A squint into my Asian American experience.

I have always been fascinated by the topic of race. Growing up, my family was the token Asian family in our neighborhood, my best friend was the token black girl on the block, I went to predominantly white schools, and most of the friends I hung out with were from our Chinese church. I’ve received my fair share of racist remarks, from the classic “Chinese, Japanese” eye-pulling children’s rhyme to “Go back to China!” remarks to “compliments” about my English being “really good!” (eye roll)

leo_asianamerican

For a few years in middle and high school, I attended Chinese school on Saturday mornings with the other Chinese American kids whose parents wanted them to retain their culture and language despite growing up in the US of A. It was there that I learned that all Asians really do know each other and that being called “whitewashed” was the biggest insult someone could give me. (“Whitewashed” is a derogatory term used to describe a non-white person who has seemingly rejected his/her own cultural heritage to fit in with the mainstream white culture.) I prided myself on being able to speak Chinese and I never understood why the kids at school thought my lunches smelled weird. In high school I was part of the step team, which was a fun mixture of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians and the few white girls on the team were considered minorities for those few hours after school each week.

When I went to college, I was afraid I wouldn’t have any Asian friends since Penn State is basically an all-white school. This lack of diversity was such a well-known fact that one semester, the student satirical journal made one of those motivational teamwork posters that showed a bunch of white hands interlocking and read, “Diversity: because we’re all different shades of white” with the Penn State logo in the corner. (It’s okay, you can laugh at that. It’s hilarious!)

I found myself in the Asian circles my freshman and sophomore year until I decided I didn’t want my whole college experience to exist within the confines of that exclusive bubble. Large groups of Asians would swarm around campus together as if they were one entity. I didn’t understand why college was so segregated when it was supposed to be a place you got to meet and interact with people from different walks of life than you! When you walked through the student union building, there was a clear black students section, a clear Asian students section, and a clear international students section. (The white students section existed everywhere outside of those three sections, ha!)

I spent most of my time with my friends from my dorm, which meant I was usually the only Asian in any given group I was with (sometimes one of two, gasp!). I eventually started taking pride in being the token Asian and even found myself judging the Asians who would only hang out with other Asians (“because it’s easier”). I was very content with my newfound friend group and the term “whitewashed” no longer offended me–I was fitting in with the mainstream culture!

I missed my high school stepping days so I joined a step team in college that happened to be paired with a gospel choir (though I was definitely not a part of the choir!). This time I was the only non-black person on the team! Suddenly I found myself as the minority within another minority group.

Hanging out with my black friends was so much fun and like entering another world from my day-to-day college life. I learned about weaves and waves and shouting, “Ya betta saaang!” when someone hit a high note. I was welcomed in as one of them and we all cracked racial jokes at each other. It was somehow okay because I was another minority and a neutral party of sorts. Because I stood in this neutral territory, I was a safe person for them to freely express themselves around. I remember feeling so cool to be included but also so shocked when I heard my first racist comment towards white people. Huh? How was that okay?? Would they dog on Asians too if I wasn’t there?

I remember when The Princess and the Frog came out in theaters. We were all so excited! The very first black Disney princess! I saw it in theaters with 13 black girls. When the credits rolled, I distinctly remember cheering along with them until one girl stood up and proudly shouted, “I have a black President, that’s my black princess, we’re taking over the world!!” to which I was left speechless as they all celebrated. Was I supposed to cheer with them? But I wasn’t black! But I was happy for them? Wait, what about Asians??

My favorite class at Penn State was a sociology class on race relations where we boldly discussed race issues in a diverse 700-person lecture that included a 15-person recitation class that met once a week. I don’t know how they racially profiled our names to create such diverse recitation classes, but that classroom was the first diverse space I had ever been in where controversial race issues were freely and openly discussed! We had students from every race, students from different socio-economic backgrounds, students from different religions, students from other countries, etc. I realized how beneficial it was to meet, sit down with, and truly listen to people with different perspectives than my own. Needless to say, that was a very educational semester for me.

Now this whole race issue is even more complex for me because I am not just a typical Chinese American whose parents are from China, but I and my parents are a part of the overseas Chinese diaspora, or the 46 million ethnic Chinese who either moved out of or were born outside of China. Both of my parents were born in Southeast Asia, and only two of my grandparents were born in China (later emigrating to Southeast Asia in their 30s). So even among my other Chinese American friends whose parents are from either China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, I have been an anomaly. My ties to “the motherland” are more removed, so any comments that attempt to tie me back to her are annoying and come off as ignorant. My first trip to China wasn’t even until college! That trip was also my parents’ first time to China, so it was a strange experience for all of us to enter into the culture of our ancestors but feel so alien in it. We were all so excited to finally be back home…in the US!

A few years ago there was a viral video (in the Asian American community, at least) called, “What kind of Asian are you?” The reason that video became such a hit was because it resonated so deeply with Asian Americans everywhere. The all-too-familiar “Where are you from?” question that we get asked on a regular basis, inevitably followed by its evil twin of a question when our answers don’t suffice–“No…where are you really from?” are the banes of our existence. Because it’s not possible for us to actually be from New Jersey, or Texas, or California…even when we speak English with a perfect American accent, even when we cheer for our favorite football team while drinking Budweiser at a tailgate, even when we sing The Star-Spangled Banner on the Fourth of July while dressed head-to-toe in red, white, and blue and eating hot dogs and apple pies and Twinkies and all the fried foods during a NASCAR race!!! I digress. Because Amurica can’t possibly look like we do even though that’s what makes her so great to begin with, right?? (For the record, the correct way to ask that question is, “What is your ethnicity?”)

You see, the annoying thing about being Asian American is that we are the perpetual foreigner in our own land. We will never be seen as fully American but when we visit “the motherland,” we will never be seen as fully Asian either. So we exist in our own culture. Some of us choose to “side with” our Asian-ness and band against white people by watching Asian dramas during our dumpling-making parties, while others of us choose to suppress our Asian heritage by drinking lattes at brunch and rocking jean shorts and flower crowns at Bonnaroo to prove our American-ness. (Hey. You do you, Asian reader!)

I recently returned back to the States after spending six months living and working in Lusaka, Zambia. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I absolutely fell in love with the people I met there, but I definitely do not miss being stared at and catcalled by random men on the sides of the road. Being an Asian American in Africa was an identity crisis waiting to happen, ha! People there either saw me as white because I wasn’t black (something that would never happen back home in America), or they saw me as a Chinese person from China because I didn’t “look American,” AKA white. They would either shout “Chinese! Chinese!” at me when I walked by or “Mzungu! Mzungu!” which is what they call white people. Any time I tried to explain that I was, in fact, an American who was born and raised in America, they would either try to dispute me or look utterly perplexed. Because how can non-white people be from America, right? Facepalm.

Since droves of Chinese immigrants are moving to Zambia for business in recent years and oftentimes either mistreat their Zambian employees or are too proud (read: scared/unwilling) to assimilate to Zambian culture or even smile at locals (which does not help their already poor reputation there), I found it extra pertinent to dissociate myself from that part of my culture. I didn’t like how I would be immediately put in that Chinese box at first glance. You don’t know me! I’d diva-girl snap at them in my head. The negative reputation of the Chinese there made me scorn my own heritage even more. I would purposefully greet Zambians in their local language just to separate myself from “those” Chinese people. “You’re so nice! You’re not like the other Chinese people,” I would often hear. “Well, I’m not Chinese…” I’d try to explain. But deep-down inside, I hated that I felt this need to suppress that part of my heritage!

The movie Black Panther came out in theaters two weeks before my six months in Zambia was up, so I watched it in a packed theater with some of my (Zambian) friends. I found myself feeling equally as empowered as the rest of the theater watching the Wakandans dominate the screen and I even picked up on some cultural nuances I’d probably have missed out on had I not spent this past half year immersed in African culture. The movie did a great job showcasing the beauty of African culture and it felt especially meaningful to watch it with my African brothers and sisters (one of whom even knew two of the three languages being spoken in the movie!).

But what was most interesting about the movie was how different my Zambian friends’ interpretation of it was from mine! They did not catch how it symbolized the racial tensions between whites and blacks in the States. They did not think about the double standards that American minorities face on a daily basis when it comes to equal rights. They could not fully embrace why it was such an important and empowering movie for Black Americans. Don’t get me wrong, they also loved the African representation in Hollywood and the all-black cast (with one or two white people), but their interpretation of it was different than mine because their life experience is different than mine. They thought more about the colonialization of African countries by white Westerners, the corruption of government leaders seeking power and wealth at the expense of others, and the competition between various tribal communities within Africa.

I started thinking about how complex race issues are and where I fit into those discussions. I thought back to the racist comments my black friends in college made about white people. I thought back to my own experiences with racism and prejudice as an Asian American female. I thought back to my own judgements against Asians who host exclusively Asian dumpling-making parties. And I realized that I am a part of the problem too!

But then I thought about all of the beautiful relationships I’ve formed over the years with people who are not like me. What would it look like if we could all humble ourselves enough to enter into the world of someone who looks different than we do, who believes differently than we do, who lives differently than we do?

Prior to working for the orphan ministry I work for now, I worked for another ministry in Dallas that focused on loving the marginalized of society because Jesus loves them even if/when/though the Church seems distant. I found myself in unlikely places through this job–street corners of high-crime areas with drug addicts, refugee neighborhoods with immigrant families, gay bars with members of the occult, Korean brothels with likely trafficked mama-sans, strip club parking lots with single moms, community colleges with students from the Middle East, section 8 housing with ex-criminals. My eyes were opened to the indisputable thread between humanity and how Christ’s offering of love on the Cross was for all of humanity–all of them, all of us. I think that season of my life prepared me for this most recent season in Zambia.

The reason I fell in love with the people I met in Zambia is because we welcomed each other’s differences with open arms. I did all I could to learn their language, to eat their food, to sit in the dirt with them and they did all they could to teach me their language, share their meals with me, and invite me to sit in the dirt with them. We allowed ourselves to face our differences and in the process, realized how insignificant those differences really were. Because we are all members of one Family.

And I guess that’s kind of the point of all this race talk, huh? That despite all of our racial identity issues, we all ultimately belong to the same human race and the same all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present God created each one of us in His image. So we should accept and love each other as brothers and sisters of the same Family–God’s.

I know, I know. That seems like an oversimplified solution to this whole race issue, us all being part of God’s big family…but is it, really? Wakanda is alluring because it is a glimpse into a world where we really do see each other as members of the same family–a world where we freely share our resources with one another, a world where we truly care for one another as brothers and sisters, a world where our differences become insignificant against the backdrop of our shared humanity. It’s alluring to us because that’s the type of world we were made for, and it starts with each of us choosing to reclaim our citizenship in that world and acting like members of that society even while we are still living in this one. It starts with us looking within at our own life experiences and choosing to see the “other” as our brother, no matter how different he may seem. It starts with us humbling ourselves to leave our comfortable little worldview long enough to enter into the world of someone who looks different than we do, who believes differently than we do, who lives differently than we do, because maybe, just maybe, they can help us see a fuller picture of this beautiful world we live in…and maybe, just maybe, we won’t have to squint to see it anymore.


[Please comment if you read through this novel of a post! I’d love to hear your thoughts!]

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10 responses to “A squint into my Asian American experience.

  1. Quenisha Conaway

    Sang, you amaze me! I loved reading your review and learning some things from a different perspective.

    Q,
    Thanks for sharing !

  2. So well written, friend!

    I have had some really interesting moments in a similar way…but my “difference” (for lack of a better word!) isn’t visible. As an Iranian-American, I look completely white, but was raise in my posse of Persian cousins. I also went to an Iranian school on the weekends, and my family is literally the kindest, most hospitable group on this planet.
    So, imagine my dismay when people started talking about how evil the Iranians are. How we are all terrorists. How we hate God. How Trump is right to ban us from coming in the country. I had to “out” myself over and over and have awkward, tense conversations because I didn’t LOOK Persian and people thought it was safe to make crash, baselsss comments. 🙁
    I think we need more conversations like this. Maybe a new sociology class? I miss school!
    Proud of your honesty and openness!
    PS – was waiting the whole time for you to mention the Canton experience…missed opportunity 😜

    • Thank you for your encouragement, dear friend! So interesting to hear more about your experience and the awkward in-between place you’re in as a (for lack of a better word) “passable” white Persian. That sounds so frustrating to be privy to hearing people’s true inner prejudices against your own people and know that they wouldn’t share that with you if you “outed” yourself!

      Ugh, I wish we could have another sociology class too!! How can we make this happen?? New blog post idea. Let’s get a round table together! 😛 And Canton!! How could I forget Canton!! 😂

      • So well-written! It’s so hard to explain to people who have never experienced this to really get it, but you definitely do. I’m Pakistani-American, born and raised in the US, but i get the same comments a lot “your English is so good!” “you dress just like us!” “wow, you really are ALMOST as American as me!” It’s refreshing to see someone else who went through it. Unlike the poster above, I’ve never passed as white, but my sister does. It’s tough to be in either of those situations I’d say…and I’d love to join that roundtable too! 😀

      • Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment! It really is such a weird in-between world we live in as Asian Americans! Just popped over to your blog and see a lot of very intriguing titles. I’ll have to go back and read some of your posts! Where are you located? Would be so cool to have a roundtable discussion! 🙂

      • Awesome! I’d love to keep an eye on yours as well, it seems we have similar views. I’m in DC. What about you?

      • I’m kind of all over the place now, ha! I was in Dallas before going to Zambia but am now in Jersey!

  3. Wow, Sang! you are an amazing human being and writer! This is such an impactful story that I really think you should have a Ted Talk on it!!

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