While procrastinating last week, I stumbled upon an article written by Connie Zhou entitled “The Asian American Awakening: That Moment You Realize You’re Not White.” Intrigued, I read on and found myself giving rounds of cyber snaps for this young Asian American blogger. For once, I was reading a narrative that resonated with my own. For once, someone understood my identity confusion and shared my frustrations. For once, someone shed light on the strange and often subtle ways that the Asian American experience is invalidated: “We are the ignored minority,” she wrote.
When I was six, I loved chicken nuggets. I only ate them at my best friend’s house, so I always asked for more, upwards of 15 at a time. Yes, my appetite to body size ratio often shocked people (boy, could I eat). However, to my six-year-old mind, each ingested piece of 100 percent white meat made me feel a little more normal. See, Filipinos typically eat with a spoon and fork, but with chicken nuggets, I didn’t have to ask for a spoon. Finger food freed me from a culture I didn’t identify with. I just wanted to fit in. In my mind, I was American, and in my neighborhood, American equaled white.
I attended a Catholic elementary school, where uniforms and alphabetical seating homogenized my environment. There, I found comfort in universal prayers and values that were consistent both at school and at home. Yet despite my eager efforts to assimilate, I found myself consistently coded as Other. My shoes seemed Asian despite being American-made. My lunch of last night’s leftovers seemed weird, despite being the real version of takeout food. My friends couldn’t understand and would mock my parents’ thick Asian accents, despite the fact that my mother, a former English teacher, speaks the language impeccably. The good grades I received were attributed purely to my Asian genes, while also made me a sought-after partner in class projects. Every time Asia, China, or Japan was referenced in the classroom—which was rare in our curriculum—my peers would turn around and look at me. (Confession: I still don’t understand what they expected me to do.) Racist comments or jokes that targeted any Asian identity were prefaced with “No offense, but…” I don’t identify as Chinese or Japanese, but those words stung—and perhaps even more so.
By sixth grade, I realized that my Abercrombie sweaters, Claire’s earrings, and affinity for One Tree Hill couldn’t mask my racial or cultural identity. Being seen as different was inevitable, so I ran with it. I posted “PiN@Y Pride” and “Azn 4 lyf3” on my Myspace “About Me” page. I bought a Tagalog-English dictionary and taught myself a new word each day. I listened exclusively to Filipino pop stars and acoustic rock bands. I even bought a Manga book and learned how to draw anime eyes. Clearly, I had a great grasp on my cultural heritage.
I decided to attend a city high school, with the hopes of finding a community that appreciated my values and experiences. I immediately joined a Filipino dance group and attended Asian Club meetings. Unfortunately, I felt just as alienated in these spaces as I did at my previous school. Maybe I expected too much. I thought that my peers could help me understand my racial identity, but many of them had never questioned their own. They grew up in ethnic neighborhoods and attended public schools where white culture was not the dominant culture.
In searching for a place to belong, I ended up in an identity limbo. In some spaces, I felt too Asian; in others, I felt not Asian enough. I resolved to reject that identity altogether—if I didn’t think about it, it wasn’t an issue, right? False.
Last semester, I took an Asian American Studies course entitled “Arts, Activism, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders.” Originally intended to fulfill my Area 3 requirement, it soon rocked my safety boat of disregard. I felt an inexplicable connection to Vincent Chin, to the 1968 strikers of San Francisco State University, to Forever 21 sweatshop workers in LA, to immigrant brides who faced domestic violence. I realize now that my prior disregard had extended beyond myself. Without knowing it, I had marginalized my own people and the issues of my community. Who would have guessed that a class would jump-start my journey into cultural understanding?
As Zhou so aptly articulated, that was my Asian American awakening—the moment when I realized I was neither white nor solely Asian. Rather, I’m Asian American, and I’ll forever credit ASAM187 and Professor Erin O’Brien for helping me embrace that. Despite our recent retracted status as an “underrepresented minority,” I sincerely hope that Pomona College continues to hire Asian American faculty, who are the catalysts for awakenings such as my own.