Growing Up Asian American

Updated: May 24, 2020

Tim and I in our wading pool

We spent a lot of time in our backyard when we were younger. There’s a photo of Tim and I in the backyard holding Gow Bow, our puppy, whose name means bandage in Cantonese. In this photo, Tim and I are standing in front of overgrown bamboo shoots flanking the west side of our backyard, the bamboo a mix of colors ranging from straw yellow to dull green. Seemingly so tall when we were younger, the bamboo was out of place in the yard that I remember sometimes resembling something of a dying American prairie field with yellowed, unkempt grass completely overgrown with golden foxtail weeds. The bamboo paralleled much of how I felt growing up Asian American, out of place yet continuing to thrive in an environment comprised of a blend of East and West.

The lawn, even in the spring, never mirrored the perfectly manicured greens I saw in suburban tract homes, my own friends’ homes, or on TV. But it was this imperfect lawn that held our plastic wading pool in the summers. The pool that I’d spring from, dried blades of crunchy grass tickling the soles of my feet as I stepped out to run into the sprinkler. Thirty-some years later, this same exact experience has been unknowingly replicated for my kids. The same scene, a wading pool on the lawn and sprays of water from the sprinkler looming in the background. The only visual difference is my kids have a perfectly manicured lawn. Tessa screams, “This is amazing” over and over again as she runs through the sprinklers while Miles has to build up the courage. It is watching her in this joyous moment that instantly brings me back to my own childhood. The perfectly manicured lawn is a direct result of the sacrifices our parents made for us, navigating the United States as first-generation Asian Americans. Tessa and Miles will have a distinctly different experience growing up Asian American, but I wonder how much of their life experiences will mirror our own just as some of our own experiences have mirrored our parents'. Racism and lack of representation continue to be a fixed aspect, yet to be shaken, of growing up Asian American. The progress, though there has been some, hasn’t come far enough.

I couldn’t believe it myself that a little more than two months ago, before the height of the Coronavirus craze, before the Stay At Home Orders were issued, walking the streets of Glendale with my direct report and my manager, the phrase “Go back to China!” was hurled at me. In that instant, my breath caught and I froze. So many thoughts swirled through my mind, possibilities of how the next few seconds would play out branching in this direction and that. It took no time to bring me back to the feeling of cold brick pressed against my thighs, sitting on a planter outside my elementary school. “Chinita,” the kids would say. “Go back to China,” they would add, laughing as they passed. And I never said anything back. I sat there alone holding back tears while the child in me internalized that it wasn’t good to be different, it wasn’t good to be Asian, that it wasn’t good to be me. Stories like this peppered my childhood and continued through to my college years. The insensitivity and ignorance of some people continued to astound and light a fire within me. What need is there to make slanted eyes out your car window on the highway? How do you get to an acclaimed college like UCLA and still spew hateful speech? How does a man in a wheelchair, who at his core should understand the challenges of being different, perpetuate exclusion through practicing racism directed at me while I shopped at Target with my mom? For all the times I never said anything, for all the times I was too young and timid to advocate for myself and for all the times I had no one to advocate for me, I stopped mid-step, turned, and let a beast out. I couldn’t let the injustice slide and be part of the problem. The ease in which he spewed the hateful speech was a slap in the face as he continued throwing barbs my way as I yelled right back at him, shaming him for his ignorance. My privileged, by no fault of their own, Caucasian co-workers walked back to the office with me, the air thick with tension. Awkward as it was, I look back now and am thankful they were able to bear witness to an inequity they will never know the pain of, humanizing what racism looks like at its core. Racism towards Asian Americans has become a charged topic as of late, beginning with COVID-19’s reported origin and President Trump referring to it as the Chinese Virus. Attacks on Asians in the US have skyrocketed. I cannot get the video of the Asian American woman in Brooklyn doused with bleach in early April out of my head. This is only one story of countless others. And while the incident in Glendale two months ago was the first time I had to relook at my identity in the mirror in a very long time, I am doing it constantly now. When I grocery shop, I feel safer going to H-Mart because I know I’ll be among my people. I don’t have to question whether or not the person staring at me in Target is doing so because he or she is looking past me or because he or she thinks I’m part of the virus. We’ve gone backward as a society. I can’t help but wonder what this will mean for my kids.

Growing up in a city where the ethnic makeup was disproportionately skewed toward Hispanic or Latino made for a unique childhood. Nearly 80% of the city’s population fell into this category which further exacerbated the lack of representation in mainstream media. I felt it every day of my life. I was confused about who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I should become never feeling comfortable in my own skin. Who should I have identified with as a child? The majority of faces I saw in the student population didn’t reflect me. What examples did I have in the media? Next to none. Jonathan Ke Quan who played Data in The Goonies (and hailed from Alhambra) played a character that didn't speak perfect English like me. In fact, many of the Asians we saw represented in the media were caricatures of our culture, not relatable to us in our everyday lives. And where were the females? By the time Mulan came out, I was nearly fifteen. While her story represented heroic strength, she was a cartoon and a fable. All I had to look to was the ABC’s TGIF line up that included DJ and Stephanie Tanner, Laura Wilson, and Topanga Lawerence. On Saturdays, it was Kelly Kapowski, Jessie Spano, and Lisa Turtle. None of these females looked like me. I distinctly remember the ache of wanting to fit in, to be anyone but myself, not being proud of who I was or my culture. At Target the other day, I wandered down the Barbie aisle. Tessa’s birthday is later this week and her most recent obsession is the classic, blonde figurine. Growing up, there was never an Asian option. I looked to my left and right and finally saw one with a sporty aesthetic Tess would not relate to. I didn’t buy the doll, not wanting to be boxed into an option I knew she wouldn’t love just because it was the only one. I left disappointed that more than thirty years have passed, and while we now have options, they still aren’t good enough. I had a light bulb moment at freshman college orientation, sitting amongst a diverse mix of students in Rieber Hall having a late-night chat. That night I realized just how incredibly sheltered my upbringing was. A childhood filled with limited resources, the extent of my exposure to cultures outside of my own, and that of the densely Latino populated city I grew up in, started and stopped with TV and movies. My college experience was about to open my eyes in the most unexpected way. I would finally find my people, be proud of who I am, and my culture. I would finally move on from the feeling of wanting to shed my own skin. Paralleling this surge inside me, representation in media has been on an upward trend making progress in filling the void I experienced as a child. This is a positive for Tess and Miles.

As Tim and I grew up, the bamboo in the backyard eventually was pulled out. East no longer met West. This would be a beautiful parallel for a successful Asian American amalgamation story. The lines of division no longer clear, simply eradicated. The truth is far from this. So I share my experience as part of this journey to highlight our culture and to simply represent. I will continue to speak up and advocate for our culture, raising my children to be proud of who they are inside and out.