The Journey Here: My Discovery of My Racial Identity
As I was sitting at a local SF eatery earlier this year in March, a man walked across the street and yelled, “F*** China!”. I was confused because I assumed SF being a very progressive and largely accepting city. I was angry because this person felt compelled to yell such negatively driven phrase for all to hear. I was sad that I witnessed this in the 21st century and during what I would have considered a peaceful dinner out. Racial discrimination is still happening, and I believe that it will continue to happen. However, I also believe that society has made progress in bridging the gap between the words of ‘others’ and ‘us’. There is still much more work to do, and I can hope that we continue to make progress towards unity. In this second article feature, I will briefly describe my family’s journey to the United States of America as well as my continual journey to balance between my two identities as an Asian American. I will also share some guidance in exploring one’s racial identity.
My family immigrated to America in 1990 in hopes to pursue the ‘American Dream’ apart from Vietnam. Their dreams, goals, and hopes were very similar to those of who seek out this dream. My parents wanted a more sustainable lifestyle and a brighter future for their growing family. My family often remind me of my mom’s health condition during their move here. She was 6 months pregnant with me!
Growing up, I teetered in finding the balance between social/familial norms in American culture and the expectations within my traditional Vietnamese home. There were times when I thought I was appropriately expressing my emotions while my parents had a hard time understanding them (Side Note: I wanted to share my emotions like I saw my friends doing with their parents. Mental health and emotions was a big learning curve for a family to grasp due to its absence in Vietnamese culture). I internalized the standard for beauty was having blonde/ light colored hair, light colored eyes, and light colored skin. I remember asking my father to go to the local drugstore and picking out the blonde hair color box. I begged him to lift my extremely dark hair to look like the hair color on the box. To my dismay, he gently reminded me that the color would not lift my natural hair color. I insisted that he tried, and he lovingly did. I was disappointed to find out that he was right when the box color barely lifted my hair color to an auburn. This is just one of the times I attempted to change my appearance. I tried to change the color of my eyes by wearing colored contacts. I felt deep embarrassment that I looked different than my community who were largely white/Caucasian. Not only did I differ in physical appearance, I was also different in my upbringing. When I had an opportunity to stay overnight for a friend’s birthday, I tried to convince my parents to let me stay. My parents strongly disagreed because it was not part of our cultural to sleep at someone else’s house when we had our own. So, I left the birthday party late at night when my dad picked me up. These are just a few examples of the pull I felt growing up identifying as bicultural. I often felt confused and had difficulties gauging what was considered right or wrong. I didn’t know how to reconcile my conflict between both cultural standards. I didn’t fully identify with one culture over the other. If I spoke my mind and shared my opinions that may have differed from my parents, it was considered as disrespecting the very people who raised me. If I didn’t do exactly what my peers did for fun and entertainment, my family was viewed as strict. If I enjoyed eating different body parts of an animal that normally wouldn’t be appetizing to my friends, I was judged hearing statements such as “gross”, “that’s nasty”, and “you guys eat THAT?”. I also felt embarrassed. I felt hurt. I felt ostracized. It wasn’t until I found a term that I strongly identify with through my exploration of my Vietnamese culture and trip to Vietnam in 2011. When I first heard of the word, “Asian- America”, my world opened up. I finally felt understood for being first generation born in America and growing up in a traditional Vietnamese home. I felt relief to know that both parts of me can and needs to coexist to feel fully me. Below are some guiding tips to explore one’s cultural identity:
1. Ask questions and lots of them!
• It is our human condition to have an innate desire to feel heard, seen, and understood. This allows space for us to feel loved and to have a sense of belonging. My recommendation to jumpstart your journey in finding your own cultural identity would be to ask lots of questions about your own history. If you have family members or others who might know your history, I found that asking questions has opened opportunities for me to hear stories of my family’s journey to America. By hearing these stories, it allowed me to have compassion and understanding of their assimilation process instead of making assumptions about their intentions.
2. Share your experiences with others.
Through my experience of discovering my cultural identity, I had the opportunity to share my experiences with other Asian Americans in a safe setting. I shared some of my painful experiences during meetings, and it was helpful to know that I wasn’t only in my experiences. It was relieving to hear others’ experience as they were very similar to mine. It felt normalizing.
3. If or when this is in your realm of possibilities, travel!
• My trip to Vietnam was life changing for me. I was able to gain more perspective to my parents’ way of life and have greater compassion for my family’s experience assimilating to America. I believe travel is a wonderful opportunity for us to have a different perspective of life and meaning.