Yes, I am Asian

Helena Wang, Contributing Writer

Before I came to America, the concept of “race” never occurred to me. Not even once. 

It did not occur to me when I was in China and surrounded by people who, more or less, share the same cultural background as me. It did not occur to me when I saw people from other countries on the subway

Emma Vaughters

or at those popular tourist spots in Beijing — as far as I was concerned, they were simply foreigners. It did not occur to me when I travelled to Sapporo in Japan. It did not occur to me when I went to France and many other parts of Europe at the age of 12. This all changed when, minutes after I landed in New Orleans, my Uber driver kindly greeted me with a slowed-down, loud and clear “Do you speak English ma’am?”

Little did I know, things would only get worse ever since this brief encounter. People keep emphasizing how I have a Chinese accent in theatre classes, and strangers throw around passive aggressive remarks of how surprising they find it for me to speak English fluently. Every day, I move about, getting on with my life and minding my own business. Yet every day, I am forcibly reminded by encounters like these and in millions of other ways that I am, in fact, Asian. Or rather, that I am, in fact, not white. 

The first day of freshman orientation, right after the 30-minute campus tour, we were gathered into a classroom in the basement of Dinwiddie Hall and asked to fill out a “minority spectrum” form. It was not fun, especially when facilitators called on me to stand up and talk about what it feels like to be a minority. Previously, I didn’t even know of the word “minority” nor what it entails. I did not know that simply being Asian is a minority, or not coming from a religious background is a minority. I remember the time I checked a box similar to this one on my Common App application together with my best friend and we came to the “racial background” question. We checked “Asian/Hispanic.” I turned to my best friend and said “Does this matter?” She answered with a casual shrug, “I guess.” I guess it does matter now. 

I don’t mind the fact that I am Asian. I don’t mind being casted as a Japanese-American or Korean-American character because I am the only Asian student in the theatre department. I don’t mind people asking whether we have mac ‘n cheese at home. But having people tell me “Chinese women are supposed to be submissive,” accuse me of “breaking my law” because they think China enforces arranged marriages and refer to me as “the Asian girl” without remembering my name? I don’t remember ever asking for it. But it doesn’t look like I have a say. 

While occasionally it’s harmless comments from strangers and curious classmates interested in stories of cultural differences, more often it’s hurtful insults that scream racism. When I first moved in, there was a wave of obsession with Tinder. I downloaded the app as well, set up my profile and followed the “standard procedure” of swiping and chatting. I got a lot of matches. But to my surprise, a lot of the people liked me because I am Asian. That’s when I learned that I was fetishized because of the color of my skin. Someone who I thought was my friend said to me, “So they have a little bit of a yellow fever. Big deal. Think about it like this: isn’t it cool that people are into you without you having to do anything?” Yellow fever. What a disgusting term. That was the first time ever in my life that I wished I was not who I am. It was the first time that I hated the fact that I am Asian and that that’s all that some people see me as. 

It never stops. No matter how hard I try to escape from being reminded of my race, it never works. Random people that I have never interacted with in my math class will ask me for help with their assignments; people will continue to ask me to read something in Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese even after I tell them I am Chinese. When COVID-19 started spreading in America, strangers would cast me hostile looks, and I overheard my roommate’s mom telling her to stay away from me even though I had not been home for a year. Just the other day, my major advisor, who is also my professor for three of my acting classes, told me that I can definitely find acting jobs in the U.S., since “We’re doing diversity now. Thank god for that.” So you’re telling me that I can easily find a job because I’m Asian, but not because I can be a good actress? What theatre student wouldn’t want to hear that! Thank you professor! You just made my day!

That’s when I started looking for so-called “communities.” I know that there are numerous people wildly different from me who experience the same frustration with me. I noticed that there are people who are as confused and overwhelmed as me. I found people who are excluded by the same people, in the same way that I am. They became my community. 

I started seeking comfort around other Chinese international students. We would gather together on Friday nights, sit around and have a cookout. I soon found out that each one of us came from a different region in China. We speak different dialects, prefer different cuisines, dress and behave differently. What I originally thought was a huge cultural gap now seems insignificant. The support and company we can give to each other is incomparable. I never knew how much I longed for this, how much I longed for being able to forget that I am an outsider, that I am Asian, that I am Chinese. It feels like home when I’m with them. We have the same festivals to celebrate, the same educational system to complain about, the same childhood shows and movies to talk about, and the same stories of exclusion — all of which made us a tightly knit community. It turns out we all, at some point, tried to immerse ourselves in other Asian communities and bond with them as well but we were still excluded. I guess on top of being Asian, we are also a group of foreigners to this land and society. 

For one of our Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival shows, I invited some of my friends from theatre to see it. Mid-Autumn is one of our national holidays where we eat mooncakes with our family, watch boat racing contests on TV and sit together at night to enjoy the full moon that comes around. Tulane hosts a show for both the spring festival and Mid-Autumn. The show offers the audience a dinner to start with, some mooncakes, and an evening of songs, dances and other performances. They sat through the show and afterwards, they told me that they felt so out of place being surrounded by people speaking a different language and having a culture and tradition that everyone else is so familiar with. “It was fun. But I was a little nervous and uncomfortable. I felt overwhelmed.” I bet that sucks. 

This has all been extremely scary and confusing. I am confused because I am not American. I am not, was never and will likely never be an American citizen. I never wanted anything to do with American society. I came here simply to go to college, to get a degree, to learn some new knowledge and to have some abroad experience. But for some reason, I am being sucked into this system to be entrapped, to be judged and discriminated upon something I did not even realize existed.  

I have been in the U.S. for almost two years now, and I still have not gotten used to being treated as an “other.” Frankly, I don’t think one should ever get used to it. I am more aware of this than ever. I feel grateful for having found a community of my own and to be able to have people that I trust and love, yet I still cannot help but hope for a day to come where Asians and international students can feel like they fit in not just their communities, but any communities. I don’t want to have to think about race every day anymore. I don’t want to have to analyze myself or check any boxes anymore. I am exhausted, but still hopeful that things will change.