Growing Up Asian in North America

As an individual who finally got over the majority of her insecurities and doubts pertaining to herself as a person, I absolutely adore this quote: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” –Oscar Wilde. But, had you shared this quote with my ten year old self, I would have disagreed with you.

Isn’t it funny how quickly our views and opinions about life change over a short period of time? Who we were and who we are now could not be any more different; and thank goodness for that.      

In elementary school (Junior Kindergarten-Grade 5), being different was frowned upon—at least at my school. We were “multicultural” and “inclusive” of everyone but frankly, teachers did not like students who were different. If you did not celebrate a North American holiday, you were treated differently. If you brought an exotic dish and the aroma filled the entire classroom, teachers would ask that you eat outside.

You might think I'm kidding, but that was my childhood. Ironically, the area in which I grew up in my hometown was very diverse in terms of ethnic and racial backgrounds. While it was still predominantly white, there were a lot of people of colour; I had more non-white friends than white friends growing up. Still, I was one of the very few Asians in my entire school. It was not until high school when I learned that my city had quite a large population of Asians.

Despite growing up in a relatively "multicultural" area, I faced discrimination on occasion. By no means was it as bad as what some of my peers had to face, but to a young and optimistic child, the rare experiences significantly impacted me in a negative way. It has shaped the way I view the world and how I process social interactions. At a young age, I learned that being different was a bad thing.

Now, I have come to love myself and the characteristics that set me apart from others. It is not easy growing up as a minority; life is not as fair or as easy in comparison to those of European descent. Some may disagree with me but I believe that this is real. Why? Because I witness it happening every day. It happened when I was much younger and unaware, and it still does to this day.

With that in mind, here are some things that many 1st generation Asians go through while living in North American society (by 1st gen. I mean those of us who were born in Asia and grew up with non-English speaking immigrant Asian parents in North America).

Asians are Smart


“Math is easy for you because you are Asian.”

In middle school, I was one of the top students in my grade. I was good with numbers; I was excellent with problem solving. Before that however, I was terrible at math. Absolutely terrible. My lovely parents purchased an endless supply of MathSmart workbooks every year since I was in grade 1 so that I could excel in at least one subject. I was that child; the one who came home from school and studied. I hated it, but the school year was always better than summer vacation because the summer meant long hours of sitting in the library with my father and finishing two chapters of MathSmart (while sobbing over how miserable my life was). This lasted until I entered high school.

This was one of the reasons why I hated it when my peers linked my race with intellect. I was not good with numbers because of my skin tone and ethnic background. I was good at math because I worked super hard during the early years of grade school while the other kids were playing in the playground. It's hardly fair to people of other backgrounds who are intelligent - are they inferior because they supposedly lack the natural background to studying that being Asian provides? Are they under any less stress from overbearing parents? 

It is true that Asian parents are strict with education and their children’s studies; however, this is usually the case because they are aware of how unfair life can be. They are aware of how being a part of the minority can limit our chances at success. My father always used to say, “You are not white, and because you are not, you have to work twice as hard as your white peers.”

Physical Appearance and Yellow Fever

Humans are visual creatures. So naturally, the first thing we notice on others are their physical appearance. Add in the fact that you have a different skin tone and different physical features from a white male and female, and you have yourself an “exotic” individual.

Fortunately, I was never teased in a cruel manner for my facial features: slanted and smaller eyes, unstructured and flat face. But I was teased for having a smaller chest, particularly because of the stereotype that Asian women are more flat-chested than any other ethnic group of women. The topic of bras, cup sizes and breasts were always a touchy subject for me as a teenager. It was not until university when I stopped caring about having an average breast size. Snarky remarks about stereotypical Asian features stopped bothering me because again, I stopped caring.

“You have small eyes.” My response? “Okay. And?”

Now, if you are an Asian woman, I suspect that at some point in your life, you have come across a man, white or of colour, who was interested in you solely because you are Asian.

The struggle of being an Asian woman in North America or perhaps anywhere in the world, is that there is this social phenomenon known as the “Yellow Fever” or “Asian Fetish".

No, it is not a racial preference; it is a fetish. If I am at a party or social gathering, and a man comes up to me and blatantly states, “I love Asian women”, I run for the hills. There is not a single social setting that requires you to state your attraction to Asian women and/or men as soon as you meet an individual of Asian descent. Not ever. The reason I despise people who have “yellow fever” is because these individuals do not care about the person you are but rather your skin tone and cultural difference. They are interested in the fact that you are Asian and nothing else. It is a fetish, not a racial preference.

Being different is not always easy but in many ways, the unfortunate circumstances that arise from it will shape you into becoming a stronger, better individual. Our experiences are what make us who we are today. We make certain choices based on our past. It is hard to feel like you belong when you look different, but at the end of the day, you have to remind yourself of all the reasons why you are proud of being Asian.

Because let’s be honest, non-Asians haven't got anything on our boba and sushi.  

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