Growing Up Asian American 🍜
Surprise! Bet you didn't know I was Asian.
I've been mistaken as Korean and Mongolian before, but my physical features and last name usually give it away that I'm Chinese. Full 100% Chinese, as my parents tell me in fact. I always wanted to take a DNA test to confirm by parents' claim, as I was supposedly picked up from the trash. Don't take that literally, its just a joke between my parents and I. Who knows? Maybe I have some Mexican DNA mixed in me somewhere.
The majority of my life has been I guess 'normal' as an Asian American, but here is my story.
Living under a Chinese household, this was how I was brought up. I ate rice every dinner (and even breakfast and lunch sometimes), celebrated Chinese New Year (although I never really understood why), grew up speaking Cantonese, tuned into the Chinese news and c-dramas, was raised off the veggies my grandma grew in her backyard, was shipped off into Chinese summer school, was constantly was at dim sum restaurants were there was a focus on family gatherings, etc.
My upbringing was what I was accustomed to, a part of my culture and made up who I was.
Right before I started pre-k, my family moved to a quiet suburban part of Philadelphia. It was a predominately white part of town, but as a young child no one notices what race is or the differences among each other. The only thing that mattered was to have fun and a full belly.
But perhaps my first time I ever noticed I was 'different' than my peers was when I was in kindergarten. I vividly remember how one day during snack time I was so excited as I took out my seaweed snack from the front compartment of my Disney princess backpack. I remember ripping the packaging open and holding a shiny, dark green sheet to my mouth. All of a sudden I heard - "Eww! What is that?!" I remembered being so horrified and embarrassed by all the stares at my table that I tossed out the rest of my snack.
*Now remember this was before seaweed chips were cool and became a heath power food, raved by people like Kylie Jenner*
As a four year old, this was something traumatizing. Why did my classmate say that? Why did they look at me like I was an alien? This seaweed snack was something I grew up eating and adored. That's when I noticed I wasn't eating what was 'normal' like the Goldfish, Gushers and Cheez-Its that everyone else at my table was having.
I never brought back the seaweed snack.
I guess this really carried throughout my elementary years as I started packing my own school lunch.
Options of my usual lunch:
-a cold honey ham sandwich
-Caprisun or Kool-aid pouch
A typical American lunch right?
I had the privilege of hand picking what I wanted from the store and pack it the night before in my Hello Kitty lunchbox. The ironic thing is that, I hated what I ate. If I was having a sandwich I would pick out the ham and toss out the bread. Sorry Mom and Dad for raising ungrateful kids 😬.
Looking back, I have a lot of questions. Why my did mom not object what I wanted from the grocery store, why I continued eating processed cardboard, why I did what I did.
Maybe that moment in kindergarten subconsciously planted a seed in my head.
Perhaps I just wanted to eat 'normal' food and have the Goldfish, Gushers and Cheez-Its that everyone else at my table was having.
America is known to be a 'melting pot' of cultures, races and religion. Maybe it was just the area I lived in, but everyone on my street was white. Again as a kid, it was never a thought that really came upon my mind. As long as I was I wasn't the slowest kid on the block, or the kid that picked their nose, everything was cool.
It was a routine to come out and play with all the other neighborhood kids after school. I was in second grade when I went out one day. I remember joining the conversation when randomly one of my neighbors started spewing out racist and rude remarks to me. I just stood there and stared as my other neighbors or so called 'friends' just sat there and laughed along.
It must of been a minute before I silently went back in my house and ran back to my room with tears in my eyes. I remember thinking why in the world they said stuff like that. And most importantly why no one stood up for me. I remember being confused and angry that I couldn't defend myself.
I stopped going outside after that.
In fourth grade there was another instance when a classmate said a really racist comment to me. The whole class, including the teacher snapped their necks in our direction.
Looking back, yes kids can be mean. I can't blame their naive intention or understanding. Kids can be kids. At that time those words hit me like bullets, but ultimately gave me thick skin.
Somewhere around third grade I started to only speak English. I had always spoken Cantonese with my parents and brother, but that switched. I don't really remember this transition or what triggered that. Was it the fact that I was speaking English constantly at school? I realized my parents could speak English? I had a disconnection with being bilingual? I was rebelling against my roots? What gave me shame?
Regardless, throughout the years my parents would reprimand me to speak Cantonese. I regret my decision as it really hit me when older family members realized that I lost my capability to hold a conversation with them. Why I had to start making sure one of my parents were around to help be a translator.
Maybe it was all adding up at this point. Why everyone at my school was white. Why everyone on my street was white. Why I looked completely different. Why I was the odd one out. Why felt lost and alone.
I had suppressed my cultural upbringing due to the hateful words, stereotypes and exclusion. I felt like I was weird and exotic.
In an attempt, I conformed to eating 'normal' food and lost my ability to speak my native language. I was trying to please myself to fit in, but I couldn't change what flowed in my veins. I couldn't break off a piece of my identity.
I am you, and you are me.
You could say I was having an identity crisis. Yes, you can call me whitewashed. I just wanted to be accepted.
Did I ever open up to anyone about it? Nope. It was something I brushed off and just kept to myself. It was just a part of life and a struggle growing up as Asian American.
I think it was starting in high school when all these thoughts subconsciously dropped. I stopped caring what others thought.
In my freshman year I asked my parents to buy me a thermos for my lunch. It finally got to me that I was tired of eating a cold lunch everyday. I started bring home food to school. Maybe my food smelled weird, but I didn't care. I was happy to eat what I liked.
I had also started to become friends with a more diverse group who didn't seem bothered by my differences, but were rather interested and wanted to know more.
I had even brought my seaweed snack to school. Friends wanted to try it. They no longer said 'ew' but now said 'that's so good'.
Words like that made me take a step back. It was a relief
My past ideology of being normal was to be accepted. I now see that it's more than that. It's the ability to accept myself for who I am.
I graciously was able to attend programs that introduced me to diverse people from all over the place. I actually met people that spoke my native language. They could relate to what I ate and how I was brought up. It was strange at first, but comforting.
I got a job were I was teaching a diverse group of kids. I ran an activity about Chinese New Year. Meeting people and experiencing things really gave me a different perspective and viewpoint.
I volunteered to do a presentation about my culture at my school's Multicultural Fair. What I was embarrassed by is now what I'm embracing.
Its funny how what I ran away from as a child, is now what I'm running towards.
Still to this day I still get faced with comments. It ranges from the kindergartners stopping me in the K-12 hallway to ask if I'm related to one of their classmates, to people rolling down their windows to shout slurs as I'm walking down the street.
Yes, I still interact with some people that are still wack and forever will. Now I just laugh and roll my eyes at their idiocy or naiveness that I once had.
I'm still not sure when this story ends. Actually it never will. I've only lived 17 years and there is still so much more to experience. Until next time.