Not Quite Asian Enough?

Camera installation outside the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, CA

I’m used to being the token Asian at gatherings. I grew up that way. Growing up in small town Louisiana, I yearned to be part of a community of Asians-Americans to whom I wasn’t related. That was one of the reasons I was thrilled to attend V3Con: to meet Asian-American journalists and bloggers. So why did mingling in a sea of Asian-Americans felt like I was wearing an ill-fitting dress?

I knew the attendees would be diverse in age, ethnicity (within the AAPI designation), and lifestyle. I had no illusions of jumping in a crowd of “my people” and being embraced as a long lost sister. A majority of the people I met grew up and/or lived in California. They seemed comfortable in a crowd of other Asian-Americans. They seemed comfortable in their own skin and who they were. Like they never had to defend their Asian-ness to their classmates (but we all have). Or their friends have always loved eating pho or kimchi, and not when it became cool to eat such deliciousness. Like they grew up with Asian friends, but not because being Asian was a requirement, but because they had more choices than just the black and white kids in school.

Those were my thoughts, further compounded by my insecurity of not knowing more than a handful of people. Of course, that further added to my introvert tendencies. It wasn’t the conference’s fault. The conference was a great platform for Asian American digital media community. I made myself feel this way. I didn’t plan on it. It just happened without me realizing it.

From Visible & Invisible exhibit at Japanese American National Museum: a page from the open journals where guests can leave their thoughts.

Being in Los Angeles brought back the yearnings and regrets from my youth. Should I have attended a college with a larger Asian American population, like I originally wanted to but stayed closer to home for my mother? Or should I have tried to date an Asian boy during my college years, assuming that I could find one I was attracted to at my university? Or maybe I should have tried harder to fit in with my large, Asian-sized extended family, instead of growing up as the nerdy kid with a her nose always in a book? How would I feel about my Asian-ness if I had been surrounded by more Asian friends? If I had grown up in California, would the history of WWII Japanese-American internment been taught in my class, instead of me seeking it out and being chastised by my history teacher because it wasn’t in our textbook? Or maybe I should have majored in Asian American studies instead of theatre during college?

Of course it’s too late to spend much time strolling down these lanes of regret and what ifs. In truth, I felt a little intimidated by all the Asian Americans conference attendees–as a whole. They seemed to wear their Asian-ness like a well loved leather glove. I let my inner gremlins keep me from wearing my extroverted hat that I put on during conferences. Even though I no longer felt physically short among the crowd, I felt my Asian-American experiences lacking compared to theirs.

Store front’s history written on sidewalk in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles,CA

On the long flight home back to Washington, DC, I looked within to understand why I felt this way. I know that being Asian-American is not my main identity. My ethnicity merely shaped how I see things around me and how others see me. I’m more complex than a check mark on the census form.

Mostly, I’ve been thinking about my Hapa kids: half black, half Asian and 100% American. My feelings from this weekend reaffirmed why it’s so important for me to raise them in a ethnically and culturally diverse metropolitan area. My daughter might not be surrounded by a lot of Hapa kids in her class, but she won’t be the token biracial kid in her school. While she may not see Hapa kids, Asian kids, or even black kids as part of her “tribe” now, but as she grows, she will search for a group in which to belong. Sometimes the lines are drawn by interests or activities; other times they are drawn because of race or culture. This will ebb and flow throughout her journey.

I’m not sure how my kids will self-identify once they realize they can choose (or refuse to choose one over the other). While I may occasionally feel that I’ve missed out by growing up in rural Louisiana, I know that my Asian-American experiences is what I make of it. I want my kids to be one of many biracial kids in a community that they love and can call their home.

I want my kids to have a better life than one the in which I grew up. Like any other parent. It just feels a little more complex right now.