The Token Asian
Growing up as the “Token Asian,” I never stopped to consider the jokes at my expense. Slant-eyes, always smelling like fish, Pacific Islander-whatever-you’re-all-the-same comments would fly above me and hover in a circle just above my head from the time I moved to a small East Texas town as a nine year old to my high school graduation.
Imagine my surprise and shocked when I moved to Denton and into a very diverse university. I wouldn’t know what to classify Texas Woman’s. There were days where you could walk out into the quad and hear Christian music and days were Pride was happening in your face.
I loved the atmosphere. Everything about TWU and all my time there will always have a special place in my heart.
Save for one.
I volunteered to cater an event at Texas Motor Speedway with some of my friends. We were supposed to just take food in and out of the suites overlooking the racetrack. In maybe one or two of these suites, I felt it: that thing that hovered above my childhood in East Texas. I felt it drop right into me.
Now, this happened almost fifteen years ago, and I don’t recall what was said. But what’s important to this story, is how I felt. I felt looked down on. I felt dismissed. And whatever was said or wasn’t, it wasn’t the words that I’ve remembered. It was the connotation. The tone and the hatred in the parting look that came with it. That’s what has stayed with me for fifteen years. The full brunt of judgment and prejudices came at me. And I was angry.
I wanted to yell at these rich people who looked down at the “hired help.” I wanted to tell them that we’re volunteers and all college educated. But also at the tip of my tongue, I wanted to denounce that I was the same in this “sea of brownness.”
I’m Asian. I’m not Black. I’m not Hispanic.
I wanted to be quick in my defense in showcasing that I was not to be lumped “with these people.”
After, when we all drove home and compared our experiences, I felt shame. I was no better than the people who projected their hatred towards us. To them, we were all the same. If love is blind, perhaps, hatred is too.
This is the point in my story: when I started to listen more to what my parents – and subsequently – the older generations in the Filipino communities, I learned racism isn’t just limited to black and white. My dad is racist. If you look long enough, you’ll find that a lot of older Asians are racist.
Those are loaded statements and rewriting and editing this personal little essay has given me time to recount a million things over the course of my childhood. My “aha moment” wasn’t that I was oblivious but I was “groomed to be intolerant.” I have heard my dad tell racist jokes about different races – Blacks, Mexicans, and Native Americans. It was his “playfulness” and laughing at others’ expenses that may have shielded me from feeling ostracized. My dad’s jokes were limited to other people of color but never white. He wanted to make sure that we “stood out” from everyone else but “mixed in” with the white society. But that’s a different story for another day.
I sat in the car with my friends and let the words and truth sink it. I was complicit in my silence. I was just as much in the wrong for taking that moment and twisting it in my head to where I was “okay” since I was “different.”
But these are my friends. My friends who felt just as ostracized and just as hated for their skin color. My friends who have had to grow up in situations like these that left me shaking. My friends who experience the kind of hatred I was privileged to ignore.
Looking back at my childhood and comparing it with theirs, I’m sure we all had the same experiences. In our friendship circle, there was a lovely display that would make the UN proud. My friends were Africans, South American, Mexican, white and black. But, being the very few Asians in our small town, my family instilled assimilation. My friends questioned their differences when they were growing up with racial tensions but never once were they told to “lose the accent,” or to “be in the background but stand out in your studies.” That’s incredibly admirable to stand proud of your culture and wave your flag, if you have to, and something that I’m embracing. I’m embracing my Filipino culture; which is sad for a thirty-five year old Philippines-born woman to say. I haven’t stepped foot in the Philippines since I was eleven! I’m relearning my culture. I’m learning about the history, the arts, and the current politically charged atmosphere that is happening there.
I’m still the sole Asian in any company I keep – book clubs, small women’s fellowship and mama tribe - but I take my differences and similarities with humor. I’m still fortunate enough that I tend to be “blissfully” or “busily” unaware of the stares or voices around me. Once in a while, I’ll get someone who’ll give me a double take and I know they want to know where I’m from. So, I go ahead and supply it for them. It’s been my knee-jerk reaction since high school.
And yes, there are days where I want to disappear into the background of sameness and wish that my children’s brown skin and almond shaped eyes wouldn’t be questioned. I don’t want to assimilate and lose my cultural identity. I don’t want to take a deep breath and automatically, within the first five minutes of meeting, tell you how and when my parents and I got here in this country.
But I appreciate the question. It means I’ll never be the same. It means I’ll never blend in the background.
So, take your assumptions about me and about the wonderful friends I keep.
We’re not disappearing into the noise any time soon.