Being a “hyphen”

Jen Xu
6 min readSep 27, 2017

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about family and what it means to be Asian-American, for me. It’s different for everyone, sure. It depends on where you’re from in Asia, where you live in the USA, who you surround yourself with (ex. plenty of Asian friends vs. very few), what kind of parents you have, etc.

First of all, it’s really important to me, because if my parents hadn’t moved to the States before I was born…I wouldn’t be here because of the one child policy. I remember this pretty often, not to make myself sad although it sometimes can, but to remind myself of how lucky I am, and of how hard my parents have worked to support me, whether financially or emotionally, or in any other way. Also, I find that my parents are not your “typical” Chinese parents, they’re definitely much more understanding and patient with us than my friends’ parents, at least from what I saw in high school, and that’s definitely been a huge influence on my life — it’s allowed me to be more independent and pursue a career that may be difficult, but extremely rewarding because I’m 110% doing what I want.

Family is super important to me because I actually have very little over here. My entire extended family is in China, and I see them about once every 3 years. In fact, the last time I’ve seen any of my grandparents, uncles, aunts or cousins (of which I have very few anyway), was probably summer 2010. It’s not that I don’t want to see them, but I have a huge phobia of China’s pollution (I coughed for 3 straight weeks last time I was there), and I’m just…scared. I’m a bit scared to get close to my extended relatives only to possibly lose them.

So my family hasn’t been just my blood relatives, it’s been my dad, mom, 2 sisters…and friends. And I think that’s how it is for a lot of first-generation Asian-Americans (even though I was born here, I consider myself first-generation because my parents moved here after college/a few years in China). It’s been frustrating when friends or just general people around me complain about going to their grandma’s, seeing cousins, hearing war stories from an uncle (although this has happened to me before), etc. because they truly are so lucky to be close to their extended relatives, and it makes me a bit sad.

Not that I’m not lucky. I am actually beyond blessed to have what I do have. I have such courageous parents who gave up a lot so my sisters and I could have opportunities. I have two amazing sisters who can be really annoying, but are really inspiring and fun and special. I have some really great friends, and I struggle with this from time to time, but they’re all extremely supportive of me and always just want me to do well. I have an incredible job right now, and I am really excited about my career opportunities and all the things I’m going to encounter in life. I just know there are a lot of different things in the future I’m going to pursue because of what I feel like I have missed out on. And not because I regret anything, but because I would like to experience incredible things in life.

I was just thinking about this earlier today, because I have a few friends who have recently had to go to funerals for family members. I have never been to a funeral. I’ve never had to lose someone special to me yet, which of course is extremely nice, but it just makes me think about how different our lives are. Of course, there are people like me all over the country, but I haven’t really talked about this much with others. I’ll be honest, at this point I have very few Asian friends left…and it’s been frustrating me because the thoughts are all stuck in my head. I want to talk about the frustrations of being an Asian woman (and I want to talk to other POC about their frustrations too), but also rejoice in the incredible-ness that is having 2 cultures. I want to talk about how maybe being Asian and being in an Asian community growing up shaped me to be the way I am today, and maybe explains a little about my tendencies/personality traits. This is definitely something to think about in the future.

But here’s what I do have to say right now — being a hyphen means that you have a really unique voice to speak out against discrimination and encourage diversity. I don’t go into work everyday preaching about diversity, because that would be unprofessional and annoying, but I’m showing people that a lot is possible if you’re passionate, humble, and hardworking. Yes, you have to do more than just be there, but I’m just starting out in this career path so there’s a lot I haven’t experienced. I did know someone who was doing diversity research on various athletic administrations (in sex/race), and it was really eye-opening. Twice, I saw a female Asian ref at a USL (2nd-tier professional soccer) match — the same one. And I didn’t want to say anything when I walked by her in the tunnel, but I remember her saying “good job tonight!”, and I feel like we had this connection of, “hey, you’re doing something awesome, keep it up”. Sometimes it feels like such a small thing, to celebrate other Asians making it in an “untraditional” job (by this, I mean ones that are sometimes looked down upon because it’s not science or medicine), but every little bit counts.

There’s a part of me that’s always going to want to prove people wrong because I know a lot of people view Asians a certain way and I hate that. But in the end, a lot of these things don’t matter, and a lot of this need to prove others wrong is more selfish than anything (because it just makes me look good, and it allows me to disassociate myself from other Asians, but isn’t that just me saying other Asians are bad? Essentially, yes. But that’s not what I want anymore — I want real change). Like, how people view Asians as bad drivers or think that they should be good at math? I mean really, this kind of stuff really doesn’t matter. What matters are the real issues (obviously deciding what the “real issues” are is a matter of opinion, but this is what I think) — like that one Asian kid who was shot 2x in the back because someone thought he was holding a weapon…but it was a pen. Or the Asian store owners being attacked (although the dude who fought back with a bamboo cane is a badass). Or the lack of Asians in Hollywood (but this is really slowly changing and I’m excited to see what we can do).

I mean, I’m still going to be annoyed when someone yells “chink” out the window of a car and laughs about it (happened to someone I know recently), because these small microaggressions can lead to a bigger belief system… As someone who used to become furious when non-Asians would make stupid, stereotypical remarks— it’s ok, but it’s not enough to just be angry, you have to do something about it. Speak some wisdom into someone’s mind, rather than just screaming at them or not saying anything at all (which I have unfortunately done), because it shows a lot about you when you’re able to respond to that sort of hate (or what may just be utter cluelessness) with confidence and peace.

I have to remind myself that anyone can be racist/discriminatory, for example, it’s been absolutely mind-blowing seeing Asian people buy into the white supremacist ideal. (Being from Pennsylvania, there is definitely an interesting dynamic between the major cities and the entire rest of the state in terms of beliefs/values. I went just 20 minutes outside of Pittsburgh and experienced things I did not expect from being that close to a somewhat diverse city). I see a lot of bad things that Asian people are doing, but I’m also reminded by how many people just want to see justice in this world.

There’s a lot to sift through when you feel like you have two very distinct cultures pulling you in different directions. But I think it’s always a good thing to remember where you come from, what you’ve been through in life, and how your past can dictate your future (but by no means locks you into anything) — this just helps you understand yourself better so that you can explain what being a “hyphen” means to others.



Jen Xu

Athletic trainer, PhD student, coffee lover. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.