*fourth installment of essays exploring the Asian-American tag (created by Amy Lee) in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month; each essay or poem will be in response to a question on the tag.
I grew up an Asian girl in the American Mid-west, and I knew no other way. This was simply how life worked. This was how life worked, period.
Rice was eaten at every meal.
Room-temperature water was all that was available.
Shoes stayed outside.
These things were not things that I was “proud” of. They were normal things, part of everyday life. They were not extraordinary or unique or different. Life worked in a very specific way, and this was it. I thought it was the same for everyone else.
Realization came in small doses. That time when my friend’s parent gave us salad instead of bok choy for dinner. That time when the same friend flopped onto her bed, sneakers still on and dirt particles flying into her carpet. That time when ice water was given out at a birthday party, freezing my teeth and making my skin curl in on itself.
Throughout my youth, I slowly learned that my family operated differently than those around us. I became aware that rice was not a normal staple in the American diet, and that having a 50-pound bag of it sitting in the pantry was certainly not a normal occurrence. I learned that seaweed was disgusting and that other people only ate rice if it was drowned in soy sauce. I learned that going to a Chinese church was strange. I learned that people wanted to learn Japanese, not Chinese, and even then… only the curse words.
When this happened, I never felt ashamed of my differences themselves. My differences were unique and cool, even. They made me special. At the time, childlike innocence made me proud of my heritage. But insecurity eats like acid– even the strongest defenses turn into ash.
The strongest memories always cemented whenever I was introduced to a new friend group, a group already accustomed to their own ways of doing things. They would make jokes, stretching their eyes out and talking in exaggerated accents, before remembering that their group now included such a character from “the Orient.” It was then that I learned just how different I was to them and how easily they made fun of people like me. Though they weren’t mean, they were used to a certain way of living. I was not included in such a lifestyle.
Pride was slow-going after that, but not inexistent. Pride appeared when I had a hot dinner waiting for me, family members sitting around a table as my friends went home to empty houses and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Pride appeared when Chinese New Year approached, red envelopes strewn around the study and Skype calls back home rung through the house. Pride appeared when I visited family and got enormous hugs, when I was allowed to crash at an aunt’s house for 3 months, when family sent birthday cards from halfway across the world.
No, I was not always proud of my heritage– in fact, at one time, I might have even wished that it didn’t even exist. Only through time and maturity did I learn to appreciate my differences and hold my heritage close. In the end, I learned the value of my culture through my family, a life event that could only have been sponsored by the Chinese master Confucius himself. How fitting.