Not Quite Asian or American: My Experience of Otherness

Otherness (noun): being or feeling different in appearance or character from what is familiar, expected, or generally accepted.

“Ew, what is that? Why did you bring that for lunch?”

From a young age, I recognized the impact my race had in my life, especially being raised in a very westernized environment. I was born in Taiwan; however, I moved to Canada and the US at a young age. When you move to a new country with a completely different culture, you realize you never truly fit into either environment. However, it wasn’t until high school that I began feeling comfortable and associating with that “other” part of me.

In elementary school when my loving mother would prepare Chinese food for my lunch, my classmates would look at me like I sprouted an alien from my lunch bag. I started to second guess if what I was eating was “normal”, and even the most delicious foods to me were no match for my acting skills as I feigned  disgust in front of my friends. I would dump my lunch out each time a negative comment was made. I grew a pit of guilt in my stomach knowing that I was being a terrible daughter, but I wanted to fit in so badly. Looking back at the situation, I can see why 7 year old Cindy would act in such a way, but it was so silly. I would beg my mother to pack me processed foods that all of the “cool kids” were eating. Her response to me every time would be, “Of course buying Lunchables would be easy, but there is no nutrition in those lunches, I love you so much so I make you fresh food each day.” And every time she would voice this thought, the pit of guilt would grow larger. I didn’t realize that I would have constant internal battles when it came to my identity at such a young age. 

Eventually, I grew up and understood that there was no reason for me to be ashamed of what made me who I was. I shouldn’t be ashamed. The silly teasing about food continued into middle school, until one day after one of my friends commented on dumplings I had brought in for lunch (with more curiosity than disgust). To my surprise, she asked if she could try a bite, and so I happily split it with her. Her face lit up as she was met with a mouth full of deliciousness. After that day, she would ask me every day if I could bring some dumplings in for her to have. It is no doubt that this slow acceptance of my peers also made an impact on how I viewed myself and my perception of what others thought of me. Yet, as I grew older the commentary delved from shallow, light topics (like food) into deeper, underlying topics (like family and culture). My friends would ask to hang out on the weekends or to sleepover and my response would always be “I can’t…my parents won’t let me” to which they would say, “Why don’t you stand up for yourself? Just tell them what you want.” I never continued this tit for tat because I knew there would be no resolution to it. My friends were raised differently and would never understand that it wasn’t a matter of “standing up” for myself. It was more than that. It was about ingrained filial piety values throughout my childhood and knowing that my parents gave up everything for me to have a better life. I recognized that my parents had their difficulties, from finances to discrimination, when they immigrated to a foreign country. I knew they were extremely brave for assimilating so fast into a new culture. I was so lucky compared to them. I already had a foundation at a young age of the American language and culture. So, it never made sense to complain about anything to my parents, not to mention talk back to them for something as trivial as a sleepover. 

I kept my thoughts to myself and slowly, as I turned down each invitation, my friends started asking me less and less to hang out because they could predict my answer. This dynamic also extended into interactions my parents had with their friends. While their colleagues would have huge family gatherings and Christmas cards with extended family members, our holidays were always celebrated as a small party of four: me, my little brother, my mom, and my dad. We always loved the close dynamic we shared as an immediate family, but it was hard for my parents to see their friends spend time with their respective parents while their own children were missing out on time with grandma and grandpa. So, even though the holidays were supposed to bring together family, it left us with a slight hint of guilt for having immigrated and sadness that we couldn’t be with all of the ones we loved. I believe this lack of extended family gave my parents, and ergo me, a chance to learn how to create a family for ourselves. We became close with other families and other cultures that we wouldn’t normally be exposed to; it was a wonderful experience to pop the tiny bubble of the world I lived in. I felt welcome and connected to everyone in my community.

 But it wasn’t always going to be that simple. To be candid, I had never felt discriminated against by my peers or adults. However, there would be moments where I was reminded I wasn’t like everyone else. I distinctly remember being at a graduation party and hearing a comment about Asian children and grades amongst a group of people behind me. I froze. There was nothing offensive about the comment and I didn’t feel offended. Yet it had made me pause and look around the venue only to realize that I was the only Asian person. Suddenly, I felt like the elephant in the room. Before this incident, I rarely paid attention to situations where I was the sole non-white person in the classroom or grocery store. I felt comfortable with how I looked and my ethnicity. Yet, after that day, I consciously paid attention to the times where I was clearly the minority in a group. This was when I came to terms with understanding what being Asian-American meant. I wasn’t just Asian. I wasn’t just American. I was both cultures in one and I was a minority. The crazy thing is that I never thought people viewed me as different and I never felt disadvantaged. Even though my friends were not the same race as me, I never viewed them any differently. I had never thought twice to feeling “not white.” They made me feel comfortable. What I never expected to feel was alienation…from own race.

Growing up in a predominantly white town meant that I rarely met other kids my age that were also Asian. However, there would be occasions where my parents would have friends from Taiwan or China visit us and I would meet their children. I would be extremely happy to meet them and connect on a cultural level that I couldn’t with my friends. I slowly learned that this wasn’t how they viewed the interaction with me. Because the children of my parents’ friends would attend international school or take English classes, they would speak to me in English. I would happily respond in English and continue the conversation as such. To me, it didn’t cross my mind why they chose to speak English with me and even on the few occasions it did, I thought that maybe they just wanted to practice their English more while they were in the US. Then, one evening happened that completely changed my thought process. 

My parents had invited their friends over for dinner. The family was from China and their son had recently left China and was attending university in the US. As expected, he spoke to me in English to which I responded to in English. The dinner progressed and our chatter dimmed down as we listened to the conversation our parents were having in Mandarin. 

“It’s a shame that so many of the Asian children raised in the US cannot speak Mandarin, not to mention read or write any characters,” my father’s friend stated. 

“I agree, it is unfortunate that such a huge part of our culture can be lost in one generation,” my father responds. 

Then, the son, in Mandarin, decided to chime in…

“I can see the same effect amongst the students I attend school with. It really is a shame that they do not learn how to speak their mother tongue and resort to speaking in English. Even from speaking with Cindy, I see the impact of the environment in her life and the consequences of not learning Mandarin. She only spoke English with me.”

I never felt anger bubble inside of me faster. I took a few deep breaths and composed myself, but thoughts continued to flow out of my brain and burn. Does he really think I can’t understand what he is saying? Is that why he continued to speak to me in English…because he thought I couldn’t speak Mandarin? How could he make an assumption about me – even if I didn’t understand Mandarin? I took one last breath, letting my boiling thoughts evaporate into the air. 

“Oh, 我会说普通话. 我知道你在说什么.

 [I can speak Mandarin. I understand what you are saying.]”  I asserted with a blank look on my face. 

I felt offended. I always figured that the time that I would feel “othered” would be by people not of my race. The last thing I expected was to experience “othering” from someone with the same ethnicity as me. This moment taught me that I would never truly feel like I belonged to either portion of my Asian American identity. I was just American enough to stand out amongst Asians, but just Asian enough to stand out amongst Americans. The identity crisis that I thought I had understood returned. 

Once I began university, I began to notice the differences amongst the different generations even if someone was Asian. Just as I realized that I didn’t connect as much as I thought I would with the son (of my parents’ friends), I noted that I also didn’t connect as much with second, third, and fourth generation Asian Americans. It wasn’t that I was incapable of forming friendships with them, but I could feel a gap between us in terms of understanding how the other was raised and which cultural norms we were accustomed to. Things were much more complex than simply being Asian or Asian-American. Generational count made a difference. The higher up generations felt more westernized to me and reminded me more of the friends I had formed in grade school. Their parents knew what prom and college applications were. They had a guiding hand. Those children had someone whom shared similar childhood experiences regarding the conflicts of identity. I felt closer at times to these children than to those that were born and raised overseas their entire lives. It was an interesting dynamic for me to observe. 

My inner thoughts began to question more aspects of my identity. I began reading that first generation meant being a child born in a foreign country by immigrant parents. I did not fit this mold because I was born in my native country and then brought out to another culture at a young age. So, I turned to the definition of second generation. Second generation children meant being born by parents who were born and raised in a foreign country. The label of “first generation” began to feel less fitting the more I understood, while “second generation” didn’t seem to fit at all. It wasn’t until I read an article that referenced UCLA anthropologist Kyeyoung Parks’ term, “1.5 generation” that I felt understood. He had coined the term in 1999 to describe “misfits” in the Korean community that were neither  first nor second generation. It represented the gray area and complexities of those in the middle. This personal revelation and connection to the term made me feel honored to be in this cohort. I felt lucky to have experienced two cultures so deeply.  

Being a 1.5 generation Asian American has aided me in connecting with more people than I could have asked for. While I may have questioned my identity many times, I do feel like I gained the best of both worlds. There are positives and negatives to every experience that contributes to personal growth. What I believe it truly comes down to is your own personal choice on how you choose to interpret each experience. I know that my identity can’t be cornered and defined as being “too American” or “too Asian”, nor can it be defined as being “not American enough” or “not Asian enough”. I don’t have to choose between one or the other because I am both. 

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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