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Amy Lim

How Growing Up Asian in America Left Me in a Cultural Limbo

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

This article has been syndicated from The Daily Amy, an InfluenceHer Collective Member. Read the full post here.

It seems like the topic of diversity in the media has been popping up a lot lately. To be more specific, the topic of Asian American representation has been getting more attention within the past year than it ever has before. I guess it can be credited to films like Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I Loved Before, Always be my Maybe, Boa, and now, The Farewell for starting these conversations. For someone who has been a little ashamed of being the “Chinese girl” growing up, it’s been pretty cool to see more representation of Asians in the media.

I grew up in a very small southern town where there was barely any diversity, my family was the only Asian family in our town up until middle school, which in a way forced my brother and me to become more Americanized than my parents would have liked. Despite the fact that my black hair and olive skin stood out like a sore thumb among a school of fair-skinned blondes and brunettes, I thankfully never had to go through any severe bullying growing up.

For the most part, going through elementary school, I didn’t realize I was different than all my other classmates. I mean, I took naps and played skip-it just like all the other kids on the playground. Nothing seemed out of the normal to me. As I got older I did begin to question why no one else at school had black hair like me, why no else knew what a hóngbāo was, why I wasn’t allowed to sleepover at my friend’s house, and even; why doesn’t everyone else eat rice with every meal?

Middle school is a tough period in life for anyone in general. Everyone just wants to fit in, you’re hitting puberty, going through awkward stages in life and in a way you’re starting to figure out who you are. I guess I never really knew I was different until a boy in 6th grade asked me why I had a “normal” sounding name because he thought all Chinese people were named after the sound a spoon makes when you drop it. I have always gone by Amy in school and was really only called my Chinese name by extended family or when I really got in trouble with my mom. I didn’t really think much of it up until that point but since that instance, I made it a point to not let anyone know that I had a Chinese name. I didn’t want to be different.

Like I had stated earlier, I was lucky in the fact that I never had to go through any severe bullying for being Asian, but I did have my fair share of kids slanting their eyes back to look like me or the constant “but where are you really from?” questions. I can’t exactly pinpoint when I started to resent being Asian, but I distinctly remember one day at dinner I had gotten into an argument with my mom on why we had to eat rice all the time and why we couldn’t be like normal families to which she replied “so you just don’t want to be Asian anymore?”

Fast forward to college. I’m in a new city, going to a new school, being thrown into a pool of new and diverse classmates. Finally, I’m able to step out of my comfort zone and meet new people. Except, I didn’t. To be honest, I strayed away from joining The Asian Student Association because I didn’t want to seem like one of those “Asian people who only hung out with Asians.” Even being in a new city I was still ashamed of being seen as “different.”

Despite being in a new city filled with a diverse pool of people, I still found myself closing myself off and limiting myself to a small group of people from my hometown. As the years went on in college, I found myself being more and more distant from my culture. I didn’t make it a priority to go home for Chinese New Year, I stopped eating Chinese food, and I was barely in touch with my family. It had gotten to a point where I was embarrassed to visit my relatives because I had unintentionally distance myself for so long that I didn’t want to be made fun of for being so Americanized now. I mean, even “calling” my relatives by the appropriate Chinese names seemed so foreign to me.

For the longest time, I couldn’t really put my finger on exactly why I felt the way I did or pushed back from being Chinese as much as I did until I came across this Twitter thread and I had to do a double to take to make sure I didn’t accidentally write it myself in my sleep. I think the line that resonated with me the most was “It’s a race to reclaim everything you’ve hated about yourself. For the 1st time, you want to be Chinese.” I came across that tweet about a year ago and it’s stuck with me since. I hate how it’s taken me 23 years to want to be someone that I’ve been this entire time.

Even though I had this tweet in the back of my mind and have watched Crazy Rich Asians ten times since it came out, nothing really clicked until I found myself back in Philly for the second time in five years. I had never been to a funeral until this past March. Visiting Philly this time felt like a culture shock. Between the ceremony preparations, trying to learn all of the traditions to follow, and going to Ching Ming for the first time in 20 years, I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t help but get emotional and guilty over the thought of “I could have” the whole time. I could have made more of an effort growing up to learn Chinese so I could communicate with her more. I could have made time to visit and be around family more. I could have put myself out there to hang around with other Asians and be more appreciative of my culture.

I think there needs to be more discussion on this weird cultural limbo — I grew up most of my life in this weird in-between of not being “Asian enough” for my family but not “white enough” for my peers. Every time someone would ask if I could speak Chinese I would always be embarrassed to say no, to which they follow up by asking if I was adopted since that would be the logical reason why I couldn’t speak it, right?

I think one of the more difficult parts about being in this cultural limbo is trying to find the balance between respecting your parents and honoring tradition but at the same time living your own life and taking on the Western mindset. I’m sure many other cultures that have immigrated here as well have experienced this too, but the Immigrant Asian / Asian-American pull is difficult. 

Even though I can’t rewind time and give myself the realization earlier that you don’t have to shed half of you to conform to the other half, I can try to at least make an effort to move forward to make it all balanced. I want to keep the discussion going. Part of the reason why I even had any sort of wake up call was that I watched Crazy Rich Asians for the first time in theatres. You never realize the lack of representation until it’s finally given to you.

Read the full post here.

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