Life According to an Asian-American

The one question I’ve been asked more times in my life than anything is: “What are you?”

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My only response to that is, “What the hell kind of a question is that?”

Someone once told me to respond to a tough question (or in this case a stupid question) with another question, just to counteract the other person and make them think a little bit instead.

The truth is, most people are curious about my physical appearance because at first glance, it’s difficult to distinguish which ethnic background I come from. At 21 years old, I’ve heard people say I look Mexican, Peruvian, Hawaiian, Brazilian, and Filipino.

By now I’m thinking to myself, why does it even matter what I am? I’m a freaking human being for pete’s sake! Just like you, and everyone else put on this planet, I am also a person. When I meet new people, I don’t really care about what race they are. What matters to me is whether they have good character or not. All through my life I’ve had friends who are Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or even mixed like myself.

So what am I you ask? Well if you really must know, I am an alien from the planet Neptune.

Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t realize you wanted a straight answer to a such a straight forward question.

I am Chinese-American. My dad’s side of the family comes from the central region of China. He was born in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. with my grandparents when he was just three years old. Despite growing up in America, he can still speak mandarin fluently, and he has learned to appreciate values from both American and Chinese cultures.

On the other side, my mother comes from a family of mixed European heritage including Dutch, English, French, Italian, and Irish. Her family prides itself on generations of farmers, immigrants who traveled through Ellis Island, and it’s share of veterans who served in the Revolutionary, Korean and World Wars.

I guess for me it’s easy not to care about race because growing up in a household with two parents of different skin color, I’ve learned to look past all that and realize that people from any ethnic background can obviously come together.

On a more humorous note, going to church has always been an interesting time. My father was never religious so my mother always took us to mass on Sundays. At a very early age I always noticed other parishioners looking at me as well as my younger brother and sister in an odd manner. There was usually a look of curiosity or some kind of facial expression that alluded to confusion. They must have thought all three of us were adopted because of how our tan skin compared to the average paleness of our white mother.

During my middle and high school years, there weren’t very many other Asian students in my class. For the most part, I associated with white kids. The other Asian kids would tell me things like, “you’re not really Asian becuase you don’t get straight A’s like us.” Somehow, comments like that never really got to me until I came to college.

The Asian friends I did have were always under pressure from their parents to get into Ivy-League Universities and pursue career paths in engineering or medicine. I always thought that was total bogus. My parents pressured me a decent amount about getting good grades, but for the most part my dad has wanted me to always keep math and financial courses in mind because he works in a field where he pays close attention to stocks and investment decisions that affect his clients.

I’ve always enjoyed writing because my mom used to be a journalist. For the longest time, I found it difficult having to listen to advice from my parents while trying to make my own decisions. People always say to find a passion that you will enjoy doing for the rest of your life, but how can the average Asian growing up in America be able to live as an individual with their parents bearing down on them constantly?

Whenever big testing periods like midterms, finals, SATs, and ACTs came around, my Asian friends weren’t allowed to socialize on weekends because their parents forced them to study. Life can’t be all about work. It should be about both hard work and enjoyable experiences.

I’ve learned more about myself through work experience, socializing and risks i’ve taken which forced me to step outside my comfort zone. Not everything in life is about textbooks, test scores, grade point averages, honors and awards, and money. One thing I can’t stand is the fact that because so many Asian immigrants who originally came over to America had to work so hard to make a living, that era of history has transcended into today’s world of Asian parents acting strict with their children.

What they don’t understand is that their generation has done such a great job of providing better lives for this generation and generations to come. With that said, now we as the future can pursue so many other careers besides the stereotypical jobs. A Chinese friend of mine devotes all of his studying to science and math courses, but I can tell deep down he hates it. He only continues to study biology and calculus because he’s good at it and his parents wanted him to choose that major in the first place.

Due to the fact that I never had a lot of opportunities to learn Chinese while I was young, I truly looked forward to enrolling in a Chinese 101 course coming into my freshman year at Towson University. On top of that, I joined a Chinese culture organization which I am still a member of today.

At first I thought everything was great and this was finally my chance to connect a bit more with my culture. Right away I made a lot of Asian friends from Chinese, Korean, and Filipino backgrounds. To me, it worked out perfectly to have my group of white friends that I could hang out with at certain times, and at other times I could be with my group of Asian friends.

My roommates (who were white) used to joke that I was racist for being a member of Asian culture clubs just because they assumed only students of Asian descent were allowed to join. My parents used to joke that my white friends basically made up the Caucasian club of Towson because they only associated with each other and never made friends with students of other ethnic backgrounds.

And, talk about making fun of my heritage, it’s one thing when friends joke and tease about cultural stereotypes, but after years of being friends with someone, you’d think they would ease off on the Chinese and Asian jokes. A friend of mine that I’ve known since sixth grade, still to this day will continue to call me a “crazy Asian”, or a communist, with attempts to antagonize me further by talking in a typical Kung Fu Master accent.

I’ve even been told to tell the delivery guy to hurry up if the Chinese take-out isn’t on time to the house. And whenever a group of pedestrians passing by happens to be of Asian descent, my friends all joke that those people are my family members.

To be fair, my Asian friends were never any better or mature about this issue. Some of them actually lack the ability to make friends with white kids just because they fear being labeled as the “token Asian” of the group. One Chinese girl I’ve known for three years now  has never seized to piss me off from time to time.

She has actually talked down to me in a condescending manner because I’m not full Chinese. Being half Chinese to her almost makes me not good enough I guess. Just because I don’t posses countless Chinese recipes in my mind or understand some of the household values that she has grown up with, it’s like this separates us in some way.

However, that is nothing compared to the way I was treated by my second Chinese professor. After taking a full year of basic Mandarin, I moved up to the next level with hopes of continuing to enjoy the experience.

Unfortunately, Professor Zhao whom I liked so much my freshman year did not return because of maternity leave. Therefor, I was dealt a tough hand in having to deal with a very old fashioned, middle aged Chinese woman who was very strict. From the very first class, Professor Fu did not like me at all. She just treated me differently than anybody else in that class.

I admit, at times I forgot my homework or was not as prepared for class as I should have been. Beyond that, I tried very hard to memorize so many character strokes and phrases that I spent more time than was required with the teaching assistants outside of class. When I chose to go abroad for a semester in China after my sophomore year, my own professor doubted my ability to learn and succeed. She guaranteed I would be better off going along with her two week summer trip to China with the rest of the class instead of studying in a foreign exchange program for four months.

Of course that sounded ridiculous to me so I went against her advice and ended up having a life changing experience as I traveled all over China and learned more than I ever could, studying Mandarin in America.

Overall, I’m not declaring this as a racial issue in any way. I don’t feel like other people are racist toward me at all. This is ultimately an issue of acceptance. So many people have trouble accepting others who are different from them culturally or socially. What I don’t understand is why so many people take the time to try and figure each other out based on their appearance and skin color. If we as a society are trying to move past racial issues, then none of us should even care about color because we’re all human beings at the end of the day.

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