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Growing up, race was never a subject that entered my consciousness. It wasn’t until my teens, when we moved to Florida, that I became conscious of my race because others consciously remarked it. Until then, in my own perception, I was Asian because I had been born in Asia and American because the U.S. was the country I identified with. The only time I was ever Asian American was when I had to check off those “race/ethnicity” boxes on standardized tests and other forms (young’uns, this was a world before you could choose “multiracial” or “decline to answer”).

But being Asian American isn’t as much about race as it is about culture. My parents have always said that growing up amidst two cultures means I get to choose the best of both worlds, and that is absolutely true. At the same time, it also means never feeling like you truly belong to either.

It means laughing at something in a movie but not being able to relate it to your own family. It means going over to a (white American) friend’s house for dinner and wondering why your family doesn’t lay out proper (Euroamerican) table settings. And even though my parents have never been stereotypical Asian parents — for example, when I decided to pursue journalism in college, they didn’t threaten to stop paying tuition unless I got on a med/law track, nor did they stop encouraging me to pursue my dreams — there were still aspects of Chinese culture that they enforced in the home. So growing up AA meant growing up trying to balance two worlds, instead of belonging fully to one or the other. And let’s be honest, in adolescence, belonging means everything.

To a certain extent, I carried this imbalance and confusion with me to college. I had a diverse group of friends just as I had always had, but college presented something new: certain groups of Asians and Asian Americans who only hung out with other A/AAs. And honestly, they terrified me. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to hang out with only others of the same race, especially those who had grown up in the States. And so I went along with my life, ignoring all those freshman year invitations from the Chinese Students Association, Asian American Intervarsity, etc. etc.

Then in the spring of my freshman year, I ended up in an Asian American Women & Gender class due to a scheduling problem. I was actually somewhat unhappy about it – I didn’t want to be labeled as one of those A/AAs who only cared about the A/AA culture. But the class was surprisingly interesting, and after another Asian American Studies class the next year, I declared a minor in AAS.

For me, my AAS classes were a way for me to learn about Americans of Asian descent, yet as history showed and as I experienced when I lived in more rural areas of the States, there are still many Americans who see AAs simply as Asians who live in America, and therefore, not true Americans. (Please see 1998 & 2002 headlines re: Michelle Kwan.)

Through those classes and through other friends, I eventually did make a couple of AA friends in college whose main group of friends are other AAs, and I began to understand a little bit of why they chose to hang out mostly with other AAs. In general, it was about being able to relate and to belong. But even so, there were times when I hang out with these friends, that I wanted to shout to the world and say, I have more diverse friends than just this! I was still afraid of being labeled.

And so as I finished up college, I was still unsure about what it meant to be AA.

Apparently the AAS department had a better understanding of my own confusion than I did. Upon graduation, the AAS department gave every AAS major and minor a copy of the following book. I packed it up with everything else, and for an entire year, it sat on a bookshelf.

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I finally picked it up last month, almost exactly to the date of graduation, and wished only that I had read it later. The first-person narratives in Balancing Two Worlds made me laugh and they made me cry. The book allowed me to relate to others as they shared their innermost thoughts, and it made me rethink how I viewed AAs as a group. Most of all, it made me realize that I was not alone in my confusion.

I think I’ll always be navigating the two rivers of Asian and American cultures, but this book definitely provided valuable insight.

As it was gifted to me upon graduation, I wanted to pass it along to someone else so that they too may benefit from it. And so I shipped it last week to my friend Amanda, who graduated from Penn this year and also wrote her own blog on being AA. She’s starting her first real-world job this month, so I won’t blame her if she doesn’t get to the book immediately. After all, it took me a year to get to it. But I truly hope it offers her useful insight as it did me.

Amanda, your only obligation after you finish reading Balancing Two Worlds is to write a note on the title page and pass it on to someone else who may benefit.

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