Every person of color goes through phases of cultural progression, whether they know it or not. We’re born somewhat ignorant of our cultural identity, but at some point, certain things happen that make us realize there is indeed a ‘them’, and an ‘us’.
America is much different than it was fifteen years ago. Minority populations have rapidly increased and are now seen as much more of a norm- depending where you live, obviously. As for me, I was raised in white suburbia, and in my area back then, Asians were seen as rarities. At first I never even knew race was a concept. But gradually, things people did made me realize that yes, race is an identifier that sets people apart and makes people feel they ought to be defined a certain way.
By blood, I’m 98% Chinese and 2% Korean, entirely Asian. One of my earliest recollections of coming into racial awareness was a trip to Staples with my mother. Some middle-aged white man stopped me to ask, “Are you oriental?” I wasn’t offended, yet I was confused and found his question quite odd- as if I were some sort of museum artifact. (Since then I haven’t heard that term much, so I guess it’s outdated). I forget what my response was, but that was only one of many neutral encounters that served to point out that I was different.
Not all my encounters with white people were neutral, however. Sometimes they were negative. One time in elementary school I was sitting in the car line waiting for my mother to pick me up after school. Some younger girls across from me started making fun of me, laughing and pulling on the corners of their eyes to make them slits and calling them “Asian eyes”. I remember feeling offended, disrespected, and hurt.
As I got older, I got used to walking the streets and hearing people call out at me, “Ni hao!” Not because they were interested in my language or culture. Moreso because they were jeering at me.
In middle and high school, I was automatically stereotyped as the good girl, the smart student, the quiet one, simply because I was Asian. In a way, the stereotypes were true- but partially because that’s what everyone expected me to be. It was easier to just go with it.
By college, I had fully embraced my Asian self. I was obsessed with my own culture- listened to a lot of Asian pop music, tried to get involved in Asian orgs, only wanted to date Asians. Throughout college though, I learned a lot about myself, developed my personality, and befriended diverse people from all over. My freshman year I took a sociology course on race and ethnic relations, which helped me finally put names to the different phases of racial awareness that I was going through.
During my junior and senior year of college, I made friends outside my Asian circle- African American, Hispanic, African, Middle Eastern, Indian, etc. I was introduced to Hispanic culture and fell in love with it, became a bachatera.
After college, many of my friends were either black or Hispanic, so I gravitated towards those cultures. To this day, while I’m proud of my Asian blood heritage, I consider my inner self part Latina and part Caribbean.
Cultural progression looks different for everyone. Environment, social circles, and interaction largely determine one’s own perception of race and how we choose to identify. What matters is that we never forget our roots, and that we treat other cultures with respect. It’s okay if you’re drawn to other cultures. At the end of the day, be happy with who you are. Whether you are part of the majority or minority culture, learn about your ancestors. Learn about other cultures that abound around you. And most importantly, appreciate it all.