Introduction, by Dara Yen
I wanted to compile interviews of “Asian-Americans” with different experiences of that label and different ideas of what it means. Although my main goal for the project was to offer a more complex perspective of Asian American identity, I also wanted the interviews to focus on self-reflection and self-discovery.
I started out wanting to explore the meaning of being Asian American, and the more people I interviewed, the more often I heard that people felt that there wasn’t a need for the hyphen to separate the two words. The interviewees felt that they had incorporated both into their life some way or another. There wasn’t a “divide” in their identity because they knew that their experience was their own to claim. The more I tried to highlight the nuances that set each person’s experience apart, the more I saw similarities between each interviewee. This was especially true when I asked each interviewee to write one piece of advice they would have liked to hear growing up and one advice that they would give others. There is definitely overlap across the advice that the interviewees each gave. From the surface, the interviewees seem like they would have different experiences with self-identity, but all in all, the similarity was that all the interviewees went through a struggle with identity, no matter how small or big.
I was born in Alabama as the middle child, with an older brother and a younger sister. My parents first immigrated to South Carolina from Fuzhou and then found their way to Alabama. During the time we were in Alabama, they owned a restaurant in Georgia. On the weekends, my parents had to work and I would help them out. We would hang out there on Saturday, and on Sundays we would just all stay at home. We lived in the suburbs of Alabama and the closest Chinatown was an hour away, in Birmingham, and Atlanta was two hours away. We had a lot of extended family around us so we celebrated together for Chinese New Year. We celebrated with hot pot, and during that time, it wasn’t too cold in Alabama, so we would keep the door open and eat. I remember it being really nice.
When I was in sixth grade, my family moved to Georgia. There was definitely a big difference between my school in Alabama and Georgia. In Alabama, there was only about one other Asian kid in my elementary school. The stereotypes that they would say made me feel very alienated. It was always jokes like “Asians are so smart, so I’m gonna copy your answers,” and the jokes about my eyes. When we moved, my entire friend group was Asian, and I didn’t feel isolated anymore. But I had to try a lot harder in school because I was not the top student of my grade anymore.
When my parents sold their restaurant to my uncle, they went into selling used auto parts. I helped out a lot more on Friday and Saturday nights when my uncle owned the restaurant. I would answer the phone, get orders, and be the cashier.
I am the most culturally connected sibling because compared to them [my brother and sister], I can speak better Chinese in our dialect. My brother is only a year older, but he was sent back to China and raised until he was five years old. It was something a lot of Fujians did, but me and my sister were not sent back. I never had to go to Chinese school or piano lessons, but I wish I had. My sister’s Chinese isn’t as good as mine, but maybe it’s different now because someone opened up a Chinese school in Georgia recently. We were forced to learn the language because our parents couldn’t speak English, but beyond that we weren’t forced to do anything else. We weren’t religious or had any specific traditions. I didn’t have strict parents, maybe it was because they were so busy or so Americanized. They were never really tiger parents.
Around my high school years, I went through a phase where I wondered whether I should be more American or Asian. I remember wanting the “white stuff” like Lokai bracelets, but after getting them, I didn’t really like it. I thought I was morphing too much.
Coming to college, I realized that NYU is culturally diverse, but Stern is a very different scene. Asians are especially the majority in Stern. I definitely feel more connected now to my Asian side because of my surroundings.
I studied abroad in Shanghai the first semester of my sophomore year. It was the first time I went back since I was eight or ten years old, but I didn’t remember much about my trip then. Going back as an adult, I had a different eye for it. Going to Shanghai, I didn’t have much expectations. Once I got there, I was surprised that there was a lot less cute guys there. That was culturally shocking. My friends were mostly in my study-away group and they were mostly ABC (American born Chinese). A lot of the people there were from NYU Shanghai were planning on studying there for four years and others were ABC. I could tell who was an ABC, international, or Chinese.
For a lot of Asians who grew up in the South, we had so much American culture around us, but we also had tidbits of our own culture. After going through that phase, I realized I wanted to connect more with my Chinese side, so I never felt that I was more American. I felt more American Asian… wait, no… Asian American. I grew up in the South, but I’m also an ABC.
Don’t be too hard on your parents and think they don’t care or love you. It’s just a different way.
There’s nothing wrong with liking a different culture nor is there anything wrong in keeping your culture. There are no strict boundaries between cultures. You can be both America and Asian and create your own identity of “Asian American.” Your culture is your own, no one can judge you for who you choose to be.
I am a student at NYU. I was born in United Arab Emirates and was briefly in Pakistan. My dad was trying to find job opportunities in the United States while we were in the UAE and he got his visa approved in August 2001, right before 9/11. We were on our way to Canada from St. Louis, but someone from Baltimore offered us a job. I thought that was really uncommon, because it was 2002, why would you offer a Muslim family a job? We hit the jackpot, so we decided to stay in the US.
During that job, my dad faced a lot of Islamophobia so we moved to Florida. In Florida, things got a bit better before the 2008 recession. After not having a job for a while, we moved to Arkansas, for some reason. I think it was because there was an emerging, new South Asian immigrant community in Little Rock, Arkansas, that we kind of tried to become a part of. Arkansas also had a low cost of living. All of the moves were motivated by my dad’s career options and the global events that pushed us one way or another. It just made us more likely to move around to get by. The people I knew and the places I was used to kept changing. We stayed in Arkansas ever since I was in fifth grade. I had to start over a lot and re-find my ground.
I usually don’t say I am Asian American. If it’s on an official form, I will check the box, but I have never introduced myself as Asian American, or Pakistani American or even American American. I think I have always deferred it away because it is difficult to pinpoint. I would say I’m Pakistani, but I wasn’t born there or raised there; But I’m also not Arab, and I’m not that American besides my accent.
When I was a kid, my dad would give me lectures about his internal reasoning of our identity. We are Muslim first, but then Pakistani, but that doesn’t mean we are not American. Outside of that, I never really talked to people about it because I didn’t know where I was supposed to fall. In some ways it’s nice because I am at home anywhere, but to me, the home is still a loose concept.
There was rarely a stable community around me so it was hard for me to think about what I identified as. I had communities, but none were my base community. When I settled in Arkansas, I felt sort of Southern, but I lived in the suburb of the capital. It felt very detached, a generic and not a very cultural place. Even then, in Arkansas, I didn’t have a community that I would make me say I was Asian American.
I began getting more interested in learning about morality, ethics, religion, and philosophy. That had more to do with my identity. When I was in middle school, I thought I was like a Zionist because I would read the Torah. I am not Jewish but that was my identity then, and that was what the world was to me. I thought of ways in how I could make a decision as someone without culture as an influence.
Culture, race, and nationality make a decision for you and tells you how to do things.
Around the same time of 7th grade, that’s when I realized being my color was weird. The “standard” color was being pink-ish or peach-ish, so I thought it [my skin tone] was peculiar. Before this, I thought of myself as just a person, just like anyone else. Once I realized I was not white, it stressed the idea and the fault lines appeared. That’s how I got into identity politics. I went through a big shift, from being an abstract person to having a specific identity.
I became more interested in the Enlightenment era, logic, and reasoning. Through religion, philosophy, and politics, that’s how I came back to talking about being Asian American, but not really about the self-identification part of it.
What is so interesting about Asian Americans is that they have a long history — that you can see in intimate, minute terms. If you zoom out from an identity, it can be objective. I am able to discuss what being Asian American is like with the ignorance of personal identity, but understand that it matters.
Since I represent a limited case, I am indebted to people who say they are Asian American and are fighting for themselves because their lives are being impaired on. There is power being able to say that I’m doing this from my position. There is also a lot of power in saying that this is so serious that it is almost objective.
It’s never all on you. Always rely on your friends. They’re all you have.
Don’t forget about your entanglements with people. Remember that those entanglements are much more vast than you think they are. Your coming was expected on Earth.
I am twenty-one years old. I was adopted from Liuzhou in Southern China when I was about ten months old and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. I think a lot of adoptees go through a phase when they want to be white or believe that they are white. It has taken me a while to claim the identity of Asian American as my own.
My mom is a first-generation immigrant from Italy, so I was raised with her speaking to me in Italian. During holidays, we would go over and celebrate with her family and I would always hear Italian in the dialect they speak.
When I was a kid, people asked me why I did not look like my adoptive parents, I would burst out in tears. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that kids would and could so easily point it out. At such a young age, I had to experience the uncomfortableness of being confronted for being adopted.
I remember there was one time I was in a Chinese restaurant with my extended family when I was four or five years old. The server came up to us and was explaining the dishes and I remember I stood up and was proud to say, “I’m Chinese.” He smiled and said back to me “I’m Chinese too.” From a young age, my parents would take me to Chinatown for Chinese New Year festivals and parades, but I would always feel like an outsider. When I went to Chinatown for dim sum or the celebrations, I didn’t want to be seen with my adoptive parents. They made it really obvious that I wasn’t like every other Asian child on the street that looked like their parents. I was forced to realize at an early age that I was a different race than my parents.
Up until seventh grade, I was always around white people in school. I went to Italian school and Italian mass. So, I was always surrounded by white people, and I would always get stares. I was obviously the only Chinese person. The parents would wonder why I was there and the children too.
When I entered seventh grade, that was my first time going to a public school. Obviously, it was diverse and had a big Asian population, although the majority of the students were white. There were also Black and Latinx students too. That was my first time making friends with non-adopted Asians.
They were all really into K-Pop, K-dramas, Korean culture, and anime, and that’s why I fell into that too. I was already interested in it, but I wanted to fit in and wanted to relate to them on some level. It was a sense of escapism for me because my parents are abusive, emotionally and physically. They would often tell me: “You’re nothing without us; you would be dead if we didn’t adopt you.”
My parents, especially my mom, play into the white-savior complex, and she believes my birth parents were illiterate peasants from the countryside and extremely poor. Obviously, no one would ever know.
I went to this summer camp in Chinatown one summer. I was the only one who wasn’t second generation and I was the only one except for one other boy I befriended. We went to the same elementary school together. He was half Korean and French. We bonded over how we both didn’t know Chinese. The teachers had a thick Chinese accent, and it was hard for us to understand and relate. Everyone was ABC and from the same neighborhood, and they all knew each other.
At this point, I was more aware of my inability to fully belong with Italians, Chinese Americans, and white Americans.
When I was in junior high, there was a Chinese adoptee convention held around me. It was all whitewashed and watered-down cultural exposure, mainly because the adoptees were not raised with the culture. We were only being exposed to the cultural arts, but it was nothing too serious.
During the summer before senior year of high school, the founder of the adoption agency had this opportunity for the very first time. She was the supervisor and brought adolescent Chinese female adoptees to an orphanage in Inner Mongolia. The orphanage agreed to let us volunteer and stay there. My parents didn’t think I would want to do it, but I was fully on board when I heard about it. I wanted to go back and know what it was like since I hadn’t been back ever since I was adopted.
We spent the first two days in Beijing and then we took the six-hour train to Inner Mongolia. We volunteered at the orphanage for three and a half weeks. I lived and worked one-on-one with orphaned Chinese children, and it gave me more perspective to understand what it was like to live in an orphanage. Up until that point, there were some aspects that I was proud to claim, but I wasn’t really proud to be Chinese because I didn’t know that much. There were some things I wasn’t exposed to, but being there, I completely fell in love with feeling normal and blending in for once, if I didn’t open my mouth or people didn’t realize that we were wearing the same matching shirts to show we were part of the same program.
After the program, I met up with my parents to travel to different parts of China because I had never been back before. I don’t remember anything [from before my adoption] because I was only about 10 months old. We went to my birth city.
While we were there, my mom was very racist and ignorant. She bowed with her hands clapped together to our tour guide/interpreter. We went to the street I was abandoned on and she said, “No wonder, it’s a busy street; no wonder, there’s a bus terminal. Your mom came from the countryside and dropped you off, abandoned you here.”
It upset me because how did she not see it was wrong to assume that, especially because that’s still the person who gave birth to me.
Traveling back to my birth city culminated a new revelation and new perspectives about my identity.
I had a mental breakdown when we were leaving Beijing for another city. I realized how lucky I am although I hated being adopted and that side of myself because adoption is fraught with so many issues. It implies you were abandoned by your birth parents, so it gives you abandonment issues, inadequacy issues, and self-worth issues. After spending all the time with the kids in Inner Mongolia, I realized how lucky I am to have my own private space and my cats. I saw happy, Chinese families everywhere and I realized how lucky they are to have families. I could imagine the orphans that I got to know in these families too. Although I realized I am really lucky, those still aren’t reasons to disregard my pain as an adoptee.
Starting from senior year of high school, I finally came to terms and embraced that I am Chinese-Italian-American. That is what I wanted to identify myself as. Before college, I always went through this perpetual identity crisis. In the back of my mind, I always thought about how other people perceived me. I wanted white people to know that I was different, so they wouldn’t stereotype me as a submissive, timid, weak girl who only cared about school. I wanted other Asians to accept me as their own too, but I still wanted them to know I was a little bit different. It was a simultaneous desire to belong but to be acknowledged as being different in a good way.
During senior year, a psychologist and writer came into our school to give seniors advice about what to write for their college essays. I spoke with her, and she said I had a very unique story. That was the first time I ever spoke to a professional about the issues I had gone through. When I was younger, I really wasn’t aware that other children were not going through the same things I was, crying into their pillow case alone at night. She was the first person to tell me I was strong and encouraged me to embrace all my identities although I wasn’t too sure to claim them. I felt like I didn’t have a right to.
Now in college, I have a group of friends to sing sad, Chinese songs together when we go to karaoke. I also like cooking Asian food and eating Asian food with Asian friends. I also watch Asian shows and dramas and take any small ways I can get any exposure from.
For international transracial adoptees, identity will always be a lifelong process. We need to slowly learn and come to terms with our identity, while keeping in mind that no one can really gate-keep your identity. No one can dictate what Asian American is supposed to look like or be like because everyone has nuanced experiences.
I wished that my adoptive parents had better cultural socialization strategies because they are influential to how adoptees make sense of their identity. They influence how you deal with micro-aggressions. My parents never spoke to me about it, and I was left on my own to figure it out. My parents were more color-blind and avoidant with their cultural socialization strategies. It made me more open about my point of view when I had to grapple with micro-aggressions related to gender and race. From when I was twelve years old, I’ve always been mistaken for my dad’s wife, and I had to internalize it.
Coming to NYU, people accepted me for my Asian identity. My parents never understood Asians are people of color because they thought there were no negative stereotypes about Asians. To them, Asians didn’t have to defend against micro- and macro-aggressions. The way they view Asians affects how I perceive Asians. Especially, it shows me how other people view me, even if they are my parents.
For Me & You
You’re resilient and your adoptive identity and multicultural identities are your strengths, what makes you unique. Your journey towards accepting your identity and realizing your self-worth will be a lifelong process, but you’re making progress. Your experiences are what make you able to better empathize with others’ struggles. Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.
I’m from Queens, a native New Yorker, and I’ve only known New York. I was born here, grew up here, and went to school here. I live in Forest Hills, and the community is not really an Asian dominated neighborhood. It is more of a Jewish and Russian community. Both my parents went to college here. My dad got his PhD and master’s here. My mom did a regular college program here, so I’m considered second generation then.
My elementary and junior high school were really close to where I was living. It didn’t really have that many Asian students. Of course, the Asian students made a clique, whether it was similar values, traditions, and manners that they had. But of course, I had other friends that were from diverse groups because that’s what made up my class.
I identify as Asian American, and I realized that more in high school. I went to high school in New York City, but I started commuting from Forest Hills to Manhattan. The school was close to Chinatown, but not that close. I went to the Museum School, and it was a very small school within one floor. We had a graduating class of like one hundred, two hundred people. There was a lot more Asians because it was so close to Chinatown. I was the only one who went to this school from my elementary school. I found my group here because there were a lot more Asian people here.
I learned more about my Asian identity in college and it wasn’t that intense. From others stories I heard, it is hard to imagine that someone did not realize that they’re Asian American until they got into college.
For me, I would hang out with other Asians because I could connect more with them through language, culture, and manners, and the things we did. The whole pride and celebration of my identity came more in college.
My parents came here from China. Their first stop was in Rego Park before coming to Forest Hills. I have a younger sister in the second grade, and our age gap is fourteen years. One thing I realized with her is that she is a lot more Americanized, a lot more American than Chinese. I am closer to my heritage than she is, granted that she is still young. The way she is growing up now and the way I was growing up are very different.
My sister never had that experience. She went [to China] when she was five, but she already started learning English. When you’re the oldest, your parents push a lot of their heritage onto you, but not for the second child. They push the responsibility onto me raise her, and they expect me to it.
When I was three or four, I went to China and lived with my grandma and came back when I was four or five. According to my mom, I knew some English, bits and pieces, before I went back to China. At that time, I was learning a bit of both languages, but no one in China was speaking English, so I stopped learning it. When I came back, I knew fluent Chinese, but didn’t know any English.
Pre-K was traumatizing. All the teachers were Russian and spoke English. There were very few Asians in the pre-K I went to. I remember there was a time the teacher was yelling at me for speaking Chinese. I wasn’t understanding a math problem and she was explaining it to me, but I responded in Chinese. I remember crying and she just got up and walked away.
Surprisingly, the chef in the pre-K was Chinese, so I practically became her second child. She kept feeding me, but I was welcomed in terms of that. I was sent to her when I was not getting something in class. They would ask to send the chef in to explain it to me. She immigrated her, but she knew a bit of English. I was unhappy because I couldn’t even express what I felt to my own teachers. This was one of my earliest stages of identity.
I had one Asian “friend” in pre-K because she was the only other Chinese person in the class. One day I got invited to a playdate with her. When her grandma came, she invited me over to their house around 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. I went with them without telling the teacher, without telling anyone, and my mom did not know. When my mom came to pick me up, and the teachers didn’t know where I went, until one of the TAs (teacher assistants) said I went home with so and so. The teachers were like, “Oh damn.”
My mom got really mad at the teachers and the TAs. At this point, my mom didn’t know that much English, but she was able to communicate with them a bit. The teacher gave my mom the address, and she walked in while I was playing with toys. I knew I was in big trouble. From that experience, I realized whoever spoke my language, whoever looked like me, I wanted to be friends with them because there was a lack of Asians in my pre-K.
With other ABCs I don’t feel more Americanized, but with international students, I do. I have had a lot of experiences working with international students. Their humor was different, the way you work or the way you even hang out after work was very different. They would invite me to hang out, but they were hesitant.
I began taking more jobs to use my Chinese skills. I could speak Chinese without an accent, and I could translate some things, but I didn’t have the more advanced language skills, grammar wise. Many international students thought I wasn’t ABC because I didn’t have an accent. Once I tried speaking more advance Chinese, they realized I was ABC. One minute they thought we were similar, the next they didn’t. I spent two years in China, so I don’t have an accent. I remember my dad telling me that it’s good to not sound like an ABC, but still be able to be an ABC. He said, “You are bilingual. Have pride in that.”
I went to Chinese school starting in fifth grade, and I quit in middle school. It was not fun. I was there to gain more social skills. A lot of the girls there were younger than me and shy. They would get bullied by the boys. I remember bullying the boys back because I had a big personality. I learned more social skills than the language.
In high school, my mom started telling me the importance of Chinese holidays. We usually got together with only my dad’s side in Connecticut. My dad’s side is also in Kansas. Everyone on my mom’s side is in China. All my cousins are ABC and we try to have a big celebration, but pretty much kept to ourselves.
In high school, I hated Chinatown. I thought Flushing was better, Queens bias right here. My other friends liked Chinatown, I was the only one who favored Flushing. We [my friends] at food or played volleyball in Chinatown. I went to Flushing with my parents to shop.
I teach Chinese to other kids. When I was preparing slides and lesson plans, my sister asked me, “Can I learn?” I definitely want to teach her the language because I think being bilingual is important, but she’s already seven now. She knows some of the language but has a heavy accent. I think it would be beneficial for her to know the culture and the overlap of both cultures. She is slowly understanding the importance of language and realizing her outer appearance. She’s slowly recognizing that she is Chinese, but she isn’t aware of the culture and tradition yet.
I joined AHM [Asian Heritage Month], APIDA Grad [Asian Pacific Islander Desi/American Graduation], NYCAASC [New York City Asian American Student Conference], and other Asian clubs during college. APIDA is for Asian-identifying students and the celebration wasn’t that good. During the year I had to plan it, no one gave a shit. It was hard to get everyone to cooperate, even the faculty weren’t excited, and they were Asian. NYU prides itself on being diverse, but they ended up giving me more trouble than helping me plan.
When older people speak Chinese to me, I respond in Chinese, but I also respond in fluent English. I think they don’t believe that ABCs can be bilingual. I only do that for the reactions.
I major in education, childhood and special education. I want to teach grades one through five, so basically elementary school.
I work in an Asian-populated school in Chinatown and feel more at home. The school is more traditional than progressive, but I think because there are a lot of teachers who are Chinese, I feel more representation and feel more at home. I might actually be under consideration for a job there next year, but I don’t know what will happen.
Do not take to heart the criticisms of others, especially about your personal well-being.
Seek every opportunity you can; even if you have difficulty working with people, kill them with kindness.
My name is Heather. I am twenty years old. I’m a Leo. I was born in Seattle, Washington, where I lived for twelve years. In Seattle, I feel like there is a much more vibrant POC community especially in South Seattle, specifically Renton. I was always around Asian American family members and I got to meet a lot of Asian friends. Then, when I was twelve, I moved to freaking Utah. Utah was the complete opposite, and if I have to describe it in one word, I would say “white” and “Mormon.” Those are two different words, but pretty much interchangeable. So when I moved to Utah and I was like the only Asian person in my neighborhood, it felt kind of weird. But I didn’t have the tools to start thinking about my identity critically until I came to college. When I was in Utah, I only thought about it being Asian in terms of being not-white. I was not white, not Mormon, and not upper middle-class like my peers.
But once I got to Vassar, I was able to join our Asian Student Alliance and embrace my identity and all that being Vietnamese American is. I felt like the model-minority myth left no room outside of that narrative. I think a lot about expanding the narrative of what it means to be Asian American, just by virtue of being a first-generation, low-income, bisexual, Vietnamese American. I understand the nuance of this identity because I’m Southeast Asian instead of East Asian.
I think there was like tension in a lot of different intersections of my identity, in particular being low-income in high school and junior high. There’s a stereotype that we are all rich. There are inaccurate statistics of how we make more money than white people collectively. I feel that Asian people are treated as a monolith. When my narrative didn’t align with that narrative, I thought I was a fake Asian.
Before coming to terms with my sexuality, I would joke with my friends about it because didn’t even think that being gay was an option for Asian Americans. Every Asian American I knew was straight and it just didn’t exist. Gay-Asian, what is that?
This gave me an opportunity to connect with communities of people who identify the same way that I do. I realized I was bisexual my freshman year, but didn’t really think about it until sophomore and junior year. With all those off-shoot branches like Subtle Queer Asian Traits starting, it was the first time I was in a huge community with Asian Americans who were not straight. It opened my eyes to how we were being boxed in but how we can break through. These experiences can be very isolating if you’re alone.
I feel like my friend group and I were pretty much on the same wavelength as first-generation kids. We had similar experiences of how our parents navigated America and how we were there to help them. I have to translate for my parents when we go to stores or offices. I had to do financial aid by myself, or even do things other students don’t have to think about. My peers had their parents do their college applications for them. I was the only kid in my high school that need a SAT-fee waiver. At this moment, I was more aware of being a child of immigrants more than anything else.
I have moments I don’t feel Vietnamese enough around like my cousins who are actually from Vietnam. They’re super fluent in Vietnamese and understand the culture more. My experience is not diluted, but different because of the diaspora. Being in America, I didn’t have that experience to grow up in Vietnam.
I think because I’m the firstborn, I have the strongest hold on Vietnamese culture. It is interesting when I look at my two younger sisters because their handle of the language is a lot looser. They don’t know as much about being Vietnamese American and are just American. Their interactions with being Vietnamese only occur within the family, instead of like with a community, in part because we do live in Utah now. When I was younger, my parents were more of like, “You need to speak English and do everything Americans can.”
I think the way that I have encountered my identity at school and at home are very different. I feel like when I’m home it’s nothing critical, it’s just me eating my mom’s food. At school, I get to unpack my identity more. I didn’t start talking about my identity until I was like sixteen or seventeen.
The transition from Seattle to Utah was so rough. In seventh-grade Utah history class, we were learning about the Native American tribes that had “occupied” Utah land before white people did. I wanted to assimilate so badly. I went to church events and I wasn’t even Mormon.
In Seattle, I never thought about that at all. I had a group of Asian friends and we called ourselves the Asian Mafia for a good second. I would go back to visit Seattle most summers because my dad still lives there. Seattle has a Little Saigon and a lot of my family still lives there. I get to speak Vietnamese with my family and eat the food.
I think since it happened when I was so young. It wasn’t as hard as it could have been because I didn’t have a very strong hold on my identity to begin with. I only thought about how it related back to whiteness.
My family didn’t immigrate as blue-collar workers. We immigrated because of the Vietnam War, and it’s interesting to see how that interacts and ripples through my day-to-day life.
Say what you mean and mean what you say! Don’t water yourself down to fit the expectations of other people or feel like you have to prove anything to anyone. Build communities of love, practice kindness whenever possible. Be gay, do crime. Love you!
Don’t let anyone ever make you feel bad for the qualities you possess that set you apart—they are often a source of strength and empowerment. There is no “right” way to embody any identity. For so long, I felt very out of place within the Asian American community because my existence as a first-generation, low-income, bisexual, Vietnamese American didn’t fit the mainstream narrative, but I know now that my identity is bigger than myself and that we are all part of a continuum that is ever-expanding and growing with authenticity, love, and community. You are not alone, you are cherished, and you don’t need to be perfect to be good. Cheers!
I was born in Korea, but when I was one or two I moved to California for a year. My parents had to adjust, and I moved to Iowa when I was three. I grew up in Iowa for eight and a half years. There was a decent Chinese American population in Iowa, but there were maybe four Koreans in my entire elementary school. I had grown up as a typical Asian in a whitewashed culture. It was really hard. A lot of white people, thought I was Japanese or Chinese. It got to a point where I thought the level of ignorance was so high, but I got used to it. I thought it was the norm. I had the classic lunch-bag experience where I got shamed into eating American food as a kid. There was only one Korean food place, so all the Korean food I had was what my mom could make. There were no Asian supermarkets nearby.
I don’t think I experienced anything that was racist. There were some things that were very ignorant, but nothing that confrontational. I had a very acute sense I was Korean, but there was a large part of me that wanted to fit in. I didn’t deny my culture, but I didn’t really like to bring it up unless someone asked, and that was often.
My parents decided to go to Iowa first because they needed to get their degrees here, and they decided to go to Iowa State. My dad went to get his master’s. My mom was getting her bachelor’s. My dad didn’t finish because he didn’t want to write his thesis. Korean degrees don’t count in the United States. When we were financial stable enough, we moved to Irvine, California. It wasn’t more diverse, but there were more Asians. The Asian population was so much larger in California.
My parents were also trying to assimilate. When I look at other people’s homes, they’re so Asian and remind me of my grandparents’ house back in Korea. I distinctively have the memory of the first day of school in Irvine. I was so used to walking in and seeing heads of blonde and light hair; when I walked in, most of this class was Asian. I was shocked because it was different.
I got very attached to my friends in Iowa and it was a bad time to move in my childhood because it was prepuberty. Looking back, I seemed very depressed for the first year and a half I was there. I would still make friends with the white kids in elementary. In junior high, I would say I had a very classic Asian American experience.
In high school, I did marching band (I started oboe in the sixth grade) and was in the honors program for playing the oboe. There is an urban myth that you cannot march oboe. It’s a fragile instrument, so I marched flute, but then I had to march clarinet. I started taking Latin and was in Latin club for four years. I was also in the domestic violence club as the president of that. And besides that, I co-founded a wellness club at my school. I was also part of Vietnamese Student Association because I had a lot of friends in VSA, so I became an honorary VSA member.
In high school, the way we thought about identity was very surface level. We just didn’t have the ability to think about it in depth.
For Me & You
There are plenty of other people who share your culture. You should feel more confident about your identity.
Shashank: For Me & You
Never doubt the dignity of your identity, your feelings, or your beliefs.