Being Raised Asian American By The Internet

Growing up, posting in online forums was the only way I could talk about Asian American issues. Can we open up more avenues today?

5 years ago

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The earliest memory I have of posting online was in a Harry Potter forum, sometime in early high school. Though I was a Harry Potter fan, I didn’t stay there to discuss anything from the books. Instead, it was the miscellaneous parts of the forum that drew me, the ones that let us talk about anything from politics to TV shows we hated to even philosophy. Discussions could get quite heated. Once, I got drawn into a never-ending debate with a mother about violent video games, with me taking the side that they were perfectly fine. After posting multi-paragraph and seemingly bulletproof responses, I dreaded the sight of yet another response from her. When would the cycle end?!

Posting was different from writing. With writing, you always get self-conscious about craft, finishing touches, and signature styles. But with posting, it’s more about expressing your ideas as fast as you can, articulately if possible but not necessarily so. They get posted on a forum under some pseudo-clever username, likely to get buried forever in the internet landfill in just a few days. In retrospect, it was the writing equivalent to practicing jump shots or a piano piece in a simulated environment.

For young kids who badly needed to talk about things, especially “intellectual” things, posting in forums was probably the only way to go. It was for me, especially since my family wasn’t the type to sit around dinner table to talk politics and culture (or talk at all). I remember reading threads about school uniforms, the Iraq War, abortion, the 2004 American presidential election, soda taxes, and trying to figure out how I felt about them. How I felt almost wasn’t as important as feeling something at all. The last thing I wanted to have was no opinions at all.

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Source: The Campanile

These internet spaces accelerated my racial consciousness. The first openly Asian American incident I can remember happened on a website that many college-aspiring or college-educated people are likely familiar with: It’s a forum where mostly neurotic high schoolers convene to share information about the college application process, discuss their SAT Odyssey, and (ludicrously) rate each others’ chances of getting into certain schools. As a Canadian with a guidance counselor who didn’t know much about how the American college process worked, I found the site incredibly useful. Inevitably, the forum began to feel like a community and I partook in the miscellaneous sub-forums, where there were discussions involving the sorts of questions and issues that teenagers always had outside of academics.

One day, someone posted a question based on some casual observations: why were there so many Asian girls with white guys, yet so few white girls with Asian guys? This was the Wong Fu Yellow Fever question, several years ahead of schedule. This was also the early 2000s, on the cusp of the so-called post-racial era, in a forum full of kids from well-to-do suburbia. You’d probably have to have been blind to not notice this social trend.

The post ignited some very heated arguments. At the heart of it was an Asian American girl who said that she only found white guys attractive and never Asian guys because her father and uncles had treated her badly. She also recounted how comparatively tall she was when she visited her native Vietnam and surmised it must’ve been because her family had an unknown French colonial ancestor.

From then on, I searched ceaselessly for Asian American spaces. There was nowhere else to talk about the kind of things that kept me coming back to the miscellaneous corners of places like that Harry Potter forum or College Confidential. It wasn’t surprising that my immigrant parents weren’t equipped to talk about race and Asianness in North America. But neither were my 2nd-generation peers. For the next few years, I would find places like Yellowworld, GoldSea, and Soompi where I could read or talk about my experiences and concerns with the confidence of being understood. By happy coincidence, Plan A has led me to meet one of the founders of Yellowworld, Kasie Lee. How amazing would it have been to have met her back then?

I not only posted in forums, but also on blogs and comments sections of articles. Anywhere there was space to write on the Asian American internet, I probably scribbled something. Eventually, I started sending emails to writers of articles that I liked or even hated. More than anything, I was desperate for some honest dialogue for this disconnect I felt between my actual experience of being Asian in America and the story I was being told about how America, especially on a liberal college campus, was mostly a racial meritocracy by now, especially for Asians. When I lived at home, I thought that any alienation I’d felt was due to my sheltered upbringing, compounded by my immigrant parents who had chosen not to fit in. Once I was on my own (as a college student still dependent on parents for living expenses), I just knew that all those demoralizing whispers about how my race would limit my hopes and dreams would prove to be the nonsense of embittered failures. As that hopeful illusion ebbed away, those online spaces meant more and more.

Reddit was a revelation in that never before had I found such a centralized hub of Asian American discussions. For a couple of years, I was very active in the r/asianamerican subreddit, the biggest Asian American subreddit. Whereas other forums had felt as if I were joining a student club, Reddit felt like a rally. People were coming and going all the time and what you had to say could reach so many.

That subreddit isn’t what it used to be. Nowadays, it’s mostly become a place to celebrate #RepresentationMatters and what some detractors would call Boba Liberalism. But there used to be exciting discussions there until a new mod team clamped down on it all. From what I saw, the place buckled under the weight of unresolved Asian American issues, the kind of issues that had unexpectedly ignited College Confidential all those years ago. I had actually voluntarily stepped away from Reddit at around 2015 to find some kind of “next level” of Asian American involvement. There were only so many times I could try to articulate a strong but nuanced Asian American male perspective on things before I felt as if I were plagiarizing myself.

One big step was actually meeting someone from Reddit in real life for the first time. She had really smart stuff to say, especially about the fights that dominate these spaces on how Asian men and women are accepted differently by the white mainstream. Considering how often and easily I meet people in real life through Plan A, it’s almost cute how I thought I was taking such a radical step back then. But it 100% felt like that at the time. We met up a few times, talking for hours in-person about the topics I’d been posting about for over a decade. As I said, it felt almost scarily radical then, but now, I can’t even imagine how I’d lived in silence before then.

With the launching of Plan A’s Patreon, I’m once again seeking that next level of Asian American discussion and engagement. The internet spaces where I learned and argued about being Asian in America seem so quaint now. Those isolated little forums don’t exist anymore. I’ve written before about how toxic Asian American spaces can get and I do worry about how things like Twitter and Reddit can poison minds. But I’ve also seen encouraging signs in the kinds of discussions in these spaces as well.

Those old spaces weren’t perfect. They could be very small and cliquey. They could be echo chambers. They could be considered barely aware by today’s standards. But they were there when nobody else was. I hope that at the very least, we’re advancing the level of consciousness and dialogue for today’s young Asian Americans. And as much as I want Plan A to get bigger, I also hope that in the end, we’ll only have been a small part of a bigger change.

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Chris Jesu Lee

Published 5 years ago

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