Growing up First Generation Asian American in Northern Nevada

Kayla Smothers and Seanna Simpson showcase three first gen Asian-Americans in their 20s. While in different stages of college and life, these four students reminisce on their experiences with different expectations and upbringings from their parents.

Chloe Calaguas, Austin Chen, and Edward Wong are all first-generation Asian American students. Each with a different upbringing and background, they detail what it was like growing up with parents from different countries and what advantages and disadvantages they felt like they had growing up.

Chloe Calaguas, a senior at UNR majoring in biology.

Chloe Calaguas, Filipino, 21 Years old

Chloe Calaguas is a first-generation student here at University of Nevada, Reno, who grew up in the diverse city of Los Angeles and experienced quite the culture shock when moving here to the Silver State.

Her parents immigrated to America from the Philippines for better opportunities. Her mother was younger than her dad when they moved — her dad being the eldest of six siblings had more time to grow up in his home country.

Chloe posing with her mom, dad, and older sister.

When asked if she experienced any racism being a first-gen student in America, she stated that she had the pleasure of living in an Asian-dominated community in Los Angeles, California. Her experiences with other students not understanding her ethnicity were rare in this community.

“Some kids, they wouldn’t know what food I’d bring to school,” Calaguas said. “They’d be like, ‘oh, that smells weird,’ or they wouldn’t know what it was. Then they tried it and they liked it.”

She acknowledged that this isn’t always the case for first-gen Asian students in school, or any Asian for that matter, but that she was fortunate to have that support and understanding from the community that she lived in until she was twelve years old.

At this age, Calaguas moved to Henderson, Nevada where she no longer had that community that she had grown so accustomed to. Moving away from her friends was hard, especially when she was moving to a town that primarily consisted of white people. This was the first time she had ever experienced people not even knowing what a Filipino was.

“I think in middle-school when I first moved, someone asked if I was Hawaiian or Japanese, because they didn’t know what a Filipino was,” she said. “I come from a place where everyone was a Filipino and if you were white you were the minority and then it changed.”

That drastic change as well as moving away from all her family in Los Angeles made things a little difficult for her, but she still found her place in the new and strange city. Her family was also fortunate enough to be able to keep their house in California, which made it easy to be able to visit her other family members.

Calaguas said that growing up, she became quite white-washed because that is quite the norm for Asian culture. She described how even though she is Asian, her parents named her Chloe to protect her from the racism that some Asians can experience when having a foreign name.

“They wanted me to grow up as easy as it could be,” she said. “They didn’t want to give me a weird name that no one can pronounce, so they gave me a simple name that everyone would know.”

When asked what the term “white-washed” meant to Calaguas, she said that for her it means that she talks like a white girl and was never taught the Filipino language of Tagalong because they didn’t want her to have an accent. A lot of these decisions that her parents made were to protect her and her sister from racism that a lot of first-gen students experience, however they are still proud of where they come from and their Filipino background.

“We’re actually a really proud Filipino family, I know it doesn’t sound like that, but both my parents and grandparents are Filipino,” Calaguas said. “At a family event it may sound like we would be white-washed, but we’ll have all the traditional food and stuff like that, but we probably just come across as white-washed to the public.”

When Calaguas got to college, she said that the only disadvantage that she experienced being a first-gen student was that she was steered toward her biochemistry major although it wouldn’t have been her first choice. It wasn’t what she excelled at so she had to work harder without that pressure, but her parents were always supportive of the decisions she made and she was still able to maintain a social life despite her difficult major.

College is also where she experienced being scared to be Asian for the first time when COVID-19 hit.

“I haven’t really felt prejudiced until probably in recent times with Covid, that was the only time I felt scared. There were hate crimes and I lived with all Asian girls and we were pretty scared going out because we would get looks.”

Other than that, though, she feels quite fortunate with her experience being Asian and hasn’t dealt with the rampant racism in America that others may have. She is grateful for her parents and their support through her life and describes how she connects to her Filipino heritage through cooking.

“I cook a lot of Asian food and I’ll give my boyfriend, who’s white, a Filipino dish or two to kind of help him get used to it because this is what he’ll be eating the rest of his life.”

Despite Calaguas never being taught her parents native language, she continuously finds other ways to connect with her Filipino heritage and is proud of it. Her goal with her biochemistry major is to become a dentist and hopes to make her family proud after all they’ve done for her.

Austin Chen, Taiwanese, now 23

Austin Chen describes how he had to mature a bit quicker than his peers had to, because he was a first generation student.

Austin was born in Reno, Nevada. As a Taiwanese American he was one of the only Asian students in his elementary school. He didn’t feel the difference as much though since he was young.

Early on in his academic career, he moved to Las Vegas at ten years old, where he had to transfer schools. This is where he faced some of his first obstacles as an Asian student.

Though the schools in Vegas are mostly diverse and accommodating, the adults and teachers in the school automatically assumed he didn’t speak English. Without looking at his prior English education, he was required to take multiple tests in order to get into the English class he wanted.

His parents moved to the U.S. in their early 20s with most of his father’s family. His grandpa already had a wholesale supply and souvenir company, so his parents joined in on the business to help.

Potential for the souvenir business was wider in Vegas, so his parents decided to make that move. His father, Andy, created his own business with his own creative vision, and now supplies the majority of casinos and tourist destinations with souvenirs.

Austin’s family was fairly balanced. “My family is not the average or stereotypical Asian family, where they are stuck to their own beliefs and culture and not willing to grow,” he said.

His parents taught him and his two older sisters their native language, Taiwanese and Mandarin, and they even took Chinese language lessons growing up. But they encouraged their children to not rely on their native language and to speak English as much as possible so they would not face discrimination.

Austin takes a picture with his family on a trip in Taipei, Taiwan.

His parents passing down Taiwanese has made Austin feel closer to his heritage. Because Taiwanese is a spoken language and not written down, he says it is a dying language, since Mandarin is now the primary language in Taiwan.

His mom, Jennifer, has also incorporated her passion for food in staying true to Taiwanese culture. She found balance between different culture’s food too, and is open to new experiences.

When it comes to education, it is very much valued in their family. But Austin expressed, “My parents cared about our success and well-being, but didn’t want to impose their idea of success onto me or my sisters. What’s most important is if we’re happy with what we’re studying”.

Austin with his dad, mom, and sisters on a family trip.

University of Nevada, Reno, wasn’t his first choice for college, but after his parents saw how successful his sisters were at the school, they encouraged him to go there. He feels his sisters always helped pave the way for him to be successful, because they had to figure out college and education on their own being the oldest, but he was fortunate to have their knowledge passed down to him.

He went into college as a biochemistry major, and after a year switched to marketing and international business. This was a big change for him, since he went to a pre med magnet school specifically to get his CNA license, with the goal to go on to med school in the future.

His parents were hesitant but just wanted him to be happy.

“Even though it was actually my choice to go to a magnet school and pursue medicine, I ultimately decided I just wasn’t as passionate about it anymore,” he said. “Seeing my dad own his own business inspired me to instead pursue international business. When I explained why, my parents understood and supported me.”

Austin grew up working alongside his dad, and always helped whenever he could. He never dreaded helping them.

“I want to take care of my parents whenever I can, and I don’t feel pressured to,” he said. “They usually don’t even ask for help, so when they do, they just really need it and I don’t feel burdened. I just want to repay them for taking care of me and being such great parents.”

His parents helped him pay for school, along with scholarships, but he wanted to always have a part time job to at least lessen the burden of finances for them. Austin said, “being first generation definitely has benefits for grants and scholarships, there is more variety and opportunities. So that is one area where being a first gen student has its benefits”.

When it comes to racism or discrimination, he has seen his fair share of it, but mostly when it came to how his parents were treated.

Even when he was little, he would be filled with anger seeing his parents face discrimination or lesser treatment, especially dealing with customer service. However, as he’s grown older he has become able to defend them against unfair treatment and feels it’s his responsibility to do so.

For advice to people who are not minority, or not Asian descent, he says: “I think parenting is one side of it and academics is also another side of spreading awareness of cultural diversity and being appreciative of anyone and everyone no matter who they are or what background they’re from. Just overall, learning that as a kid is very important because some people grow up not exposed to that side of things, and when they’re adults they think it’s not an important thing, but I think in the world we live in today, it’s an especially important topic.”

Edward Wong, Chinese, now 23

Edward Wong’s advice to other first-generation students is to be true to themselves and to be proud of their background.

Edward grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Las Vegas, Nevada. He said there was definitely a “huge difference on which race essentially did better, or were viewed as better,” but no one really noticed as kids.

He realized race and cultural differences were a factor in his life when he entered middle school, where he was a minority in a school with a predominately Hispanic population.

Racism has not been a big factor that has affected his life, but in middle school he was called some slurs like ‘chinito,’ but to him it wasn’t much of a bother and he brushed it off.

Growing up in America and in an environment that did not celebrate nor accept Asian culture, for a while he didn’t want to be or accept himself as Asian. He said he did what he could to avoid his culture because ‘white’ was always seen as better, and every other race seemed to be above us.”

It wasn’t until high school he accepted being Asian, or Chinese. The change in mindset was the popularization of Asian pop culture, such as Kpop and Anime. With people around him finally viewing his culture as ‘cool’ and interesting, he embraced his culture more.

There were extra responsibilities that fell on his shoulders unintentionally when growing up as well.

When he was younger, every day Edward would go to his parents’ restaurant after school and help with the tasks that he could. Though he liked being there, he felt like he missed out on opportunities with his peers.

“I at least had an Xbox though, so I was able to play and connect with my friends when I got home. I didn’t feel completely disconnected,” he said.

His parents were supportive of him experimenting and trying different things he was passionate about, and so he pursued his interest in volleyball. Though his parents were supportive of him doing what he wanted, they never supported him in the way of attending his games.

“I would see other parents in the crowd and feel sad about it for a little while, and wonder why they weren’t there, but I didn’t let it affect me negatively and it became just a norm,” he said.

He never asked his parents why they never attended a game until a couple years ago, and even then, they just laughed and dodged the question, so he let it go.

From translating for his parents every day, helping with finances, and doing tasks at the family restaurant, Edward matured early in different ways, but this was never a burden for him either.

He actually loved translating and figuring out the stock market with his parents. Learning how the stock market and finances worked inspired him to pursue Finance as a major in college.

Edward did not feel too pressured by his parents to do well in school, as school came naturally to him. However, he still experiences his parents comparing him to other family and friends often.

Though he has always been passionate about finance, his mom wanted him to go into college as a computer science major, seeing the success of another family member. So, he started college off as such, but stood his ground by following his passion and switched to finance.

Feeling always compared to others by his parents does make him feel upset sometimes. His mom sometimes says she’s embarrassed he doesn’t go to a nicer school. He is always compared to friends in Ivy League and UC schools, even though he got into some of those schools when he applied to college, they just couldn’t afford for him to go.

“Even if I’m ‘below’ them right now, I can still get ahead of them in the future, everyone has their starting point somewhere,” he said. “I always have a positive mindset about things, so nothing comes to me negatively. Even though there are a lot of negative things in life, but you can’t justify them against who you are or what you are based on those things.”

Having a positive mindset is the most important to him, it is what gets him through his days. “Why be negative when there are positives in everything,” he concluded.

Reporting by Kayla Smothers and Seanna Simpson for the Reynolds Sandbox

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Reynolds Sandbox

Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.