As I bopped around our neighborhood showcasing Excellent Asian Owned Businesses To Support In Greenpoint, I naively thought it would be easy to get Asian business owners and employees to hop onboard the photo op.
Reality hit me once I stepped into the second store. The Chinese owner was really resistant when I asked to take her photo. The short-lived Mandarin conversation ended with her parting words, “You’re Chinese too. You should understand why.” Her words kept replaying in my head, and I asked myself – do I understand why?
As I continued my quest along Manhattan Avenue, the resistance became a recurring theme. Shop owners did not mind if I took photos of their store. In fact, I could feel that underlying beam of pride. But most were reluctant to appear in the photo or even share their last name with me.
One explained that they don’t wish to be identified when they already have a target on their backs. They think that being featured will only enlarge the bull’s eye. That made me really pensive.
Many Asian businesses are removing any cultural indications on their shopfront that could make them easy targets. When your people are made the scapegoat of a pandemic, terrorized, murdered, muting your cultural decorations is just that bitter cherry on top.
If now is the time for Asians to no longer be invisible, why do many still choose to accept a miserable half-existence?
I am a first generation Singapore immigrant and have lived in New York City for 8 years now. Singapore is a westernised, yet Confucian society. On one hand, we have a strong media diet from the West. On the other hand, the Confucian values run deep. We believe that the individual exists in the context of the family, extended family, friends, and wider society, and that the government cannot and should not take over the role of the family.
It is quite a dilemma when approaching issues like freedom of speech. Article 14 of the Constitution of Singapore, specifically Article 14(1), guarantees and protects Singaporeans’ rights to freedom of speech and expression, peaceful assembly without arms, and association. But the right of an individual to speak as they please comes at the expense of an orderly society. In the East, the main objective is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of their freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state, not in a natural state of contention and anarchy.
So I guess I understand why the Chinese store owner chose to stay invisible. It is a superpower. When you render yourself unseen by the naked eye and become invisible in the visible spectrum, you can move about an environment unseen by others and act without being observed. Some users of this power can even choose to let certain people see them, while staying invisible to others.
Many Asian business owners, especially the older generation, are very easternized in their upbringing. They may have lived in the United States for most of their lives, or even born and raised. As Americanized as they are, they still hold on dearly to their values – culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respect for elders. This is them retaining the last morsel of their identity.
A good number of these Asian business owners have hints of Asian accents, and for many, English is their second language. Visibility comes with a heard voice. This is tricky to maneuver when you are not as confident in your second language, or your accents have been humiliated, masked as seemingly harmless entertainment.
Of course, we have many brave, kindred souls stepping up to be the mouthpiece for the Asian population. But it is not true visibility if you can’t speak for yourself. You are seen but not heard.
As an Asian, with a good command of English, and the know-how to speak to the world effectively, I celebrate the wins. I am positioned to uplift Asian businesses in Greenpoint. My bilingualism and upbringing helped me understand the nuances of what that Chinese business owner expressed. I am able to glide seamlessly through the Eastern and the Western worlds.
So while the fight for Asian visibility continues, we have to respect and applaud those who chose to still don that invisibility cape. Visibility and invisibility are both superpowers.