Balancing Act: The Identity Crisis of Young Asian-Americans

Should one assimilate or preserve their heritage?

It’s a question many young Asian-Americans are asking themselves. Young Asian-Americans today face an identity crisis: they feel pressure to both embrace American culture and maintain their ethnic heritage and traditions of their parents. So what’s the answer? It depends on who you ask.

According to MU student enrollment data, there were 779 Asian-American students attending the university in 2015, not including students of mixed race. Though the group may seem small, just 2.2% of the total student population, the diversity within it is vast. The spectrum ranges from those who can speak the language of their ethnic background to those who were adopted by an American family from birth. And each person has a different view of Asian-American identity.

In an exploration of this balancing act young Asian-Americans face, three MU students recount their experiences.

 

Holding onto Heritage

Huong Truong, 20

Ethnicity: Vietnamese-/Chinese-American

Major: Photojournalism

Minor: Business

Hometown: Oklahoma City, OK

Huong Truong can make anyone smile. Her amiable personality is a ray of sunshine that lights up a room and puts others at ease. But she’s tough. A busy, blunt, no-bullshit type, Huong walks and talks with a purpose. Rarely a minute goes by without her phone screen lighting up, showcasing the never-ending stream of notifications flowing in. Her thoughtful and eloquent way of speaking reveals she is wise beyond her years.

Although she was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Huong didn’t speak a word of English until she was five years old. The child of Vietnamese immigrants, she spoke nothing but her parents’ native language.

Huong’s parents, Nghia Truong and To Le, moved to the U.S. to gain a better life for themselves and their children. But even in a westernized society, they made sure that their children understood their culture and heritage.

“They did their best to ensure that we were well-educated, that we had respect for where we came from and that we were thankful for who we are,” Huong says. “Every week, they would remind us why we came to America.”

Huong grew up immersed in a large Asian community. She and her family attended a Buddhist temple every Sunday, where she learned how to speak, read and write in Vietnamese and the history, geography and culture of Vietnam. Huong says the temple taught more about her religion and how to be a leader.

The temple’s role in Huong’s life became increasingly important as she got older. From fifth grade to junior high, Huong was frequently teased. At school, kids would yell racial slurs at her and make fun of her parents, who didn’t speak much English. The temple became a safe haven where Huong could go to be surrounded by people who understood her.

“At first I was ashamed,” she says. “You know, when you grow up in a predominantly white society in a predominantly white area of town, you’re ashamed of who you are. You want to be popular, and you want to be like the other kids. As I got older, though, I was involved in youth group, and I had a really good support system at home when it comes to my culture. I learned to accept who I was and just grew into it.”

But the temple also created problems for Huong’s family. Her parents were heavily involved in the temple community, which Huong says often took time away from being with their kids and created drama within the family. And when Huong announced that she was going to attend MU as a photojournalism major, members of the temple were less than supportive.

“I had plenty of the elders tell me that I was throwing away my potential and that they expected more from me,” she says.

Her parents weren’t pleased either. She finally worked up the courage to tell them she didn’t want to be a doctor one day while they were driving together in a car. Looking back, Huong says with a laugh that a moving vehicle wasn’t an ideal location to break the news. Her parents yelled at her and questioned how she would make enough money to support herself.

“Since day one, there’s always been that pressure to do well, to excel everything that you do, to meet their expectations,” Huong says. “It was always ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer’ or ‘business.’ I didn’t really have any other choices. There’s not a word in Vietnamese for journalism.”

Despite her parents’ reaction, Huong continued to pursue her passion and planned around her parents. Though they still had doubts, Huong’s parents eventually came around, knowing that she would do what she wanted with or without their support.

So Huong and her family packed up her things into her silver Acura and drove seven hours from Oklahoma City to Columbia. No longer surrounded by her close-knit Asian community, however, Huong felt intimidated.

“There was no one that looked like me,” she says. “I didn’t know where I could go to find people that could understand my background. The more I thought about it, the more afraid I got.”

Eventually, Huong found them. She joined the Asian American Association, a campus organization that seeks to spread awareness and understanding of Asian Pacific Islander culture and history. They opened their arms to her, and Huong felt truly at home for the first time at MU.

Not long after, she decided to join Alpha Phi Gamma, an Asian sorority on campus. After an intense rush process, she and her line were initiated into the sorority and found their new group of sisters.

“I was really missing a sense of family in my life,” Huong says. “Knowing that [my sisters] are just as passionate about their culture as I am about mine makes me so happy because they get it. They get how important culture is. They get the pressure of parents and doing well.”

But even with a supportive Asian community, Huong says she and her peers still face racism on campus.

“Racial tensions are higher and higher every day,” Huong says. “People look at you differently if you’re not white. People see you differently. They assume you don’t speak English. They assume that you’re quiet, that you don’t matter, that you’re a second-class citizen.”

She used to stay quiet and brush things off as a child, but now Huong isn’t afraid to correct people who make rude comments.

“People won’t understand you until you educate them,” Huong says. “So that’s kind of my goal and my aim.”

--

As an Asian-American living in Missouri, Huong says it can be difficult to try and hold on to her Vietnamese roots. She no longer has access to a Buddhist temple or traditional Vietnamese food, and she doesn’t speak Vietnamese every day like she used to.

One of her biggest fears is that her children won’t retain the culture and language she grew up learning because she can’t retain it herself. So to try and hold on to her roots, Huong listens to Vietnamese music, speaks to herself in Vietnamese and calls home to talk to her parents in their native tongue. She also visits the temple at least once every time she visits home. And she remains extremely grateful that she has roots to hold onto in the first place.

“Some people, where they grew up and where they live, they don’t have the resources to learn their native language or their culture,” Huong says. “It’s harder for them to fit in in American society, and it’s harder for them to fit in in the Asian community because they feel as if they missed a huge piece of what they should have known. I was one of the lucky ones who was able to learn about my culture, speak [the language] and be educated about who my people are and where I come from. It’s one of those things that people take for granted quite often.”

 

Toeing the Line

Jenny Lam, 19

Ethnicity: Chinese-American

Major: Mechanical and aerospace engineering

Hometown: Quincy, IL

Sitting across from Jenny Lam, one can tell that she is a serious young woman. She thinks before she speaks, and she never says too much. Her thin, rectangular glasses represent her pensive nature. She is reserved in a way that hints at a deeper form of intelligence.

Like many young Asian-Americans, Jenny is a second-generation American. Her parents, both from China, moved to the U.S. 30 years ago to give their children a better life. It’s a common narrative but one Jenny doesn’t know much about. She says her parents don’t talk about China often.

Jenny grew up in a city called Quincy, Illinois, where her parents moved to take over her uncle’s Chinese restaurant. Asians make up less than 1 percent of Quincy’s total population, so despite her parents’ best efforts, Jenny says it was hard for her and her siblings to connect to their heritage in such a white-dominated area.

“We weren’t anywhere near China, so we didn’t see a reason to understand our culture,” she says. “We thought, ‘We’re in America, [so we] might as well assimilate.’”

Their children’s refusal to learn about their roots infuriated Jenny’s parents, but eventually they stopped trying to push Chinese culture on them. After multiple instances of racism toward the family, it made that decision easier.

Ten years ago, Jenny and her family were on their way to their first 4th of July fireworks celebration on the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, they never made it to their destination.

“We got cursed out a lot, and we were told to go back to our own country,” Jenny says. “These guys in a pickup truck passed by us and threw things at us and spit at us and yelled things like ‘ching, ching, chong’ at us while we were just walking. We didn’t even get to sit down to see the fireworks. My parents were very upset, and we all left immediately. So we don’t do that anymore.”

After the incident, Jenny’s parents told her and her siblings not to tell people that they were Chinese and that their parents were from China. They feared that people would see them as foreigners and “hate” them.

“Because of that, I really didn’t talk much about being Chinese or my home life at school or to friends because everyone else wouldn’t understand,” Jenny says. “They were all white.”

Jenny’s parents followed suit.

“They kind of just didn’t bring up China anymore,” Jenny says. “They don’t talk about China as much, and they don’t talk about our family in China as much. But they still haven’t completely assimilated. They haven’t completely learned the language, and they don’t make friends in Quincy. They’re very closed off from everybody else.”

Despite staying quiet about her heritage, Jenny still faced discrimination from peers. As one of only two Asians in her grade, she was teased for the way she looked, and her friends often joked about how she was good at math and bad at driving.

Even though Jenny laughed it off at school, living up to the model minority stereotype was expected at home. She got good grades, which pleased her parents, but they didn’t always support Jenny’s choices.

“They didn’t approve of me being in extracurricular activities, thinking it would take away from my studies,” Jenny says. “I was in math team, and they said that was going to take away from my studies. I stayed after school for hours to take extra tests and learn extra math!”

Nor did they approve of her career choice. When Jenny told her parents she wanted to be an engineer, they told her to be a lawyer or a doctor. And when she decided to go to MU, they asked her why she wasn’t trying to go to a better school such as Harvard or Yale.

But Jenny had her reasons. In addition to being a short two-hour drive away from Quincy, MU had another draw: the Asian American Association. After reading about it online, she immediately got involved with AAA once she got to campus and attended their first event of the year. She then decided to apply for an executive board position and became the co-programming chair of the organization as a freshman.

Now in her sophomore year, Jenny is also involved with the Filipino American Student Association. Although she is not Filipino herself, Jenny says she took a liking to the organization because of its familial vibe, and she’s interested in learning more about their culture. She’s also a member of the Missouri International Student Council and Four Front Council.

With her newfound community, Jenny hopes to use her own privileges within the minority population for good.

“Because I’m a person of color, I’m definitely going to be more aware of what privileges I have as an Asian person,” Jenny says. “Asians are considered honorary white people. They have an honorary white status, at least East Asians typically do. [So I want to] use my privilege to help others.”

 

Paving a New Path

Waverly Colville, 20

Ethnicity: Chinese-American

Major: International studies with an emphasis in peace studies

Hometown: Orchard Park, NY

Waverly Colville doesn’t know her real birthday. Found abandoned in a train station in Wuhan, China on March 29, 1996, she was taken to an orphanage, where they estimated her to be about 3 weeks old. The orphanage named her Huang Fuhui, and she lived in a crib with another baby for six months. Then, on Sept. 3, 1996, everything changed.

Karen and Warren Colville, a couple from Orchard Park, New York, were struggling to get pregnant. When natural birth no longer seemed to be an option, they started looking into domestic adoption. Then one day, Karen was on an airplane when she saw a white couple with an Asian baby. Taking it as a sign, Karen and Warren decided to start exploring the idea of adopting a baby from China. Two years and countless background checks, forms and home visits later, they got the news that a baby girl named Huang was theirs.

A town of about 29,000 people, Orchard Park is predominantly white—96.7 percent white, to be exact. Waverly says out of her entire high school population of about 2,000 people, there were four or five Asians. All of which, she adds, were either adopted by white families or half white-half Asian.

“Being raised in a white family and having pretty much only white friends, I kind of grew up thinking I was white,” Waverly says. “I never realized I was a different race… it didn’t really hit me until I was much older.

“In my heart, I was always Polish and Irish because that’s what my family was.”

Despite her parents’ lack of knowledge about Chinese culture, Waverly says they always wanted her and her younger sister, Porscha, who was also adopted from China, to be proud of the fact that they were Chinese. Warren took off work every Saturday to take the girls to museums and show them different Asian exhibits that came to town. Waverly’s childhood bedroom was Mulan-themed, and her parents hired a painter to cover the walls of Porscha’s bedroom in Chinese paintings. For school projects, they encouraged Waverly and Porscha to choose topics related to China.

Still, Waverly didn’t see herself as separate from anyone else. It wasn’t until the “awkward” middle school years that Waverly realized she was different.

“Around boys, I would second-guess myself,” she says. “I would be like, ‘Oh, maybe they don’t like me because I’m Asian, or maybe they like me only because I’m Asian.”

Though Waverly was aware of her differences, she says people around her didn’t seem to notice. She never experienced any form of racism or discrimination, and her parents always told her to proud of her heritage.

“In Orchard Park, everyone was born and raised in Orchard Park, and their parents were born and raised in Orchard Park. For me, it’s like, ‘Oh, I was born all the way across the world. That makes different, that makes me cool.’ It was never something I saw as a negative thing.”

When Waverly came to MU her freshman year, she decided to take Mandarin in order to learn more about China. She then studied abroad in China the summer after. It was the first time she had returned since she was a baby.

“It was an incredible experience, especially being someone who was adopted from China but raised American,” Waverly says. “Seeing how people saw me was really interesting.”

Waverly says that because China was isolated for so long, the older generation isn’t very aware that Chinese-Americans exist. When older folks started speaking Chinese to Waverly, they would get confused when she told them she was American and didn’t speak much Chinese. “It was like seeing a unicorn to them,” she says.

The younger generation also took interest in Waverly, but for a different reason.

“They’re obsessed with American culture, so when they found out, ‘Oh, this Chinese girl, she’s American,’ they all thought I was really cool.”

In addition to taking Mandarin and studying abroad in China, Waverly is the social media and outreach chair of the Asian-American Journalists Association. She also attended a few Asian American Association meetings during her first semester on campus, but she felt as though she didn’t quite fit in.

“They talked a lot about race,” Waverly says. “I feel like I can’t really relate to it on the same level as people who were raised in an Asian family can because I never really experienced targeted racism towards myself… I can empathize, but I can’t say I directly can relate to that. It’d be fake if I did because I haven’t had that experience, and I’m lucky I haven’t had that experience of racism.”

Though petite, Waverly packs a punch. With a bubbly, outspoken personality, strong opinions and a laugh that can be heard a mile away, Waverly doesn’t feel she fits the typical Asian stereotype of being quiet and reserved. With no pressure to act a certain way, she sees her race as just one aspect of her identity.

“It’s just who I am,” she says. “I’m not better than anyone else because of it, and I’m not worse than anyone else because of it. It’s not like it’s a trophy that I show off to people. This is me. Is it good? Is it bad? It’s neither. It’s just me.”

Looking toward the future, Waverly hopes to come full circle.

“If I end up having kids, I definitely want to look into adoption in China because I was adopted and given this wonderful life versus someone who wasn’t and grew up in an orphanage with nothing,” she says. “I feel the need to pay it forward, and I feel like a really good way to do that is to adopt a child from China and hopefully give someone the opportunities that I was given. It’s a small impact on the world, but it could have a meaningful impact to one person in the long run.”