When I was 11 years old, my parents and I went on a cruise to the Caribbean. Within the first couple of days, I became friends with another girl my age. She lived in Kansas, and I was the first Asian person she had ever met.
She wanted to learn as much as she could about all things Asian, and even though I was a child, I did my best to be her teacher. No, I did not use fans or parasols. Yes, even though my eyes were smaller, I could see just as much of the world as she could. I wish I could say that I educated her on a history and overview of Asian cultures, or even just the basic differences between China and Japan (her idea of Asian culture was a mix of the two), but at that age, both of us were more interested in eating as much soft-serve ice cream as we could.
I sat around one afternoon, waiting for her to come by our cabin. Impatient, I set out to find her, and we later managed to find each other by the pool.
“Where were you?” I asked, irritated.
“I was busy,” she shrugged. “I did go by your room, and your dad was there. I couldn’t understand him.”
“Wait, what?” I was not expecting this.
“Because of his accent.” She then assumed a Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s accent. “‘See went out lookee fo you.’”
I couldn’t believe it. My father didn’t have an accent. How could anyone not understand him?
I told her this, and added that if he did have an accent, it was probably slightly British, because he was from Singapore, which used to be a British colony. That’s right, I was so offended at the idea of my dad having an Asian accent that I explained it away with colonialism. It was certainly preferable to whatever cultural caricature she thought we were.
That was the first time I realized that other people saw me as Asian (an absurd blanket term that somehow refers to people groups from 48 or so different countries, but let’s work with it for now). As someone who is ethnically Chinese and Malaysian, aka, there is very little chance that I would be mistaken for any ethnicity other than Asian, I realize how ridiculous this sounds.
On a logical level, I knew that I was Asian. I knew where my family came from, I ate dim sum and laksa, I got my red packets of money on Chinese New Year, I read all of Laurence Yep’s books, and I knew enough vocabulary to talk with my parents when they wanted to gossip about people in public without being understood. But I also knew that I wasn’t like the Asians who weren’t born in America.
Those Asians spoke Mandarin or Cantonese or some other dialect (because really, speaking “Chinese” is not a thing), loudly, wore strange combinations of clothes, and I was embarrassed that we shared an ethnic heritage. They wouldn’t have me anyway; though I was enrolled in a Chinese school for some time, I was so baldly ignored by the other kids that I refused to go. My parents, who were not born in America, agreed that I was a Twinkie - yellow on the outside, white on the inside - because my thoughts and mannerisms were so undeniably American.
I looked down my flat nose at other Asians, many of whom seemed quiet and submissive around Americans. I made sure that I talked and laughed loudly, saying and doing things that would emphasize my individuality. I dyed my hair purple and wore goth clothes, not as a way to rebel against my parents, who didn’t seem to mind the strange things I did, but to rebel against my ethnic stereotypes. I was unique, and I was American. And so when my white friends made the same jokes over and over, about being good at math or eating dogs, I didn’t mind.
All this language seems so outdated and offensive to me now, but yet, when I talk about race with my family, I find that they don’t seem to be bothered in the slightest by these stereotypes. They laugh at them, and tell me not to take things so seriously.
Amidst conversations on race relations and the ongoing national struggle with racism, I didn’t understand how they, and many other Asians, could continue being so blasé. Where was the Asian representation in Black Lives Matter protests? Where was the indignant outcry in solidarity with those who struggle with migration policies? We’re not completely absent from the conversation, and recently, it’s been heartening that the issue of Asian representation in media is picking up steam. But we are, for the most part, silent.
Perhaps this is because Asians in America largely enjoy financial security and success. This privilege has allowed us a seat at the table for major economic players. Stereotypes like being hardworking, intelligent, and obedient work to our advantage in the workplace. In a social system where class equates to power, some have even suggested that being Asian is, in essence, being white.
And so, many of us tolerate unsavory stereotypes because we benefit from the advantageous ones. We remain silent because we can afford to, not rocking the boat so we can keep cruising. No matter how much code-switching we may have to do, we have privilege that makes us comfortable with being in-between.
I struggle with my ethnic identity. When I think of my family, my friends, and myself, I know we’re more than the “model minority” label we’ve been given, but I also know that our experience is different from that of other minorities in America.
My parents have always assessed the racial makeup of any room they’re in, taking special note if there are any Asians. They don’t go out of their way to talk to them, and it doesn’t make them feel more comfortable to know they’re there; it’s simply an interesting demographical fact, though sometimes they use it as a way to determine the authenticity of a restaurant. For better or for worse, I also have this habit, and until recently, didn’t realize how telling it was of my experience.
I was attending an event with a friend, and as we settled into our balcony seats, he looked over the people sitting around us and in the orchestra below.
“You’re the only person of color here,” he said under his breath to me. “It’s strange; I don’t know what it’s like to go somewhere and not see people who look like me.”
We laughed, and of course, I’d known this already because I did my subconscious scan the moment we walked in. But hearing him refer to me as a “person of color” made me cringe. I know that by definition, this label applies to me, but given its politicized associations, it feels like I haven’t “earned it.”
I can tell my white friends what it’s like to have migrant parents, but I understand the opportunities that have been handed to me because of their class. I can complain about the racist-flavored jokes that have been said to me, but none of my family members or Asian friends have been victims of police brutality or mass incarceration. I realize that other minorities do their own environmental scans, not to assess a restaurant’s authenticity, but to assess their own safety.
I still don’t exactly know what it means to be an Asian in America. I do know that I want to be a part of the conversation on race, and if being Asian really does grant me privilege, I’ll try to use it to benefit others that don’t have a seat at the table. So, if that girl from Kansas is out there reading this, get ready: We have a lot to talk about.