Updated, May 2021.
The original piece below was written in 2019. It’s been two years since I wrote it. Two years since I’ve started my journey of truly trying to define my version of being an Asian American. Two years since I’ve tried to find my place among the Asian community in San Francisco after growing up in the White Midwest.
Revisiting that piece today, I can only scoff and think to myself, how did you ever feel anything but 100% Asian? Because here we are, two years later, and anti-Asian hate has skyrocketed 150%. Now, while I’m still eagerly embracing and flaunting my Asianness, I’m also finding myself hiding behind my White friends so that I don’t draw attention to myself, because to be Asian today is to have a giant target painted on your back.
“I sometimes avoid reading a news story when the victim is Asian because I don’t want to pay attention to the fact that no one else is paying attention. I don’t want to care that no one else cares because I don’t want to be left stranded in my rage.” — Cathy Park Hong, “Minor Feelings”
It’s so easy to ignore and dismiss the anti-Asian hate crimes that are happening around the country right now. I understand that if things don’t directly affect you, they might not feel real. But I’m here to tell you that it is very real. It’s real because our 爷爷s are being forcefully pushed down into the concrete while enjoying their daily walk for fresh air. It’s real because our 奶奶s are getting brutally stabbed in broad daylight while waiting for the bus to go home. It’s real because my parents recently bought 20 pepper sprays to have around our house in case they have to defend themselves. It’s real because I’ve started getting my groceries delivered so that I don’t have to go outside alone; and in cases where I do, my hand is in my pocket, finger ready on my pepper spray trigger. Now I understand why mom’s version of saying “I love you” has always been “be careful”.
The most frustrating part is that despite the overwhelming determination, resilience, and anger built up in our community, there’s also a crippling feeling of helplessness. No matter how much our hearts ache to go out and stand up for ourselves and each other, it’s clearly not safe for us out there. So I’m asking you all: please step up for us, we need you.
With all that being said about the anti-Asian hate plaguing our community, I am thankful for one thing; and that’s the clarity I’ve been seeking these past two years. Because today, I actually know exactly where I stand. And that is as an unapologetic, proud, Asian American.
Original piece (May 2019)…
It wasn’t until I moved to California two years ago when I really started to reflect on my identity as an Asian American. Which, if you think about it, is pretty backwards given the fact that I’ve spent my whole life up until now in the Midwest, where people like me stick out like a sore thumb. (For reference: I grew up in Iowa, which is ~2% Asian).
But growing up, I never really saw the lack of Asians around me as a problem — I just accepted it as the way it was. Of course, there were times when I’d think about how nice it would be to have friends who shared the struggle of Sunday morning Chinese school, who understood that “sleepover” was the true forbidden “s” word, and who had just as many Wang Wang rice crackers waiting in their cupboards as I did. But I found myself perfectly content in fitting in with everyone else around me and over time completely immersed myself into mainstream American culture.
There’s a term used to describe people like myself — a banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Some people find that label offensive, but I’ve always been comfortable with and accepting of that description for myself.
However, since I’ve moved to SF, I’ve thought more about how that the label insinuates losing touch with my Asian culture… which I am not accepting of. I am very proud of my Chinese heritage; it’s just that growing up in places so isolated from my culture deprived me of the resources and community I needed to be able to fully embrace my Asian-ness.
For that reason, I expected that moving to a place with a strong Asian American community would help make up for everything I’d missed out on growing up. But instead, it’s only brought out more feelings of confusion and self-questioning.
Back in the Midwest, I stand out in a crowd , but here, despite being surrounded by a comforting sea of Asian faces, I still don’t feel like I fit in. From what I’ve noticed, most Asians here have close-knit social circles of people who share the same cultural background and experiences, and most of their habits, interests, and go-to activities are things that I’ve been used to suppressing in order to fit in with my white peers — not because I’m ashamed of my Asian identity, but because up until recently, “white” culture was basically all that I’d known and therefore has had the biggest influence on shaping who I am.
In contrast to the Asian cohesion around me, and as a result of having a great college alumni network in SF, most of my social circle (still) consists mostly of non-Asians. Given my observation that most Asians here hang out almost exclusively with each other, I find myself self-consciously wondering… do they assume that because I’m with a group of white people, I’m whitewashed? Do they assume I don’t care about preserving or embracing my Asian heritage? I worry about how I’m perceived — am I being “othered” by the one group I’ve always believed I was a part of? Am I unwittingly “othering” myself just by having that concern?
I’d like to think that I’m content with not fitting the typical “Cali Asian” mold, but if I’m being completely honest with myself, every time I see a group of them together, I get incredibly envious. I wish I’d had the West Coast privilege of being able to develop a close group of Asian friends with similar experiences and cultural contexts. Now, I’m finally surrounded these people who understand and share my cultural similarities… but how do I take advantage of it when I feel like I’m viewed as an outsider?
As someone who strongly believes in the value of learning from one another and sharing different ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds, I have always been more than happy to play the role of the “Asian Cultural Liaison” and teach my non-Asian friends about Asian things. When Crazy Rich Asians came out, I couldn’t stop talking about it! I accompanied friends to see it in theaters, eagerly explaining to them specific cultural aspects of the movie and pointing out the parallels between certain scenes and my own family life. Of course, they were very receptive to learning more about Chinese culture, but no matter how much I teach them, there will always be that deeper cultural gap that can never be fully bridged.
And as much as I like educating my friends about my background and culture, being the “Asian Cultural Liaison” can get exhausting and repetitive. The other night, I went out for hot pot for a friend’s birthday dinner. Most of them had never had hot pot before. And as the only Eastern Asian person in the group (which is often the case in other situations as well, such as when I go out for dim sum), I volunteered to take charge of ordering and explained what the dishes were and how the process worked. But that got me thinking: is my impulse to take charge in such situations fueled by a sincere enjoyment of explaining and sharing my culture? Or is it more just feeling like it’s my duty to do so?
I do love spreading the knowledge and joy of Asian culture, but it also means that I occupy a very specific role in these social situations. And I don’t know how I feel about that.
There’s a movie coming out in July called The Farewell, and I’m excitedly counting down the days until its release because the story is centered around a Chinese family (#AsianRepresentation!). But I’ve realized that none of my friends will likely be as enthusiastic about it as I am. Should I prepare myself for having to explain the cultural elements of the film to them or should I save myself the energy, knowing that no matter how much I explain, there just won’t be that same innate understanding of the deeper cultural roots and undertones?
Because of the environments I’ve grown up in, I’ve learned to subtly and reflexively change the way I express myself depending on the social and cultural context. Navigating the different cultural and linguistic spaces and the separate parts of my own identity when I’m with my friends vs. when I’m with my family has been necessary to develop and strengthen these different relationships throughout my life. But even though this “code-switching” process is effortless and automatic, I do think about how nice it would be to not have to constantly switch between the two versions of myself.
I’ve become hyper-aware and self-conscious of how “white” my habits, hobbies, and interests are. I tell myself to stop (over)thinking and to just try being unapologetically me. But whenever a song plays from my playlists, I can’t help but wonder what kinds of music other Asian Americans here typically listen to. Whenever I go out to brunch, I wonder what kinds of food other Asian Americans would pick to eat instead. Whenever I say a term or phrase, I wonder if it’s part of the “normal” Asian American vernacular here.
I know it’s unnecessary and silly to be analyzing such little things — after all, each of us is our own unique selves and there’s no way we “should” be — but it’s all these little things that influence how I come across to others. And is how I come across to others an accurate depiction of who I actually am or want to be? Do my habits, hobbies, and interests make me seem like I don’t really care about my Asian heritage? If so, how would I change that?
Don’t get me wrong — I adore and appreciate all of my friends, and I am grateful for all that I’ve been able to learn from them. I grew up very happy and wouldn’t trade my experiences for different ones. It’s just that the more time I spend in this environment, the more I find myself craving for a secure sense of belonging and wondering how different my life would be had I grown up in a place with more people like myself — a concept so foreign and unfamiliar to me.
Now, the one group I’ve always identified myself with is finally accessible to me. But unexpectedly, I still don’t feel in place. And as someone who constantly seeks certainty, it’s such a disorienting feeling.
Where do I fit in?
Will I ever find my place?
Am I searching for a place that doesn’t exist?