For over a year, our Chinatown International District (CID) has been in crisis over Sound Transit’s looming decision about where to place its second light rail station in the neighborhood.
The issue was crystallized for all to see last month when the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the CID on the on its list of Most Endangered Historic Places. It is clear when our community is threatened by outside forces. We know it all too well from the arc of our history in the U.S.
As we celebrate Pride, I would like to point our eyes inward to ourselves, our neighborhood, institutions and families. This is not so much for our LGBTQ+ family to look, and I wish everyone a wonderful Pride. But for the rest of us, please ask yourself, does it appear our children belong here, feel safe, included, and unharmed? Will they also care to fight to preserve the neighborhood and its communities when they are adults?
If you are parenting anyone between ages 2 to 30 — or spend ample time with the youth of today — maybe you have noticed that this generation has unlocked many layers of thinking on gender. It’s as though they have been growing up on another plane of existence, where it’s beyond ridiculous to hear their parents try to explain that their two uncles who behave like an old married couple are just roommates.
Gender is truly a construct for kids today, and not just a few of them. In my kid’s school class and other activities, most peers question their gender and sexuality, or have settled somewhere on the spectrum. When you meet someone from Generation Z, you must ask what their pronouns are, because chances are they’ve changed them. With this phenomenal blowing up of gender constructs and binary thinking, the straight-identifying kids are beginning to be the anomaly.
Given that the young generation sits on this new plane of thought, does their plane meet that of our neighborhood communities and institutions? Our businesses, cultural groups, clubs, churches, temples, benevolent associations, families, etc.? Beyond hanging a Pride flag to show support, what really happens on our plane? How are we structured? Who does what, in these organizations? Are there gendered roles? Given these answers, are we creating a safe and welcoming space for the young generation to feel ownership in our communities and bring them into the future?
Being both Chinese and Japanese, I grew up in communities where the women did this, and the men did that. LGBTQ+ children would suffer through it and leave when they became adults.
I still see gendered roles, with some healthy crossover. It probably isn’t enough for the children of today, as I also see them awkwardly navigating it. We shouldn’t wait for them to change it. We must make the effort now to rewire the system. We have already lost so many friends and family to our siloed thinking.
This is not a matter of breaking with tradition. If you look not too far in history to our ancestors, before Victorian colonization, our traditions were inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities. There are lists of examples on the Human Rights Campaign website on queer Asian traditions.
From my experience as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, I’ve learned that the Buddha welcomes all people. In the monastic code, to break celibacy is to have intimacy with anyone and anything, and all are treated equally.
In fact, the founder of Jodo Shinshu, Shinran Shonin (whose 850th Birthday we are celebrating this year) saw a vision of Kannon (Kuan Yin) as Prince Shotoku. According to the HRC website, in many Asian ethnic groups, Kuan Yin is understood as transgender. The vision of Kannon/Prince Shotoku led Shinran on a path to start the most popular sect of Buddhism in Japan, the first to allow all genders and classes to practice Buddhism in their daily lives.
Buddhism also teaches us empathy and compassion. As Asian Americans, we know what it feels like to be marginalized. We should be able to access that feeling and sense the difficulties for our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters.
And yet, our marginalization might be at the root of what holds us back. It has not been easy for us and our ancestors or as new immigrants to navigate the hegemony set by the white dominant society. But we continue to operate in their power structure.
I am talking about the pervasive “model minority myth.” It is a manifestation of the diasporic mindset, called “self-othering,” defined by scholar Homi Bhabha in his 1994 text “The Location of Culture.” In this mindset, we gain recognition and acceptance into the host society, by playing up to the roles they have defined for us and fits into their power structure.
Perhaps it was the California robber barons who first prescribed our roles. They defined Chinese railroad workers as docile and hardworking, according to Gordon H. Chang in his 2019 book “Ghosts of Gold Mountain.” For survival, we recognize these roles and live up to it in kind, fueling a cycle of reciprocation that entrenches us into a subclass and reenforces the dominant power structure. It is understandable why this thinking was so pervasive in our history. Massacres, mass incarceration, xenophobic immigration laws, red-lining, employment and everyday discrimination – the list goes on.
Yet in 2023, the model minority is still pervasive today, and by the way, it is anti-queer, and not just college majors and jobs. It’s a whole way of raising our kids, promoted by Amy Chua in her 2011 best-selling book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” published as we were raising the gender woke Generation Z. She prescribes that children must play the piano or violin, not make waves, attend medical or engineering school, and produce grandchildren – also known as being straight. Chua ingrains a telos of racial success, sealing off any opportunity for transgression. Transgression is to fail, and failure is not an option.
Yet Bhabha also defines another diasporic mindset – “the liminal.” In this mindset, we are authentic to ourselves, we self-determine who we are (not a dead white guy like Leland Stanford), and we can change organically with the times. Bhabha talks about the hyphen between Asian and American, a hyphen that acts as a trampoline, from which we launch ourselves into the future. Let’s add another hyphen to launch from – LGBTQ+ – which in its queer nature multiplies the expanse of our hybridity and creativity in who we can become.
This liminal mindset is one that our children are already embracing in their openness and understanding of gender identity and sexuality. It is time that we embrace and understand our children in their authentic selves and change our stale habits of thinking. We need to ask questions and encourage our youth to inform and lead us. We need to discover and take action to ensure our children thrive and feel ownership in our neighborhood and communities. In this way, we can ensure we are healthy, safe, and strong, from outside as well as in, and truly preserve what we have been fighting for, for the future.
Tara Tamaribuchi is an artist mom, a Dharma School teacher at Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, and a leader of Friends of Inscape, where she is currently working to save the Inscape Arts (former INS building) from redevelopment. Learn more about her art at www.taratamaribuchi.com.