I was nineteen years old when I left the US to study for the first time. I spent five weeks on a summer exchange program at the International University in Moscow, sponsored by my home university in Texas. With twenty or so other students, I listened to lectures, watched Russian films, and went on various tours of museums and historical sites. As part of the program, we were assigned local students—native Russian-speakers—as tutors.
The minute my tutor and I met, we clicked. It was instant—we were sisters. Just like me, she was one of the only Asian people in her group. I am Cantonese-American, with both parents from Hong Kong. My tutor is part Kazakh. Unlike most of the other pairings, we remain close friends long after the end of the program.
Katherine Leung is an independent researcher specializing in youth culture and contemporary art in Tuva. She publishes her work in New Research of Tuva, reviews books for Lossi 36, and has curated multiple art exhibitions showcasing emerging artists from Kalmyk, Tatar, and Central Asian communities. She taught English in Samara, Russia as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in 2014 and at English camps in Tuva, Buryatia, and Primorsky Krai in 2015. She holds dual degrees, having earned a Bachelor of Arts in Russian and a Bachelor of Science in Education from the University of Texas at Austin.
While abroad, I found that I received discreetly preferential treatment from the Central Asian shopkeepers—a smile, an extra piece of candy slipped into my bag. I frequently received dinner on the house from workers at the shawarma stand. I soon realized that my experience was different from that of the other students. While every American was firmly warned against getting into an unlicensed taxi—so-called “gypsy cabs”—I realized that those rules did not apply to people who looked like me. As they did for Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik people, cars would stop for me, the driver frequently slowing down just to ask if I needed a lift. It was a constant, and it was safe—even in the bustling expanse that is Moscow.
Three years later, I returned to Russia, this time to a small city in a southwestern province. I was a part of a group of American English teachers sent to work in every corner of the country. The town in which I was placed relied on hundreds of marshrutki, vans driving specific routes and charging ten rubles a ride, as the main method of transportation. These vans were driven by Central Asians blasting their own music, to the chagrin of elderly riders. Frequently, drivers instructed me to climb into the elusive front passenger seat when the cab was full. Nobody else got to sit in the front. The drivers rarely accepted my fare.
I wasn’t prepared for my first winter. A Kazakh beautician struck up a conversation with me on social media, and the next day she helped me pick out a real jacket at a mall to which I would have never ventured on my own. My experience in other cities mirrored this kindness. On my way home on a minus-twenty-degree night, a Bashkir guy picked me up and took me to the city center in Ufa, saving me from a two-hour wait for the next bus. In Novosibirsk, a Kalmyk and Tuvan couple waited for me at the train station with snacks, just because some fellow Asian friends in Buryatia had mentioned to them that I would be in town (for half an hour, the entirety of the train’s stop in that city). On the road from Abakan to Kyzyl, a Tuvan woman took me under her wing, going so far as to order my meal for me at the sole rest stop in the 400-kilometer stretch between the republics of Khakassia and Tuva. In Tuva, strangers declared that I was Tuvan just because I look Tuvan.
With white Russians, I faced prejudice, whether it was the police profiling me as a sex worker or uninhibited drunks shouting “China!” or “Kazakhstan!” at me on the street. But in reflecting on the hospitality I experienced, as an outsider, from people who look similar to me, I couldn’t help but wonder what aspect of my privilege spoke to other Asian people. Obviously, I was a young female with youth on my side. Maybe it was naive to accept free food and bus rides, embedded in cultural routines and stigmas I didn’t understand. I didn’t exactly wear my Americanness on the outside, though my innate financial capital must have helped.
Perhaps it’s a trait of diasporic peoples, a minority outside our “homeland.” I was a perpetual foreigner in Russia, just as I had been my entire life in the US. I was used to this community care in the homes and worship centers of my pan-Asian immigrant community—and found it replicated on Russian soil.
Being Asian in the US
In the US, Asian American political movements are taking hold. Asian Americans are winning key political offices. Our vice-president is Indian-American. Simultaneously, media representation is starting to be noticed by non-Asian audiences. Films and media created by Asian Americans are gaining recognition from white Americans. On the surface, we are having a moment.
The US has always been a mixing pot of cultures and our mainstream media are trying to show that. In large cities, foods served in immigrant-owned restaurants are a mainstay of American life. Crimes against Asian immigrants are no longer ignored.
Absent from these narratives and cultural representations are Central Asians. The consumables to which Westerners have grown accustomed favor Eastern Asian diasporic narratives and the stories of Southern Asian creators over anything else. The ethnic groups originating from East and South Asia are much more populous than Central Asian countries, and the global immigrant diaspora reflects that. But let’s get real: even many Russians are not familiar with the Asian republics within their country’s borders.
Mainstream discourse centering on identity politics really falls short when it comes to Central Asian representation. Conversations about diversity or “seeing yourself represented” in the media are self-absorbed at best and a sinister commodification at worst. Much like the co-opted LGBTQ+ movement, Asians represent a growing market share that capitalism has opportunistically included without any real sense of solidarity.
Yet I still vividly remember the first time I saw a Central Asian character on American TV. It was a Netflix reality show based on the lives of New York socialites, Bling Empire. Released just a few years after Crazy Rich Asians, it was clearly riding the coattails of that phenomenon. The show featured a Thai heiress; a Taiwanese billionaire’s daughter; a Cantonese-American influencer; and a Taiwanese ABC entrepreneur dating a Kalmyk-Korean model, Vika Abbyaeva from Russia. At first quiet and often talked over, Vika slowly came into her own during the arc of the season (but not enough to break up with her lame boyfriend).
Upon seeing her face on TV, I wondered if this was the representation we all hoped for. Suddenly, more shades of the world’s largest continent were being shown to us in the mass media. But Vika was a beautiful supermodel—hardly relatable to the average diasporic Asian. She wasn’t a representative for all of us, and she shouldn’t have that responsibility placed upon her.
One character on a reality show isn’t an attempt to rectify the countless injustices perpetrated against Central Asians by colonizers in the last century. Leaving aside the complication that Kalmykia is presently located in Europe, Asians—or rather, Asian-looking peoples—in Russia have long had a complex relationship with Russian colonization.
Kalmyks found temporary solace under the Russian Empire but experienced mass atrocities and forced migration under Stalin with Operation Ulusy. In American academic discourse surrounding decolonization, researchers focus on Native Americans and enslaved Africans because of the clear power imbalance and bloodshed. It’s difficult for the average diasporic Asian person to place oneself in that colonizer/colonized dichotomy. Identifying the colonizer and source of oppression is not always clear when there have been long centuries of conflict, immigration, and colonization between historic people groups. Vika from Netflix’s Bling Empire is not the amalgamation of her ancestors dating back to the Kalmyk Khanate, nor am I the direct product of the civilizations before me. Dominant perceptions of identity politics can be inconsistent and exhausting.
I feel kindred to other Asians, and while I don’t speak for the people I met while studying and working in Russia, I imagine they might have as well. The way nomadic peoples have historically been welcoming to guests probably influenced the generosity with which I was treated while living in Russia: attributing hospitality to a shared Asian bloodline and hypothetical “big Asian family” are remnants of old customs still present today. Language barriers, including sometimes not even having Russian as a mutual language, didn’t impact understanding for me.
Leaving behind capitalistic definitions of representation and diversity, I often wonder how to consolidate shared experiences with identity politics and history. We are not black or white, but occupy a third space left out of academic discourse on race, class, and power in the white-majority countries in which diasporic Asians reside. When white majorities discuss anti-Asian racism, it should be addressed only in combination with community care and mutual aid. Mutual aid between Turkic peoples and Mongol groups within Central Asia is embedded in their customs.
Real solidarity between Asian people is not about parades or visible political offices, but rather about systematically restructuring social norms to support everyone, with an emphasis on the most marginalized. I don’t think people consciously realize that what they seek is an efficient welfare-based social system, instead of citizens building one in the gaps left by existing institutions. Mutual aid is not charity, but the building and continuing of new social relations where people give what they can and get what they need, outside of unjust systems of power. Free shawarma and taxi rides are surely versions of this idealized mutual aid.
Asian culture could not be any more different across ethnic groups, but there are a few similarities.
Without extrapolating too much from my personal experiences and realizing that I wasn’t able to return the care shown to me, I write from a place of appreciation and the hope to do more. Asian culture could not be any more different across ethnic groups, but there are a few similarities. One is the anti-blackness prevalent in all our societies. It’s reflected in how Asian Americans navigate culture in the West, but it’s also evident in everyday language.
In Buddhist-majority populations, there’s prevailing Islamophobia. In Kyzyl, I was told that the market was dangerous, as Muslims might steal “girls like us” for ISIS brides. In Buryatia, I was praised for my light skin. This behavior is entrenched across Asian society. Addressing it, discussing ways to end it, and ultimately working to end anti-blackness would take us one step closer to a world where all marginalized peoples can live in solidarity.
As diasporic Asians, we cannot give into white supremacist rhetoric that ultimately divides us. The idea of a hierarchy of religions that determines our outcomes is drawn directly from the playbook of white supremacy. Identifying that this exists in our culture and combatting it via education, interfaith meetings, and mutual aid will overcome rigid institutions. Solidarity will look like unity against wars, apartheid, and neocolonialism. The easy answer to the complex issues is to build solidarity networks amongst ourselves first and foremost.
Another factor that turns identity politics on its ugly head is the growing influence of the Chinese government in Central Asia. Old narratives of colonization as the purview of Russians or Western Europeans are changing rapidly as the Chinese government exerts ever more control over Central Asia, building new infrastructure, destabilizing daily life, and using every form of capital to dominate these smaller countries. The Belt and Road Initiative builds infrastructure in the name of development, not unlike British colonization in previous centuries. Journalists and NGOs in Central Asia have been speaking out against this for years, yet governments continue to—and always will—make decisions without the consent of the people.
The Asian solidarity we seek does not entail excluding Asians from more powerful or wealthier groups (i.e. Chinese nationalists), but banding together to understand the presence of real oppression. Authentic solidarity develops when ordinary people work to end oppression together, a charge that is rooted in care and love for one another. Mutual aid has always included taxis and community care, but I know it will ultimately play a huge role in uprooting broken systems.
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