May 7, 2018

LEE | Learning to Accept My Asian Identity

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Prior to moving to Dubai, UAE in the middle of High School, I never really thought about what it means to be Asian. Even though the 325 million Americans tend to place the 4.4 billion people on the Asian continent altogether under one group as “Asians,” I could clearly sense that I was an East Asian minority in a country where the vast majority of the people were Middle Eastern or South Asian. I’ve also naturally been in a part of an international community throughout most of my life and was never forced to regard myself as different. Yes, I thought that I was international in that I strive to be a global citizen, but not in the sense of being foreign or someone “other” than the majority.

Here in the U.S., I have become increasingly exposed to the different identities one can embrace. Some which have come to define my experience here include international, Asian and female. I have further discovered that Asians have developed a “model minority status” in the U.S. to the extent that their minority status is often overlooked in its entirety. I was surprised to learn that despite its prominence as one of the most powerful and diverse nations in the world, the U.S. was much more isolationist than I had perceived. Western-centric viewpoints dominate discourse, while Asians are often excluded from discussions about race.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. I know what you’re thinking. Why do we need to have months or weeks or days that commemorate specific identities? Why don’t we have a White History Month or an International Day of Men? What’s important to understand is the sheer lack of conversation that revolves around minorities. Asians constitute about 7 percent of the U.S. population and while relatively well-represented in academia, they are rarely provided a platform through mass media. While we revel in the marvels of Wakanda and Black Panther magic, we see just how underrepresented all minority groups had been throughout the centuries.

I didn’t know it was Asian Pacific American Heritage Month until coming upon a Buzzfeed Tasty Video that describes the process of making a Vietnamese noodle soup, pho. I honestly didn’t expect much other than to satisfy my 3 a.m. cravings for noodles and soup, my two favorite foods. But as I watched the video, I couldn’t relate more to the narrator who spoke about her Vietnamese-American immigrant experience. I realized that we share very common struggles, like trying to choose between embracing my cultural background and adopting others’.

“I remember being younger thinking that I was a little weird because I went to a school where most of my had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and my mom would just pack me bahn mi,” she recalls. Her anecdote resonated with my experience both as an Asian and an outsider. Although I didn’t grow up in the U.S., I went to an international elementary school with an American curriculum in Beijing, China. My mom would also pack me ethnic foods like myulchi bokkeum (stir-fried anchovies) because of how much calcium it has, while my American friends gobbled down their unwholesome PB&Js. You’d expect these kids to be more appreciative of other cultures since they’re living in an East Asian country. Yet, I still remember how my white “friends” would look down upon my myulchi bokkeum as if it were bugs.

But they didn’t know how precious that myulchi bokkeum was. It was emblematic of my upbringing, family and my mother’s love for her child such that she would wake up hours before work every day to make sure that I had a nutritious lunch in school. Although I occasionally enjoy eating Oreos or salads with ranch dressing, I still can’t go a day without my daily dose of jjigae (stew) or rice. As embarrassed as I had been of Korean food back in elementary school and as much as I wished for silky blonde hair and blue eyes, I now know to be proud and happy for who I am. I love being Asian, Korean, international, female, a citizen of the world and everything in-between. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

DongYeon (Margaret) Lee is a sophomore in the ILR school. She can be reached at margaretlee@cornellsun.com. Here, There and Everywhere appears alternate Tuesdays.