I’ve generally avoiding posting or talking about race publicly because it makes me uncomfortable in a lot of ways. I’m afraid that I might say the wrong thing, or that my thoughts aren’t really that valuable or relevant enough to put out into the world. But with everything happening nowadays, I’ve been having a lot of thoughts about who I am and what that means, and I’m finally stepping up to talk about it. This is my personal experience and represents my unsolicited thoughts and feelings, and is that alone.
An Identity Crisis
For a long time, I never thought much about my racial identity. Having grown up in Hawaii, I was used to being around people of many races, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds. In Hawaii, we all acknowledged that most of our ancestors had immigrated to the islands at some point in time, and that except for the Native Hawaiian people, we were all visitors to the land. That is one of the things that makes Hawaii a truly special place — knowing that we are all different, but the same.
Even when I left the islands for college, I felt pretty confident in my racial identity. I ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where after graduating from school I stayed for a few years to work. I learned so many new things while living there — I met and worked with people of many diverse backgrounds, I tried new types of cuisines (Indian and Vietnamese became new favorites), and heard new languages being spoken around me. These were all new, enriching experiences for me — after all, Hawaii is a small island state, and there’s a big world out there to see. Although there was certainly more racial unrest in California than I’d ever experienced growing up in Hawaii, I never really questioned who I was. I saw myself pretty firmly as an Asian American, and only occasionally would experience how that meant I was different.
I really began to understand that difference about a year ago, when my boyfriend and I moved to Boston. It started with noticing small changes in our environment — we’d go to restaurants to eat and be the only people of color in the room, it became harder to find Asian groceries, and people stare when my boyfriend speaks in Mandarin to his family on WeChat. These things were small oddities at first but compounded quickly into what I began to realize was something bigger. I realized that in all of my life before, I felt like there were signs that I belonged where I was — and now, I don’t see those signs anymore. How could I have lived in this country my whole life and not feel like I was meant to be here?
What does it mean to be Asian American?
As I wallowed in my identity crisis, I realized that I’d chosen to identify as an Asian American without ever thinking about what it meant or implied. In many ways, my experience being Asian American has been my process of discovering that I don’t embody either of these identities.
Sure, my physical features come from my Asian background, but I’m quickly sniffed out whenever visiting the countries of my racial origins. I remember learning this the first time that I visited China, where looks of disappointment and dismissal would cross the faces of people whenever I opened my mouth to speak. On the other hand, I’ve lived in America my entire life, but people ask me where I’m really from more often than I’d like to admit. It feels like I’ve been rejected from both sides of the picture, and that I’m really just out here sitting by myself. Choosing to define part of my identity as being Asian American feels like I’ve been lying to myself this whole time.
I’ve talked about the importance of language before, but we often forget about how words have a pivotal impact on how we perceive and understand things. Being Asian American often gets associated with the term “model minority”. It’s a term that I heard a lot growing up — on the TV, in books, in articles on the Internet — but only recently has been identified as being a harmful term.
In any case, I’d internalized this descriptor at a young age and now recognize the impact it’s had on my sense of identity. When you dissect the term, it’s almost oxymoronic — “model” suggests that my experience is worthwhile, valid, and legitimized, but “minority” says that my experience is diminished and small. Because of this, I’ve struggled to find my place in all the racial tension that’s going on in the world and feel guilty for experiencing the unearned privilege that comes with being associated with this term. I hear the stories of other people of color and feel guilty that I don’t always share the same experiences that they do. I feel guilty participating in support and resource groups, because I am taking bandwidth away from other people of color who seem to be facing challenges much more difficult than my own. The privileges I experience being a fair-skinned, English-speaking Asian American make me feel shameful to identify as a person of color and make me feel like I’m just taking advantage of the term.
Yet, I am technically still a person of color. So, where do I belong?
So, who am I, really?
My struggle to define my racial identity continues, and I anticipate will continue for a long time. When so many pieces of your identity feel like they’re contradicting each other, it’s tough to reconcile and understand your place in the world. Identity is something that we have the ability to craft as individuals, but often don’t realize how much society influences it as well.
At the end of the day, all I want is for my experience to be recognized as valid and important. And I want that to be the case for every human being out there — regardless of background — because we all deserve to feel like our experience is meaningful in this world.
Thank you Joy, Shaanika, Jimmy, and Melissa for giving me the courage to share my perspective with the world.