“Oh my god, that’s so Asian!”
That’s how a student on my study abroad program responded when I told her how to spell my last name.
What’s so Asian? That it’s not spelled like “King Kong”? Does adding the “h” really make it that much more Asian? I would never tell someone they’re “so white,” because what does that even imply?
I’m studying abroad in Nantes, France for the semester and never have I been so aware of my race. When I walk into class with my hair ungroomed and sticking up everywhere—resembling the hairdo of an anime character or K-Pop star—I inevitably hear “dude you look so Asian today.”
If I receive a good exam score, my friends will say that’s “very Asian” of me (because, apparently, intelligence and race are mutually inclusive). My host family considers me Vietnamese rather than American, and when I tell someone I’m from the States, they re-phrase: “No, where are you from, your family?”
To me, the French are more direct, not skirting around issues considered “politically incorrect” in the States. The attention I’ve received for being Asian isn’t malicious or discriminatory, but it is constant, making me want to untangle what exactly it means being Asian-American—while stateside and abroad.
My parents fled political and religious persecution in Vietnam by boat in 1989. After my sister and I were born, we immigrated to the States from the Kuala Lumpur Vietnamese Refugee Center. I spent the first five years of my life in the heart of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, where I heard more Chinese, Cantonese and Vietnamese than English when walking down the street. In 2001, we relocated across Lake Washington to a predominantly white suburb, where we still reside.
My childhood was a game of switching cultures on-and-off: observing Vietnamese New Year in traditional áo gấm and then watching Tom and Jerry, eating cơm tấm for breakfast and then hot dogs and coleslaw for lunch, and trying to find the English equivalent of Vietnamese words—a struggle I now face with French.
During my mid-teens, my dual-cultured life was the source of a lot of angst. I resented going to youth group with all the Vietnamese families in Seattle, many of whom were recent immigrants—I preferred being with American families. Eventually, my parents gave in: bánh mi was replaced with sliced white bread, and weekly Vietnamese culture and language classes ended.
I was never ostracized at school, but I was tired of being embarrassed when my parents, with their thick accents, had to speak to my teachers or when my friends would tell me that my clothes smelled like rice.
Coming to Brunswick was essentially removing myself from my roots, something I didn’t realize until Winter Break in 2012 when, after I expressed my disdain for having to go to Vietnamese Christmas mass, my sister retorted, “Well, that’s because you’re just white-washed now.”
The Class of 2016 is 493 people strong, with 156 students self-identifying as students of color, including 53, roughly 10 percent, as Asian. Before leaving home, this ratio did make me a little nervous—was I going to stand out? But since arriving on campus, I don’t spend that much time thinking about the implications of being a minority at Bowdoin; my experience in our little bubble of political correctness and support has been comfortable and safe.
The two new diversity initiatives on campus, A.D.D.R.E.S.S. and Inter-Group Dialogue, have been facilitating conversations about race, which I find incredibly important because many people don’t know how to confront racial issues. When people found out there was another short Asian student who wears skinny jeans and likes photography my freshman year, I kept getting compared to him as if we were each other’s competition. Please, there is no competition—we’re two completely different people.
Catalina Gallagher ’16 told the Orient earlier this month that, “Part of the reason that people are on such different pages often is that we just don’t talk about race. It’s uncomfortable.”
And it’s because of this that I was a little apprehensive about writing this article—because it’s uncomfortable and I’m perhaps making it a bigger deal than it is. But this “big deal” is a reality I have to live with.
In the whiteboard photo campaign (organized by A.D.D.R.E.S.S)—which posed the question “what does race mean to you?”—there are responses saying, “It means nothing.” This couldn't be further from my experience with race: it shapes almost every experience I’ve had, and will have, with the world.
It’s undeniable that my experience in France would be different if I were, say, blonde and Caucasian. People wouldn’t stare because I’m the only Asian in a bar, I wouldn’t have to repeatedly tell people I’m not from China, and people I hook up with wouldn’t call me “my little Asian.”
Phrases like “that’s so Asian” are dividing mechanisms, ways to gather all the stereotypes and throw them into one sweeping generalization in order to differentiate us. At Bowdoin, my identity is very much separate from my race; people know me for my personality or skills. The very fact that people have seen me and pulled their eyes back into slits during my time abroad says enough about how my race is at the forefront of my identity. And I won’t even get started on sexuality.
At Bowdoin, I’m Asian-American; in France, for the most part, I’m just Asian. Associate Director of Health Promotion Whitney Hogan wrote “personal narratives” on her whiteboard for the A.D.D.R.E.S.S. campaign, and that’s exactly what’s being disregarded when race is used as the primary identifier: my history, my stories and my experiences are dismissed.
What’s being left out is my parents’ immense sacrifices and struggles to carve out a life for my sister and me; it’s the process of assimilating into American society; it’s my cultural heritage and how my upbringing has given me a more enriched view of the world; it’s how I’m able to share stories about growing up in the States and about Vietnamese customs with my host family.
I’m still trying to figure out what being Asian-American means to me, and it’ll probably take a lifetime, since meanings change as circumstances and situations do.
But after two months in Nantes, one thing I’ve discovered is it’s not so much about definitions or classifications. It’s about how my Vietnamese and American backgrounds interlock and fit together to form just a small portion of my identity.