Racial awareness hit me for the first time in first grade, when a girl in my class called me a “chink” and used her pointer fingers to pull back her eyes in a slant, like my eyes.
I remember in fifth grade when my neighbor told me to go “back where I came from,” and I responded indignantly that he was a moron because I was born in Philadelphia. He also told me that all Asians look the same and told his friends I was going to eat my dog.
I experienced early on what it means to not be pure white in America.
My mom immigrated from Taiwan when she was 15 and grew up in New Jersey, Wisconsin and then Pennsylvania before settling down with my dad in Yardley, Pennsylvania. My dad is a white Philadelphian, but he’ll say he’s Polish. They met at Drexel University as my mom was studying for her MBA and my dad for his Bachelor of Science.
Growing up, I learned that Asian employees will give better service to my mom because she orders dinner and exchanges pleasantries in Mandarin, but when I go to Chinatown my Asianness is questioned, and my servers speak in English to me.
The difference is clear. My mom was born in Taiwan, and I wasn’t. She’s an authentic Asian, born and raised in East Asia, and truthfully, I’m a bad Asian. I don’t speak fluent Mandarin and I’m more Americanized than I’d like to admit.
When Chinese New Year rolls around, my family celebrates with a traditional meal, we all wear red to encourage good fortune in the new year, and my brother and I each get a hong bao, a red envelope filled with some money to celebrate good luck and fortune. We’ve seen the parade with the dragon costume and fireworks in Chinatown, but only a few times. It’s not a huge occasion for us.
Still, I cling onto the Asian part of me by drinking bubble tea, watching anime and Studio Ghibli films and eating dim sum, trying to emulate Asian authenticity to feel like I belong in the community.
But I’m not white enough for Americans either. I’m part of the “model minority” or the idea that Asian Americans experience privileges other minorities of color do not. This trope refers to how well the Asian minority can assimilate into mainstream American culture and avoid discrimination.
At 5 years old, I was already trying to assimilate to the white majority I grew up around. I used to be fluent in Mandarin, but my mom told me I stopped because all the kids at school spoke English. I didn’t want to be different from my friends.
But the privilege to be a model minority is incredibly problematic. It ignores that these “privileges” not given to Asians with darker skin tones, like South Asians and Pacific Islanders.
Still, this label makes me feel like I have to fulfill the stereotype of the hardworking, overachieving Asian. In reality, things were different. My mom only pushed me to do my best and never expected me to be some sort of prodigy. Sometimes I wish I had “tiger parents, ”demanding high levels of achievement, making me play piano and sending me to medical school, just so I could be the perfect Asian that people assume I am rather than proving them wrong.
My heritage affects every aspect of my life.
When I was applying to colleges, my parents told me I get “points for diversity” because they look for minorities, and Asians are known to be smart and hardworking. As I started dating, I learned Asian women were fetishized by white men with “yellow fever.” I like when people are curious about my heritage, but it can be uncomfortable when men use my race as a pick-up line, like, “so what Asian spice are you?”
In the end, I know I can’t be accepted as just Asian or just American, but I accept my “halfy” heritage and embrace it. I take my shoes off in the house. I meditate, and there is always freshly cooked white rice ready.
On the other hand, growing up in America has made me driven, independent, opinionated, and Philadelphia has definitely made me loud. Now, I want to tear down the tired tropes and prove that I’m more than what people think I should be.