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Americans of Asian Descent: A Young, Upstate Snapshot

 Tsagan Kutinow, Aparna Mahendranath, and Kenneth Sloane give a youthful perspective on what it means to be Asian-Americans.
Scott Morgan
/
South Carolina Public Radio
Tsagan Kutinow, Aperna Mahendranath, and Kenneth Sloane give a youthful perspective on what it means to be Asian-Americans.

Despite a rise of anti-Asian sentiment, no major anti-Asian incidents have been reported in SC yet.

Yet.

This trio of graduating college seniors wants to keep that from changing for the worse.

Tsagan Kutinow noticed it in the supermarket last spring. Shoppers would see her, then make tracks to get out of the aisle before she got close to them.

Were they just being cautious around other people because of the coronavirus? Or were they reacting to her face?

“It only lasted a couple months in the beginning [of the pandemic],” Kutinow says. “And it’s not anything like that anymore. But at the time it was happening, I’d want to put on sunglasses so they couldn’t really see my eyes, so they couldn’t judge me.”

That urge to obscure the Asian part of her Asian-American heritage at the grocery store is not unique to Kutinow, a 21-year-old graduating senior at Clemson. It’s also nothing new to the AAPI, or Asian-American/Pacific Islander, community. Kutinow recalls a friend from middle school who would sleep with tape on her eyelids, trying to create a fold so that she could look less Mongolian; i.e., more white, because that meant looking more American.

Aparna Mahendranath, a friend and classmate of Kutinow’s at Clemson, says that when she was growing up as an Indian-American, she too “tried to seem more American.

“When you’re in elementary school and you’re not white, and you’re … in the South,” Mahendranath says, “kids make derogatory comments. They tell you your food smells bad. They make you want to unlearn your culture.”

And this, she says, is the root system of the kinds of Anti-Asian sentiment that is right now manifesting in more overt, sometimes physically violent ways around the country. It’s the misunderstanding of the panoply of Asian cultures; the making Asian-Americans feel, as her friend and fellow Clemson senior, Kenneth Sloane, puts it, “otherized.”

When children as young as 5 years old are not corrected from pointing out what’s “different” or “weird” about the kids who don’t have the same skin tones or faces, Mahendranath says, it sets the foundation to normalize seeing Asian people as outsiders – even if those very people grew up as American as anyone else.

All three say that racism was more overt and direct when they were kids. But as people age, Mahendranath says, they learn to express themselves more subtly, through looks and by the way they act when someone Asian is around.

Not that things can’t be more overt as adults. Kutinow recounts an incident on a bus in Clemson that she calls “the worst racism I’ve experienced” as a young adult. A drunk made what he thought was a joke about her name being “Chinese Buffet.”

The drunk laughed, Kutinow didn’t. And while nothing escalated, she says incidents like this are hard to deal with for a few reasons. The lingering effects of racist garbage are the longest-lasting, she says, but in the moment, you never know how someone will react to your becoming offended by their offensive behavior. She worries about confronting people, she says, because who knows what they will do when she gets mad over something about which they were “just kidding.”

There’s also what Mahendranath describes as the fetishization of Asian women, either highly sexually stylized or presented as meek and demure and subservient. At best, this leads to assumptions about Asian women she says.

At worst, fetishizing Asian women can lead to brutal violence. Robert Long, the 21-year-old charged in the Atlanta spa shootings in March (which killed eight, six of them Asian women), told police that his motivation for killing the women was to remove the sexual temptation that they posed for him.

South Carolina, so far, has not reported any major incidents of harassment or violence against Asian-Americans, but Kutinow, Mahendranath, and Sloane says the miasma of racism is ever-present. Usually, they say, it manifests in a kind of diffidence expressed by other people; an air that Asian people are not the same as everyone else.

The combination of deeply rooted stereotypes and the lack of real understanding about Asian heritage, says Sloane, has caused him to internalize a lot. Sloane, the outgoing president of Clemson’s Asian Student Association, says that those occasional japes about last names or how someone’s lunch smells usually land in a gray area – they’re not intended to hurt, they’re not overt diatribes, but they do hurt.

And like his female classmates and friends who say it’s hard to know how to react to racist sexism, for fear of triggering a more aggressive response, Sloane says it’s hard to know how to react to subtle racism (that might not even be aware of how racist it actually is) without running the risk of overreacting.

“When someone pushes you or attacks you,” he says, “you can say ‘I was acting in self-defense’ when you hit them back.”

But when it’s someone being rude or idiotic, like the drunken stranger on Kutinow’s bus, what can you do? When Sloane heard Kutinow tell that story, he admitted that he wanted to hit the guy, even though he was not there and doesn’t know who he is.

When it’s much subtler, like “observations” about someone’s food, or a questionable glance, Sloane says he doesn’t want to overreact. And so he, and, he says, a lot of Asian people, become handcuffed by the weight of what the proper reaction to a moment or a slight or an I-was-just-kidding joke really should be.

“The food thing,” as it was phrased many times during an afternoon conversation with Kutinow, Mahendranath, and Sloane, is a lot bigger deal than you might think, by the way. For Mahendranath in particular, the fact that the very same kids who mocked her mother’s love-labored cooking at school (to the point that she often threw away her Indian lunch to buy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich just to avoid any issues with classmates) now extol the virtues of Indian restaurants is galling.

Food, she says, is tied deeply to Asian cultures, and the simple act of making fun of how a dish smells is, to her, evidence that non-Asian communities are not doing enough to teach cultural awareness and sensitivity to children.

And this, the trio says, is where the way forward needs to start – education, particularly in grade school. Partly, it’s about teaching kids at home to be culturally sensitive and changing the perspective that just because you don’t mean it to be offensive doesn’t mean someone else finds it charming.

But, says Sloane, it’s also about actual education, especially in social studies and history class. Think back to school for a second – specifically to lessons on World War II. How much do you know about the European war vs. how much do you know about the war in Asia and the Pacific? Did you know, for example, that India helped liberate much of Asia and Africa? Or that Mongolia helped feed the Soviet Army in its fight against Germany? Or even that Mexico’s Air Force fought key battles in places like the Philippines?

Sloane says that his history education was essentially: Euro-centric world history, followed by U.S. history, followed by South Carolina history – and cycle repeated three times over his school life. He would like to see Asian history, its cultures, religions, kings and queens, inventions, and contributions, given equal weight with European, African, and Latin American history.

In addition, he says, teaching a class on racism, to get children to understand why it’s important to know how to talk with people who don’t look like them or who don’t come from similar backgrounds, would go a long way.

Mahendranath adds that schools need to get past the surface when they do teach about Asia.

“When they teach about India,” she says, “the first thing they teach about is the caste system. Obviously, the caste system still exists and the caste system is horrible, but that’s not the entirety of Indian culture. And when someone tries to sound educated based on what they learn in school, I know they have good intentions, but they might ask ‘What caste are you?’ That’s actually a very personal question, you’re not supposed to ask that.”

Fun fact, castes are part of the Hindu and Sikh faiths, but there are four other religions found commonly throughout India – Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Jainism – that do not recognize castes. India also has two dozen officially recognized languages (and more than 19,000 dialects).

Mahendranath says well-meaning people often ask if she speaks Hindu. Which she might, if Hindu were a language. Hindi is, but Hindu is a religion, not a tongue. And it’s small things like that that Mahendranath says need to be adjusted.

One other area to address is media representation. Sloane says Asians in history class are usually the villains, and that perception translates into film and TV tropes about inscrutable Asian bad guys. But even when Asians aren’t the bad guys, they’re the sidekicks; the martial arts master; or the source of some mystical knowledge from which European heroes learn their true powers.

Or, of course, they’re the nerdy math whizzes. Meek. Unassuming, Smart. Different.

In short, they’re exoticized.

This trio of Clemson seniors says that there is a lot to learn and a lot of perceptual junk to clear out of the way when it comes to Asian people. And under it all, Kutinow says, there’s still the fact that Asian-Americans are (wait for it) American.

To get past the wall that keeps Asian-Americans “otherized,” she says, we need to call so much out for what it really is.

“Don’t call it bias,” she says. “It’s racism. Don’t sugar-coat it. You have to call it like it is. We can never fix the problem if we don’t explicit say what the problem is.”