Finding Our Own Personal Independence Day

The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday for a variety of reasons, the least of which are barbecues, fireworks and a superabundance of stars and stripes hanging along our town’s busiest streets. It’s much more personal than that.

I’ve alluded to the fact that my parents were determinedly “normal” to an abnormal extent. That meant doing whatever they could to create the illusion that we were in no way different from everyone else. For them that meant determinedly ignoring our Asian race and the reaction it naturally drew from others in our mostly White community.

If someone happened to mention that a nephew or cousin had visited China (or Japan or Korea or even Hawaii or any other random “Asian” place), my parents just smiled and changed the subject. If anyone happened to be “insensitive” enough to ask them a question about some Asian food, culture or language, they professed ignorance, real or feigned. Their message was clear: “We are just Americans like you, so stop acting like we’re different from you in any way!” It didn’t take long for most of our neighbors and acquaintances to learn to avoid mention of anything remotely Asian.

Of course there were always the ugly racial taunts from our schoolmates and the muttered slurs from a few adults of stunted social or emotional development. But for the most part we could carry on the pretense of being full-fledged members of a homogenous white community, at least superficially.

On the inside, however, my brother and I were under stress. Beyond the taunts of schoolmates, we had to deal with the evidence of our mirrors and the news stories on TV, newspapers and news magazines that kept reminding us that we were part of a planet on which many Asian people were living as Asians. I had a natural curiosity about these people — how they lived, what they ate, what they drove, how they amused themselves and what their dreams were. I would often watch a program on Chinese schools, say, or Japanese corporations, fascinated by societies populated with Asian people who were themselves, not pretending to be something else. I was careful not to let my parents catch me, though, because I felt that would amount to evidence that I was rejecting everything they had “taught” me.

I don’t want to create the impression that I was a total misfit. I was reasonably popular, had girlfriends and dated two of white boys in school. My brother was the same way. But I couldn’t help noticing the ways in which we were excluded from certain sleepovers or parties to which even more distant acquaintances were invited. Other forms of exclusion were more subtle. When my friends would talk about boys their eyes would tend not to engage mine, as though they felt I wasn’t able to relate on the same level. Those were the most painful reminders of the fact that, despite the charade so carefully maintained by my parents, racial barriers did exist to separate us from others.

I still remember my heart’s leap of joy when I first came upon websites like this one and learned of great American universities where Asians actually outnumber Whites. I had just finished my sophomore year of high school then. It was the Fourth of July. I was the only one of my little group of friends who had somehow been left out of a weekend at a friend’s lakeside summer cabin. I spent the evening in my room daring to dream about the liberation I would experience in a place where my race would stop being a literally unmentionable barrier.

For me that lonesome Fourth of July launched my new life as an Asian American, not an American struggling to cope with her Asian heritage. Since that day all my efforts in school and on the athletic field were powered by the beautiful dream of escaping my charade by getting into one of the big Asian-filled UC campuses.

That day’s epiphany gave me a surge of motivation that helped me do well enough to get into one of the great Asian American universities. Of course, my life has other issues than racial ones. But my liberation from the agony of eighteen years of trying to play white and fooling no one made even one of my bad days in college immeasurably better than most of my very best days in figurative whiteface.

For me the beauty and the glory of the Fourth of July will always be tied to my own personal independence day when I discovered that America has the right space for every single one of us.