HOW I LEARNED TO CLAIM MY ASIAN AMERICAN IDENTITY
Happy Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month! I feel so blessed to be part of such a diverse community and am so pumped to celebrate it with you guys all month!
In case you didn’t know, I’m Taiwanese American. My mother made the decision to upend her life and immigrate to America when she married my dad. I’ve been blessed to grow up in a household full of Taiwanese culture made possible by a mother who has remained proud of her country to this day. Honestly, she thinks America is a bust and the only thing she likes about us is Auntie Anne’s.
My Taiwanese heritage is something I always struggled to appreciate and claim. As a child, my mom packed me 鍋貼 (dumplings) and other Asian food for lunch. I can’t even count the amount of strange looks and questions I received. Even when people were saying how much they loved dumplings, all I could feel was how “different” I was.
I started asking her to pack me sandwiches. She somehow managed to make the most depressing sandwiches I’d ever seen (two slices of bread with barely any peanut butter between them that never failed to get smushed by the time lunch rolled around), but it was better than dealing with everyone’s comments and stares. Lil Annabelle just wanted to eat her food in peace, man!
I grew up attending Chinese school every Sunday while my friends were out having fun. I resented it and threw tantrums when speech contest time rolled around. My mother would have me run through my speech constantly, working on my pronunciation and making sure I had it memorized. I just wanted to watch TV.
When I turned 10, I joined a Chinese Folk Dance Troupe at the Chinese community center. By the time I was 15, it had turned into Asian dance moms and even I had beef with one of the other TAs. Even so, these were the years during which I started to feel proud of my heritage. Dancing made me feel beautiful and strong. In bringing our dances to so many different events (I even performed in the Macy’s parade when I was in 7th grade), I became proud of the culture I was representing.
Looking back, though, I had a terribly warped sense of pride regarding my heritage. In middle school, there were extremely few Asian Americans at my school. However, nearly all of us were in the same honors classes. The model minority myth weighed on us heavily, but we embraced it.
My first ever boyfriend employed racist tropes about Asians, using a racist Chinese accent to make fun of Chinese people for cheap laughs. Oftentimes, we would count the amount of Asians in the room. I would pop in with, “Don’t forget half!”
Looking back, we were all desperate for acceptance. We played into racist stereotypes in order to feel liked. Sure, I had become proud of my heritage, but that pride revolved around a warped sense of the kind of Asian I had to be in order to be accepted.
Then I got to college. The first boy I went on a few dates with was a senior. He told me that if he had sex with me, he could check Asian off his list. I was 17 and excited that an older guy was interested in me. I had self esteem issues galore and didn’t yet know how I deserved to be treated. I had sex with him.
I wizened up a few months later and realized he was a terrible guy going nowhere with his life. I still didn’t realize how terrible it was that he had made such a terrible comment about my race, but at least I wasn’t with him anymore.
By my junior year of college, I realized what was going on. After receiving loads of messages on Tinder including “an Asian girl is at the top of my fuckit list” and “I’ve always wanted to get with an Asian girl” (these are almost exact quotes, by the way), I put my finger on it and called it what it was: fetishization. I even wrote a blog post about dealing with fetishization that went viral on Reddit’s r/hapa thread. They ripped me to shreds, but that’s a story for another time.
It was a new struggle very different from feeling embarrassed by my 鍋貼 (dumplings). I’ve since learned how to tell when a guy is fetishizing me, rather than seeing me as a whole person. I’m happily dating someone who’s probably one of 10 white guys on this planet who have the ability to see me that way.
I’ve introduced him to some of my favorite Asian dishes, including 麻婆豆腐 (Mapo tofu)，四季豆 (my translation app is telling me to translate this as kidney beans but you should probably google it), and more. I had him attend the Taiwanese American Student Association Lunar New Year celebration with me and he was wildly out of place, but he had a good time. I think.
It took a hot minute, but I’ve gotten to a place where my culture excites me to the point of wanting to share it with people. I love celebrating Chinese New Year and half my diet is made up of all the Szechuan places around State College, as they carry so many of my favorite childhood dishes.
I’m excited to pass this down to my future children and take them on trips to Taiwan, just as my mother did for myself and my sisters. In fact, we’re going back this summer and I can’t wait to take photos and share this beautiful country with you soon.
All right, friends! Thanks so much for reading. If you’ve made it this far, drop me a comment and tell me about your own heritage! Do you have any childhood memories associated with it? I’d love to hear some stories.
annabelle // @a_nnabae