I Asian American. by Amanda Liew


My brother and I circa my sassy days.

While "YOSYO" (You Only Senior Year Once) is usually a term reserved for paaaaaaartying, I've oddly applied the seize-the-day mentality to my education at Penn. This semester I decided to broaden my interests a little bit by taking Digital Photography, but I also decided to sign up for Asian American Communities - a subject I never thought I would look into during my life time.

Admittedly, I originally signed up for Asian American Communities to fulfill a graduation requirement through Civic Scholars. I've always been uncomfortable about my ethnicity and have always struggled with my self-identity (case in point: when asked the question, "Where are you from?"). Despite my hesitation to take a class where I'd have to talk about a community I didn't fully identify with, due to scheduling, not really liking the other course descriptions, and this nagging thought in my brain that You really should do this before you graduate, I signed up for the course. Even during the first week, I was ready to bolt and run. But that panic in itself made me realize something was wrong. Why was I so uncomfortable with the idea of even participating in a discussion about Asian Americans? Why have I spent my entire life trying to distance myself more and more from my ethnicity?  I've been mulling over these questions for the past four years, and I figured it was now or never. I needed to face my own issues head on.

Growing up, I quickly noticed that I was different. I remember asking my mom, "Why didn't God make me beautiful with blonde hair and blue eyes?" From such an early age, I saw and defined beauty as Caucasian. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I was in schools where Asians were a minority, but that wasn't a huge problem for me. At my chinese church, however, I was part of a completely Asian American community. Through a SPECTACULAR youth group, my entire life trajectory changed when I rededicated myself to God, grew constantly in my faith alongside amazing friends, and developed a phenomenal community that completely embraced me. Still, even with all of these amazing components, part of me was uncomfortable hanging out with my church friends outside of church. There was this imaginary scenario that always popped into my head: I would be at the UTC mall with my Asian American friends, and one of my non-Asian friends from school would see us as a group. He/she wouldn't even recognize me! Rather, he/she would just see us as "that group of Asians over there." For me, that was my biggest fear. That even being physically present with other Asians would lead to an instant loss of self-identity. I would no longer be "Amanda," I would just be "one of those Asians."

This thought terrified me. I have to admit, it often still does. I'm still overly aware at all times of the Asian to non Asian ratio in the group I'm with. The lower that ratio, the less anxiety I feel. Sometimes I actually prefer to be the only Asian in a group - perfectly happy to be the "token Asian." Because to me, that gives me more of an individuality. I'm noticed as an individual both for being Amanda, and for being the only Asian.

This is messed up. And this is wrong.

I always knew that this attitude was wrong in the back of my head, but I feel like only in the recent past and mainly because of this class do I now acknowledge it fully. It's something I still struggle with, though. You can't instantly shake fears. You can't always get rid of insecurities just by willing them away.

The difference, now: I realize I'm not alone. And I say that in more ways than one. First off, from the stories of my classmates and other Asian Americans in our research, I realize that the way I feel about my ethnicity and heritage is part of a multitude of different feelings and struggles other Asian Americans have. There are the Asian Americans who feel that they will never be accepted by other races, there are the Asian Americans who prefer to be part of an Asian American community because of commonality and tradition, there are Asian Americans who grew up in predominantly white communities but now embrace their opportunity to join an Asian American community at Penn, there are Asian Americans who look down on others who try to be "more white," there are Asian Americans who believe in assimilating as quickly as possible, and yes, there are other Asian Americans like myself who often identify more with the "American" part of our name than the "Asian." I am discovering that there is no one way Asian Americans are supposed to feel. I used to think that I didn't identify with Asian Americans because they didn't feel the same way I did. They loved being Asian Americans! They embraced it! It was great! But that's not how I felt. And therefore I wasn't like "them." But there is no unifying "them." There is no unifying attitude. It isn't "I hate being Asian American" vs "I love being Asian American." There's a lot more in between.

All of this leads to the second part of my realization. I've come to see that despite these very different struggles (and often opposing attitudes), no matter how much I try to run away from it, I am still a part of the Asian American community. Whether it benefits me or hurts me, I look Asian. My mother is from China. My father is from Malaysia. My children will be (at least) half Asian. And my grandchildren will be (at least) a quarter Asian. And because of this, we will face struggles. The world is far from perfect, and America is far from being in a post-racial country. Before joining this class, I didn't think Asian Americans had all that many problems, and it wasn't a pressing issue. Suddenly, though, I'm learning about refugees, attacks on South Philadelphia High School Asian students, entire generations being harmed by the "model minority" myth, and more. I'm learning about the murder of Vincent Chin, where he was brutally murdered days before his wedding in a racially charged attack. Vincent Chin was every bit as much an Asian and every bit as much an American as I am. So what makes me so different?

These stories have made me realize why I should care about the Asian American community and its struggles. Because I shouldn't have to feel conscious about the race ratio around me. Because it's not right that there is so little representation of Asian Americans in the media or Hollywood. Because it's unbelievable that Asian Americans still struggle to get elected to office. Because barely any schools teach about the internment of 110,000 innocent Japanese Americans during World War II. Because it really sucks that if things don't change, there's a chance my own children will grow up being embarrassed of me because I gave them their Asian features. I am part of a much larger picture. Being Asian American doesn't fall into a cookie cutter mold like I used to think. And while my problems and Asian American problems won't be going away any time soon, I can at least take the small steps towards accepting myself and embracing my heritage in the way I wish to.

So here it is. The statement I've been running from, but now want to accept: I am an Asian American.

DSC_0029My brother and I circa my I-wish-I-were-still-sassy-days