I was born in Payson, UT. My parents were immigrants from Taipei, Taiwan. They came to the US seeking the American Dream. My mother had attended National Taiwan University(one of the most prestigious universities in Taiwan), and my father had done his mandatory military service in Taiwan. When they both immigrated to the United States, it was a dream for both to be married in the Salt Lake City Temple.
Usually that’s where the “happily, ever after” credits roll in a movie. Right?
My father started attending Brigham Young University, often taking two or three times as long to study as his peers because everything was in a new language, he was still mastering. When he asked for help, he was often dismissed and mocked. My mother found a job teaching Chinese to return missionaries. One of my favorite stories about her teaching, was the one where she reprimanded an American-born Chinese boy for not already knowing his mother tongue. It’s my favorite story because, my mother’s four children all attended Brigham Young University, and we all took Chinese 101, not even the advanced return missionary class, the beginner, beginning class. Thankfully we all aced it. Can you imagine the shame? My mother taught me that education was and always will be the key.
My father had a difficult time. He worked as a janitor while going to school, he found that the very worst jobs were delegated to him. He never complained, he just did it. I can imagine how angry and frustrated he must’ve felt. Here he was, a new convert, a new immigrant, and those who were supposed to be like brothers and sisters to him treated him as less than. He taught me, at a young age that just because people profess certain beliefs, or identify with a group, it’s their actions, that speak louder than their words. He taught me to be observant.
Eventually, my parents moved us to a suburb in UT. Bountiful, it was a lovely place to grow up as a kid. In my elementary school there were three Asian kids. A Japanese boy my age, and my brother. In first grade I was made fun of by some older girls with the chant, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these,” and then they threw snow balls, laced with sand. I can still vividly feel the near futility of trying to rinse the sand out of my teeth.
Then of course there’s the lunches I had. My mom had packed me one of my favorite things, lu dan (soy-marinated egg), that stuff is money. I still remember the cries of revulsion from my peers as they saw it. I recall saying in my embarrassed voice, “It’s just an egg, it’s still an egg, it’s just a different color.”
Then there were a few times when people were just being so mean I couldn’t take it anymore. So I’d start shouting my anger in Mandarin at them. I did this because it was so cathartic as many of them scurried away, terrified that I was cursing them with witchcraft. That memory makes me laugh.
I found myself often running into a bathroom stall, shutting the door and praying. I would pray with all my heart to make the ridicule stop. It was at this very young age, that I discovered faith. I also decided to be strong. These experiences make me pull for the underdog. Like when my little, kindergartner brother was waiting outside my third grade room and one of the boys from my class started picking on my brother by swinging him around by his backpack, while his group of five friends looked on. I still recall the rage that turned me into the girl who threw down her backpack, grabbed the boy off my brother, and then proceeded to swing the bully boy around while his own backpack was on his back. I remember shouting through my furious, gritted teeth, “pick on someone your own size.” I learned from my young self, don’t screw with me, or ones I love.
I remember in high school, when we finally moved to Cupertino, Calif, or when I had returned home from BYU, and I was having a frank conversation with my father. I told him, “Dad, I don’t fit in anywhere. White people look at me and see a Chinese person, with all sorts of expectations and stereotypes. Asian people look at me and see a not-quite Chinese person, filled with disappointment. Who am I?”
My father paused, looked at me very thoughtfully and said, “You’re a Pepsi.”
Since we didn’t ever drink Coke or Pepsi, I was baffled. Then I was a bit annoyed, I was being serious.
“What? What does that even mean Dad?”
“You know, the new generation.”
There you have it. My father, sharing ancient Chinese wisdom, with a tagline. We’d become American.
I struggled with some of the challenges of not being white. Growing up all I wanted to be was white. If I was white I’d finally blend in, not have to wear those knitted vests that my great aunt lovingly made. Or make self-deprecating jokes about taking pictures, or physical features, or some other such stereotypical nonsense. I never thought I was attractive because, no one that looked like me was shown as such. In college some guys would only date me because, they had a thing for Asians. It’s especially humiliating when a guy like that keeps calling you the wrong name on a first date. It’s also laughable when a guy you’re dating comes to visit San Francisco with you, and on the Bart looks around, and then with a slight bit of panic in his eyes, tells you, “oh my gosh, I’m the only white guy on here.” Welcome to my world. Or when the great uncles of a boy you’re dating asks, “what are you?” When you tell them you’re Chinese they respond compassionately as they seek to comfort you with, “Oh, that’s alright.” Or when someone says, you look just like one of the characters in Twilight. And you think, the only Asian is a boy, and he looks nothing like me. Or the many times some morons thought it would be inordinately clever to shout “ching chong” at you as they drive past, or run up to you, just to share their brilliance. I’ve always quite enjoyed having people make fun of my last name for being the Huang way, and the many multitudes of mispronunciation. These are just tiny snippets.
For my daughters who are half Chinese, half white, my oldest had one teacher decide to call the Asian girls in her class by features rather than names, because it was too hard to tell them apart. Don’t get me started.
Then there are times when you share your experiences and a friend discounts it all by saying, “you know, everyone has experiences like that.” They miss the point entirely because it’s not just about the experiences, it’s about the fact that no matter what anyone wants to say to convince themselves that “they don’t see race” they do. I see race. I know exactly what race my friends are. I would be remiss if I didn’t. Not seeing race renders them inert, invisible, devalued. There’s nothing wrong with seeing race. We should see it, see them as people, and then we should treat each other with respect. That’s how you see race.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the new ABC sitcom Fresh of the Boat. I was scared. I had heard about the show, and I was terrified. Why? Too often we are the easy targets of ridicule. I’d been resigned to just being invisible, and now, now people were going to see us, which also excited me. After watching the first two episodes, I was relieved. I was tickled. I wanted to go hang out with Jessica Huang (which, incidentally is my little sister’s name, before marriage). Is it perfect? Nope. Is it a start? Hell, yes. Do we need to see more Asian characters, period? EFF, YES. Lucy Liu, Steven Yuen, Maggie Q, Daniel Dae Kim, John Cho (I’m still mourning Selfie) deserve to associate with more than just a handful of us in meaty, non-stereotypical roles.
All my life I’ve been taught and told to stay under the radar, don’t make waves. The older I get, the more I enjoy surfing. There’s not much more I can say, or add to what my beautiful, brilliant Asian brothers and sisters have said. Go read them, and help us open minds, and hearts.
Yo, let’s all be a Pepsi. Now, go bust a move.
For a dad stung by stereotypes, ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is a point of pride by Jeff Yang
Fresh off the boat? How about a seat on the bus? by Grace Hwang Lynch
Fresh off the boat, but not on the bus by Mona Concepcion
Rocking the Fresh Off the Boat blogger bus by Thien-Kim Lam
Fresh off the invisible boat and bus by Phyllis Myung
Own Yourself by Kathy Zucker
Why Including #AAPIVoices Makes Good Business Sense by Maria Wen Adcock
Update 2/10/15 – Disney-ABC to reach out to #AAPI moms for #FreshOffTheBoat by Jenn