#SELFMADEStories: AAPI Heritage Month
Storytelling is foundational to processing and connecting to the world and each other. For BIPOC communities in particular, it allows us to reclaim and retell histories that are often either silenced or misrepresented. This Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we invited our community to share their stories of what it means to be a member of the AAPI community .
Thank you to all of our community members who so generously offered to share their stories.
“I am proud to be Chinese- American. It sounds like a simple statement, but it has taken me many years to finally mean it. Growing up as a Chinese-American in a predominantly white suburb in Arizona, I didn’t see very many people that looked like me — who shared the same upbringing as me. In elementary school, I felt out of place when my friends would share stories of sleepovers they had over the weekend and chat about their favorite scenes to classic Disney movies. I wasn’t allowed to have sleepovers and instead of watching classic American movies, I watched Hong Kong dramas and TVB variety shows with my family. I felt excluded and isolated because I couldn’t relate to them. I received countless backhanded compliments and even thanked them just to be polite. But, I silently questioned what I exactly they were complimenting. Having to listen to “Your eyes are so small and cute”, “Wow your English is so good, you don’t even have an accent”, and “You’re not like the other Asians” from my friends, classmates, and even random people at my grocery stores made me uncomfortable. It was upsetting to know that some of these comments came from people in my own community.
However, there were people in the AAPI Community who have helped me feel understood and relatable. I’ve met friends who understand my struggles. I’ve discovered Asian YouTubers who taught me how to do my makeup and accentuate my features. I’ve watched travel vlogs of people embracing Asian cuisine. These are just a couple simple examples of how I’ve learned that I’m not alone and that I’m more than just stereotypes.”
“Chimera (키메라) is a film that I wrote and directed to show my experiences growing up as a third culture kid as a Korean-American in Korea. Like the mythical creature, chimera, the film poetically represents the hybrid of cultures and identities As the film goes between present-day moments in New York and a past Christmas in Seoul, I wanted to show how I’ve seamlessly integrated into these cultures and how I found a home within friends who I can call family. The process of this film was rewarding because I had those I can call family both in front and behind the camera to support me to make this film come to life.
The initial intention for the script was to show the experiences of being a third-culture kid. However, the more I developed it, it became a story of exploring how your relationship with your parents shape who you are today. The film was then woven together through the main character’s experiences with her father. Through this process, I have learned how my father’s relationships in both cities shaped my experiences and personality today.
In the past, I felt lost because I felt as if I didn’t belong in an American, Korean, and Korean-American community, but now I’ve come to terms that it’s really about belonging with yourself. Throughout my years in school, I’ve always had so much trouble coming up with an ending to a story because it still felt like an open wound. But in Chimera (키메라) I’ve found a conclusion and was able to grow and reflect from the experience.”
“Throughout my career, first as an on-air reporter and now as a news producer, I find myself dealing with the collision of two identities.
As an Asian American, my name has been confused with the name of the “other” Asian coworker.
I got asked BY my intern if I was an intern on his first day. A makeup artist for the show I produce thought I was the assistant (“Hey, honey! Are you here to assist me?”). As a woman, I had a male coworker tell me I was fat and suggest I lose weight. I’ve had male colleagues belittle me publicly.
At a press event, the security guards checked my credentials, but no one else’s. I was the only woman there in a room full of men. Life never let me forget my two identities: 1) I am Asian American and 2) I am a woman. Through all the belittling, it feels quite victorious to know we are still standing.”
“Being a member of the AAPI community has definitely affected my mental health and sense of self worth. Mental health wise, I grew up with an Asian mother and it was not something we really talked about. She grew up in a culture where focusing on mental health was seen as as waste of time or even wrong.
Now, in my late 20s, I am finally learning Korean and my Korean teacher (who lives in Korea) was telling me that to this day there’s this stigma around discussing mental health (in Korea) for a variety of reasons. For example, when you apply for jobs in Korea — they actually review your medical records and if you’ve been to therapy, it will be noted there. The records do not go into detail re: why you went to therapy and in many cases the fact that it is listed at all can cause an applicant to lose a job opportunity to someone who does not have a history of going to therapy. This reality, coupled with the fact that jobs, security, status, money, etc. are super important in the Asian culture causes many folks to not prioritize their mental health — simply to survive.
Due to mental health being widely considered as taboo in my culture and the circles I’ve personally navigated growing up (being mixed race Asian American) — I am just now beginning to recognize how this has translated to me incorporating various habits / behaviors into my own life: pushing down my feelings/emotions, just “putting my head down”, saying sorry even if it’s not my fault, saying “it’s fine” to myself even when things are not fine, etc. Along with this, growing up none of my friends or classmates looked like me and everything I encountered externally in the news, media, etc. put Eurocentric identities up on a pedestal.
All of these things definitely affect your sense of self-worth because in my experience there was always this underlying feeling of being less than within the context of my relationships or when out in society. There are so many moments this showed up in my life it’s tough to count. For example, it’s always been frustrating to be fed lines by society like “…celebrate your individual beauty...” but then see the same folks only celebrate Eurocentric beauty standards or behaviors. These constant contradictions over the years have caused me to begin to try to un-pack and un-learn what society has traditionally held up as worthy standards of beauty, self-care, and mental health — I have started my journey of creating new habits around loving + celebrating who I am.
Lately, I have also been reminding myself of how fortunate I and my generation of Asian Americans are to be living in this time — because celebrating our cultures’ is becoming more widely respected in many places. That being said, there is still quite a lot of work to do to keep moving forward in this direction and I only hope that during my lifetime I get the chance to see my mixed race Asian American culture consistently celebrated in the world.”
“I didn’t always love being Asian American. Despite having the fondest memories of my childhood, I grew up in predominantly white communities in the south and was constantly reminded that I was different. No matter how hard I tried to be white, I always knew and felt like I was still a pair one line or lyric of a country song shy, a pair of cowgirl boots short, a few tailgates away and so many sorority bids lacking. To overcompensate, I’d laugh along with the racist jokes and micro aggressions made toward me and perpetuate hurtful stereotypes against myself and my own damn culture. I tried desperately to separate myself from the few other Asian kids at school and found validation in being referred to as “white-washed” or being the token Asian. This continued throughout college even as I befriended more Asians than I had ever met before that point in my life. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that things changed. You can listen to me share for days about how NYC changed my life, but I’ll spare you because the most impactful thing I learned in the city was the importance of true diversity, whether that was in race, ethnicity, faith, career, interests, values or world views. It was through my experiences in New York that I found value in my identity as a Korean-American female.
I’ve come a long way since Augusta, GA, and it hasn’t been easy to work through it or even admit to what I used to be like… because now, I’m full of regret to even think about who I was and how I thought back then. Blood, sweat and tears are just the tip of the iceberg of what my family endured to come to this country, and they sure as hell didn’t do it for me to be ashamed. I’ve only recently gotten to a place where I am absolutely, 100%, so incredibly proud of being Asian-American, but it’s been so heartbreaking to witness the increasing amount of hate in the past year. I’m finally in a place where I not only accept but love who I am, and it’s disappointing to know that the world still may not.
The past year or so has been a rollercoaster of emotions to process for a lot of us in the AAPI community, I’m sure — and probably more negative than positive. But the most important ones that keep me going and that I’m choosing to keep with me are the ones I feel when I hear and read the stories of other Asian-Americans — those feels I get as I realize I am not alone. I am understood. I am resilient. I am proud. I am hopeful.”
“The photo series below (Have You Eaten Yet?) captures my mother and her love language — cooking. I chose to capture this series to share a little bit about my mother’s heritage, legacy and what I have learned from her.”
“It’s AAPI month, and that has been a confusing time for me, because I felt a pressure to define my identity using a classification system in which I can’t comfortably find my place.
My identity has always felt fluid. I’ve never embodied anything in a strong way. I’ve never been fully Caucasian, or fully Chinese, I’ve never looked the age that matches my number. I’ve never felt truly Australian — even though I was born there (I don’t like beer, sun, lamb or football, as the media told me I should have liked as an Australian). No Australians looked like me on TV growing up, and people often asked about my race — I didn’t feel much sense of belonging.
As a child, my family moved a few times between Australia and Singapore. This made me proficient at adapting. Wherever I was, I’d chameleon in as best I could. But, in Singapore I was also a bit of an outsider — and people thought my Caucasian mother was my nanny. In Australia they thought I was her exchange student — friendly, old ladies on the bus would ask my mother (over my head) “oh, where’s she from?”.
Our family household was casually Methodist, but also kinda Buddhist. These belief systems merged together seamlessly for us, which meant that I didn’t learn to draw hard lines in the sand. I learned Chinese at university, not at home — I’ve forgotten it mostly now — I can say the words ‘toilet’ and ‘food’. I am familiar with Chinese culture, but not enough to explain it to anyone with any certainty, only enough to adapt to social rules, and know how to behave and what to expect. My Chinese father is from Malaysia, not China. He came out on a boat with a whole roast duck wrapped in newspaper, just in case Australia didn’t have food. The only cool “Chinese” stuff I know about my Chinese family is:
1 — my grandmother escaped having her feet bound because she needed to work,
2 — my grandparents had an arranged marriage,
3 — two of my aunties were given away as babies because they were female (a.k.a. ‘useless burdens’)”.
But, ultimately, I don’t know what my face says I know.
In USA I say I’m Australian, even though I don’t really feel it. It feels a bit fake, and I can’t back it up with anything except a passport. I feel white, I think, I’m just not sure what type of white. In my Australian ‘hometown’ after being rejected for film funding, the feedback suggested that I make the script “more Australian”. So, after trying to assimilate to my own country, I left.
Once in NY I told someone I was Australian and they said “your English is very good”. I don’t know what was going on there… In USA people tell me I’m a person of color, but I don’t feel it. I don’t strongly identify as Asian, I just look like it on the outside. I’m fortunate to not be plagued with stereotypes that endanger my life — the worst I might get is “virus-carrying accountant”.
I never feel quite at home anywhere I live, but the upside is that I never really experience culture shock either. Everything and everywhere feels equally normal to me, and no place really seems too strange or surprising. I basically have equal sense of belonging (and not belonging) anywhere I am — and in that way, the world opens up for me. Everywhere is an equally valid/uncomfortable place to live. I’m used to starting from scratch, used to family and friends being spread across the globe, and used to doing crash courses in food, culture and language. I’m used to feeling like the odd one out. That’s all normal to me. I’m not scared of change, or of losing my identity (because it’s less like a box with an edge, and more like a stream flowing).
I’m not really sure who I am, or where I’m from, or who’s labeling system I’m conforming to. All I know is I’m me, here right now, wherever I am.”
“Growing up in an Indian household, I was always so aware of the expectations Indian society had for me. Expectations included performing the best at school, excelling at extracurriculars, and nailing down the perfect career path all while having a seemingly okay state of mental health. Still to this day, I’m juggling school, passion projects, and job hunting with the pressure to seem as if it’s entirely effortless.
My family, who are generally more progressive, has allowed me to prioritize my mental health and given me the resources to better care for myself. Besides them, I typically have been met with the “just push through it” mentality. There’s a lowered sense of boundaries in Indian culture, so when you mention you want to try therapy or having a rough patch, it’s followed with “Why? You seem okay, you’re in school”. Simply no regard for how you truly feel. That’s given you’re already doing everything as expected. I’ve dealt with this invalidating environment and it is further amplified since I’m pursuing a creative career as well as experimenting with makeup or clothes in a way foreign to most.
Over the years, I realized the best thing I could give myself is the validation I couldn’t get from my community. I’ve learned to validate my own struggles, life choices, passions, and boundaries. It’s built me up to be so deep-rooted in what I want and love, that no one’s judgments get in the way of my self-perceptions. From hearing “you’re not Indian enough” to “an Indian girl shouldn’t dress like that, I was never phased. There’s a flip side to that though, I’ve been incredibly resilient to others and their opinions that it impedes my vulnerability. It drives me to be incredibly independent and unable to let others in when it could alternatively be an incredible connection. I realized there’s a perfect medium to resilience, where you can stand strong in your identity but be secure enough to pursue new things or people.”
“Life forced all of us to pause amidst all the chaos. Alongside the ambulance sirens and growing fear, I found peace and a home in myself. I realized every day was a chance to build on my story and to change my future. But I also realized it wasn’t possible to “measure” the growth if you did not reflect on your progress.
There’s a methodology in technology called “agile” that helps drive product development. At the end of every 2 week cycle/sprint, you reflect on what went well, what didn’t work well, and what can be improved in the next sprint. This specific session is called a retrospective and I realized it worked phenomenally at work, so why not try to apply this concept to my personal life.
I thought of each month as my “sprint”. Beginning January 2021, at the end of every month, I made it a ritual to reflect on the past month. I used 4 buckets: family/friends, career, hobbies/passion project, and physical/mental health. I felt these 4 buckets were fluid, but all encompassing of my goals for myself and my future.
After reflecting on my accomplishments (“small” or not, it’s still a win) over the course of the month, I took my reflection a step further and thought about where I could improve. How do I feel at the end of this month looking at all my wins? Did I burn out? What would I liked to have done more of? What would I liked to have done less of?
I start each month with a blank canvas. At the end of each month, I paint a better picture of myself and my future. I stay present. I reflect. And then I start each month with a clean slate. I am the creator of my own life and my reflections help me write my story as I create it.”