Assimilation Challenges I Faced as a Child
The first time it happened, I was eight. We hadn’t immigrated yet, but I was in Washington for the summer. My friend from the summer camp at the boys and girls club told me that “Hsin” was an ugly name. “If I had a daughter, I’d name her something pretty,” she said.
The next time it happened, I was ten, the first time I’d been to San Jose. “I’m from Taiwan,” I would say. “You mean Thailand?” someone would ask.
I was eleven when I attended school in America for the first time. We had immigrated the summer before. For the first two weeks of school, I had no friends. No one was mean to me, per se, they just didn’t talk to me. I was in a bubble, excluded from social cues, norms, whatever it was that made everyone else understand so easily. I understood them, theoretically, phonically, literally, but not the implications, the expectations of those sentences, the layers of communication that went unsaid. Interactions felt like reading “The Hunger Games” without catching the theme.
I was glad that I was relatively good at English for an immigrant, though, proud when people told me that, especially when I heard the surprise in their voices when they learned it had only been months since I’d immigrated. Having an English foundation eliminated a possiblity of difference and alienation in my new community, making me feel like I belong. Now I know that it just made me feel white-adjacent. That means by distancing myself from my Asian and immigrant community, I’d reaped the emotional benefits of blending in with the white majority.
I was the same age, eleven, when I stopped wanting to speak Mandarin in front of my friends. I distanced myself from other international students so I wouldn’t be labeled as “fresh off the boat.”
I felt shame for the unmistakable foreign accent that slipped out when I was nervous. I hid my embarrassment when they teased me about taking home the extra shampoo bottles at hotels. There was no ill-intent in their words, but I was like a bundle of nerves, overly sensitive only to the mentions of my culture.
I was the same age when I started to prefer American holidays over my own. Chinese New Year felt too gaudy in comparison. It wasn’t, rather it was a lively celebration with family. Maybe it reminded me of what I’d left behind, but I think I just didn’t want to be noticed for celebrating something different.
I was twelve when I thought my small eyes and flat features were the ugliest things in my surroundings. I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen when teachers didn’t bother to learn my name after having me in their classes for two semesters, likely because they were too afraid to mess up, so afraid that they didn’t even ask. I was all of those ages when I was mistaken for my Asian friends, or when we were referred to as sisters.
I was seventeen when a counselor asked me if the place I came from had roads and cars.
I’m tired of American ignorance.
There’s no shortage of Asians in the world, the US, and especially not the Bay Area (the Asian population jumped to 58% in 2012), so this phenomenon can’t be completely because of alienation. Or maybe it is, but in a self-imposed form.
I get it: ignorance is easy. Trying to understand basic geography or an immigrant’s culture isn’t life-changing for a citizen of a nation that is one of the global powers. It can be easy to ignore the multicultural fabric of the U.S. when it doesn’t make you and your community feel a little smaller, a little more powerless, every time someone mentions your culture. Your thoughtfulness helps me, though, in feeling respected when you want to know how to pronounce my name, when you appreciate where I come from — not in the exotic or overly enthusiastic way, I should clarify that that’s creepy. I mean in a casual way, like how you’d be interested to see what it’s like to live in another state. It helps me feel belonging when you don’t overstate my differences yet still value them. Your thoughtfulness, in other words, is a basic form of empathy. I am asking you to show a bit of empathy when you meet me.
I do feel my privilege in writing this because my formative years and immigrant experiences were not of detention centers or family separation, racism or xenophobia, but of casual mistakes and microaggressions. The voices of the communities that experience those cruelties are horribly suppressed and I only hope to uplift them, but my Taiwanese immigrant narrative is the only one I feel comfortable telling this candidly because it is me. Hopefully, you will not see this as an attempt to thwart the movement of other immigrants, but instead, an attempt to instill the empathy and humility they need from another point of view, for another immigrant. Hopefully, by asking to show empathy to my community, it brings more possibilities for empathy towards theirs.
My name is “Hsin” and it means carnations in Chinese. My home country is definitely technologically ept, so yes, we do have roads and cars. We take up more than 70% of the global share of silicon chip fabrication and we were 5th in technology in the IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking in 2020. Moon Festival is and has always been my favorite holiday, but I can’t help but smile when I feel the Christmas cheer. Taiwan is an island situated to the east of China, south of Japan, and north of the Philippines. Being “FOB”(fresh off the boat) isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s brave. Any immigrant going through assimilation or the immigration process is doing something brave.
Further Readings for Asian-immigrant narratives:
“My Immigrant Experience” by Sophia Lee https://world.wng.org/2019/03/my_immigrant_experience
“The Stories we Tell and Don’t Tell about Asian-American Lives” by Hua Hsu https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-stories-we-tell-and-dont-tell-about-asian-american-lives
“‘Tigertail’ Review: The Silent Stories of the Taiwanese Immigration Experience Finally Roar Loud” by Katie Duggan https://filmdaze.net/tigertail-review-silent-stories-of-the-taiwanese-immigration-experience-finally-roar-loud/
“A Taiwanese immigrant’s first days in America were about getting by” by Eugenia Lee https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-01-24/taiwanese-immigrant-s-first-days-america-were-about-getting