The Special Joy and Bittersweet Pain of Growing Up Asian In California
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 California would shelter me so much.
I experienced insulting racist microaggressions (often sexualized) and grew to brace myself whenever I entered a restaurant/bar/club or just walked down the street. As I said in my essay, “Anti-Asian Hate Can Feel Like Death by a Thousand Cuts:”
The summer I moved to Washington, D.C., I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of aggressive and degrading verbal assaults, as men leaned out of car windows, approached us on the street, or came up to us in crowded restaurants. These men would crow, “I’ve never f — ed a Chinese girl, I wonder what it’s like!” or leer in our faces, shouting, “Ching Chong, Ching Chong!”
In California, many of my friends came from similar backgrounds, as the children of immigrants from countries all over the world. Despite our different cultural backgrounds, we were all aware of and receptive to other traditions. In fact, even friends whose families have been here for several generations were exposed to enough of us that they adapted to different cultural traditions pretty easily, too.
For instance, I didn’t invite friends over to my house very often, but when they did come over, I didn’t have to ask them to take their shoes off. They had visited other Asian American friends and knew to remove their shoes.
Asian Americans were also visible in mainstream California even when I was a child. Even though the 1980s weren’t a time of significant Asian American visibility, it felt like we were part of mainstream life in the San Francisco Bay Area. Little things felt validating to me, like seeing Vic Lee, Emerald Yeh, Wendy Tokuda, and Lloyd LaCuesta, all local news anchors, on TV. More importantly, they all spoke perfect, unaccented English.
Growing up in a multiracial community in California also helped me learn more about the struggles of other communities of color.
Most colleges didn’t have robust ethnic studies departments in the 1990s. But as a student at UCLA in the early ’90s, I took ethnic studies classes where I finally learned about the history that wasn’t taught in the K-12 public education system. I learned about how Filipino and Latinx farmworkers worked together to organize for workers’ rights. I learned about Malcolm X, Yuri Kochiyama, and Grace Lee Boggs.
These classes were the result of activists who lobbied for ethnic studies programs at major California universities. San Francisco State University was the first to establish an ethnic studies department and did so only after the Black Student Union and a coalition of other student groups known as the Third World Liberation Front went on strike in 1968. See this article for more history.
Meeting and working with classmates from different backgrounds also taught me the power of multiracial coalitions. I continue to be a strong supporter of affirmative action as one tool to address persistent racial inequities. I have seen the power and beauty of inclusion firsthand.
One of the great benefits of growing up in California has been the easy access and proliferation of cultural resources and awareness of my ethnic heritage. Chinese Americans have lived in California for hundreds of years (arguably even in the 1700s before California was even part of the United States).
The long-established Chinatown in San Francisco was a hub for many new immigrants. My husband’s great-grandparents and grandparents were born in San Francisco’s Chinatown and went to school at what was then known as Commodore Stockton Elementary School, a school that was originally started in 1859 to segregate Chinese students from white students.
My parents settled in the suburbs outside of San Francisco in the late 1970s, drawn to Silicon Valley due to my dad’s electrical engineering job. We made regular trips to San Francisco’s Chinatown to buy Chinese groceries and eat at Chinese restaurants.
San Francisco’s Chinatown also threw a big Lunar New Year celebration every year. I remember going there as a child and being so scared of the loud firecrackers and the smoke. Nowadays, the New Year’s parade is sponsored by Southwest Airlines and televised so you can watch it from the comfort of your home!
By the late ’80s, the Asian American population in the suburbs had exploded so my parents didn’t have to drive to San Francisco anymore. We could buy groceries at specialty Asian markets in our neighborhood.
We also had multiple Chinese restaurants to choose from when we occasionally went out to eat a special meal. As I noted in my essay on the appeal of the San Francisco Bay Area:
Do you feel like Chinese food? Sure, but what regional type of Chinese food are you craving? We have Shanghainese, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Hunan, Szechuan, Islamic Chinese, upscale “fusion” Chinese, and Americanized Chinese restaurants.
Even now, boba, the Taiwanese tapioca ball drink, is super popular and easy to buy at multiple shops throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
I am so grateful to have had such a wonderful childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area and to continue to live here. I’m glad my husband — a fifth-generation Chinese American — and I can raise our children here in relative normalcy.
Don’t get me wrong. California isn’t perfect. We’ve had a surprisingly large number of anti-Asian incidents here, too. Several Asian American elders and Asian American women have been violently attacked in the past year. Stop AAPI Hate, the nonprofit initiative formed in March 2020 after a spike in xenophobia and racism due to Covid-19, released a new report on May 6, 2021. They noted there were “6,603 incident reports to Stop AAPI Hate from March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2021.”
The same report notes that California residents reported 40% of the incidents. Russell Jeung, one of the group’s co-founders and professor and chair of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University, was quoted in an NBC news report: “On the coasts, you have more Asian Americans who are attuned to and aware of how we’re facing discrimination.”
Even though my daughters are sixth-generation Chinese Americans, I still want to prepare them for uncomfortable and possibly even violent encounters. We can’t be lulled into a false sense of security even though we do have such a visible and large Asian American community in California.