An Asian American’s Awakening

What follows is something I wrote many months ago when America was reeling and grappling with questions about race. I’ve been unsure of whether or not I wanted to share these words. They’re not exactly “on brand” for my blog. And as time continued to pass, I thought maybe I was trying to talk about something people have moved on from. But then a friend experienced something. Something I’ve experienced and wrote about in these paragraphs. I allowed more time to pass. And in that time, the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community has suffered: the continuation of Anti-Asian rhetoric, AAPI being attacked (even killed) in the street, the Atlanta massacre

Many people are tired of talking about race, but the conversation isn’t over. It can’t be. There are still questions to ask, issues to discuss, and stories to share.

I’m done hiding. 

During this season, I’ve been taking a hard look at ways I’ve chosen to “assimilate” into White culture (or rather, hide my Filipino-ness). 

Being Asian American in predominantly White spaces is tricky. I rarely experience explicit hatred—that doesn’t mean it has never happened—but there are things that lie under the surface. The often asked “Where are you really from?” and “Did your husband meet you on the mission field?” remind me that for many, I’m forever a foreigner. I was born here. This is my home, but I don’t really belong. 

And then there’s the issue of what’s safe for me to talk about. I learned early that to talk about my heritage is taboo. Friends could talk freely about the culture of whatever European country their ancestors hailed from, but conversations about my Filipino heritage were unwelcome. This unwelcoming would manifest in a few ways: being made fun of, being told to “go back to my country,” or someone quickly changing the topic. (Note: As for someone quickly changing the topic, this was never something someone would do only once. They never allowed me to speak openly about my heritage even when they spoke openly of theirs).

And then there’s the perceived language barrier. The key word: “perceived.” I speak fluent English with good grammar and a Midwest accent. Yet people still ask me, “Do you understand English?” It’s difficult to prove my intellect to someone who struggles to believe I understand the language I’m speaking fluently. In a similar way, there’s also an assumption that I’m ignorant of American history and culture. As for culture, I get that things were different in my house as both my parents are immigrants. But outside of my house, everything in my life was as “American” as my White counterparts. In fact, because I had to go back and forth between the Filipino culture inside my home and the American culture outside my home, I grew up with a greater awareness of cultural elements many people take for granted and don’t notice.

I was talking about this to a friend recently. She’s Chinese—born and raised in China—and moved to the US as a grad student. When she heard my experiences, she said, “I’m glad I’m not an Asian American! That sounds really hard!” To have to hide an integral part of who I am…Yes, it’s hard.

Over the years, I’ve been extra careful to not assume someone was treating me a certain way just because of my race. It gets hard when I’m in a store and a worker follows me around—one store clerk yelled at me while I looked at skirts. Or the many times when I’m in a women’s boutique and none of the workers will give me service of any kind unless my white husband says to them, “Can one of you please help my wife?” I try to ignore this stuff, smile, and move on. 

I’ve come home crying after walking in our neighborhood multiple times because White people often slow down or stop their vehicles beside me to stare at me. It’s usually White men in big trucks—I know this is something some White women in my city have experienced. But I’ve also experienced this from White women in nice cars. Maybe this is happening for a reason other than my Asianness, but it’s happening during a time when Anti-Asian hate crimes are heightened and I don’t feel safe outside of my home. I now bring pepper spray with me on neighborhood walks.

Within church spaces—note the plural; this isn’t just something that has happened at one church or one kind of gathering—people often refuse to talk with me, give me dirty looks, or back away from me when I talk with them. But then they’ll completely change—they’ll perk up, smile, and suddenly become chatty—if my husband or another White person comes and stands beside me and speaks highly of me.

I’ve experienced more. And I’ve experienced worse.

Over the years, I found ways to adapt. I assimilated. Or rather, I hid my Filipino-ness. I dropped Filipino mannerisms. I ate with my hands far less than I used to. I avoided the sun to ensure my skin stayed as light as possible (and I used papaya soap to try to lighten it even more). I did whatever I could to blend into predominantly White surroundings. And because of this, there have been some people who have forgotten I’m not White. Someone actually told me once, “When I see you, I don’t see an Asian; I just see a White girl.” Don’t get me started on all the ways that statement is so so SO wrong. And that’s the thing: I’m NOT White. I’m 100% Filipina—this is my ethnicity. So if you can’t see my Filipina-ness, you don’t see me. At the same time, I’m also 100% American—this is my nationality. So if you look at me and only see ways I’m other, you don’t see me either.

Our ethnic heritages aren’t things that are discarded at the foot of the cross. Revelation 7:9 says,

“After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

~Revelation 7:9, CSB

So I’ve made a decision: I’m not hiding anymore. What does that mean? Honestly, I’m not completely sure. I’m just going to let this journey take me where it will. Here’s what I do know: I bear the image of God and I’m not going to be a part of tearing down the imago Dei in me anymore.

“No matter your ethnicity, skin color, or cultural values, you have been made as a bearer of God’s image with dignity and worth equal to every other person. If you don’t value your cultural identity, you are not valuing a vital aspect of the image of God within you. If you don’t value the cultural identity of another person, you are not valuing the image of God within him or her.”

~Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead To Lasting Connections Across Cultures, by Michelle Ami Reyes

Just a few notes for clarification…

What I’m NOT saying:

  • I’m not saying all White people are bad. (I don’t believe that. Not even a little.)
  • I’m not saying there aren’t negative racial biases in ethnic minority communities.

What I AM saying:

  • Racism exists. Most ethnic minorities have wounds from instances when we’ve been treated differently as our White counterparts. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. And because of that…
  • The stories of ethnic minorities need to be heard.
  • Every single person is a bearer of the image of God. And our uniqueness—including the uniqueness of our ethnic heritages—is a beautiful expression of the image of God. So our differences are to be celebrated, not hidden or erased.
  • There is hope AND there’s a lot of work to be done! So let’s get to work!
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is acs_0900.jpg
I bought this pin after I decided to stop hiding. It’s the sun from the flag of the Philippines. It’s pinned to the purse I use most often to remind me of this important part of who I am.

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