Last year, I agreed to start mentoring someone’s child by request of a mutual friend. Those who know me probably wonder how I have the time and energy to take on yet One. More. Thing. But some things, as we all know, can jump to the top of the priority list. For me, it was a long-term consideration of volunteering for Big Brothers Big Sisters or other mentoring organizations coupled with evolving reflections about my own identity that drove me to say ‘yes’ when this opportunity came up. Maybe I could help this kid, who reminds me so much of myself, to see the world and himself in ways that I wasn’t able to until much later.
I once thought I had been dealt an unlucky hand in life. Not because I had any sort of economic or physical disadvantage, but due to the fact that I happened to belong to a first-generation immigrant Chinese family. The percentage of Asians in Phoenix, AZ in 1990 at the time was 1.7 percent. I used to joke after I moved away that it was now down to zero. So in the desert suburbs where we lived, race alone made me stand out and judged apart from my peers for all the usual stereotypes, both good and bad. In middle school, when kids can be especially cruel, I resented the fact that I didn’t look white.
Ironically, I never felt quite at ease with my own extended family either, who mostly resided in the largest Chinese-American enclave in the United States. On our annual road trips to see them, I was told somewhat derisively in Chinese that I did things like an American. Except for a few choice phrases, I couldn’t speak the language and my attempts were met with ridicule. Don’t get me wrong: I have fantastic memories of those visits , and I knew they loved and cared about me, but I sometimes felt like I was in cultural limbo. This conflict is nothing new, I realize.
So, of course, I would distance myself from meeting the expectations of Asian and Asian-American tropes. When I moved to Seattle, I avoided befriending or dating other Asians (let alone joining ethnic associations) because I didn’t want to be seen as insular or confused for an international student. For a long while, I was thankful I played the drums instead of piano or violin. Looking back, I can see how I let racial anxieties drive who I wasn’t going to be for so long before actually trying to figure out who I would be or taking pride in who I was. As I’ve matured, these insecurities and identity contingencies have diminished, but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t emerge now and then. It’s something I observe in myself and in others with whom I’ve discussed such issues. Those behaviors have been internalized, and change is hard.
These thoughts came to the surface frequently when I was hanging out with my ward last summer. Earlier in the year, Beyoncé was both praised and criticized for using the Super Bowl as a platform to promote #blacklivesmatter. She and quarterback Cam Newton were the subjects of a presentation I had recently attended that discussed the significance of public performances that seemed to assert Black culture and the reaction of white America. The controversy surrounding Beyoncé prompted me to think about the role of my ethnic background in my identity: What does it mean to be unapologetically Asian-American? And as a corollary, what does it mean to be an Asian-American role model?
To me, these questions are problematic because we’re not a culturally homogeneous group except for being the target of a model or exotic minority myth. I mean, doesn’t everyone face identity threat in some form, and isn’t it better to just be my own shining example of individualism? My immediate reaction is usually “yes.” But not all stereotypes hold the same privilege, and violence or unjust policies have been the consequence of others controlling or misrepresenting one’s story, and I came to believe that a truly plural society is one in which we intentionally share and appreciate each other’s stories.
That being said, I know I’m not trying to help him be a certain ethnicity since we don’t share the same East Asian heritage. But, I can see how naturally shame about one’s own ethnic background can creep into one’s identity and behaviors and therefore leads to the overcorrecting I did. The problem is that there might never have been a celebrated narrative carved out for Asian-Americans that embrace both sides of the hyphen. In an interview with Constance Wu about her show “Fresh Off the Boat,” she says:
“Yes, I have issues that have to do with growing up Asian-American. But there are other things, like doing my taxes or whether or not I should go here for vacation or what my Halloween costume is going to be. Regular human experiences, which for the most part have been only allowed to be white experiences. You’re either Asian-Asian or you’re white American. The in-between has not been explored very much.”
And I think that’s what I wanted to show this kid–that there is an “in-between” space to comfortably occupy. That I fight, dance, and bike through this world knowing that I belong wherever I go, and I’m no less American or human because of my cultural influences or the ways I seek to honor my heritage. And perhaps more importantly, that I do all of these things looking the way we do.
Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that after moving away (which was shortly after I had written most of this essay), I haven’t done a great job of keeping in touch. But he still crosses my mind once in awhile, and I hope that he becomes more than what the world has conspired for him to be. It’s not always easy because sometimes you’re the only person who knows that. I still feel that way often. But maybe that doesn’t have to be his normal.
Asian-American Stereotypes in Media