The Special Joy and Bittersweet Pain of Growing Up Asian In California
I’m grateful even if it left me unprepared for racism
When I hear about BIPOC Americans who grew up surrounded by white families, I imagine how difficult life must have been for them. There’s no way to blend into the background when you’re the only one who looks different.
I had a far different experience growing up in Northern California. As a child, I was never the only Asian American student at my public schools, let alone the only one in my class. I always had at least two other Asian Americans in every class and sometimes far more. There is safety in numbers. I have had the freedom to be me and not just be “the Asian girl” because there were always plenty of other Asian Americans.
Growing up as an Asian American in the San Francisco Bay Area has provided so many special joys because of the multiracial community here. Yet it also led to some bittersweet pain when I left California.
The benefit of growing up in California is that people here are accustomed to seeing Asian Americans who can speak unaccented English. When you’re not the first Asian American someone has ever met, they don’t marvel at the fact that you were born here and sound like any other white American. They realize there’s a difference between an Asian immigrant and an Asian American. As I said in my essay:
Since I was born here, I expect to be treated like an American and sometimes will bristle when people assume I’m an immigrant. I no longer silently nod and accept the “compliment” after I’ve been told multiple times, “Wow, your English is so good.” If I were an immigrant, I would be grateful for that compliment, just as I would be genuinely delighted if anyone told me I spoke Spanish well (but I highly doubt anyone would because it’s my third language and I have a terrible American accent).
When I left California and moved to Washington, D.C., for a summer internship in the ’90s, I learned that many Americans have never met an Asian American born and raised in the United States. That was the first time I faced overt racism. During that entire summer on the East Coast, it was repeatedly emphasized how different I was from other Americans. I didn’t realize growing up in…