• Jen Trinh

Celebrating the American Way


My precioussssss...liberty?

Happy Fourth of July weekend! Here is a picture of me, incorrectly sporting a Statue of Liberty crown on my wedding day.


Yes, I am a goofball. I don't mind taking silly photos. In fact, my photos are almost exclusively silly, as a defense mechanism. I've always been insecure about my looks. With my huge fivehead, beaverish front teeth, and pockmarked skin, it's been easier for me to strive for humor than for beauty.


(Don't worry, I don't have those insecurities anymore. Mostly.)


But it does bring me joy to be silly. So defense mechanism or not, I love to laugh, and to make others laugh.


There were multiple aspects of my wedding day that made me laugh.


One: the date was chosen by a fortune teller. 🔮I do not believe in fortune telling, but my husband was good enough to go along with it, even though we were locked into a specific date, and therefore had limited venue options. The date actually coincided with the anniversary of my very first date with my husband! When I told my mother that, she said that our marriage was meant to be. ❤️

Two: everyone in my family has a voracious appetite, so the side tables, which were supposed to be laden with hors d'oeuvres, were completely empty almost from the start of cocktail hour. As waiters placed new sushi out, piece by piece, my family members snatched them up immediately. It was a fancy feeding frenzy, and the poor waiters just could not keep up.


Three: we got married at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, a very old, very White, very wealthy institution that didn't bother letting women in until the 1980s, even though they were among the first clubs to do so. My rowdy, hilarious, Southeast Asian family was both browning and clowning up the place, all in view of the various portraits of old White men on the walls. It was glorious.


But the only reason why we were able to do that was because we had the money to afford it. It was roughly $160 per person! My family was used to people getting married at a run-down Chinese banquet hall for only $50 per person for a 15-course meal! So even though we got less food for more money, it felt like progress. We'd made it. We no longer needed to scrimp and save in order to celebrate in an old Chinatown venue that was decorated in Pepto Bismol pink, the perfect color to stare at while you used their dilapidated bathrooms. No, we could finally feast and wipe our butts among the Philadelphia elite.


My super-Asian family (plus my husband's much smaller Chinese family, and our friends from work and school) celebrated our wedding by eating overpriced salad and single servings of American food at a posh American venue. We may have blasted a Cambodian song or two, but we got married The American Way.


We weren't just Asians celebrating within our own small community. We were Americans, mingling with others and taking up space, drinking and going out partying after.


Asian and American.


But recently, it's become apparent that some members of my family don't identify as American, and they never will. We're all US citizens, and we planted our roots here over 40 years ago, but it doesn't matter—we're immigrants. We're guests in this country, and we always will be.


Two weeks ago, a relative told me that America, does, in fact, belong to White people. White people "established" this country, they're the majority, they make the rules...and as immigrants, as the minority, it is our job to follow those rules.


They also threw these familiar lines at me:


"Why is it, 'Black Lives Matter?' It should be, 'All Lives Matter.' Do our lives not matter?"

"Why are the protestors looting? It's like if someone let you into their house and then you wrecked their place."


Their main points (paraphrased):

  • The laws aren't unreasonable or unfair. The law treats everyone the same. People should just follow the rules.

  • Police brutality is awful, but it's perpetrated only by a few bad apples. Police officers have a hard job. We need them to protect us. We shouldn't antagonize them too much or else no one will want to be a police officer, and then no one will protect us.

  • We're lucky to have had so many opportunities. Everyone has the same opportunities that we did. People should just work harder and be grateful. If our immigrant family, which escaped the Cambodian genocide and came to the US with literally nothing, can get to the point where we can afford $160-per-person weddings, then so can anyone else. Anyone who can't, it's their own fault.

No matter what atrocities, analyses, or data I brought up, the myth of the model minority was just too ingrained in them. The depth of it shocked me.


When I asked about the Native Americans, this relative simply went back to their original talking point: America belongs to White people, and they've been kind to let us in, so we need to just do our best and keep the peace.


When I pointed out that many African Americans were brought here against their will, this person insisted that Black people are currently free to do as they please, and should therefore be able to succeed just fine. This relative could not fathom the concept of systemic racism, did not believe that history plays such a big role in the plight of Black Americans today.


"We came here with nothing, and now we're doing fine. White people let us into this country, gave us the opportunity to better ourselves, and we did. Everyone can do the same, if they work hard enough and follow the rules."


I pointed out that, while my family did come here with nothing, we didn't pull ourselves up alone. We were SPONSORED, and specifically, HELPED BY NON-WHITE PEOPLE.


A Taiwanese-American man sponsored my mom's side of the family, set them up on welfare, gave them clothes and a place to live. Not a White person.


A Lutheran church sponsored my dad's side of the family, and a Black family took them in, sheltered them, fed them, and helped them get jobs. Not a White family.


"But it was White people who made it possible. Our benefactors came here and thrived because White people gave them the opportunity to, too."


I stayed calm, only raising my voice at this person a little...but I wanted to scream.


Okay, so what if White people want to kick us out again? Is that fair?


Am I, someone who was born here and has lived here my entire life, not an American? Is this not my country?


Will my children and their children still be "guests" in America, no matter what their experiences or contributions?


Will our opinions always mean less than a White person's?


You can imagine what their answers were.


You can also imagine how disappointed I was.


To me, being an American has always meant dreaming of a brighter future, and struggling to achieve it. I think my relative could agree with me on that. Their dream was to escape a genocide, to become financially secure, and to establish a healthy, loving family that would want for nothing. They've succeeded, and now all they want to do is to protect that dream. So I understand that, for them, protesting, shaking things up, or changing the status quo is dangerous. The unknown is scary. They'd rather accept the current reality that allowed them to thrive than to risk their own safety or livelihood for the sake of anyone else's dream.


But how can they not understand when other people, Black people, put their lives on the line just to have the same opportunities that my family did?


Our conversation was circular. Their underlying assumption was that everyone already has those opportunities. That if my family could do it, anyone could do it. That all lives already matter.


I'm not sure that I'll ever be able to convince them otherwise. But I'll keep trying.


To be clear, I am grateful that my family has been able to achieve what it has, but our gain should not be at the cost of others. No one should be rewarded for blindly "following the rules," and in effect, averting their eyes to systemic racism and allowing it to continue. Opportunities should not be reserved for only some. Everyone should have the opportunity to fight for their dream.


That's the American way.


Happy Independence Day, y'all.


P.S. Quick update! I have made decent progress on book three, Take Me! But I still have a long ways to go. Hoping for late Dec / early Jan release, but I'll drop an actual date in the fall. Thanks for reading!

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© 2020 by Jen Trinh