In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage month that happened in May, I want to share some of my personal experiences of what it is like growing up Asian American. As a disclaimer, not all experiences are the same, in fact, our upbringings and cultures are different based on where in Asia someone is from. East Asians, South Asians, and Southeast Asians, though we may have similar cultural values, due to the history of how each of us made it to America, our societal norms and expectations are different.
My parents and I immigrated from Vietnam in 2006. My aunt was a boat person, a refugee after the Vietnam war, and it was her decision that changed my life. From the stories within my community, many Vietnamese refugees worked endlessly to make ends meet. Life was hard, parents were always working, children learned to take care of themselves since they were young. Most of these experiences have influenced the way younger Asian Americans grew up, here are some pros and pain points of growing up Asian Americans (at least Southeast Asian).
Strong Work Ethic
Most of us came from the lineages of hard-working and motivated individuals. Because our parents are always working, we learned at a young age to be independent. Watching our parents does help shape our own work ethic, especially through academia. Yes, it is true that most of us are quite smart, but we know being smart can only go so far.
We bust our a*s for good grades and study endlessly (either that or our parents would beat our a*s, seriously!). I can’t stand people who assume that our achievements come from just our brain. I’m thankful that my parents have instilled a strong work ethic in me, and it is something I hope to pass on to my children as well.
Struggles with Identity
When I first moved to America, I hated hanging out with American born Vietnamese. My English was terrible and I had a strong accent, so I was often bullied and looked down on by them. I was too Vietnamese. After three years, my English improved and I started attending a Vietnamese church, where I met new people that were fresh-off-the-plane-new. Although I only spoke English at school, my family was keen on speaking Vietnamese at home. I thought it was a great opportunity because I could finally have more Vietnamese friends, but again I wasn’t welcomed. I was too American, and they didn’t feel comfortable.
The struggles of not fitting in made me so insecure from elementary school through high school. I was too Asian to be American, and I was too American to be Asian. It wasn’t until when I started college that I found a group of people who accepted me for who I am. They understood the struggles and pressure of social norms. They also helped me embrace my Vietnamese culture, which I tried to hide in order to fit in.
One of the biggest culture clashes that haunt most Asian Americans, especially women, is beauty standards. If you want a good example of Asian beauty standards, I suggest you check out any k-pop videos. You will find lean girls with light skin, who mostly have had plastic surgery. Our culture is harsh when it comes to physical look, old aunties will have no problem telling us to lose weight or fix something on our face.
The current beauty standards in America are much more accepting of the body–love your own skin and curves. I love my curves and I’ve never had anyone discourage me to look any different. But on my trip to Vietnam last summer, I was constantly being told that I gained weight and one of my family members even asked my mom if I had a butt lift. First of all, I wish I was rich enough for that. Second, I just graduated from college so I was no longer stressed, so I can finally eat well. Also, we rarely talk about feelings and mental health, but that’s another beast of its own.
As a Vietnamese person, I appreciate the growing popularity of our foods, especially pho and banh mi. There are so many delicious Vietnamese foods out there, and I still have the weight that I’ve yet to get rid of after my trip to Vietnam. Most of our families rarely go out for Vietnamese food, it may be too Americanized for our taste buds or we just prefer homecooked meals. Cooking for families is how we share our love for each other. Especially our parents, who aren’t always affectionate, but they will make our favorite dish whenever we come.
Protective of Our Parents
Most of us, if not all of us have been our parents’ personal translators since we were 5 years old. Whether it is doctor appointments, electricity bills, or telemarketing, we were always there to help our parents. Now similar to how our parents try to protect us, we are very sensitive to protecting our parents. So when there are people who say something racist or rude to our parents, we do not hesitate to lash out at them. I can guarantee that if anyone talks rudely to your parents, you would not hold your tongue either.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this post, it is honestly one of the most personal topics that I have ever written about. It is personal because some of the things I’ve shared made me insecure at one point but also empowered me as a person. I think these are two unique cultures that can thrive together. Although there are gaps that can be challenging to bridge, I believe with enough efforts and understanding, our younger generations will bring in more awareness and acceptance to our community.