Who are we exactly? Asian. American. Asian American. This term seems to suggest that we embody the best of both worlds. However, finding your identity as an Asian American in society is difficult. To white people, you are too Asian. To Asian people, you are too American.
Paradoxically, being Asian American seems to mean that you can only be one thing: Asian or American.
Do we choose to be American? Being American, however, seems to mean that we should all reject our other cultures so we can feel like we fit in. Being American means that we don’t identify with any of Asian stereotypes, such as being good at math or an instrument, or embracing Asian pop culture.
If you want to blend in, don’t bring your home-cooked food to school, don’t take Chinese at school, and don’t tell people you play violin. Don’t tell people you like K-dramas; make sure you tell people your favorite shows are The Office and Friends. Don’t tell people you listen to K-pop; your favorite artists are actually Billie Eilish and Harry Styles.
These are the rules for fitting into American Society. But, the most frustrating thing is, the rules are completely the opposite if you want to fit in with Asians. Fitting in with the Asians means you should embody as much Asianness as you can. If you’re a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), or whitewashed, the Asians don’t want you. There is a great struggle in fitting in with the groups if it feels like you are stuck in the middle. Why has society become like this?
Growing up, I lived in Illinois for 11 years. My life was drastically changed when I moved to Boston in 6th grade. My new school had a much smaller percentage of Asians in comparison to my school back in Illinois. I started to worry a lot about how I was perceived by other people, both white and Asian.
I feel conflicted about how to act and who I should be. I don’t want to be known just for being Asian or be seen as just a studious, quiet Asian girl. Despite my passion for it, playing the violin has never been something I’ve been proud of telling people. Another aspect of music in my life is that I enjoy listening to K-pop. However, telling white people this is like asking to be made fun of. When can we remove the stigma around liking K-pop?
On the other hand, a lot of the time I worry that I don’t act Asian enough. It sucks feeling like I’m not smart enough as other Asians, especially since I struggle a lot in math and science classes. Because of these things, I feel like I won’t be able to make my parents proud and make it into a top college like my sister has. I feel embarrassed because I have not been considered one of the very “smart” Asian by others. I’m just average.
Life is hard for an Asian American teen like me. I grew up in a white-majority neighborhood where only a couple Asians in my grade attended during elementary school. I am of Hong Kong descent and I’m currently living in Boston. I loved my heritage at first. I was proud of my culture and was never scared to show off my homemade dumplings or my knowledge in the few Cantonese words I know.
Yet from an early age, I faced early signs of microaggression without knowing. People would laugh at the Chinese food I brought for lunch complaining it stank up the whole class. That very same day, I made a promise to myself to never bring Chinese food again, and I let that anger out on my parents. I was deemed too Asian to hang with my white friends, and too white with my Asian friends. My friend, from China, once told me that I was “the whitest Asian” she had ever met.
As I grew, people started to change. Social norms evolved throughout middle and especially high school. Being an American, I had the pressure to live up to the expectations of what society deemed beautiful. The popular American girl was pictured as tall, white, skinny, a blue-eyed blonde who always wore clothes from Brandy Mellville. Early on in high school, I started to change in order to lift my social status. I wore Brandy Mellville clothes, and threw away my Asian identity. The more American I acted, the more popular I became. Soon, I started to look down on my family and became increasingly upset that I was born with Asian traits. I left my Asian friend group thinking they weren’t as cool as Caucasian ones. In other words, I wanted to be an “All American Teen”.
Yet something seemed wrong about my life. I threw away everything to become someone I was not all because of a social standard of American beauty. I never could really fit into the popular white girl status because my looks, with eyes too small, height too petite, and features being too “Asian”.
This long story is very common among a lot of Asian American teens trying to find their place and purpose in the world. In order for themselves to fit into the popular society, they threw away their cultural identity physically and mentally. American society is harsher than one might think. This diverse country is filled with amazing, talented people - along with racist and toxic ones too. One day, we all realize that one must not change themselves to gain popularity. Being yourself is already the best gift anyone can receive.
I think one must find who they are as a person during this early stage in life. To choose an identity you are not is not only untruthful to yourself, it is degrading and harmful to your own state of mind. Look at people more positively and address issues more optimistically.
Who are we exactly? Too Asian to morph into stereotypical American culture, yet pressured to steer clear of stereotypes associated with Asian culture. We are living with a veil in front of our true selves. Depending on who we are around, we present what will appeal to our audience, whether it be Asians or non-Asians, in order to fit in. It’s time for a change. It is our job, the future generation, to break that barrier and change social norms. The goal; to see another person as their own unique identity and not their looks. To base an individual by “the content of their character”, as said by Martin Luther King, is the right way to judge a person.
The expectation for Asian Americans to choose between living up to their model minority status or to achieve following “American” norms. This expectation is comparable to a barrier in society. In order to push this past barrier, we need to break the standards that are imposed on us by society and realize that we can be whatever it is that we want to be. So stop and think, who are we and why are we doing this? Don’t be misled by the idea that you must choose one of the two identities that's in you.
We are proud to be complex individuals, with a multitude of cultures within us. We are proud to call ourselves Asian American.