What does being Asian American mean to me?

It means not having seen classic American movies growing up because my parents didn’t, so by nature, I didn’t.
It means not having listened to all the music my friends grew up listening to. 90s hip-hop, The Beatles, rock and roll, all that jazz (well, not jazz).
It means growing up without hosting Super Bowl parties. Or going to any. Or going to professional sporting events (I didn’t do this until I was 19).
It means growing up without knowing your neighbors very well.
It means that people ridicule you for not knowing these things — it’s usually all in good fun, but you always get that pang of guilt and embarrassment and shame.

It doesn’t mean I couldn’t have chosen these things on my own. And it doesn’t mean everyone’s had the same experience as me, these moments just stick out to me — I’ve heard countless stories of people experiencing everything I just listed as a kid. But if my time living in different ares of the US has taught me anything, it’s that your environment matters a lot, I’m 100% sure there are Asian people who have experienced all of these things. But not being exposed to these things because of my environment (my family) meant that I didn’t have them on my mind, I was less likely to want to learn about them, and I just ended up with different priorities. At this age, I already know I’m a chronic non-movie-watcher. Plus I like my EDM, my electronic indie stuff, my screamo.

It means being embarrassed that the neighborhood kids see your badass grandpa doing tai-chi on the driveway on the walk home from the bus stop, and they laugh at him. So you quietly, shamefully ask your mom to ask him to stop, and he does. Years later, you wish you had joined him on the driveway and just not cared what those kids thought.
It means worrying your 8-year-old self sick that your grandpa crosses a busy street with no crosswalk by himself, buys milk at the grocery store, with the complete inability to speak English. Years later, you still worry, but this time, you just worry about your parents, who can speak English perfectly fine, but you still feel unsettled.
It means being embarrassed when your parents speak to you in Chinese in public, so you beg them to stop. And years later, you wish you had never done that.

It means growing up and realizing that you spent years hating yourself because you never thought you were good enough to even be Asian.
It means pushing those emotions deep down and pretending you didn’t care about imperfect grades, or mediocre colleges that were never mediocre to begin with, or being different…aka worse than everyone else, in your own eyes.
It means pretending that you like being unique because it’s not like you’d fit in anyway, so you might as well embrace it.
It means constantly learning to compare yourself with other people.

It means being around the toxic, competitive, tiger-(Mom)like environment that supposedly breeds geniuses, future doctors, and millionaires…but actually leads to poorly-adjusted and confused adults.
It means thinking you escaped that world because your parents didn’t put pressure on you the way other parents did, so you applied the pressure to yourself instead.
It means other Asian parents (and at times, even your own) being horrified when they learn what an athletic trainer is, then breathing a sigh of relief when you tell them you’ll go to PT school, so you’ll be a doctor, it’s fine.

It means second-guessing the reason that every guy wants to date you. Are you fulfilling a fantasy? Are you just a fetish? Do they even see that you’re more than just Asian? But that you are also so proud of it? For some reason, it feels like you can’t have both — it feels like your Asian-ness infiltrates everything or it is completely nonexistent.

It means going to watch Crazy Rich Asians in a theater where you’re the only Asian person, then sobbing like a madwoman the entire time because you got to see Asian characters have more range than you’ve ever seen before on TV. I got to see an Asian character, the main character, fall in love on TV? Wild.

It means working out to become jacked, because let’s face it, you’re never going to be skinny, so you might as well embrace the other side.
It means just not telling your mom how much you weigh anymore.
It means being ashamed of how much you eat when you’re at home for the holidays.
It means looking at how tiny some of the Asian girls you grew up with are…and wondering where you went wrong.

It means wondering if anyone else feels the way you do, but never being able to say it until you finally just have to.

It means looking back and wondering where all the shame came from, and why you spent years running from a core part of who you are.

It means sitting in your apartment alone on Valentine’s Day, on the tail end of a concussion, writing about being Asian American, using your sweater sleeve as a tissue.

Clearly, I stuffed a lot of these thoughts away. I told myself it was wrong to feel them. I told myself that I was overreacting, because other people told me I was overreacting. And of course, I realize now that these sound excessively emotional all at once. But hey, give me some credit, this was spread over years. I just remember the emotions clearly as if they were yesterday. These were all emotions I had at different times, that I’ve since worked through. Though I have a lot to unpack from my childhood, I also have a lot to be thankful for. Because without all of that I wouldn’t be who I am today, and where I am today.

So what else does being Asian-American mean to me?

It means looking at all these emotions and knowing that feelings aren’t facts, but knowing that these thoughts have played a pivotal role in your development, without even knowing it at the time.

It means going to therapy when you get older because you decided, on your own, that you need help. It means that you finally open up the “mental health” folder that you shoved away growing up — think mini Spongebobs running around his brain trying to remember “how to breathe”.

It means realizing that you want to be the difference when it comes to Asian-American-ness. You don’t want to sweat the small stuff and get mad at everyone and everything for being supposedly ignorant.

It means figuring out your own path and fully recognizing that your path is entirely different from someone else’s. There might be some crossover, but not always.

It means listening to Ali Wong, Steve Byrne, Bobby Lee, Jo Koy, Henry Cho, Jimmy O Yang, JR De Guzman, Ronny Chieng, Aziz Anzari, Akaash Singh, and Russell Peters talk about their Asian-ness and their unique-ness…and breathing a sigh of relief when you realize making jokes about being Asian can be okay (because it’s not always okay, and that’s fine too), and it’s something that you can finally relate to (see below), and it’s something that brings you relief.

It means becoming slightly lactose intolerant — not enough that you avoid dairy, but enough that it’s not as fun anymore. But you do it anyway, of course.
It means reading a book where Jack Reacher has to keep his shoes on the entire time he’s inside a house (he’s infiltrating an evil man’s house as a spy), and laughing to yourself when you think about how this never would have worked at an Asian person’s home. And if you think about it, Asians are almost always the bad guys, so it was actually very lucky that he didn’t end up in that situation.
It means laughing out loud when the It’s Always Sunny gang hides in a house and listens to the family speak in Southern accents, then finally finding out the family is Asian and leaving open-mouthed, because you understand that the whole show is satire, and that they aren’t making fun of Asians, but they are poking holes into stereotypes on purpose.

It means realizing that not everyone is going to see the world the way you do.
It means realizing that other people might be hurt by things you find funny, or vice versa.
It means realizing that some people feel differently. It means realizing that even if you don’t care, maybe someone else does, and maybe your job is to protect that person…so maybe that’s why you speak up.

It means writing this in hopes that someone will connect to the way you’re feeling and know that it’s okay to feel the things they feel.

And finally, it means breathing a sigh of relief, saving this as a draft, and filing it for later when you finally, finally, feel brave enough to embrace yourself and not the opinions that other people have of you.

If there’s one thing I want someone to know about being Asian American, it’s that there are so, so many different ways to be Asian American. In fact, some of these things may not even be specifically Asian, but they are to me, for whatever reason. I just recently realized that I need to use my voice for good and maybe this is step 1. I think these things have been bubbling below the surface for quite awhile, but I felt like I needed permission to feel all these things. It wasn’t until recently that I had a lot of my feelings…validated by a book I read. By an author who doesn’t even know I exist, yet somehow, all of her words touched me in a way I didn’t think possible (Minor Feelings).

There was definitely a little bit of shock value I was going for at the beginning. I feel like I need to clarify again that I do not view being Asian as a negative, there were certainly negative aspects, but they shaped me. And maybe explaining all of this makes it less powerful, but I haven’t quite mastered the art of confidently saying what you want to say and not making excuses for it. I feel better talking about it than…just doing it, and perhaps it’s a pride thing to “let people know” that I’m “working on stuff”. There’s that competitive spirit, again. It shows up in times like these as well as board game nights.

I’m terrified to put these thoughts out there, but also really, really glad that I was able to. Here goes, I guess.

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Jen Xu

Jen Xu

Athletic trainer, coffee lover, looking for a hobby I don’t have time for. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.