Writing #OwnVoices, Horror, and Growing Up Asian-American

On Saturday, I turned in my horror thesis, which I’ve previously written about here. I’m happy with and proud of my project, and today I’m going to talk about one of the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding aspects of it: writing #OwnVoices.

If you’re not familiar with the hashtag, #OwnVoices was created on Twitter to uplift marginalized authors telling their own stories, especially narratives that have often been whitewashed, neglected, or deemed unimportant. Many amazing people have written about their experiences reclaiming their marginalized aspects of their identity amidst an assumed white, cishet, or able-bodied default (off the top of my head, I just read Kat Cho’s lovely post here, and also this vital interview with the wonderful Karuna Riazi).

This isn’t my first time writing about Chinese-American characters. But like many people, I had to reclaim writing characters that actually reflected my own background. Even though I grew up in a city and public school system that were actually majority Asian (more on that later), all my stories throughout elementary and middle school centered white characters. It never even occurred to me to write Asian-American protagonists because I grew up seeing white people as the default in media. Later I started consciously writing about Asian-American and specifically Chinese-American characters, though this change came before I came into contact with wider conversations about diversity and We Need Diverse Books and controversies about whitewashing of Asian stories–rather, it was the result of my learning more about and becoming prouder of my Chinese heritage in high school. (There’s a LOT to unpack there in regards to nationalism, etc, but that story deserves a whole separate post.)

I’ve written multiple short stories for workshop and outlined novel ideas for Chinese-American stories, but I’ve never really written anything that drew as much from my own experience as my thesis. In many ways, my experience as an Asian-American is unusual. Being AsAm is often defined by being the minority, the outsider, or the “other”, but I grew up in a city and went to public schools where Asians were the majority–I believe 60-70% of my high school class. There was Asian food everywhere and, like, three different boba shops within walking distance of my high school. Learning more about the experiences of other Asian-Americans from Twitter and other online spaces, I’ve become very conscious about how atypical my experience is and how sheltered and privileged I’ve been in regards to not having to deal with feeling like an outsider or microaggressions. That’s not to say we never experienced racism–my sophomore year of high school, there was a false bomb threat, and I remember my classmates laughing about how the local TV spot on the lockdown only interviewed white kids despite the heavy Asian majority. But I recently commented to my friend from high school that (to borrow a phrase from John Scalzi) that we had probably the easiest difficulty setting for growing up as people of color in America, and my privilege in that department is something I’ve been really trying to be more aware and informed about.

Looking back at my early attempts to write #OwnVoices stories, it’s striking to me how I actually had to struggle to write what I thought was Chinese-American instead of drawing from my own experiences as a Chinese-American. Another really common thing in the “Asian-American experience” is the feeling of being neither Asian enough or American enough, but it’s like I didn’t feel my experiences “counted” or were Asian-American enough. I remember when I first took Chinese in high school, I felt really self-conscious because I was one of like three kids in class who didn’t actually grow up speaking Mandarin or Canto at home. My family is ethnic Han, but my parents grew up in Myanmar (I’ve yet to write characters true to that experience). Even though this wasn’t my first story with Chinese-American characters, this was the first time I really felt like I was writing from my own experiences, and I was surprised how freeing it was. The setting of my thesis–an affluent, predominantly Asian-American Southern California suburb–is a thinly veiled parody of my hometown. Even little details like having the characters eat foods that my family eat at home–it was strange, that I actually had to be conscious about making that choice, and that the choice felt good.

But there were challenges too. My thesis deals with favoritism, parental pressure, and perfectionism. I researched the plastic surgery craze in Asia for inspiration, and one interesting detail I learned is that one commonly cited reason for its popularity in South Korea and increasingly, China is the hyper-competitive culture. So these themes really fit naturally with the basic premise of my thesis and my initial desire to write an Asian horror-inspired story in an Asian-American setting, but there were times when it was uncomfortable to write about.

The “Tiger Mom” stereotype of Asian parents as overbearing and obsessed with academics is one of the most pervasive racist tropes of Asians and Asian-Americans. As someone blessed with a very loving family, I’ve written about my personal issues with this stereotype. But since I wrote that article, I’ve also been coming to terms with the fact that hyper-competitiveness, abuse, and generational trauma are very real issues in the Asian-American community. Julie Dao wrote a really powerful post–in response to a young AsAm teenager–about her experiences. I’ve listened to my friends talking about their dysfunctional families. Again, this isn’t true of all Asian families by any means, but it’s a real issue that I’ve seen a lot of people deal with, both on Twitter and just in my personal small circle of friends.
I’ve heard so many writers and readers talking about the immense comfort that #OwnVoices stories have given them, when they’re so often denied respectful and authentic representation. And that’s one of the most tremendously valuable things about them. But I think it can be equally powerful and liberating to write about what makes you uncomfortable. There’s a reason horror has historically been such a potent genre for dealing with social anxieties and/or sex. It’s been really eye-opening to me, how writing about my own experience had to be a living experience in itself. But it’s been such a valuable one and I’m so glad that I chose to take it.

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