A World of Difference
Raised as Chinese in a white American suburb, Viveka found the Dharma while studying Chinese at college. Here she reflects on race, identity, and the irony of being a Chinese Western Buddhist.
Many centuries ago the Indian monk Bodhidharma journeyed to China to teach the Dharma. The Emperor of Liang asked him, 'Who is standing before me?'
Bodhidharma replied, 'I do not know.'
How would you have answered the Chinese Emperor? He raises a classic existential question, and a great Buddhist one at that. 'Who am I, and what am I doing here?'
I asked myself this question during my teens in the suburbs of New Jersey. The usual adolescent angst was heightened by being born and raised in an overwhelmingly white middle-class American suburb in the 1970s and '80s. In these bleakly non-diverse environs, my Chinese heredity was at the centre of my questioning.
My ethnic identity was inescapable because of my undeniably different physical appearance. The only person I resembled was the Chinese laundress in a television commercial. (When asked how she got whites so clean, she replied, 'Ancient Chinese secret!') At times I thought my sense of not belonging could be alleviated if I looked like everyone else. My cousin and I once tried sleeping with clothespegs on our noses to enhance our unsatisfactory profiles, in a perversion of the Chinese tradition of binding women's feet.
Culinary assimilation challenges were ever present. We ate home-cooked Chinese meals virtually every night, although we begged for meat loaf. I remember being teased for weeks after offering a classmate a special treat ... dried squid snacks. (Lucky I didn't offer those tiny fish with their eyeballs intact.)
My parents attempted to have their children turn out Chinese, despite our desire to be like everyone else. Mom and Dad banded with other Chinese friends to form the Chinese American Cultural Association. In a classic English-as-second-language bungle, the acronym spelled CACA. We were mortified. Just a month ago (20 years after the fact) my parents' Italian friends finally broke the news to them that 'CACA' is Italian slang for 'shit'.
Mom and Dad constantly spoke to my brother and I in Chinese. Like clockwork, we would answer in English. When asked (in Chinese), 'Why don't you speak Chinese?' we would simply remain silent, avoiding the complication of which language to use to deliver the bad news. We wanted to talk like everybody else. We wanted to forget we were different.
It's difficult to convey adequately the challenges of growing up with a mother who majored in Asian Classical Literature. Mom can quote Confucius like she has a built-in CD-ROM. To children raised on American soil, and plied with individualism almost every moment outside the home, the message of duty and selflessness encapsulated in all those Confucian sayings was as foreign as the classical Chinese in which they were delivered.
The collision of the tectonic plates of a Chinese Confucian upbringing and the American self-fulfilment dream around me meant I had no stable ground to stand on. When, as a young adult, I heard the Buddhist teaching of no fixed self, I knew it was true. Our identities are fluid. Of all the cultural influences in my life I can choose what I cultivate and who I become - and I'm grateful for the diversity.
But there's a darker side to my story. Reading my childhood diaries for this article, the number of references to being a 'chink' is shocking. I had forgotten the frustration of being reduced to a hateful label. 'Chink' encapsulates the hatred for 'other' that shadows American (indeed human) history. My trivial preoccupations about my appearance, food conformity and using the language of the 'New World' were the coping mechanisms of someone who did not know how to love herself because the world around her didn't know how to love her either.
My first trip back to China in 1983 at the age of 16 saved me from identity oblivion. China was opening its doors after the painful years of the Cultural Revolution. My parents were pleased to see long-lost family and to bring me 'home'.
On that trip I saw that China was a country with a rich history and culture. In her chequered past, China's people had endured a great deal with dignity and strength. My aunts and cousins had survived the punishments of the Cultural Revolution, including hard manual labour and years of moving bricks and shovelling shit in fields. Countless others had faced similar or worse plights. Yet the people I met were warm-hearted and full of life.
Somehow I was connected to it all. The Yellow Mountains at sunrise, the Great Wall, Buddhist temples, roadside red bean popsicle salesmen, and over one billion people. Chinese people! What a shift in perspective for one of only two Chinese girls in her school. After that trip I let go of the self-loathing I had absorbed and embodied. I had forgotten what it was to be Chinese. But those memories were stored inside me. The Chinese air, mountains, language, food and people released that memory. I came alive.
At college I immersed myself in Chinese language, history and political science. During my first summer I enrolled for a Chinese philosophy course that introduced me to Buddhism. Reading my first Dharma book, I was overtaken by a sense of remembering, as if I was already a Buddhist; but there had been nothing in my surroundings to remind me. Although my paternal grandmother was a Buddhist, she never inspired me. In fact, my brother and I hid behind the couch when she was chanting, and mimicked her for our amusement.
While grandmother's devotions did not impress, it was the ideas of Buddhism that I responded to. The idea of Big Mind, and an outlook that transcended duality. After all, I had personal experience with the limitation of dualities. I was neither East nor West - I was both.
The duality of being white or Chinese started opening out. For one thing, my environment had changed. I was in Philadelphia, a blue-collar city with a large African American population. I saw that class as much as race affects how we perceive and create our world. Every day students of Ivy League privilege prepared themselves for a life of opportunity while the city's African American communities were in the midst of a crack cocaine epidemic. Campus activism against apartheid was in full throttle, and this only raised the question of what was to be done about the impact of racism in us inner cities.
In 1988, a year before the Tiananmen Square massacre, I was studying at Beijing University. Most evenings I sat late into the night drinking weak beer with students who wanted to know what it was like living in a democratic society. African and Chinese students played together in a reggae band at a party in the ancient Temple of the Moon park. Avant-garde art was springing up. In words borrowed from Mao (words on which he turned his back in the Cultural Revolution), a thousand flowers were blooming. Now it seems like a dream. A dream that ended with gunfire and tanks.
I was becoming aware of suffering beyond the frustrations of an adolescent stranded in suburbia. I was waking up to the vastly larger and beginningless suffering wrought by humans against humans. Knowing what it was like to be 'other' and not fully accepted, connected me to the suffering of oppression and injustice - especially racism - the world over. It's not surprising that this was also the period when I was most passionately, even desperately, exploring the Dharma, its teaching helping to make sense of a mad world.
Looking around the globe, human greed, hatred and confusion can be seen everywhere. Injustice and oppression are not solely attributable to any one race or nation, and at times the oppressed have been oppressors. Exploring my Chinese identity in a dominant European American culture opened the door for a connection with others labelled as minorities.
On US soil alone examples of inhuman treatment of those considered 'other' are tragically numerous. Slavery took the lives of 50 million Africans. Native Americans were (and are) forcibly removed from lands they had long occupied. Meanwhile, for the past decade, California has seen an upsurge in mean-spirited, anti-immigrant legislation largely aimed at Mexicans who 'don't belong here' (despite the fact that Mexico used to extend through what is now California, New Mexico and Texas).
Remember the forcible internment of Japanese American citizens and Japanese nationals in concentration camps during World War II. Remember that laws protecting African Americans from mob lynching were not enacted until forced by the pressure of the civil rights movements. What is the us choosing to become as a nation? Then look at the racial profiling that is pushing forward in response to fears about terrorist threats. Who should I fear? Terrorists or my own countrymen who see me as 'other?'
Human beings possess a strength and resilience that is hard for those of us who haven't faced real adversity to imagine. It is the spirit, the ability to endure, to persevere that I love in people of colour. I find it both painful to acknowledge and inspiring. I love seeing what our society would make invisible.
On the eve of his Enlightenment the Buddha has a vision of interconnectedness: 'I recollected my manifold past lives ... 100 births, 1,000 births, 100,000 births ... I was there so-named of such a race with such an appearance, such food, such experience of pleasure and pain, and such a life term; and passing away thence, I reappeared elsewhere, and there too I was so-named, of such a race ...' With this vast perspective it seems absurd to identify with the struggles of one tribe without feeling for the struggles of all. Should we not feel the suffering of any human cruelty as acutely as we would feel it ourselves?
Yet, given this interconnectedness, why do I still identify as a person of colour? Does this mean I am cutting off from those I could call 'other?' Do I assume I have been many races, except Caucasian? If I am honest, a revulsion from whiteness does arise at times. But the Dharma teaches us to cultivate an open heart towards all living beings, without exception. That is the only path to a sustainably peaceful world.
The harsh conditions facing people of colour have moved me to help make social justice in urban communities of colour a reality. This is what I've worked on for the past 10 years. Time and again, I am humbled by the work people are doing to build their communities and preserve their cultures from being swallowed up. Mahayana Buddhism emphasises exchanging self for other as a means of cultivating compassion. One way to develop compassion is to listen to the stories of all people on this earth.
In the I Sutra of Hui-Neng, a visitor to the Sixth Patriarch in China outlines the universal potential for Enlightenment:
'I then went to pay homage to the Patriarch, and was asked where I came from and what I expected to get from him. I replied, "I am a commoner from Hsin-chou of Kwangtung. I have travelled far to pay you respect and I ask for nothing but Buddhahood."
"You are a native of Kwangtung, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?"
I replied, "Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-natures. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature."
In their book Race Formation in the United States, the scholars Omi and Winant put forward a thought-provoking suggestion about
how to approach race, which seems to accord with the Dharma.
'There is a continuous temptation to think of race as an essence, as something fixed, concrete and objective. And there is also an opposite temptation: to imagine race as mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate. It is necessary to challenge both these positions ... and to transcend the presumably irreconcilable relationship between them.'
Buddhists have a good chance of striking the right balance. After all, Buddhism is a path that transcends extremes - a Middle Way. Buddhist tradition asks us to look deeply and to challenge habitual views. We reflect that all our constructs are limited and ultimately insubstantial. In the elegantly evocative language of the Perfection of Wisdom teachings, our ideas about the world are revealed as 'thought-coverings' veiling our perception of reality. Thus, when asked who was standing before the Chinese Emperor, Bodhidharma could reply, 'I do not know.' Race, too, can be understood in this way.
On the other hand in spiritual communities we can think naively that race need not be a factor when we gather. There can even be defensiveness or resistance to looking at racial issues. They are part of our culture and we should be prepared for these to emerge in our sangha. How could they not?
If spiritual communities are reluctant to examine conditioned attitudes to race, we may not achieve an inclusive adaptation of Buddhism to multi-racial cultures like San Francisco, where I teach and practise. Buddhism can take root in any soil, in any human heart. The practicality of creating a broad umbrella of practice, however, is a challenge. I hope the wisdom of the Middle Way will help us in the unfolding of Buddhism's venerable tradition on the ancient soil of the 'New World'. Americans have yet really to see the face of Buddhism here.
The 'original face' of all beings is Buddha-nature, the potential for Enlightenment. It is unlimited, an open dimension of being. To realise that we share this nature is to recognise our basic solidarity. It is to validate the preciousness of human life across national boundaries, class distinctions and colour lines.