Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

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

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a bad Asian. 

Now, you may be thinking, Kira, that’s a ridiculously splashy title, and you are in fact 100% Kinh Vietnamese (shoutout to 23andMe!), born in the capital of Vietnam, so factually, you’re Asian. I don’t disagree. The badness doesn’t come from the fact that I don’t speak a word of Vietnamese, the way that I spent five full minutes trying to light my incense wedges at the temple this Lunar New Year before a kind old man took pity on me, or the generally glaring fact that I’m adopted and my parents are white. That’s all topical. But for the last 21 years, I’ve been suffering from a whopping case of racial dysphoria. 

It all started on August 31, 2000. It was a sweltering Thursday, just after 9 AM, and I was promptly put up for adoption—no father listed, no mother beyond a singular name, and a fake address. They took an orphan baby mugshot of me, chilling in a onesie with a piece of paper that had my birth name and birthday. It’s quite cute. I was born with a full head of spiky black hair, and then I just kicked back for a few months. 

On the other side of the world, my parents were applying to adopt. After having three biological boys and nearing the age of 40, they decided that they wanted to move forward with adopting a girl from Vietnam. It wasn’t specifically me. Actually, they told me they would’ve adopted twins, but then the adoption agency sent a stiff yellow envelope that had my name and picture enclosed. According to them, they looked into my eyes and knew I was “The One.” The following December, around Christmas time, my dad made the long flight and picked me up from the orphanage. Calling my mom on a rotary phone from the tiny hotel, he said simply, “She’s here.”

Now, it wasn’t an easy sell for me. Apparently I screamed on the entire plane ride back, along with this other adopted Viet kid named Jackson (hope you’re thriving now and scream less) but once I arrived at what would be my new house, nestled in the wintry New England suburbs, I fit right in. My brothers were overjoyed to have a sister, and I was immediately welcomed into the most loving home you can imagine. I became an American citizen, my name was legally changed, and I started my journey on an all-American childhood.

I’d be lying if I said that I’m not incredibly lucky. I grew up in a bustling, two story Colonial with soccer-playing, fun-loving boys, two dogs, and a lawyer and teacher who ensured that I got plenty of fresh air, delicious food, and had a library card from the moment I could stumble through a picture book. I tried everything from ballet, downhill skiing, fencing, lacrosse, archery, soccer, theatre…everything a kid from the suburbs could want. And this whole time, one thing was consistent: I didn’t know I was Asian.

Now to be clear, it wasn’t a secret. It wasn’t like those you’re adopted dog memes that people find oh-so funny. For as long I can remember, my parents have celebrated my adoption every winter, they always had a huge library of books about adopted kids and kids of color, and they even had a set of áo dài (Vietnamese traditional wear) that fit me all throughout my childhood. But you look at me in any picture with my family, and it’s very obvious. My family is tall, brunette, with eyes ranging from pale blue to dark green—they couldn’t be more opposite to me. And yet, I never felt different. To them, I was their sister, their daughter, I was simply Kira. But as soon as I stepped out the door, everything changed.

As a kid, you don’t notice it. You’re just with your parents, vibing, swinging off their arms, smiling back shyly at strangers who coo over you. I think when people see me with just one white parent, they tend to assume that the other parent is Asian, and that I just inherited some really dominant genes. But living where I do, I’ve often been the only Asian in any given situation. I have this very distinct memory of these three girls on the playground singing a song: Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, what are these? For anyone who’s unaware of the dance moves that go along, you pull your eyes into little slits, first slanting up, then down, then you point at your knees, then to your chest (mimicking breasts). Nothing MTV-worthy, I can tell you that. I was old enough by that point to know something about racism, and I definitely said something to the effect of, you shouldn’t say that, that’s racist and hurts my feelings, I’m Asian. And they laughed and said, oh, but you’re not Asian, you’re Kira.

You’re not Asian, you’re Kira. How are you supposed to respond to that? It wasn’t like they were stupid; in fact, they’ve gone on to become a business student, a successful wedding photographer, and a model/social justice studies major. To this day, I have no idea what was going through their heads, whether being their “friend” exempt me from the harmful Asian stereotypes, or whether they just weren’t aware. But I remember thinking that it wasn’t so much that I was offended by the racism, it was that I felt like I should be offended. Because up until then, no one really mentioned my Asianness, or what it meant to be Asian—I was functionally, mentally white, but looking down at my tan skin, looking into the mirror at my eyes, wondering if they really were slitty, I wondered if that’s how everyone saw me.

Race is something you wear. Constantly. And it made me want to crawl out of my own skin. I desperately wanted to have the blue eyes, apple blossom skin, and curly hair that’s common in my family, but I didn’t know why. I just thought those traits were pretty. Growing up, I idolized strong female characters like Princess Leia, Elizabeth Swann, and later, I wanted to kick ass like Tris, Katniss, Clary, Annabeth…and it was only later that I realized the commonality: they were all white. I was surrounded by such a nonAsian environment, exposed to such nonAsian media and role models, I would learn the least about BIPOC history in class. My friends were white, my family was white, my world was white. I want to stress that my childhood was nothing less than idyllic, with only the normal hiccups that any anxious Gen Z kid could expect. But there was always this underlying, bubbling notion of difference in my brain. 

It really manifested when I entered high school. My middle school was diverse, sure, but not in the way of Asians. Come high school, I went to a prep school about forty minutes from my house – if you want to know how preppy, just imagine Vineyard Vines, pretty hockey boys with flowing hair that rivaled their blonde girlfriends’ and a nationally ranked squash team. There, for the first time, I was exposed to a greater population of Asians. 

Suddenly, I went from being the only Asian in any given room to taking classes with kids from Vietnam, China, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, India, Bhutan, Indonesia, and Japan. I was friendly with many of them, but there was always this sense that I wasn’t quite Asian enough. I couldn’t join in on their conversations in their native languages, I didn’t attend religious holidays with them; hell, I wasn’t a boarding or international student, so couldn’t access most of the programming designed for students of color. That, and I was absolutely obsessed with being a hockey jock on the whitest team ever.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that all the sports teams I was on were overwhelmingly white, but it wasn’t for any sinister reason. A lot of international students gravitated towards sports like tennis or swimming that were more popular/accessible in their home countries. There were definitely a few BIPOC players on my field and ice hockey teams, but quite minimally. So to be a varsity athlete was to fit into a crowd of primarily white kids. 

To be clear, my school was decently liberal (performative, but aren’t they all?) and any guff I got wasn’t race-related, it was more because I was a walk-on varsity player, and the “recruits” (kids who got scouted from public school to come specifically for sports) tended to get a little bit snooty about it, but it was more the micro stuff about the school that got to me. It was the way that they celebrated both Black and Hispanic Heritage month, but when I applied for event funding on Asian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I was told there was nothing in the budget. It was the way that we watched this awful movie called Indochine, and I had to explain why watching a (romantic!) film where the protagonist, a white rubber plantation owner who whipped Vietnamese with impunity, wasn’t at all helping my study of the French language. It was the way that the deputy headmistress once confused my Chinese-American friend for an international student, and then proceeded to confuse me for my friend and apologize to me for mixing them up in the first place. It was the way that an Asian friend of mine once laughed and said that I was the whitest Asian they’d ever met. 

This is all to say that in high school, I felt extremely cut off from both the Asian and White communities, despite having ties to both. I was always just trying my best to fit the preppy mold, which was overwhelmingly white adjacent.

While not optimal, the overall result was the prize. I didn’t experience overt racism or any lack of access, and I wouldn’t have ended up at Emerson if my film studies teacher (shoutout to Ed Hing!) hadn’t pushed me to pursue my filmmaking passion, and I wouldn’t be graduating a year early without all the APs I took, from a range of delightful teachers. 

But it meant that coming to college, I was a booksmart hockey jock with a lot of repressed Asian feelings. And in my first semester, I really was just focused on getting a boyfriend, not failing Dr. Schaefer’s History of Media Arts class, and meeting as many people as possible. It was so wonderful to be out of the preppy high school bubble, I failed to realize that I was stepping into a new bubble: The Emerson Bubble. Now, I want to preface this by saying that I love my friends. Really, I give so much credit to anyone who will put up with my goofy, ambitious, political, chaotic ass for more than a second, and race has no bearing on that. But from a purely demographic perspective, the majority of my first friends at Emerson were not Asian. And that’s totally fine. I thought nothing of it. To be honest, pre-pandemic, I wasn’t at all politically active or savvy, I never posted anything remotely resembling social justice works—it wasn’t particularly important or topical for me. But it took the pandemic to really kick me into gear.

The first shutdown had the delightful dichotomy of doing two things: reminding me of how the world really sees people of color, and introducing me to the world of K-Pop. It started out so slowly, so insidiously. If you remember, we called it the Wuhan Virus at first, ignorantly thinking that it was just a passing illness that wouldn’t spread beyond the province, lest the country. In retrospect, assigning actual geography like that is just inviting xenophobia. But then, as it began to spread out of China, into more of Asia and beyond, it started to feel less and less far away. At first, it was little incidents that not even the mainstream media picked up on. 

I remember being outraged that on the day an 89-year-old Chinese woman in Brooklyn was lit on fire, the day that a pregnant Asian woman was beaten by three men who shouted at her to go home, the top trending story was a buffalo attack in Kansas. Traditionally, for a number of reasons that really belong to another article, Asian American news has been a bit confined to specific news sites. I had just accepted it as par for the course, but this made me angry. As attacks mounted—as I felt scared to cough in front of strangers or walk alone, even in daylight, as people walked out of the coffee shop I worked at when they saw who was making their drinks, threw money onto the counter instead of touching my yellow hands, yelled at me to go home to my country—I realized for the first time what real race-related fear felt like.

I hate that it took that level of racism for me to really realize what my fellow Asians and BIPOC have been experiencing for years, but it reminded me of the elementary school bullies: growing up in such a sheltered, liberal, white bubble, I didn’t feel truly Asian until the world branded it on my body. My ignorance was in part situational, but I also fully acknowledge that I’d willfully kept myself in a feedback loop and sheltered myself from the most brutal and racially charged news. I’d like to think that nowadays my politics, my view of racial politics and social justice, have been shifted for the better, that the solidarity between Stop AAPI Hate, Black Lives Matter, and other anti-racist organizations will hold up, but in the context of this article, what the pandemic really did was make me feel, for the first time, like part of a community. 

Suddenly, I was fearful for not only my own body, but for those who looked like me, who came from the same continent. Suddenly, I wanted to speak to someone who understood how scared simply existing made me feel, how much words like chink hurt, on a personal level. When news of attacks came, we all hurt together. Sinophobic racists don’t stop to ask what kind of Asian you are.

Suddenly, that feeling of wanting to claw my way out of my own skin returned, but in a different way. I didn’t want to stop being Asian. Never once did pandemic-related racism make me wish to look any different. If anything, watching people talk about the Kung Flu, hearing the thinly-veiled anti-Asian rhetoric, joining more Asian-related orgs, made me feel more Asian. It made me want to dive deeper into what it meant to be Asian, and a great part of that was through the media.

I always have this joke that I’m an Internet Asian, that everything I’ve learned about bearing this label has come from the internet or my Asian friends. And I’m dead serious…how else was I supposed to learn? I suppose I could have pushed to travel more, or studied in Asia, but you have to understand, my parents aren’t Asian. I don’t have any blood relatives. There are few to no Vietnamese organizations or cultural centers in my hometown. There’s no reason that I should have grown up as anything other than your average upper middle class suburban hockey player. But, the outside world won’t let me forget that I am Asian. So I figured, time to embrace it.

The first K-Pop music video I saw was EXO’s Call Me Baby, when it first came out. I must’ve been in freshman year of high school, and I eagerly ran to my Asian friends, naively asking if they liked K-Pop. They all said that they found EXO kinda flower boy and poppy for their taste. Listen, if all your non-Asian friends don’t know about it, and all your Asian friends don’t like it, your fifteen-year-old insecure ass will drop it pretty fast. To me, it was just music in a language that I couldn’t understand, and had no one to fangirl with about. I moved on to the indie pop/EDM fusion that I still enjoy today, and that was that. I vaguely knew that BTS, Monsta X, and Blackpink were making waves in the global media space, but I wasn’t really concerned. At that point, I was focused on becoming a bonafide hockey jock. 

The second K-Pop music video I saw was WayV’s Love Talk, in the early spring of 2020. It was in my recommended feed, and I freely admit that I clicked on it because of the pretty boy thumbnail, but I was stunned. It was K-Pop…but in English? I had to investigate. And in my readings, I found out that in the years since I’d abandoned EXO, K-Pop fanship had grown tenfold. Now a billion dollar global industry, there were more groups than you could shake a stick at, and not only that, there were Asian American idols as well. 

Watching videos with not only legions of Asians, but also fellow Asian Americans like NCT’s Johnny Seo and Mark Lee (well, he’s Canadian, so perhaps I’ll say North-American), singing their hearts out in beautiful stage costumes and makeup on a global stage, I felt this swelling of pride in my chest. Asian media of any kind has always been viewed as niche in the American market, and to see that K-Pop was so big in so many countries was amazing. And while success in the global market is by no means a metric for real success and talent, it personally made me feel validated as an Asian. 

Growing up, I always felt like I wasn’t beautiful – that my eyes were too small, that my skin was too tan, that speaking in anything other than a carefully-curated American accent was going to make someone pop out of the bushes and scream YOU’RE DIFFERENT and somehow revoke all the Americanness I’d fought to gain. I felt like America had no interest in Asians or Asian culture, besides takeout and one really tall basketball player. And to the point of why #REPRESENTATIONMATTERS, the media never portrayed Asians as particularly interesting or valid or human really. They were a diversity hire if they were included at all. It didn’t make me feel particularly proud or validated. 

I can’t describe how it felt, to finally see people who looked like me being that talented, lighting up stages like Coachella that five, ten, years ago, had never been performed on by Asians. It made me feel seen. It made me feel like the world was finally seeing Asians for the beautiful, vibrant people that we are, instead of stereotypes, or a virus. 

As a side note, I know that K-Pop, the Korean and Asian entertainment and sociopolitical sphere is not all fun and games. Every country and industry has its own flaws and nuances. Asian fetishization and rose-colored glasses are very much a thing, and that there are plenty of issues that have come with Asians and Asian media being catapulted onto the global stage. I know that it’s kind of funny that I like K-Pop so much when I’m not Korean, but I also don’t think you need to be from a place to enjoy its art. And I will say, I think that V-Pop and Vietnamese TV are super cool and you can find both with a quick Google search, but the access is just not the same as East Asian media. 

But for me, the Asian music wave, along with the huge interest in Asian dramas, movies, food, fashion, while problematic if treated wrongly, has been amazing for showing off Asian pride and art to the world, and hopefully making countries like the USA really see just how many types of Asians there are that must be acknowledged and celebrated within our own borders. It’s the soft power model—snag them the bright and beautiful stuff, and then remind them that to be a minority isn’t just that.

It hurts me, that I know that I shouldn’t need that validation, that I should know that we Asians are kickass and cool, and always have been, but that’s the thing, with being a Bad Asian. Despite now having this world of Asian-centric media, of having become more comfortable in my own skin and making friends who are Asian, I still forget that I’m Asian, sometimes. I forget that there’s all this history and context and other world that comes with being me, I forget that as a POC in a place of privilege, I want to be be doing my part to help not only my fellow Asians, but also working together with other groups, both marginalized and within the dominant ideology, to affect real change. 

For me, I’m a Bad Asian when I forget, when I for a second wish that I wasn’t who I am, when I allow myself to feel guilty about my cultural disconnect. When I feel bad that I have a white family that I love very much, that I grew up as one of the only Asians in my suburban town. I’m Asian. I’m American. I say I’m a Bad Asian because I’ve had to learn what it means to be Asian, and I’m still learning. But as the spiky-haired, grinning orphan baby with nothing more than a name and one life to live, I’m going to try my best.

Kira T. Bixby

Emerson '22

Similar Reads👯‍♀️