Becoming Asian American


When I came to the U.S. at 9 years old, I had little sense of what America would look like, save for the occasionally dubbed classics my mother took me to see, like Titanic (which was about Irish immigrants on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic) or The Bridges of Madison County (though I would learn later that was not quite the quintessential American flick that I had imagined).

We arrived in the U.S. on February 11, 2001, a date that we used to mark time for most of my American childhood. By the time of my high school graduation, I had spent half of my life in America, give or take a few months. 

The development of my identity was tethered to assimilation. For their first few years in America, my parents fretted over whether my English would ever be fluent. This worry was not unfounded, as I refused to speak for an entire semester in the elementary school in Rogers Park where I first experienced the public school system in the U.S. The school didn’t have an ELL, or ESL as it was called back then, program, so I sat in a classroom full of kids who peered at me with curiosity.

My mother taught me English through the public library. She borrowed stacks of children’s books and dozens of audio tapes and agonized over them with me (because she too was new to the language). She insisted that I pronounce every word exactly as the narrator of Paul Danziger’s Amber Brown book series on tape had, and I practiced until my voice morphed into that of a native Chicagoan. My parents forbade me from reading Chinese books and watching my beloved Chinese dramas until I became fluent in English three years later. 

Through the deliberate process of forgetting, I slipped into an American childhood that seemed, by all intents and purposes, to mirror that of my white classmates. I beamed when adults told me that my English was good, even when they didn’t know that I was an immigrant. Some things were harder to ignore: the racial epithets, shouts of “ching chong” on the playground, the “go back to China,” the micro-and macro-aggressions that served as a frequent reminder that to some, I did not belong. In high school, a group of my friends, most of whom were Asian American, were walking to the movies when three guys on skateboarders rolled past and pelted rocks at us. The one white member of our group was outraged, chased after our attackers for a few minutes before giving up, panting. The rest of us stared at each other in silence, and I recognized even back then that it was the tacit acknowledgment of a shared experience. 

Maxine Hong Kingston Photo Credit: Alexander Warnow on
Maxine Hong Kingston | Photo Credit: Alexander Warnow on

I struggled to conceive of what being Chinese in America meant or should be for me, save for the narrow world that my parents created by telling their own life stories as history and as heritage, because they too were learning what it meant to be Chinese in a new country. These were not questions to be answered in school. I remember my high school English teacher gifting me The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. This was the first book that ever articulated into words my feelings about being Chinese in America. I cried—a small catharsis that someone had finally put to words how I felt about just being me. Finally, in college, I stumbled into others who were grappling with the same questions. 

It wasn’t until college that being Asian American meant something to me, beyond an unspoken feeling of kinship. In college and later in law school, my Asian American friends, whose families arrived at different times to the U.S., formulated our identity based on what we had in common, what our parents instilled in us as our only and imperfect teachers on being Other in America. We learned. We celebrated what we didn’t have before, through Youtube, TV, meals shared in newfound kinship. What I didn’t learn, until I was 25 years old, was that there was a rich history that we could have tapped into, that we should have known. This journey to reconciling our struggles in the Asian American experience didn’t feel so brand new and so difficult.   

Being Asian in this country means that I am confronted with the insidious assumptions that boiled down from centuries of history, a story in which communities and individuals who look like me were exploited, abused, and driven, and that story is only one entry in an entire book of America’s racist history.

Chinese workers building the Transcontinental Railroad Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pajaro Valley Historical Association.
Chinese workers building the Transcontinental Railroad | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pajaro Valley Historical Association.

The first wave of Chinese immigration to the U.S. was in the 1840s, facilitated by big railroad companies seeking labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad that would industrialize the U.S. and secure its position as the front-runner of modern capitalism. Like their equivalents in the 20th century, those workers were told of the American dream, of finding wealth, at a time of mass instability in China (as a result of an imperial venture of Great Britain, the Opium Wars). 

As soon as they arrived, discriminatory laws were enacted: they were taxed, fined, restricted in movement, restricted in marriage until they were finally altogether excluded. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned all immigration of Chinese laborers, which made up most Chinese immigrants to the U.S. for ten years. This Act was broadened and extended every ten years until it was made permanent in 1904. In step with these laws, or perhaps emboldened by them, were the series of anti-Chinese riots and massacres, driving Chinese Americans out of their homes by fire, lynching, and forced marches out of town. The Chinese were portrayed as rats, filth, swine, all of which were words used on the Congress floor when debating the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinatowns, areas where the Chinese were confined to live for fear of their spread, were denigrated as dens of immorality and lasciviousness.

The story is similar for other Asian immigrants. By the 1900s, immigrants from Asia were categorically banned. Asian immigrants would not be eligible for citizenship, deemed too foreign to truly assimilate to “American” culture. 

Growing up in the U.S., I was obsessed with the immigrant story. We learned about Ellis Island in the fourth grade, the first year I felt comfortable enough to speak in class. I wrote stories and stories about a girl named Mary immigrating from Ireland in 1902, pouring my heart into long passages about Mary’s struggle of being new, being different. 

I often reflect on why I didn’t write about a Chinese girl arriving on the shores in 1902. We never learned about early Chinese immigrants in school. There was no lesson on the contemporary Angel Island Immigration Station, established off the coast of San Francisco for the processing of Asian immigrants. Asian Americans are excluded from the feel-good story of immigration I was taught in school because this history reveals an uncomfortable truth about the racist beginnings of American immigration law. This is why white Americans can embrace their family’s Ellis Island stories as American belonging while denying that same claim to non-white Americans. 

I will never forget the time when a white teammate at my swimming club shouted to me, in a fit of rage, about something a few Asian students in her class did. “Why don’t they all go back to China?” She looked at me, and maybe seeing the alarm in my eyes, patted me on the arm and said, “but not you, you’re one of the good ones.” After she left, I remember whispering to myself, “they belong here just as much as you do.” I never said it to her, but I think about this moment a lot because what troubled me most is that she—and I, by my silence—assumed that somehow she had the right to make claims to the U.S. as her home, and her Asian classmates didn’t. And that she also had the power to determine who was “good” and who could belong. 

With the COVID pandemic, we’re seeing hate crimes against Asian Americans spread rapidly like an epidemic of its own. The animosity toward those who look Asian lays to bear the perpetual foreignness that American law and history has crystallized against those who are not white. Centuries-old xenophobia carries as much purchase today as it did in 1882. 

When I teach Asian American history, I sometimes get questions from Asian Americans—usually adults—asking “how does this relate to me/my family?” 

As American Americans, our lived experience is inexorably tied to our collective history in this country, and that history is rich, complex, and very long. Learning this history delegitimizes those who question and deny our belonging. 

It is impossible to identify as “Asian American” without learning this history because the term “Asian American” comes from decades of activism for the acknowledgment of our shared history and the struggles that we face as a community of non-white individuals.

Being “Asian American” has to mean something more than how white America has seen us—as an invasion, like corruption, as a wedge to deny the struggles of Black and Brown people. In fact, being “Asian American” means actively working against these perceptions, even when it purports to elevate us in comparison to other oppressed folks. “Asian American” was born from decades of activism for racial justice, for inclusion, and for the dismantling of white supremacy, and our survival depends on continuing that legacy.


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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