The story of being first-generation Asian-American is a story of loss. Loss of tradition, language, identity. It is a story of assimilation, of congruence, of distance and dissonance.
And above all, it is a balancing act. Being Asian-American means trying to mold yourself into two starkly contrasted sets of expectations, neither of which quite fit.
We are constantly shifting between our two selves: the white-washed face we put forward among coworkers and peers quietly pleading for acceptance; and the Asian side we let through in front of our families, wanting to both please them and cling on to the culture from wherever our roots may stem.
Being Asian-Americans means bearing the weight of two worlds and feeling the subtle blow of the question, “So what are you?”
No matter where you go, you are an outsider – just enough Asian to not be fully American, and just enough American to not be fully Asian. We exist perpetually on the brink of two diverging worlds.
Granted, our multi-hyphenated existence bears little weight on our minds day-to-day; we are free to drive to work without fear of being profiled and pulled over, free to browse the aisle of a store without being suspected of shoplifting, free to silently blend ourselves into the white crowd.
However, the reality is that being Asian-American is a struggle; but unlike the struggle of our black and brown minority counterparts, it is a quiet struggle. We live in the shadows, largely ignored by society – invisible yellow in a black-and-white world.
As Loyota Maramount University’s Nadia Kim explored in her 2007 thesis, Asian-Americans have been the most excluded group in the country.
“While most scholars agree that while some (or all) Asian American groups are valorized above blacks along class and color hierarchies,” Kim writes. “They are not ‘Americans’ in the same manner that blacks are. In large part because of America’s white-black legacy, black Americans are not constantly conflated with Ghana, Guinea or Niger.”
People look at us an see a sort of privilege, with spoons in our mouths that aren’t quite silver, but spoons nonetheless. We are cast off away from the whites, but excluded from talks of minority disadvantages of other groups of color.
But do they realize that one in three Asian-Americans struggle with English proficiency? Or that the model minority myth is creating a mental health crisis in our community? And what may come as a surprise to many, over 50% of Asian-Americans seeking higher educations are in fact attending community colleges.
They fail to realize that we too, are a minority, fending for our existence in a land that bears foreign fruit – fruit that simply did not exist in our home countries.
They fail to see the many sacrifices made by our parents, fleeing a country torn from war, stripped of the opportunities that so many take for granted in America.
Our parents arrived on this soil as refugees, many with nothing in their pockets but change and the will to survive. Courageously losing sight of old shores, they set off in hopes of a brighter future for us, the next generation.
They were well aware of the consequences: that traditions would be lost, languages withered, connections broken. There will be arguments as both generation and culture differences collide, their children may resent their decisions and tough love because they simply don’t understand. But when they see them succeed, it will have been worth every single minute.
The pressure to make our parents’ sacrifice worth it is a struggle many Americans will never understand.
We are not the “model minority.” The false flattery of strength and resilience so mistakenly bestowed upon Asian-Americans only hinder our capacities and undermine our struggle.
We must not be overlooked.