May is Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month (APHAM)! To celebrate, I thought I would write a blog post about my personal journey navigating my Asian American identity thus far. I hope that fellow AAPI folx will be able to connect or empathize with my story. Perhaps seeing this blog post will even inspire you to share your own. Please remember that everyone’s stories are different and we’re all at varying stages of self-acceptance and navigating our relationships with our own ethnic/racial identities, so be kind!
Vietnam Born, Minnesota Raised
I was born in Vietnam in 1997. When I was 14-months old, my parents, older sister, older brother, and I left Vietnam and migrated to the United States. Until high school, I lived in Chaska, Minnesota. For those of you who haven’t visited Chaska, it’s a predominantly white town that’s built on Native American land and has very little diversity. When I started school, I was one of the four Asian American students in my grade. Unfortunately, this labeled me as different and I experienced discrimination because of my racial and ethnic identity. I had a good friend who was Korean American and people would always call us sisters or cousins. Some kid on my bus followed behind me and spat his saliva on my head. There was a Facebook event called “Slap an Asian Day” created by a student in my school and I was actually slapped. I was ashamed of bringing homecooked meals from home (even though it tasted 1000% better than cafeteria food) and hated when my parents called me at school because speaking in Vietnamese made me embarrassed. Kids are mean, especially when you have a “weird” name, your skin color is yellow, you had to take English Language Learner (ELL) classes, and your homecooked meals made the cafeteria smell. I will say, not everyone from Chaska was racist or discriminatory, but the town itself is small and lacks diversity and awareness.
Neither Asian Nor American
Before high school started, I moved to Brooklyn Park, which is a much more diverse city and has a large AAPI population. For the first time, I went to school with people who looked like me…and I honestly didn’t know how to act. People called me white-washed because I hung out with white folx and joined groups like student council, book club, student senate, and Leo Club (a volunteer group). To me, this was problematic because I didn’t think I was white-washed. I still spoke fluent Vietnamese, I’m an immigrant, and my lived experiences as a person of color were very real. But because I was labeled as such, I started to believe that I needed to embody being white-washed and began to mold myself to fit western beauty standards. I didn’t quite fit in with the AAPI students at my school because I grew up in a predominantly white town and never had many AAPI friends. But at the same time, hanging out with my white friends also had its challenges. They couldn’t empathize with my identity and I was tokenized for being that one Asian girl in the group. I remember at one of my birthday parties, one of my so-called “friends” even gave me P.F. Chang’s stir-fry sauce as a gift. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere and struggled to understand why.
In my junior year of high school, I started participating in community involvement. I volunteered at events held by the Vietnamese Community of Minnesota where my older siblings were also involved. I was able to meet other Vietnamese American folx, learn about my culture, and celebrate Vietnamese holidays with my ethnic community. In my junior year of high school, I was recruited to work backstage at a Lunar New Year fashion show hosted by the Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota (VSAM). I loved it so much that in my senior year of high school, I auditioned for the fashion show as a model. This was the start of my “modeling” career as I ended up modeling in VSAM’s fashion show for four consecutive years. Once I entered college at the University of Minnesota, I officially joined VSAM. I started as a general member, was elected to Marketing Chair my sophomore year, President my junior year, and finished my college career as their advisor. Holding leadership positions in VSAM helped me to connect with others who share similar backgrounds as me. I was able to help other students embrace their culture/heritage, mentor underclassmen, and made friends who could understand my lived experiences. I no longer felt like I had to explain myself and was able to find self-acceptance with the help of my community.
Learning About AAPI History
During the summer entering my junior year of college, my parents took me on a trip to Vietnam where I was able to learn more about my family’s roots. Following this trip, I was inspired to go back to school and continue learning about my cultural heritage. I enrolled myself in Asian American Studies courses where I learned about things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, the murder of Vincent Chin, AAPI SES disparities, the model minority stereotype, Southeast Asian diaspora following 1975, Asian American representation in popular media, cultural appropriation, and in my last semester, yellow peril and AAPI violence related to the COVID-19 pandemic. If any of these things are unfamiliar to you, I urge you to do research and learn something new. None of these things were ever included in my history textbooks, and if they were, there was only one short paragraph. Educating myself on AAPI history empowered me to become an advocate and activist in the AAPI community– something I hope to continue for the rest of my life.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading about my journey. I didn’t include every detail, but I hope that the parts I chose to share resonated with some of you. It’s been a long and difficult journey, but I’ve become a strong and resilient Asian American womxn because of it. If you want to talk about your own journey with self-acceptance and empowerment, feel free to comment below or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!