May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and seeing everyone talk about the duality of being an Asian American shows me how we’ve all experienced variations of the same things: the inner conflict of not being quite Asian enough and not being quite American enough and the struggle to grasp for a place in between these two defined extremes. We forget that this gray area is a wonderful thing in and of itself. It’s here where we can combine the best aspects of both worlds while working to improve the more toxic ones.
The comments we’ve experienced haven’t helped us come any closer to figuring ourselves out. In my experience, most aren’t said with malicious intent, but sometimes left me more confused about my sense of belonging as an Asian American.
Throughout high school and college, several close friends consistently pointed out how I was so basic and white. What does that mean? I speak Vietnamese to friends and relatives. I help my grandma make banh xeo on special occasions. I eat fish sauce and rice for many meals at home. I also love Starbucks iced coffee after school. I was in a Panhellenic sorority and wholeheartedly embraced date nights, crush parties, and formals. I enjoy using Instagram to share life’s moments. I have the hots for hotpot, but have no hesitations about brunch dates. The smell of incense at the temple calms and rejuvenates me, but so does hot yoga at sunrise. Jamming out to dazzling visuals at EDM concerts is just as exciting as losing my voice at country ones. Attitudes might have changed since high school (hopefully), but my point is that I can proudly be both without either side taking away from the other.
During senior year of high school, I was eating grits one morning when our substitute teacher commented on how well I ate them. It took me by surprise for a moment because I had been born and raised in the south, but soon realized that he meant that I ate grits well for an Asian person.
I’ve worked at my mom’s salon since middle school, and one of the comments that’s always stuck with me was when one of the clients was telling my mom and I how cute I was. She jokingly asked if she could adopt me because “I have a Korean one, a Chinese one, and a Japanese one, but I don’t have one of you yet.” Another day, I went to the Walgreen’s next-door to pick up photos. The employee asked for my last name and I instinctively spelled it out before he had time to reach the W bin. The lady behind me interjected saying “It’s pronounced ‘win’. I know this because I used to work with several of your kind.” She continued on about working at a manufacturing plant, but I was still stuck on her previous words.
Comments like these always make me feel as though I’m less than human, like I’m an object or item to be collected. Things are no different when it comes to dating, and I often wonder whether people like me for who I am as a person or because I’m Asian. People want the excitement of dating someone “exotic” without bothering to respect and understand the culture, and it’s insulting.
I’ve had someone open with “You’re like a hot female version of Manny Pacquiao,” someone half jokingly ask what flavor of Asian I am, someone insist on having threesomes with my Asian friends and laughing it off when I mention how uncomfortable that made me, someone make jokes about hooking up with my mom because she looks so “young and hot”, and someone blatantly say on numerous occasions that Vietnamese people are dirty and that Chinese people are superior in every aspect.
For those who have told me to just date within my race, I’ve experienced the same disrespect from both Asian and non-Asians alike. To act this way, then turn around to ask why I can’t take a joke is disgusting. I can absolutely take a joke, but these behaviors go beyond that and I’m not here for the disrespect.
Other times, it’s more subtle, like when someone turns their nose up at fish sauce before they see how it enhances almost every dish so beautifully, when someone assumes I’m good at math, or when someone asks me to make them ramen because they love Asian food so much.
While things haven’t necessarily gotten better, I have. With COVID-19 originating in Wuhan, China, it’s a tense time to be Asian anywhere. As actor John Cho says in the LA Times, “The pandemic is reminding us that our belonging is conditional. One moment we are Americans, the next we are all foreigners who ‘brought’ the virus here.” There’s been an exponential increase in insensitive comments towards Asian Americans, but rather than sitting there uncomfortably, I now use these moments to educate others on how their comments could be misguided or unkind.
This year’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month has been tougher with a pandemic and the resulting belligerence towards Asian Americans. Microaggressions are nothing new, but they’ve reached new levels of hostility in the past several months. I’m proud of Asian Americans for speaking up rather than being intimidated into silence about the injustices they’ve endured.
☀ Thanks for reading these thoughts of mine ☀
Some organizations you can donate to in order to support Asian Americans:
Ascend: The largest, non-profit Pan-Asian organization for business professionals in North America.
National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum: A grassroots progressive movement for social and economic justice and the political empowerment of Asian and Pacific-American women and girls.
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund: Protects and promotes the civil rights of Asian Americans through litigation, advocacy, education, and organizing.
Asian American Journalists Association: Encourages young people to consider journalism as a career, developing managers in the media industry, and promoting fair and accurate news coverage.