I write here and there on my Instagram account (where I spend the majority of my time online), but recently I have been attempting to return to my blog. I don’t know if it’s because I’m pregnant or the state of the world or what, but I’ve felt a pull to write my thoughts down. One day, I’ll attempt to organize it all and print out a collection of these posts and give it to my kids.
Growing up, I was raised in a predominantly white affluent neighborhood of Los Angeles called Brentwood. I was quite sheltered and privileged. I went to private schools until my last couple of years of high school. I don’t have stories of bringing “stinky” Asian foods to school in my lunchbox, because my mom didn’t really cook many Asian dishes at home. I 100% preferred a McDonald’s cheeseburger over a bowl of ramen any day of the week. In fact, when my family did venture to eat Japanese food on occasion, they’d always have to make a stop afterwards to grab me a burger and fries.
Despite growing up privileged, my identity as an Asian American was never far from my mind. It grounded me. I knew I wasn’t the same as my white friends. I didn’t really understand what it meant on any deeper level. I knew that I looked different from most of my classmates and friends, but inside I felt the same. The outside world quickly taught me I wasn’t the same when kids would put their fingers up to their eyes, and slant them at me, thinking they were funny. I was very aware (even back then) that it wasn’t funny at all. It made me feel embarrassed and ashamed to be different. I wished I wasn’t different. Like most kids, I just wanted to fit in.
It wasn’t until my dad enrolled me in a Japanese American basketball league in third grade that I saw other children my age that were Asian American as well. Once a week, I’d attend practices. Usually on weekends, we would have games where we would compete against other Asian American teams throughout the Los Angeles area. While it felt good to be surrounded by others who looked like me, I never really felt like I belonged with my basketball friends, either. Most of them went to school in much more diverse neighborhoods and had several Asian American friends. I felt “too white” for my Asian American friends. But, then again, I also felt “too Asian American” for my white friends. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. This feeling would follow me throughout adolescence, young adulthood, and even until today.
I started to explore my identity and family history more in college. I decided to take some Asian American studies courses hoping to add Asian American Studies as my minor. One class, in particular, was focused solely on the Japanese American Internment during World War II. My professor was a wonderful, young Chinese American man, fairly new to Smith College, and very passionate about teaching and bringing Asian American Studies to Smith. That course changed my life. It sparked in me a lifelong interest to understand more about where my ancestors came from, who they were as people, and how racism had changed the course of their lives. By extension, how racism had changed the course of my life. For the first time, I felt connected to my heritage.
My background and who I am as a person today is the result of almost forty years of living life as a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, a great-granddaughter, a wife, and now a mother. My family has lived in this country since the early 1900’s. We are loyal and proud Americans despite the fact that my family was locked away in internment camps. I am fourth and fifth generation Japanese American. But does that mean anything to anyone these days except me and my family? I feel like it doesn’t.
Yes, I have dealt with the undercurrents of Asian American racism throughout my entire life. Always the question “Where are you from?” The assumption that I don’t belong in this country, despite the fact that my ancestors helped BUILD this country. It gets to you after awhile. I remember once I was in a war of words with an angry neighbor who hit my car while backing out of a parking space and claimed he didn’t. He told me to “go back where I came from” said with the thickest accent I had ever heard. He could barely get the English words out. It was rather laughable, but underscores that anyone and everyone thinks they can tell Asian Americans to go back where they came from, having no idea what that even means.
As we navigate life in this post-Trump era, the American mindset has very violently transformed to where everyone is outwardly judged on the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, the texture of their hair, etc. The Asian American portion of this story is “go back to where you came from”. But now it isn’t just insinuations and curiosity. It’s blatant, in your face, questioning, hatred, judgment, and now violence.
I don’t know where we go from here, but it has been disheartening to watch the disintegration of American values and decency right before our very eyes. No one can seem to agree on much. People are getting hurt. The Asian American and Asian populations are extremely vulnerable right now due to unprovoked attacks. I wish I had the right words to soothe my soul and the souls of those that are hurting from this violence. I think about what my grandparents and great-grandparents lived through during World War II. How scared they must have felt. I wonder about the conversations I’d have with them today. I wonder what wise insights they might provide for all of us trying to live our lives in this hostile climate.
I am here to lend a voice of support to the Asian American community. The Asian American community is just as diverse as any other community. We all have our own stories. Every story is important and every story matters. We are made richer and deeper and greater by listening and learning from each other’s experiences. Some will never really comprehend that, and to them, it may always revert back to this notion of “go back to where you came from.”
Thank you for writing this. The experience or being told to go back where you came from by that person is just so infuriating. I’m so sorry you’ve never felt like you totally belonged in a particular group. I am heartbroken and angry for Asian-Americans. I particularly think of my best friend growing up, whose family was originally from Hong Kong, but she was born in California and then later moved here to Canada. She dealt with so much racism and I feel like I could have done so much more growing up to help her. Yell at the bullies. Tell them she was smarter and a more wonderful person than they could ever hope to be. I’m teaching my son (along with my whole family) that we will do better. There is no other way forward.