The Shadow
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The Shadow

A Perspective On Being Asian In America

My unique opinions on my unique Asian American experience

The term “model minority” was coined during the 1960s, by sociologist William Petersen, to describe the Asian American experience — a group of people that, despite being discriminated against, pushed hard to assimilate, and found success. In many ways, the term has been used as proof that the American Dream is real. The problem with this narrative is that it implies that the racial discrimination faced by Asians is somehow less severe. It also frames the Asian experience from the lens of landlord and tenant — you are welcome to stay here, if you do so respectfully, quietly, and obey the rules.

The Asian American experience is not monolithic, but unique to every single person. While our perceived heritage and ethics have coalesced around certain values like family, community, education, hard work and perseverance, we all possess different life experiences resulting in unique perspectives and opinions. For me, the Asian American experience is that of lost heritage, a diaspora as much cultural as geographic.

If you want to know what it’s like growing up 4th generation Chinese in suburban Silicon Valley, just think about it like going to a good college without joining a fraternity — you learn to navigate the campus without orientation around a particular flag or symbol, and you operate within social constructs not exactly designed for you, but not specifically designed against you either. In my circumstance I never found it difficult to navigate the American terrain, but I’ve always found it hard to feel at home. Many Asians do not feel like owners in the collective American experience, we feel like tenants — occupying a room in a big house but never really sure if we’re are allowed to decorate it.

During the 90s growing up, and to this point in time now (March 19, 2021) I can NOT name a single Asian American news anchor, A-list celebrity, musician, or cultural icon. We have Bruce Lee (not an American, but the closest we have to an American star), but he has been dead since ten years before I was born. Currently there is certainly an influx in Asian culture coming from overseas, and there are American corporations investing in telling Asian-relevant stories as investment opportunities abroad, but at home in America we are highly under-represented. This had very tangible effects on my subconsciousness growing up.

In elementary school I remember staring at the mirror wondering why my nose was so big, and my lips so thick. In junior high I remember being called a “chink” and a “gook” not by my white, brown, or black peers, but by other Asian Americans. I remember trying hard to fit in with the Koreans at my high school, but not being accepted because I was Chinese. I remember making friends with other Chinese kids, but being looked down upon because I didn’t speak the language. I distinctly remember working at a top San Francisco design firm and the white Creative Director telling me that if I didn’t speak Chinese, I wasn’t valuable to him. Prior to Covid a person who I considered and still consider a close friend told me one of the biggest problems with his big city was the influx of Asians buying property there. During the fallout of the Covid crisis, my wife was angrily coughed on at Whole Foods, my uncle was beaten on the streets of Oakland, and my friend who was born here in America, was told to go back to his own country.

Despite these instances of unremarkable racism, I will not claim here to be a victim because of my race. It isn’t unique to Asians to be discriminated against, it is a quality shared by many Americans, of all races. I am writing this post to let everyone know that despite these things, there is one point of pride that I do have, and it is not in being Asian, or Asian American, it is precisely that I am an American. I am an individual who is sentient, with my own unique perspectives and with the liberty to express my opinions freely. Now my opinion is this: if you’re a fellow human, take a moment to consider exactly how you’d like to be treated, and treat others this way.

The origins for my neurosis — which lead to all of my creative thoughts, which lead to my career choices, which lead to my failures and my successes — are rooted in my search for meaning and ownership. It is fundamentally American to realize, like I have, that we do not own the land. The land is Earth’s first, America’s second, shared collectively by its people. America is nothing if not a multicultural experience. America is a melting pot that is still cooking. We can define where we take this, and yes, it is our right to disagree. Americans do own something which is very unique to America: ourselves. We own our opinions, we own our intent, and we own our actions.

I’m going to try to do my part to be more thoughtful, more open-minded, and more accepting — I think that’s pretty a pretty American value too.

Cal Chan is the CEO of Engaging, President of Trilogía, and Co-Founder of Vitamin Bounty and Active Wow.

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