Every Asian goes through this exact conversation. More so when you’re a kid, but I still have the occasional person asking where I’m really from every once in a while.
If you want to know my ethnicity, that’s a different conversation.
No, I’m not Chinese, or Korean, or Japanese. I am Hmong, my family has roots in Laos and Thailand. I’m proud to be Hmong, and I’m always happy to talk more about my family’s history. But please, when you ask me where I’m from, listen to my answer.
Growing up Asian is a very unique experience.
For one, I look different. I’m a little shorter than average. My skin is a bit darker. My eyes are narrower.
As a kid, it is pretty intimidating being a minority. I grew up in an affluent, white suburb so I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Luckily, I didn’t experience any physical abuse. There was the occasional ‘yellow’ joke or squinting eyes, but I felt safe in my community for the most part.
One thing I did experience was low self-esteem.
As a kid, you want to fit in, and it’s impossible to do that when you’re Asian. Other kids were stronger and taller than me. They had the same family values and culture. And the Asian stereotype of being smart just makes you look like a nerd.
I also had very few Asian role models to look up to. Besides Ichiro, there really wasn’t anyone else. All of the successful businessmen we learned about were white. The athletes were white and black. Most of Hollywood was white. Even though there are plenty of successful Asians, we don’t celebrate them in America.
It was really hard for me to be comfortable in my own skin.
In school, I was very quiet. I simply did as I was told and didn’t question anything. I listened to my teachers and never missed a homework assignment. Most Asians are taught to listen and obey and to not start conflict.
I think this stems from my grandparents. They were caught in the middle of the Vietnam war, waking up and not knowing if they would live to see another day. They lost everything. Family members, their house, their freedom. Survival was the only thing on their mind. Many Asian immigrants share a similar experience.
My grandparents are extremely fortunate to live in the United States. I will never know what it’s like living in a country in the middle of a war, but their experience has definitely made an impact on me.
Those survival instincts are still ingrained in Asian-Americans today.
Asians don’t complain. Asians don’t ask for handouts. Asians just want to survive.
My middle school fed into one giant high school with a much more diverse group of students. I met many more Asians and it was comforting to know they had similar experiences as I did. I can’t really explain it, but Asians tend to gravitate towards each other.
I knew every single Asian at my high school. I wasn’t best friends with all of them, but there’s an unspoken bond we all had with each other. We even created our own Facebook group: Secret Asian Society.
Many Asians are pressured to excel in everything. Not only academics but extracurriculars such as music and sports too. Even though my family was never strict on me, I felt like society expected me to be better than average anyway.
As Asians, we are actually constantly competing with each other. It’s not enough to be good at something. If there was another Asian doing the same thing as you, you became instant enemies. Sometimes it got out of hand, but it was a healthy competition that ended up making all of us better people.
Of course, this is just my experience growing up Asian in America. Everyone has a different story, so I encourage you to reach out to an Asian you know to hear their experience.
I’m really glad we’re finally sticking up for ourselves and bringing attention to Anti-Asian racism. As I mentioned before, Asians tend to stay quiet and not cause conflict. But eventually, enough is enough.
I want Asian kids to grow up and feel like they are apart of America. To feel comfortable looking different and have confidence in their own skin. To not just stay quiet anymore, but defend themselves when they are being abused.
We’re taking the right steps to get there, especially with the Asian role models we have today. Everyone from Jeremy Lin, to Amanda Nguyen, to Andrew Yang is supporting #StopAsianHate.
We will stop Anti-Asian racism.
Despite my looks and family history, I consider myself American first. I was born here. I grew up here. America is all I know.
I did everything my white friends did. I played baseball. I went to prom. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree. If it wasn’t for the way I look, I would be just another average guy.
We may look different, but we’re just as American as you.