Before coming to America, I didn’t have too much thought about what it means to be ‘Asian’. Born in Hong Kong, studying in Beijing under a westernized curriculum, I was still identifying completely as Asian. I had a number of mixed races friends, who we call ‘halfies’, and they seem to be identifying themselves as they like.
My best friend, who possesses the heritage of British and Tibetan blood, has lived in Beijing since age 2. Although she embraces both cultures and in addition the American pop culture, she agrees that large parts of her are very ‘Asian’. She speaks perfect Mandarin, Spanish and American-accented English.
Now immersed in the Seattle community, I understand that such ‘Asian Identification’ can be very complicated outside our ‘international school bubble’. And that in America, identifying as Asian American/Asian/halfies, may have different connotations depending on your location.
A couple weeks ago, I went to a university event hosted by the Asian Student Association on campus. I went light-heartedly simply because my besties are hosting and there was free food (Hong Kong style pork buns, Vietnamese Spring rolls and Cupcakes from Royal).
One guest speaker touched upon identifying themselves using percentages. 70% Chinese, 30% Orange County or 50% Vietnamese 50% Seattle. For her it is not a portion of culture. For her, it is 100% of all heritage. Such identification is not exclusively defined by the languages you speak, your blood, your environment and most certainly not the parameters of the society. But ultimately what you believe in, what you process based on your own experience. It is your take.
What if he is a 2nd generation Japanese American who doesn’t speak Japanese? Who are we to judge?
What if she is a Chinese American who was raised in Sichuan and doesn’t speak American-accented English? Who are we to call her ‘Fresh off the boat’?
It is interesting. Most of the time, people can’t guess where I am from. The most frequent guess is the U.S. since I do have a heavy American accent, but I’ve also received guesses of Japan, China, Korea, South Africa, Taiwan, U.K, and of all places, Russia. And when asked where I identify the most, I often stumble.
My introduction usually goes like this:
“Hi, I’m Coco. I’m from Hong Kong, but I was raised in Beijing. No, I wasn’t born in the States. My dad is Malaysian but I don’t speak Malay. My grandma is Taiwanese but I didn’t grow up there. I speak Japanese because I like it. And I have a Dutch ancestor, that’s why I have freckles. Yes, they are natural.”
Just kidding, I usually stop after the Beijing part.
After years of trying, I gave up on identifying to one place. Yes, judging from heritage and appearances, I am from Hong Kong, but I can’t throw away all the cultural pieces that make me who I am. So my rule of thumb is introducing where I’m born and where I studied, all details come after I have a couple glasses of wine.