I don’t speak Mandarin. I’ve never dated an Asian girl. I go to an overwhelmingly White Church. I like Country Music too. You get it? I’m different – I don’t conform to the typical Asian American tropes and stereotypes. Part of my unconventionality comes from the fact that I wasn’t raised in a traditional Asian household (my first-gen parents gave up trying to teach me Chinese); part of it comes from my natural interests and instincts. But the bottom line is the same: I never fit in all that well with the Asian-American community.
Many Asian kids don’t. Tired of all the rote pianowork and kneejerk traditionalism of our parents, all too often we face an oppressive dilemma: hang our heads and obey our parents’ ideal of what we should grow up to be, or rebel entirely. Some choose the former. I, and many other Asian kids that I’ve known, chose the latter.
Many people understand that teenagers (especially angsty ones like me) rebel from their culture all the time. But most don’t understand where we would rebel to. For Asian Americans, however, the answer is obvious. Asian Americans often share the same spaces as White people, and so at school, on the playground, on our sports teams, we’re constantly around them (as opposed to, say Black people or Hispanics who usually self-segregate). We notice that the White kid gets a cell phone far earlier than we do. We notice upper-middle class White parents are much more lax (read: cool) with their kids dating than our parents. And then they get a car.
It becomes clear that White people are far and away much cooler than us. (What’s lost on us is the sheer number and diversity of White people and how we’re selectively looking at the ones who adopt this kind of lifestyle to reinforce the narrative in our heads) Then, we self-stereotype – we look at the model Asian kids with disgust, because everyone tells us we should be like them. In middle and early high school, I had a particular hatred for one of these model Asians. Finally, we connect the dots – I’m being pushed by my race to this undesirable lifestyle, and White people seem to have this much cooler life – bottom line: be White, and take down anyone who tries to stop you.
So I did, at least according to my own standards. I wore Hollister and Abercrombie (where previously I was hostile to name brands). I openly jeered at my Asian friends for being Asian, even cracking the occasional racial self-stereotype. I wouldn’t even go to an Asian hairdresser. I was even ashamed of my last name. When I published my first novel, I chopped off a letter from my last name because I didn’t want people buying my book online to see that I was Asian. I started referring to myself as “not that kind of Asian”. If I were a girl, (speaking from observation) I would go to Starbucks and make fun of the Asian nerds sitting around doing homework. I would mimic my White girlfriends’ Insta poses and flirt with rich White boys pretending to be a basic White chick. This radical, totally calculated personality change is so common among Asian Americans that it has its own term: “banana” – Yellow on the outside, White on the inside.
The only reason I ever got out of my obsession with race was because I became obsessed with Jesus. Through a study of Scripture and a deepening of my relationship with God, my identity as a born-again Christian overtook my identity as either Asian or White. I realized that my faith identity wasn’t based around the things that I do, but my personal story of sin, grace, and salvation. My understanding of my faith identity as a story led me to also question my understanding of my ethnicity. And that’s when I realized where I, and every other banana, went wrong.
Ethnicity isn’t some checklist based on a certain list of things, or personalities, or behavior. It’s not supposed to box in people who identify that way. My fallacy was in believing that because I did things a certain way, listened to a certain kind of music, even voted a certain way, that I was meant for a different skin color. But the Caucasian ethnicity is not some kind of secret society that makes you pledge in by guzzling three bottles of – white – wine. There is no collective thing White people (or Asian people) all do that defines who they are.
Rather, ethnicity is a collection of stories that sometimes reinforce but also contradict each other, the only unifying factor being heritage. I’m Chinese – my heritage is in the oldest civilization on Earth. But how I interpret my heritage is up to me. I don’t need to change my life story to respect my heritage, I only need to respect my heritage, understand it as it relates to my life.
Looking at it this way, I realize that the fact that I’m different means that I should be proud of being Asian American all the more, because through my story, I’m pushing Asianhood to new lands, new boundaries. Recently, I’ve gotten into Conservative politics, a field Asian Americans aren’t inclined to study and participate in. I can break that mold, craft a new story – Asian American wins Senator! (As a Republican, obviously) – and now my ethnicity will be all the richer because they have a new story to add to its collection. White people have a heritage too – an interesting and diverse one at that – but their heritage will never be my heritage. That’s something the Asian boy who wanted to be White could, and should never leave.
Finally, I want to talk about the other half of “Asian American”. I don’t only have a stake in China, but one here in the USA – that shouldn’t get lost in the discussion. As I carve out my ethnic story, I’m carving out my All-American story. Maybe I didn’t pick up a cheerleader in a truck, get married, have two kids and own a bunch of Taco Bells (five points for anyone who comments on the movie I’m referencing), but my story is just as American as anyone else’s. That’s the great thing about America.
So to all the Asian kids out there: you can do so much more for your ethnicity than you can trying and failing to claim someone else’s. I just added country music, Chevys, electric guitar and football obsessiveness to the story of our race. And angst. A lot of angst.
This article was originally published in The Odyssey Online.