Growing up Asian American I often struggled with my identity.
I hated that I was “supposed” to be good at Math,
I hated the slanted eyes comments,
the small penis jokes.
It felt like anytime anyone spoke about me being Asian, the only things that followed were insults.
Every association people had with my yellow skin was harsh and sharp.
It made me feel insecure, that somehow my complexion and everything it came with was a burden I had to bear.
So I rejected it, all of it.
No asian friends
No Vietnamese Church groups
No speaking vietnamese
From middle school through high school I did anything and everything I could to create distance between myself and my asian heritage.
Little did I know, it’s an impossible task.
We’re in america, a country of labels.
You’re either this or that, no way you could be both here and there.
It’s a country compartmentalized at every level and aspect of culture.
I was always going to be viewed first and foremost, as an asian person.
Fast forward to my senior year of high school…
it seemed that my rebranding project was starting to show signs of success;
I didn’t have any asian friends,
We stopped going to vietnamese church.
I was finally out of ESL.
Things were great.
Sure, I was Vietnamese at home, but outside of those doors, things seemed regular,
they seemed American.
There was even one time, I remember one of my friends saying “You’re not THAT kind of Asian, you’re pretty much white.”
Terrible, I know….
But what’s worse, was I remember being proud of that.
Like I had somehow shedded the shame that was my heritage and been cleansed pure, a “pretty much” white man…
And why wouldn’t I want to be a white man? White guys were at the top of the pyramid; they were the hero in every movie, on the cover of every magazine, people loved white guys.
Most importantly, girls did.
Girls love white guys.
I wanted that.
So you bet I was overjoyed when I heard I was “pretty much white.”
And that’s how I thought and what i believed all through high school.
It caused a lot of friction between my parents and I, but who cared?
I was popular at school, I played basketball and football, I hungout with the in crowd
I saw no problems with how I lived.
In retrospect, I was pretty hollow at the time.
High school me would tell you I was happy, of course.
But thinking back on who I was in high school, and how I spent my time…
I was bending over backwards to fit in.
The thing is, once you get to a racial neutral place, you have to fight to stay there.
You can’t let your asian show, not for a second. High school kids can be cruel, they’re good at finding insecurities and leveraging that.
It took a lot of effort, but I did it.
Now fast forward again to my junior year at the University of Oregon
A slightly more mature Leo (me) meets a very mature Albert Lee.
This was a big turning point in my story,
Albert was the first “cool” Asian person that I had befriended.
Name the topic, my man could rock with you; sports, art, movies, whatever it was, he seemed to always be in the know.
Meeting Albert started the shift in my perception of Asian people.
In my mind, asian people were lame.
There was never an asian person that I looked up to; Bruce Lee was before my time, Jackie Chan and Jet Li were actors that only perpetuated the kung fu asian stereotypes, it was corny to me.
But that introduction to Albert, that later lead to becoming better friends with Marshall and meeting KJ (both korean) changed everything.
These guys loved being korean; the food, the traditions, but most importantly, their circle.
In beaverton, where I’m from, there’s a very strong korean community, most of whom are familiar with one another.
This was the world that Albs, Marshall, and KJ lived in.
Everything I did with my white friends, they did with their korean friends.
After awhile, I started to feel like maybe I wanted something similar.
This next part of the story is where it all comes full circle…
So now we’re jumping to the summer of 2016
I had just finished up my internship at Y&R Singapore and was on my way to Vietnam.
I was going to stay at my uncle’s house for a bit before traveling around SE Asia.
I was skeptical about my stay, to say the least.
I had never been there without my mom, which was significant because she had always worked as a buffer, mediating every interaction between Vietnam and myself.
In short, I knew it would be uncomfortable.
What I didn’t expect, was for the discomfort to be so short lived.
It was only my second time meeting my Uncle and Aunt in person, but still, they welcomed me with nothing but love.
At this point I had been away from family for about half a year, so to say it meant a lot to me would be an understatement.
During my time in Saigon, I noticed a lot of things;
Yes, it was run down and underdeveloped, but at the same time, there was so much life and hope coming from the people.
I gained an appreciation and a sense of respect for Vietnam.
However, it wasn’t until one particular instance that I found that fleeting sense of pride that I, without even realizing, had always longed for
I remember it was hot and pretty late into the night.
I couldn’t sleep so I went on the roof to chill out.
As I was looking around I noticed my uncle standing outside of our house (mind you, it was a beautiful house, even by US standards, Five stories, four living rooms, eight bedrooms, you get the picture).
He wasn’t doing anything in particular, just standing there, staring.
I decided to step outside to ask why it was he always stood there looking at our house,
He told me
“I built this house for our family. For you, your sisters, your cousins, for everyone. I grew up in this house with your mom, aunt and grandpa. Except back then, it was just the kitchen and living room on the first floor. Slowly but surely, I bought out all the properties around us to build a house that would fit our family. I did that so you guys knew you had a home and Vietnam, a home you can be proud of, a place to always go back to.”
It was hard to fight back the tears…
It felt like everything was hitting me at once.
Being in Vietnam, finally being back with family, the overwhelming love I felt from everything around me, created this moment of magic.
By all accounts, that was it.
I had found it.
It’s hard to put into words “it” is.
I felt pride
I felt acceptance
I felt like I had gained something worthwhile to share with the world.
What’s funny, is I think it was always there.
The only difference now is, I had gained a new perspective on it.
I think what took me so long to gain this perspective is that growing up a minority in the United States, it’s easy to assume, especially as a child, that the culture that makes you different from everyone else is some sort of stain that needs removing. It makes you stand out, it makes your different, it makes you unamerican.
So then, as all kids do, you go your whole life trying to assimilate, bending whichever way in hopes of fitting in.
It ultimately leaves you feeling confused and out of place, unsure of who you are and insecure about who you could be…
It took me 23 years of life and a 21-hour flight halfway around the world, before I realized that what America had always alienated me for, was actually an asset.
My greatest flaw was now my strongest quality
I wanted to share this story with all minorities in America, not just asians;
We all struggle to find value in American society.
In one way or another, we’re facing some sort of oppression.
We all have goals of equality but,
to reach our goals, our voices have to be heard,
to be heard, we need a seat at the table
To have a seat, starts with knowing you, along everything that makes you different, deserve one.