From hyper-pop queen Rina Sawayama to the legend about the town of Ponnur, we asked our Digital Press writers to reflect on what AAPI Month — and their AAPI identity — means to them. Click on their respective articles below to read more!
“Mother I Bow To Thee” – Neel
There is a legend about the town of Ponnur, Guntur. Kasibhatlu was a man who tried all he could but was unable to have a child. Gunugovindu was a hunchbacked man that no woman wanted. Upon embarking on a pilgrimage together, Kasibhatlu and Gunugovindu found themselves among a beautiful flowing river and sprouting trees. Moved by nature’s beauty, Kasibhatlu declared, calling on nature as his witness, that if he could ever bear a daughter, he would give Gunugovindu his blessing to take her hand in marriage.
Years go past and Kasibhatlu finally bore a daughter. He raised her in the town. After she grew up, Gunugovindu approached Kasibhatlu, asking if he still had his blessings to ask his daughter for her hand in marriage. Kasibhatlu was now reluctant, not willing to see his daughter with a hunchbacked man. Rejecting Gunugovindu’s advances, he then went to sleep. After a restless night of sleep, Kasibhatlu woke up to see the witnesses of his unfulfilled promise: the flowing river and sprouting trees of his pilgrimage. The next day, he asked Gunugovindu to please take his daughter’s hand.
Nature is the omnipresent witness of human exchange.
Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao was a stationary shop owner born in the town of Ponnur in the Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh. Born into the spirit of revolution amidst all of his brothers fighting for freedom as workers of the National Congress, he was one of many witnesses of violence. The same witness as the cork tree that sat on the coast when Vasco De Gama first brandished his sword on Indian soil. Or maybe the same witness as the stream that heard the gunshots ring from Reginald Edward Harry Dyer’s army, littering one-thousand and five hundred protestors on the lawn of Jallianwala Bagh. Or even the same witness as the fields of Calcutta that trembled under the weight of three-point-eight million Bengali bodies.
It started with boycotts. It quickly became tearing apart formal communication with the British crown. Strapped to train tracks, they would chant
“Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleams,
Cool with the winds of delight,
Dark fields waving, Mother of might,
On the fateful morning of March twelfth, nineteen-thirty, Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao began his two-hundred and forty-mile march with the Indian Congress to the Arabian Sea. Marching for twenty-four days, he walked past droves of gangling Indian mahogany and flocks of drooping banyan reaching out with brittle branches and silent pleas for help. He witnessed Gandhi’s alchemy at the Arabian Sea, scooping a handful of mud from the shore, evaporating the mud in boiling water, and revealing illicit salt in the palm of his hands. The same British laws that claimed no salt could enter the country without being taxed now quivered behind Gandhi’s open fist of revolution.
With this taste of victory, Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao only became more zealous. The history books praise the nonviolent protests helmed by Gandhi that ultimately secured Indian independence. But somehow, these same books seem to forget about eighty-five British government buildings blown to smithereens or burned to the ground. They turn a blind eye to the seventy police stations that were laid to rubble. They neglect to mention the fifty-seven British battalions that marched across Bihar, murdering hundreds of protestors and arresting thousands more. For Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao, the revolution bore little resemblance to a peaceful demonstration.
On July ninth, nineteen-thirty, Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao was transferred to the Central Jail in Trichinipoly from the Lahore prison. Each day he was whipped, beaten down, and tortured. As his comrades and friends hung from nooses, he chanted with each strike of the baton on his back:
“Glory of moonlight dreams,
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming trees,
Mother, giver of ease,
Laughing low and sweet,
Mother, I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low,
Mother, to thee I bow.”
Only to be beaten even harder.
After years of being transferred from prison to prison, in nineteen-forty five, the Labour Party won their elections in the United Kingdom on the platform to give in to the demands of the Indian freedom fighters. Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao stepped out onto a physically and emotionally broken land. The spirit of the soon-to-be fledgling nation was already weary, but its people were resilient. Picking up the broken pieces with his two hands, Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao started building.
With each brick fell a drop of blood. First, it was a modest return to his stationary shop. Brick by brick he put together a small business that all across Ponnur needed for their school and office essentials.
With each brick fell a drop of sweat. Then, he built a family. He raised eight children with his wife. All of them received freedom fighter recognition, academic scholarships, books and grants, and a bright road ahead.
With each brick fell a teardrop. Finally, he built a legacy. He was allotted five acres of land for his struggles with his comrades. He received a pension of two-hundred rupees every month and was awarded a copper plate from the infant Indian government. This reward quickly became two-thousand rupees every month.
Spending the next thirty-five years as a free man in a free country, Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao lived in peace. I can only imagine, however, that on December thirty-first, in the year nineteen-seventy nine, as he went to sleep one last time, he may have caught a glimpse of gangling mahogany and drooping banyan — just like Kasibhatlu’s witnesses — weeping with pleas for a better tomorrow.
Now, I inhabit the building of broken pieces.
Nature never forgets the promises we break or the violence we commit. It is the oldest witness and archiver of history, silently scrutinizing the destruction of human exchange. For Kasibhatlu, his arbiters exposed the guilt in his heart for his deception, reminding him of the covenant he entered. For Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao, instead, he must have been confronted by the witnesses of his march into a revolution of suffering.
Unlike Kasibhatlu and Gunugovindu, Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao was no legend passed down from one generation to the next. He was a man of flesh and mind: one of the hundreds of thousands of Indian freedom fighters whose name was lost to history but lives on in my blood.
As the child of two immigrant parents whose past is intertwined with the bloody legacy that the British left behind in South Asia, confronting this history is one step towards reconciling with an Indian-American identity. To be living across the world from India, detached from the violent history faced by my ancestors, is both a privilege and an identity crisis. However, in my journey toward unraveling this identity, I sought to tell the story of my great-grandfather, Sri Adharapurapu Udipi Krishna Rao.
I write this story with deep admiration for the bravery of my great-grandfather, his brothers, and the many more that have left behind a legacy diluted by a history textbook. I also write this story with sorrow for the violence that followed the dissolution of the British Raj and the tumultuous partition. I too write this story with respect for my community and a profound pride in my heritage. Now, we must learn to sculpt the building into something beautiful.
“I Love Bananas, But I Hate the Word” – Jeslyn
Banana [buh – na – nuh ]
Botanically a berry, with an inedible outer peel and edible inner fruit.
Michigan summers meant I had to occupy my time with something besides school. Thus commenced my weekly tennis practices during the July before sixth grade.
As I was cherishing the brief water breaks in between forehand shots, my tennis coach pointed to the banana I brought in my bag. It just so happened to be the fruit of the week, one my mom hastily picked out as I was rushing out the door to avoid being late.
“That’s you, a banana,” my coach jokingly mentioned, “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
Bananas are what I put on my pancakes in the morning. What I would dip in chocolate and leave to freeze overnight. Bananas are what I deemed as my go-to snack.
Bananas, as I learned that summer, are also a label.
I’ve been to China a handful of times – none of which I can distinctly remember. During my longest visit, I lived in Shanghai for a little less than a year right before elementary school. I haven’t been back since.
I didn’t like how the unrelenting summer heat brought swarms of unrelenting mosquitoes along with it. I didn’t like how the Shanghai skies were always a sea of gray because of the light pollution. I didn’t like how busy the streets were – laden with honking cars, exhaust-filled air, and an infinite stream of dismal passerby.
Humanity’s inherent language acquisition skills afforded me the gift of understanding Chinese, credited to the years of passively growing up around my Chinese-speaking parents. However, it was a different story when it came to responding, reading, and writing with the language. I was one-fourth of the way to fluency, but forever stunted as I decided to quit Mandarin School in fourth grade.
No one besides my family – no one in class, no one here – took Mandarin, I thought, so I shouldn’t have to either.
It’s an interesting feeling, to both belong and not belong at the same time. To understand Chinese but not know how to respond when your grandparents ask you the simplest question: nǐ hǎo ma (how are you)? To be a hundred percent Chinese but feel it dissipate to zero when walking along the Shanghai streets.
Those people are Chinese. I was not.
Whenever it was too hot for our liking, my mom and I would walk to the gas station across the street. Hidden in the corner of the store – an insignificant cooler, ignored by the majority of storegoers but cherished by me.
Buried underneath Melona bars and Haagen Daz: banana popsicles.
Elementary-school me had never seen or heard of such a thing before. Shaped like the fruit itself, the popsicle had a peelable jelly coating; when unraveled, there was banana ice cream underneath. When I look back at my year in Shanghai, I don’t remember the unrelenting summer heat, the mosquitoes, or the feeling of not belonging.
I only remember those banana popsicles.
I remember eating them as my mom and I walked to the little farmer’s market near her old home. Buying the Xian Bings (meat pies) and Tang Huas (sugar paintings) along the road, and eating them until my stomach was full with nothing but that and artificial banana.
I remember splitting them with my grandfather as we threw pebbles along the gardens near his street. Watching the little stones melodically dance across the ripples, and laughing as the remnants of banana ice cream dripped off our fingers and into the pond.
It’s true when they say you only miss the things that are gone.
After all the times I begged my parents to take me back to Michigan that year – I miss not staying for longer. I miss the second home that I never let be my first.
Above all, I miss the banana popsicles. I haven’t had one since I was 12.
Everyone says their family’s recipes are the best. They’re wrong. My grandma’s dumplings though?
Those are the best.
Dumplings are a full day endeavor. First, we have to drive to 168 Asian Mart – the only ethnic grocery store that exists within a three-hour radius of Birmingham, Michigan. Once we’re there, we have to meticulously sort through the food section – picking out the chives, the flour, the purple cabbage, the ground shrimp, the pork, the five-spice. Carrying the overflowing bags into our kitchen, we then pour so much flour on our cutting boards that winter might as well have come early.
There’s a perfect science to dumpling-making. Only my grandma knew what it was.
Rolling out perfect circles of flattened dough, eye-balling just the right amount of filling, and meticulously folding together little crescents of cherished heritage. I would spend hours just sitting and watching her. My feet dangling from the kitchen chairs, covered in flour as I tried to mimic my grandma’s motions with only a mere fraction of her skill.
Equal parts vinegar and soy sauce, a dash of sesame oil, and a few cloves of minced garlic. Simple, but there’s no better companion for the little moons sizzling on the pan in front of me. Hours of effort traded for a finished plate of dumplings. No better reward.
As I impatiently wait to let them cool, I can’t help but also notice the bananas in the fruit bowl next to us.
Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
I burn my mouth as I eat one dumpling after the next. I don’t let them cool for nearly as long as I should. Maybe if I eat them fast enough, maybe if I fill my stomach with the same dumplings my grandma would eat growing up in Nanjing.
I wouldn’t look like all the other bananas at the table.
There is something to be said about privilege.
The privilege to put on a uniform every morning and drive next to the BMW’s and Cadillacs lining my private school’s entrance. The privilege to grab six dollar lattes whenever a bad day warranted a liquid reward. The privilege to go home, and have a home.
My parents immigrated to America when they were 20. Not knowing any English, not knowing anyone, and not knowing anything besides the fact that only hard work can earn money.
It was their sacrifices that paved the way for my privilege. The privilege to see the world through a rose-colored lens.
I wore these rose-colored glasses everywhere. In March of 2020, I wore them to the grocery store with my mom. Picking out our weekly haul of fruit, I parsed through packages of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, while my mom flicked the rinds of watermelons to find the best.
It has to make a certain noise, my mom said through her mask, or you can tell the watermelon is bad.
I reach out to the bananas next, but stop as a stranger walks up to my mom.
Go back to where you came from, we don’t want your COVID here.
We leave the grocery store. I leave the rose-colored glasses. They’re probably still next to the bananas.
I’m grateful my mom moved to San Diego the same time I moved to college. Every month or so, it meant I had a home to go back to when I wasn’t so busy in LA. A home that wasn’t across the country, but merely a three-hour drive south.
It was during these long drives where we filled in all the missed time without each other. Classes. Friends. Life.
Stuck within the four doors of my mom’s SUV– maybe now was finally the time to come out to her. If not now, not ever. When?
Right as I’m about to say what I couldn’t for 19 years, we pass a billboard: JESUS LOVES YOU.
I remember this girl I was talking to when I first came to UCLA. In between picnics and art museum dates that never happened, she tells me about her parents.
Devout Christians, she says, so they can’t know about us.
We ended before we could even start.
My mom used to beg me to go to church. She had seen a documentary and became convinced that organized religion would save us from pain. The pain of her divorce, the pain of our family splitting up, and above all, the pain of us not belonging in America.
What if God isn’t real, mom? I asked her once.
God is real. She said.
Swimming aimlessly in the ocean of things I want to say back to her, but never do.
I’m sorry, mom, for it must be so hard to believe in something — not out of faith, but desperation.
My thoughts get cut short when my mom asks me to hand her the banana she packed for the drive.
Instead of coming out, I talk about the weather instead.
In Hollywood of all places, the space for Asian representation is nearly nonexistent.
When you’ve never been exposed to something, you don’t realize how much you needed it in the first place. I didn’t know how much I needed Everything Everywhere All at Once.
336 awards, 691 nominations.
In another universe, the movie could’ve received nothing, and I still would’ve hosted a personal Oscar’s party in my room. When I first watched Everything Everywhere All at Once, the first person I wanted to tell was my mom.
Maybe, if she saw Michelle Yeoh and Stephanie Hsu, she could finally understand her and me. But maybe – probably – it wouldn’t change anything.
In our culture, my mom would say, parent’s don’t say “I love you” or “good job.” Words don’t mean anything, actions do. It’s my job to tell you what you need to be doing, not what you’ve done well.
Love was shown to me through piano lessons, tennis classes, and cut pieces of banana while I studied. Love was shown to me through comparison – how I have more acne than my friend, how I should be skinnier than I am, and how I should be studying like the other students.
Love was accepting that I will never understand the Chinese world she grew up in, while wishing she would understand the American world I did.
There’s a Chinese proverb: Yǒuqíng yǐnshuǐ bǎo, wúqíng shí fàn jī.
(“Without love, food doesn’t satisfy. With love, water is enough.” )
When you say you love me, mom,
Is that why we both end up drowning?
My Asian-American identity, while universally shared by countless others, was never something I could quite articulate in words.
You can’t wholly define what you yourself are still trying to figure out.
As I falter over the line separating “American” and “not,” it feels as if I have lost two cultures while also gaining both at the same time. I hope it’s more of the latter.
There’s an incessant need to discern through labels – to judge, compartmentalize, and diminish a complex body of experiences into a simplified title. In the process, we forget that we are made of more than words.
My identity is etched into my memories. Every memory I’ve made, and every memory I will make. My grandma’s dumplings, tennis lessons, summer in Shanghai, life in Michigan turned life in California. Oh, and banana popsicles.
So you see, I love bananas, but I hate the word.
“STFU! and listen to Rina Sawayama” – Chloe
Only once in a blue moon does a queer Asian woman rise to pop stardom. In the Eastern and Western pop spheres alike, they face an array of intersectional discrimination, which heavily limits both domestic and diasporic queer Asian representation. Award-winning Japanese-British pop star Rina Sawayama is therefore a rare exception. To announce her debut studio album, SAWAYAMA, Sawayama released “STFU!” as its lead single on 22 November 2019. Where Sawayama could have chosen a more radio-friendly track as her lead single, such as the danceable, disco-house homage “Comme Des Garçons” (SAWAYAMA’s second single), “STFU!” is unapologetically arresting. Riding a wave of thundering nu-metal guitars, Sawayama releases an explosion of pent-up anger at the microaggressions and fetishization she faces as a Japanese woman living in a predominantly white country. By bringing underrepresented political messages and unconventional genres into mainstream pop, “STFU!” signifies Sawayama as a beacon of queer Asian talent creating space for minority narratives in the music industry and defying racial and gender stereotypes.
Before we dive into “STFU!”, it should be noted in the context of AAPI month that Rina Sawayama is a member of the Asian diaspora, but she is British Asian, not Asian American. However, as a British Asian myself, I have seen that Asian Americans today face many of the same issues as us. Long before the escalation in anti-Asian hate crimes across Western countries following COVID-19, Asian Americans and British Asians often face parallel issues, especially those living in predominantly white areas. Sawayama details, “As a Japanese girl growing up in the West, I dealt with an array of aggressors ranging from: sexual stereotypes, comparisons with Lucy Liu and Cho Chang, to having to be the unofficial PR person and tourist board to Tokyo (a city of Western fascination that I left when I was 4), to people shouting Asian greetings down the street (Ni hao! Konichiwa!), and finally to people doing slit eyes.” Even though Sawayama speaks as a British Asian, her narrative in “STFU!” is one that Asian Americans can all too well identify with.
A culmination of racist experiences over Sawayama’s life inspired the lyrics of “STFU!”, such as being called Rina “Wagamama” (a British pan-Asian restaurant chain) by a label executive. One experience in particular strongly compelled her to write the song. At a wedding, a middle-aged white man asked Sawayama, “Where are you really from?”. Upon Sawayama’s answer that she was born in Japan and moved to London, he began listing all the Japanese restaurants in her area and asking her if she knew them. He continued, “I’m writing a fiction told through the eyes of a Japanese woman … I’ve shown my Japanese friends my book. They didn’t have many good things to say, but I feel like the Japanese are very bad at giving criticism.” Sawayama says that she would have been angered by this interaction when she was younger, but after years of similar encounters, she just found it “funny” and “ridiculous”. She explains, “I think it is important to have an element of [humor] in understanding the world, because otherwise it can really get you down.” Thus, Sawayama wrote “STFU!” as a double-sided embodiment of both her rage at racist remarks and the humor she uses to cope with it. Her lyrics and musical choices, realized by producer Clarence Clarity, effectively portray this duality. The verses combine nu-metal riffs and screams with glitchy hyper-pop production, over which Sawayama rages, “How come you don’t respect me? Expecting fantasies to be my reality; why don’t you just sit down and —” Before she finishes the sentence, the music completely changes to a bubblegum-sweet, early 2000s pop chorus, reminiscent of JoJo and early Miley Cyrus. Sawayama resumes in an angelic croon “— shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, shhh”. The juxtaposition between the chorus’ aggressive, explicit lyrics and its lighthearted music represents the conflict between Sawayama’s internal and external states when faced with a microaggression. She politely masks her indignation, struggling with whether to “confront the aggressor and make it awkward … or deal with things with a smile and pay for it with [her] own mental health afterwards.” This sentiment culminates in the cathartic final line of the chorus, “Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut? ‘Cause I have many times.” Using striking genre combinations with potent lyrics, Sawayama creates the perfect pop anthem for racial minorities to vent their frustration. Furthermore, by bringing this topic to the forefront of her output as her lead single, Sawayama ensures her message reaches as wide an audience as possible.
Still, releasing “STFU!” as SAWAYAMA’s lead single did not guarantee that its mainstream audience would be receptive to it. Listeners who have not experienced microaggressions might not fully grasp or empathize with Sawayama’s message. The music video for “STFU!” therefore plays a key role in explicitly and visually contextualizing the song’s subject, making it clear to a wider audience. The music video situates the song at its source of inspiration, opening with a date scene between Sawayama and a white man, played by comedian Ben Ashenden. He tells Sawayama, “I was quite surprised you sang in English”, that she reminds him of a “sexier version” of Sandra Oh and Lucy Liu, and says he is writing a “fanfiction … like a new age Memoirs of a Geisha.” Accurately epitomizing microaggressions, this scene is a painfully familiar interaction to viewers of color and an ideal education for the unfamiliar: the man is not making racist and fetishist statements out of malice, but rather, ignorance. Moreover, by shooting the scene from Sawayama’s perspective, it further helps the viewer to empathize with her disbelief at his shocking unawareness, regardless of their own racial background. Another key role of the music video is that it visually underscores Sawayama’s rage, emphasizing her expressiveness and power as an Asian woman and defying intersectional stereotypes of race and gender. As June Kouch and Allegro Wang write in Cyber Fantasies: Rina Sawayama, Asian Feminism, and Techno-Orientalism in the Age of Neoliberalism, “Sawayama intentionally uses her artistry and platform to produce a cultural production that challenges the subjectification of East Asian women brought by Orientalism.” The music video shows various iterations of Sawayama after she reaches her breaking point at the man’s microaggressions. In one concept, she references “the girl in The Ring”, wearing a long black wig and crawling across the restaurant table of her failed date, smashing plates and putting her hand over the man’s mouth. In another, she wears six-inch heels and black lingerie, throwing up the middle finger at the camera. By showing her dramatic range, Sawayama portrays the Asian woman as confident, vengeful, and sexually liberated, deconstructing their submissive Western characterization and choosing her own narrative.
By subverting expectations of genre, race, and gender, Sawayama’s “STFU!” gives a defiant voice to the Asian diaspora whilst harnessing the widespread attention of mainstream pop listeners. The song was a highlight of Sawayama’s set last year at Coachella 2022 and remains a “cult favorite” of her discography as she becomes a household name in the hyperpop sphere. Where the music industry’s racial imbalances are a microcosm of global racial inequity, minority anthems like “STFU!” represent only the beginning of much-needed demographic change. Sawayama’s ultimate message? Don’t just “shut the fuck up” – listen.