While my authorial identity is important to me, equally important is my identity as an Asian American. When you grow up Asian in predominately white neighborhoods in Australia and the US as I did, you have two choices when it comes to your cultural heritage; downplay it/ignore it and live in crippling shame or embrace it.
Sadly, I took the first route for the better part of my teens and early twenties. I saw white women and men grace the glossiest covers of magazines and star in televisions shows and movies, I thought this was the standard for beauty and cool. I wanted to be accepted by my peers so badly that I did my best to dress, talk, and act “white”. I laughed when my friends impersonated a Chinese person. I rejected anything I thought was too Asian, like traditional clothing, shows, and speaking Mandarin. I chose hamburgers over fried rice. Listened to punk bands and alternative rock. I joked about my own “Asian-ness” to somehow dull the sting of a race-based insult or joke from a non-Asian friend, acquaintance, or stranger. This never felt authentic and it put me in so much pain and misery to the point of wanting to take my own life.
When I was 27, I accepted a job at my uncle’s company in Malaysia, I saw it as a change of scenery and a chance to travel around Asia. I certainly did, and I am grateful for the wonderful life experience this trip afforded me, it became so much more however. In addition to Malaysia, I also experienced Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and China – this forced me to confront my Asian identity once and for all.
After I left my job with my uncle, I was offered the chance to go to Hong Kong and China, all expenses paid, by the magazine editor I freelanced for. He wanted to start a travel series and wanted me to kick it off. He joined me and together we visited Hong Kong and six different cities in China. It was my first time there and my editor booked a bus tour for us. I initially viewed what I learned through this tour as a tourist, interesting and educational, but soon, I started to identify with the culture. Sure, Chinese people from China and Chinese people from America are pretty different yet our culture binds us. I realized this as I sat in a theatre in Hangzhou and watched in silent awe as the history of China played out before me through dance, song, and storytelling. In that moment, I felt proud to be Chinese. I also wondered why I had been ashamed to be Chinese in the first place. Every culture has contributed to the progression of our planet, every culture has made their mark. My Chinese heritage is not something to be hidden or ignored, it is to be celebrated. China’s history is mired in the invention of paper, the production of silk goods, food creations, and song and dance played with traditional musical instruments, to name a few.
I’m often asked if I’m mixed because of my pointed nose and large eyes. As a teen and young(er) woman, I took it as a compliment, because people thought I was half-white. I am in fact, fully Chinese, with a touch of Indonesian, but the gene wheel of mystery just happened to dole out some Eurasian features to me, too. I understand that people say this as a compliment, not as an offensive remark, but I am careful not use it as my ticket into acceptance within Caucasian society as I tried to do in my youth. Instead, I stand firm in my identity as a Chinese American, I cannot be anything else. Of course, this is just one part of me because I’m also a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, and an artist. I can be all of these things all at once because that’s the beauty of identity – we define who we are, society only dictates it if we allow it.
Once I decided to say “fuck it” and hold my head up high and proclaim that I’m Asian, instead of in a barely audible voice, I felt peace and a deep, unrelenting rush of pride flowing within me for the first time. It was freeing but also grounding.
And I still listen to punk and alternative rock, but I won’t turn away the latest Chinese pop hit.
2 thoughts on “What It Means to Be Asian and American”
I grew up in a white neighborhood in the US and found myself at a similar crossroad. Like you, I experienced the “ashamed to be Asian phase” in my teens, but was able to move past it and just embrace who I was. It wasn’t an easy road but a necessary one to formulate who I am today.
Yes!! And once I embraced who I was, I started to find my place in the world. Thanks for sharing!