On being ABC (part 1/2): It’s called “internalized racism”

ABC: American-born Chinese. A term widely used to refer to American citizens of Chinese descent, excluding first-generation immigrants. 

I was in middle school when I first realized that the popular kids were mostly white, and that these social groups seemed to have a quota of at most one or two “token Asians.” Growing up, I had two separate groups of friends. One group was entirely Chinese, and we were brought together by our parents’ friendship. We bonded over the many hours spent together during multi-family weekend parties featuring long nights of food and card games, and our parents’ favorite topic of conversation: us. We learned to look appropriately modest or ashamed as we were alternately praised for good grades or scolded for disappointing SAT scores in snappy Chinese that was always a few decibels above the indoor voices we had been taught to use in school. After heaping platefuls of rice and stir fry, the kids would crowd around a TV in someone’s basement to play hours of Super Smash Bros, or run around and play aggressive games of tag or capture the flag.  Separate from my Chinese friends were my school friends – the people I first would have named as my friends – mostly white with the occasional other Chinese girl or Indian guy. We were generally good students (though not obsessed with grades), with a smattering of musical and athletic talent, who listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and hung out at the mall. We skipped class to go to Gimme! Coffee, and gossiped about crushes – average American teenager stuff.

Despite my attempts at social integration, I never felt like I entirely fit in with my school friends. I observed enviously my friends’ easygoing relationships with their parents, marveling at their jokes and casual banter. In contrast, I would correct my mother’s broken English and ask why we couldn’t order pizza for dinner.  I fumed at my parents’ overprotectiveness and rejected their lack of acceptable reasons why I couldn’t go to sleepovers or school dances. Maybe people would think I was less of a nerd if they didn’t make me skip two years ahead in math and play the violin. Did they even want me to have friends?

Since graduating high school, I’ve spent the last decade in elite academic institutions that pride themselves on their diversity, yet have become the recent focus of a national debate about “reverse racism” and discrimination against Asian Americans in the admission process. In college, I had my first exposure to cliques of “fobby” (fresh-off-the-boat) Asians. With their distinctive clothes and haircuts, and their animated chatter in their mother tongues, they were hard to miss – eating sushi at the dining hall, smoking cigarettes outside the libraries, handing out sticks of Pocky to recruit new students to cultural clubs. My first instinct was to distance myself for fear of being perceived as one of them. I hoped that by evading them, I would evade their stereotypes. I knew that from my appearance, people would already make assumptions about me, and I didn’t want to be seen as even more of an outsider. No, I’m not from China. I was actually born right here, in Ithaca. I wanted to say, “Can’t you tell from my Birkenstocks and my lack of accent? I’m just as American as you.” It wasn’t so much that I thought myself better than the recent immigrants and foreign transplants. I just assumed that we wouldn’t have much in common and that I wouldn’t connect to them. I felt that I had much more in common with my white, American peers and was eager to fit in with them.

To quote Wesley Yang’s fantastic 2011 piece in New York Magazine:

Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.

I’ve always been of two minds about this sequence of stereotypes. On the one hand, it offends me greatly that anyone would think to apply them to me, or to anyone else, simply on the basis of facial characteristics. On the other hand, it also seems to me that there are a lot of Asian people to whom they apply.

I understand why stereotypes occur, but there’s something more sinister about applying stereotypes to your own ethnic group and using them as justification for social segregation.

But one of the great things about college is that it brings people together, not only to learn with each other, but also about each other. Through assigned lab partners and peer-editing of narrative essays I realized that the fobby Asians frequently defied the stereotypes I held and weren’t any more homogeneous than the European students, or the Americans I grew up with. A few years ago, my brother completed a Masters program where the student body was heavily international, and he told me he came to a similar realization that just because it’s not easy to communicate with someone, it doesn’t mean that you can write them off as not having a personality or that you can assume they embody the stereotypes of their ethnic groups. Many foreigners socially clustered, not because they always chose to associate with their own, but because it was difficult for them to penetrate any other social circle (no thanks to people like me…).

I learned that, as progressive as I liked to consider myself, I was not free from bias. And I learned that the term that described the self-loathing for and rejection of my own heritage was “internalized racism.” The idea that I had subconsciously accepted society’s negative stereotypes of my own ethnic group and associated feelings of inferiority as being part of that group. And the subconscious part is important. I would have scoffed had someone pointed out that I thought Asians were inferior to any other race, nor would I have blatantly admitted my bias towards seeking white friends. These were never things that I said aloud. They were ideals that subtly permeated my mind, but powerfully directed my decisions. I have only too-recently realized just how deeply ingrained these ideas were, as I slowly grew out of them. I’m fortunate that in growing up, I have learned to become more comfortable with who I am (though I probably still have much growing to do!). A large part of it is not feeling as much pressure to “fit in” as when I was a lonely kid or angsty teen. Another part is just growing up and realizing that the loudest person standing in the biggest group in the room isn’t always the one saying the most valuable things.

It also helps that aspects of Asian culture that were once rejected (remember the cafeteria scene from the trailer of Fresh of the Boat?) are now more culturally accepted or valued. Asian foods such as dim-sum and pho or ramen are now hip. Public schools offer Mandarin alongside Spanish, French, and German. Korean beauty brands fill shelves at Sephora. It took me way too long to realize the value of my heritage. I regret that I wasn’t more diligent in trying to learn Chinese. I regret that the Chinese dishes I try to make are bland in comparison to my mother’s. That when I catch a cold, I call her to ask her what medicine to take because even though I could never read the labels, the powders and pills she gave me always seemed to make me feel better. Now, when I bring my friends to meet my mom, they always comment on how warm and welcoming she is, and not on her Chinglish (or they find it funny and charming).

I’m trying to get better, but I’ll also be the first to admit that there are times and circumstances under which I still struggle. I struggle with how Asian Americans fit into our national conversation about issues of race and oppression (this entirely merits a discussion of its own), and I’m sometimes conflicted when it comes to dating. My brother and I recently had a conversation about dating while Asian (someone should write a sitcom?). After acknowledging that Asian men (and black women) were most often socially penalized while dating, I complained about the prevalence of white men with Asian wives in academia, and how I didn’t want to be lumped with with the other Asian significant others. And I definitely didn’t want to be seen as the fetishized romantic interest of a guy with “yellow fever.” I am terrified of being perceived as a pretty, docile, submissive, exotic counterpart who worships white men. I wonder if white men who are culturally aware ever hesitate to get romantically involved with me for fear of similar perceptions, and whether this ever leads to missed connections.

Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them I’ve never been romantically involved with an Asian guy, though I explain it’s not for lack of trying or interest on my part. I can list off my explanations (excuses?). There are simply more non-Asian guys around, I connect more easily with those who have Westernized cultural values, I’m pursued less often by Asian guys, and more Westernized or “white-washed” Asian guys tend to be attracted to white girls. My brother agreed, arguing that it bothered him that attraction isn’t entirely innate, and was to some degree culturally learned. That everything from Hollywood to his peers enforced norms of attraction that were not favorable to Asians. We briefly mused about our future challenges if(for me)/when(for him) we were to have families of our own.

When I look inward, I believe that I have taken strides towards a more healthy acceptance of my identity as an Asian-American. I am able to reflect more deeply upon my cultural biases to understand how they have informed, and continue to inform, my behavior. And lastly, I have been trying to engage others – Asian-American and otherwise – in this conversation because cultural change does not happen single-handedly, but only when we share and listen to each other.

Read On Being ABC (part 2/2) here.

**In this blog post, I’ve linked multiple times to Wong Fu Production’s amazing new miniseries, Yappie. There are five ~20 minute episodes, and I would highly recommend checking them out. Episode 4 is my favorite. LINK TO THE TRAILER HERE.

About evajge

A friend once told me that all I eat is chocolate and cheese. I was both disturbed and amused to realize that he was right.
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