Note: This piece is written for and dedicated to all Asian Americans.
For many of us, we were born in this country, born American citizens, while our parents worked day and night, memorizing obscure historical facts about the racist founding fathers, to obtain a green card or American citizenship, a supposed physical record that they are loyal to this country.
We as Asian Americans were introduced to American pop culture, American television, American food. We watched American shows, read American books, and listened to American music. In some ways, it is all that we knew. In some ways, it is still all that we know. The culture of our home country fades away with every year that we live in this new country, the country that we call our home; because for us, America has always been home. And despite the fact that we live here, that we speak the language that should be foreign on our tongues, that we adapt and assimilate to American ways, and that our parents worked their fingers to the bone to obtain a certificate that is supposed to mark their loyalty to this country, we are still told that we are not American enough.
Because in their eyes, we are the cause of the ongoing global pandemic that is forcing people to stay apart from their loved ones in addition to killing millions of people around the world. In their eyes, we terrorists. In their eyes, we steal jobs from those who are “truly” American.
In their eyes, we don’t belong.
In fact, we are constantly asked where we came from as if that is the only part of our identity that exists. “No, not where you were born. No, not where you grew up. No, not what school you went to,” they reject after we respond with what we think is correct.
“I mean, where did you come from? Where did your parents come from? What language do you speak?” they inquire innocently, not knowing the impact of these questions.
“China. Korea. Japan. Vietnam. India. The Philippines. Indonesia. Thailand. Malaysia. Pakistan. Saudi Arabia. Indonesia. Singapore. Iran. Israel. Taiwan. Iraq,” we reply reluctantly, not because we are ashamed of our home countries, but because we know that them asking this question in itself means that they have already completely stripped us of our identity and painted us as one only a part of who they think we are: a stereotype.
“We speak English,” we add, and as if this is not enough for their inquiries about our “true” nature, we add, “Chinese. Korean. Vietnamese. Japanese. Hindi. Arabic”, knowing that this will satisfy the determination in their eyes to label us as different. Foreign. Visitors. Traitors.
“Does it matter? I am as American as you!” we want to shout, frustrated that we are not accepted in a country that we accepted without hesitation. “But you see my yellow skin, my black hair, and my small eyes, so you will not believe it. In your heart, you will never believe it, for that is all you see.”
And even though we feel this way, we keep our mouths shut. We do not shout because we are not angry. We are not outspoken. We are not loud.
We remain silent.
For a majority of us, exposure to American culture takes over our entire life. When we were young children, we spoke the language that danced on our mothers’ and fathers’ tongues. We ate the food that our grandmothers cooked for us, we practiced the Asian traditions that our ancestors passed down to us, and we wore traditional Asian clothing that generations of Asian individuals wore during Asian holidays. We knew that this was who we were.
That was, until that one kid with his big eyes and even bigger mouth pointed to us and laughed at the way our faces looked. Until the ignorant white kid ran up to us with his friends and cam up close to our faces, pulling their eyes back while screaming, “Ching chong, ching chong!” and the tears poured out of our small, thin eyes. Until that really nice classmate who wasn’t so nice anymore after she scrunched her nose while making an offensive remark regarding the way our “weird” food smelled. Until our fellow peers eyed us in the corner when we wore our traditional Asian outfits on Culture Day. Until the boys and girls we wanted to be friends with mocked the way we pronounced English words because English was not our first language. Until the white kids refused to talk to us because we weren’t cool enough to sit with them at lunch. Until we gave up correcting our teachers when they mispronounced our names during attendance. Until we let the people who were so ignorant and lazy as to not even try to consider our feelings bully us into silence. Until we ourselves felt so isolated that we started to hate our faces, our country, and even our people. We hated ourselves for being different. But most of all, we hated that we could do nothing about the pain and fear and helplessness that we felt.
For a majority of us, our first racist experience occurred when we were young. We may not have even really known that it was racist. But as we grow older and begin to understand life a little bit more, the racist comments become more apparent as they press deeper and deeper into our skin, puncturing the same wound over and over again, leaving us to clean up and completely vulnerable in a pool of our own blood.
Many of us may have told our parents about the words that these people so carelessly uttered, but many of us may not have because we were too scared. Too scared that even our parents would not or could not do anything about it. Because just like us, our parents were bullied into silence, too.
So instead of speaking up and trying to change the actions of the people around us, we started to change ourselves. We stopped bringing our “weird”-smelling food to school, and bought the greasy hot dogs and hamburgers from the school cafeteria instead. We stopped wearing our traditional Asian outfits on Culture Day, and wore trendy outfits that we bought from stores like Hollister and American Eagle instead. We shortened our names to three letter words or even took on “white” nicknames so that other people could pronounce our name. We continued to mold ourselves like clay until we were hardened and rigid to make the people around us feel comfortable, the very same people who pointed and laughed in our faces because we did not look like them. We kept telling ourselves that it was okay, that this was all okay, that we were okay. And we repeated those three words until even we believed it.
And for our younger generation, telling ourselves that this was okay and assimilating may have been one of the most harmful things to do. Because instead of embracing our culture, instead of learning about our history, instead of loving both our Asian and American sides, we chose to push one side of us so far away that it fell into oblivion.
But we have to know that it was not our fault that we did this. It was not our fault that we wanted to dye our hair blonde to look more like Maddie from fifth grade. It was not our fault that we watched all the Disney channel shows so that we simply had something to talk about with the other American kids. It was not our fault that we wanted to be loved and accepted.
And most importantly, it was not our fault that we felt ashamed of everything that made us different.
Many of us started to feel ashamed or embarrassed of not only our own personal differences, but our own peoples’ differences. Like when our parents spoke English but mispronounced the words, and we felt scared that people around us would judge our families for not being fluent enough. Or the other time when our parents would speak their native languages in public and other people would stare, and we felt embarrassed that they were not speaking the language of the people around us. Or when our parents held their phones up when we traveled somewhere new,
and yet again we felt embarrassed because we did not want to be seen as those Asian tourists.
As many of us entered middle and high school, we were overtly aware of the way we looked and where we did and did not fit in. At this point, we knew how we were treated, and we knew that we fit into specific stereotypes and we shriveled into the corner, hoping not to bother or be bothered. The middle and high school years were the periods of time in which we transitioned from childhood to adolescence, or in other words, the periods of time in which we explored our identities. Additionally, the generation of social media had made it too easy to compare ourselves with other people and to discover even more differences that we had with other people.
Collectively as females, we are constantly on display for the judgmental eyes that follow us—specifically those of men. And as young Asian American girls, we grew up watching movies starring beautiful white female lead actresses, seeing magazines with white models on the front cover, and eventually scrolling past hundreds of social media posts of more beautiful white girls. We compared our bigger, flat noses to the small, perky noses of Instagram models. We compared our flatter chests and behinds to the fuller chests and behinds of the women we saw in movies. We bought mascara and fake lashes in an attempt to make our naturally thin and flat lashes look as thick as those on other girls. We sucked in our stomachs in front of other people to convince them of our skinny frame. We got contacts and threw away our glasses so that people would stop calling us nerds. We bought lighter foundation and avoided the sun to keep our skin tones pale. We heard other teenage boys tell us that Asian girls “weren’t their type”, or that we were “not bad for an Asian”. As young girls, we added more and tried to change everything about our appearance, but no matter how hard we tried to be different, we were still unsatisfied with what we saw in the mirror. We were crushed by the weight of the Eurocentric beauty standards that flooded our surroundings and drowned our self-confidence.
And although we cannot personally speak for the experiences and feelings of our fellow Asian brothers, friends, and cousins, we are not blind to the treatment that Asian American boys receive. We see Asian American boys comparing their smaller and skinnier frames to the large, muscular bodies of white movie stars’. We see Asian American boys become insecure of their more “Asian” physical features. We see how Asian males are portrayed in the media as the nerds, the geeks, the ones that speak broken English in famous movies like Mr. Miyagi and Mr. Han in Karate Kid, Ravi in Jesse, and Haka Arakau in The Cheat; and we know the damage that all of this has.
As young Asian American students, we compared our grades to everyone else’s. We felt constant pressure to not only receive straight A’s, but to go above and beyond for everything that we did. We felt like we had to pursue a career in STEM or engineering. We felt like we had to take the hardest math class and get a hundred on every test that we took. We felt like we had to be the best because of the suffocating pressure to be smart and successful. Overall, we as young Asian American people have struggled and still struggle with our identity, unsure of which parts of ourselves to reveal. It has always been a constant battle with a country that shames us for being Asian but at the same time will never accept us no matter how American we act, talk, or dress. We still suffer in silence, despite all of the prejudice that we face and the pain that we feel. We hide in the corner, refusing to speak up in fear that we will be silenced once again the way we have been throughout our entire history of residing in America.
But seeing our fellow Asian elders being pushed, shoved, punched, shot, and borderline abused in the streets of the country we have learned to adapt to and love like our own shook us up. Suddenly, the microaggressions, the racist stereotypes, and the ignorant statements and questions that we have dealt with our entire life come rushing all at once. The voices that have been screaming in the back of our heads for our entire lives finally broke free from years of being imprisoned by the very jail cells formed by white supremacy and years of oppression; the voice that has been screaming that those actions are not okay, and that they have never been okay. We have realized that we have allowed ourselves to be fooled that being treated as less than is not acceptable. We have realized that we deserve better than the racist comments that tore us down. We have realized that none of this was okay and will never be okay until we stand up and fight for what we deserve: equality.
We have been told our entire lives that we cannot shout our thoughts and feelings and instead should suffer in silence to remain safe. To remain seen by the public as the constant smart and hardworking race, to allow ourselves and our accomplishments to be used as weapons against other races. But “safe” is not enough. “Safe” is surviving, not living, and we cannot continue to live in a world where surviving is the only way to live.
And yes, statistically, Asian households may have higher incomes than other races. And yes, statistically, Asian people may have a higher graduation rate from college. But statistically, Asian people have always been the smallest percentage of people who speak up. We have been shushed our entire lives, causing us to bite our lips until they bleed, to ball our fists until our knuckles turn from golden to white, to hide our constant pain until wrinkles appear on our tired faces without a single person noticing or caring.
And it is time for that pain and silence to end.
As the second generation, we have dealt with the biggest identity struggle. We look Asian, but we are also American. We speak English, but we also speak Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and so many more languages that derive from our home countries. To many people, we will always only be Asian. We do not know who to identify as when we look in the mirror. We have been created at the origin of our nature, but we have also developed in the country we were born in. Because of the mix of cultural beliefs, values, and traditions from multiple different cultures, we have struggled to find who we are, who we should identify as, and where we belong.
It is crucial to remember that American was founded by a group of rich, racist, sexist, white men who knew nothing but privilege. But this country was also founded on the basis of freedom, liberty, equality, individualism, diversity, and unity. To be American is to share these same core values and principles with the people around us. That is what brings us together as individuals. We should not let our differences drive us apart, but instead let our similarities bring us together. It is particularly difficult to do that when people refuse to accept our differences and ignore our similarities. But first, we must identify ourselves before we make sure that other people identify us correctly.
We are aware that it is somehow difficult for people to acknowledge that this country was built by the hands of minorities; that this country was formed at the expense of millions of black, Latino, Hispanic, and Asian lives. We must remember the millions of our ancestors have made it possible for our generation to live in the world that we live in today, the ancestors that brought the core values of discipline, hard work, frugality, educational achievement, balancing individual and societal needs, and deference to authority, who were punished for their hard work with the
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and now with Anti-Asian Hate crimes. We must appreciate our parents who have also brought these core values of their home countries to America in hopes of giving us a new life.
And with the combinations of both our origins and our current home, we are Asian, but we are also American. And we must be loud and proud.
In our hearts, even though we have been taunted and told our entire lives that we are or are not this and that, we know our core values and traditions. That will never change.
“What are you?” they will continue to ask.
To that, we will answer, “We are Asian. But we are also American. We are Asian Americans, and we are American enough.”
“We are American enough,” we will repeat, our voices growing louder.
“We are American enough,” we will shout, our voices piercing the years of silence.
Because no matter what they say, no matter how they treat us, no matter how they look at us, we
are American enough.