In college, I was the Asian American who was deemed “too white” for the Asian Americans; they said I listened to the wrong kind of music and faulted my inability to speak Chinese (long a casualty of the final international move). I’m the American—a naturalized citizen at sixteen—who’s too foreign for the Americans; when I leave Chicago, so many still ask me where I’m “from” and try to speak to me in the first Asian language that pops to mind. I’m the Singaporean who had to learn proper etiquette during every-few-years visits: Take your grandmother by the hand or elbow whenever she’s walking, put food on her plate from the shared dishes as a sign of care, call each relative at the table by name—in order of rank—and tell them to “eat” before starting yourself, lest you seem rude.
Like other third culture kids, I always feel like an outsider; I don’t fully belong anywhere.
Invisible 3, June 2017
And now? I’m the bellydancer, firespinner, singer-songwriter, and nerd who designs and codes websites. I obsess with sparkles and sequins and makeup and then wrestle with merge conflicts in GitHub. I flirt with audiences and shimmy to Balkan brass bands and then debate backstage whether Daleks or Cylons would win in a fight. I sing 19th century French poetry layered on piano parts in 7/8 time inspired by traditional Chinese folk music, Americana, and jazz. I break stereotypes into tiny pieces and eat them like candy. I exist.
The Bias, February 2018
I’m writing this essay in the middle of a trip to Egypt, where everyone you encounter wants to know where the obvious travelers are from. Half of them are confused when I say the US, because they didn’t think Americans came with black hair and upturned eyes – the movies and TV shows we export almost entirely feature white people. As a group, Asian-Americans are sorely underrepresented: Only 1.4% of the lead characters in studio films released in 2014 were Asian even though we’re 5.6% of the US population. According to Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, the majority of media does not feature any named or speaking Asian characters. Not a single one.
This has consequences inside the US as well: Waiting for a lunch order in Milwaukee, a man once asked me where I was from. “Chicago,” I replied. His response: “Oh, Shanghai? That’s great!”
Even at home, we are the perpetual foreigner.