I was never a cool Asian.
I mean, to be fair, I wasn’t really anything in high school, aside from being that quiet, short-haired girl who wore a lot of My Chemical Romance merchandise.
I moved to a new town just as I was starting high school. To make a long story short, it was rough. It was during high school that I first learned about the superficial drive to achieve; the idea of striving for “excellence” not because of any observable, palpable personal desire, but because it would help pad college applications (and other post-high school endeavors). And while I realize now that this is what so many of us do to survive, it’s important to note that for someone as wide-eyed and idealistic as me, learning about this fact of life was heartbreaking. This, paired with the common insecurities that take root during adolescence (Do people like me? How can I be accepted?) – it was not a good combination.
And so began my quest for authenticity.
It wasn’t until college that I was able to look at myself in the mirror and make a conscious effort to love myself – breakouts, eyelid creases, dress size and all. It wasn’t until college that I had a chance to learn about all of these different aspects of my identity. All of this led me to learning about feminism. I frequented the Women’s Resource Center and went to Body Positive meetings throughout my sophomore year of college. I talked with my friends about the representation of women in film and television. It was as though my eyes were open for the first time and I was suddenly much more receptive to my community. I had found a community.
And yet there was still something missing. I could see it in my name (first and last), the sounds of home, the foods that brought me the most comfort… all of that was a constant reminder of what still needed to be addressed, the question that was there all along: Who am I as a Filipino American?
My past indicated a sort of (perceived) rejection by the group in school settings. Granted I never got to test out this theory, but my Hot Topic-clad high school self could not fathom interacting with the mad fresh sneakerheads in high school. So that was out. As far as familial settings went, that was also pretty much a bust. I mostly stuck with my little cousins and answered the standard “How is school?” questions from my aunts and uncles. I couldn’t speak Tagalog, though I could understand enough to get by (thanks to hearing the language a lot while growing up and of course, Taglish). I could, however, always tell when my family was calling me fat. So yes, great memories to be had all around in regards to this part of my identity.
But I decided to make an effort to connect with this part of me, starting my sophomore year of college. First, I started following some Asian American blogs on tumblr. I subscribed to Hyphen Magazine. Then I made the big move of taking an ethnic studies class called Asian Americans in the Media.
That’s when everything changed. That’s when I realized that I didn’t have to be one thing.
For someone who was searching for authenticity, I failed to see that my unhappiness stemmed from the idea that I had to fit a mold. Through my ethnic studies class, I learned about amazing Asian Americans throughout history who were activists, artists, and academics that threw aside all of the usual narratives I’ve seen throughout my life. I grew to admire them.
From that admiration came the desire to emulate, and from that came the rejection of limits on who I could be. I also grew to accept and love the strong Asian Americans I met, who were all going through the same struggles I that I was facing.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a great TED Talk entitled, “The danger of a single story.” The talk itself focuses primarily on literary pursuits, though of course it is applicable to general life (as literature tends to be). She closes off her talk by saying, “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” I have to agree. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to dress a certain way, be a certain size, or gain complete mastery of Tagalog in order to own my identity as a Filipino American woman. It’s much simpler than that.
Friends, we have to affirm who we are and declare it aloud. This declaration cannot be a whisper. It has to be loud enough to make everyone’s chests rumble. Show your brothers and sisters that they can be more than one or two or twelve or fifty-five things. Erase the single story. To put it in Kristina Wong’s terms, rewrite the narrative. Give your fellow Asian Americans the pen, give them the paper, and let them go town. Now grab your own pen and paper and do the same.
Or not. Get some paint. Use glitter and feathers. It doesn’t matter, friend. Whether you’re a writer or a doctor, a Hot Topic devotee or a sneaker enthusiast, or a person who has elements of all of that and then some – just put your story out there for everyone to hear and see.
Give them something real. It makes all the difference.