In 2021, the Point asks writers to imagine post-pandemic futures. For this issue, we asked artist and incoming Asia Art Archive director Christopher K. Ho to discuss forms of solidarity that break from ethno-nationalist thinking.
Pundits predicted the pandemic would flatten hierarchies. Indifferent to national boundaries and indiscriminate of culture, class, and race, the coronavirus would elicit an appropriately pan-national, humanitarian response. Instead, in the United States, mortality struck Black and Brown Americans disproportionately. In India, those who could afford exorbitantly priced, gray-market oxygen had better odds of survival. Leaders in China leveraged domestically manufactured vaccines towards soft power abroad, and those in Brazil downplayed science to gain political points at home.
The events of 2020 indelibly—and perhaps irrevocably—racialized transnationalism and nationalized race. During the Trump presidency’s first two years, transnationalism offered an antidote to the uptick of White and “long-distance” nationalisms alike. To myself and other immigrants, it provided a real escape route and a psychological reprieve from an increasingly unwelcome and violent America. Mobility also productively shifted focus from identity to ethics; rather than who one is, it concerned how one moves through the world, and one’s entanglements.
Identity, especially racial identity, however, proved resilient. Through the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter protests coincided with a rhetorical war between President Xi and President Trump. Unable or unwilling to distinguish Chinese nationals from Chinese Americans, the latter’s incendiary language—the “Kung Flu,” the “China virus”—resulted in an 833 percent increase in anti-Asian violence in New York alone. A shared political opponent and synchronous world events bound those combating anti-Black and anti-Asian racisms.
Many welcomed this convergence. After all, the term “Asian American” coalesced during the civil-rights movements of the 1960s. Chronologically and ideologically, it aligns Asian activism with the Black Power movement; both espouse equality, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism. Its conservative rejoinder, “model minority,” emerged from the University of California, Berkeley in 1966 for opposite purposes. If “Asian American” in its original, politically-charged meaning allied Asian and Black Americans, “model minority” sought to fade Yellow into White, and to pit Asians against Black Americans.
While Trump and his adherents conjoined Sinophobia and anti-Blackness, and revived both with a vengeance, the two should not be confused. In practice, Sinophobia’s history is long and its backdrop decidedly international. Milestones include the 1842 opening up of Chinese treaty ports to the British and, in the US, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Indeed, distinguishing Sinophobia from anti-Blackness and other forms of racism vexes and expands the categories “Asian American” and “model minority,” which are themselves tenaciously encumbered by Black-White relations and the legacies of enslavement in the US.
The artist and educator Oscar Ho described Hong Kong during a 2014 roundtable on East Asian migration as “not exactly a nation.” He continued: “This is an immigrant culture. The older generation has a kind of diaspora psychology.” The porousness of hyper-modern cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, and their inhabitants’ mobility, suggests that the perpetual alien-ness that accompanies Sinophobia may be endogenous (a result of unease with the model of the geographically bound Westphalian nation state) as much as exogenous (a function of anti-immigration policies).
Mobility entails code switching. My maternal grandfather, for instance, came from poverty in Canton, and eventually sent my mother to an English boarding school, an aunt to Tsinghua University, and an uncle to Catholic University in Washington, DC. His diversification strategy for his children betrayed an anxiety born of being a diasporic and colonized subject who had to negotiate multiple, often conflicting powers. I learned English early, at the expense of Chinese; mimicry and absorption were defensive and necessary.
In the US, blending in is synonymous with weakness or, worse, submission to Whiteness. As in other representative democracies, visibility preludes power for those on the margins. Globally, however, less plaintive and more sanguine interpretations come to the fore. Protests in Hong Kong concurred with the Black Lives Matter movement. While the latter fought for increased recognition—of structural racism, of police brutality, of deleterious White patriarchy—the former, like water, instrumentalized invisibility and proved that it, too, can be forceful.
If the positions of Black allyship (“Asian American”) and White adjacency (“model minority”) form the axis along which Asian subjecthood is plotted in the US, mobility, flexibility, and invisibility form the elastic matrix of possibility for Asians internationally. In different configurations, they underpin Aihwa Ong’s “astronaut families” (with one breadwinner abroad), David L. Eng and Shinhee Han’s “parachute children” (sent by wealthy parents to US schools), haigui (who return to Asia for work), and appellations such as gyopo and Nisei.
These transnational subject positions intimate a discourse of belonging and unbelonging endemic to (East) Asian diasporas, and applicable to a world that is increasingly not black or white. Just as old ethno-nationalisms forestalled global coordination in responding to the pandemic, might “diaspora psychologies,” and their interactions and methods, foretell new solidarities?