Until three months ago, I was ashamed of being Asian. It wasn’t until I ran for local office this year, at 19-years-old and as a Harvard sophomore, when I had to suddenly defend being Asian (even for my own pride) against visceral racism usually from strangers over social media who were unafraid to call me a “chink” or “gook” and labeled my campaign as the start of some young “Asian invasion.”
In many ways, I’m still learning to be proud of what I look like as an Asian person, and trying to understand what that even means since I don’t feel very connected to my heritage. When people look at me, I am usually categorized as just Asian. In reality, I am half-Japanese and half-Chinese (my maternal grandparents are Hakka from Taiwan). My maternal grandparents grew up in Taiwan while it was occupied by Japan, and my grandmother’s house was occupied by Japanese soldiers. Growing up, my paternal Japanese grandmother used to give me baths to wash the “dirty Chinese” off of me. I later learned that she was secretly part Chinese, raised by a mother who grew up in China, and grew up in a racist Japan that made her feel ashamed because of that.
When I was nine-years-old, my mother moved my two younger sisters and me out to Portland, Oregon from New York City. Portland is the whitest major city in the United States. When we first arrived in Portland, we didn’t have a home – but eventually found a small cottage to settle into in a neighborhood called Lake Oswego. Before we moved in, I remember my mom saying something along the lines of “girls, this might feel like a whole new world. The closest things to suburbs we’ll probably ever get. I was told that people joke about Lake Oswego really being Lake No-Negro.” She was right. We only lived there for about a year while I was in fourth grade – but it was a year that I learned to resent what I looked like.
Neighbors would regularly ask us if we were related to the few other Asian people that they knew around the area. My teachers told me that they had higher expectations for me because they “just knew” my parents cared more about my academics than peers (especially in math class). My first crush at my new school told me that he only liked me because he was really into anime, another boy told me he didn’t go for Asians because he heard that they ate dog and he really loved his family’s dog, and on the first day an older boy welcomed me to the school and whispered to me that he was only into Asian people – assuming that I would take that as a compliment.
After one year, we moved into downtown Portland, and while our neighborhood was a bit more diverse (by Portland standards) the students were more vocal in joking about my race – and I frequently came home to tell my mom that another student had been suspended for throwing racial slurs at me or other students of color. It became a regular thing for me to walk down the halls and hear “Confucius says, respect your elders!” in a terrible “Asian-sounding” accent so that it sounded more like “Confooshus say, respehct yo eldahh!”
In fifth grade, my girlfriends and I sat on the swings getting “married” to each other (swinging until you and a friend are in perfect unison going back and forth). The popular kid in our grade came up to me with his friends and started to rapid-fire throw insults my way for being Asian – and between the insults he would crack up in a sort of cackle and take a pause to high-five his friends, who were also finding this whole thing hilariously amusing. “Can you even see the sun?” he asked, squinting his eyes to apparently mimic mine. “I’m going to hide my dog because your mom is going to come get him with her chopsticks and eat him!” he threw at me. “I heard Chinese-girl vaginas smell like fish because you eat so much sushi, I smell it now, ew!”
What hurt the most is that my girlfriends giggled (mostly out of discomfort), and I felt so uncomfortable and stunned (and greatly outnumbered) that all I felt like I could do was giggle as well. The bully was suspended that afternoon after one of his friends told a teacher after seeing me cry after recess – and what was even worse than the whole experience was that his friends hated me afterwards for getting their buddy in trouble. After that, I never spoke up about any sort of bullying I experienced in school for my race. All I felt that I could do was try to hide whatever made me “more Asian” to my peers.
In middle school, I would make myself wake up earlier in the morning and not leave the house until I put on make-up – with heavy enough eyeliner to make my eyes feel bigger (in reality I just looked like a raccoon). I told peers and even teachers that I hated math and didn’t understand the topics in class, and that my parents didn’t care about how I did in school – when in reality I was really good at math and even liked it, and my mom always pushed me to do my best and study what I love. Throughout my entire education until college, I never had a teacher (besides my Chinese language teacher), coach, or even mentor (besides my mom) that looked like me.
What I didn’t realize until I started talking about my struggles with feeling ashamed about my own race is that I am not alone. Whenever I open up to Asian-American friends (especially girls) about the insecurities I have had in my identity, the response I hear is something along the lines of “me too,” “I feel that,” or “Oh my gosh, yes! Same!” From my own personal reflection and conversations with friends, I gather that there is also a sort of shame for feeling offended by the Asian stereotypes we experience – after all, oftentimes they’re making fun of us for being good at math and caring about school, and being success-driven.
So what changed in the last few months? The turning point for me was a combination of having to face a whole new level of blatant racism and also realize that I wasn’t alone in my hope to see and have more representation. This past summer, I attended the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies Gala as one of their National Leadership Academy fellows – and found myself surrounded by more Asian-Americans than I ever have before, and realized I was a small part of a much larger movement to elect Asian-Americans to political office. Then, a few months ago, I was able to connect with Film Director Benson Lee on a video we made together for a line of hats my organization, PERIOD, was making. Over dinner on the night of our video shoot, he asked me who my favorite Asian actor or actress was, and I realized I could not name a single one besides Jackie Chan. It wasn’t until two weeks ago that I watched Benson’s movie, Seoul Searching (recently debuted on Netflix), and realized that it was the first movie I had ever seen with an Asian-American lead (much less an all-Asian-American cast).
In the following weeks, Benson connected me with people who would blossom into a whole new community I now have of people who are proud to be Asian, and are devoted to fighting for Asian-American representation in media and politics. From Brad Jenkins and Cate Park of the organization RUN, actresses like Chloe Bennett and Ally Maki, politicians like Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim, and Congresswoman Grace Meng, and fellow young activists like Amanda Nguyen of Rise and Ai-jen Poo of the NDWA — I am proud to say that I now have a small but growing group of friends and role models that inspire me to be proud of who I am, what I look like, and where I come from.
I think the first steps that we have to take to fighting the racism that is experienced by Asian-Americans (and all other races, for that matter) is to talk about it. We should share our experiences dealing with it to call out how it very much still exists. Know how to identify macro and micro aggressions and be ready to openly acknowledge and challenge such comments and offensive behavior when witnessed.
Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing minority population in the United States, but wholly underrepresented at all levels of government and in the media and entertainment industry. What can we, as Asian-Americans, do about it? Run for office, audition for roles, and speak out about the lack of true representation. Unfortunately, you are most likely not alone in feeling experiencing shame or insecurities around being Asian – and no one deserves to feel that way about who they are. So, talk about it, call it out, and above all else, be unapologetically yourself.
Nadya Okamoto is a social entrepreneur and activist, known for her leadership as the Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization PERIOD.