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Our Stories Are a Song: Asian American Women Speak on Our Experience

"Take pride and take space."
Photo of Jenny Wang's daughter, reposted here with her permission. Follow Jenny at @asiansformentalhealth.

Photo of Jenny Wang's daughter, reposted here with her permission. Follow Jenny at @asiansformentalhealth.

There was a summer when I played Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” on repeat, blasting the song out my window as I drove along the Gulf Coast to my hostessing job at an aging resort on the beach. I thought of Zooey Deschanel’s character in “Almost Famous,” playing the record for her beleaguered mother as an explanation for why she was leaving home to become a flight attendant. How America, in that instance, became a stand-in for promise. For yearning.

This stanza, in particular, made me choke in recognition:

"Kathy, I'm lost", I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I'm empty and aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all come to look for America

Finding America, even an idealized version of it, was a promise rooted in whiteness, referencing a heritage that seemed nearly unreachable for me. As a Vietnamese American woman, I ached for my America.

On the eve of high school graduation, while my peers were dreaming about trips to Mexico and Europe as celebratory jaunts, I wanted to take a road trip across the country. My family didn’t travel much—at all—and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.

“Why not?” my high school boyfriend, who was white, asked. “We can rent a van. Or we could drive a semi-truck for money. My uncle did it for a summer.”

His voice lifted with excitement. He described yawning roads, motels that looked like stills from 1970s films, nights spent under stars that dimpled into the dark. He’d photograph abandoned buildings while I wrote, the backdrop of the Great American West behind us. What 17-year-old wouldn’t get caught up in that sepia romance?

But I had to tell him it was impossible. I don’t think I explained it at the time (I didn’t have the words), but I knew instinctively that I would not fare well on such a trip. The roads are not kind to women who look like me. That is, not white. I couldn’t camp like a vagabond, escape notice in unfamiliar places, skirt the danger of white supremacy laying in wake. That dream was not mine, though my boyfriend would not have known it unless I told him.

I think of that summer often. As a kid on the verge of everything, my dreams should have been boundless. Instead, I was circumscribed by a palpable fear of what might happen if I wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time. I learned to make myself smaller, so that I could be safe.

Over the years, I’ve leaned into a mold, made my flesh pliable, my stories quieter. For years, I sat through holidays as my white relatives played 'A Christmas Story' on repeat. I’d brace myself for the scene at the Chinese restaurant with the duck. I can still feel the press of the couch against my back, the way I shrank myself, hoping to escape notice, smiling faintly as waves of laughter rose at the expense of the Chinese restaurant owner. I emerged from interactions like that with a voice I didn’t always recognize. How to love something so alienated from your own soul?

Some of my grief lies in my lost years, the ones where I tried to find value in a proximity to whiteness, though that doesn’t compare to the tragedy of lives actually lost to racial violence. Disappeared. Erased.

In the wake of the horrific, targeted murders of Asian American women in Atlanta, and continued violence against the Asian American community, I read many compelling things from my peers. One refrain I kept hearing was this: We can take up space. It’s okay to be loud. We can overwrite the tired narratives with our own stories.

A photo taken at a protest showed a young girl holding up a sign of a Sandra Oh quote: It’s an honor just to be Asian. Seeing that photo was the first time I cried since the Atlanta murders. It felt like recognition and release.

It was only in the past two years that I asked my relatives to stop playing 'A Christmas Story.' It was a small way for me to let go of the conditioned shame and silence imposed on me over the years. I should have done it a lot sooner.

Now, I reject those familiar tropes: studious Asians, sexpot Asians, timid Asians, stingy Asians, Asians who can’t drive, et cetera. They have nothing to do with me. When I asked for stories from other Asian American women, I received messages that were full of texture and richness. They moved me beyond measure, as I hope they will move you. To me, these women's voices are a song and offering, not to a white majority, but to each other.

What I know is this: We never needed to go looking for America. America should have been looking for us all along. Below are stories that were graciously shared with me by friends and the cupcakes and cashmere community. Some were condensed for clarity, but you can read their full stories here and in the links below. I hope you find beauty and strength, and even a sense of resonance, in them:

TW: Stories include instances of racism, slurs, and microaggressions.

You could grow up in an area with a large community of AAPI people, but have a completely different experience from other Asian Americans. Even though I grew up in the Bay Area, which has a large population of Asian Americans, I lived in an area that was predominately white. I always felt disconnected from my Chinese American identity. Now as an adult, I'm unlearning my sense of denial and hatred for myself, and starting to feel a sense of pride for being Chinese American. However, I still feel like I don't fully fit in. I have an Asian American boyfriend and Asian American friends who grew up in predominantly AAPI communities, feel proud of their racial identities, and have the ability to speak another language. Either way, I feel a sense of isolation and loneliness in my experience. Read Bri’s full story >

Lately I've been reflecting on how being a Multiracial Asian woman has meant that I have had so many harmful stereotypes projected on my body and personhood since I was a child; that the pendulum of white supremacy swings between yellow peril and model minority back and forth and I am caught in the middle getting struck over and over again. And I have been settling into the knowledge that I have inherited a lineage of strength, beauty, and power from my mother, and her mother, and her mother's mother, and on and on ... I am weaving these ties to my ancestors together like a net and sometimes I am able to catch that pendulum to stop it from beating me down. And in that silence, when the pendulum stops swinging, I get to say who I am.

I honestly cannot ever recall seeing an Asian American even smile once in any television show or movie or music video. And I certainly never saw an Asian depicted outdoors. Imagine going your whole childhood and never seeing anyone who looked like you smile? Look around us—just about every hurt we see in the news is caused by a person’s lack of curiosity about their fellow human beings, a lack of wonder. How could I not want to set the groundwork for my sons so they grow to be curious adults who let themselves be filled with awe, unapologetically. How could I not wish to celebrate and cultivate wonder now?

I am a fourth generation Japanese American who grew up in Hawaii on the island of Oahu. Like many in Hawaii, my great-grandparents left Japan to come to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane fields in the late 1800s. My family has been here for over 100 years, and what I would like everyone to know about my experience as an Asian American is that not everyone has immigrant parents or even immigrant grandparents. Growing up as a Japanese American, my parents and grandparents spoke English. I had to learn Japanese by studying it in high school. Read Cheryl's full story >

As an AAPI woman in America, there is often a lot of “proving” you feel you must do. Proving you are American enough, proving racism, proving your worth when no one in the room looks like you; and we carry the burdens of harmful stereotypes and the model minority myth. We live in a country we call home but often treats us as a perpetual foreigner. I do believe we are at a tipping point and for many Asians who have often been told not to “rock the boat,” we are here, speaking up, telling our stories and seeking change.

When people find out I am Korean, they often say, “Oh, I love K-pop” or “Omgosh, I love K-drama! Have you seen...?” Honestly, I don’t watch K-drama nor listen to K-pop. I feel like I’m disappointing them in not being Korean enough, but I also don’t feel American enough.

It's almost embarrassing to admit this: I didn't even know I could be considered a POC until college. It's reckonings like this that make me both grateful and resentful for my sheltered lifestyle in suburbia. It also means that there are years and countless encounters that are now being resifted through my educated and cultured mind. I shift back and forth between being angry at myself and angry at the world. Why didn't I stand up for myself? Why didn't someone stand up for me? If I could, I would hug my younger self and tell her that she is cherished and authentically her own being. Your ethnic identity is not to be a crutch, but an outlasting source of joy and culture. Take pride and take space. Read Eunice’s full story >

I am a half Vietnamese, half white American woman who forgets what I look like until I see a double take or curious sidelong glance, especially when I'm with my white mother. I have been called yellow, banana, Hapa, different, and exotic; I have been urged, asked, and encouraged to be the "diverse" person in the room. I have nearly always been made to feel unwelcome in AAPI-focused communities, not wholly "Asian enough" there, and yet so often a token of that same culture to the other. The deep complexity of my experience as an AAPI woman in America is one of constantly reconciling who people see me as, versus what they selectively choose to experience me as, versus the profoundly blended cultural narrative I proudly claim as my own.

As half-Chinese and half-white, I never understood what my skin tone or the shape of my eyes meant to a large portion of the country or how it made me different. My first experience with racism was in kindergarten; I remember boys teasing me about my eyes. Looking back, that experience shaped a lot of the ways I've carried myself throughout adolescence and my teenage years and into adulthood. I erased parts of my identity for decades and tried to make the Asian parts of myself smaller. I would join in on the jokes or even be the first one making them in high school, thinking it would solidify to everyone around me that I was white. Read Jasmine’s full story >

My experience as an Asian living in America for the past 14 years has shifted very abruptly since the pandemic! I came to the US for college—during which and after I have definitely been the recipient of the model minority advantage. When the pandemic hit, I had several instances of racist behaviors against me in the streets of New York, like having others yell “Corona” at me, or being coughed at. I developed a lot of anxiety leaving my apartment, especially since I live in a neighborhood in Manhattan where Asians are far between. This the first time in my life that I have feared for my safety based on my race.

I’m a South Asian woman in San Francisco, and grew up in a local town comprised of mostly Asian immigrants (like my own family). I’ll never forget the day that the Wall Street Journal published a piece on “white flight,” describing the phenomenon of white families fleeing neighborhoods and school districts that were starting to become predominantly Asian in demographics—that was probably the first time I became nervous that I and my community were being stereotyped in xenophobic ways.

Fast forwarding to today, it’s hard not to see a connection between the beginnings of this xenophobia and the anti-Asian racism and violence we’re seeing—especially in the Bay Area. When I go outside, I do everything possible to minimize attracting unwanted attention—I don’t wear a purse, I don’t wear my wedding rings, I carry pepper spray, and I always wear running shoes / athleisure in case I need to sprint away from an attacker.

As an angry and tired Asian woman, I challenge all of our city leaders, across the country, to stop giving empty consolation and start doing real work. Read their full story >

Thank you to all of the people who contributed their stories to this piece, and to Dr. Jenny Wang, PhD for graciously allowing us to repost the beautiful image of her daughter. 

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