One day in kindergarten, I came home from school and begged my mom to buy me a box of Lunchables. For lunch, she had packed me a thermos of homemade fried rice, a traditional Chinese dish with mixed rice, peas, carrots, corn, pork, and eggs. It was one of my favourite meals, yet on that day, I wanted nothing more than a pre-packaged Lunchables. After sitting through a small tantrum, the problem was revealed to my mom: Susie from school thought that eating eggs in rice was gross. She had bluntly told me that my lunch was “disgusting”, and then moved to a different table to eat her own.While it was just a small insult from one six-year-old to another, this interaction introduced me to the reality of being a second-generation immigrant. The struggle to “fit in” is much harder for Asian Americans, who find themselves caught between two vastly different worlds. In an attempt to belong, I had become quick to throw away the things that made me ‘different’ and ‘weird’. I refused to speak Mandarin with my mother; I was angry that I had to speak a second language when none of my friends did. I attended a private school in suburban Los Angeles, and while it was diverse, I had few other Asian American friends. I found that my very existence invited my classmates to point out my differences. Kids would mock me (“Ching chong chang!”) and pull at their eyelids until they were “squinty like hers”.
I resented my Asianness. It made me different, and I hated that. I wanted, more than anything, to not be Asian.
These frustrating experiences are shared among many Asian Americans (I will use the term “Asian American” to refer to all North Americans of Asian descent). We must learn to let the “Asian” and the “American” within us coexist. Our lives become a clash of two cultures. Many of us, myself included, try to abandon our Asianness. We attempt to erase a part of ourselves.
This kind of cultural erasure has become a serious issue. Society often unknowingly urges us to abandon our culture in favour of fitting in to current standards of beauty and normalcy. As we are constantly surrounded by popular culture, we are extremely vulnerable to the influences of popular culture. Living in an era of “whitewashing” further exacerbates this problem, especially for us Asian Americans.
“Whitewashing” is a term used in the film industry to describe when historically coloured roles are given to white actors to portray. When Asian actors are included, Asian American portrayal in film is often limited to stereotypes: the studious, submissive schoolgirl, the nerdy and socially-awkward gamer boy, and occasionally the villain’s sword-wielding sidekick. These roles are often two-dimensional, without a background and without meaningful experiences outside those that center around the (often white) main character. These movies reinforce the idea that Asian Americans are secondary – that we should remain in the background. They emphasize that we are different, and do not attempt to include us. Mainly white representation in film and TV subtly glamorize “Whiteness” as a standard of beauty. The lack of Asian American representation in media essentially tells young Asian Americans that they are lesser than their white counterparts. It’s no surprise that many second-generation immigrants, surrounded by white idols in movies TV, magazines, advertisements, and social media, become embarrassed of their “lesser” culture and pursue the “Whiteness” that is so prevalent in popular culture.
The release of the film “Crazy, Rich Asians” was an absolute triumph for Asian Americans. While it wasn’t especially groundbreaking in terms of content (picture your typical rom com), it became the first modern film with a full cast of actors of Asian descent and an Asian American lead in 25 years. I had never seen so many people who look like me on one screen at the same time. I had never seen a movie that portrayed Asian Americans so vividly, so deeply. Movies such as these, as well as TV shows with Asian American leads (such as Fresh Off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience), are extremely important to the younger generation of Asian Americans. They remind us that our stories are as compelling and as important as our white counterparts. Many of them validate our personal experiences as Asian Americans, and remind us that it is possible to stay connected with our language and culture while living as a second-generation immigrant. They assure us that we do not need to erase our Asianness to “belong” in this world.
When I moved to Vancouver, I was surprised to find such a thriving community of Asian Canadians. Many of my friends were fluent in a second language. They seemed confident to simply be themselves. Maybe it was the increasing Asian representation in media, perhaps it was my new group of Asian Canadian friends, or maybe it was simply that I had grown more mature, but I suddenly realised that I wanted to salvage my relationship with my culture. I was excited again to identify as Asian American.
Today, I take pride in being Chinese American. I’m proud to call a culture my own, I’m proud to belong to a strong community, I’m proud to be able to speak a second language, and yes, I’m proud to eat fried rice with eggs (it’s absolutely delicious!).
As the month of May has recently come to an end, I’d like to stress the significance of celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in future years. It is a reminder to second-generation immigrants to be proud of our heritage. We face many unique struggles that can cause us to question our identities. To my fellow Asian Americans: I urge you to stay proud of your culture! As people of colour, we should embrace what makes us different and make the effort to connect with our culture. Celebrate diversity, celebrate acceptance, celebrate your Asianness!
Check out and support these organizations that advocate for diversity and acceptance in Canada:
– North Shore Multicultural Society (https://nsms.ca/)
– Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Services (https://www.amssa.org)
– Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (https://ccdi.ca/)
Support our city’s Asian Heritage Month Festival celebration organization!
– Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Festival (https://explorasian.org/)
Written by: Chloe Chen
Chloe Chen is a Grade 12 student at West Vancouver Secondary School. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, California in a Taiwanese-American family, and moved to West Vancouver in 2014. She loves to write essays and short fiction stories. In her free time, Chloe trail runs, draws and paints, and binge-watches shows on Netflix. She is also a cat-owner, a foreign language enthusiast, and a fiend for Asian desserts!
*All views expressed in this blog post belong to the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of CYH.