Up until I was 17 years old, I never questioned my identity. I considered myself “Asian-American”, and that was it. Sometimes people would ask me my ethnicity, but they never probed beyond that.
Growing up in the American midwest, I was often one of the few Asian kids in school. I had a lot more Caucasian friends than Asian friends. But even then, I always felt like I belonged.
Perhaps because nobody questioned my identity. Nobody asked me where I was really from, or whether I was an American or not.
Since there isn’t much of a foreigner community in Oklahoma, people tend to automatically assume everyone they meet is a local. There aren’t many reasons for foreigners to travel to or live in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma racial and ethnic composition in 2010:
- White: 72.2%
- Black or African American: 7.4%
- Native American: 8.6%
- Asian: 1.7% (0.4% Vietnamese, 0.3% Indian, 0.2% Chinese, 0.2% Korean, 0.2% Filipino, 0.1% Hmong, 0.1% Japanese)
- Pacific Islander: 0.1%
- Two or more races: 4.7%
Living in Belgium:
It wasn’t until I moved abroad to Belgium as a high school exchange student that I started getting questioned about my background.
Everyone would ask me, “Where are you from?”
I came to realize I couldn’t simply respond, “I’m from the United States.” Because I’m Asian, people weren’t satisfied with that answer. But at the same time, I couldn’t reply “Vietnam” either because I wasn’t an exchange student from Vietnam. I knew I would always have to give a two part answer to satisfy people’s curiosity.
“Je suis américaine, mais mon origine est vietnamienne.” (I’m American, but my origin is Vietnamese.)
If I was Caucasian, I could just say, “I’m from the United States,” and people wouldn’t question it. Even if my ethnicity was German or Danish.
I began to realize most foreigners have a mental image of Americans to be Caucasian. So although I’m American, I knew I would never seem like it to foreigners.
The moment that made me start questioning my identity was when a Belgian man told me I wasn’t a “real American”. I didn’t even know how to respond. For the 17 years leading up to that moment, nobody had ever said that to me.
But if I wasn’t a “real American”, then what was I? A fake American?
A part of me wished there was a more diverse group of American exchange students to help people realize not all Americans are Caucasian.
When I lived in Belgium and traveled around Europe, people would always assume I was Chinese or Japanese. Sometimes there would be people randomly greeting me with “ni hao” or “konnichiwa”. At first, I shrugged it off, but then it started to bother me a little. I began feeling frustrated that I didn’t look “American” like my fellow comrades.
I experienced something similar when I traveled to the Dominican Republic as well. People would refer to me as “Cheena“(Chinese). This didn’t offend me as much as it annoyed me, though.
It wasn’t until my first year of college at Oklahoma State University that I started getting involved in the Asian-American community. Unlike my primary and secondary schools, my university was fairly diverse.
I ended up making a lot of Asian-American friends. It felt great finding a group of people who I could relate to as an Asian-American because of our similar upbringing.
Living in South Korea:
After college, I decided to move to South Korea to teach English. My experience living in Asia has been interesting. Since I’m Asian, I blend in with the locals. People tend to assume I’m Korean until they start talking to me. Unlike with other Americans, people don’t come up to me and randomly say “hello”. I only experience this when I’m with my non-Asian friends.
This to me is both a blessing and a curse.
The blessing is I fit in more than my Caucasian friends. The locals don’t automatically try to speak to me in English. This will be beneficial once I can actually speak Korean.
The curse is I think the locals expect me to know Korean just because I look Korean. I imagine for Korean-Americans who don’t speak Korean, the pressure to know Korean is even worst.
I actually experienced the opposite of this when I lived in Belgium. The same guy who told me I’m not a “real American” also said he doesn’t expect my French to be as good as the Brazilian exchange student’s.
When you look similar to the native speakers, there’s more pressure for you to be able to understand and speak their language.
In South Korea, a lot of people tend to assume I’m part Caucasian when I tell them I’m American. I’ve gotten some shocked faces when I tell people I’m full Asian, and that both my parents are Vietnamese.
Traveling in South East Asia:
I recently traveled through SE Asia with my friend Eunice, a Hong Konger-Candian, and my new friend David, a Vietnamese-Canadian. The three of us traveled together for a few weeks.
At first, it was only Eunice and I traveling together. But after we met David in our Cambodian hostel room, he joined us as well. David said it was easier for him to connect with us because we shared a similar background.
While traveling together, we realized there weren’t many other Asian-Americans or Asian-Canadians. Almost all the other backpackers from North America were Caucasian.
Most of the backpackers automatically assumed we were locals who couldn’t speak English and therefore only approached the other western-looking backpackers.
Although we looked like the locals, we couldn’t fit in with them because we didn’t know their language or customs. And although we shared the same culture as the backpackers, we couldn’t fit in with them because we didn’t look like them.
We felt like we could only relate to each other.
I wrote this post not to complain about being Asian-American, but rather to share my experience in hopes that others might be able to relate. It’s comforting to know someone out there also shares the same experience as you.
And although I’ve faced some struggles with my Asian-American identity, I still believe living in two cultures is ultimately a blessing.