The Evolution of an Asian American
That sense of regret colored my view of the bewildering number of Asians I encountered in my first weeks in college. They represented for me an opportunity to connect at long last with my identity. To my dismay the other Asians seemed to see me as just another student and didn't reciprocate my eagerness to befriend them. Before long I got wind that the others in the dorm considered me a banana, a thoroughly whitewashed Asian. I came off as trying to patronize other Asians instead of trying to relate to each as an individual, I was told by a sympathetic Asian guy on my floor. I took this as a rejection that reinforced my longstanding insecurities about my identity. I retreated from other Asians and from my crusade to embrace my identity. I sought out the comforting familiarity of Whites. They may have seen me as a racial minority, but at least they weren't alienated by my friendly overtures.
My entire first year was tinged with the bitter disappointment of my failure to make the long-anticipated Asian connection. In my sophomore year I met Dan, a Japanese American who had grown up in the Midwest. I confided to him my sense of alienation from other Asian Americans. He agreed that it was tricky for Asians who had grown up in white areas to fit in with those from the big coastal cities. "It's like they envy us for being so easy with Whites," Dan told me, "but they look down on us because they assume we have no pride in being Asian." That summed up our predicament, but didn't make it any easier to accept. Over time we bananas came together to form our own little clique. We even had our little jokes about the "FOBs". We poked fun at their clothes, their haircuts, their speech patterns. Cultivating a sense of superiority felt better than feeling like outcasts.
Toward the end of my sophomore year I was cramming for midterms at my favorite reading room of the research library. I noticed a pretty Asian girl studying at a nearby table. She was madly highlighting texts with a yellow marker while fiddling with her hair. Our concentration was broken by the raucous voices of frat rats joining a friend who had been studying at another table. They were talking in that peculiarly abrasive voice that only a group of frat boys could use in a library reading room. One or two frat boys were like mice but get three or more together and they were honor bound to disturb the peace.
Within a few minutes it became clear that they had no intention of respecting the rights of others in that reading room. It was also clear that none of the other dozen or so students were interested in speaking out. The Asian girl kept glancing at the frat rats with obvious annoyance. Just as I was making up my mind to get up and ask them to keep it down, she slapped the table with her book and glared at them. They were momentarily surprised into silence. Naturally they then decided that their collective manhoods were threatened by this gutsy girl and began slapping the table with their own books while staring at her.
"Can you go play outside?" the girl said in exasperation. I almost winced at her thick accent. It sounded like, "Can you go pray outside?" It was guaranteed to provoke more mockery from the frat boys. "Why don't you go pray outside with us?" one of them said, crudely mimicking her accent.
That set me off. I jumped to my feet and addressd the frat boys with a string of obscenities. I followed that up with an invitation for them either to go outside and play with me or shut the f*** up and let everyone study. They were stunned into silence. After a few minutes they gathered their things and left, muttering snidely by way of salvaging their pride.
I don't recall how much longer we studied there, but as I was gathering my things to leave I noticed the pretty Asian girl getting up to leave as well. She pulled up alongside and gave me a smile. "Thank you."
That was the start of a relationship that continues to this day, twelve years later. Leah is now my wife and her accent has faded over the years, to my regret. During the first few years I was endlessly charmed by everything remotely Asian about her. You might even say I had an Asian fetish. She personally disabused me of the many illusions I had had about what it was to be an Asian. I suppose I helped her see that even the most "whitewashed" Asian was subject to the same prejudices in American society. In many ways, we became Asian Americans together, each coming from opposite directions and meeting somewhere in the middle.
For the first several years of our relationship we tacitly assumed that the best of what we shared owed to being Asians. Our love of Asian travel destinations, foods, arts and aesthetics took up most of our leisure time. On the other side, we felt our minority status was the source of the negatives in our lives like workplace biases, encounters with racists and the stereotypes that make the American media an unreliable source of entertainment. Our lives could only improve if we were living as members of an Asian majority, we postulated. When I was approached about an Asia posting, we jumped at the chance. The job would give us a great income, fringe benefits and the advantages of living in a modern, vibrant Asian city. Best of all, we would escape the drawbacks of being members of a minority group.
At first we delighted in the experience of being Asians in an Asian land. We saw charm and welcome everywhere. We could walk through any door along a busy street and find a meal that seemed cooked especially to our liking. We could stroll for hours without encountering a curious or hostile stare. We never had to wonder whether we had wandered into the "wrong" section of town or if any bit of unpleasantness contained a racial component. We expected four years of unmitigated bliss. Instead we found ourselves taking the final step in our evolution as Asian Americans.
The first thing we began to miss were the infrastructural details to which we had never given much thought while living in the States: broad streets, spacious parking lots, efficient freeways, drive-thru everything. Then we became aware how judgemental the people were about everything. They seemed to attach signficance to every detail of what we wore, ate, drank, said or did. Bit by bit we came to see that being of the same race didn't spare us from the subtle and complex set of prejudices reserved for people not cut from precisely the same cloth. Before a year was out, we felt as victimized by prejudice as we had in the states. The fact that the prejudice was dished out by people who looked superficially like us made it no easier to take. The sense of immense freedom and acceptance that had once filled were taken from us by this judgemental pettiness and bewildering prejudices. Long before we returned to the States, Leah and I had become as united by our American attitudes as we had once been by our shared Asian heritages.
My evolution as an Asian American continues to this day. Lately it has become a process of seeing the many ways in which we Asian Americans can contribute to making this country a place of even greater spiritual freedom for people of all races. Now that I know what is mine, I am determined to make it better for me and all my countrymen.
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“During the first few years I was endlessly charmed by everything remotely Asian about her.”
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