Curiously, I asked my cousin a question over lunch in Taipei, wrestling with pieces of my identity as an American-born Taiwanese. “Is it obvious to people that I’m not from here?”
“Not very obvious by just looking at you, but obvious when you talk.”
“But it’s okay, your Mandarin is good enough to communicate with people here, and that’s all that matters” She followed up, sensing the way that I mulled over her answer.
Despite being born and raised in California in the tech-obsessed suburb of San Jose, Taipei was my first city. San Francisco had always less than an hour away from where I grew up, but it wasn’t until my late-teenage years that San Francisco became a place I knew. But at 6 years old, Taipei was the first city in which I rode a subway, slept in a small walk-up apartment, and bought breakfast sandwiches from the neighborhood 7-Eleven.
Growing up, many of my peers had similar cities abroad that they considered “motherlands”. It was common for my friends to disappear with their families over school holidays to visit relatives in other places.
Of California’s 39 million residents, 27% of them were born in a foreign country, meaning that California has roughly 10.5 million immigrants. As a child of two of those immigrants, I am forever thankful for the opportunities that allowed me and my family to not merely exists, but to thrive.
But of course, all policy falls short of fulfilling the needs of the fragile yet dynamic complexities of human life. What does it mean to identify more with a general culture than a geographic location? What if by calling myself an “American” I don’t mean the land sovereign to the United States but the values of “Freedom and Justice for all”?
To this day, I still wrestle with the identity of being Asian-American and what that means domestically in the US. On average, Asians earn more than Whites in the US, which makes it almost as if Asians are somehow not the intended subject when conversations invoke “people of color”.
And yet, Asians are one of the least politically active minority groups in the US. We have among of the lowest voter turnout rates and lowest representation in state and federal governments. Among Asian-Americans communities I know, there’s no prestige in being in politics. The attitude for many is “Why waste your time arguing with people when you can be making better money as a doctor or engineer?”
During my senior year at UCSD, I took a hiatus on my Computer Science requirements to spend 4 months at the Department of Education. Upon sharing my decisions with my parents, they responded with skeptical questions.
“How is interning in DC going to help your career? They’re not even paying you.”
I expected these questions, and answered as best I could, being just as uncertain as how it would impact my future as my parents were. There was little precedent for doing such an internship among people from the Asian-American communities I grew up in. In many ways the resistance to assimilating into America comes as much from inside the communities we’re a part of as from outside.
And yet, it is still these communities I grew up in that know best how to support me and push me forward, even if they may not always understand the choices and decisions I make. My values are a mix of east and west in a way that even I can’t discern where one ends and the other begins.
My grandparents flew from Houston to California to attend my graduation ceremony, just months after my grandpa went through various physical operations, leaving him weaker than he had ever been while I was growing up. The amount he endured just to be present is frozen in my memory as an illustration of what he endured to bring his family to the United States.
Being Asian-American means different things for my parents and grandparents than it does for me, and will probably mean something entirely different yet for my future children. I wonder when, if ever, it will be appropriate to switch the order of the nouns, signifying that we’ve become more American than Asian.