By: Grace Yang
“You’re, like, the whitest Asian person I’ve ever met. Like, you don’t even qualify as Asian at this point; you’re just another white girl in an Asian body.” This was all too common to hear from my white friends, as though it was a compliment, an honor that I be seen as one of them and not as an “other.” What does any of that even mean? And, more specifically, how was I supposed to navigate that barrage of existential questioning at the pivotal age of 14? How is one supposed to act “white” or “Asian” or any other ethnically-based modifier for that matter? Is one supposed to be “better” than the next? What does it mean if I don’t fit into any of the boxes? I clearly wasn’t white, but who was I if I also wasn’t Asian?
Growing up adopted, I had so many people sharing their (often unasked for) ideas about what they expected of me. My teachers often poorly veiled their disappointments when I expressed my desire to pursue a creative career, rather than something in the STEM field or medicine. I was known to be an “exemplary student” in my dance and music lessons, but at what cost to my mental and physical health? This doesn’t even begin to explore the expectations people set for me as a young Asian woman, especially when I challenged those preconceived ideas. My midwestern, scandinavian upbringing certainly didn’t match up with people’s expectations for someone who looked like me. These various expectations wound their way into my heart and mind, and often pulled me in conflicting directions, leaving me only feeling used and constricted. It was in distant relatives placing me on a pedestal as the exotic charity case, waiting for me to make some great achievement to prove just how much I had “beaten the odds” thanks to my gracious “second chance” at life in America. It was in teachers who shoehorned me into helping the Chinese and Korean exchange students, despite English being my only language, leaving all of us confused, frustrated, and feeling even more awkward than before. It was in friends (mostly white) who I strove so hard to fit in with, going as far as laughing along with their racist “jokes” in order to seem like the “cool” brown friend-the one who could “take a joke.” It was in music and dance teachers holding me up as a shining example of a model student. It was in coworkers who gave up trying to understand a group of Asian guests and pushed me towards them because “you’ll understand them, because…you know.” It was in the media, with their hyper-sexualized schoolgirls and their katana-wielding warriors.
Somehow, I was supposed to be an academic and creative prodigy, an intercultural mediator, the embodiment of male fantasy, and a grateful, groveling poster child for adoption, all while maintaining enough of a “sense of humor” to find jabs at me (and the stereotypes imposed upon me) amusing. As loved as I was by my white adoptive family, I never felt as though I was truly one of them, because quite frankly, I’m not. Family reunions are painful memories for me, being ooh-ed and ahh-ed over by distant relatives who are happy to see the foreign charity case flourishing, eager to pat themselves on the back for having such a benevolent sister brave enough to take on the burden of raising an “ethnic” child. On the other hand, I was ripped from my family of origin just days after birth, so I didn’t have any cultural mentors to look up to either; I had nobody to show me how to defy stereotypes and find my own unique voice as an Asian American.
It wasn’t until I reached college and started on my own journey of self-discovery that I started realizing just how ridiculous these expectations were, not to mention many of their roots in xenophobia and tokenization. If I failed a test, it was because I’m just a normal student-it had nothing to do with me failing the legacy of all of the high-achieving Asian American students before me. Of course I wasn’t just born with some telekinetic abilities to communicate with all other Asians in my vicinity, and that’s also super racist to assume that I was. I don’t have to choose between being a submissive, docile waif or a kung fu prodigy like Western media told me, and even better, I didn’t have to be either of those things if I didn’t want to be. Most importantly, I began to find my voice that I could use to call out these outdated expectations. No longer did I have to sit by and politely laugh when my “friends” asked me for the 47th time that week “how do Asian people name their kids?” (the grossly racist answer is “they throw a pan down the stairs” for those who didn’t have such awful childhood friends). Somewhere along in the process, I learned that I don’t HAVE to be or do ANY of these things, and I don’t HAVE to prove my Asian identity to anyone or any institution. I am allowed to proudly occupy space as an Asian American woman. I am allowed to be sometimes ditzy, sometimes outspoken, sometimes bookish, sometimes wild, sometimes whatever-I-want-to-be, multifaceted human being. It’s time to stop confining ourselves to and defining ourselves with the boxes we’re placed in by those around us. It’s time that we start redefining who we are as individuals, rather than letting those around us tell us what we ought to be as Asian Americans. (Though, I won’t lie, it would be pretty cool to learn how to wield a katana.)
Grace Yang is a freelance theatre artist from the Twin Cities. Adopted from China as a baby, she has spent her life learning about the Scandinavian culture that surrounded her while trying to honor her roots as a Chinese woman. She is a graduate of the University of Northwestern with a degree in Theatre and Dance. When she is not working on a show, you can usually find her writing in one of the Twin Cities’ many coffee shops or snuggling with her cat, Fidget.