Illustration for article titled Awkward times for a first gen.

Here's the thing about me: I grew up in a very different kind of Asian America than the kind that is bandied about as the "exemplary minority" stereotype. There are a large number of us who did not grow up as the children of highly educated immigrants who came here for business opportunities. In fact, a lot of us are here as the product of wars, famine, and basic survival. My parents are both war refugees who were sponsored over by church groups and scraped by on modified skills. They were uneducated, and came over with very little in the way skills or connections outside of the Asian communities they had to rebuild for themselves.


As a first generation American coming from this kind of Asia, we are often left out of the conversation when it comes to what it means to be Asian American. We aren't the straw-men geniuses like the media would like to have you believe, we're still the ones who get treated like lesser than even if we were born here.

  • 1st grade, despite my advanced reading levels I was pulled out of class and put in an ESL program. They removed me after a week when they realized that while English may not have been my first language, it was absolutely my primary language. I was reading at a grade level above the rest of my non ESL class.
  • 2nd grade, I get mistaken for the other Asian girl in my class with a similar name and stick me back in ESL. The ESL teacher looked at me quizzically and asked me why I was there, and I told her a TA said my name was called and I was told to line up. We're all the same, I guess.
  • 4th grade, my parents move us to a new state in the south where I attend a predominantly white school in the suburbs. Again, based on my skin color and not my transcript, the teacher pulls me out of class to test me and see if I need to be in the special ESL class. My mind blanks when they show me a picture of an oven and I tell them it's an oven, but the teacher keeps trying to prod me into calling it a stove. She clucks her tongue in pity at me. Dumb girl, doesn't she know it's called a stove? They immediately sign me up for an ESL program.
  • 4th grade, moved to a northern state after things don't work out for my parents in the south (thank goodness!). I am back in a school where the mix of ethnicities is pretty even across the board. I get invited to join a group mentored by an Asian American community leader. Our small group would be pulled out of class on a weekly basis. It's the only time I've felt singled out for being Asian in a positive way, and I owe a lot to that mentor.
  • 6th grade, I elect not to sign up for accelerated classes in junior high much to the dismay of my elementary school teacher. I tell her I didn't want to lose my friends. This wasn't a valid enough reason for her and she tells me so. The truth was that my parents didn't want to take time out of their day to attend the enrollment for accelerated academics because it cut into their work day, and I wasn't allowed to attend alone. My parents didn't speak English well enough to have the teacher explain what this would mean for me, so I don't even bother trying to explain myself to her.
  • 7th grade, all elementary school friendships are now a struggle to maintain and soon to be replaced by newly formed cliques. In gym class, the only class in which I had no friends from elementary school, I get paired up with the other 3 Asian girls in class. Turns out none of us have anything in common, not even our ethnicities.
  • 8th grade, I get into a fight with my mom. She tells me I'm stupid because I have white friends. According to her, white people don't look out for each other like other Asians do. She spends the rest of my adolescence not allowing me to socialize with anyone outside of school or invite anyone over unless they're Asian. I go on break this rule several times.
  • 9th grade, my friend invites me to the Renaissance Festival. I turn her down because Renaissance Festivals make me feel uncomfortable in a way I just could not describe to her, beyond telling her it feels like a "white people thing". She goes on to tell me how she's not white, she's 1/16th Cherokee. She asserts this general non whiteness every time the issue of race is brought up until the time I break off my friendship with her.
  • 9th grade, I am on the school bus. Two kids who are sitting in front of me on the bus ask me to pull down my window for them. I refuse, because it's my window and I wanted it up. They start smack talking me in a language they don't think I understand, but I can understand every word clearly.
  • 10th grade, a girl in my class who originally thought I was Polynesian finds out I'm actually the same ethnicity as her. She goes from ignoring me to clinging to me in every social situation that doesn't involve other Asian kids, inviting herself over to my house whenever she pleased (at the staunch approval of my parents), and writing me notes in which she scrawled ASIAN PRIDE in fancy print under her name. She casually uses derogatory slang about other Asian people, including calling others FOB and calling me a banana or a Twinkie.
  • 11th grade, I show up for class registration and sit next to a girl who just returned from studying abroad in Japan. We have an hour long conversation about her trip and returning to school in the states, when she stops me and asks where I'm from because, "Your English is so good!". "Seattle, originally." I reply. She then asks me if I'm adopted. I'm tell her I am not.

All of these strange assertions of me being either not Asian enough or too Asian continue well into adulthood, but I've mostly numbed myself to it. None of my friends, Asian or non Asian, liked to discuss the awkwardness of being first generation. I've learned to filter out any angry feeling whenever someone purposefully speaks loudly and slowly to me, asks me where I'm from, or makes up some kind of joke about the studiousness of Asians. I'm not Asian enough for the Asian community as my mother, various teachers, and pushy high school friend think I should be. And yet I can't be anything but myself, which is in fact Asian. Just not the kind of Asian you think about.

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