Nearly jaywalking down Main Street with bulky green plastic boxes in hand, a friend and I made our way back from Paresky Commons. Frantically trying to beat the crosswalk timer, it was then that a Andover-esque conversational debate sparked—one about that University of Southern California (USC) professor who was put on leave for using the Chinese filler word, 那个 (nà gè), a phrase meaning “that one,” during one of his lectures. Due to the similarities between the pronunciations of 那个 and the n-word, as well as the assumption that the professor had used the racial slur, he received severe disciplinary action. I’d thought everyone else had the same stance as me—that the Mandarin language existed separately from the English language and that the degree of his punishment was uncalled for. Yet, I was rudely awakened when that friend shared their perspective. For them, the professor could’ve chosen another filler word, and he should’ve known its effect before he said it. It wasn’t obvious to me at the time, but I realized that this was a prime example of the erasure of Asian culture by white centricity, the very white centricity that affects the outlook I have on my own identity.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I wasn’t always fond of my Asianness. Growing up as a second generation Asian-American, I found very little in common with my peers. I felt almost betrayed when the food my parents dropped off did not resemble a typical Lunchables meal. Despite being very conscientious in school, when it came to learning Mandarin, I barely tried. And when middle school finally rolled around, I blamed my pesky Asian genes for my not turning out to be an exact replica of Kendall Jenner. There was always an idea of annoyance or shame associated with Asianness. As with everything else that causes annoyance or shame, my only instinct was to avoid it at all costs. Yet, one fateful winter break morning, a stranger—a first-generation Asian American—approached me and my mother and started to ramble about his son, who was playing video games, watching movies, and reading books with the idea that the world revolves around white people. According to him, second generation kids like his son end up illiterate in their own heritage, barely knowing or perpetuating anything of their own culture. In a way, the media they consumed gave them an inherent desire for whiteness. These kids wanted to play lacrosse instead of badminton, eat pasta instead of pho, and would rather have long silky blonde hair over the black locks they were given. Being surrounded by certain societal aspects all the time normalizes them, and it’s within human nature to not only adapt to normalcy but to also strive for it. He deemed this phenomenon,“the banana generation.”
It’s very common for second generation Asian Americans to identify with this metaphorical banana: yellow on the outside but white on the inside. Yet, just having white characteristics on the inside isn’t enough. For many, there is an idea of dichotomy between the “yellow” appearance and white innards that can only be solved by the active avoidance of Asian traits in general. For the longest time, I ran away from my Asianness. Sure, my parents spoke Chinese at home and I looked Asian, but I wouldn’t be caught dead speaking Chinese back. I’d reject Tiger Balm but use calamine without second thought. And I knew that if I saw a classmate at the local Asian supermarket, it would be the most invigorating game of hide and seek (minus the seek) I’d play in years.
For a while, I thought having a ham and cheese every day was normal, as was speaking English and having a high nose bridge complemented by big blue eyes. After all, it was what I saw when I first stepped foot into preschool, barely knowing English; it was what I saw when I turned off the Chinese news broadcast to watch Disney Channel; it was what I saw when I hopped onto social media only to realize that most Instagram models shared a common trait of whiteness. In a way, I desperately wanted to peel away my Asian identity.
Because I was so enamored with the white defined default, Asianness seemed like the only distance between me and my normal peers. I changed the way I spoke, the way I dressed, the way I presented myself—all so I could achieve this normalcy I so desired. I’d spend hours watching YouTube tutorials on illusory eye enlarging makeup and nose raising contour, just so I could look less like me and more like a Hadid sister. I would quit and take up new activities just so I could fit the white ideal. This placebo of normalcy and perfection found in whiteness lead me to a downward spiral, one that if continuously followed would never end.
It was through unconventional measures that my introspection changed. Despite my new and improved more-white self, subtle comments and microaggressions surrounding my race always followed me. Eventually, I realized that I would always be viewed as Asian. No matter how mainstream I dressed or how slang-riddled my sentences became, I couldn’t change the way people perceived me. I looked Asian, and that was enough for people to have a preconceived notion of me. The idea that I could simply peel off my yellow skin and expose this white flesh was an illusion. No matter how many white traits I forced myself to adopt, I could never be less Asian. Feeling out of place and foreign was not a product of my skin, it was a product of society. With that realization, there was a sense of freedom. Things that were restricted by the heavy barriers of what I perceived to be “too foreign” were suddenly out there, free for me to pursue.
After two fruitful years of French, I agreed to revisit what caused me so much annoyance in the past: learning Chinese. I no longer masked my enjoyment of playing the violin and finally started sharing the experiences I’ve had with traditional Asian culture. At the same time, I kept an adoration for things that I took up in my foolish quest to become white. In middle school, I loved producing music with one of my best friends, and at one point danced, swam, and ran all in one season. I took pride in the things that I did, no matter if that meant stereotypically Asian or white. For me, it wasn’t the distinct categories of either Asian or white, but the wholeness I felt embracing my entire identity.
When I first read the headlines about the USC professor, staying silent felt wrong. Why do taboos of other languages still apply in a foreign language classroom—how come in the “melting pot of the world,” is English still the default? Come to think of it, white centricity isn’t an anomaly discovered from the depths of the USC Chinese department; it’s found everywhere. It was present when President Donald Trump demeaned an entire ethnic group down to the degree of a murderous virus. It was present when Andrew Yang, someone who many young Asians look up to, encouraged Asian-Americans to become more “American” in order to combat xenophobia. It was present when everything I consumed told me that I was either normal or abnormal, and in order to become normal, I needed to relinquish a salient part of my identity. If we perpetuate this exclusive normalcy of whiteness, we make it impossible for POC in this country to have a healthy multi-cultural identity; we fuel standards that are simply unattainable and we ultimately create the identity crisis of people of color living in America.
Looking back all the way to when I first stepped foot into preschool with the knowledge of seven English words, I’m proud of this transition from hatred to pride. It’s crazy now to think that at one point I’d actively tried to rid myself of my Asianness. It’s even crazier to know that these experiences are shared by so many people. We must actively fight against white centricity and diversify our unhealthy monolithic narrative to help people of color embrace the wholeness of their identity.