As a White-Passing AAPI, My ‘Asianness’ Has Been Questioned and Doubted
Peloton instructor Emma Lovewell reflects on her journey to reckoning and reconciling with her Asian identity
I was an impressionable 18-year-old, and a freshman in college. My new friends and I were at a dorm room party where I was introduced to a group of guys. The normal questions of, “What dorm do you live in? What are you studying?” were being tossed around. I named the dorm that I lived in, when one of the guys responded, “That sucks you live there. You live next to all the weird Chinese kids.”
The international students’ dorm was next door. I was a little taken aback and confused by that comment. “I am Chinese,” I replied back confidently. He then looked at me in disbelief before proceeding to say, “No way you are. You don’t look it. Well, do you speak Chinese then?” As my insecurities started to creep in I defensively said, “Yes, I am studying Mandarin in school right now.” He started laughing and said, “I can speak Chinese, too: poo poo platter, lo mein, ching chong” I was. In. Shock. Never in my life had someone been so outwardly insensitive, ignorant, and hurtful to me — and without showing any signs of remorse. I walked out of the room and burst into tears.
I am half Taiwanese and half white. I have been told by many people throughout my life that I “don’t really look Asian.” This, interestingly enough, has put me in many situations where people say racist things towards Asians in front of me, thinking that I’m either 100% white and/or that I’ll find their ignorant comments funny. Growing up, I would joke with my friends that I was “secretly Asian.” And later learned the term “white passing,” which generally means I have the privileges of a white person, but offers me very little room to actually have a say in how I identify myself.
A question I’ve been asked many times before: “Well, do you feel more white or Asian?” And the answer is both. My journey of finding my identity really began in college, and I am still learning. This dorm room story was the first of many racist interactions I’ve experienced, unfortunately. It was one small, yet influential, moment as it honestly lit a fire in me to learn more about my heritage, and who I am.
Today I am proud to be Asian. I am a senior Peloton instructor teaching fitness to millions of people globally. I share my story in hopes of inspiring and bringing people together. I care about my family and Asian lives, and recently had the honor of going to Capitol Hill to lobby for the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which just passed as a law a few weeks ago.
I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood with a minority mother. I know that was challenging for my mom, although I didn’t realize it as a kid. She didn’t have any of her family nearby and there wasn’t anyone else in the community who came from a similar culture. As a kid, I remember feeling like an outsider on occasion. Not all the time, but I’d feel it especially around lunch time when my classmates would ask questions about the unfamiliar Chinese food I brought to school. I’d get frustrated when my mom often couldn’t remember my friends’ names. I remember wondering why the other moms were so affectionate with hugs and kisses, but my mom never hugged my friends.
There were definitely times as a kid that I felt embarrassed about my culture. It’s taken some time but now I love where I come from, and I am especially proud of my mom. I truly think of her as a superhero. Raising kids is hard enough, but to do it in an environment with little support from family while feeling like an outcast must have been so much harder. I see her resilience and her courage especially after my parents separated and she chose to stay in our town despite all of the obvious challenges.
I applaud her for showing my brother and me how to cook Chinese food, and how to celebrate Lunar New Year. She shared stories of growing up in Taiwan and taught us important values like respecting your elders. Just two years ago we were able to take a trip to Taiwan as a family. My mom, brother, his wife, and my baby nephew and I all took a two-week trip to travel around the beautiful island. I could see how proud my mom was, how she felt right at home and was so excited to share it with us. That was a beautiful memory.
The uptick in violence towards Asians in the U.S. and around the world has been heartbreaking to read and hear about. It created a lot of fear in my own family. My mother came to visit me in New York this winter and asked if she could walk around the Hudson Yards shopping mall while I taught my class at Peloton Studios just across the street. Any other time I would have agreed to that, but because of current events, I had to stop and really consider the consequences.
Just a few weeks prior, there was an attack on an elderly Asian woman just ten blocks away from this particular mall. For the first time in my life, the idea of my mom, in her 60’s, walking alone in a mall, frightened me. I don’t like to operate from fear, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if anything bad happened to her. These are difficult times, and that was a challenging conversation that we had to have.
I have been vocal about anti-Asian hate — in my conversations, on social media, and even in a couple of my cycling classes — so when I was asked to lobby for the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act on Capitol Hill, I proudly took the opportunity. I was instructed to share my story and speak from the heart. I shared my concern for my mother’s safety, and the need for greater measures to ensure protection for all Asian communities across the country. These meetings were short, but I was met with humanity. And I can happily say that the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act was overwhelmingly passed with 364 votes for and only 62 votes against the bill, and is now a law.
Will this eliminate anti-Asian hate? Unfortunately, not. But it is, at the very least, a step in the right direction — one where our country agrees that hate crimes should be taken seriously. Hate is bad, and that sounds like such a basic human moral, but it does need to be explicitly said. Declaring that hate is bad is important, so our children, and my nephew growing up knows that he is not an “other,” but that he belongs and should not be discriminated against because of his ethnicity.
My “Asianness” has been questioned and doubted, and I have felt shame and confusion about my identity, but I can honestly say I am so proud to be who I am. I am proud to be Asian. As an athlete, entertainer, and daughter I am so honored to be a voice representing the AAPI community and showing up in solidarity in any way that I can.