Being Asian American in California comes with its privileges. Having grown up in a conservative lakefront town in Michigan, I was teased for being “flat faced.” Kids would chase me around the playground taunting, “Ding, DAAAAAAAANNNG, Dong!” because they thought my last name sounded funny. In the cafeteria, kids would scrunch their noses at the Asian foods my mom would pack in my lunch. At least it wasn’t durian.
I remember one particularly pretty, blue-eyed blonde saying, “EWWWW … look at what Christina’s drinking,” so that everyone at the tables nearby could hear. I refused to bring coconut water to school after that and trained myself to drink Starbucks frappuccinos at school.
After I moved to California, I felt at ease when I no longer had to correct people for incorrectly assuming that I am Chinese. Moving also meant I didn’t have to face the question, “What are you?” as I often did in the Midwest.
I wanted to yell back at them, “I am human, just like you!”
It was a breath of fresh air not to have to be constantly questioned for my race or ethnicity. I could focus on being an individual with unique quirks and interests. I no longer had to represent Asian Americans like I did in my previous environment, since in my hometown, exposure to diversity felt very limited. I could just be me.
When I arrived at UC Berkeley’s campus for the first time, I was in shock at how many Asians and Asian Americans there were. I am sheepish to admit that I started counting how many Asians I encountered without breaking a streak — coming to a total of 17. There weren’t even that many Asians at my high school — it was just me and a girl who was adopted by a white family.
Since this was the case, most of my childhood friends were white. My family had to drive three hours to go to a decent Asian supermarket in Chicago. I didn’t have or even know of anyone who had Silicon Valley “tiger parents”: a stereotype used to refer to parents who worked at places such as Google and pushed their kids into coding camp by 5 years old.
My parents worked at car manufacturing factories until their retirement and, between juggling morning and graveyard shifts, would sometimes drop me off at the mall or the public library instead of having the privilege to dole out money for babysitting.
After moving here, I started to feel impostor syndrome being surrounded by people who, for once, looked more like me and resonated with my interests.
People were surprised that I didn’t know how to speak my parents’ native Vietnamese language, or that I didn’t know what K-dramas were. In Michigan, my parents were so busy surviving that, left to my own devices, I adopted the lifestyle of my mostly white peers around me at that time.
I am grateful to my parents for teaching me resilience, and now I’m also appreciative of my fellow Californian peers for bringing me to my roots. I am grateful to now share some of what I consider a privilege to be Asian and living in California — that is, the privilege of being comfortable and even proud of being in this skin.
I know that I have some catching up to do, but I’d rather be teased for my ignorance of what I missed out on than be teased for the things that I had to secretly enjoy.