I recently applied for an Asian American scholarship that would help cover part of my senior year tuition. I made it to the last round, but was not selected as a finalist. However, the application process itself was tremendously rewarding because it challenged me to think deeply about my Asian American identity.
The scholarship’s second round essay question was: What kind of role should Asian Americans seek on the Boston College campus and in society at large? And as I was developing my answer, I had a number of insightful, thought-provoking conversations with friends and family that helped me grapple with how to respond. I put a great deal of effort and attention into this essay and am proud of how it turned out, so I wanted to share it here.
Despite coming from the best intentions, the question “What kind of role should Asian Americans seek on the Boston College campus and in society at large?” raises some concerns, particularly the notion that Asian Americans should be seeking a role. I doubt that white Americans would ever have to answer a similar question. As the majority, white Americans inherit roles as a side effect of white privilege, wherein society presumes their dominant position. Meanwhile, limiting an endlessly complex community to any singularly definable role would be an unjustifiable effort of generalization. Of course, as 5.6% of the total American population, a united Asian American community can create a louder message with greater power, but only at the sacrifice of drowning out individual voices (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). Instead of clumping groups with wildly different cultural traditions, identities, and experiences into a one-size-fits-all role, I would rather create room for Asian American individuals to seek whatever roles they desire.
The wording of this essay question illuminates how the overgeneralization of Asian Americans leads to misrepresentation and lack of recognition. There are significant differences (socioeconomic, cultural, historic, experiential) between specific Asian American ethnic groups that become blurred when considering the community as a single entity. For instance, it is easy to overlook the stark wealth inequality among Asian Americans because it challenges the popular view that Asian Americans are economically advantaged (Thompson and Weller, 2016). Not to mention, an Asian American identity grows in richness as it grows in specificity. I have an English mother and Chinese-Malaysian father. And I received a Mandarin bilingual education in an area that encompasses six of the top ten U.S. cities with the highest percentage of Asian Americans (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). My outlook and experiences differ from those of a second-generation Korean American in Philadelphia, or from those of a Vietnamese immigrant in South Dakota. Yet, each experience enriches what it means to identify as Asian American.
The pervasiveness of the overgeneralization of Asian Americans is apparent even on campus. Last year, I was shocked when Stuart Dining Hall served green tea ice cream—a distinctly Japanese flavor—for dessert on its Chinese Culinary Showcase night. But Japanese and Chinese food are essentially the same…right? The answer is a resounding no. That night, I felt like the only one in the dining hall who even noticed the discrepancy. The misguided choice of green tea ice cream reflects how the mainstream popularization of Asian influence tends not to acknowledge specific ethnic origins. Of course, I would have loved if BC Dining served a Chinese dessert, such as red bean soup or sesame-filled tang yuan (glutinous rice balls), but those dishes are not part of common American knowledge or tastes.
I feel incredibly grateful to have grown up eating the food and experiencing the cultures of numerous Asian countries. Even among Asian Americans, I recognize that my exposure is unique. After all, the average American might not be able to explain the culinary differences between Thai, Malaysian, Cantonese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean food. However, I would hope that one day, these differences would be as commonly known as the differences between French and Italian food, because they deserve that much individual recognition and celebration.
The green tea ice cream incident resonated with me because food is fundamental—it is a reflection of the self. Alongside family, food is the pride and joy of my identity. Food is how I communicate my multicultural heritage. Food is my ultimate form of storytelling.
And storytelling matters. Storytelling is how we can tackle the issue of overgeneralization by celebrating individuality while pointing to the universality of the human condition. Exchanging stories with people from different backgrounds—through food, media, and personal connection—is how we can elevate the perception of Asian Americans on campus and in society.
Food has been a prominent storytelling vehicle for me. Freshman year, I loved introducing my Massachusetts-born roommate, Hannah, to unfamiliar foods. It was my way of communicating my multicultural upbringing. I had her try Japanese persimmons, Chinese rou song (pork floss), Korean sundubu-jjigae (tofu stew), English Cadbury mini eggs, and much more—each of which added a clarifying stroke to the culinary canvas of my identity. And when I wanted to help capture what being Chinese-Malaysian means to me, I would show her pictures of my favorite dishes to eat when visiting family in Malaysia: roti canai, mee hoon kueh, char kuey teow…the list goes on and on. Each plate of food draws upon a rich cultural history of flavor, ingredients, knowledge, and technique that helps me tell my story.
Media and entertainment are also powerful storytelling mediums. Going along with the theme of food, Korean American chef David Chang’s Netflix docuseries “Ugly Delicious” introduces thoughtful depth and nuance to its storytelling of Asian and Asian American food. The show challenges preconceptions about foods across the globe, tackling historical and sociocultural issues around cultural purity, assimilation, and discrimination. In the fried rice episode, for example, the show discusses how Chinese food is ubiquitously available yet largely misunderstood and undervalued in America. Meanwhile, the portrayal of Asian ingredients on cooking shows as being strange or disgusting perpetuates the exoticism of Asian cultures. Tellingly, a list of the “weirdest” mystery basket ingredients on the competition cooking show “Chopped” includes sea cucumber, durian, stinky tofu, and preserved duck eggs (Erdos, 2013). Such attitudes of repulsion devalue Asian delicacies and project a notion of Western superiority. Thus, the stories we tell about Asian food, culture, and individuals in the media can have incredible sway on either tackling or propagating the generalization of Asian Americans in society.
Finally, we each have a voice to tell our own stories to those around us through personal connection. I came to BC from a rather racially homogenous cohort of Asian American peers in the Bay Area. So, I intentionally sought demographically diverse campus activities such as Let’s Get Ready, LeaderShape, Dialogues on Race, and Project Hapa to connect with and learn from people with different backgrounds (which, to a certain extent, is nearly everyone). In engaging in a self-directed cultural exchange, I sought to better communicate and identify with other communities on campus while representing my personal Asian American story.
I can only refer to my own experience as a multiracial person, but I love when people ask me about my ethnicity. It is a chance for me to narrate a core aspect of who I am. But I find that despite my ethnically ambiguous appearance, people do not often ask me about my racial background—and those who do, tend to be people of color. I wonder if this pattern is because people are afraid of being offensive, do not register my racial makeup, or find it too intimate of a question to ask. In contrast, I know that many Asian Americans can be hesitant towards such inquiries because they do not want their race to solely define them. Questions like “Are you from China?” can be microaggressions. But they can also be coming from curiosity and a desire to connect. As such, Asian Americans should consider embracing more openness to these questions—they are opportunities to help others understand that we are more than our racial identities. If people feel shut down from asking about someone’s background or cultural practices out of fear of saying something wrong, then the dialogue is over before it has even begun. Instead, “Where are you really from?” and “What are you eating?” are chances to confront ignorance, stereotypes, and generalizations of the Asian American experience.
Every Asian American story told—through food, media, or personal conversation—sheds much needed light on the vast range of experiences across a continent’s worth of people. Rather than reserve open conversations about race and culture for dedicated, organized spaces, I hope that we can be storytellers and listeners in everyday life, embracing the wonder of merely being one among many Asian Americans who each have a remarkably distinctive role to play in society.