This Asian Girl’s Open Letter to Academia

by Wei Si Nicole Yiu

The last week of school…Hopefully next week, there will be less academia. Hopefully two weeks later, there will be no academia. Geography.

I am a Geographer, but I am also marked by Geography.

I think this detest for Geography happened many years ago, from not being able to locate Hong Kong on a map. Or to have to explain to other human beings “what” Hong Kong is. But then, I became a geographer. I applied to this PhD program bright-eyed and hopeful of the radical potentials within the margins of geography, to really be interdisciplinary…you know?

I tried. I even learned about the differences between place and space. I read De Certeau, Harvey, Pratt, Mitchell, and many other white people that I don’t remember the names of. Every time I iterate their concepts along with their names, it’s like an invisible ticket handed to me. This Asian girl, she knows something, she knows about white people and the kind of stuff they write about.

Maybe this detest of Geography happened when he asked me, “Are you Nihao or Konichiwa?” in Kensington market, this hip part of Toronto that models for colour blindness but really is just another space with some white women in dreads, non-Indigenous vendors making dream catchers, and a craze of people running after the best Kombucha.

Or maybe it was when I was in the bathroom stall on the second floor of Sidney Smith Hall, with the acoustics of urine streaming, overhearing someone ask, “Did you see how she dressed? Did you see her makeup? How does she even have time for anything else but that?”

Anxiety, guilt, pain, joy, hope, distress, and more feelings like that. Mainly ugly ones…just started enveloping into one another. I felt disgusting.

I felt sad and angry when I was looking at the ironic safe space poster behind the student who is blabbering on about “Asian Pussy.”

I feel gross every time I say something in class. Am I saying what I want to say? Or am I saying what I need to say? Am I saying anything at all? Why am I even here? Why am I not outside, doing something? Am I being productive?

I felt particularly weak when I told the person I love over Whatsapp, “I don’t know if I’m made for this.” But I’m here in Tkaronto, I have resources to create, to produce, and to continue to live. That’s pretty big. That’s a huge privilege. So, who am I to give up?

I feel tired, emotional, and vulnerable when I have to interrupt and say, “I think that’s problematic because…” I’m utterly killing the vibe.

I feel like crap when I look across the table and she looks at me whenever she talks about race.

I feel like a fraud when I talk about race, knowing the very privilege I have as an Asian woman coded as docile. I’m not the one being targeted by the police. Who am I to talk about it?

I felt pathetic when I almost didn’t send this in as a reading response for a class afraid of “if this constitutes as a reading response.”

What is Academia? What should I do in Academia? Am I Academia-ing right? The Planetary Crisis. The Universal. The Future. What is that?

How I can envision the future? HowI can help others envision future? How can women who work in garment sweatshops in Dongguan think about the future and planetary crisis? How can they be responsible within the global discourse of planetary crises? They are not the universal, and they are not even incorporated in the future. The irony. I get into these spaces when people talk in class. Caught up in my own head. Yay to the power of ADD and ugh to the screeching door that air runs through the bottom vent in this weird way.

This Asian girl, she knows something, she knows about white people and the kind of stuff they write about.

I’m in now. In academia. In that room where the vent makes that fucking noise. I’m part of the “future.” What’s my responsibility? What is my responsibility as someone who can actually insert myself into a future and visualize it? I’m bombarded by these questions and internal reflections of privilege. Every time I complain, I check myself. Who am I to complain? I live in a city where I can be queer and loud. I am in a program where I get to talk about queer people and be heard. But that doesn’t prevent me from feeling shut out, feeling exhausted, feeling like a fraud, feeling like a sellout, feeling like I’m not doing enough, and feeling like I’m being too difficult.

“The academy is a site where mental, physical, and emotional struggles and illnesses proliferate.” (1)

Maybe I’m ill. Maybe I’m sick. Maybe I’m too emotional.

No. I’m just tired. I refuse to disappear as another distressed racialized body in academia. Because “the disappearance of distressed bodies from academia is yet another manifestation of precariousness.” (2)

So I’m just gonna go “home,” wrap myself with a blanket, and then call home. Then my mother can tell me “Wei Si, it’ll be okay.” But then, how can I talk to my mother about institutional hierarchy that is toxic for my very existence as a queer Asian woman? How can I talk to my mother about being upset in an environment she never saw herself in, where she never saw me in, where she never foresaw any of her family members in? She was oh so very proud when I received acceptance letters from most of the universities that I applied to. She was glowing when telling her friends that me, her daughter, is doing her PhD soon. She didn’t understand what a PhD was, she still doesn’t understand what a PhD entails but she knows what a PhD means. I know what a PhD means, that’s why I applied to it. I knew that applying means that I have to be complicit in the very organization that is white supremacist and queer-phobic. I knew that my green hair and dragon tattoos meant something to those people as much as it means something to me. But I can’t talk to my mother about that.

I can’t tell my mum that today I felt like I was being targeted as a queer Asian woman when this guy told me, “Your pussy must taste so good. You know what they say about Asian pussy.” She wouldn’t know what to do with that, she probably never even thought that I would hear things like that at a 5 cm distance to my left ear. I also probably can’t tell my mother how I’m so tired and frustrated with White people coming up to me asking me my opinions about their projects on people of color. I’m not a thermometer to test racism.

My various experiences of privilege and oppression remained to be a topic in my own mind but not one that I could discuss with my mother. She was happy when she put the frames up with my first and second diplomas encased in it, she was happy when I published my first poem, and she is happy to see me doing a PhD now. She is the kind of woman that would believe in the American dream, she would believe in the better of everything, and that is my mother’s most frustrating and beautiful human aspect. So how can I tell my mother I loathe capitalism, when capitalism was the very thing that provided her a route to her sense of freedom? How can I tell my mother I detest academia, when academia is the very thing that provided her hope for a future that I was included in?

To my mother, my very existence in the program is an emblem of success. I was in there, writing stuff that she doesn’t understand, and somehow to her not understanding what I write about was more important than understanding it. To me, my very existence in the program is a form of ambiguous privilege.

So, maybe I won’t call my mother and talk about this. Maybe I’ll just call her and let her talk about her. She will still say, “Wei Si, I love you.” After all, it’s been a long time since the last time someone has called me Wei Si. Sometimes, that’s all I need to hear. Sometimes, I need to hear what I want to hear. To quote Audre Lordeiii, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” It is self-preservation in academia, in Tkaronto, and in this global circuit.

(1) Parizeau, Kate, Laura Shillington, Roberta Hawkins, Farhana Sultana, Alison Mountz, Beverley Mullings, and Linda Peake. “Breaking the Silence: A Feminist Call to Action.” The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 60, no. 2 (June 1, 2016): 197. doi:10.1111/cag.12265.

(2) Ibid., 199.

(3) Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light : Essays (Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1988).

Top photo: Flickr/Canadian Pacific: Knox College Library (Univeristy of Toronto)

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