Why It Took Me 25 Years To Come To Terms With Being Asian American

Photo: Courtesy of Lindsay Arakawa
To some people — most people, perhaps — we may all look the same, speak the same language, eat the same things, and come from the same place. But let’s just pretend for the duration of this essay that placing all Asian Americans into the same racial category isn't the norm.
Let’s also pretend that everything else people might believe to be true about Asian Americans — that we are docile, compliant, nerdy, fragile, quiet, exotic — are also not commonly-held assumptions.
That’s the world I grew up in.
I’m Gosei, meaning my great-great-grandparents immigrated to Hawaii from Japan in the early 1900s, which is actually earlier than many white Americans can trace their stateside heritage back to. To put things in perspective, my family has been “American” for more than a century. But, to us, traditions you’d call “Japanese” were as normal as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are to others.
Though I didn’t notice it at the time, I now realize that Hawaii was a true melting pot of diverse cultures — and many people around me looked like me and had an inherent understanding of the traditions and values I grew up with. No one ever asked about my last name, or questioned whether nattō was a normal after-school snack. During my childhood, being Asian in America had nothing to do with being Asian. It just was.
Fast forward to my first week of college orientation. I had just moved to the mainland to attend college at the University of San Francisco, and I was sitting on the floor of the basketball court with a bunch of other college freshmen, engaged in an awkward icebreaker exercise.
“Oh, you’re from Hawaii? Do you surf?” someone asked me.
“No, I actually have terrible upper body strength. I’ve probably only tried it once and was terrible at it.”
“Well, do you dance hula? Live in a grass hut? Do you guys have cell service in Hawaii?”
“I used to dance when I was younger, but I’ve stopped. My friend has a grass hut on her watercress farm, but we have houses with electricity and running water. Just like you.”
“But you don’t look Hawaiian.”
“Well, I’m actually Japanese.”
“So you’re Asian, then.”
It was the first time that someone had encapsulated my entire personhood into one word: “Asian.” Whether this blanket label was meant to be a conversation starter or just straight-up ignorance, it was hard to navigate through my feelings while being classified by my cultural background at such a broad level for the first time. I remember thinking to myself, “You’ve never been called Asian before. Not even your Asian friends have called you Asian. There’s zero chill to this.”

It was the first time that someone had encapsulated my entire personhood into one word: “Asian.”

It might not seem like a big deal, being cast as the other and lumped in with the rest of the Asians on the planet, but I now realize it made a huge impact on how I decided to dress, talk, and act.
After repeatedly hearing things like, “Oh yeah, he has a thing for Asians, so you might have a chance,” and “I don’t mean it in a racist way! You know what I mean!” I started to subconsciously search for ways to hide the parts of me that made me Asian. That meant trying to be white.
Being 2,000 miles away from home without any relatives nearby, you find ways to adapt to find comfort. Being considered “different” from all the white kids, I wanted to remove from my identity all parts of me that were ethnically different. I took an interest in things I had no actual interest in (sorry, country music) to try to fit in. It sucked.
It wasn’t until recently, after a handful of identity crises, that I had a serious talk with myself and allowed myself to rediscover the Asianness that I wanted to reject so I’d be considered American. After spending seven years in the Bay Area, I got the opportunity to move to New York City for work. Being thrust into a city where everyone’s looking to be an individual, I had the chance to evaluate what was actually important to me, who I truly was, and who I wanted to be. Now that I was even farther away from home, I yearned for the familiar — the recipes my grandmother used to type out on index cards with her typewriter, the samurai TV shows that my grandfather used to watch, the language we rarely exchanged (but pretended like we knew, because we’re too proud to admit that we can’t fluently speak Japanese because it wasn’t passed down to us #AmericanAssimilation).
In the almost two years that I’ve been here in NYC, I’ve started to take Japanese language classes, and to wear the clothes and accessories I used to deem “too Asian.” I’ve even learned the basics of taiko — a wide range of Japanese percussion instruments. I’m making more efforts to connect with the Asian American community in NYC through social media, and am taking strides at work (especially during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month) to make sure our stories are heard — to let the other others know that it’s time to stop accepting the wildly inaccurate stereotype that all Asians are the same.
Because when you lump us together, you’re disregarding the deep, rich, and complex cultural backgrounds we individually come from. You’re also lumping together all the really cool stories we have to tell (and really want to share).
So if the current me had the opportunity to speak up for the college me at orientation, I’d say something along the lines of, “I’m Japanese, I’m Asian American, I’m American, and I’m Lindsay. Next question? ”
In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this May, we’re sharing stories about the rewards, challenges, and realities of straddling two identities — especially when the compatibility of the two has recently come under attack.
Follow along on social with #AcknowledgeIsPower.

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