One of my earliest childhood memories is from kindergarten when one girl refused to play with me "because I had black hair." Growing up in the white suburban town of Summit, NJ and attending the Catholic school just up the street until eighth grade, I was always a minority, one of two People of Color (POC) in my grade of fewer than 40 kids. In high school, I transferred to a nearby prep school where ethnic diversity increased by a small percentage. In my senior class of 101 students, about 14 were POC, and 2 of us were of Chinese descent. In fact, I could count the number of Chinese kids at my high school with my two hands. And my sister and I made up two of those fingers.
Despite my Asian ethnicity, until recently, I have never connected much with my Asian heritage and culture. My dad often uses the phrase "American Born Chinese (ABC)" to describe our family which is a pretty accurate representation of how I was raised. Attending predominantly white schools with lots of privilege (and also watching TV and movies and consuming media where the actors were all white, but that's a story for another time) as well as being surrounded by majority white people, I saw myself as one of them.
I didn't see a divide in my ethnicity with others. The fact that our families came from the same middle-upper classes was another similarity we shared. The only difference was the way I looked, physically (luckily, after kindergarten, there were no more hurtful comments about my Asian appearance).
Coming to the Bay Area for college was a huge culture shock for me. I literally met Japanese-American, Korean-American, and Filipino-American people for the first time. (In preschool, I had two Chinese-American friends, but the majority of my childhood, the only times I saw other Chinese-Americans were when my mom took my sister and me to the Asian supermarket, 25 minutes away from our house. These people were never part of my everyday life or communities, though.) I remember going to the movie theater and food court in San Francisco early my freshman year of college. Looking around, I was extremely overwhelmed by how many Asian-Americans were walking, talking, looking at their phones, drinking boba, eating...simply being. There were Asians everywhere!
My freshman year of college, I joined the multicultural clubs to meet fellow Asian-Americans, "my people." However, the longer I stayed in the clubs and learned about their – my – cultures, the more I felt out of place. I couldn't relate to any of my peers' childhoods or lifestyles and still, I find myself struggling to identify with my Asian ethnicity. Unlike my friends who celebrate Chinese New Year and took Mandarin or Cantonese lessons growing up, I learned the romance languages of Spanish, French, and Latin (Mandarin wasn't even a language option at my school), I use chopsticks only if I'm eating sushi, and the only Chinese New Year "celebrating" we do at home is a one-sentence acknowledgement of the holiday from my dad: "Gong Hey Fat Choy." When my sister and I were younger, some relatives would give us pocket money in red envelopes too.
On applications and questionnaires for the ethnicity and race section, I am hesitant to mark the Asian bubble. It's not that I'm not proud of my Asian identity; I simply cannot relate to it. Sometimes, I feel like the only "Asian" thing about me is my appearance.
I consider myself more American than Asian. My identity ought to be American-Asian instead of Asian-American. Because I feel more American at heart, I grew up American. Yet, "Where are you and your family from?" is always one of the first questions people ask when meeting me. I can't avoid my Asian identity. Thus, the importance of the hyphen. I am not just one, I am both.
Nonetheless, since coming to college and being surrounded by more Asian-Americans, I feel more encouraged to learn about my family's culture and history. While taking Mandarin lessons outside of elementary/middle school would have been considered odd, now I don't care what others think. Traveling to Taiwan this summer further strengthened my desire to learn Mandarin so I can communicate with my family members.
When I hang out with my white friends, I don't think anything of it, because I was always used to being one of the only Asians in my friend group. Yet when I'm with my Asian friends, I become very aware of my race and the fact that we are all Asian.
To this day, I still struggle with finding my place in the world. I don't fit in entirely with my Asian friends and there is still something that sets me apart from my white friends. But I guess that's the journey of growing up and moving forward, I'm excited to learn more about who I am and where I came from.