The Asian-American Paradox: Simultaneously Both and Neither (Week 5)

Going into this experience, I expected to have a difficult time navigating my Asian-American identity being back in Asia for the first time in over a decade. Being half Japanese, my Asianness has always made up an unfair percentage of others’ perceptions of me – explicitly and implicitly. Being constantly misidentified and discriminated against (especially by people and in places which were important to me) on the basis of my heritage and appearance has kept me doubtful of my place in America despite spending almost my entire life as an American. Being Asian-American carries a unique brand of insecurity in that, regardless of the truth, some people (mostly non-Asians) will always see me as a fob and others (mostly Asians) see me as whitewashed. Many of my fellow Americans would sooner pin a random non-American White guy who just disembarked from the plane as their countryman than me, solely because Asian-Americans are constantly perceived as being foreign. And many of my fellow Asians quickly pick me apart from the rest, recognizing my weak connection to my Japanese heritage and inability to speak in my mother tongue. In the past, I found little security between these two communities, both of which actively push me away. I am either too White or not White enough.

While I have defined my identity outside of these labels and grown to be comfortable and confident in my skin, my expectations of this summer have so far been confirmed. People are shocked when I say I’m American. They wait for me to say, “I’m Japanese-American.” Then, I can see the light go off in their eyes. Every time. “Oh, so you’re half Japanese, half American.” “No, I’m half Japanese, half Western European mutt, but 100% American.” They add up these percentages and don’t understand how I can be 200% of anything. Despite history and the truth, the American identity is still clearly seen as White. Maybe even Black. But not Asian. Forget the Native Americans who are the only non-immigrant heirs to the name. In Asia, as in the United States, I face the same “where are you from?” and doubtful eyes in response.

What I had not expected to experience during this summer experience is all the positives. This first month in Southeast Asia has broadened my understanding of diversity and beauty. It has also deepened my confidence and self-love. Growing up without much media representation and with few people who look like me made it difficult for me to accept my appearance and capabilities. Being here, for the first time in over a decade, surrounded by other people who look like me has been therapeutic. It has confirmed my suspicions that, in fact, not all Asians look the same (a shocking revelation for more people than would willingly admit it to themselves). It has shown me advertisements of Asians being portrayed as strong, beautiful, confident, independent, caring, capable of leadership, and more. I have seen almost none of this in the United States. Asian men can be masculine. We can be leaders. Here, I am not assigned the sidekick role or the nerd stereotype. Being Asian is not the first part of my identity for which people see me. Yes, I am still seen for my differences and face a new set of challenges apart from those in the United States, but it is absolutely refreshing to take a break from being a minority in America.