Originally published on May 15, 2018
Let’s get up close and personal this week 🙂 This is gonna be a long post, so grab something to eat and drink before reading on…
In the past few weeks, there has been a number of YouTubers who I follow who published videos about their Asian American experiences growing up. The video tag was originally started by Amy from Vagabond Youth, and I have watched the video tag from Joan Kim and Edward Avila as well. On the written blog side, Jane from The Chriselle Factor also wrote an article recently on minority experiences and privilege. At Macalester, a group of students also started an online magazine, Home, to highlight the experiences of international students and students with immigrant backgrounds.
Taking some questions from the video tag, I hope to shed light on the immigrant kid experience as an Asian American. Do keep in mind that there is no one correct narrative for immigrants and that the story that I share is just one story out of many immigrant stories.
An Immigrant Experience
Where do you call home? How do you self-identify?
I call both Atlanta and Hong Kong my homes. Hong Kong is where my extended family resides and my birthplace. I still have vivid memories of Hong Kong during my early childhood. And while I always jokingly throw shade at the South and being from Atlanta, living there for nearly 13 years has definitely shaped my current self.
Personally, I identify myself as Hong Konger American. I’m well aware of the fact that I am racially Chinese, but I am also hyper-aware of the differences in history and influences between China and Hong Kong in terms of colonialism and postcoloniality.
Which generation are you?
I consider myself a 1.5 generation immigrant because I don’t share the same experiences as someone who immigrated to the US as an adult or someone who immigrated to the US before they were a toddler. I can still recall various places from my childhood and remember the route from home to primary school. However, I do think that I am more progressive in terms of my values and beliefs. My views align more with American values than traditional Chinese beliefs on gender equality, racism, and equal opportunity. My life has been heavily shaped by the struggles that minorities go through in the US. Consequently, I strongly support minority rights in Hong Kong and am able to empathize with the demographic.
When did you immigrate?
I immigrated to the United States when I was 8 years old and in third grade in 2006. I remember struggling with the language barrier and trying to express myself in English. I’m pretty sure everyone can agree that language fluency doesn’t come from classroom education. So while I did well in English class in Hong Kong primary school, I was still lagging behind of my peers. Overcoming the language barrier remains one of my greatest life achievements today.
Assimilating into the US
Were you always proud of your heritage or was there a time you rejected it?
I think my third and fourth-grade years were the times when I really tried to assimilate into the mainstream American culture. I wanted my parents to bring cupcakes to school on my birthday. Eat mac and cheese for dinner. I wouldn’t go as far to say that I rejected my heritage, but I wasn’t exactly trying to retain it either. Unlike other immigrant family stories I hear, my family never forced me to only speak Cantonese in the house and go to Chinese school. They never pushed me to retain and learn about my heritage. While I think I regret not keeping up with some parts of my culture then, I think not being forced to conform to my heritage has made me more appreciative and value my background. I eventually learned about my background and origins without anyone pushing me.
What was your greatest struggle in assimilating to a new country?
I think my biggest obstacle was definitely the language barrier. Having the ability to express myself is something that I highly value, and not being able to do so was extremely frustrating. I still remember my first day in third grade in the US vividly. My teacher, Mrs. Burns, assigned the class a writing assignment during English class. We needed to write a short story, but I couldn’t. I remember being really upset and crying in class that day. I would miss every question on the reading comprehension worksheets.
To this day, I still have absolutely no clue how 8-year-old Rachel had so much determination, but fourth grade was my breakthrough year. I went from reading at a second-grade level at the beginning of the year to reading at a fifth-grade level by the end of the school year. My elementary school has the Accelerated Reader (AR) Book point system, where each book is worth a certain number of points based on its reading difficulty. Arthur picture books were worth 0.5 points, and Harry Potter books were worth 40 points. A student can get full points if they can answer 10 questions about the book after reading it.
Of course, with points comes prizes. 25 points is a certificate and pencil. 100 points is a generic medal. 300 points is a personalized trophy. Guess who managed to get 302 points by the end of the year by reading all of the Magic Treehouse books and the Boxcar Children series?
What are some stereotypes that you struggle with?
I think the biggest stereotype I had to deal with was that “Asians are smart” or “Asians are good at math”. Yeah, I get it. Stereotypes are based on some form of truth. But it’s important to know the detrimental effects of stereotypes. Let’s be honest here. I’m terrible at math and I despise numbers. Many people consider this a “good” stereotype. I disagree. Sure, I worked harder to conform to this stereotype and I pushed myself harder. But ultimately, it gives unnecessary pressure to us. I don’t want the burden of feeling like a failure just because I got a B in math when “Asians are supposed to get As.” Where that pressure on the next non-Asian kid who didn’t get an A in math? Why aren’t they subjected to the same standard?
On the flip side, I don’t want my hours and hours of hard work being overlooked and dismissed just because some person thinks that Asians are naturally gifted. No, we’re not. Behind every A we get and every award we receive, we struggled, stayed up late to finish work, and sacrificed a social life. Don’t dismiss our work ethic so easily.
Struggles of Being Asian American
Can you speak your language?
I am able to speak Cantonese to the extent of an 8-year-old. My Cantonese language skills can be categorized as “kitchen table lingo”. I’m able to fully hold conversations about my day, household chores, and everyday things. However, I can’t hold a conversation in Cantonese about anything academically related. Since being in the US, I have also drastically lost my reading and writing skills in traditional Chinese. My goal in the next two years is to hopefully regain some of those skills and be able to read Hong Kong newspapers in traditional Chinese.
How has being Asian American affected your relationship with your parents?
Continuing my answer from the previous question, language has been a barrier to communication between me and my family. I have difficulty explaining college processes and the intricacies of graduate school in Cantonese. There have been times where I was so frustrated that I burst into tears because I felt responsible for not retaining a language that I should know.
Aside from language, I think my family is generally very progressive in thinking. Unlike Asian norms, I don’t have pressure in marrying or having children. My family doesn’t think that I need to do (or not do) certain things because I’m female. And I have the final say in the classes that I take and the career I choose. For that, I’m really grateful for my family’s support in my life decisions.
How do you feel about your heritage now? Do you identify with it?
Being an immigrant is tricky. People often ask if I feel more Hong Konger or more American. No harm in asking the question, but the phrasing of that question makes me wonder if I’ll never be a full American or a full Hong Konger. I’m just stuck between two cultures. Currently, I think I’ve reached a place where I’m proud of my background as a Hong Konger American, as an Asian American, and as an immigrant. There is no single identity that can define me completely. Those identities are the narratives that I can relate to and fight for.
What is your favorite thing about being Asian American?
Solidarity. I don’t think I was very aware of the Asian American demographic until I wrote my first paper on influential Asian Americans during junior year of high school. Growing up in a predominately white neighborhood, I was rarely exposed to Asian Americans who excel and lead in the community. I think one of my good friends, Isabella Ko, in high school made me reflect more on my Asian American-ness. While both of us are now at different colleges, I think both of us became more involved in the Asian American community on our campuses. She’s now studying at Northwestern and continuing her fight for Asian Americans, and I am SO proud of her!
What surprised you about being an immigrant?
Being an immigrant has made me think about my relationship with the US constantly. I live by reciprocity, and I believe that I should contribute back to the country that I now call home. I always tell people that my family and I chose this country to live. So, I will stick with this country through its good and bad times. This is why I chose to pursue foreign service and public diplomacy as a career in the future. Because I am an immigrant who wants to make the United States great.
A very beautiful story. Thank you Rachel.
This was such an interesting read. I was happy to hear you conquered the language barrier that is a great achievement indeed.
I’m an immigrant here in the US and I’m also struggling with my English and it’s hard with everything, ’cause it’s my first 18 months here and everything is super different from what I used to in Europe, especially food(
Thanks so much for taking the time to detail your story! That was a really intriguing read!
The language barrier can be detrimental to your self-confidence. It’s indeed a great achievement to conquer it and it’s much easier to do it when you are younger. I am also glad that you are not forced to do something because of your origin. Your parents are really understanding and supportive for that matter.
It sure isn’t easy settling in a completely different environment, around people with a very different mindset. It was good to read about your immigrant experience.
About Hong Kong, yes! I agree with you. It’s not China.
I’m also an immigrant and can relate to so many things that you’ve mentioned in this post! At the end of the day, you should feel proud of yourself that you have adapted both the cultures so well!
Such a very beautiful story and I enjoy reading it. I know how hard it is to live in the place that is totally different from you but I am glad that you are able to overcome your struggles like their language. Thank you for sharing your story with us!
Ah! Makes me think about my own development. I came here when I was 6 but my mom never made cupcakes or mac and cheese! Times were different and parents were a little more old-fashioned. Loved hearing your side of it!
What a great story you have to tell. I hope you are able to reach your goal in the next two years of being able to read traditional Chinese.
Thank you for sharing your personal story. I think we Asian, wherever we go our genuine culture will always in our pockets. That’s makes us more unique and stronger.
I liked this idea of yours of taking some questions from the video tag of YouTubers.
I wonder, were you alone when you migrated? Or with your whole family? I have been thinking about this because my daughter (we are Filipino-Chinese) also wants to study in America for university. I dunno if she can do it on her own though, I mean without us. Hopefully, by that time, we can find a relative or family friend who can take her in their home.
My mother and I migrated to the US together when I was 8 years old- not just for education but for permanent stay. We had to go through the naturalization process so that we can be US citizens. As a college student, I live away from family and only see my mother around 2-3 times a year since my college is about 1,000 miles away.
Love your story. My husband is from Brazil so I watch a lot of my nieces and nephews come over and learn to assimalate yet still torn between both countries as to which is home.