Growing up as an Asian-American in a predominantly white town, I often felt out of place.
Both my parents were immigrants, so I was raised around Asian culture. I spoke Cantonese at home, ate white rice with every meal, and hung up red banners with auspicious affirmations during Lunar New Year.
I hoarded plastic bags, bowed to my elders, and most importantly never wore my shoes in the house.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the other kids in my elementary school didn’t do those things. I was the odd one out because of my cultural differences. Kids eyed my shrimp chips during snack time and gagged at my fried bell pepper fishcakes at lunch. They were kids; they may not have known better. But I was a kid too, and the message instilled in me was “You don’t belong.”
From then on, I did my best to fit in. I didn’t want the nutritious homemade lunches my 阿姨 (Āyí, aunt) made for me. I wanted frozen pizza and reheated chicken nuggets from the school’s cafeteria, just so I could be a little more like everyone else.
Nevertheless, after all that internalized racism and the suppression of my own identity, at the age of 20, I have finally embraced my Chinese heritage.
My first memory of feeling like I was cool and powerful was watching “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
I grew up watching American media. The only Asian people I saw were nerdy Asian girls who the white protagonist stood up to progress their own story; or Asian martial arts masters that again only helped the white protagonist; or worst of all, Asian foreigners who were either sexualized or villainized as gang members.
All these characters made me feel sidelined and unimportant.
But then I saw Toph Beifong, a character who looked Asian, had an Asian name, ate Asian food, and was one of the heroes. It was like pure euphoria, and it made 10-year-old me feel like I could accomplish anything.
I could be the hero. Even as a small Asian girl with a disability, I could be a witty, sarcastic, ass-kicking protagonist. She and the rest of the Aang Gang, they were the heroes of the story. Not the side characters. Not supporting cast. Not a love interest. They were the heroes.
I was so inspired I drew myself as one of the characters of the show and decided to share it with my art class in school. But when I got to school all my confidence was sucked out of me, and the insecurities I had momentarily forgotten came flooding back.
But my art teacher, bless her soul, encouraged me to show the class and continue creating more art. Not to toot my own horn, but my classmates were impressed, and at that moment, I was proud of who I was.
For the first time, I felt seen.
Finding a Community
Part of my journey to loving and accepting my Asian identity was finding people who were in a similar position as me. They had either figured it out or were also figuring it out.
College was the first time I had the opportunity to have an AAPI community. I met people who also had to adjust in neighborhoods where their AAPI identity wasn't welcomed. With them, I was able to express the isolation I felt and move forward finally.
I also met people who grew up in predominantly AAPI communities who reconciled being both Asian and American. They taught me that being American didn't mean giving up your Asian roots and that liking Asian things didn't make you less American.
With them, I was able to reframe my culture. My Asian identity and culture are not things to be hidden behind closed doors, only reserved for my family. It was something to be celebrated, shared, and incorporated into my everyday life. If people had an issue with it, then they were the problem, not me.
By "going home," I don't mean as in going to my house in Long Island, New York. I mean going back to Hong Kong where my parents grew up. I visited frequently when I was a child, but less so in high school.
When I went back three years ago, I gained a new sense of appreciation for where my family came from. I saw the 200-square-foot home my mother and her four sisters grew up in. I understood what moving thousands of miles away from her family for the chance at a better life meant to my mother. I learned to appreciate the Chinese values she instilled in my brother and me: unity, responsibility and harmony.
I am proud that my identity represents my family's bravery to leave everything they knew and pursue a better life. I am proud that I am able to take the best of both Chinese and American values. I am proud of my food, my language and myself.
I am proud to be Chinese-American.
Happy AAPI Heritage Month!