Showing Our Struggles

Transcripts from the San Francisco, California, USA Asian-Heritage Workshop, February 10 to 12, 1995
Led by Francie Chew, International Liberation Reference Person for People of Chinese Heritage


Francie: How can we be good allies to you?

Client A: Being in a group of all Asians, I do not feel comfortable. Growing up, I felt slammed from all directions. It wasn’t safe to be proud of being Asian. (cries) And being first-born son. (cries) And not getting vital support from my father. It’s been so hard, especially around Chinese people, because throughout my life, even in my immediate family, there was always anger, always negative stuff; there wasn’t anything positive about being Chinese (cries).

Francie: Don’t stop.

Client A: (heavy discharge) I want to identify with my people, but it’s so hard, so hard. (cries) And sometimes I feel ashamed of who I am because there was no validation.

Francie:We aren’t ashamed. (client cries)

Client A: And the toughest part was the internalized racism.

Francie: Look out at us. Do we look ashamed of you?

Client A: (discharges more) It is just the stupid, internalized racism we play at each other because of language inabilities and the situation. I wanted to learn my language, but my parents were totally into the business, and I didn’t have the opportunity to learn and appreciate my language. When it was forced on me, I rebelled because I was ashamed of it. And for a time I got slammed as an adult because I couldn’t speak the language, “Why don’t you speak Chinese?” Because my parents didn’t have time to teach me.

Francie: It’s not genetic, you know! (everyone laughs; client discharges) How could we be good allies to you?

Client A: Affirming that it’s great to be Chinese is a contradiction to what I’ve been exposed to. It will help me appreciate my heritage.

Francie: We are always pleased and always proud of you! (cient discharges) You can keep discharging.

Francie (to Client B): How can we be good allies to you personally?

Client B: I like lots of physical contact. I like people to come up and, you know, be touchy, feely. (audience laughter)

Francie: Details! (audience laughter)

Client B: I like the military hug; I’m not a great fan of the A-frame hug. (lots of laughter from everyone)

Francie: Ah, (laughing) right where the hips are, like this.

Client B: Exactly. I appreciate when people are outgoing. I grew up in Vermont, which is not exactly the land of the outgoing. But I’ve discovered that even Yankees are more outgoing than the Japanese American people in San Francisco. Feel free to reach out and say things and respond.

Francie: Feel free to be undignified?

Client B: I like silliness. I also need to discharge terror. I experienced a lot of it in my childhood. It works well with at least two people as counselors, sometimes three. A mixed group is good.

Francie: This was wonderful! Eyes as big as saucers from those of us out there learning. Thank you for being willing to share.

Client A: Could I say one thing? Along with Client B, I would like “touchy, feely” because there was a lot of isolation from touch. (lots of laughter)

Francie: I don’t think there is a person for whom that isn’t true. Take it seriously. You’ve heard. You now have full permission.


Francie: We are in an ironic position. We’re dealing with the non-Asian world—as Asians, Asian North Americans, or Asian whatever we are. However—in our heart of hearts—few of us have an Asian identity yet. I guarantee you I don’t. There have been successful Asian liberation workshops in RC. There’s been a lot of work pushing RC into many parts of Asia. However, when we actually sit down and think of ourselves emotionally, my bets are that your experience may not be so different from mine. We get stuck and can’t stand up for each other.

We say to ourselves, “Wasn’t that too terrible what happened to that group; thank God, it wasn’t my group!” (chorus of agreement) Several years ago in Los Angeles, a Korean shopkeeper, doing what she thought she needed to do for her business, shot a black teenager. How many of you were sad, then in the second breath thought, “Thank God, that wasn’t my people”?

We have inherited the patterns brought from Asia. My mother came from China during the Japanese occupation in World War II. I grew up in her household where, when one brother was “bad,” the other would yell, “Ma, he’s bad; he’s made in Japan.” This needs to be discharged. (Francie and audience laugh) Many of the ways we relate to each other’s cultures, and to each other, have to do with distresses that got handed to us around such historical incidents. Lacking familiarity with our history, we’re unable to go back and see what that piece really was. We are unable even to name it. In your mini-session, I would like you to scan your memories of other groups of Asians and see what you remember.


Client A: I became a teacher in San Francisco. There was a need for bilingual people, and I was without a job. The struggle for me was to learn Cantonese so that I could work. (shakes)

Francie:  Notice we are on your side.

Client A: (discharges a bit) Throughout my upbringing I heard, “How come you don’t speak Chinese?” But when I wanted my parents to help me, (shakes) they didn’t want to, because my sister and brother didn’t understand Chinese. (discharges) We were too used to speaking English. So I went to Hong Kong to study.

I’ve worked in bilingual classes with support in my languages. I always feel like I want to be able to speak more. (discharges) I wish that when parents come to talk to me or when I see people, I could just flow with it. (discharges) I can’t believe I raised my hand to be up here!

Francie: That’s a little triumph that she raised her hand. (client discharges) We’re going to go down the line.

Client B: My parents moved to the United States in 1965. They were graduate students who intended to go back to India. When I was born and my brother was three, they decided to speak to us only in English so that when we went to India we’d be fluent in a second language. When we eventually moved to India, (discharges) Hindi was just a real, real tough language to learn. With the stuff around the language’s reflecting different status, there’s constant humiliation: “You got it wrong. You said the wrong thing.” When I was six, my mother hauled me to all these different schools to take tests to get admitted, but I didn’t speak the language well enough. When I was thirteen, we moved back to the States, and my mother’s survival seemed to depend on forgetting the language; so I completely forgot Hindi. Now, fifteen years later, I’m taking classes again, and it’s like learning the language from scratch. (discharges)

Client C: When I was younger, language was okay—conversing on the basic level—but last year it got hard. I watched my little sister argue with my mom about drugs and friends. My sister would argue in English, and my mom would argue in Vietnamese. They didn’t seem to be aware that they didn’t understand each other (audience laughter). They would shout louder and louder and get frustrated. I realized that I was doing the same thing but with only a little Vietnamese in it. I, too, was frustrated about why my mom didn’t understand me. In school, I’ve had the opportunity to learn. I’ve had more opportunity to change than she has.

I’m taking a Vietnamese class right now. Learning the language is hard, not in the speaking itself, but in speaking to my mother that way. I’m not used to the respect that you communicate in Vietnamese or Chinese when you’re younger. To go home and say “hi” to her in this respectful way feels foreign and difficult.

Client D: I only came to the United States in 1983, so I had many years in the Philippines. You would think we would speak our language, but it was tough, because our educational system was patterned after that of the United States. Our medium of instruction was English, and our books were in English. Only a few years ago did they go bilingual. I had to deal with going to school and learning English. If you wanted to succeed in school, you had to. As early as the elementary grades, we would be fined if we were to speak in Filipino (except for one subject in which you were allowed to speak in Filipino). It was a mess. Many had a hard time learning English. Many children were failing.

In college I decided to be a teacher. I decided to minor in English. After college, the second teaching assignment I got back in Manila was to teach English literature, English composition, and some other subjects in English. By that time, I knew that our people are not stupid. If they don’t perform well in school, it’s because the language is foreign and not easy. It’s confusing speaking Filipino at home and English in school. So I, as a teacher, had no choice. I had to help my people learn English, and it wasn’t easy.

Because we were also under the Spaniards for four hundred years, we also had to have twenty-four units of Spanish in college, which means Spanish every semester. However, we couldn’t even speak it. We learned conjugations, not conversation. And we were encouraged to take other foreign languages, like German or French. Only lately did they finally decide we’ve got to speak Filipino.

Here in the States, people ask, “Where did you learn your English? How come you speak English?”

My son was ten when we came to the States. From the time he was born, we spoke to him in English to make it easier for him. Now it touches me because my son says, “Mom, we have to speak in Filipino.” In Santa Barbara there are Filipinos, but I couldn’t find the time to speak in Filipino. Sometimes, at home, I speak to myself in Filipino. At one conference I sang in Filipino. It scared me because I couldn’t remember some of the lyrics, but I finally got over the fear and did it.

Francie: Thank you. You’ve brought up a good point. One effect of oppression and colonization is that many of us who came through Western school systems were brainwashed into taking as our foreign language languages that are not Asian. How many people speak a significant amount of some other language as well as an Asian language?

Client E:What’s my current struggle with languages? I’ve given up on it and am just doing all English. I don’t know anybody to speak Chinese with. I feel like I can’t hang out with other Chinese people who have had different life experiences than me. I currently hang around with a lot of Japanese Americans who only speak English. That doesn’t solve the problem. I studied Mandarin in high school in Taiwan. I got A’s, so I can still say a few things. I took a class at Lainey College for six months. I don’t have anybody to speak to, so it just kind of goes. I feel a loss there, because there’s a whole group of people I can’t communicate with!

Client C: I think the reason I went and learned Vietnamese is also because I argue. I have a lot of conflict with my mom over different philosophies of living. We argue a lot, and the older I grew, the more I’d think in English. A lot of the time I’d translate that into Vietnamese. When we argued, I wanted to verbalize my concepts, and it became hard. I‘d start in Vietnamese and finish in English. Then I’d get angry and stutter, and my mom would laugh and say, “If you can’t speak it, then don’t argue.” Then we’d both laugh, and it’s a good thing that we both laughed instead of getting angrier. So the reason I’m taking Vietnamese is just to argue productively. (lots of audience laughter)


Client A: A hard thing was being abused at an early age, sexually, by my father. That affected the whole family. (discharges) Only recently have I been able to remember that and been able to start moving the family away from that. (discharges) Before that, it had been confusing. I felt terrible all the time, but it seemed like there wasn’t any reason. (laughs) My triumph has been not giving up on this issue. It’s not okay with me that the family is stuck there, and it’s not okay with me even for my dad to be stuck there, because it’s holding him back on enjoying his life. I’d like for him to have even a little bit of time (some crying) outside of that, and it’s clear that as long as he’s not facing it, then he’s not enjoying this. (laughs, then cries) I’ve always tried to fight injustice. (laughs) I’ve made mistakes, but I’m proud of my effort and triumphs. (discharges) Another great quality is enduring (even though that sounds like an Asian pattern). (discharges) It is an outstanding quality if there’s nothing else you can figure out to do: “I’m not going to back down (starts to laugh while talking), even though I can’t move forward!” (really laughs) For many years, in a particular situation, I haven’t known what to do, but I’ve said, “I’m not going to quit,” (discharges) and now things are moving.

Francie: What can we do to be better allies to you?

Client A: Encourage me to be angry and to keep going for what I want even though I want to give up or I don’t feel like it’s possible. I’m finding that (discharges) the more I express anger, the more real I am; otherwise I hide. I find that what I say when I’m angry is not rational. I always thought that when you’re mad, whatever you do or say is so irrational you shouldn’t even express it. (laughs) But I find that what I say is like a contradiction and is useful. I need to keep taking the chance of offending people or making a mistake and just get mad when I feel mad and express it. (laughs)

Client B: I’m a Chinese woman. I’m not used to being heard or having such attention. I can’t think right now. (laughs)

Francie:: Just stay with us and don’t go away.

Client B: It’s not hard being a woman; it’s not hard being a Chinese woman. I’m proud of being both. I think it’s . . .(laughs) maybe I’m just too sensitive. (discharges) I actually thought about this panel. I have things to say. (laughs) Somehow it seems like being on a soapbox. (laughs)

Francie: Don’t censor. Don’t go away. Finish your thought.

Client B: (long period of quiet crying). I can’t articulate my thoughts. It’s weird, like there’s so much, and yet it feels like we all know it already. (quiet discharge)

Francie: We are in complete sympathy with you.

Client B: I think what’s going on right now is suddenly there’s a value placed on me, and I can’t acknowledge it.

Francie: Consider the possibility you’ve noticed it, and (client discharges) we don’t actually care if you get the story out (client laughs).

Client B: I’m not hiding. The best support for me is to not let me lie, to make me be honest about the things I see and feel rather than telling you what you want to hear, which is what I feel like doing right now. (laughs) I think that’s the biggest thing: when I seem unsure about something, don’t tell me what to do. (laughs) It’s always a struggle . . . the idea that I don’t know anything or I don’t know how to take care of myself. (quiet discharge) I’m finished. (client really laughs and audience with her)

Francie: Is there anything you want to add?

Client B: (laughter) We’re not second-class citizens. We have our own ideas and our own voices, our own opinions. if we don’t react to something, that doesn’t mean we don’t feel. But we shouldn’t have to emasculate ourselves in order to be heard or to deny our identity. It took me a long time to acknowledge that being an Asian woman is of value.

Client C: My turn is it?

Francie: Yes.

Client C: Can I leave? I don’t know what to say. What am I to be doing here?

Francie: Tell us what it’s been like for you as an Asian Canadian woman—your trials and struggles.

Client C: (a long period of silence) At times it feels really, really hard. I grew up a daughter of two immigrants. I grew up with my family, which was traditional. I actually even grew up speaking my own language first. (laughs) (I speak English well now, and I don’t speak my own language well anymore.)

When I started school, there seemed to be a distinction between family and school, or family and the outside world. I even remember my parents telling me a few times that the outside world—my friends and the people I knew—ceased to exist because I was home. My family was supposed to be my world once I got home. The world out there was supposed to be too scary; you know, it was filled with (laughs) white people who were going to just ruin you. White people were supposed to be one hundred percent bad, and Chinese people, (laughs) if they were bad, weren’t anywhere near as bad as white people. (laughs) I felt like I lived in two worlds. I felt like other people who were half of colour and half white or European heritage didn’t know who they were. I felt like I didn’t know either. I felt bad that I didn’t know a lot about what it means to be Chinese, that I didn’t know a lot about my culture, that I didn’t speak Chinese well. People pick up on that.

I’m acting strange. That must be because I was born in Canada, not China. I grew up wishing that I was born in China, because then I wouldn’t have this problem of being labeled a Hou-sang (said in Toi San, Chinese). (laughs) It has such a derogatory meaning. You get labeled that whenever you do something that a native-born person of China wouldn’t do (laughs).

We also didn’t have a lot of money. Things we got were all from people who had gotten them second-hand—supremely second-hand stuff. We ate leftovers until they were too gross to eat. (laughs) My dad would work, sometimes two jobs, and he’d bring home from the restaurant food that was left over. My parents had gotten enough money together to buy an apartment building to work at, but whenever people would move out and my parents would go in to clean, my dad would bring home all this food that people threw out. (stops to discharge) My relatives would complain about getting clothes from second-hand stores because you never know who they come from. What if it’s a dead person’s? (laughs) What if it’s from someone who died of some illness? (laughing) That wouldn’t be very good luck. What’s the difference between that and second-hand food that someone threw away? (laughing) What about all that gross bacteria?

My dad still does it. (laughs) A little while ago, I had brought downstairs a jar of blueberry jam that guests had bought and then left with me when they left. A little while later my mom bought a new jar of a different kind of jam. I said, “You know, there’s blueberry jam in there!” and she said, “I know!” (laughs) and I said, “It’s okay. It’s my jam. I brought it down!” (client and audience laughter) “Oh!” she said, “I thought it was your dad who brought it down.” (lots of laughter) We have food from other people in that fridge that has been there for a year. No one wants to eat it. (laughs) Not even my dad. We’re not poor anymore, but he still does this.

There have been many struggles like that. Despite the fact that we had enough money. We still lived in a small place. We still had to save money, not just because we had to, but because we needed to support the relatives we weren’t yet able to bring over from China.

When my younger sister was a teen, every other month or every other week she’d ask for new jeans or new shoes. I’d say, “You haven’t even worn out the ones you just got.” She would say, “I don’t like them anymore,” or, “No one wears those things any longer.” (laughs) My parents would buy her these things. I would be confused, because I remember wearing second-hand clothes, really wearing them out.

Client D: I was born in China (long silence followed by some discharge) . . . 1936. The ageism has gotten to me (discharges). In the United States, growing old is not well-accepted, even though I’m Asian. People here, especially Asian American women, pressure me to dye my hair black because they don’t want any gray to show. (long silence, then discharge)

I grew up in China. We were poor, but not according to some people’s standards, because we were considered in the elite class. My father was a professor, a dean of a university, and later on president of a national university. However, there’s no money to be made in academia, so we’d walk around in clothes with patches. In the United States, it’s fashionable to wear patches, but not in China. (client and audience laugh)

I came here when I was twelve. It was difficult to learn English. I felt frustrated and humiliated when people couldn’t understand my accent, afraid of making a mistake in pronunciation and not even knowing I made a mistake. People would just say, “What? What? Say that again,” and they’d think the louder they repeated that (client and audience laughter), the better they could hear what I had to say. They would talk in front of me as though I didn’t understand English, but I knew enough to know they were talking about me.

It was difficult when we first immigrated, even though my father was economics advisor to the Chinese delegation to the United Nations in New York. He came in 1947 and discovered his assignment was for three years. He brought the family over in June 1948. In December, he died. We had to fend for ourselves. My mother didn’t know English and had never worked in China. Although she had two years of college (considered good for a Chinese woman in her day), she couldn’t teach here. Because she was petite—four feet nine, eighty pounds—she couldn’t do physical labour. The only work she found was baby-sitting for twenty-five cents an hour. Try to support five children on that! She couldn’t, and we had to work after school. The boys would deliver papers and wash dishes in Chinese restaurants. The girls would baby-sit and clean houses. In the summer I did yard work or work as a mother’s helper in somebody’s home. We gave all the money to my mother, and she would give us a little allowance. There was no money for candy or soda or anything like that. We had enough to eat.

A year after my father died, my mother was hospitalized with tuberculosis for six years. We were like orphans. The oldest child was sixteen. (some quiet discharge). We depended on charities. For example, the school would give us free lunch, the landlord would not raise the rent, and churches would donate used clothing. (quiet discharge) A colleague of my father advised my mother to move from Forest Hills, considered upper-middle-class, to Brooklyn’s ghetto area, where housing was cheap. She said, “As long as we can afford it, we’re going to stay together. If we move into the ghetto, the children will be running around loose with bad company. Who knows what will happen?”

My oldest sister, engaged to be married, had had no intention of coming to the United States. However, she decided it was her duty as oldest child to come and help my mother out. She arrived a year later and was fortunate to find a job broadcasting with Voice of America in Mandarin. Since her pay was still was not enough to support a family of seven, we continued working after school.

My mother was stoic; she considered us too young to let know she had tuberculosis. When my oldest sister came, she took one look at my mother and insisted that she see a doctor. By that time my mother was infested with third-degree tuberculosis. Actually, she had tuberculosis in China and knew it. She came here only because she knew she was needed. She used a relative’s X-ray to pass Immigration. Also, she had thought that in the United States there were doctors, hospitals, and all that.

We somehow managed and graduated from high school, and most of us got scholarships to go to college. A couple of us got PhD’s.

Transcribed by Gweny Wong
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Last modified: 2023-04-15 09:24:12+00