The assaults on Asian-American elders have summoned the memory of Obāchan, my grandmother who moved from Japan to the United States in the postwar era with her husband, a white military man from New York who was stationed in Tokyo, and their two children.
She made a killer tonkatsu, was a fabulously-unapologetic chainsmoker, and she could’ve been one of those victims—if she hadn’t already died years before from, as she believed, the radiation to which she was exposed when she was in Hiroshima after the United States’ radioactive war crime.
The Asian-American political establishment, like Congressmember Grace Meng, is now calling for subjects of our purported liberal democracy to be “invisible no more” as they face horizontal violence interpellated by anti-China imperialism that, afterall, constitutes the very US-American fantasy of freedom and representation.
Hailing the so-called model minorities to bring forth their bodies for the spectacular economy of politics, Meng’s call activates, for me, a lesson found in a family document—part-memoir, part-letter, part-dispatch—left by Obāchan, shortly before her death, to myself and her other grandchildren. I wasn’t able to appreciate it until I was 21 and three years into my transition.
In it, she demonstrated that imperceptibility, for her, was a precondition for survival.
She once had to make herself scarce. It was 1945: the Japanese Empire had fallen, the Soviet Union was invading Manchuria, a northeastern region in China that her family had helped colonize, and she was stranded at the age of 13. It wasn’t safe to look like herself.
“The Russian soldiers roamed the countryside during daylight hours, and we could not leave our hiding places,” she wrote to us. “If they found a girl, they would rape her and then kill her by shooting a gun into her mouth.”
So she became a boy. “My mother cut off all my hair and rubbed mud on my face so I would look like a dirty-faced little boy, and the soldiers would leave me alone.” As I found when I went to college and researched the history, many other young Japanese girls marooned in Manchuria became trans-gendered, moving across the social relation towards the safehouse of masculinity.
She spent over a year like that, a trans-gendered, not transgender, boy. Once safe, she returned to being a girl.
Obāchan’s gender-crossing was instrumental, contingent on the threat of rape and homicide. My own was not produced by geopolitical intervention, yet I feel a closeness to her struggle: I got on estrogen at 19 after being locked up in a psych ward for trying to kill my unbearably male body. Transgender, by way of trauma.
Years later, I’m not sure towards what I’ve transitioned: womanhood, or whiteness.
As a teen—read as a gay boy, racially-ambiguous and somewhat-Asian-looking, whatever that means—I was called a novel racist epithet: Kim Jong-Sam. It was a combination of the North Korean leader’s name and my dead name. I was questioned about my penis size à la the cultural castration of Asian-American men.
When I transitioned, I was no longer seen as somewhat-Asian-looking. I was whitened. The features that highlighted racial difference for others—my short black hair erect, frontward, like a ball cap’s bill; bushy brows; a rounded face with apple cheeks—were resignified when my hair grew into long tresses, my brows were tweezed, and the curvature of my face became a laudable feminine quality. The racist image of the Asian-American man helps me pass as a white woman.
I exist, day-to-day, neatly on the white side of the color line. I have no fear of being targeted for violence as an Asian-American. There are occasional ruptures in perceptibility, when I get clocked, but it’s often by guys paying for sex, and the exoticism is a value add. Overall, it’s an extraordinary power to have the agency to disclose racial difference. In contrast, the one-drop rule of chattel slavery, organizing the US-American color line, renders Blackness always already identifiable, as the policing and maintenance of the plantation arrangement depends on it.
The imperceptibility of my racial difference—as imperialism against China escalates, and its logic and affect boomerangs back into civilian violence, like the massacre of six fetishized working-class Chinese and Korean women in Atlanta, Georgia—feels protective. I have somewhat of a case of survivor’s guilt.
Violence is an epistemological provocation. It begs the question of whether to be known, to be seen as one is, or not. I don’t know how Obāchan would respond to the political call to be “invisible no more.”’ But I think her evasion of rape and death returns a question: do you first know how to disappear?