Over the past couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking as to where I fit within the Asian/Asian-American community. Blogs like Angry Asian Girls United and This Is Not Pilipinx have been great resources that have really helped me think about who I am and where I stand. In honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, I wanted to share my thoughts on growing up Asian-American and trying to figure out where I belong.
As a Filipino-American who grew up in a predominantly white Texas suburb, I’ve often struggled with my racial identity. Sometimes I feel connected to my culture but a lot of times I don’t. I’m well-accustomed to Manny Pacquiao boxing watch parties and the never-ending servings of lechon and lumpia that can be found there, but I can barely speak a word of Tagalog and I haven’t visited the Philippines in nearly six years. I feel like an outsider even within my own culture — if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told that I don’t look Filipino, I’d be able to pay my college tuition.
Not only do I feel like an outsider within Filipino culture, but I’ve also struggled to find my place within Asian culture and American culture. There are certain perceptions that go along with each group, and those perceptions are largely influenced by media and pop culture. Asians are often depicted in movies and television as small, pale nerds who are great at math and obsessed with their grades. Most speak with an accent or have some other quirk that sets them apart, and that quirk is usually played for laughs.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Asians who can identify with that. If you see some semblance of yourself in the characters you see on television, that’s great! I’m glad you can relate. But what about those of us who can’t? I rarely see Asians portrayed as something other than the awkward geek, and as someone who feels like they don’t fit into that stereotype, it kind of sucks. I wish I could see myself better represented in the media.
Of course, there have been a few bright spots when it comes to Asian media representation. Shay Mitchell, who is half Filipino, is well-known for her role as Emily Fields in ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars. Lucy Liu is great as Joan Watson on CBS’ Elementary. Arden Cho plays ass-kicking kitsune Kira Yukimura on MTV’s Teen Wolf (one of my favorite guilty pleasure shows). And ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, based on the memoir of chef Eddie Huang, has also been making some waves (no pun intended). The show has gotten some flack from the public on how it portrays Asians, but Constance Wu, who plays Jessica Huang, brought up an interesting point in an interview for TIME Magazine:
We shouldn’t be a voice for all Asians. We are such a varied group that there’s no one show that can be like, “This is what Asian America looks like!” But we’re given that burden because we’re so rarely represented. If you see Tina Fey on television, you’re not like, “All white women are like Tina Fey.” Yet people are like, “Oh, Jessica Huang’s not like my mother, but this show is supposed to be about Asians, so shouldn’t she be like my mother?”
I understand the burden, because the history of our representation on TV is very sparse. But we’d be doing a disservice to the people who are worried about that by watering it down instead of trying to be specific. Specificity is what makes good storytelling, and good storytelling is what makes money, and making money is then what encourages new producers to invest in different stories about Asians.
Wu sums it up pretty well: since Asian-American stories are rarely seen in Western media, the few Asian-focused movies or TV shows that exist are seen as all-encompassing, even though these shows offer just one perspective out of many. Although there has been some recent strides with diversity in television, we still have a long way to go. Arden Cho, who I mentioned earlier, came to my university last year to speak about her experiences as an Asian-American in the entertainment industry. She spoke about the relative scarcity of complex roles for Asians and that Asian women in particular are often limited to roles such as “massage therapist” or “sexy girl #2.” It’s pretty disheartening.
Not only is lack of diversity harmful when it comes to how people of color are perceived by others, but I think to some extent it affects how people of color see themselves. I hate the idea of being boxed into a stereotype and I think to some extent that’s affected how I present myself to others. My friends, the majority of whom are white, used to joke around and say that I’m a “fail Asian” and that I’m basically white. I used to agree with them and laugh along, but now I’m not so sure I feel the same way. Why was I so happy about not fitting into the Asian stereotype at all? Why was I strangely proud of the fact that my parents didn’t have strong accents and were relatively lenient with me about my grades? I don’t know what I was trying to prove, or who I was trying to prove myself to. And this is something I still struggle with. I feel like I’m eager to distance myself from my Asian heritage so I can differentiate myself, but I shouldn’t have to do that. I shouldn’t have to deny my heritage in order to be seen as something more than a stereotype.
There’s a lot of things I’m still learning about and still trying to understand. I’ll still catch myself wishing my nose wasn’t so flat, or I’ll hear a comment and find it offensive, but I won’t be able to put my finger on why. Finding my place in Filipino culture, Asian culture, and American culture is a process that I’m just getting started on.*
Thanks for reading! Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments.
*This post mainly focuses on my personal experiences and how pop culture/the media in particular has influenced me. I still have a lot to learn, but here are a few readings I’ve found that pertain to me and might pertain to you too. If you know of any more, please feel free to share!
- Here is a collection of resources compiled by Angry Asian Girls United that would be useful to those interested in Asian perspectives on race.
- TIME Magazine: “The Real Problem When It Comes to Diversity and Asian-Americans”
- LA Times: “Asian Americans and the ‘model minority’ myth”