WHEN I WAS NINE YEARS-OLD my family and I went on a summer vacation in Phoenix, Arizona.
As a Chinese family that had gained American citizenship only a few years prior, much of my childhood was spent exploring the American side of the “Chinese American” identity we had adopted.
We drove all over our home state of Washington, visited Cannon Beach in Oregon, cruised down the Pacific Coast Highway of California. One special year when my cousin came to visit us from Hong Kong, we flew to Orange County, California and spent two days at Disneyland. I tortured my family by making them go on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride no less than five times. That “A Pirate’s Life For Me” song was just so catchy.
During that time I remember being aware that my mom spoke with an accent different than my best friend’s mom and often explained things in a different language. But it was no big thing. I was just a kid who loved horses, swimming pools, and those rascally pirates.
It was a sweet time. A time unclouded by any real fear of judgement, self consciousness, or doubt.
That summer in Phoenix is when everything changed.
The day started out perfect. I woke up to the hot Arizona sun, a welcome change from the chilly Seattle summer, and immediately put on my swimsuit. The hotel we were staying at had a big, blue pool with a water slide, and I was dying to try it out.
After a breakfast treat of bacon, cinnamon rolls, and hash browns (foods that were exclusively vacation goodies to me), and waiting the miserable 30 minutes my mom demanded I wait before swimming, I dashed off for the pool.
As I stepped out onto the hot concrete of the pool deck, two slightly older kids — maybe 11 and 12 — crossed my path and giggled. They giggled at me.
Before I could move on the two blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids bowed dramatically at me and said loudly, “AH-SOOOO,” in that cartoonish “Kung-Fu” movie style.
I just stared at them, unable to respond. In those few seconds it was as if the world came into focus for the first time ever. I was sharply aware of being the “Chinese Girl”.
The two older kids seemed to be waiting for a response from me. And while my brain screamed “Say something! Make sure they know you speak English!” all I could do was stare. Somehow they found this hilarious, and as they ran off they shouted, “Konnichiwa!” over their shoulders.
Left standing on the hot pool deck, I looked around at the other vacationers. All non-Asian, all speaking English, all different than me. A flood of thoughts came tumbling through my brain:
“Does everyone see me as different? Am I the CHINESE GIRL? Does everyone notice me when I step into a room? Does everyone think I’m not American? Do people think I’m ugly? Am I different? Oh my God, I’m different, I’m different, I’m different…”
I spent the rest of the afternoon quietly floating around the pool deep in thought, wondering if everyone else was noticing the CHINESE GIRL at the pool.
For the five days I was in Phoenix, I encountered the older kids two more times. Both times they delighted in pretending to do karate for my benefit, or speaking “ching chong” Chinese at me.
The last time they “spoke” to me while my mom was in earshot. When she barked at them to, “Get out of here!” in her accented English, I felt more shame instead of relief. She was protecting me, but in my confused nine year-old brain, she only served to further prove their point that I was different.
My reaction to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed older kids in Phoenix marked the beginning of years of identity issues and fears that plagued me into my 20s.
As a child then a teenager, my goal was to become so “American” that my “Chineseness” would be forgotten. While I quietly avoided befriending other Asian American people, I spent a good amount of time scrutinizing them for behaviors or stereotypes to avoid.
I refused to join the Asian Club at my Dallas high school, but would secretly watch their small, crowded table at lunch. I mocked the “Asian mob” as some of my non-Asian friends called them, and made sure to use humor at their expense to distance myself from them. I was thrilled when a couple of my friends told me, “It’s like you’re not even Asian!”
A Mexican American friend and I (who was going through similar identity issues) would perform “Stereotype Tableaux” of Mexican and Asian stereotypes, for friends — him being a gardener and me doing math, him dancing on a sombrero and me playing the violin and piano at the same time. Our friends laughed, and we laughed when they did. Somehow we thought if we participated in “harmless” racism, we wouldn’t be the object of it.
Making fun of Asian Americans or speaking pejoratively about them the way some of my non-Asian peers did was a way for me to “not be Asian”; to trick myself into thinking that I was not like that, that I was just like “everyone else.” It pains me now to write those words.
A few years after high school, I learned I had a reputation as the “Asian, Asian Hater”. I can honestly say hate was never my M.O. but fear certainly was.
I carried this fear well into my 20s. Though my actions to distance myself from my “Chineseness” were muted, more “mature,” I continued to live in fear of being a stereotype. Though the faces had changed, I continued to see those two blonde-haired, blue-eyed older kids in various settings in Dallas, St. Louis, and even Los Angeles.
“Go back to Chinatown!” one woman yelled.
“Do you eat sushi at every meal?” a man asked.
“Hey! Do my math homework!” yelled a dude and his bros from a car.
Though I detested their racist remarks, I secretly detested that they saw me as different. And that detestation mutated to shame.
Then in my late 20s I moved to Honolulu, Hawai’i for my husband to get a doctorate degree in — of all things — Asian Theatre.
I started building my life in Hawai’i — finding a job, settling into a routine, making friends. As I unpacked my bags I also unpacked my old hang ups, but unlike the sun dresses and slippahs (flip flops to mainlanders!) that fit right into my Hawai’i life, my prejudices very quickly felt out of place. Like wearing a wool sweater at the beach, I felt uncomfortable in what was once cozy.
The majority of Honolulu’s population is of Asian descent. It is a culture that proudly celebrates many Asian cultures — Asian American included. Very quickly I learned that if I was to hide from Asian American culture, I would be hiding from Hawai’i.
So I made a conscious decision to let go. Let go of old fears, old prejudices, old anger. And my world exploded.
For the first time since that summer in Phoenix I forced myself to stop thinking about being Chinese and just be. I opened myself up to meeting Asian American people who both defied and embraced what I had so narrow-mindedly defined as “stereotypes”.
Whereas I had always carried a modicum of fear or “keeping up appearances” in relation to my race, the Asian American people I met in Hawai’i lived without apology for where their families came from. The things they said and did that were so distinctly Chinese (or Japanese, or Korean, or Vietnamese, etc.) were not regarded as negative stereotypes to be avoided, they were regarded as culture.
Inadvertently, through my fear of being a Chinese American caricature, I had denied what gave my life roots, flavor, context — culture.
I slowly started feeling comfortable in my own skin for the first time since childhood. My Chinese American skin. I started not only seeing myself in Chinese American culture, but seeing Chinese American culture in myself.
And I loved it.
I bonded with other Asian American women over our family backgrounds, the hilarity of growing up Asian American (when you get dried fish in your lunchbox at school, nobody wants to trade with you), and the deeply ingrained superstitions that hold tight despite living in a modern world. Sharing and talking with people who understood me, sometimes understanding me better than I did myself, shook me to my core. I felt myself start to feel brave again in my Chinese American identity.
It’s now been years since I moved to Hawai’i. I’ve since moved to Japan and now Hong Kong, but I credit Hawai’i and its unique culture with helping me awaken the Chinese side of my Chinese American self.
Without Hawai’i I can’t help but wonder if I would ever have had to confront the judgement and prejudices I held so dear. If I hadn’t, would I still be afraid? Living in denial of who I am?
It’s been a long journey, and I can’t help but mourn a little for the years I lost to fear. But the past is a memory, and I can only stand upon its shoulders. In moving forward and reconnecting to the culture I avoided for so long I am delighted to find that the answers to the big questions I have about self and identity can often be found within myself — my Chinese American self.
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