OPINION: There Is Space In Between For Asian-Americans

A graphic of an person with pencils, music notes, math symbols and more above their head.
Graphic by Elodie Arbogast

I grew up in the hermetically sealed suburbs of Silicon Valley. There, the identities I felt pressure to perform, as an Asian-American, did not necessarily feel prescribed by my classmates’ ignorance or even by the media so much as they felt a result of the weight of my school being 70 percent Asian.

There was explicit dialogue about the high school in my neighborhood being overly intense — how students placed too much weight on their test scores, were too competitive, studied too much, etc.

However, there was an even more powerful, yet quiet understanding within the student body that competition was a necessary component of our lives, that test scores were important, and that we should continue to study.

“Asianness” looked normal at my high school. I once had a substitute teacher who joked that if he spun around with his finger pointed out and stopped randomly, his finger would end up pointing at a “nerdy Asian girl.” Still, it was only normal in the sense that the values associated with being Asian were expected from all of us, as we expected these values from each other.

Yet, the fact that there were more of us did not make me feel any more free.

In the book “Trespassers?: Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia,” Willow Lung-Amam, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland, College Park writes of the Californian high school I attended.

“At Mission High, the invisible power that White students and parents held included their quiet acceptance of their own normativity,” Lung-Amam writes. “Meanwhile, despite being in the numerical majority, Asian-American students at Mission High were constantly reminded by their classmates, administrators, and neighbors that they operated on the margins of normal suburban American life.”

As a high school student, I felt that acculturation meant learning to navigate within the blurry boundaries of my Asian identity. There seemed an attractive sense of belonging that came with every aspect of myself that fit my “Asianness”: drinking boba, stressing out over the SATs, liking math.

Yet, this sense of belonging could have very well been problematic, a sense of belonging that might have had more to do with whom I thought I should be, rather than who I really am.

YouTuber ilikealison, who has over half a million views on her channel and who has spoken for numerous panels on the Asian YouTube community, says, “The terms Asian and Asian-American encompass broad, diverse lived experiences … but instead of highlighting the multiplicities of what it means to be Asian-American, we generate lists of what it should mean to relate and belong.”

However, it seems all too easy for the “broad, diverse lived experiences” of Asian-Americans to be sociologically shoved in a different direction, such that, in the end, we are only afforded one cloth from which to cut our stories.

Near the end of her essay, “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan briefly begs the question of why there are not more Asian-Americans in creative writing programs and why there are so many Asian-Americans in engineering programs. On podcast “Perfectly Imperfect,” guest Jennet Liaw asserts the importance of talking about her Asian background when discussing her career in design and illustration.

Mitski, a Japanese-American singer-songwriter says: “It just means so much to me, and it keeps me going when someone like me is in the audience, or someone younger than me who is East Asian, and a girl, comes up to me and says ‘I needed to hear this. I needed someone like you around to look up to.’”

While highlighting one’s racial identities could ultimately truncate the complex narrative of one’s humanity, it could also bring awareness to the specific obstacles and privileges people face as a result of their racial identities.

By telling our stories in their emotional entireties, in sharing how we brave through the resistance that our unshackled cores face, when struggling against our seemingly determined realities, we widen the sociological space for the inclusion of the “broad, diverse lived experiences” that have for too long been suppressed.

Rui-Jie Yew SC ’21 is a computer science major from Fremont, CA. She enjoys drinking milk tea, calling her mom, and talking to strangers.

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