Otherness — My Experience as a First Generation Asian-American
I acknowledged race at a very young age. I remember instances in elementary school when I would put baby powder on my face just to make my skin a little lighter. I remember telling other students that my relatives came from European countries as opposed to the Philippines. As a child, I never realized how much of an impact my heritage would have on my identity. Only when I was in my later teen years did I start associating myself with that “other” part of me.
With everything that is happening politically around the issues of immigration in the United States, the focus is around illegal immigrants — Those who have come here as refugees or just individuals seeking a better life for themselves and their families. But what about those who have been here for decades? Those who are legal immigrants, yet still face the harsh realities of racism and prejudice even though they have already undergone the necessary steps towards becoming a United States citizen. What about those who were born in the United States? The sons and daughters of immigrants who still feel a sense of otherness.
I, myself, have always had this feeling of otherness.
I was born in Central New Jersey. My parents are both United States citizens who immigrated from the Philippines to the States in the late 1970's/Early 80’s. Like many others, they came to America seeking better opportunities for themselves and for their families. They may not have known it at the time, but this decision would impact me and my sister for the rest of our lives.
Growing up, I never had to go through the difficulties that my parents faced when immigrating to a foreign country — The difficulties of not knowing anyone and having very little knowledge of the culture. I never had to deal with assimilating or uprooting. I was born into a life that they had to learn from scratch. Later on, I began to understand the sacrifices and struggles that my parents had to go through. I began to understand how easy I had it made because they had already laid the foundation for which I was able to build my life. The only thing that I had to do was live it.
What I didn’t realize was that I’d face my own internal battles when it came to how other people viewed me and more importantly, how I viewed myself.
There was a distinct moment when I legitimately felt singled out because of the color of my skin. I was a senior in high school and was at one of my friend’s graduation parties. I was sitting at a table with some friends and friends of friends, who all happened to be white. Someone was telling a story and began making a joke about Chinese people. The moment the words came out of his mouth, he paused and froze. Him and everyone else at the table looked directly at me. I looked around to realize that I was the only non-white person at the table — the only Asian person.
Prior to this, I had never really paid attention to the moments when I was the only non-white person, but at that moment, it felt like someone had finally pointed out the elephant in the room. From that moment on, my entire view on race and culture had shifted. After that, I took into account every single moment when I realized that I was the only non-white person. I finally came to terms with understanding that I wasn’t American just like everyone else. I was Asian-American. I was a minority.
The thing is, I never thought that other people saw me this way. I never thought that people saw me as different. I never felt disadvantaged, never felt alienated, never felt “not white”.
A few weeks ago, I had gone to a bar in Manhattan with my boyfriend and we were playing pool with two guys that we had just me there. One of them was a white guy in his twenties, maybe early thirties. He told us a bit about himself, what he did for a living, that he had moved from another state and been living in New York for several years. Overall, he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. As the night went on, it seemed that the only conversation he initiated with me was tied to the fact that I was Asian. At one point, he had asked me what my ethnicity was. I told him that I was Filipino. When I asked why, he then revoked his next comment. He said never mind — It was a statistic relating specifically to Chinese people. In my head, I wondered, “Would he even be bringing this up if I weren’t Asian?”
I dismissed the thought.
My boyfriend later informed me that when I was in the restroom, he asked him, “Have you ever noticed how Asians get really energetic when they’re drunk?” (Keep in mind, I only had one beer at that point). My boyfriend responded by saying, “What are you talking about?” in my defense. I hardly doubt these two instances of bringing up race were coincidences. After all, this isn’t the first time that this has happened and it will likely not be the last time.
Appearance is the first thing that anyone will see when they first meet you. It is the first thing that people can and will pass judgment on. With that being said, skin color will always play a role. If people in America, and across the globe, continue to hold onto preconceived notions about certain races, then can we ever really get past racial biases when it comes to making a snap judgment about another person? I ask this, as it not only applies to me, but to anyone of color.
You see, even though I was born in the United States, grew up here, went to school here, and work here, will I ever be able to get around the fact that I am not white? Will other people ever be able to get around the fact that I am not white? Despite the fact that I am American, my skin tells a different story at first glance. This has been a struggle for me my entire life. And this is what it feels like to be a person of color. This is what it feels like to be a First-generation American and an Asian-American. This is what it feels like to be a minority — To be on both sides of the table, feeling included, yet not included all at once.