Like many of my friends, I am a first-generation Asian American.
Unlike most of them, I grew up in a pretty white-washed household even though I had two immigrant parents.
Up until senior year of high school, I knew very little about the Philippines, geographically and culturally. I was never even taught to use “Kuya” and “Ate” when referring to elders (a custom other white-washed Filipinos actually embraced) … My older brother was simply RJ, my older cousin was simply Michael, and I was Annie to my younger brother and cousins. What I DID know is that sometimes I would have a roasted pig at my birthday parties, and that my parents, aunts, and uncles all talked another language amongst themselves.
So when I say I was white-washed, I was damn bleached. A+ for assimilation, Mom and Dad.
Fast forward to present day… When I hear the stories of my peers, I’m reminded that being Asian American can mean so many different things.
Being Filipino is completely different than being Japanese, which is completely different from being Khmer. So even though every Asian American struggled to navigate our cultural identity in this world, we each did so at different paces and in different ways. Same same but different.
These were a the defining moments in my life that really shaped my own cultural identity (or lack thereof).
Defining Moment 1: Ballet I (circa 6 or 7 years old)
AKA the moment I realized I’m Asian… or something.
Ballet I was the level at my dance studio where kids (ages 5-7) actually started learning the fundamentals of dance instead of just shaking your hips and looking cute. The theme at our recital that year was It’s A Small World, and our class was destined to be little Chinese dolls. My teacher asks, “Is anyone Chinese?” and I see my friend Leslie raise her hand enthusiastically. Noticing that I don’t, the teacher then says to me “You’re Chinese too, right?” I shyly but sternly say, “No, I’m not.” She looks confused. “Oh, then what are you?”
Luckily, the teacher assistant (who happened to also be Filipino) filled in for me… She says, “She’s Filipino.,” then switches her glance to me, “Right?” I remember sitting there like SHIT! AM I FIILIPINO?! WHAT’S THE FUCK’S A FILIPINO?? AND HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM BEING CHINESE?? (But, of course, in First Grader thoughts). I resort to saying aloud, “Um… I think.”
That’s when I realized I was Filipino. Or Chinese. Or something with slanted eyes and drape-y sleeves, as our costume portrayed.
(Afterwards, I asked my mom if we were Chinese when I got home. She said yes (partly), so my answer ended up being wrong anyways haha)
Defining Moment 2: Lechon (circa 4th grade)
AKA the moment I began to disassociate myself from my culture
It’s like fourth grade or something and my mom FINALLLLLLLYY lets me invite my classmates to my birthday party at my house. I send out invitations and I. AM. PSYCHED. It’s the first time my friends from school are coming over.
We watch a Disney movie, play with my Barbies, and stuff our faces with Pizza Hut. Things are going freakin’ great and I’m riding this 4th grade high. However, it all goes downhill FAST when my mom announces it’s time to sing “Happy Birthday”. The girls head downstairs to where the cake is, but I’m lagging behind to tidy up some of the Barbies. When I start heading downstairs, I hear SHRIEKS and YELLS and EW’S. “There’s a dead pig on the table!”
FUCK MOM, WHY’D YOU BRING OUT THE LECHON?!
I chime in alongside them with my “EWW!”s (even though that’s definitely not the first time I had lechon) and run upstairs pretending that was the most barbaric and savage thing I’ve ever seen.
Defining Moment 3: The Pool (circa my awkward/pre-teen years)
AKA the moment that sealed my fate as a “ugly” person
Every summer, my family road-tripped to Florida. My parents had a timeshare in Orlando and I was wildly obsessed with Disney – It was the one thing I looked forward to each year.
When we weren’t at the parks, my dad used to take my younger brother and me to the pools to get a break from the heat and all the walking. At the pool, I found myself playing a game with some of the girls that I had just met. One of them swims up to me and, in the most god damn nonchalant way, says “You’re ugly,” while using her fingers to pull the ends of her eyes. I stutter before mumbling the worst comeback ever, “I know you are, but what am I?” Really, Pre-teen me??? That’s the comeback you used??!
This is the moment that I remember being really hurt for the first time with someone else’s words, a stranger’s nonetheless. I dunk my head in the pool and screamed as loud as I could. I dunked my head again and freakin cried. The amazing thing about a pool is that is it basically masks any sound you make and you have chlorine to blame for your red eyes. When I raised my head above the water, nothing changed. Everyone and everything looked exactly as it did 15 minutes ago.
Pre-teen emotions, amirrrrite?
Defining Moment 4: Chinkerbell (circa early teen years)
AKA the moment I failed to realize I was called a derogatory name
I actually tell this story a lot because it’s freakin hilarious.
I was “jokingly” called a Chink in my early teens, and when I asked what it meant, I was told “someone who’s Asian.” Me, in my naivety, thinks… DAMN THAT’S A CUTE NAME. CHINK. OKAYYY.
These were the AOL days, when everyone had at least two screen names. Thinking I was incredibly witty, I made a new screen name: Chinkerbell, combining my ethnicity with my love for Disney (Tinkerbell).
When I found out what it meant, I was more angry at the wasteful wit, rather than the slur itself…. It was a damn clever name and I sadly couldn’t keep it.
Defining Moment 5: Freshman English (Freshman year of High School)
AKA the moment I forsaked any chance of trying to be popular
The high school I attended was pretty overwhelmingly white or Hispanic. There were probably about 8 Asians in our class, 5 of which were international exchange students who (rightfullyso) spoke with strong accents.
It’s English class, freshman year and our teacher pairs us up for a few assignments. As I work through the first assignment with my partner, he says, “You speak good English.”
-______________- Yes, I speak good English BECAUSE I WAS BORN IN NEW JERSEY.
I carried on with the assignment, doing the majority of the work. I ended up doing all of the work on EVERY assignment that I was paired with this person on. We’d get similar grades at the end of the semester.
Defining Moment 6: Meeting other Asians
AKA the moment I redefined myself
For a really long time, I wanted to be blonde with blue eyes. Shit, I’d even take dirty blonde or light brown hair. Anything but my Asian genes.
As I grew older, I gave up on that hope and pursued a different strategy. If I wasn’t going to be pretty, I had to at least be good at SOMETHING. I made people notice me through other things like excelling at school or excelling at my dance studio. It was not because of my looks.
When boys told me I was pretty in high school (don’t worry – there were only two of them), I LOLed in their faces and was an asshole to them before they had the chance to pull a Freddie Prince Jr. in Shes’s All That. I mean, I’ve seen the movie like 10 times…. You’re not fooling me!
….. Enter Asians.
I joined a Catholic youth group in Junior or Senior year. There were maybe one or two white or black people in the mix. The rest, Asians. And, holy shit! Religious, teenage Asians were thirsty AF lol
For the first time, boys were trying to holler (albeit, with their Jesus knowledge.) For the first time, I felt pretty.
Embracing the f* out of my Filipino-ness and my general Me-ness
For the next few years, my confidence grew as I hung out more and more with other Asian Americans. I went to college and joined a Filipino club. My second year, I moved to California, hung out with even more Filipinos, and even joined some dance teams.
HOOOOO BOI, my Filipino street cred was rising.
I was hitting milestone after milestone at a faster pace than I ever thought I could:
- Graduate top 10% at SDSU – CHECK
- Make it onto a well-recognized dance team – CHECK (Unity – although I left shortly after joining to focus on my career)
- Get my Masters – CHECK
- Work my way up to a Senior Manager position – CHECK
- Move to and thrive in 4 cities – CHECK
- Do as much fun shit as possible – IN PROGRESS
After awhile, it was no longer about my Filipino-ness, it was about embracing me.
Why this all matters (at least to me)
I strongly believe that if you tell yourself you are something, you eventually become it….a sort of “Fake It Til You Make It” mentally. I told myself I was intelligent, and as a result pushed myself to achieve academic and work gains. I told myself I was fucking beautiful, and as a result became attractive to others because of it. I told myself I am a badass, and as a result actualized a lot of my talents.
So NO, I did not need Crazy Rich Asians to tell me I was beautiful, smart, or talented enough. I had 30 years to prove to myself that I am all these things and more.
What this movie and other smalls wins in the Asian American community (ie. a Filipina winning Miss Universe) did do for me is let my internal cheerleader sit down for a much-needed break. Instead of me screaming through an invisible megaphone that “I AM ENOUGH,” Hollywood (an entity far bigger than myself) is holding up the megaphone for once… not just for me, but for all Asian Americans.
To the pool girl who told me I was ugly, BOK BOK BITCH. I was in my awkward phase, OK!
To the person who called me a chink, BOK BOK BITCH. But thanks for letting me realize I can be clever and witty.
To the dude who diminished me into a stereotype, BOK BOK BITCH. You’re welcome for carrying you through Freshman English class.