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Hey APC 🙂 My name is Amanda, I’m seventeen years old, and I’m from the Bay Area, California. I identify as Filipino-Chinese-American, and my pronouns are she/her/hers. I wrote “Asian-Ish” for an English assignment, where we were asked to reflect on our experiences during our junior class trip (referred to as the “Global Investigator Trip” at my high school). My piece was my attempt to put some of the emotions I experienced as an Asian-American existing in Asia (without sufficient language skills) into words.
By Amanda Khu
As many Silicon Valley teens do, I own a Hydroflask, plastered with various stickers I’ve accumulated through the past years. Among the soccer tournament, mildly political, and Twitter meme stickers faded around the edges of the bottle, at the very top, one reads in all caps, “ASIAN-ISH.” While it has the plainest design out of the collection, the sticker garners the most attention and questions. “But you’re full Asian, right? How can you be ‘Asian-ish?’”; “What does ‘Asian-ish’ even mean?”. Most days, I just give the simple answer and tell whoever’s asking that the sticker was one of the few Crazy Rich Asians ones I could find on the Redbubble website. This response sates most of those asking, and it is true – just not the entire truth of why I spent that dollar-fifty on the sticker. Aside from the fact that I, for once, saw myself and my ethnic identity represented on a movie screen, Crazy Rich Asians also resonated with me because of the delineation between Asian American and Asian, a subtlety left mostly unexplored in any mainstream American media. When Rachel, the Asian American main character, arrives in Asia, her discomfort along class and cultural lines among Nick’s Chinese-Singaporean family is immediately made apparent. In Singapore, Rachel sticks out despite her Chinese features. Her Americanness separates her, makes her different from the Young family.
Rachel is Asian-ish.
For the trip, I had to leave my Hydroflask at home – most of the water we drank was boiled, and unless we wanted our water to stay at 212°F all day, the insulation of a Hydroflask would not work out too well. So I swapped out my stickered water bottle for a plain Nalgene. Though I didn’t have the physical sticker as a constant reminder, just being and existing in China kept “ASIAN-ISH” and Rachel Chu’s fictional experiences at the forefront of my mind.
* * *
From the moment I set foot inside the Shanghai-bound China Eastern plane in SFO, and the flight attendant greeted me in Mandarin while speaking to my non-East Asian passing classmates in English, I realized that, even having visited the Philippines regularly in the past few years, this trip to another one of my cultural “homelands” was going to be different in ways beyond geographical location. In the Philippines, my intsik appearance 1 always kept the question of whether I am even Filipino at all at the tip of strangers’ tongues, even though my Filipino heritage runs through my veins in nearly equal amounts to my Chinese. When I go back, nobody ever speaks to me in Tagalog or Bisaya (not that I can speak or understand either) unprompted in the way they do with my sister.
In China, however, I found that I could finally pass. Without the diverse (by Castilleja standards) and obnoxiously loud group of classmates at my heels as we walked the streets of Kunming or overloaded the public transportation, I’m almost certain I could have blended into the crowd completely. Unlike Rachel, I had no ultra-rich boyfriend and his family who knew about where I grew up, about my Americanness, watching my every move.
1 informal Tagalog term for a person of Chinese descent
Aside from my Castilleja companions and Dragons instructors, everyone in China was a virtual stranger to me. Most locals I encountered barely spared me a second glance or defaulted to speaking to me in rapid-fire Mandarin. But once I opened my mouth, my cover was blown. My five years of Castilleja Chinese and previous six of a Saturday Mandarin tutor could not save me and were barely enough to maintain a conversation beyond basic introductions. Every time someone mistook me for wholly Chinese, they forced me to peel back the illusion of homogeneity my East Asian typified features granted me and to confront my fear and shame of not being “Chinese enough.”
* * *
The Castilleja Global Investigator Trip as a whole brought clarity to a few things for me: college study abroad possibilities, my level of commitment to truly learning Mandarin, modern-day Han Chinese colonization, my preferred traveling style (not in a group of twenty-eight people). But the trip also complicated my sense of self, just a little. In China, I had to walk the line between outwardly passing as the majority while internally feeling entirely separate. My experiences unearthed this inkling of desire within me to fit in with the status quo, something that contradicts my learned reflex to go against the grain and to just be okay with that. But then again, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. As I grow into my identity–my Chinese-Filipino-Americanness, my sexuality–I realize that figuring out myself in the absence of people with shared experiences is difficult. I’ve become so accustomed to living and breathing in the minority, and in China, I had my first taste of how it felt to just exist as the majority, even if the feeling only lasted until I had to communicate. Community felt deceivingly accessible when I seemed to look like everyone else, even though realistically, people and their experiences are shaped by factors beyond appearance.
I’m still learning.