Being Asian American can mean a multitude of things, and it encompasses a myriad of little-known stories and unique experiences of people straddling two cultures. See the world through the eyes of others with these stories illustrated by Angel Trazo.
Defining One’s Own Destiny
It must have been 1969. The world was in turmoil and even though I was still a kid in grade school, I knew it was all around me. I grew up in Altadena in a blessedly integrated community. I don’t call it that because it was a racial utopia. There was plenty of tension. We were a part of the Pasadena school district, which was in the middle of a battle over desegregation. The debate over integration and educational equality spilled out into our neighborhoods, classrooms and the playground. We were still children, but we had a consciousness of race, identity and rights beyond our years.
I read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” that year, and my teacher declared in class that my mother was lying about her World War II incarceration in a prison camp for Japanese Americans. It was the year the My Lai photographs were first published. I knew the casualties of the war looked like me.
About that time, a UC Berkeley graduate student named Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian American.” He and fellow students were agitating against the war in Vietnam and for ethnic studies. They refused to be defined as “gooks” or Orientals, they insisted on determining their own identity.
Ichioka would become a seminal historian of Asian American Studies at UCLA, and a whole field was born. But I didn’t know about any of that at the time. I just knew the world was spinning in a different direction and I wanted to be in the middle of it. A half-century later, we tell the story of this monumental time in “Asian Americans,” just as the world is once again turning on its axis. Where are we headed? History might have some answers.
Renee Tajima-Peña, filmmaker, UCLA professor of Asian American Studies
Watch “Asian Americans,” a five-hour film series that delivers a bold, fresh perspective on the history of the fastest-growing demographic in the country today. Stream now.
Restoring My Timeline
The first time I felt connected to my identity as an Asian American was in an introductory Asian American Studies course at UCLA. It was life-changing for me to be introduced to my history for the first time. I learned about Yuri Kochiyama, Vincent Chin, Philip Vera Cruz, Angel Island and the International Hotel. I didn’t know Asian Americans were a part of the Civil Rights Movement. I didn’t know the role Asian Americans played in agriculture, community organizing and economic development. Leading up to this moment, the history I was learning belonged to someone else. When you can’t see yourself in history, you can’t connect to your timeline. Before Asian American Studies, I only learned about Asians during the California Gold Rush when I was in fourth grade. I knew more about the Industrial Revolution than I did about how Asians came to America. As a Vietnamese American teenager in my American History high school class, I was excited that our textbook covered the Vietnam War. I was imagining what types of assignments and conversations we would have as a class. I waited all year to get to that chapter, but we never made it past the Cold War. After my first day of Asian American Studies at UCLA, I immediately declared a double major.
Christine Tran, food justice advocate and wanderlust
Not a United Colors of Benetton Ad
When I was 20, I was with my friend Seri outside a cafe on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, just hanging out, when a stranger walked by and said to us, “you’re a great concept.”
At the time, I had a bright red bob and Seri, who’s African American, had medium-length dreadlocks. This was not long after the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, probably just a year or so after. The event did not just bring worldwide attention to police brutality in America, especially against African American men, but also highlighted the tensions between the predominantly African American population in South Central and the Korean American business owners in the neighborhood.
The stranger who called us a great concept was a middle-aged African American man. Seri and I were both uncomfortable with his comment. We invited him to join us to get to know us a little better, so that we were more than that. The man considered the sight of us as just a concept because that was not his reality — an Asian American and African American together — but it was ours, it was and is called friendship. How could this be so foreign to another person in L.A.? Were we living in some alternate universe? More than two decades later, unfortunately, for some, this still may be.
But we didn’t respond to the man with anger and we didn’t ignore him. We invited him to sit with us. And for the next hour we exchanged views about why he said that, because how could we understand each other if there’s no dialogue? How could we change it if we had just walked away?
Teena Apeles, Gen Xer, collector of stories and serial question asker
Black, Brown, Beautiful
When I wrote silly stories as a kid, I was oddly very specific about how my protagonists looked. “Strawberry blonde” was a popular description. “Brunette,” sometimes. And it appears I had a weird obsession over hazel eyes. But I know I never described any of them with black hair and dark-colored eyes. In hindsight, I can’t say it doesn’t make sense — I didn’t like my fine, black hair very much at the time. My eye color? Black and boring. And while we’re on the subject, don’t get me started on how my eyes would practically vanish from my face whenever I smiled.
But I grew older, and noticed my black hair would turn golden brown against the sun. My “boring” black irises, chock-full of melanin, spared me from squinting like a madman in sunlight. And my habit of forcing my eyes wide open in pictures, making me look perpetually surprised, began to look more ridiculous than cool (happiness is always the best look, kids). When I stopped fighting back my Asian features, I learned to love them and embrace them as part of my identity. There’s power in revealing the simple fact that black hair and dark-colored eyes can also be beautiful.
Karen Ho, 22, Animal Crossing enthusiast
Asian Americans of Different Kinds
I was born and raised in San José, California, a large city in the Bay Area where Asian Americans outnumber Whites. However, when I went to a predominantly White college in middle-of-nowhere Upstate New York, there were so few Asian students that I kept getting mistaken as an “international student.” It was a total culture shock. I rolled with it, sidestepping microaggressions like “your English is so good!” with my friend from Hong Kong (whose first language is also English). And early on in the semester, I decided to sneak into an international student dinner with my new friend group composed of half international students and half domestic students. At the dinner, we all got name tags and had to write 1) our name and 2) “Where we were from.” I wrote “Angel” and “California,” but my domestic Asian American friends decided to write that they were from “Korea” and “China” even though they grew up in “L.A.” and “Connecticut.” That first semester of college marked the time when I deeply started contemplating what it meant to be Asian American.
Angel Trazo, 24, boba addict and visual artist
Language Barriers and Bridges
I’ve always felt self-conscious about my ability to speak my family’s Chinese dialect, Teochew. Even though I primarily speak Teochew with my parents (and sprinkle in English phrases to fill in the language gaps), I would rate my level as no better than a fifth-grader. So, when my family and I traveled to our ancestral home of Jieyang, China to visit our relatives in March 2018, I knew I would have to speak only Teochew.
I was nervous. I imagined my relatives chiding me for speaking the language so poorly, and that I was an ABC (American-born Chinese). Growing up in the heavily Asian-populated San Gabriel Valley, my parents’ friends would sometimes call me an “ABC;” they were being equally judgmental and playful, but it always made me feel embarrassed that I wasn’t Chinese enough.
I expected my relatives in China to call me this, but they never did. Instead, they patiently listened as I spoke slowly, and encouraged me to describe the vocabulary words I didn’t have. One aunt commented on how I was so good at speaking Teochew after I answered one of her questions, even though my cousin pointed out that I didn’t understand the question at all, which was true.
What surprised me the most was that my relatives mustered up the courage to use all the English they knew. They met me halfway with the language barrier, and didn’t see being Asian American as a bad thing. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t embarrassed I spoke Chinglish.
Jean Trinh, 37, writer
Pho for the soul
My Vietnamese American-ness really stood out to me when comedian Jenny Yang filmed me and my parents in my kitchen talking about pho and what makes for authentic pho, for her project “Bad Appetit” about Asian food being Americanized or whitewashed. It was so awesome to hear my parents’ memories of pho carts growing up in Vietnam and how they grew up eating it for breakfast, how it smelled and how it made them feel. This simple food really connects them to some of their earliest memories. Preserving pho done right, our language and our culture are very important in my family. What made this really is cool was when my mom said, “my grand-dogs eat pho and they love it.” It’s hilarious that our cultural identity has been transferred to our canine family members!
Thuc Doan Nguyen, Writer, Dog enthusiast and absurdist
Eating and Dancing Barefoot
The Filipino side of my family is very social. It’s part of our culture. I’m in a Filipino folk dance company, Kayamanan Ng Lahi, and there aren’t any dances with just one person. You always dance with someone or a group. I like it because it’s where you can learn traditional numbers, you can practice with Filipinos of all ages, and you can eat! Everyone brings a lot of food. It’s so good! Once someone brought Jollibee, and once
I brought Jollibee. Food is so important at “KNL” that in everyone’s documentaries we shot for class, you can see it. There’s always someone eating.
KNL is like a family: sometimes people leave, some come back and new people join. It’s really special. I’m not really into doing other dances like hip hop or ballet — I can’t even kick. I’m a Filipino folk dancer, I dance barefoot. We have beautiful costumes, and everyone gets something out of it when we perform. If someone’s new, they get experience. If someone has done it before, they get a really happy day in their life. Some people can get friends. And everyone gets food! I’m not kidding. We eat a lot of food before and after shows.
No matter what, everyone at KNL will still be together. Now we’re in quarantine and we can’t see each other in person on Sundays, but we’re doing Zoom classes, and it’s still really fun, but no one gets food, no Sunday buffet. I miss it.
Dominie Apeles, almost 8, L.A. maker and tiny builder
Staying in the Game
Growing up in East coast suburbia, playing soccer felt like the most American thing about me. From a young age, I was obsessed with the skills and strategy that went into “The Beautiful Game.” But I also loved that I got to wear matching jerseys and have post-game pizza with a bunch of blonde-haired blue-eyed gazelles. No matter how much of an Asian nerd I was at school, I got to transform into an all-American athlete every time I stepped into my Copa Mundial cleats. It took a while to receive my first racial slur on the field — not until high school — but it was a doozy: a multi-player shoving fight, tears, an awkward aside with the coaches who gruffly chastised that there were players at fault on both sides, and a team hug that did nothing to make me forget that I was still Asian American on the field and off.
Our second match against that team was worse. The coaches collaborated to keep distance between the offending player and myself by alternating our sub-ins or throwing us on opposite sides of the field, ensuring there was no way we could confront each other head-on. The play was tense, arrhythmic and overly polite — the opposite of the sport I loved.
I quit shortly thereafter, mumbling excuses about upcoming college admissions, and I remember the relief in my coach’s expression. Twenty years later, I still regret quietly removing myself from the equation to make things less challenging for others. Every time I see a lone Asian American athlete playing shoulder to shoulder with teammates who don’t look like her, I wish her the fortitude to keep taking up space on that field.
Tracy Park, animation producer, zinester, retired face-toucher
Asian Thanksgiving Day
It was my freshman year of high school in 1988. I attended an all-boys parochial school. Most of my classmates were from a Latino background. Two weeks before Thanksgiving Day, my classmate Frank M. asks me, “Are you having fish, rice, and soy sauce for Thanksgiving?” I felt utterly insulted and shocked by this question. Of course, being a typical 14-year-old boy, I brushed it off and made it seem unaffected by it. This was before Asian foods such as sushi, sashimi, pancit and lumpia became mainstream dishes. The “What Are You Eating For Thanksgiving Day” incident was one of the moments in my life where identity was being brought into the forefront. Consequently, I began to question my own identity as a Filipino American. My Latino classmates were proud of their own heritage. Why did I just take it and not respond? Why did I not outwit Frank with a comeback? Four years went by and I realized it was a rite of passage for me not only as a teenager but as a Filipino American. It was the beginning of my journey of returning to my Filipino roots.
Kuya Dre, now a dedicated husband and father
Language Barriers Bridged
As I deplaned, I heard an older woman, frantically pleading in Korean. From her wheelchair, she was anxiously trying to speak to the airport personnel —“My daughter is here. Can you find my daughter?” Tears welled in her eyes, and the gentleman was at a loss. “Ma’am, I can’t understand you.”
I walked up and started speaking to her in Korean: “Hi, ma’am. Where’s your daughter?” Her face lit up, and the man was in disbelief while I mouthed, “I got you.” She grabbed my hands and told me how her daughter is here to pick her up but she doesn’t know where she’s waiting.
I gave her my phone, and she spoke to her daughter. She asked me if I would bring her, so I thanked the gentleman, and we strolled away.
After finding her daughter, I turned to say goodbye to the woman, and she motioned for me to stoop down. In her wrinkled hands, she grabbed my face, and thanked me for being her angel.
My grandfather always told me how important it was to know how to speak Korean, regardless of where I went or who I became…that day, I was really grateful I did.
Eden, 29, ER nurse and actor
An Asian American Voice
I grew up my whole life comfortable in my knowledge of Asian Americans and their experiences. After all, I am Filipino. How could I not be informed?
When I was chosen to be a part of NBC’s Voices segment on Asian Americans though, my eyes opened to the truth. I thought it would be easy. But I found out otherwise. What’s a “tiger mom”? What exactly was a “lunch box moment”? My mother was very much indeed a tiger mom and the lunch box moments I had still stay with me to this day.
But the question that hit me the hardest was what I thought about Vincent Chin. I had no idea who he was so I had to be educated about him at that moment. This stung. I was such an advocate for injustice my whole life yet I was completely ignorant about this instance. By having Asian Americans be so invisible throughout my education and just American culture in general, I subconsciously was taught that our stories didn’t matter or even exist. Which is why I now make it a point to teach our younger generation that representation matters so they don’t learn later in life like I did.
Doza, 32, rapper
My parents immigrated from Thailand to Chicago in the early ‘70s (father) and mid-’80s (mother). While my brother and I were growing up, the Thai community in Chicago had always been small but had always been there. My brother and I grew up going to a small Buddhist temple inside a house in Burbank, Illinois every Sunday. When we were about seven and eight, we started going to “Sunday school,” which was a “school” where exhausted Thai parents would drop off their kids for four hours on Sunday, while the parents lingered and caught up with their friends.
I hated this Sunday school (someone made the terrible mistake of having me skip a couple of grades, and I never learned the foundations). I also hated going to the temple because I didn’t like sitting still for those half-hour meditation sessions. When I was a teenager, it was torture to have aunties complain about my weight.
In hindsight, though, it was on those Sundays that my parents could speak Thai to their friends, eat homemade Thai food, complain and brag about their kids, and reminisce about their hometowns. Over the years, I’ve been to funerals, those same aunties danced at my wedding, and I’ve played with the grandchildren of these surrogate aunts, uncles and cousins. This thing that was a chore as a child became my family as my parents were longing for their own parents, sisters, brothers, and aunts and uncles thousands of miles away. And this is the family — and the Asian America — I celebrate today.
Kate Saetang, 35, instant ramen addict
Eating Misconceptions Righted
I have a tenuous relationship with food. I recall growing up and constantly pining for Western-style meals of cheeseburgers and casseroles and roasts just like on the television shows where the plates were heaped with food and carefully demarcated: meat, peas, and potatoes. All contained in their little boundaries.
This vision of dinner captured my imagination. I even recall pouting come Thanksgiving when we didn’t have a golden-skinned turkey centerpiece surrounded by cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes and whatever else American families engorged on in celebration.
I also recall my parents dutifully doing their best to appease my irrepressible demands for Western-standard victuals. And they went out and got something plucked right from Television Land. Literally a T.V. dinner. I salivated with anticipation as I heard it humming and revolving in the microwave. And when that thin plastic film was peeled back, I was inconsolably chagrined to eyeball the paltry offering before me. The meatloaf was corpse-grey. The potatoes liquified and putrid-looking. The corn unrecognizably corn-like and closely resembling foam peanuts I petulantly yanked out of a torn beanbag chair once. This was what I was drooling over just moments ago? The idolized feast that taunted me like a distant mirage in the desert horizon for all those years? What a bitter disappointment.
Luckily my parents were full and well-aware there was no way I could stomach the debris of Frankenfood moldering before me. After they were done gleefully dancing on my fragmented dreams, they cleared that monstrosity of nuked “food” substance from my sight and plopped a giant plate of plump bánh bao in front of me wherein I proceeded to cram as many of these delectable flavor orbs into my gullet as swift as I could, resentfully swallowing my foolishness for not appreciating the exceptional offerings that resided in my kitchen this whole time. Lesson learned and perceived eating disorder righted and orderly once again.
Tommy Vinh Bui, 34, constant Csardas-er, librarian
Being one few Asians in school, students would bully me by rubbing their hands down my face, stretching their eyes, and saying “chinita chinita.” When in fact, I am a Coreana Americana. I think from a young age this and superficial Korean beauty standards made me develop somewhat of a resentment towards being Asian. However, this shifted when I went to college. I met lifelong friends from South Korea, China, Vietnam, Japan and Myanmar. These friends helped me to develop an appreciation for my motherland and more. We literally joined Korean Club, Chinese Club, Vietnamese Club, Japanese Club and International Cooking Club. It was probably for the really good food. But I can honestly say that it was during this exact moment in my life where my two cultures collided and became one. During my college years, I began to realize how thankful I am to my family for teaching me Korean at a young age, and that little middle school kid who was ashamed of listening to K-Pop wasn’t so ashamed anymore. Currently, I work in the Entertainment Industry and in my community of friends and colleagues I am a huge advocate for International Formats and of course K-Culture.
A Taste of Change
Throughout my life, my Vietnamese heritage has been infused, in large part, through my mother’s cooking. Phở, canh, chè, bánh xèo, you name it — her dishes became ingrained in my childhood palate. When I was suddenly diagnosed as a young adult with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition that requires a person to take insulin and carefully monitor their diet for the rest of their life, I quickly recognized that how I practiced the culinary traditions that I so deeply cherished as a child would most likely have to change. Perhaps even forever. I was consumed with anxiety — in order for me to dose my insulin, I had to look up the carb counts for everything I ate. But is there even an entry for a childhood dessert, chè trôi nước (glutinous rice balls filled with mung bean), in my standard CalorieKing nutrition book? (There isn’t.) My mother doesn’t even measure her ingredients!
But those anxieties phased out over time. And we grew to adapt to these new changes. My mother eagerly began sharing with me the nutrition facts and approximations of the ingredients she uses in her recipes. I slowly gained the confidence to explain to my parents that yes, I can eat all the Vietnamese dishes Mom cooks for us — that’s why I just have to inject insulin before I eat. That I can live a long, healthy life with type 1 diabetes (look at Sonia Sotomayor!). And that I can live with a chronic condition and also curiously navigate the facets of my Vietnamese American identity that I hold so close to me, in tandem.
Justine Lely, 22, public health advocate and lover of all things anime
Illustrations by Angel Trazo, a second-generation, Filipina American grad student and visual artist based in the Bay Area.