Asian Ambiguity and the Search for a Cultural Home

My face is very ambiguously Asian. You can tell I’m Asian, but you can’t tell if I’m full or half, or what kind of ancestry I have; and this ambiguity plagues me wherever I go. “Where are you from?”, “Where are your parents from?”, and “No, where are you really from?” are all questions I’ve gotten not only abroad, during the four years I lived in Scotland, but also at home in Los Angeles. So many people have asked me “what” I am…but I don’t really know myself. Even in Asian spaces, I stick out. Some Filipino folks have told me it’s obvious I’m “Intsik”—a somewhat pejorative Hokkien-borrowed word that colloquially means Chinese—but my Filipino side shows clearly enough when walking the streets of Taipei, receiving odd glances in my direction. In Filipino markets, clerks look surprised when I thank them in Tagalog. In Chinese markets, everyone assumes I can’t speak Chinese. My lack of belonging to either cultural group makes me stick out like a sore thumb, and possibly as a result, I’ve had mostly non-Asian friends my entire life. 

Both of my parents immigrated to the US in their mid-twenties: my dad from Taipei and my mom from Manila. I’d describe my father as part of the Chinese diaspora: his maternal grandfather was an academic in China, and both sides of his family fled China to Taiwan as Mao rose to power. As such, he considers Taiwan his home but also considers himself to be a “traditional” Chinese: glorifying traditional Mandarin, older Chinese culture, and pretty much everything that came before Communism came to China. He insisted I go to Chinese school for traditional Mandarin on the weekends from the age of five until the age of 14, when the school started teaching pinyin. At home, though, I never practiced speaking Mandarin with my father since my mom is Filipina; English was the main language in our house. When he first immigrated to the US, he had barely any money to his name and even less English proficiency. He still has a bit of an accent, and pronouns definitely still confuse him. 

My mom, however, speaks impeccably fluent, unaccented (read: American accented) English and writes just as excellently, too. A fair bit of her closet comes from shops like Talbots. She’s integrated extremely well, to the point that Filipinos we know, like our hairdresser, will say flippantly about my mom: “Oh, she’s not really Filipino.” White folks have told her to her face that “she’s not like those other foreigners” or even that she’s “one of the good immigrants.” My mom excelled at assimilating; as she puts it, she came to the US having already assimilated, having attended an American school while in the Philippines and consuming a fair amount of American media and products. So while I grew up around her sometimes speaking Tagalog, usually around family, I never learned myself. I spent Saturdays at Chinese school, and my mom never pushed me to learn Tagalog in the way my dad pushed me to learn Chinese. As a result, I can understand Tagalog well enough to guess conversations and respond to them in English, but if I had to string together even a basic sentence, I couldn’t. My aunts laugh anytime I say “salamat po” because I can’t even pronounce ‘thank you’ properly. I have a fear of trying to learn or practice the language because I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to speak fluently by this point. On the flipside, the exclusion and ‘othering’ I experienced as the odd duck out over about a decade in Chinese school—with only one friend there to speak of, who thankfully was more fluent than me and could help me out—makes me reluctant to this day to speak Chinese in any setting. In both Chinese and Filipino spaces, I flounder from a basic inability to communicate.

Growing up, Chinese influences dominated our household: from celebrating Lunar New Year to the boxes upon boxes of mooncakes stacked in our kitchen in the fall to the piano my dad bought for me before I was even two years old. This power structure—other than following gender stereotypes—strikes me as almost reflective of both cultures: the imperial and authoritarian history of China juxtaposed with the long history of colonization that the Philippines has borne. The stereotypes of careers for Chinese and Filipino folks showcase the classist undertones between the two as well: doctors and lawyers versus maids and nurses. From what I understand, both the Philippines and Tagalog reflect the colonial powers that imposed their presence upon the islands since the mid-1500s. Just looking at Tagalog as a language, you can notice influences from Spain, China, and the US. An uncomfortable part of growing up in my household was recognizing the inherent racism Asians hold, not only towards other races, but also to other Asians. Asia is a big continent, with a lot of different cultures, backgrounds, and faces. The colorism and the elitism holds strong, even to this day. My late paternal grandmother apparently disapproved of my mom because she wasn’t Chinese.

If you had asked me as a kid how I identified, I probably would have just said Chinese. But after spending a fair amount of time in Chinese-dominated spaces, I don’t really feel like I belong there. But my Filipino side? I’m not too sure I know what it means to be Filipino. And since my parents are both immigrants, I don’t quite feel American, either. I’ve never felt like there was any geographical place where I would feel like I was culturally home, and I think I might never find that place. 

However, there might be another place for me to feel culturally at home. When I left the US to go to uni in the UK, I learned how to cook meals that reminded me of home when I was feeling out of place, and that food was inevitably Asian. I grew up with beef noodle soup and dumpling-making parties and adobo dinners and wrapping polvoron with my Lola. Miles and miles away from home, I realized where my closest connection with both of my heritage cultures lay: food. I bumped into my fellow Asians in the closest Asian market to campus, a mere 14 miles from the university town’s center. There was wordless camaraderie in each of our thorough inspections of the familiar staples stacked on its shelves. Cultural societies established through the Student’s Union often had food sales of popular dishes, and in my last year of university, several Asian societies joined up to host an Asian food potluck dinner open to all students. More and more, I look to those moments in the kitchen, bursting with the excitement of making biko from scratch or nonchalantly eyeballing ingredient measurements for the sauce for cold noodles, as the place I feel most in touch with my inner Filipina or Chinese.

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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We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

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