By Kristin Chang
The week before spring break, I could barely sleep. I woke up every two hours and stared into the dark – maybe a little melodramatic, but I couldn’t fall back to sleep. Instead, I spent the rest of my nights thinking about going “home” for spring break, counting down the days and hours and minutes until I’d be back in my hometown, where I wouldn’t have to speak to a single white person for a full two weeks (my hometown had long ago been nicknamed the “White Flight” city by the Wall Street Journal). I use “home” in quotes because I knew I would be moving soon, and this trip would also be a goodbye. And amidst this excitement and (misplaced) nostalgia — for my grandmother’s cooking, the indistinguishable mountain of shoes piled by our front door, the grocery stores with Asian food courts attached to them — I found myself almost sick with longing.
My friend and roommate, also a woman of color, called this unbearable longing a symptom of “minority fatigue,” a term that (most likely) was coined by NPR in 2006. At first, I was sceptical: I was homesick, that was all. But as I reflected, I realized that everything I craved about home had to everything to do with really being Asian amongst Asians, and everything to do with gaining a physical distance from white people — or at least being able to function and live beyond their gaze.
According to multiple scientific studies, Brown and Black students and employees were much more likely to suffer from chronic fatigue and sleep deprivation, a combination of having to do emotional labor, dealing with the dailiness of racism, and lacking social support networks. At Sarah Lawrence, “minority fatigue” appears in the most insidious forms: it’s having to spend a whole day recovering from a racist remark in your first-year studies, or getting dragged into an all-consuming Facebook fight by a white student, or flicking through your newsfeed and realizing you’ll have to talk to your family later about impending legislation or hate crimes in your area.
The exhaustion lingers, a weight you carry inside your bones. The weight of my white classmates’ gazes, particularly when I bring up race in the supposedly “race-neutral” setting of the classroom, is enough to make me sag in my seat. And every time I turned to someone nearby to vent or share or laugh, I realized that I simply don’t have the same freedom to socialize as casually as I did back home. I remember one of my best friends from high school, who upon hearing where I was going to attend college, just laughed and said to me: “Aiya, Kristin, you can’t be chinky there.”
This constant hyperawareness reminds me of my first years of school, when I was still learning to speak English: it was like my jaw was wired tight, my entire body so tense people would constantly ask what was wrong with me. It was, and is, a kind of paranoia: am I enunciating when I speak? Am I being oversensitive? Can I joke with my friends about white people in this public space without feeling like we’ve drawn a target on ourselves?
In the end, I called my mom more often, spoke to her in my mangled Chinglish as much as possible, asked for stories about my grandma and brother. But she was usually exhausted after work, and when she did call, all she wanted was confirmation that my grades were good and that I was going to class. I was going to class, but I was also exhausted — but how do I explain an exhaustion whose source seems utterly intangible? How do I explain what it’s like to be watched on a campus as white as Sarah Lawrence, where you are foreign in every space?
Yet, when I went home, I realized that this fatigue, though heightened in the setting of white academia, was something my mother knew — of course she knew. It was something I’d known my whole life, too, long before I became a token. There is no escape from whiteness in all its institutional forms: gentrification (Koreatown being completely rezoned to make way for office buildings and high-rises), immigration crackdowns in local businesses where my family and friends work, and the added pressure of spending break helping my family with immigration paperwork (all the more urgent now.)
In all my romanticizing of home and hometowns, I forgot that one of the reasons why I was going home in the first place was to help some of my family move — my city has already becoming unlivable for so many of its immigrants. And as I’m helping my family members say goodbye, I understand that there are so many ways in which we, now being displaced, have been complacent in the displacement of others.
My city has always been policed and surveilled and groomed — by white people, yes, but also by non-Black Asians. We complain about Koreatown being demolished to make way for white start-ups, but what about the East and South Asian tech employees complicit in and actively gentrifying so many areas of the Bay Area — displacing the immigrants that came before them? What about Black residents who have always been surveilled and unsafe in places like Koreatown because of Asian anti-Blackness? What about the Indigenous land my family has made our home on? We have work to do, and as always, it is no less urgent than addressing our own oppression.
When I asked my grandmother, who would be moving in with my other grandmother in East LA, about what she thought a home was even supposed to be, she just smiled. She is a refugee, a woman who fled her home as it was being bombed to shards behind her. She has told me so many times that she is glad we helped make a home for her, but I never believed her: how could a cramped, meager space in our home be anything to thank us for? I asked her if she was afraid to move, and she told me she wasn’t. I told her that I was ready to go back to school already, and she just patted me on the back, told me that though she’s never had a home that’s belonged to her, she knew what a home was. She pointed to herself, then to me, then back to herself. We’ve always been home, she said, and for once I believed her.
Kristin Chang is a staff writer at Even If Your Voice Shakes. She is from California. She studies languages, cries over poetry, and invents alter-egos-of-color for Wonder Woman. If you liked or learned from this article, please consider paying her: cash.me/kristinxchang.