I am not white on the inside, yellow on the outside. I’m what you call an Asian American.
She was challenging me to a Whiteness Competition. We were at a country karaoke bar, the honky-tonk kind I’d only ever seen in Texas and couldn’t believe existed in the middle of Northern Virginia. It was my cousin’s birthday and this was where he wanted to celebrate it. The rest of my cousins and I acquiesced. I wonder how it must have looked, a small flock of brown-skinned Filipinos huddled around a table in the kind of place where cowboy hats go to die.
Covering the walls there were as many American flags as neon signs for Miller Lite and Red Bull. The back bar was filled with boozed up white dudes doing their best Johnny Cash impressions to songs I’ve never heard of and there was lots of intermittent line dancing. Actually, I was really impressed by the line dancing. Those ladies (and a couple of guys) were super talented, hypnotically stepping and kicking in rhythm with their cowgirl boots, gliding and spinning across the wooden dance floor with a synchronized southern swag I had never witnessed before. I could’ve watched them all night. I decided I had to join them.
I flung myself onto the dance floor and fell in line behind the leader of the pack, the blonde girl with the sparkly blue crop top who had the tightest spirals and most agile footwork. She smiled at me and slowed down her moves so I could follow along. I stomped. I clapped. I grapevined. I spun. I danced my ass off and even though I probably was an awkward half beat behind everybody else, I had a damn good time.
After a few songs I returned back to the table where my cousins were sitting to cool off. I sat down and took a swig of my beer. That’s when she said it. “You are so white!”
Rhianne was laughing at me. She turned to my other cousin, flicking her shoulder for attention. “Isn’t she so white? She’s so much whiter than I am.”
I should’ve gained my composure first. I grimaced and when I opened my mouth what I wanted to come out was something that might start a thoughtful and honest conversation about the complexity of ethnic identity in the United States, especially as it relates to first or second-generation Asian Americans.
But we all took Ski Shots earlier so instead what came out was a defensive: “I’m not white! You’re white!” Then, eyes glowering, I took aim and fired the big shot. “You went to James Madison.” (For all of you dear readers who may not be aware of the demographics of Virginia state colleges, James Madison University is a very white, conservative school). Rhianne’s jaw dropped and her head hung down in defeat.
I wasn’t proud of my brown-on-brown crime. I was kind of drunk and just wanted to shut her up. I was done with all of her incessant accusations of whiteness towards me, towards other members of our family, and towards herself. I could see in her the same Asian identity complex that I had growing up, bred by a vision of white America that’s never had a place for people like us. And I was getting pretty tired of it.
When I was a kid I wanted to be white. I wanted to be blonde and blue-eyed just like my favorite American Girl doll, Kirsten. Back then, there were no Asian American Girl dolls for me to dress up and take on imaginary adventures (and technically there still aren’t since Ivy Ling, introduced as Asian sidekick to white blonde Julie Albright, was discontinued in 2014). Whenever I watched TV, Asian American girls and women were practically nonexistent, and if they did happen to win a few seconds of onscreen fame, they were usually depicted as kooky foreigners with unrelatable habits or fetishized geishas in schoolgirl uniforms. To me, white girls didn’t have to be either of those things. They could be (almost) anybody.
Back in high school, I was one of those Asians who prided myself for hanging out with mostly white friends. The Asians that I did hang out with had the same mentality as I did. We were embarrassed by the FOBs, the “Fresh Off the Boat” kids who mobbed together and acted so annoyingly foreign. I kept my distance for them as much as possible, for fear that anyone watching would lump me into their pack. My white friends told me again and again as if it were some stamp of approval, “You know, I always forget that you’re Asian.”
When my freshman year of college rolled around, I knew I didn’t want to join the Filipino-American Student Association. I had this principle, you see, that I would never befriend Filipino people just because they were Filipino. I remember in those first few weeks at the Student Activities Fair noticing the FASA members staring at me as I tried to pass their table inconspicuously. I could see the radar go off in their heads. “One of us!” I politely and awkwardly spoke to them and then moved on to the Fencing Club. A few months later, a girl from my freshman hall (who was white and genuinely interested in Filipino culture) asked me if I was going to join FASA. I gave her an inarticulate sputter of half-assed excuses and indecisiveness, not fully understanding myself why the thought of hanging out with people who have the same ethnicity as me was so awful. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me with pity and walked away.
I used to call myself a “Twinkie” — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Banana is another name I’ve heard (because apparently reductive food analogies are the easiest way to comprehend the existence of people like me). And therein lies the heart of the problem, using whiteness to justify who I was. See, I obviously wasn’t white then and I’m not white now. I’m never going to be white. It took me a little while, but I know that now.
What I positively am is American. My friends told me I was “basically white” because I spoke with an American accent, binged on American TV shows and books, and loved nothing better than gorging on a juicy cheeseburger and fries. But what would you expect? I was born and raised here after all. Being American does not negate the fact that I am Filipino. What I want Rhianne, drunk Sherina, and everyone else in the world to understand is that being American does not make me white.
I am American but may never hear the end of obnoxious jokes about my “chinky eyes” and bad driving. I can walk into almost any room, building, or busy street in the mid-sized central Virginian town that I live in and easily be the only person with brown skin. I often feel the eyes of polite white strangers scrutinizing me, trying to figure out which yellow box I belong in. It’s usually only a matter of time before out of nowhere they ask, “Where do you come from?” Northern Virginia, I say, knowing full well the answer that they really want. I can’t count how many times I’ve gleefully imagined in my head innocuously throwing the question back at them. “And what about you? Where do you come from?” Because if they’re not Native American, then I should be able to interrogate them about their ancestral country of origin as well. But I never do. Because I know they mean well, and that would be rude.
So let me say it one more time — American does not equal white. I want to really home in on that because you would think that in 2016, only 26 years away from the year that minorities are predicted to surpass the white population in the United States (I’m lookin’ at you, 2042!), that that fact would be glaringly obvious. But it’s not. The myth that American equals white has been so ingrained into our collective psyches that not even all grown, college-educated, United States citizens of Asian descent realize this.
Case in point. I was having lunch with another cousin of mine, Nora, and we started talking about my dad and how he’s Chinese Filipino. Nora was confused. I tried to explain to her, “He is ethnically Chinese but was a Filipino citizen. You know, just like how we’re Filipino American.”
“But we’re not American…”
I was shocked. And I got a little fired up. “Yes we are. We are American.”
I honed in on her. “Where did you grow up all your life? Where were you born? What’s does your citizenship say on your birth certificate?”
Nora was outright denying her natural birthright, the claim that she belonged in her own home country. That disturbed me. Because that idea that Asian Americans will always be seen as foreigners in their own home — that we don’t belong here — is the very reason that Asian Americans are practically invisible in TV shows, movies, magazines, history textbooks, the news. It’s the same reason that Japanese American internment camps were built during World War II. And it’s the same reason why Donald Trump rallies are filled with the frightening sound of thousands of people cheering whenever the presidential candidate speaks about mandating the registration and surveillance of all Muslim Americans in the United States.
But I don’t blame Nora for not realizing this. So many of us who grew up as the Asian minorities in majorly white towns and majorly white schools have been programmed not to realize this. I was lucky. During my sophomore year of college I decided I was going to suck up my semi-racist angst against Asians and finally join the Filipino-American Student Association. I still felt uncomfortable about being around so many Asians, but I started becoming even more uncomfortable with my own shame. I had been “the Asian one” in group Facebook photos for long enough.
When I joined FASA, it was the first time I was exposed to people outside of my family who understood what it was like to be someone like me. Not that being Filipino American consumes my entire identity. I don’t mean it to be a pigeon hole. I consider myself many things: A foodie. A Doctor Who enthusiast. A girl whose downstairs neighbors probably want to punch her in the throat for her nonstop and overly theatric singing. An idealist. But things like being raised by Filipino immigrant parents, growing up with the smells of adobo and sinigang filling your home while 90’s R&B hummed in your ears, dealing with the ever-balancing act between Tagalog and English, those are things that nobody else but people like me could understand. And if you’re reading this and didn’t understand that last sentence, then I think I’ve made my point. Because of FASA, I found a community of incredible, hilarious, talented, driven, and intelligent people who found meaning in their Filipino identities and were not ashamed of it. I grew to love and admire my second family. I started becoming OK with being Asian.
One more anecdote. Another cousin of mine recently had a conversation with her six-year-old son. He asked her a question while she was driving him to soccer practice, in the way that young kids always do — spontaneously blurted out from the backseat, in attempt to satisfy the endless curiosities whirling around in their little heads.
“Mommy, where are you from?” Marisa told him that she was born in the Philippines and moved to the U.S. when she was about five-years-old.
She knew that this was a pivotal teaching moment. “You’re Filipino, you know?”
“No Mommy, I’m American. I’m from the U.S.”
“Yes, you were born here but your ethnicity is Filipino because me and your dad are Filipino.”
“No, I’m American! I’m American!”
It obviously wasn’t going to be that simple, explaining to a first-grader how the complicated rules of race, ethnicity and nationality are supposed to be played. But what was most enlightening about this story was that Jacob learned to see himself as American first. So perhaps now the tide is changing. As second and third-generations and beyond of Asian immigrant families are born and bred, maybe now they can finally own their right be here. Of course, this brings on a whole ‘nother load of mixed emotions around assimilation versus the preservation of our cultural heritage, but I’m glad that Jacob is being accepted as a member of this country and is taught to accept himself that way too. I hope nobody ever takes that away from him.
“I’m American but with a peach color,” he says. That at least seems like a step forward. I would take Peach American over Twinkie any day (at least it’s a healthier snack alternative). But the truth is, constantly juggling the political correctness over what to call ourselves gets exhausting. I think about words all the time. I weigh them carefully at the tip of my tongue, cautiously ruminating over the implications of each label and what it could say or not say about an entire group of people. When is it alright to use just Filipino, or Filipino American, or Asian Pacific Islander American, or Brown, Yellow, the absence of White. I don’t know if you’ve noticed (because I always do), but even throughout this essay I’ve gone back and forth between several different variations, not being able to commit to just one.
Every other week my inner monologue oscillates from “It is imperative that we use the term Asian American as a declaration of our long-deserving place in this country and pan-ethnic solidarity,” to “Man, I just don’t give a shit anymore.” I dream of the day when we are able to stop comparing ourselves to colors or food, stop arguing over what a hyphen does or does not mean. Because what would that day signify? That we have achieved pure, unadulterated acceptance — from the outside and from ourselves.
Photo courtesy of WHIO.com