Still American, just a different kind
Last week was Davidson's APIA (Asian Pacific Islander American) week. As a member of ACAA, Davidson's Asian Cultural Awareness Association, I hope you were able to enjoy the events and festivities (not to mention the free food). But I want everyone to understand something about APIA week: this is not just a celebration of free food in a week full of vaguely Asian or Asian related events. For many of us, it's an affirmation of our own identity. If you look at my last name (it's 14 letters for those of you that don't want to count), you may be intimidated, unsure as to what my origins are. As I've said, I'm Thai American. Yes, I've eaten pad thai; no, I'm not a transsexual; yes, I'm Buddhist; and no, I was not born there. I was born in Miami, Florida which is just as full of palm trees and just as hot and humid. And despite how much they see or believe they see of the Thai side of me, people often forget the American part of me.
I remember the moment I realized I was Asian. I was in Kindergarten, the year 2000, around the time of Thanksgiving. My elementary school had a tradition of having us dress up as Pilgrims or Native Americans in celebration of Thanksgiving and we, with all of the teachers around us, would eat grocery store turkey and microwaved mashed potatoes in a huddled circle of cultural appropriation. I wanted to be a Pilgrim. I was drawn to their buckled hats and weird shoes and I thought it'd be fun to dress up as one. But my classmates didn't think so. "The Pilgrims weren't as dark as you." "Asians don't look like Pilgrims." "Minwoo is going to be an Indian, why aren't you?" Funny enough, a few of those comments came from my Hispanic classmates, many of those having more of a claim to Native American ancestry than I, the child of two Thai immigrants, could ever have. Why couldn't I be American like the Pilgrims?
Growing up, I was always the exotic one in a city considered exotic to the rest of America. However, I also felt an odd sort of sense of belonging in America, though not the America one normally thinks of. I grew up in Miami, where over half of the population is immigrant or immigrant-born. To me, the question of "Where are you from?" prompts a classically-conditioned answer of "Born here, but my parents are from Thailand. You?" simply because everyone I knew wasn't simply American, they were Cuban but American, Nicaraguan but American, Venezuelan but American. We were all hyphenated Americans together.
As my classmates and I grew older, we started having a greater appreciation and understanding of what it meant to be American, how even though we could look each other in the eye and know we were both American, we said this in the bubble that was Miami. Would we still be American if we went to Chicago, or St. Louis, or Portland? Who would a random stranger think was more American, me, or a white South African? Coming up with an identity is hard, especially when the other half of myself, my American self, is rarely ever talked about. Can I talk about how much I think the Knicks suck or how much I enjoy watching Breaking Bad instead of asking me to say something in Thai or if I know how to make pad thai?
Many of us Asian Americans, especially the more recent immigrants, are in an odd state of transition. The cultural ties of the family come in contact with the American lifestyle and create a sort of chimera of cultures. For me, APIA week represents the newer generation of Asian Americans, the group of people that, despite their diverse backgrounds (Asia is a very large continent), are still assumed to be foreign or exotic. It's not that curiosity over our backgrounds is bad, but assuming that we know anything about a culture you might assume us to be in before you even know us perpetuates these feelings of never being American. The moment we consider ourselves American, we are not only Asian anymore. I am American, and even though I, through my ancestry and self-identification, bring a different culture to the mosaic that is American society, I am still American, just prefixed with an "Asian".
Tommy Chaisuesomboon '17 is undeclared from Miami, FL. Contact him at email@example.com
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