Who decides our authenticity?

Authentic: of undisputed origin; genuine. Whitewashed: having disassociated oneself from one’s ancestral culture by adopting or attempting to adopt an American lifestyle. As an Asian American, both of these words seem all too familiar. Whenever I go to Asia, my family members look down on my American side. I am too western for their taste––not Asian enough. Yet, in contrast, in America, I feel like an outcast for being too Asian. It is always “too authentic” or “not authentic enough,” and I am stuck in that middle ground with little room for understanding and acceptance. But who decides this factor of authenticity? My authenticity is not something others can decide for me. Whether I am “too American” or “too Asian” to someone, it is not their right to tell me what is authentic.

In the eyes of my family members in Hong Kong, I am far too American. “Why hasn’t she learned Cantonese yet? Even baby Abigail knows more than her; She can barely speak Mandarin, let alone Cantonese; They’re from America, what do you expect?” These are just some of the whispers I’ve heard from my extended family for years. Yes, I was born and raised in New York City. No, I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin fluently. I know I shouldn’t be ashamed, but somehow, I am. I wish I could say with confidence that I’m not embarrassed, but I can’t. I get belittled and questioned for not being “cultured” enough to know, speak, and understand, and it’s a cycle I can’t seem to escape.

On top of not knowing my native language, there’s the stigma of being whitewashed. I’m called whitewashed for not knowing certain parts of my culture. I may not hide my Asian-ness from others or disregard my own culture to gain validation from other non-Asians, but I still get judged by the Asians in my life for things that, to them, seem even remotely whitewashed. Not being able to deal with spice well, or not knowing how to hand-wrap dumplings to perfection, somehow makes me less Asian. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I am often discreetly judged for the way I do things, or the habits I have, which all appear to be “too Asian” for the American lifestyle. I don’t like people wearing shoes in my dorm room. It’s a force of habit of never having shoes in the house back home. I also call almost all of my close family friends’ parents “auntie” or “uncle.” My little habits, which are a significant part of my culture to me, are seen as “too Asian” and odd. But still, this is all in the view of others. 

In light of AAPI heritage month, I want to discuss the fact that the notion of being “whitewashed” and authenticity is all subjective. There are small things that make me seem Americanized to the Asians in my life, but being called whitewashed is based on other people’s standards. Who determines whether or not I am whitewashed? To me, there is no standard to base it on. Someone born and raised in Mainland China may think I am too Americanized, but someone from America may think I’m “too Asian.” So, where do I, an Asian American, lie on the spectrum? This is something that stays on my mind frequently. 

The middle-ground for Asian Americans is something one can easily be categorized into. The fight between being “too American” or “too Asian” in the eyes of others confuses me between the American culture I was born in and the Asian culture I was raised on. But what truly is authenticity? This gray area that I’m forced into makes me feel as if I have to pick between how I act with certain people, but I refuse to do so. I will not change the culture I was raised in for anyone. I am proud to say that I understand Chinese when I listen, but can’t write or read to save my life. I have no issues with showing off the amazing Chinese food my grandmother makes, even if people question it. I won’t be confined to the views of others, especially around something that makes up one of the most important aspects of my identity. I get to define my own authenticity, just as everyone else can do the same for themselves, and no one can tell any of us otherwise.