This post is the second in a series; the first post can be found here.
After that conversation at day camp, I knew only one thing for sure: I didn’t want to feel that way ever again. So I spent the next 10 years distancing myself from what had instigated that interaction in the first place.
I avoided Asian people at all costs, eyeing them at youth orchestra with disdain, writing them off as ethnocentric. I quietly hid all the things my family did, said, or ate that were different from what my friends at school were doing, saying, or eating. I became louder and louder, to the point of obnoxiousness, to dispel any notion that I was a stereotypical quiet Asian girl — and so that others could hear that I had no trace of an accent. (Though I’ve since developed more socially appropriate habits, I cannot overstate the degree to which my early feelings about my race shaped my personality.) I would overreact to even the most innocuous mention of Asia or Asians, my internal conflict about my race bubbling to the surface. I stopped trying in Chinese school, where my parents sent me for 2 hours every weekend to learn Mandarin with other American-born Chinese kids. Actually, “stopped trying” is an understatement; I actively rebelled, refusing to do homework, talking in class, mouthing off to my teachers, generally being the antithesis of what I was in regular school. My behavior in Chinese school was the clearest manifestation of what I was doing in the rest of my life: I was acting out my feelings about being Asian in the place where I was most reminded of that fact.
This simultaneous denial of and hostility toward my race lasted an entire decade. I imagine it would have continued had Ya-ting — my one Asian friend, grandfathered into my circle of trust because she was my neighbor and she was the coolest — not invited me to her church at the end of our sophomore year of high school. She had done this once before, when we were in 4th grade, and I had attended with her family for a while before fizzling out. I had spent the intervening 6 years trying (and failing) to understand Christianity on my own, so I accepted her invitation with gratitude. I was even willing to overlook the fact that her church was a Chinese church. The only thing that outweighed my discomfort at the thought of being surrounded by Asian people was how badly I wanted to make sense of my faith.
Stage 2: Dissonance. In which the person starts questioning the status quo and being interested in their own racial group.
My first Sunday there was eye-opening on many levels. Nothing was what I expected: Instead of going into the sanctuary with the adults, the high schoolers congregated in their own room. Instead of a choir, hymnals, and an out-of-tune piano, there was a band with electric guitars and drums. Instead of an old white dude with a beard, the pastor was a young, hip Chinese Canadian guy who I could relate to and kind of wanted to be.
But most significantly, the Asian people — the same ones I had spent years actively avoiding and quietly judging — were… really nice. They were not snotty, exclusive, mean, or anything I had made them out to be in my head. Quite the opposite, in fact; they asked if I was the girl they had seen at violin lessons or in the halls at Chinese school and made room for me in the proverbial circle, treating me as if I had been part of it all along.
Not only were these Asian people nice to me, but they also understood me. Their offhanded comments about their parents’ quirks and their endless studying clued me in to the fact that I wasn’t the only one who had these experiences. Suddenly, all the things that made me weird in my regular life — the things we ate at home, the things my parents said, their absurd expectations for my future — were… normal.
For the first time in my life, my story made sense.
And I felt a giant wave of relief.
Because of this new context where my race wasn’t the thing that made me weird and different, I didn’t have to fight it anymore. I could put my fists down. I could explore it and grapple with it and decide how I felt about it — and maybe even embrace it.
Stage 3: Immersion. In which the person dives into their racial exploration and withdraws from dominant culture.
Embracing my race didn’t take long. The time I spent with my new friends from church was revelatory; there was so much that I didn’t need to explain, and it felt both completely new and completely familiar. I remained close with my friends from school, but from that point in high school through my graduation from college, almost every new friend I made was Asian American. After years of rejecting this part of myself, the pendulum swung hard in the opposite direction.
The University of Michigan, with its large and active Asian American community, was the ideal place to immerse myself in this new identity. Percentage-wise, Michigan was only 15% Asian, but since there were 22,000 undergrads on campus, the Asian American community had an ecosystem all its own. There were more than 20 Asian American organizations. There was a student association for every ethnicity, if not two (one for American-born students, one for international students). There were enough Asian Americans on campus to sustain multiple Asian-specific Christian fellowships, fraternities, and sororities. There were popular Asians, nerdy Asians, hip-hopping Asians, foodie Asians, Asian activists, Asians who loved to party, Asians who were all of the above. (And, of course, Asians who avoided this community like the plague; on a campus this big, they had plenty of other options.) And I ate it all up. I quickly joined the Chinese Christian Fellowship. I was in the Chinese cultural show one year, the Korean show another year, and the general Asian show yet another year. I pulled countless late nights in the Fishbowl, the giant computer lab in the middle of campus where lots of Asian Americans congregated on weeknights to study and socialize in varying amounts. I took Asian American studies classes and learned, to my surprise, that there were an abundance of Asian American narratives besides my own. At Michigan, for better and for worse, it was entirely possible to socialize exclusively with Asian Americans and concern yourself exclusively with Asian American issues; I didn’t quite do that, but I came pretty close.
To an outsider, spending all this time wrapped up in Asian American everything may have seemed extreme. Even I felt that way at times, wondering how I’d gotten sucked into the Asian American black hole. But looking back, that period of being surrounded by Asian Americans was essential for me. After spending so many years rejecting my heritage, I needed to be immersed in it for a while in order to figure out what it meant for me to be Asian American. And I needed to develop a balanced, realistic view of my culture, too. When I first jumped in, I idealized it completely; it just made so much sense to me, and I could finally acknowledge and embrace the aspects of it that I loved. The hospitality. The generosity. The modesty. The work ethic. During this time, however, I also started to see cultural tendencies that I didn’t like as much — the indirect communication and the resistance to questioning authority, to name a few. I needed to see my culture from every angle in order to recognize that it wasn’t perfect, that it was just as flawed as white culture, and make my peace with that. After years of hating everything about my race, I needed a period when I was all Asian, all the time so I could build a positive Asian American identity, and Michigan provided that for me.
Part 3 of this story will be posted tomorrow. In the meantime, if you have stories of hating your race or diving in headfirst, I’d love to hear them.