#MyAsianAmericanStory, the brainchild of Californian Jason Fong, was inspired by #BlackLivesMatter and is looking to reclaim the Asian-American narrative after statements from U.S. Republican Candidates Jeb Bush and Donald Trump that tag Asian people to the term “anchor babies”. Regardless of which side you stand on immigration and other matters of politics, I would like to take a moment to share some of the beautiful stories that have come out of this movement to highlight the diversity and breadth of the Asian-American experience.
Just one part of #MyAsianAmericanStory: My mom spent her life dancing but her chances to go professional were limited because of her father being expelled from the Chinese Communist Party. There were often times that she was nearly kicked out of her dance troupes because of this, but her teachers defended her since she was so skilled. Children participating in propaganda performing arts were expected to embody the ideals of the party, and family lineage played a large part in determining who could go on to succeed in the discipline or not.
I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to do oral history projects on my mother’s story through the wonderful classes I’ve taken at school in Asian and Asian American Studies. I would not be here if it weren’t for a stroke of good timing when the Cultural Revolution ended, allowing her gain entrance into medical school which eventually led her to America, meeting my Taiwanese father at grad school in Florida, and both of them deciding to leave their homes behind to make one here together. Their lives were anchored here before I was ever born, and my mom being pregnant with me four years after they married didn’t even prevent my father from almost being deported simply due to an issue with his passport renewal.
My dual heritage of being both Chinese and Taiwanese has tensions that manifest in small ways, like when I hear my Taiwanese great-aunts joking about how they forgot to tell my father to not date a Chinese woman, or knowing that my Chinese grandfather wasn’t too happy initially when my mother married him. However, being both Chinese and Taiwanese is integral to why I am Asian American – why I was born in America instead of one of my parents’ home nations. Staying in America was both a compromise to their political dilemma, and it was a new world which presented them opportunity for success in their professions, and I am astoundingly privileged today because of this.
I don’t blame my mom for not wanting me to be too loud these days with my opinions and actions – after all, my grandfather was separated from his family for years simply because he voiced an opinion that didn’t align with the Communist Party. However, on issues of systemic racism, sexism, and anything which impacts my Asian American identity – I cannot stay quiet, and I will not stay quiet because here in America, I have that privilege. – Theanne Liu
Both my parents are Asian. Both my parents are Black. I grew up with a very mixed notion of ethnic identity. In my middle school, I was the only one of my complexion. Blackness was important then. It was how I could be accepted. I was the kid who could grow an afro, and when my dad finally gave me permission to get one, it was I who had their head poked to see if my hair would spring back. I’m sad to say that to this day I refuse to grow out my hair.
I always felt that I felt subjected to the group mentality, social normalisations of how I was supposed to codify and perceive my body. I conformed to how I was supposed to behave.
I finally learned how not to roll over and conform when I came to Northwestern. I was free from the confines of a Jamaican-American household, where I tried to disguise my sexuality.
It was at Northwestern where I learned to be Unapologetically Asian. The first student group I ever joined was Kaibigan, a Filipino and Fil-Am student organisation. I was invited because of my Filipino ancestry. More to the point, that didn’t even matter. Next was Thai Club in my sophomore year. Even though I am not Thai, nor do I have any cultural knowledge or Thailand, I was accepted for what I was. I also found myself in China Care, and briefly in the Vietnamese Student Association.
My coming to political awareness came through my Asian lineage at Northwestern. I found myself involved in the Asian NU Project, a group that actively discussed the issues of the oppression of the Asian American communities on campus.
I finally found my voice. I found a space where I could say “I am an Asian American” and people never questioned it. They respected that I celebrate my Chinese, Filipino and Indian roots as much as I celebrate my Black, Irish, Cherokee and Cuban ones too.
When I went to the Asian Pride Rally, I never felt so powerful. I danced, celebrating myself. I danced, celebrating my Asian body. I found pride in my Asian body.
I cannot begin to talk about how many times I have been attacked for my identity. People assume that I hate my race, or I’m ashamed of being Black. On the contrary, I take great pride in my roots in unknown pre-colonial African countries, whichever they may be. But one thing is certain: I will never deny my roots simply because society deems them unworthy for celebration.
I’m here. I’m Asian. Get used to it. #MyAsianAmericanStory – Rohan Zhou-Lee
This is an abridged version of the original post Unapologetically Asian.
My last name, Johnson, is not indicative of my ethnicity, my “roots” or my identity. What it does tell, however, is a story that I think is worth adding to a necessary and ongoing discussion about identity, names and feelings of belonging.
I am a second-generation Korean American. I am 100 percent Korean, at least in terms of my ethnicity. So why is my last name Johnson? It’s a fair question that often comes from confused people who interact with me.
In the 1970s, my paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States and realized his Korean last name, written as Choi — this spelling differentiates it from a phonetically similar but very different Korean last name, Chae — was a problem. It was the source of ridicule from those who didn’t know or care how to pronounce it. He wanted “absolute” assimilation, and legally changed his last name and my father’s last name to one of the most common last names in the phone book: Johnson.
For the longest time, I resented my grandfather’s decades-old decision to replace our identity because our last name was the one thing that connected me to my roots. He chose a last name that only symbolized, in my opinion, my grandfather’s failure to fight for his name. And I believed this until I came to Northwestern, because something important happened on this campus that changed the way I viewed my last name.
During the last four quarters I have spent at [Northwestern University], I have been asked if I am half-Korean, adopted or Filipino. In the eyes of other students who had a certain image of what a Korean American looked like and what names they had, they saw me as anything but just Korean. I fit none of the “requirements” of a Korean neatly, hence the variety of questions. Even my first name, Naomi, became a point of contention, because my parents made my “Korean name” Naomi, but they spelled it out in Korean Hangeul. This means my Korean name is Hebrew based, has three syllables instead of the common two and carries no traditional Chinese meanings. So do my Americanized last name and Hebrew-based first name make me any less Korean, whatever that means?
The answer is a resounding no. I speak Korean at home, read the Bible in Korean and eat Korean food with my parents. This does not, however, make me “more Korean” than other Korean Americans who have retained their original Korean names but do not speak Korean. So the question becomes, at least for me, why are certain people rushing to fit me into categories? Why does a Korean last name legitimize someone’s Korean-ness but not their American-ness if they live in America? Why does a non-Korean last name obscure the nuances of my family story?
The best answer that I can muster is that names carry a great deal of meaning, especially in terms of identity for humans who live in a multicultural nation. A variety of questions stem from the issue of names and what they mean in America. But what I want to point out is that people have a striking urge to assume and categorize based on names alone, which is part of the reason names are so significant.
I will always be the daughter of Korean immigrants, but I do not feel compelled to give up any of my Korean culture in order to be “more American.” There is no trade-off of identities, meaning that choosing to emphasize certain aspects of myself does not negate the distinctions that may “other” me from the majority. My legal last name, for example, does not replace the fact that my ancestors came from the North Gyeongsang Province in South Korea. I especially do not think it’s necessary to give up my Korean-ness for the sake of the categorical continuity — and the conveniences that such continuity affords — that people have imposed on me time and time again.
I am an American because I am Korean.
I am enough. #MyAsianAmericanStory – Naomi Johnson
This is an abridged version of an original published in The Daily Northwestern.
My story starts in the 1980’s when my dad and uncle, still teenagers, hopped on a junk leaving the shores of Vietnam. Traveling for weeks at sea, battling hunger, dehydration, and illness to reach the refugee camp in Malaysia. My dad told me stories of when him and his other buddies at the camp would trade their food rations for cigarettes. There they would remain for a year before being called to the U.S. to join my other uncle.
Post-1987, my mom, at the age of 15, traveled from the country-side of Nha Trang, to a refugee camp in the Philippines and eventually to the U.S. as a relative of my aunt who was given special immigration status as Mỹ Lai through the American (Amerasian) Homecoming Act.
To the U.S. with nothing but the clothes on their backs, these two legally emigrated, met in 1990, and in 1992, married and had me as their daughter who they legally named Kimberly. They gave me everything they never had.
At 5-years-old, my favorite show was Barney. The age of 9 was characterized by summer nights chasing fireflies. The age of 12 was spent riding my blue and pink bike around the neighborhood until sundown. 16 was MySpace. 18 I started freshman year. And at 22, I moved to a new State to start “adult life”. On the surface #MyAsianAmericanStory sounds just like #My
At 5-years-old, I started school speaking no English and was regarded as mentally slow by my classmates and teachers. The age of 9 was when I started attending parent-teacher conferences as an interpreter. 12 was when I wrote my first legal dispute to a customer complaint filed against my parents’ store through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (we won by the way). 16, I started my first summer job as a Nail Salon Technician. 18, I became the most educated person my family and with that, singlehandedly carried forward their hopes and dreams. Moving away from my family when I was 22 was complicated and difficult beyond the emotions that come with an eldest child leaving the nest, my parents were losing their voice in American society, their protector, and their biggest advocate; along with battling homesickness is also the burden of guilt I have for moving forward on my own knowing my parents still and always will need me.
#MyAsianAmericanStory is my family and I constantly learning to navigate my American-ness and my Vietnamese-ness while fiercely fighting for ‘the dream’ in a country that continues to appropriate, compartmentalize, underrepresent, stereotype, and shut down our narrative. Fuck you. Fuck your “anchor baby”. Fuck whatever you think we are.
The first day of kindergarten, I remember crying as soon as my mom dropped me off. I ran back into her arms and begged her not to leave me. This situation is not atypical for most kids starting school, but for me it didn’t get better. It didn’t get better in the upcoming months. It didn’t get better that year.
New experiences in life happen all the time. For me, starting kindergarten brought many new experiences all at once. I didn’t speak English, so I couldn’t understand anyone. The teachers kept making me play board games that made no sense to me, and none of the food served during lunch tasted good. Wtf was this green, flavorless shit called “spinach?”
Just a little over a year ago, I had immigrated to the United States from China. Just a little over a year ago, I met my parents for the first time since I was born. My parents immigrated to America after I was born. They left me with my grandparents, because they wanted to build a better life for me. It’s counter intuitive, yes, but they couldn’t afford to raise me in America initially while my dad attended school and my mom cleaned tables to support him. Five years later, they brought me over. At 5 years-old, I was in a new country with new parents, language, food, people, and a constant feeling of being different.
Being different is not necessarily bad. Nor is wanting to be similar. But my first year of kindergarten was definitely hell. I slowly started to eat more American food, and I learned how to play the games everyone else played. My English improved, and I eventually did make a friend, but I remember being constantly tired. Tired of having to accommodate; having to change. My parents were helpless in assisting me with these changes as well. I learned early on that my parents knew even less about “American” foods, movies, games, sleepovers, sports, etc. And for some time, I did resent them for not being able to understand and help.
Today, I resent that I resented my parents. The truth is, my parents sacrificed everything for me. Whatever I went through, my parents endured 10x more, and they did it all for me. I remember the day everything changed. It was the day my brother was born. I slowly walked up to the hospital bed. I saw my mom holding a tiny person in her arms. My father said to me, “If we were in China, you wouldn’t be able to have a little brother.” I remembered that.
I named my brother Mike. Not Michael, Mike. He was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. And if he was not born there, there was a great chance that he might not have been born at all. I danced around him when he was a baby. I taught him to read and play basketball. We played Yugioh cards when we were little, and today, Mike is my best friend.
I remember what my father said. The greatest treasure my family found immigrating to America was my brother. And all the struggles I went through in kindergarten, years afterwards, and today because of who I am is well worth having my brother in my life.
For all the talk about immigration, its economic impact, and whatever the hell Donald Trump is yapping his feeding hole about, it’s the people that really matter. It’s the people that matter to me. And hopefully, it’s the people that matter to you. #MyAsianAmericanStory – Joseph Zhang
Our narratives are never mainstream coming-of-age novels, our stories never make it to the Box Office, our faces are often rendered invisible, our voices silent. The danger of such remarks from high-profile politicians in regard to Asian-Americans is that because our stories are rarely heard, and in many many areas of the U.S. where Asians don’t even reside at all, we are misconceived as something we’re not. These are merely a few of the stories that color the Asian-American experience today and we hope that by sharing these stories we can break down xenophobic barriers erected against Asians in America.
A very special thank you to all contributors of this post. If you would like to share your #MyAsianAmericanStory with Project Ava, please make a public post with photo on your Facebook and tag us! We will be selecting stories to update this blog throughout the week.