I used to fill in my name as “Jenny” on my school and job applications, even though that’s not the name written on my birth certificate. Every time the ethnicity question came up, I would often select “Prefer not to say.” My relationship with my own race has been a tenuous one, and I have consistently felt the need to convince people around me that I was American, simply because that’s what it often took to feel accepted.
Eventually, I became more and more accustomed to hearing people make offhanded, blasé comments about their preconceptions about Asian Americans. I’ve heard everything from “You’re pretty good at volleyball for an Asian” to “You’re really involved in creative writing for an Asian.” I always felt guilty for feeling discomfort toward these remarks, particularly because it seemed as though I was being complimented.
I didn’t realize at first that these comments were not in fact compliments; instead, they were a constant reminder that I was being judged on a scale that was based off of a standard that by default excluded Asians from being viable competitors. By using “for an Asian” as a qualifier for these “compliments,” these people were not only demeaningly generalizing an entire ethnic group’s abilities, but also only willing to acknowledge merit based on an isolated scale. The recognition seemed to be contingent on the fact that it was only noteworthy when evaluated in comparison to other Asians. And whenever I myself ever uttered or thought the words “for an Asian,” I was resigning to the way these statements put all Asians under an umbrella—disregarding both the differences between Asian countries and the differences between people within each of those countries—and failed to recognize their achievements as individuals. I was not just accepting the story, but retelling it.
Struggling with your own racial identity often means rejecting the parts of you that others will see as a hindrance—resolving not to come across as shy, or avoiding Chinese TV shows because it might show that you’re out of touch with Western culture. It often means watching your own parents trying their hardest to buy or say or do the ‘right’ things that will help you and your family assimilate to what you considered to be American culture. People would frequently ask me what it was like to have grown up surrounded by family and peers who supposedly valued meritocracy above all else: “Do you have a ‘tiger mom’?” or “Are your parents really strict?” Something about the way people would accompany their questions with a look of sympathy—even pity, perhaps—led me to believe that there was something inherently shameful in the way people assumed I had been raised.
These experiences, compounded with every encounter I’ve had with someone who used the provision “for an Asian,” made me feel the need to disengage from my background and everything negative other people associated with it.
To me, culture is a gradient. I have tried in many ways to either passionately reject or embrace my Chinese heritage, yet both decisions have been misguided. I cannot claim to be a representative of generations of traditional Chinese culture. But I would be doing a disservice to both my family and myself if I denied my Chinese background, because it is as much a part of me as Western culture is.
My relationship with my own race comes from many internal discrepancies, but my experiences with being singled out as a minority have been troubling and have only added to my personal discomfort with being Chinese. It has often felt as though my legitimacy as an individual gets taken away whenever people have made these types of blanket statements that purport an intrinsic connection between race and the ability to succeed. If being a minority invites discounting assumptions and disrespect regarding my identity, then understanding where I am on a multidimensional gradient of culture ultimately depends on how others perceive me, not how I have learned to perceive myself.