"What does the Asian pride movement mean to you?"
Asian-American Youth Spotlight:
"Asian-American Youth Spotlight" is the Editor's Choice declaration submitted by a young activist every week.
June 22nd, 2020 ｜Laurie Chan, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
To be “Asian American” is to float around an endless abyss, with different shaped boxes populating the space, tempting us to fit into them. To win a space in one of these shapes is to give up a part of ourselves.
Through the years, I have thrown away pieces of myself in order to fit into particular boxes. I would feel comfortable for a while, only to feel out of place, and proceed to leave the box to allow myself to breathe. Floating, again.I spent my childhood in a typical midwestern suburban town. Needless to say, there was a lack of diversity.
In elementary school, I answered obediently to “Where are you from?” giving them the response I knew they wanted to hear, refused to speak Mandarin to my grandparents, and belittled myself to put others at ease.
If you look at my old group pictures, whether that be a birthday party or summer camp, you’d see just one Asian face. Me. Back then, it wasn’t that apparent to me.
One day at dinner, when I was about 9 years old, my parents looked at each other and asked my brother and I if we’d ever felt uncomfortable for being Asian. It felt like a slap in the face. I didn’t see myself fitting into the “Asian” box (whatever that meant), so how could I feel uncomfortable for an identity I didn’t own?
These were conversations I was not yet ready to have.
Looking back, these are my “innocent days.” Ignorant bliss. To be Asian American (or any person of color) is to not have the option of being ignorant.*
As I’d come to learn, it seems it doesn’t matter what we, Asian Americans, think about ourselves or where we fit. In many ways, that’s already been decided for us. This was what my parents already knew. It was only a matter of time before I, too, would need to know.
Perhaps, I should even be thankful for this early exposure that would later fuel my existential crises.
I went through a phase of fear. I became acutely aware of my Asian-ness. It felt like I was being stripped of something rightfully mine --my identity that had been framed through stereotypes -- and was exposed to the world. I was always me, of course. I looked the same, talked the same, still liked the same things, but I was suddenly conscious to a part of myself I’d always shunned. I’d never really be the same again. Instead of the childlike innocence of carving out my own identity, I’d been introduced to a mould that I would now need to fight to get out of.
It made me ashamed. I was reluctant even to go out to dinner with my family, for fear of being racially profiled or treated differently for how I looked. I felt wrong for going out. I didn’t want to be seen. I wanted to hide/bury/dig a deep, deep hole, throw my Asian-ness in and never look back.
I wished dearly not to be Asian.
I wished to change my eye shape, nose shape, hair color. A few times, I even tried to lighten my hair with lemon juice (didn’t work) and use ‘black eyeliner’ (it was not meant for eyes).
I just wanted to be seen as “American.” Was that too much to ask?
In middle school, despite having moved to a town with a much larger Asian American community, I mostly hung around white people. I laughed along to their Asian jokes, thinking this is how I can ‘fit in.’ It’s better than floating around… right.
I definitely didn’t want to be identified as ‘just another Asian kid’ and be added to the monolithic lump that has been carved out for Asian Americans. I didn’t want to be boxed, again.
On a particular family trip, I wanted to bury it further. It was a big group of us: my parents and brother, my grandparents, two uncles, an aunt and a baby cousin. The adults all spoke primarily in Mandarin and Taiwanese throughout the trip -- in restaurants, stores, on hiking paths. Once again, I felt exposed. I was afraid others would hear us and categorize us into one of the boxes, and that included myself.
I wanted to disconnect from my family.
I wanted to show the other people that we were English speaking, ‘normal’ Americans. I would speak English loudly to my mom and dad, while the adults continued speaking as before. I was conscious of myself, with my head swerving around looking for prying, judging eyes, ready to prove them wrong with my perfect English.
I wanted to be different (than the ‘typical’ Asian, whatever that meant). In doing so, I perpetuated these oppressive views put upon the Asian American community. Perhaps it was because of my fear of being judged, of being boxed away, that made me want to distinguish myself from other Asian Americans.**
In high school, I felt myself gravitating towards other Asian Americans. It felt like I was discovering a new world that had felt inaccessible before. In reality, I had created that barrier for myself.
Now, I’m embracing the floating. It’s not always easy, but it is so freeing.
I’m now more ready for those conversations.
Conversations with my parents have reached a new level. We spend many evenings munching on popcorn at our dining table, where we engage in fruitful discussions on social issues, what this means for us and personal stories from their past. I have cried a few times.
Turns out, I’m not the only one in a dilemma.
Our conversations are starting to sound like, “Do I want to be associated with America?” Amidst the past few years, and especially during the disheartening reactions towards Covid-19, a little voice in the back of my mind is worming its way through to make me feel ashamed to be American. I had a full-on breakdown in front of my parents one night, feeling genuinely scared for what my future as an Asian American will look like in this country.
It’s strange to think that my thoughts have reversed.
I flash back to those times in elementary school, where we’d declare the Pledge of Allegiance every morning before class (shamed if we didn’t stand, with a hand over heart) and, during school performances, perform songs with the resonating lyrics: “I’m proud to be an American…”
Back then, perhaps subconsciously, I’d wanted to fit into the mould of the ‘ideal American,’ in order to feel like singing those lyrics were ‘allowed.’
The lyrics feel quite ironic to me now, amidst the injustices that are affecting people of color.
Why did my Asian side get questioned so much? Now it’s my American part that’s getting a second look.
I find myself more gravitated towards the Asian part of myself, while at the same time, wondering whether I am “allowed” to, as I was neither born or have lived in Asia. My main exposure to my Asian side is through close family, bits of stories, fragments of language and of course, delicious food.
A part of me sometimes wishes I’d been born in Asia, never to be exposed to the dilemma of “Asian-American.” Never to be questioned whether I belong to the only place I’ve known and lived in. But, I understand that comes with its own problems.
Perhaps, I need to embrace the abyss. The endless possibilities, the power to mould my own story, eventually carving out a box for myself that feels comfortable, authentic, and has room for me to grow.
For so long, I’ve believed it’s between Choice A and B: Asian or American? It doesn’t have to be that way.
Perhaps, that’s a privilege. The raw power of being able to grab the reins and take control over my own story, obstacles and all.
*This is not to say that I am completely knowledgeable about all things, but i am striving to learn and understand my place (e.g. in relation to other racial groups and why things are the way they are) in society because i believe it is vital for our very existence.
** Ah yes, the result of the recurring perception of Asian Americans as ‘perpetual foreigners.’
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