nachos with my friends. When the band started playing Springsteen's "Born to Run," white girl #28 stomped over to our table and took us right back to Omaha, Nebraska in the mid-60's (or now). She told us we needed to stand up and dance for the country, even going so far as to give us a lecture on patriotism. Of course there were other tables of white folks not standing or dancing, and "Born to Run" is a great song, but it's hardly a patriotic anthem. And yet, something triggered this girl to come educate us and welcome us to her America. To tell us, all 3rd and 4th generation Americans how to do 4th of July. Because, what to a group of "foreigners" is the 4th of July?

So many stories we all could tell. One more. Last year, my parents took the whole family out to a restaurant. With all the grandkids, there were 11 of us. As we followed the host to our table, he stopped to let a waiter go by with a tray of stuff. We formed an 11-person line in the middle of the restaurant for a brief moment. An elderly white woman got up from the table next to me. She turned and saw my entire family standing in the aisle and made a sour face. "These people just don't have any good sense," she said gesturing to my family ahead of me. "They just don't have any respect for other people." While I wondered if this was a racial thing or just a specific complaint in that moment, her son said, "C'mon, Mom. It's just their culture." The woman gave a grunt and squeezed past me. In the minds of those white folks, Asians like to stand in the middle of restaurants and make it difficult for other people to get out. Truth be told, I did really enjoy those glorious few seconds thinking about the motherland while standing in that aisle. That lady just got me, I guess.

If you're a non-Asian and saying, "Hey, I don't do that!" We know. You're reading the Angry Asian Man blog. High five. We know there are lots of great allies, and we are eternally grateful to them. But there are enough basic folks out there that our day to day lives get messed up within the gaze of others, and sometimes the gaze of our own (that's another topic altogether -- oh how I resent that Asian face in the middle of the Republican interns).

I'm grateful to be a part of a community where we strive to see each other for who we are, even when the rest of America doesn't. In spaces like this, we look through our own lenses, and I'm so glad Angry Asian Man is here for us. In spaces like this, I am not a foreigner (cute or otherwise), an un-patriotic non-dancer, or a compulsive aisle-clogger. I am a privileged Japanese American cis-gender man, a husband, a father, a really good fly fisherman, a really mediocre guitar player, a smartass, and a thankful soul.

Stay angry, everyone.

R. Scott Okamoto is a "retired" English professor who is completing a book about teaching at an insane evangelical university that is filled with racism, homophobia, misogyny, and Republican Jesus. His days are filled with driving his kids to school and cooking dinner for his awesome wife. He volunteers as much as he can for the Tuesday Night Cafe and doesn't normally speak about himself in 3rd person.

angry archive