Masks. We all wear them, and sometimes more than one. Author Marie Lu once wrote, “The irony of life is that those who wear masks often tell us more truths than those with open faces.” For American Asians, code switching has long been a familiar survival mechanism. No parent or elder explicitly told us to “act more white and you will do better.” They simply modeled that behavior as we spoke and acted one way inside our own homes and another when we went out. The contrast between Cantonese (for my family in particular) and “West Coast American” was always startling. The former being frenetic, occasionally musical, and at times “angry” in intonation, while the latter subdued, formal, and comparatively genteel. Even body language shifted. Broad hand gestures and finger wagging gave way to greater stillness. And on very rare occasions when I would hear an older auntie obliviously speak “Chinglish” at a white restaurant, it felt awkward, like a dissonant chord mistakenly struck at a piano recital. And perhaps all for sound reason? Kim Tran, an anti-racist consultant who is currently writing a book about interracial coalitions, asserts on her website:
“There are some realities to being Asian-American, and that is that we are perpetual foreigners in this country and that aspirational whiteness is granted to a lot of East and Northeast Asians. So it seems like that's available to us—at least it did before the coronavirus really took place. It seems like whiteness was accessible and possible for a lot of us. Some folks are really comforted by that, because it’s this white supremacist idea that you could claim the racial ladder and climb the racial hierarchy.”
As part of an ongoing series of photos created in partnership with renown photographer Michelle Watt (see “Biggest Eggplant Contest” and “Game Show”), “Don’t Forget Your Masks” shows us the very moment in which we leave our cultural safety bubble, requiring the proper armor and code switching to stay safe outside in the cis white American world. Her photos neither judge nor preach, and simply invite the viewer to reflect on a reality made hyperreal. Her belief is that part of these photos’ success is what each viewer brings to them, the questions we pose but don’t answer.
Here, a Chinese American family gets dressed to leave the house and are about to put on the masks of white people. Some masks are affixed on their faces already, some are still hanging on hooks, some are halfway on kids’ heads as dad helps them put on shoes. Our AA+PI art director and stylist deliberately created a setting to cite elements of past decades and invoke memories from our collective “American raised” childhoods.
We asked Watt for her own reflections and commentary:
“This idea came from the need to code switch between the different environments I grew up in being Asian in America. At home in my Chinese household we spoke a certain way. Our guards were down, we could relax and be ourselves. And when we’d leave the house, we would button up and formalize our speech in another way. The reason is if we learn to speak and act like a white person, we would have a better chance at blending in. As a survival mechanism, we learned to mask and internalize our ‘otherness’ to minimize our chances of being verbally or physically mistreated. To protect yourself, at whatever cost, do not stick out. The irony here is that no matter how much of a ‘mask’ we try to put on, everyone can still see that we’re Asian.
Some people will get it. Many won’t. We are all complicit either way. If you get the joke, you’ve already played out the stereotype in your head. But getting the conversation started is the point.”
Is this unique to AA+PIs of my and Michelle’s generation? Or is some form of code switching still practiced today by those younger? Likely so. As with all things race and identity, answers are nuanced and more complex than at first blush. In an opinion piece for The Florida Times-Union, Japanese American writer Mari Kuraishi writes that code switching can doubly serve as a way to differentiate away from other Asian ethnicities, while at the same time feigning affinity with the white majority:
“An awareness of being Japanese also carries with it a baggage of being very aware that you are not Chinese, or Korean, or any other East Asian nationality. But I also grew up outside of Japan, including in Italy and Germany where I was often taken to be Chinese or Korean and I became adept at code switching. So much so, I would forget that I was different and didn’t look like the majority until something would happen.”
As prevalent as this kind of mask usage is, there’s an argument to be made about how harmful it is, paying reverence to a societal framework that always has and continues to center whiteness. Implicit is a belief that the center of gravity can only shift if we cease wearing masks. In this way, code switching can be highly damaging because it leaves people feeling as if they’re not acceptable the way that they are.
But the results of the recently released STAATUS Index from The Asian American Foundation report that the majority of AA+PIs continue to feel some element of “otherness” in the United States. Nearly 80 percent of Asian Americans do not completely feel they belong and are accepted, while one in two feel unsafe in the United States. From the era of the prior generation that this photo invokes, it feels like a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same…”
Obviously, our mission at JoySauce is to find a way to continue these complicated conversations about social advancement, authenticity, and identity in the United States, both inside the Asian diaspora and outside it. As Michelle suggests, getting the conversation started is the point, and sustaining the discourse is the only way we uncover answers. At this time and in this moment, those reflections and dialog may indeed be much more powerful than the photos themselves.
Published on May 10, 2023
Words by Jonathan Ng Sposato
Jonathan Sposato is the founder and acting editor-in-chief of JoySauce. He is also the Chairman and Co-founder of independent tech newsite GeekWire.com, and founder of photosite PicMonkey.com. When he is not planting eggplants in his garden, he can usually be found explaining to friends just how a London-born, half-Chinese, half-Korean guy ended up with an Italian last name, while going to a British school in Hong Kong run by Spanish nuns.
Photography by Michelle Watt
Michelle Watt is a fashion and portrait photographer with a surreal narrative style. She is based in both Brooklyn and San Francisco with her Rhodesian boxer Fiona, and likes to travel to climb boulders.