I’m just your everyday Asian American that was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Yes, it is a pretty unique place to grow up. Mostly because the Hawaiian Islands have such rich culture and the people there are genuinely nice people. I think Dorothy said it best, “there’s no place like home.”
Despite my love for O’ahu, I decided for my college experience that I wanted to go “beyond the reef” as Moana would put it. I went so far beyond the reef, I found myself attending college in upstate New York. The climate was much different. Mostly because there were seasons, which included color changing leaves, snow, and temperatures that dropped waaay below my coldest temperature of 65 degrees. But I loved my experience and loved the people I met. It was my second home.
But it wasn’t an easy transition.
The Mainland (AKA: the continental USA) became the place where I learned: I am Asian. I know that sounds silly but try to hear me out. I’ll break it down into three small anecdotes to help you understand. The following are my experiences and from my perspective so it might not be the whole story, but it shaped me to make me a self-aware Asian American.
Hawai’i is a unique place because Asians are actually the majority and not the minority. But I soon discovered, I am a minority. I guess the moment I realized that I am Asian happened when I walked into the dining hall with a group of friends. As a girl from Hawai’i and of Japanese heritage, rice is the main starch that I eat. I circled the dining hall and could not find their rice cooker. As a devout rice eater, I had my own small three-cup rice cooker in my dorm room and yes, the student handbook allowed it.
I went up to a couple of my friends and asked, “Where’s the rice?”
In response, the group of three to five people started laughing.
They thought I was joking! They thought I was just following into some stereotype. They did not know that I was actually looking for rice because I wanted some. (As a side note, this group of friends eventually found out about my rice cooker.)
From that day on, I just started making Asian jokes. Mean Asian jokes. Dogs walking through campus? “Look guys, it’s my dinner!” Someone complains that they can’t see the white board? “Imagine having these slants!” People wonder how I can squat so much? “My ancestors worked in rice fields, duh!”
I’m not proud of what I said. I made fun of not only myself but also my culture. The examples I gave weren’t even the worst of them. When I think back on everything I said and why I did what I did, I guess it was just a way to defend myself. I think I decided that I would beat everyone to the punch. No one would laugh at me again unless I wanted them to. Or at least they are laughing because I “allowed” it. If anyone wanted to make fun of my Asian heritage, they wouldn’t have a chance because I said it first.
And that’s how I discovered that I am Asian.
You’re Only Sexy If You’re Asian
To tell the truth, I was on the hunt for a boyfriend in the beginning of my college career. Ironically, the moment I stopped was the moment I found myself dating my boyfriend for two years. But for those first year, I was looking. Although, I wasn’t very good at going after boys because I am kind of shy and I don’t know how to flirt. I’m great in social situations and love interacting with people, but college parties are different then your refined cocktail party.
Most of my time was spent in smaller gatherings because it was easier to get to know people and feel comfortable. I never had any suitors. It was mostly Tinder matches that never went anywhere or an exchange of a phone number that I never texted. Around the time I was over the boyfriend hunt, some boys in my freshmen building were throwing a party. We were all having fun but we left the room with the party to go refill up on some… err… Lemonade. As a college freshman that refused to get a fake lemonade license, it made sense to find the free drinks or the people that had connections.
Somehow, I ended up sitting next to a rather attractive male that had been flirting with me on and off for the last couple of weeks. I couldn’t tell if I was blushing but I probably was because of my Asian Glow (look it up, it’s a thing). There were only a handful of people in the room but maybe they thought we were going to hook up after he gave me a small peck. So it ended up just being us. The door was still unlocked and my college’s bystander trainer had my one friend saying she would be back if I didn’t text. We literally just ended up talking. He was cool but I said I wanted to go back to the party and he was cool and agreed. As we made our way down the hall, I said I needed to go back for my jacket and he said the door was still unlocked and he’ll meet me at the party.
I went back to his room and picked up my jacket from his desk. A piece of paper flew onto the floor. I picked it up to put it back but I had to read it.
The paper’s title read, “To-Do List.”
But there weren’t tasks such as finishing a paper or reading pages from a book. Instead it said things like Red Head, Blonde, D-Cup, A-Cup, etc. I then noticed somewhere after “Threesome” and “Black Girl,” someone had scrawled, “Asian pussy.” It really disturbed me and I knew at that moment I wasn’t feeling queasy because of the lemonade.
I decided, well he wasn’t aggressive with me and maybe it is someone else’s list. If he were really trying anything, he would’ve tried to keep me alone. So, I went back to the party and we interacted a little more. As I announced I was leaving he followed me out and said I was “sexy.” He wanted me to go back to his room. He was a little more aggressive. Luckily, some other people came out of the party room, distracted him, and then I bolted.
Quite honestly, I cried when I got back to my dorm. I was only attractive to him because he wanted to check me off of a weird list. Now, I guess I could have given him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he actually liked me or thought I was sexy… But I wasn’t about to find out and I never did.
I’m Only Here for Diversity
Fast forward to my senior year of college. The group of friends and boyfriend I obtained were very understanding of my culture. I found a group of people that did not laugh when I wanted to get sushi or cooked rice with dinner. I was comfortable and felt respected as an Asian American. I really started to re-accept myself.
Late in the year, my boyfriend and I were hanging out in my dorm room. I was mostly caring for him because he was a little drunk. He told me one of his friends would be stopping by my townhouse (senior year dorms were small houses that had a kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms for four people). This may not seem important but I need to mention that I had two black roommates and they had black friends over that night. When this friend knocked on the door, a black guy opened it and let him in when he said he was here to see my boyfriend and me.
He came up the stairs and into my bedroom and said, “I’ve never been so scared in my life!”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because there are so many black people!”
I gave him a look and opened my mouth to say something but he started talking to my boyfriend. After a while, I brought up an article that was published in the school newspaper and asked him his opinions on the piece. It was a wrong move for me. Basically, I did not agree with this piece that used phrases like “reverse racism.” I hope that makes you somewhat understand the contents of this article. But this friend agreed with everything the article said.
As I continued to disagree he said words that still ring out today, “You only disagree with the article because you’re a minority. I mean you’re probably only at this school for diversity purposes.”
For some reason, I let that comment slide and if my boyfriend were sober, I’m certain he would’ve stood up for me. But honestly, I think he was half passed out at that point. I did not think that the comment affected me that much. In fact, I let it go. It did not have to be a big deal.
But one of my professors wanted to discuss the article in class. She wanted to hear our feedback and discuss what white privilege is. She brought in different articles and opened the floor for discussion. I said that I did not like the climate that the article created on campus. People were using the N-Word much more and there was a sort of tension between the minorities and majority on campus.
Then I decided to share my story. As I started to talk, the worst thing happened.
I started to cry.
Sorry, I wasn’t crying. I was bawling. I was crying so hard that I could barely speak and I couldn’t get the words out. I’m so sorry to my classmates that had to go through that day because if I saw that happening, I would have had second-hand embarrassment. Someone passed me a tissue and I finally got my story out. Luckily, I was sitting between two close friends and they comforted me.
I did not know that I was so hurt. Unfortunately, the class of 24 other students got to experience my realization with me. But it made me start to doubt all that I have accomplished. Was I on my team to get some sort of hidden benefit? Did my college accept me because they wanted to diversify the campus? Were my white friends only my friends because they wanted a token Asian?
Re-telling this story has made me sad once again. It took some time, but I recovered and there was eventually an apology. It did make me realize that sometimes I am only accepted, in a literal and figurative way, because people want to diversify. In a way, there is nothing wrong with that because we need diversity. But it put me back in my place and reminded me that I am and always will be Asian.
I share these stories because I think other people have gone through similar, if not worse, experiences. I know that there is worse out there but these three events changed me forever. I’m proud to be an Asian American and I know that things don’t come easy. But the important part is to find people that accept you and respect you. It wasn’t a bad thing to discover I’m Asian because I wouldn’t want to be anything else.