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Becoming more Asian and, more American

October 5, 2011 · 23 comments

in Inspiration, Journalism how-to's, Making art

Tell me the truth — do I really have to spend the rest of my life wrestling with ethnic identity issues?

Can’t I just be me?

What the hell does any of this mean anyway?

More than half a century of personal soul searching has not brought much resolution:

  • Decade #1 (Ages 0-10): Hated being called “Betty Liu”/”Betty Lou.”
  • Decade #2 (Ages 11-20): Wished I wasn’t living in Chinatown ghetto.
  • Decade #3 (Ages 21-30): Loved having long hair & Chinese jewelry.
  • Decade #4 (Ages 31-40): Blamed my parents for raising me wrong.
  • Decade #5 (Ages 41-50): Coping with divorce; ethnicity irrelevant.
  • Decade #6 (Ages 51-55): Should I paint pictures of sushi? Or apples?

Thankfully, this next half a century of babbling on the shrink’s couch should be a little more interesting. After all, people of Asian heritage have reached a critical mass in the United States. Please, please, let us truly be at the tipping point, where re-invention is possible and life becomes new.

As for what’s teetering on the brink of celebration….

The other night, my friend Jeannie Park talked me into going Jun Choi's fundraiser. The one-term mayor of Edison, N.J. has his eye on a House seat. If would make him the northeast's first Asian American congressman. The event was held at a super-swanky Manhattan address on Central Park West and had three fundraising essentials: Sen. Ben Bradley, who still has star power from his days playing for the New York Knicks; top quality booze; a team of doting, devoted Korean moms.

If you’re interested in knowing more about Jun Choi, check out his campaign here. I liked his message. He talked about what it was like to take on Edison’s police union, downsized his local government and helped reduce taxes. He ran for re-election but lost by a few hundred votes.

And I’m sorry I cut off the head of the guy in the photo collage above. Here he is:

Jeff Yang has been hired by the Wall Street Journal to write its first-ever column about Asian/American Pop/Culture. This son of Taiwanese immigrants lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with his wife and their two sons. When he graduated from Harvard, the psych major went on to start an Asian American magazine. He has written books, many articles & passionately explores all things Asian American.

Becoming a Journal columnist means Jeff gets a coveted, hand-drawn hedcut. These pictures are painstakingly drawn dot-by-dot and have become the paper’s artistic signature. Jeff  named his column “Tao Jones.” It will appear every Friday on the Journal’s Speakeasy blog, which covers entertainment and the arts.

I am so dense that he had to explain the column’s title to me. It’s a punny play on “Dow Jones,” the Journal’s parent company. Tao — which is pronounced “dow” — is the marvelous Chinese philosophy about finding “the way.” The column launches tomorrow. Let’s help our boy reach the tipping point by becoming his readers!

And now, a little about my own potential tipping point…

This painting is in the hands of my first collector, Chuck Zoeller. He's head of special projects at The Associated Press and a former photo editor. He hung "cali roll" in his kitchen. He says that it "jumps off the wall and makes me happy every time I walk in the kitchen; even when the Yankees are losing."

Last summer, I made a few paintings of Asian food. Looking at sushi and Chinese dumpling buns as art objects gave me a new way to access my culture issues. Painting forces me to stop thinking and just feel. I can honestly say that with the brush in hand, being Chinese and American wasn’t an emotional debate of “bad” or “good.” It became a matter of light and shadow, color and warmth.

Now, if only I could stay in that head all the time.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

M. Skye Holly October 6, 2011 at 9:38 am

The timeline you created with your ethnicity issues over the years gives me a good idea, I’d like to do a similar one for myself. I know I only have a few decades in, but enough likes, dislikes and gripes to categorize. I think wrestling with American or Caribbean identity
is a force that influnces, inspires but also distracts me in some ways. There’s a play I’ve been working on for some years that explores that. Maybe a timeline could be a great outline to chronicle my state of mind over the decades and organize my memories.

I liked the tidbits you mentioned about these pioneering Asian-Americans. It is great seeing people step out and do challenging things. I think even though some of are not Asian, we can be proud of them as Americans, or identify with and support them just as people. The Tao Jones column sounds interesting.


Jackie October 6, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Hey Betty! What’s up!

Here is my timeline:

0-10: Had no idea what Asian was about except that I was dragged to my mom’s friends houses in the Valley on random Saturdays, ate the watermelon seeds and had a lot of good Chinese food.
11-20: Realized that there are a lot of overachieving Asian kids in the OC and I was one of them. However, I hated the OC so I had to break out and go to school on the east coast and that is where I got acquainted with myself.
21-30: Loved being Asian so much that I lived in Japan. Then went to grad school in HI and stayed there because I was too scared to come back to the mainland
31-40: Embracing my Asian side, but realized that my mom screwed me over
Current: trying to get over being angry and raising my girls the best way possible.

Interestingly, my team has called me “Empress” which could be construed as a backhanded compliment, but I don’t care. At least I get the work done! Now how is that for pioneering Asian?


bettymingliu October 6, 2011 at 4:05 pm

the time line is a good thing, isn’t it! i originally wrote for blah-blah for each decade. but getting more concise is a great exercise in clearing the mind. ^_^

skye, would love to see what you come up with re your carib-american timeline. and jackie, it’s wonderful that you’re sorting thru all this stuff for yourself and your daughters.

quite honestly, this post is about asian americans because that’s the hand i was dealt in entering this world. so that’s what i’m interested in tracking. but these are universal themes about identity, community and self-esteem — don’t you think?


Joel Friedlander October 6, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Hey, I didn’t know you had collectors! Can I be a collector? I love your paintings, particularly the food ones.


Betty October 7, 2011 at 12:01 am

oooh, joel — would love to have you as a collector! i am trying to make some time to post a bunch of photos in the “art” section of this blog. but if you’re looking for something sooner, let’s “tawk.” :)


jennifer ressmann October 7, 2011 at 9:26 am

Hi Betty.
I’m sorry to hear of your struggles, especially as a vibrant beautiful woman. I’m always so envious of asia women – lovely hair, petite and so smart! I don’t think you have anything to worry about!
Hope your fall is starting wonderfully! What a great time of the year!


fem October 7, 2011 at 1:14 pm

The only struggle I have to deal with being around Asian-Americans are THEIR constant struggles with self-identity. Being American is nothing but trying to follow European culture. Americans try to rationalize that jeans, hamburgers, etc are “American”. NO! Jeans actually came from France, hamburgers from Germany. It is truly annoying how AA try to take advantage of two different cultures of Western and Asian, mostly to their benefits. I always ridicule them as twinkies because even if they claim they’re Asian, they don’t know much about Asian culture or follow their protocols. This is especially true of mixed children. They are not accepted by “white” society and forced to become a prototype of Asian-ness. Sadly, they crowned themselves as go to person without knowing much about their Asian half. What I don’t understand is why they seem to get upset when “Asian” society don’t accept them either. They DEMAND that they’re accepted, especially by their Asian parent, most likely being the wife. I actually had a verbal argument with one of these Asian wife who was married to an American GI, where I told her she can’t EXPECT Asians to accept their circumstances to her liking. She started to become extremely frustrated and started to yell and scream about how Asians are racists. Yet, whites who don’t accept aren’t?? I can go on and on about how these type of dysfunctional families are hypocritical and believe in self-entitlement, but for some reason, I always think of their types when I hear about Asian-Americans having identity issues.


DLee October 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Just glad I didn’t have a Tiger Mom growing up.


Penny October 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Sorry fem but I have to disagree with you on some of your points. The statement “being American is nothing but trying to follow European culture,” is a gross over generalization. There are values, viewpoints, and beliefs systems that are different between the two cultures. I believe that you are describing trends and inventions not experiences and groups of people. Also, there is more to being “American” than hamburgers and blue jeans. Just sayin’.

Betty, I truly enjoyed your time line. I too wrestle with wanting to be accepted on my own terms versus being accepted by the “supposed terms.” I’m glad that you have found a way to embrace your heritage in a healthy, loving way.


Betty October 7, 2011 at 7:08 pm

jennifer, i hope i will always be described as being petite, smart and beautiful — with lovely hair. haha!

actually, you, fem and dlee are touching on various asian american identity hot buttons that i could talk about forever (but will spare you). what we look like and how we are viewed by society is so complicated for all of us. pick the race, ethnicity or gender and there are stereotypes.

as we can see from fem’s viewpoint, how society views us is super-complicated because various segments of “our people” have their own opinions on whether we make the cut for being authentic.

fem, i understand exactly what you’re saying because it’s what my parents believed until the day each of them they died. so that means that i have to disagree with you on every point! also — as the mother of a mixed race child, i need to say that if you can’t accept my child, how can you accept me?

still, i really appreciate you taking the time to air your views so frankly here. you’re giving us a lot to talk about. always wonderful to have a discussion.

btw penny, i wonder what your time line looks like…looking back over the decades actually feels kind of good. nice to know that i’m making progress. thanks. ^_^


dlee October 7, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Heading to San Francisco tonight. Are the asians there different than the New York ones? Will be having rhis discussion w/Judy.


fem October 7, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Penny, What are some of the values, viewpoints and belief systems that you’re referring to? I disagree that I’m making a gross over generalization. Generalization, maybe. We’re talking about millions of people here, so I have to generalize. There are two significant differences I I noticed about Europeans and Americans: socialism vs. capitalism; classy and cultured vs country hick and uncultured. Many people will agree with me on this. I noticed Americans try too hard to differentiate from Europeans, but America is too young to accomplish that.


fem October 7, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Betty, your comment about acceptance is throwing me off. I didn’t imply mixed children aren’t accepted as a person, but as of an Asian race. If you observe hapas, they act more “white” than Asian. Majority of them can’t even speak Asian language. They think just because they own a traditional Asian custom, they’re automatically Asian. Nowadays, with global power shifting back to Asia, and with popularity of Asian entertainers, they want that piece of the pie. When they face similar discrimination as here in the U.S., they automatically get angry and DEMAND their rights. This is a question I raise over and over again. Why aren’t they DEMANDING this so called rights in America? I’ve seen how they are treated here yet they seem like they accept the prejudice. I don’t see the Asian parent or their mixed children DEMANDING to be accepted by whites. Is this going back to Asians having chip on their shoulders when it comes to confronting whites? Possibly.


Betty October 7, 2011 at 8:49 pm

fem, that’s the first thing i learned in therapy was the importance of speaking from personal experience. it makes for a much fuller exploration than talking about stuff on a “them” vs. “us” leve. so i would love to hear how you feel about your own identity. that’s the only way to have a real conversation. what’s your timeline look like?

dlee — have fun chatting with your sister judy about these issues. i wonder what she’ll say. :)


Penny October 8, 2011 at 12:31 am

fem – You state and, I am paraphrasing, that the U.S. is too young to “culturally” differentiate itself from Europe. But where I am located, I feel that it is culturally different. It has been influenced by Western Europe -and by many other countries- but what country or continent has not been influenced by another nation? I have heard the argument of Europe being, as you said, “cultured, more sophisticated” and the U.S. being “country hick and uncultured.” Yet, I was taught the importance of being self-reliant, independent, and standing up for your beliefs. These are viewpoints, belief systems, and values that I have seen in the place that I was born and raised in and they were associated with American culture. As for “country hick and uncultured,” I have met too many people from too many places to know that it is not just Americans who act that way. However, I know everyone has different experiences. What were yours?

Betty, here is my timeline:
0-10: Was a weird kid, to be honest, :P but very happy and energetic. Loved playing video games with my brother.

11-15: Wish people would learn how to pronounce my name correctly, ugh. Realized that being “smart” was seen as being “white.” (what?) Also realized that being weird wasn’t cool and being “smart” will lead you to be unmercifully teased by people who what to use your smarts to get ahead. (How ironic.) Told I was smart, quiet, and shy a lot. Also realized that popularity isn’t everything especially if it means becoming someone you don’t recognize in the mirror. Found out my brother was going overseas because of the war and was too scared for words.

16-20: Hated that I nearly sold myself short when I was about to drop out of high school. Was able to leave a very toxic situation and gradually accept that my family wasn’t perfect but were supportive, in their own way. My mom’s advice about finding a boyfriend, “Find someone rich and good looking!” Realized that I wasn’t perfect and learned to love myself more. My brother came back from being overseas; was too happy for words.

21-25 (Present) Despite some up and downs with my health, I realized that I am intelligent, a music-lover, a dream chaser, and an impeccable decorator versus the expectation of who I’m “supposed” to be: quiet, a tool to be used and disrespected, and something to be molded and fixed into rather than be seen as a human being.


Betty October 8, 2011 at 8:56 am

penny, thanks for sharing your timeline; it’s just aching with self-esteem and self-discovery issues. sounds like you are on to finding a good place!

and fem, i thought some more about this. i think the heart of your points is the whole issue of acceptance. on one level, i really don’t want to care about getting the approval of others. once i can get into that head and stay there, i can be free to be myself! at least, that’s what i’m hoping. xo


Ettart October 8, 2011 at 10:53 am

I LOVE your struggles with who you are. You are ALIVE. You are present. You are rich and REAL. You haven’t got even a micro-trace of Stepford Wives. It shows in your art, your writing, your teaching… and most of all, in person. FAB-U-LOUS!!!!!! We know you by your struggles to find and be your real self.
Once-upon-a-time America’s greatness was its identity as a “melting pot.” Today, mercifully, nobody needs to melt-in anymore. It’s far more interesting to just plain flaunt who we are. The more honest identities the better! The more richly articulated they are… the better.
I hereby commission a Betty Ming Liu painting of Dim Sum or maybe green tea and red bean ice cream scoops. Yuuum!
Love, Etta


Betty October 8, 2011 at 10:49 pm

etta, you did it! you finally commented on my blog!!!! and honey, it takes one to know one. you are an original too. i will see if i can work on a few dim sum paintings for you to choose from — the ice cream won’t hold up as a still life under the lights. :) xoxoxox


Debra October 11, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Hi Betty and fans of Betty. I’m a lurker here. For a long-time, I’ve been considering a career switch to getting a degree in social work, so that I may work as a therapist specializing in Asian American issues and do one-on-one counseling. I’d really love the chance to work with Asian American women, as this is the demographic I am in, and have watched (and helped) friends and family struggle with similar issues. My greatest fear is a lack of clientele. “Studies” indicate that Asians don’t seek help and for those that do, the attrition rate from therapy is quite high. However, I believe that this may be from a lack of culturally-competent therapists, who “turn off” seekers of help. I am speaking from experience. For anyone who would care to chime in, have you ever sought therapy and did you look specifically for a therapist in your same racial/cultural and gender demographic? if so, how successful was the relationship? Thanks everyone, for all of your help!


Betty October 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm

first of all, debra — thank you for going public here! i am always surprised when people tell me that they’ve been lurking. maybe at some point, you’ll totally unlurk and even subscribe to my blog. would love to keep you close in a good way. :)

as for your question, i originally wished for an asian american therapist or a therapist of color. but both my first therapist and my current one are white. it doesn’t bother me at all anymore. in the end, there are universal themes. and it’s all about clicking with the therapist. but honestly, the asian american community needs more therapists who understand the culture — both american and asian culture. i think that you shouldn’t worry about the client. just decide if this is your passion. my post today is about a speech that steve job gave in 2005. if you watch the video, it might inspire you to just go with your heart and worry about clients later.


fem October 18, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Betty, I tried to take myself off of your list, but it states I need a valid key, whatever that means. So, I come here to tell you that, and I have noticed you have deleted my comments to you. Now, I’m DEFINITELY positive that I don’t want to read or participate in your blog. If you don’t like to hear the truths from various people, than no sense of asking for participation. I would appreciate it if I don’t receive anymore notification from you.


M. Skye Holly October 18, 2011 at 6:52 pm

I probably agree with many topics and comments on this blog. Many times I comment, sometimes I don’t. There are times I don’t agree with things on this blog (social, personal, spiritual/religious, political) but I know that I can express myself or at least ask questions. What I think or have to say might bother some people but I get that chance to do so.

I love this blog. If I were more committed or clever, maybe I would have one like this. My blog would butt heads with Betty’s blog and then make up and hug or shake hands. Then she would be a link on my blog and I’d definitely have her as a link on mine.

Fem’s comment just came to me, notified via e-mail. I understand about sharing truth and different experiences and even heated viewpoints and worldviews. I do not understand the need for hostility.
There are lots of generalizations made here and I think Betty welcomed a platform for them so long as they were noted as a person’s particular experience instead of labels on a race, ethnicity or even nation.

Like I said, I love this blog. It has given me useful ideas, good times and for about two years, been there for me through hard times. It is sort of a mini-library, sort of a recipe book, sort of a life coach, talk show and art exhibi. It is a friend to me when I can’t see Betty, and it introduces me to people I have never met. Sure, Fem, your life will go on without this blog, but it won’t ever be the same. Sorry it had to end this way :(


Betty October 18, 2011 at 8:38 pm

skye, thank you for the kind words about this blog, which functions as my online living room. people visit here for personal conversation, discussion and hugs. yes, i deleted fem’s last two comments because they made me very uncomfortable.

that’s when i realized that we are here to share based on our own experiences, about our own lives. making generalizations about people based on race, gender, religion, etc. is not acceptable. i still believe in old-fashioned hospitality. xo


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