November 25, 2018

PARK | Subtle Asian Traits

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When I was in elementary school, my mom tried to pack me Korean food for lunch. The ensuing judgemental glances and whispers about my “stinky food” in the cafeteria prompted me to march home and shut that down. From then on, I brought white lunches to school and ate Korean dinners at home.

Growing up Asian in a primarily white town, I was surrounded by people whose understanding of my culture was limited to math, tiger parents and Kim Jong-il. In order to fit in, I suppressed the parts of my identity that made me different and I never really gave it much thought until joining a Facebook group called Subtle Asian Traits.

It started in September by a group of Chinese School friends and has quickly gained traction, taking over the news feeds of nearly 750,000 members in mere months. Through memes, it validates the experiences of so many Asian-Americans who grew up without a sense of belonging. By normalizing the differences I’ve spent so long rejecting, it’s made me grapple with the ways I changed to fit into my environment.

In middle school, I always felt the need to hide that I was in math club and to justify playing violin in orchestra. I made Asian jokes to beat other people to the punch. In high school, I actively rejected my more Asian traits. I refused to be a soft-spoken Asian, quitting math competitions and, instead, joining debate and running for student council.

It’s hard being Asian in a white institution. I spent much my early life feeling like an outsider, but I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way.

Subtle Asian Traits has built a community by shining a light on shared lived experiences and helping us realize that we’re not alone. But the rapid rise of the group indicates just how much we’re dying for some representation. People yearn to see their own identity reflected in relatable ways, but Asians are often ignored entirely by mainstream culture. We grew up watching white actors play Asian characters. On the rare occasions we get any screen time, it’s often through a one-dimensional, cartoonish rendering riddled with stereotypes. Seldom do we get the opportunity to see or express the reality and complexity of our experiences.

The issues of representation stretch far beyond mainstream media. Despite being the fastest-growing minority group in America with a comfortable place in its economy, we have almost no stake in the national discourse. We have gone so long without real legal and political representation that claims of racialized discrimination are only ever considered in the context of Affirmative Action. We just want to be seen.

We’ll take representation where we can get it — even if it’s just on the screens of our Facebook newsfeeds. And on a platform that can often be so isolating, it’s just so rare and beautiful to find some belonging. As we try to forge an Asian-American identity in a country that still refuses to accept the complexity of our existence, at least we know we’re not alone.

Sarah Park is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. S*Park Notes runs every other Monday this semester. She can be reached at spark@cornellsun.com.