What is Asian?

*My own personal experience and viewpoint, not an over arching definition*

When I was growing up, one of the earliest cultural experiences that I was exposed to was beginning Shao Lin San Kung Fu School Martial Arts at 3-5 years old. I was very young and I still faintly remember what the room looked like the night my dad took me. I was enchanted by the giant golden gong and the ferocious intricate lion statues and the traditional Chinese music that I heard sounded melodic and calm.

I took Kung Fu for about a decade. I got enough training to reach the level below master. Has I continued, I could have become one and I have plans to continue later in life.

My first introduction to any Asian culture was Chinese martial arts, specifically Kung Fu.

My whole family participated, father, mother and sister, twice a week.

My parents were also very into Kung Fu movies, probably my father more than my mother. I frequently watched Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Asian American media.

It has been said that, some Black people have this issue of being interested in other cultures, everything else but their own. That when one enters an Italian home, they can tell they are proud Italians because they display their Italian heritage, history and present. Some say that some Black people have really lost that pride and connection to their own heritage.

I am in full support of exposing children to other cultures. I think it is positive, helpful and healthy, but I will say that, due to the influx of media I watched, and knowing no actual Asians, at least closely, I did think that all Asians knew and did martial arts, and I also has a very ancient, traditional perception of what Asians wore and acted.

A lot of the movies and shows I was watching were about ancient dynasties, emperors and Eastern magic. I even had a legitimate fear of ninjas attacking me because I had seen so many ninja films. I’d lay in my bed thinking, “Omg, they are going to crawl up the side of the house and break in the window and rob us!”

There were many movies that came on tv that I could not relate to, but one that really resonated with me was the Karate Kid with the teenage girl as the lead because it was a movie about a girl who had to be tough.

I did not like Kung Fu at first. I felt annoyed that I had to take it and I felt scared too. I cried a lot when I went, and even though I was a little girl, I had to fight two grown men towering over me during sparring sometimes. It was a bit traumatic because my father highly emphasized the importance of self defense, and that as a woman, it is not a matter of if or when, that I would be attacked someday, and that I’d need to know how to defend myself.

I kind of grew up in fear of the world. I grew up with very cautionary over-protective parents. Anything outside of our house, except church, was basically a potential danger. Church was like a second home, a sanctuary. In my sheltered life, I went home, school, church, Kung fu, piano, swimming lessons and art camp.

That was my childhood. I recall one time heading to a Chinese restaurant and I pulled my eyes back and said, “Ching Chong Ching” imitating and mocking Chinese people. My father admonished me harshly for that and I never did it again. To this day I still don’t understand why I did it or where I got it from. I knew no Chinese people, I don’t remember ever learning that from anyone I saw, I honestly don’t know why I did it, but it was wrong, and I am very grateful to my father for having corrected me as harshly as he did so that I would understand the severity of my actions.

My parents made a purposeful effort to expose my sister and I to multiculturalism at an early age. They recorded HBO’s Happily Ever After Tales for Every Child on VHS and we watched cartoons like “Little Red Happy Coat (Chinese), The Princess and the Pea (Korean), The Emperor’s New Clothes (Chinese or Japanese), Aladdin (Japanese) etc.” which were all Asian characters, some with accents, some without.

Disney was secondary, not primary for me, so whenever I saw White characters I thought that was not standard but the exception. Disney was something my parents avoided showing me, I rarely saw them when I was younger.

At the schools I attended there were almost no Asians. Until I went to college I didn’t have many deep personal relationships with Asians. It wasn’t because I didn’t like them. I was not in an environment to ever meet them.

I attended a Black Catholic School for elementary, briefly a Public School for the latter portion of fifth grade, an Art School for Middle and High School, and a PWI and HBCU for college.

While tutoring another Black girl (one of Bajan Caribbean heritage) Spanish in high school, she spoke to me about her interests and affinity for Asian cultures. I at that time, having begun learning Spanish was very interested in Latin cultures. I was open to learning something new so I let her teach me what she knew. It also meant a lot to me to meet another Black girl who didn’t feel that learning about non-Black cultures was somehow self-hating or anti-Black.

She introduced a whole world to me that I did not know existed. She told me about a Chinese club that existed upstairs in the Charter school that shared our same building. I worried if we would be welcomed there. I did not know if the organization was exclusively Chinese, and I didn’t want to offend anyone with my Chinese ignorance.

She introduced me to an ESL class (English as a Second Language) that was being taught during school hours that I could visit during lunch, aiding period or in-services.

She took me to a Korean restaurant, Korea town, China town and showed me music videos of C-pop and K-pop stars.

I was hooked! Everything seemed so cool. If anything Asian culture for me has always appeared to be this mystical, magical, far away, untouchable, mysterious, enchanting thing. Is that a fetish? I wouldn’t think so, because I was simply enthralled with it. I still saw Asian people as people, and I still cared about their livelihood, and I knew that obviously the people in Chinese club were not the C-pop stars I saw in television or dramas.

Another friend of mine also got me deeper into the K-pop world and helped me with language acquisition of the Korean, Chinese and Japanese language. It meant a lot to have friends who supported that endeavor because my language and linguist goals were met with a a lot of negativity and discouragement. People kept insisting that it was impossible to learn Asia languages, that they were too hard to even ponder attempting. I kept thinking to myself, has anyone tried though? I want to at least try and fail rather than just give up and never do it.

I helped an international student in high school from Thailand and I befriended a set of Korean twins. We had good conversations.

I studied and took two elementary Mandarin Chinese classes in college or graduate school. I joined the Japanese Language and Culture Club. I was also very into anime and manga as a girl and teenager and I was founder and president of Manga Club at my Art High school. Anime and Manga also greatly influenced my perception of Asian people.

While at my first college I befriended a girl from Vietnam, she was an international student. I befriended her originally because I was in a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) and even if I was going to encounter kind well-meaning White people I knew that culturally they would not understand me. I wanted a friend that I could talk to when days got hard. In all my classes I was the only Black girl.

I tended to seek out whoever was the different one anyway for various reasons. One being that I figured there was a much lower chance of rejection if I picked people who seemed that they needed friends and were not in a position to reject me: a.k.a. international students.

We became so close that she is considered family now. We both call one another sister. She was there for me during some really troubling moments in my life and I’ll never forget that.

What I noticed most about being close friends with her as well as other Asian students in college was how much language anxiety there was about lack of English proficiency.

What saddens me even more is how harshly some Americans treat people who lack in English proficiency.

I felt that there was so much cultural and linguistic misunderstanding between the Asian International students and Black students at DSU, but there were also beautiful relationships formed as well.

I attended the Chinese New Year production for several years. I performed in the show and sang Disney’s Mulan “Reflection” and performed a Chinese New Year’s poem in English and Chinese with a friend. We exchanged places on stage and exchanged languages while I was dressed in a cheongsam and he was dressed in a Western suit.

I traveled to South Korea in 2014 and participated in a United Methodist Women’s Peace Conference. It was a very political trip, and we traveled to historical sites such as the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), The Peace Life Valley, the capital Seoul etc. It was the longest time I had ever spent in a group where the majority of the women were Asian.

I stayed in South Korea for 3 weeks and participated in the weekly Wednesday protest against the Japanese embassy for war crimes and sexual slavery for the “Comfort Women” (halmoni* grandmothers.) I felt very connected to them in that moment, seeing raw rage and anger at not receiving a long overdue apology for a past atrocity committed against them. As a Black Woman, I can really appreciate those emotions. We  also learned about the significance of the Korean war, what part the United States played, and how Korea split into two countries.

I learned a lot while I was there because K-pop and K-dramas are surface culture. The Korean war, the country’s splitting, the Japanese, the Zainichi (Korean heritage, Japanese citizen) are all much deeper, political issues within Korean society. South Korea is such a young country and it really is a resilient one that has bounced back significantly from almost being eradicated completely.

So what do I think of Asian people and Asian culture now after all of this?

Before, Asians were almost non-existent people in my mind. That was due to the fact that so much was separated into Black or White, that to me, Asians were in the same category as White people, they just has dark hair and different eyes.

Before I knew any personally I interpreted them to be very emotionless, almost absent of it, because they rarely displayed it. They seemed stoic and pensive. They were quiet and submissive. They were the kind of people that were easy to ignore because they never complained. I saw them as doormats.

I myself used to be this way personality wise, which was totally contrary to the stereotypical Black girl trope.

As I got to have closer relationships however, I discovered that culturally it’s considered inappropriate to be so expressive of one’s emotions to the public.

I also saw the true feelings of people, and they would be plenty emotional and honest with me once they felt comfortable to do so.

It got so bad that there would be Asian International students who would only insist on talking to me but not with other people because they were shy or intimidated and they knew I would not judge them. It was really bad because there were times I would be standing in front of someone who was talking to them, they would not respond to them, but they would continue to talk to me, to talk to them, for them.

One big thing I noticed was when I attempted to speak their native tongue there was a great happy response. Their faces lit up and they were elated that I tried. I’d only say a few words, but their whole demeanor would change from stand-offish to very welcoming. They would recommend my ESL teaching to their friends, invite me over to their apartments, cook me food, give me gifts etc.

In college and graduate school I taught many ESL students from China and South Korea. I also formed an English hour in which the students could practice their English and meet American friends during the UNITE Multicultural club meetings.

I would say that the majority of my personal experiences with Asian people have been very positive. I am glad that I am more informed now about who Asians are as a whole and that I am able to separate out some differences.

There is always far more to learn and Asian is such a broad term for a mass amount of diverse peoples.

I hope to learn more in the future!

Please teach me  😀




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