Growing up Asian

It was hard growing up and not seeing anyone who looked like me. In my elementary class, I was one of two Asian students. My life was influenced by my race in both good and bad ways, especially my childhood.


Back in grade school, I didn’t really see race. I mean this in a way where I didn’t see myself as Asian. I was constantly surrounded by white children, so I saw myself the same. Every day I went to school wishing I had blonde hair and blue eyes so that I could fit in better with my peers. In reality, I stuck out like a sore thumb from the rest of the students in my grade. Whenever I brought lunch from home I was always asked what I had to eat and why it smelled so weird. I dreamed of nothing more than for my mom to pack me a plain PB&J instead of our “ethnic” food. Eventually, it got to the point where I started refusing to take my packed home lunch to school so that I could buy school food instead. It may seem that switching what I ate for lunch was a small change, but looking back at it now it was the first step in me forgetting my roots. “Fitting in” made me so happy and honestly I wanted nothing to do with my race back then.


Flash forward to middle school, my class was definitely more diverse. I made a lot of friends, but I had a considerable amount of Asian friends. That’s when people started pinning us as the “Asian group”. My friends and I were who you went to if you needed help with math or science homework. I had never felt so marginalized in my life. People weren’t seeing me for me, they were only seeing me as the race that I was. My friends and I were constantly being called each other’s’ names by our classmates, our teachers, and even the administration. These were the years where I absolutely hated my race and wanted to go change everything that people thought about me.



I started coming to school with Starbucks, wearing Pink yoga pants, and I even got my first pair of Uggs. I did anything I could to fit in, which came at the expense of my cultural identity. I stopped speaking my native language, Korean, around the house. I stopped listening to Kpop and watching Kdramas with my family. Honestly, I did everything I could to separate myself from the life I had with my family.



It all started with rejecting Korean food, but soon enough I had forgotten everything about my identity. By the time I graduated from middle school, I had forgotten the majority of my Korean except for a few basic words like mom or dad. I felt as if I had erased any existence of my race and where I came from. The worst part was that I was proud and happy about what I’d done. I finally felt like people saw me for me and not for my race. I finally fit in.


It wasn’t until high school where I realized the extent of the choice that I made. Whenever I went to family events I wasn’t able to talk to my older family members, who only knew limited English. I didn’t want to try any of the Korean food my family had made. When I looked in the mirror I didn’t know who I was. I saw my small eyes and black hair, but I didn’t see myself as Asian. That terrified me. I had spent so long trying to mask my race and hide who I was from those around me that even I had forgotten who I was. I spent so long trying to be white that I didn’t know how to be anything else.


It was around my sophomore year where I started to embrace my race. I was comfortable with eating my “ethnic” food in the cafeteria. I embraced the fact that I was good at math and that people asked me for help. I started getting into Kpop again. I hung out with my family a lot more and even asked to go to a weekend Korean school so that I could relearn everything that I had forgotten.


Entering college did a great deal for my self-esteem, confidence, and identity. I joined many cultural organizations on campus, including the Filipino-American Student Association (FASA) and the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA). I surrounded myself with people who looked like me and understood my struggles of growing up Asian in America. Through these organizations, I was able to become friends with people who supported me being whoever I wanted to be. They saw me for each part of my identity and showed me that the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.



I am very fortunate to live the life that I have. I am lucky to have such amazing friends and family members. There is never a time now where I feel unsupported or unheard. For the first time in my life, I feel comfortable in my skin. I love my identity and who I’ve become. Being Korean is freaking awesome and I am so happy to live the life that I do now. Embrace your identity because it’s what makes you, you!


All images courtesy of the author.