In the summer going into junior year of high school, my friend Ben had just come home from a two-week chemistry program at Cornell University. The day he came back, I remember catching up in the park we grew up near. We strolled along the familiar paths around the Long Island Sound that twisted and turned around the sides of the water.
Most of our conversation stayed on the topics of covalent bonds, nuclear reactions and electrophoresis — I was dozing off. Thankfully, he saved the most intriguing topic for last when he told me all about the cute S.T.E.M. girls. I always helped him with his girl problems.
“There was this one girl I talked to a lot,” he said. “I thought she was really cute.” He started telling me about her and said, “she’s Wasian, but she acts Whiter.”
Wasian? Acting White? When did he learn this term and why didn’t I know what it meant as an Asian person? Should I have known this before? As a White man saying this to an Asian American woman, did he know the weight of his words? I had no idea what this term meant or what “acting White” meant either. But I did know that both didn't sit right with me. Our catch-up walk was ruined when that became the only point I remembered. I realized that maybe Ben wasn’t someone whom I could confide in to talk about racial issues with anymore.
The next day, I was walking to class with one of my few Asian friends named Molly. I asked her about the term “Wasian” and what she thought “acting White” meant. She explained that the word “Wasian” describes someone who is biracial where one of their parents is White and the other is Asian. She also said, “acting White” reminded her of the terms “Banana” (someone who appears Asian but acts White) and “Egg” (someone who appears White but acts Asian). I had never heard of these two words in this context before.
I felt like I had entered a whole new planet and failed as an Asian American by not knowing these terms. Molly explained how she code-switches and uses her “White voice” in certain situations like ordering at a restaurant or talking on the phone with customer service. She classifies herself as a Banana in this situation because she’d code-switch to appear Whiter and appeal to Western ideals.
Back in elementary school, I had always known I was “different” from the other White kids in my classes. They would pull their eyelids back and pretend to be me. They pretended to speak Chinese and used their utensils like chopsticks. And then came the notorious question of where I was really from. Since I was able to go on the big kid slide on the playground, I knew I didn’t fit the ideal Western beauty standards. But I didn’t fully understand the racially charged part. To be fair, neither did the other six-year-olds making fun of me.
That summer was when I quickly became aware of the hold Whiteness unconsciously had on me and was when I started to notice it more. The next week, a co-worker called me a “basic White girl” because I was drinking a Frappuccino. I was confused. When had Starbucks become the epitome of Whiteness? Was I upholding the Banana stereotype?
That same summer, a worker at a self-service gas station mumbled something to me, and when I asked him what he said, he responded, “Do you even speak English?” In the weeks following, I kept wondering whether or not I was not Asian enough or so Asian that people thought I was a recent immigrant. To some people I was a “basic White girl”, but to others, I also couldn’t speak English. Wherever I went and whatever I did, I felt like an alien within a nation that supposedly gives a home to everyone.
Even when I tried to escape real life and watch television, I couldn’t relax. Prime time shows continuously corner the Asian experience into a clique — especially the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. The show's purpose was to depict what the real and authentic Asian experience should look like, but this kind of generalization is impossible to achieve since there isn’t only one general storyline for the lives of all Asian families in America. The show also inaccurately displays the struggles of Asian American families. I couldn’t last more than one episode. Not all Asian families have the opportunities to chase the American dream or even assimilate into American life so easily.
Each time I encounter such ignorance it makes me feel the same. Being outcast and alienated from society always hurts. It makes me conflicted about my identity as an Asian American woman and question where I fit in. Did I resemble the Egg or the Banana stereotype? Why was I even trying to conform to societal molds? I had enough on my plate already discovering I was gay as a teenager.
Even though I’m no longer 16, I still experience the same feelings of frustration and belittlement by society that come with discrimination. But the difference is that I have learned to accept myself for who I am; the labels that cater to the White imagination do not define my worth. If my friend Ben hadn’t mentioned the Wasian girl from his summer program five years ago, I would have never gotten the introduction and foundation to all the different aspects that have to do with Asian discrimination and hate. As much as our conversation in the park made me uncomfortable, it was necessary. I needed these kinds of interactions to learn and grow. I also needed to ask for help to become more educated and address my own ignorance.
From experiencing discrimination, I’ve learned that Asian women are the only ones who can best represent themselves and stand up against racist Asian stereotypes and tropes. Nevertheless, we still need respect from others. Being “woke” and claiming to be an ally isn't enough. People of color need to see action from their White counterparts, something beyond throwing money at the problem — to write their representatives, attend a protest, support a business run by a person of color.
I believe that my role as an Asian American is to educate others on the prejudices that we endure. No member of any minority group should ever be held to unrealistic societal expectations that make them feel invaluable or alone. Asians shouldn’t be seen as American society's model minority; people need to realize that the “bamboo ceiling” is real and happening right beneath the surface of capitalism. Although no one is telling me to advocate for other Asians or validate their experiences, I need to stand up for myself because no one else will represent myself better than me.