What I learned as ‘just another Asian student’

After years of bearing the weirdly empowering label of “other,” Matt learned to embrace his unique upbringing.

Looking back on my rather white childhood in the suburbs of Chicago — that is, equestrian white — always brings about a longing for the comfort in my own skin that was never truly there. 

As one of the only non-white kids in elementary school, I was confronted with the ever-present, futile struggle to blend into a white background.

Every time a caricatured accent or squinty-eyed impression was thrown my way, I’d roll with the laughs to try to convince myself that these things were, indeed, funny. Must be funny if everyone else is laughing, I’d observe, chuckling along with the other kids with a heavy heart.

Photo: Submitted

Being labeled as “other” from a young age created an unconscious sort of disdain for my own culture. A feeling that my immigrant parents could never have imagined or hoped for their children when they first arrived in the United States seeking a better life.

I used to resent sitting in Chinese school on Sunday afternoons. Looking around at my peers who were doomed to the same fate, I’d think, I’ve got to get out of here. I saw myself — or rather, I wanted to see myself — as different from the other Asians. As Nirvana Yarger puts it, I saw myself as not better, exactly, but whiter. And that was better.

I’d be on edge whenever I stepped out into public with Asian family members. If someone were to be raucous in any way, I’d feign smoothness and would remark at them to “chill” to divert attention away from us.

As though our Asian-ness was on a volume dial that could be turned up or down at any given moment. I thanked the universe for my love of singing and theater because these things made me different from what was expected. Distinct from the typical Asian.

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When I started university, the entangled threads of my internalized beliefs began to unravel. One by one, they loosened their grip, exposing cold, difficult truths about my past, buried deep under years of denial and the desire to assimilate.

About two months into freshman year, I realized that my closer circle of friends consisted solely of Asian people. And it terrified me. It confused me. How did this happen? I questioned. I certainly didn’t go out of my way to make only Asian friends. 

I needed to take a step back to fully consider whether or not these were the relationships I wanted to maintain. Not because they weren’t good friends — no, quite the opposite.

Despite the love and support that these wonderful people blessed me with, I felt as if I would be losing my individuality within an Asian friend circle. That my face would be lost among the sea of Asian faces. That I wouldn’t be seen and valued for being, well, me.

Being categorized as “just another Asian student” was petrifying after years of bearing both the tragic and weirdly empowering ramifications of tokenage back home. 

It took nineteen years to begin to own my racial story and tend to my childhood wounds: wounds that I didn’t even know were there in the first place, camouflaged into a background of white.

Today, I dance as part of KPOP groups and make it a professional mission to bring increased POC representation into mainstream media. I’m proud of my unique upbringing as a child of better-life seeking, Communism-escaping immigrants.

I just hope that there comes a day when the Asian kid out there in the middle of nowhere won’t have to sift through so much psychological debris to feel the same way.

Photo: Submitted

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