This is a story of Asians in America and Asian men in particular.
Asians are sometimes called “the model minority.” Yet Asian men historically have not been viewed as leaders, or as thinking, feeling, or sexual beings. In popular culture, Asians were the Kung-Fu masters, the enemy soldier, the chef. Never the hero or the one people could relate to emotionally.
I admit, growing up, I was complicit in this perception. I inhabited the role of the quiet, technically competent Asian man. I retreated into the background, “invisible.” But underneath there was also anger. Anger that I didn’t look like “everyone else” (meaning: white), that I was different, that my country didn’t accept me as I was.
My experience was not new or unique. It’s the story of Asians in America from the time they first stepped on our shores. In the 1880’s: the Chinese Exclusion Act. In the 1920’s: immigration quotas aimed largely at Asians. In 1942: 120,000 Japanese Americans forced to move to “internment camps” in remote, desolate areas—made “invisible” by their complete removal from the West Coast.
My Japanese family was part of this “lost” generation. If they were bitter and angry over those lost years and lost fortunes, in typical Japanese fashion, they did not show it. They would reminisce about making friends or running around the camp as kids. But I know inside they were bitter, ashamed and angry.
Most Americans–including Asian-American descendants of those incarcerated—know little or nothing about this experience. It cannot be allowed to simply fade away.
America today is experiencing another tide of xenophobia. Immigrants and minorities are being deprived of their rights, liberties and, in some cases, their lives. The fear and hostility are not unlike the poisonous atmosphere of the early-to-mid 1900’s.
The invisibility of Asians, and Asian men in particular, is a story that needs to be seen and heard, by my children, my generation, and the American public.
In this series, I depict Asian Americans posing for family portraits, working, walking, going about their daily lives. The figures are not fully there, mostly washed away. But the faces are clearer: Look at me. I am an Asian American. I exist. I am human. I am not invisible.