Feature photo courtesy of Hannah Kang @dallas.kid
“When I did well, I fulfilled stereotypes, receiving no personal credit. When I didn’t, I took the double blow of personal accountability for failing a cultural standard.”
Growing up, I always wanted to be a Jill of all trades. The idea of being impeccable and being Asian was tightly intertwined; by some ancient, hazy corollary, being perfect should have come naturally to me because I was Asian. The Asian stereotype, which consumed me entirely, entails flourishing academically, withering socially, bearing and fulfilling generational family expectations.
Growing up, I persisted. I wanted to, and more importantly, believed I could do it all: checking off each box and becoming a doctor-by-day-a-lawyer-by-night-amphibian was my version of a white picket fence dream. For a while, it even felt like a tangible goal. Like a perfectly tailored suit, this aspiration fit snugly into the Asian archetype of being good at math. The subject came naturally to me, and my fondest memories of grade school revolved around math.
At age 8, when I had just transferred back to Taiwan from China and enrolled in a local elementary school where I didn’t know anyone, barely knew how to write any characters, and fumbled with every word I spoke, math was the only source of consistency in my life. At the end of the day, no matter what happened, I knew I was good at math. For a young girl like me, this consistency was like an anchor: first it grounded me, held me steady. And then it held me hostage.
I wasn’t obsessed with the gratification of solving a long equation in one breath; what I craved most was the kick of getting called first when my math teachers read out our scores from the highest to the lowest in grade school. I loved seeing my name in bold on the top of the bullet board at my cram school— the same cram school that I took two tests to get into and spent four hours at every night after grade school. (Yes, Taiwanese students go to double the school.)
From ages 9 to 10, I would come home between 9 and 10 at night, dumping all of my homework from grade school and cram school onto the dining table, holding back yawns and tears while I worked on each question and my mother watched.
I put in a great amount of hard work. I gave up watching cartoons and playing on the playground with my non-existent friends. I found further refuge in between the pages of my math textbook. I was the ultimate personification of being “Asian,” a painstakingly one-dimensional, socially inept 10-year-old Asian kid who was married to the idea of math because that’s all I was good at.
In my formative years, it seemed like my personality and confidence were largely built around my aptitude for math. I didn’t want or have to be good at anything else when I had this crowning achievement. When I later transferred to an international school, I struggled with speaking English full-time again, and relearning everything I had done previously in English was difficult. I was afraid to talk out loud because of my accent, and despite the perpetual fear of being wrong and bad at something, math was my safe haven. It was universal and transcended language barriers.
When I did well, I fulfilled stereotypes, receiving no personal credit. When I didn’t, I took the double blow of personal accountability for failing a cultural standard.
In true “fake it till you make it” fashion, the falsified confidence of supposed academic success riled up a wave that I rode (and that later tossed me mercilessly). As I moved up each grade level and slowly gained stability in my other courses, I began struggling to maintain the natural connection I had with math, even though I was putting in more work than ever. My hard work was always brushed off with a light “because you’re Asian,” as if instinctive aptitude, and not effort, was the only markedly Asian characteristic. At a young age, this perception struck me hard. I didn’t know how to be myself anymore, no matter what I did. When I did well, I fulfilled stereotypes, receiving no personal credit. When I didn’t, I took the double blow of personal accountability for failing a cultural standard.
In my rebellious teenage years, despite forging a seemingly cocksure exterior, on the inside, I was more brittle than ever. I was so afraid of people realizing I had no clue who I was or what I was doing.
I craved being “right” all the time and became so many people at once. I was the token Asian friend in my friend group. I juggled self-deprecating jokes in a poor attempt to protect myself. I played into the role and bounced jokes off other people’s racist remarks. I skipped the confrontations about racism to make others feel comfortable. I didn’t want to be seen as the uptight, bleak Asian girl who didn’t know how to “take a joke”.
At the same time, I harbored a challenging interior life that would have surprised many of my peers. Growing up, my parents were fairly strict, and the thought of “what would others think of me” constantly echoed in my head, causing me to overthink everything I said and everything I did. I abided to my overthinking, reasoning that if I never did anything wrong, no one could ever say anything bad about me. Before I turned 18, I was home for dinner every day, I followed my curfew, I never slept over at my friend’s house (outside of my once-a-semester quota). Even when I tried to negotiate with my parents on these terms, I always raised the white flag and deferred to their judgment.
I wanted to appease everyone at my own expense.
Eventually, my lid was blown off. I thought and acted as if I could do anything. I wanted to be so much that I was stretching myself bubblegum thin. I wanted to appease everyone at my own expense. It felt like a rigorous college admission process, where everything I did just brought me a step closer to the mean. It didn’t matter what I got on my SATs or how many years of MUN I’d done. My accomplishments felt taken for granted, and merely a dime in a dozen.
It’s so hard to hear that your triumphs and accomplishments are meaningless because they aren’t unique to you. The perfect scores, the desperate aspirations for prestigious careers, the unyielding filial obedience are all both cultural and personal markers. To say I was good at something merely “because I was ‘Asian’” belittles the entirety of my childhood efforts.
I have grown tiresome of the expectations that are followed by “you’re supposed to be Asian.” I was constantly between a rock and a hard place, unsure if I’m ever doing enough or too much, afraid of stepping on someone else’s toes and making them uncomfortable for being myself, for being Asian. People can tell me a thousand times on who I am supposed to me, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t change who I am.
I see myself and decide, nearly daily, what kind of person I am, more clearly than ever. I am proud of my talent and my achievements, and even though my cultural upbringing did have a hand in my success, I don’t owe it to anyone else. The constant reeling over my Asian identity has brought out a side of me that I didn’t know existed; it has pushed me to work harder in order to prove people wrong. Although my adult identity often revolves around defending my heritage, I realize that part of this journey has sharpened my own ability to complicate and resist the implications of being Asian.
I wasn’t ‘Asian’, I am Asian. We are not the hypersexualized oriental dresses on Fashion Nova, the one-dimensional Asian friend with a streak of purple hair, or the rich international student who never takes off their Canada Goose jacket. We are the ones who had the strength to infiltrate the Chinese military, the vision to shake up a stagnant media landscape, and we are capable of loving others and deserving of being loved back.
For every moment I’ve been told to be this or that because “I am supposed to be Asian,” I want to declare: I’ve never wanted to be anything else. What’s more, my Asian identity no longer expects perfection; being Asian is a source of honor and liberation. I choose who I am. Today and every day, I will choose that freedom.