My experience as a Chinese American has been marked with memories that are not entirely mine. Historical trauma can feel so personal and personal trauma can be historical. In these unprecedented times when there is so much social, political, environmental upheaval and turmoil, I felt it was necessary to look inwards and to address some of the feelings that had been bubbling inside of me but are not unique to me. This piece has been cathartic, and felt almost like metaphorical bloodletting – with my keyboard being the leech. Hopefully, it can be the same for others.
I’m 7 when I see my grandmother for the last time. She wraps her thick, wizened fingers around my little hands. I don’t remember what she says, my ears blocked by the flurry of thoughts in my head. I’m adamant that I’ll see her again. I tell her that I’ll come back for sure. I’ll go to college, I pledge. I’ll get rich and buy you a BIG house. Just you see. She nods. I’m not sure if she’s sad, looking down at me without smile or frown. I’m not even sure if I’m sad, sweat dripping down my neck in the heat of all that is a Hoisan summer, wanting to go back to America where my head doesn’t have to steam with heat.
She waves when I get into my uncle’s truck. I watch her grow smaller until I can no longer see her. I whip my head back around to the front and look forward.
I feel a tiny pang in my chest that I don’t understand.
I’m 8 and we have the same conversation over the phone over and over again for a year. She says are you doing good, Little Puppy? I’m good, Popo. I’m being good. I miss you. Do you want to talk to mom?
The phone calls are less frequent. Mom says Popo is busy, and I find that it’s okay. Because it scares me. Popo scares me. Chee ngoy. Alzheimer’s. I don’t get really get it. I’ve only ever seen it on TVB. Old people just forget. right?
Popo stars brightly in the first chapter of my life. I’m her youngest grandchild, and she moves to America to look after me. She takes me everywhere. She teaches me how to count, first in Hoisan-wa, then in Cantonese. Out of all her grandchildren, I know she loves me best. I’m her Little Puppy.
I used to have nine children she says sometimes. Now I have six.
I wonder if she can see any of them in me.
My father yells at her all the time. Probably too much. She asks me why he does that. I hear the pain in her voice, and it fills me with rage. I tell her not to listen to him.
My mother doesn’t tell me my grandmother dies until years after it happens.
I only figure it out when I see her grave for myself and do the math. I’m 24. I don’t confront my mom. It occurs to me that I had stopped hearing from Popo gradually until I don’t hear from her at all.
I remember Popo turning on the faucet in our house. The water in the tub rises, billows over the rim. Aiya, I forgot. She says.
Everyone gets upset at Popo. They yell, and I don’t want them to. I don’t get it. It’s okay, everyone forgets sometimes. Shouldn’t we respect our elders?
Melissa Chen really is like any other ABC who grew up with a bowl cut and can’t swim. On occasion, she writes.
One of our former YIP interns, Christy, reflects on her Chinese American identity and the importance of each culture coexisting within her when society will only focus on each culture as separate aspects.
On the first day of my 11th grade English class, we were asked to share one aspect about ourselves that we thought was important for our peers to know. By then, I had enough experience in predominantly white spaces to know that my ethnicity would always be of speculation. I look Asian, with my straight black hair, “eyes that kiss in the corners,” and lack of a nose bridge to hold my sunglasses, but what type of Asian? Where are my ancestors from? Am I Korean? Japanese? Filipino? All of which I’ve been ignorantly asked and all of which I’ve laughed off and said “no” to. I wanted to eliminate this confusion that somehow always arose as people took it upon themselves to try and guess my ethnicity, almost always complete strangers or people I barely spoke to. So, to get rid of all the speculation and apparent curiosity of my ethnicity, I stood up knowing exactly what I would share that day.
I felt very lucky to be in one of the few English classes that was mostly people of color. Had I been in a predominantly white classroom (like most of my other classes) I would have felt very different, less understood, sharing my ethnicity to my classmates. I turned to my first partner and said, “I am Chinese American.” As another woman of color, she empathetically nodded and snapped in agreement as I explained how many times people had questioned my ethnicity and how uncomfortable it made me feel. Then, I turned to my next partner and explained the same thing, but as a white man who could not empathize with my experience, I got a slow head nod and a single “right.”
To my first partner, I felt understood and empowered sharing this aspect of my identity, but to my second partner, I felt heard, but perhaps not fully understood. I had proclaimed my Chinese American identity to these two classmates so that they would know how I identify, but what does being Chinese American actually mean for me?
Not just Chinese and not only American, but Chinese American.
This distinction is important.
I grew up immersed in my Chinese heritage. Everyday, for eight years, I sat in a classroom surrounded by posters filled with bright bubbly cartoons and Chinese poems we learned to recite. I (mostly) spoke to my classmates in only Cantonese, otherwise we wouldn’t get a gold star for the day. And practiced brush strokes and sentence structures that we used in our own short stories. In middle school, Mandarin classes were tacked on to our schedule where we read, wrote, and recited common phrases we may need in conversation. All of this was to prepare for our class trip to China where we would stay with a host family for four days.
When we arrived in mainland China, I quickly felt out of place. Having to use a translator to speak to my host family, feeling accomplished when I could order my own meal, being too afraid to bargain at the market, I had never felt further from home in a country where I claim parts of my identity originate from. I thought that my Chinese heritage, and maybe my eight years of Chinese immersion, would be enough for me to blend in with the locals. But when I confidently replied to a question that my host father asked, he was shocked that I answered in Mandarin. Granted, my Mandarin is far from perfect, but it was clear to me that my host family only saw me as American. In China, my Chinese identity felt invisible, and my identity felt stripped to just American, but I know this wasn’t true.
When I take walks to stretch my legs during this pandemic, I can’t help but worry that I’ll be spat on again or be blamed for bringing in COVID-19, even though I’ve only been to China once. It’s obvious to people here that I’m not “American” enough to be treated with the dignity and respect all people deserve, no matter their nationality, citizenship, language, sexuality, etc. As I saw in my trip to China, it was clear to everyone else that being American is part of my identity, just like being Chinese is. What’s more important is how this intersectional aspect of my identity has shaped me.
When I go to order a drink with my mom and the non-Chinese barista musters a 谢谢 as we pay or when my brother and I are taking the elevator up to our hotel room and complete strangers strike up a conversation about the best Chinese restaurant around, it becomes clear to me how obvious it is to people here that I must be more than American.
And, well, I am more than American.
I can’t help but see eight as a lucky number and four as its forbidden counterpart. I crave mooncake all year round, but I don’t like the egg yolk like the rest of my family. We eat our dim sum while we watch Jeopardy, celebrate Lunar New Year with red envelopes and Mitchell’s ice cream, and even drink the 7-up and Coca Cola set at our favorite Chinese restaurants’ tables. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t learn how to count in Chinese before I did in English (always using Chinese to count in fives even to this day) or if I didn’t learn the correct strokes of my Chinese name while I ate my chicken nuggets. Being Chinese American is a part of who I am and it’s a piece of my identity that I’m proud of.
After finally realizing that there isn’t only one narrative to follow as a Chinese American, I began to claim the title Chinese American because I get to create my own narrative of what that’s “supposed” to look like. I now know it is valid for my Chinese and American identities to coexist within me. There are certainly times when holding this identity brings hardships. Especially during this pandemic with the increase in anti-Asian American crimes, but it pushes me to seek communities that advocate for positive change and growth.
As I navigate the world as a young adult, I am learning about the vast and loving broader Asian American community that constantly breaks stereotypes about us in the fight for change. I am constantly inspired by this community to be my authentic self because that is exactly what being Chinese American means to me.
Christy is a Chinese American San Francisco native who loves to read, bake, and draw.
On writing this piece: I brain dumped a ton of ideas, then whittled it down to this. It took a very long time, not sure how long, at least six hours total. This was going to be a rant about how harmful the “just work harder” refrain has been for me, but I surprised myself when I found more peace than anger.
I don’t know how others will perceive my ADHD-friendly daily routine. Will it be mindbogglingly different to them? It’s just my everyday life. What I’m taking from this is that I am able to accept my ADHD tendencies, rather than force myself to work ever harder to be some “competent adult” that was never really me.
My ADHD brain is all I’ve ever known.
I find grocery shopping, getting a chai latte at a cafe, and any sort of cooking confusing and overwhelming.
Well-intentioned adults reassured me that all this would eventually get easier. Maybe it did for them, but adulting is still a daily struggle for me, even four years after graduating college and entering “real” adult life. In therapy and on my own, I’ve spent countless hours devising strategies and systems to help me do these tasks in the first place, rather than try to avoid them forever.
“Adulting” actually demands a lot of executive function (the ability to set and work towards goals), which I don’t have much of, thanks to my ADHD. I’m never going to coast through life with the dutiful ease and unflagging attention that I attempted to achieve for so long. This brain is all I’ve got, so I might as well give it what it needs to do its best.
And guess what? I have finally brought wellness into my life, not by following the perennial Chinese advice of WORK HARDER, but rather with acceptance and carefully selected strategies I know work for me.
Here’s the gist of my day:
I am asleep in bed.
My phone alarm rings and wakes my unsnoozable dog Odie, who then steps on me to wake me up.
“Okay, okay, I’m up!” I sit up. “Wait a sec, let me take my meds.”
I get out of bed.
“Okay, Emily go pee.”
I go to the bathroom and come back.
Odie is laying on his mat, utterly bored.
We head downstairs and don our walking gear.
“Walk time! Let’s go!”
Odie is the gym I actually use. (On my own, it can take me more than a week to summon enough executive function to walk around the block or do 20 minutes of yoga, if I somehow don’t give up or forget.)
After our walk, I have no idea what I’m doing for the rest of the day. (My calendar knows, but I haven’t bothered to check it.)
I always go sit at my desk after our morning walk though, so I do that.
I’m not entirely sure what I do between sitting down at my desk and realizing multiple hours have passed and I should probably bring Odie out to pee. These days, my desk is probably the site of some meandering combination of emails, writing, watching YouTube videos, and coloring. (My brain doesn’t keep time accurately, and I haven’t bothered to look at the three analog clocks in my room and therefore have no idea what time it is. It’s an easy summer day, so whatever I do is okay, as long as I’m not hangry—then it’s a mad dash to feed the Emily before she gets even madder.)
After dinner, I mess around at my desk for at least an hour before I’ve gathered the energy to go brush my teeth.
That process goes like this in my head:
“Gotta brush my teeth…”
Some time later: “Maybe I should brush my teeth…”
Even later: “Haven’t brushed my teeth yet…”
And so on, until, at last, “ugh, FINE, I’ll brush my teeth.”
At some point, I’ll take melatonin to ensure I get sleepy and not be catapulted by some online article into a late-night reading rampage.
These are my good days, when adulting doesn’t give me overwhelm-induced headaches, panic attacks, and confusion that morphs into self-loathing. These are the days I feel at peace with who I am, that I deserve to give myself the ample time I need to do things at a pace I don’t have to sacrifice my sanity for.
Perhaps the way I go through life is more circuitous, slow, and effortful than for most. I’ve absorbed more than my fair share of messages urging me to work harder, hurry up, remember better, and contort myself into someone more “prepared for the adult world.” Whose adult world?
In my adult world, it is okay to forget, be confused, and take days, weeks, even months to do things many people could do in an hour. These things need to be okay, because however much I work to avoid them, my tangles of executive dysfunction are a core part of who I am, and I need–and what a relief!–to be okay with being the real, unadulterated (pun intended) me.
Emily Chen (she/her) 陳怡君 is a Taiwanese American mental health activist, writer, and singer based in Newton, Massachusetts. Check out DisOrient, her YouTube series on Asian American mental health!
“We didn’t think you’d be very happy with us if we made you go to Chinese school on the weekend,” my white mom explained when I confronted her about how not speaking the language of my ancestors feels like a giant missing piece of my identity as a third-generation biracial Chinese-white woman.
To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have been happy. I hated being Chinese as a little girl. The less I stood out, the better. I was thankful I didn’t have an accent. Proud my name was something everyone could pronounce. Glad I ate PB&J for lunch so no one made fun of the way my food smelled. Even though I still got the question “What are you?” or “Where are you really from?,” as soon as I explained myself in perfect English, people backed down. When I found myself in white-majority spaces, which was most of my childhood, I’d be quick to defend myself with, “Yes, I’m half-Chinese…but no, I don’t speak the language.” As if to say, Don’t worry, I’m more like you than you think. On the rare occasion I met another Asian person, I’d be quick to say, “Yes, I’m half-Chinese…but no, I don’t speak what language.” As if to say, Don’t get too excited, I’m less like you than you think.
Thinking back to how deeply I rejected my Chinese heritage makes me ill. Even as I write this, the creases of my eyes have formed tiny pools of water, my breath has quickened, I’m twisting and turning in my wicker chair wondering how I can escape the grief that is two seconds away from swallowing me whole. The way I fluffed up the fact I can’t speak Chinese and the way I downplayed my Asianness is a sick reminder of white supremacy at work, the person I was taught to privilege and all that my family has lost in doing so.
“You’re fantasizing what it would be like to live where there are more Asians,” my husband, Andrew, who is a first-generation Chinese American, told me a few months ago in the middle of a heated argument about where to live. We were in Asheville, NC at the time. He loved it there, could picture us there, having a family, settling down. Each time I tried to join him in this dream, pictured it for myself, I would cry, stomp around, secretly plot how I would make a run for it if he made me live there. We could count the number of Asians we saw in our month living there on one hand. We ordered a DIY boba kit from Boba Guys to make boba at home because there were hardly any spots in town. I couldn’t for the life of me find an Asian acupuncturist even though acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I went to one lady who I thought might be half-Asian but it turned out she was just tan in her pictures.
“Why does it even matter to you?” Andrew once asked. It’s true. Being surrounded by Asians hasn’t always been important to me. But that was back when I thought I was white. What most people don’t understand about racial trauma is it not only instills fear in being yourself but it robs you of all the good things too: community, food, traditions, celebrations, joy. In healing my racial trauma, I’m opening the door to a whole new feeling: pride.
I am proud to be Asian. And, to me, that matters a lot.
Elizabeth Su, MA (she/her) is a writer, perfectionism expert, and the founder of Monday Vibes (www.elizabethsu.com), a personal growth newsletter and network for women named “12 Newsletters Actually Worth Opening” by Zoella, on a mission to change the narratives that women have been told about success and happiness.
She left a six-figure salary at a hot Silicon Valley start-up because she realized she was trying to win a game she didn’t want to play. She has since dedicated her career to empowering women, teaching about emotional and spiritual wellness, and changing the rules of the game. She’s currently working on her first book around these topics.
One of our YIP interns, Luna grapples with the differing degrees of “Asianness” she holds in the worlds of public, parochial, and independent schools, and what constantly navigating those worlds has taught her about her own identity and the broader Asian American community.
The day after high school acceptance letters came out, my middle school friend, also Asian American, turned around in class and told me, half-joking, half-serious, “Don’t turn too white.”
What was that supposed to mean? Did the existence of “too white” imply there was such a thing as “just enough white?” My middle school was a predominantly-white private school and my high school would be, too. If I were to “turn white,” wouldn’t it have happened already?
Well, it turns out things were more complicated than I’d imagined. When I transferred to my parochial middle school, a mere five blocks from my public elementary school, I’d had to adjust to a world that was mostly Catholic and Irish, although most people grew up in the Sunset District like me. In high school, located just 2.5 miles away, I discovered yet another world, full of people who were atheist and Jewish and lived in Pacific Heights and Palo Alto and Piedmont, in the kinds of houses I’d only ever seen in magazines. There’s a sort of cognitive dissonance around high schools like mine—selective, expensive institutions with application processes mirroring college admissions that market accessibility and diversity.
This dissonance spilled out into me as I tried to find my place in this new environment.
Here I was, learning to take pride in my culture at affinity clubs and reading school books written by Asians, still embarrassed when my parents came to school and I realized how unpolished their English sounded next to other parents with their medical and doctoral degrees.
Here I was, befriending white people for the first time in years, still overthinking every fashion choice, song selection, and pop culture reference to prove, maybe to them, maybe to myself, that I fit in.
Here I was, placing into Chinese 3, still knowing that if I were truly fluent in my first language, I wouldn’t have to take a class on it at all. For all my outward embracing of Asian-ness, a million insecurities lurked in the corners of my mind.
The summer after my freshman year, I spent a month at an intense STEM program run by the University of California. I was in the math cluster: the nerdiest of the nerds. Given the STEM focus and Bay Area campus, most kids were East and South Asian. I felt like I’d entered a parallel universe; an alternate reality where I spent my weekends at Chinese school and math competitions instead of soccer games (actually, I was my middle school’s one-woman math team for two years, but that’s beside the point). I was a fish out of water. Not just because geometry was the hardest math class I’d ever taken and I was one of eight girls in a group of twenty-seven. At school, I was the overachieving East Asian kid with perfect grades. These were the real tiger babies,* taking Calc BC as fifteen-year-olds and whizzing through computer science olympiad questions like they were nothing. They went to the same competitive public schools as the children of my parents’ friends’. All I had to do was move a few cities south, and I could’ve easily been one of them.
They thought I was cool. I had music taste that stretched beyond the Billboard Top 40 that all our parents played on a constant loop. I wore loud, colorful earrings and embroidered mom jeans. I could take public transportation downtown and eat out with friends (almost) any time I wanted.
In the context of that summer camp, all those traits made me feel really, embarrassingly, whitewashed.
But wasn’t that what I’d wanted my whole life?
Even in elementary school, surrounded by other children of immigrants, I was careful to distance myself from any “fresh off the boat” signs in my outfits, my books, my word choice. By the time I finished a year of high school, those tendencies increased tenfold.
It had been a long time since I was surrounded by so many people whose backgrounds almost perfectly matched my own, yet we came from vastly different worlds, if only separated by a forty-minute drive. Sometimes I still feel like an impostor no matter who I surround myself with, and not just white and Asian people. Because I’ve grown up conforming to mainstream American culture—one steeped in classism, colorism, and anti-Blackness—there are endless experiences under the broad category of “people of color” that I can’t claim, more than not knowing a single RnB throwback.
Here’s one thing I remember from that summer math program: every theory exists within a specific axiomatic structure, or set of rules. That means the “correctness” of a theory is relative. If you change the axiomatic structure, a theory that used to be true might become false.
Similarly, what my middle school friend told me about “turning white” was relative. For some, I’m “too Asian”; for others, I’m too “white” or “American.” Even within Asian America, with so many ethnicities, immigration stories, educational, geographical, and socioeconomic backgrounds, I’ve realized there’s no universal or “correct” Asian American experience.
I’m learning to live with that ambiguity, creating my own set of axioms for being Asian American while recognizing that everyone else is searching for their own, too.
* “Tiger babies” are the children of “tiger parents,” or strict parents who pressure their children into high academic and extracurricular success. Commonly associated with East, South, and Southeast Asian parenting, the term “tiger mother” was made popular by Amy Chua in her 2011 memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Luna is a high school senior, native San Franciscan, daughter of immigrants, nonstop knitter, and avid earring collector.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Soon Wiley, author of When We Fell Apart, to learn more about his debut novel, his journey there, and the complexities around his biracial identity.
What was your path to becoming the writer you are today?
Probably like a lot of writers, I was a reader first. I was lucky enough to have parents that read to me every night when I was a little kid, and when they weren’t telling me a story, I was buried in a book. I didn’t seriously consider pursuing fiction writing until I won a short story prize sponsored by my college. Up until that point, I hadn’t taken any creative writing classes, and while I’d worked on some short stories during my spare time, I never really considered what I was doing as writing. Winning that prize was a turning point for me. I enrolled in creative writing classes during my senior year of college, and then I pursued an MFA two years later. I started working on what would become my debut novel when I finished graduate school, and I’ve been writing almost every day since, or at least the days where I can find the time.
What was the inspiration behind When We Fell Apart?
Initially, I was interested in exploring relationships and how we often think we know people, when in fact we often know very little about them, even in intimate relationships. As I kept writing, that initial seed of interest turned into a larger project that explored questions about identity, family, and cultural expectations.
Which character did you resonate most with in your novel? Why so?
I share a lot of the same characteristics and biographical details with Min, so I think when I initially started writing the novel, I felt most aligned with him. Like Min, I lived in Seoul, and like Min, I’m bi-racial. A number of Min’s experiences were partially drawn from my own experience, so in that sense, I’d say that I felt the most connected to him throughout the writing process. That being said, I also found myself connecting with Detective Park quite a bit. He’s someone who has very strong ideals and ethics, but he’s forced to conform or break his moral rules for the sake of his job. This isn’t to say that I’ve had to do those types of things, but I think part of becoming an adult and getting a job in some professional arena means doing things you don’t always want to do.
I was curious to know why Min’s narrative is third person while Yu-jin’s is in first. Can you explain?
This is actually something that changed quite a bit during the drafting of the novel. Initially, Min’s chapters were written in first-person, but at some point, it became very limiting to use first-person, especially when I was trying to build suspense. During the third draft of the novel, I decided to change it to close third-person, which gave me a lot of freedom. In my head, Yu-jin’s chapters were always in first-person. I’ve always thought of her chapters as being a confession of sorts, and so it made sense to have her speaking from the “I” perspective. I also wanted to give Yu-jin a voice in the novel. Because she’s dead when the novel opens, I wanted to find some way to still emphasize her presence in the novel.
You go into incredible detail about the inner workings of Seoul. With its people and specific locations, it feels like a character within itself. What was your research process like?
I lived in Seoul for about a year after graduating from college, but once I actually started writing the novel, it had been about four or five years since I’d actually been back. It sounds kind of obvious, but I spent a lot of time remembering and imagining Seoul. In early drafts, I was really stubborn about not looking at photos of Seoul or researching anything on the internet. I did my best to immerse myself in the city through my imagination. I’m a huge fan of writers who really emphasize sensory details in their fiction, so I wanted to lean heavily on that during the writing process. Later on, when I was revising the novel, I did a bit of research on the internet, just to make sure I’d gotten things correctly. When I finally found out that the book was going to be published, I was planning on going to Seoul, just to fact check a few things, but I ended up not being able to go because of Covid, which only led to more Googling.
What was your experience living in Seoul?
I’d say that my time in Seoul was quite revelatory. On one hand, it was incredible to be surrounded by other Asians. It was the first time in my life where I’d lived in a country where the dominant race wasn’t white. At times, when I was walking around the city by myself, I felt at ease, and I was aware that I felt a lot more comfortable in Seoul than I ever had in America. However, whenever I spoke to anyone or interacted with people outside of my friend group, I immediately became aware that I didn’t actually fit in in Seoul at all, and that people very much viewed me as a foreigner. This wasn’t entirely shocking, but it was very strange to feel like you belonged somewhere, only to have people tell you that you were nothing like the people that lived there.
Without giving too much away, relationships (both family and romantic) can be touchy subjects in Asian cultures. There’s a lot of unspoken boundaries, expectations, and traditions. What was it like writing them?
That’s a great question. Because I wasn’t raised in a “traditional” Korean household, I think I had a lot of psychological distance from some of the familial expectations that a lot of Asian kids experience when growing up, so that made it a bit easier to write about, in the sense that I could truly be an observer. I suspect that because I was never really “inside” a Korean community when I was growing up, I felt more comfortable critiquing it or describing it. Another thing I always reminded myself of when I was working on the novel is that Asian parents, kids, pretty much all Asians, are just like everyone else. Yes, there’s certainly that cultural expectation, but at the end of the day, we all have the same fears, desires, and dreams.
Home and belonging play major themes within every character’s journey. How has this played a meaning in your own life and can you describe how you translated that onto the page?
I think I’ve always felt a bit like an outsider. Not necessarily in some terrible way, where I was excluded or treated unfairly, but I’ve always been aware that in certain places and situations, I don’t quite fit in. Whether it was because of my name or my race, I always got questions when I was a kid. People were curious about where I was from. And again, I don’t think it was malicious, but you become aware, very quickly, that you perhaps don’t belong wherever you are at the moment. This feeling is something that I think everyone experiences to varying degrees. But certainly, when I was writing the book, I was interested in exploring characters who didn’t feel like they belonged, for whatever reason. The theme of home is probably a bit trickier to answer, but I think as a minority or person of color growing up in America, you are acutely aware that some people don’t think America is your home, even if it is. Min’s decision to travel to Korea in the first place is a reaction to this kind of sentiment.
What did you learn about yourself and/or the process of writing your debut novel?
I don’t consider myself a spiritual person by any means, but you have to have faith to write a novel. Faith in yourself and faith in the work, which doesn’t usually illicit any faith, especially when you’re dealing with a rough draft. I also learned that I write best when I’m writing for myself.
How did this novel help you understand or further complicate your own bi-racial background?
Writing the novel helped me come to terms with what being biracial means. This isn’t to say that I was somehow conflicted about being bi-racial before my novel, but I think there’s an inherent messiness when you grow up as bi-racial. When you’re younger there are all sorts of questions about who you are and where you come from, but as you get older, you start thinking about how labels and categories aren’t really useful at all, especially to people who defy categorization. Writing the novel helped me accept and understand that it’s really important to have an internal identity, one that is separate from how other people view you. Being bi-racial means that you will often be seen by different people in different ways, so it can be confusing when you can move between different worlds. A strong inner idea of who you are – divorced from your external identity – is really important.
For readers who are looking for their new book, why should people choose When We Fell Apart?
When I started writing When We Fell Apart, I wanted to give my readers a good story. Above all else, this is the responsibility of the writer. Afterall, we are storytellers, and there is a lot of competition out there, from movies, television shows, video games, and all the other forms of entertainment, so it’s incumbent on us to keep our readers’ interest. So, people should pick up my book if they want to read a good old-fashioned story that keeps them entertained, immerses them in a foreign culture, and maybe prompts them to ask some probing questions about identity, familial expectations, and whether we can really know someone.
A native of Nyack, New York, Soon Wiley received his BA in English & Philosophy from Connecticut College. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and earned him fellowships in Wyoming and France. He resides in Connecticut with his wife and their two cats. When We Fell Apart is his debut novel.Support his work today at Penguin Random House.
One of our YIP interns, Wendy, looks back at the internalized colorism she was forced to swallow and how it contaminated the way she perceived her own sense of beauty throughout her entire childhood.
At my core lies impulsivity and a satisfaction with riding the flow of the universe. Living under a Filipino roof has conditioned me to appreciate the full capacity of the present moment and cherish my loved ones with the utmost respect and joy. From endearing jokes about who’s most likely to finish the banana chips first after shopping at Serramonte to peaceful moments at the dinner table as we thank the universe or God for always providing us with enough food at the table. I was a free spirit for most of my childhood, and all I really wanted out of life was to smile and laugh with the people I cared for.
C’mon, don’t take things too seriously.
I was also raised to be tough, to have resilience as an excuse to cover up the blemishes of my own internalized colorism. Staying strong and choosing to ignore the hurtful garbage certain people tossed at me seemed like the only viable option. As early as elementary school, I was bombarded with statements from my inner circle that gaslighted my painful experiences.
Why can’t you just take a joke? That’s just who they are, so why do you care so much? People are always going to say crap about other people, just forget about it.
My friends and my family all taught me how to not let anyone get to me, which, in retrospect, is only healthy if the way you filter those negative energies come from a place of self-love. I honestly didn’t really know what that was. For me, the filter was rooted in fear and denial.
In second grade, I was part of a vibrant group of friends, all of whom were Filipino except for this one girl (there were quite a lot of Filipinos at that school). We would all eat Popeyes together on the colorful benches of the upper yard playground and play hide and seek tag with “the boys” because apparently, that’s how you flirted as a seven-year-old.
One day, the girl who was not Filipino initiated a verbal attack on me. Up until this point, I’d considered her a close friend. It was an incredibly clear, beautiful day and we were all happily eating our chicken when she suddenly asked me, “Why are you so dark?”
What’s wrong with that huh?
Your skin looks like Obama’s!
Why is that so bad?!
You’re too dark from playing in the sun too much!
Well, I guess I have the same skin color as the president, then.
I didn’t handle that too well. I called them “dumb and stupid,” (truly the cruelest of all curse words) and then they snarked at my reputation as a “smarty pants.” I ran away to the lower yard. I felt like my hands were tied. I needed help, but I also didn’t want to rat my closest friends out, especially my bestie.
What actually hurt me was when my other close friends started laughing with her and proceeded to make fun of how dark I was in comparison to all of them. Seeing my best friend side with her hurt more than the words themselves.
I told myself that I shouldn’t let such obscene statements lower my self-esteem, but truthfully, I just buried the pain because I didn’t know how to handle it properly. From that day forward, I was nothing but my darker skin to those so-called “friends” of mine.
My best friend came to my house everyday after school, so after seeing her tease me at the playground, I didn’t know what to feel.
I was sensing some lingering animosity, but we didn’t address it. It was like it never really happened. Then one day, she admitted she didn’t believe any of those painful remarks she had said to me. I believed her. She cut herself off from the girl who started it all. I understood that those hurtful comments she’d made didn’t come from a place of truth; they came from the fear that she’d also be made fun of if she didn’t take a side.
That girl was a bully. She was two-faced and manipulative. A lot of the internalized colorism that I juggle with today is rooted in the light-skin superiority that she was perpetuating. I was always an easy target for her, but of course I never let her truly see the way she exacerbated my insecurities.
Now, reconnecting with what I felt during the heat of that moment has led me to examine the colorist lens that has tainted my perception of what is considered beautiful. From using the notorious Likas papaya soap to harmful, whitening exfoliating scrubs, I subconsciously accepted a truth that I was forced to swallow at such a young age.
Whiter is better. To become more beautiful and radiant, I had to lighten my skin.
I had to scrub the darkness off.
I was told that the more they stung, the more effective these products were at getting rid of “the dirt.” I washed my face every night with the “magical” papaya soap. It felt like erasure. A fruitless attempt to become more white. Then I pondered: Why did I need to tailor my desires to fit standards I never really wanted to reach in the first place?
I no longer use those heinous whitening products, but there is definitely a wonderful lesson I learned that now aligns with the person I’m actively trying to become. The foundation of colorism is white supremacy and racism. It trickles down from the institutional level and infects our interpersonal relationships with extremely distorted views of who or what is better. It glorifies Euro-centric beauty standards and generates products that capitalize on its power. I found that actively practicing unconditional self-love is a direct protest to this system that aims to stifle our self-confidence.
Holistically accepting every dimension, every broken piece of your identity initiates the process of healing. It has brought me a sense of peace and stability within myself. This internal harmony has changed the type of energy I put out into the universe. The capacity of love I have for my friends, family, and community has expanded tremendously, knowing that I no longer chain myself or others to such detestable expectations of what we need to be.
Wendy is a high school senior, first-gen Filipino immigrant, joyful dancer, and music lover.
Jewel, a YIP intern, reflects on her own experiences in education, the need for ethnic studies, and how interpersonal and institutional interactions have influenced her academic life.
Invisibility was an unavoidable part of school life for me.
I grew up in a majority Filipino elementary school and was devastated when I was told I was moving to a new school. I was a small sixth grader who “accomplished” getting every single teacher to mistake me for Raven, the only other Filipino girl at my new, majority-white private school. Not exactly the most prestigious and sought-after achievement out there. Raven and I were instantly best friends, and unsurprisingly, this meant that we were constantly confused for each other, to the point where we referred to ourselves as twins! At first, in high school, I ran into a similar situation and found myself a new twin (a triplet if you’re keeping track). I admit I faltered and accepted my fate for a while, but soon I lost the comfort I had in dealing with things that way. I broke free of my pseudo-sibling bond and established myself as my own person by finding support through Asian clubs, teachers, and opportunities to learn about my culture and other Asian communities. I found myself learning more about my culture than I knew I could. But I still felt like there was something missing.
The feelings of isolation and “otherness” weren’t only caused by my interactions with my peers, it also came from the curriculum. My middle school experience was lacking in diversity, in my class itself and in the content of the classes. Knowing your own culture’s history seems obvious to me but so many people aren’t taught about theirs, even if not included in the lesson I think that the topics should be presented for young kids to learn.
I wish I had known about the Goddesses of pre-colonial Philippine mythology or historical leaders like Larry Itliong or Yuri Kochiyama. I’ve always wanted to learn beyond the small amount of online research I’ve done but it never seemed like it would come up in an academic setting. Sure, the Philippines would be mentioned from time to time, but the actual history and people were often overshadowed by the American or European event we were studying. Any lesson plan about Asian American history was limited to East Asian interactions with America, if there was any section on Asian history at all. While I didn’t expect Filipino history to be in regular lesson plans, I wondered why I had never come across an elective for it considering the high Filipino population in the Bay Area.
My desire to learn more about the history behind my cultures has been an incredibly fulfilling project so far, but I know that without purposefully seeking the information I’d never have learned any of it. Understanding the communities I came from and the relationship I have to each of them has taught me more about myself than I ever imagined. I learned about the historical and cultural significance of clothes, dances, and myths I’ve grown up with. Without online research I wouldn’t have known why my grandparents immigrated to North America, why the United States has such a big influence on the Philippines, or how Filipino people have been treated in the U.S.. This history and context of being Filipino in the U.S. being so difficult for me to find feels like an attempt at erasing my ethnic identity, especially when white history is a requirement for everyone. Which brings me to the dialogue around Ethnic Studies.
I’d never heard of Ethnic Studies until my junior year of high school and I certainly didn’t know specific courses like Asian American history existed. The knowledge I gained was a key part in understanding how to combat racism against Filipino communities. I began to understand how stereotypes against Filipino people were created and became able to separate that projection of racism from my own self image.
In addition to the benefits of learning about my own identity in an academic setting, I believe that it would be an important step towards fighting ignorance. Learning the uncensored facts about the gross obstacles minorities have had to face in this country, and in the greater context of the world, could make people that don’t belong in those communities understand the differences people have to face with their identity. Especially if these classes were taken throughout the elementary school, because at the end of the day Ethnic Studies is still history, just not solely white history. Why isn’t Ethnic Studies taught like any of the other core subjects when it arguably applies the most to our lives?
I hope to pass the stories of my experiences and cultural knowledge down to younger kids, in hopes that they have someone to go to when they feel small. Maybe I can provide a silent comfort in the shared experience of becoming someone’s twin, knowing random facts about old white men but none about their cultural heritage, or any more of the countless other jabs at their identity.
Jewel is a senior in high school, Japanese and Filipino American, sometimes artist, aspiring psychologist, and food enthusiast.
“Dear Journal, Today was a wild day. Tomorrow, I hope, will be a great day a school.”
Those were the first few sentences I wrote in the first journal of many to come, 20 years ago. There was no context given to who I was just yet, the state of the world, or anything of the sort. If there was anything to gain from that first entry was that I was really not into the fact that my elementary school had such a firmly set social hierarchy.
I call that journal my first, even though I had been given journals before. But that instance was different. Whether it was because of the fact that it was a few days after turning a double-digit age for the first time, or that we the world were still reeling from the horrors of 9/11 that took place only a few months before, a change was in the air, and the drive to document my thoughts and memories had been awakened.
Little did I think then about where I would be 20 years later. Heck, I didn’t even consider the possibility of journaling becoming so embedded in my life over the next 20 years. And yet, here we are; a little beaten up and shaken, yet still thriving and writing.
So much of my life has been captured over the years: from elementary school to college, fleeting friendships as well as long-lasting ones, coming to terms with my Filipino and mixed-race identities, as well as the strives I’ve made in my writing career throughout my adulthood so far.
At the same time, a lot has happened in the world while writing in my journals. It began in the post-9/11 era. Since then, the War in Iraq happened, so did a major economic recession, Barack Obama was nominated to office, the Black Lives Matter movement got started, same-sex marriage became legalized in the United States, Donald Trump was nominated to office, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic changed life as we know it. As of this writing, Russia invaded Ukraine a few days ago.
When I was younger, current events often felt separate from whatever was going on in my life. However, the older I’ve gotten and the more life experiences I’ve gained, the more emotionally and mentally I’ve become tapped into the world outside of the Bay Area suburb I grew up in. Looking through just a handful of my completed journals, the evolution is noticeable:
“Today was odd and weird. Okay, let’s just say weird. Believe me, I’m serious.” -age 10
“I feel like 80% of myself. The other 20% is asleep. Asleep as in it’s not up to it.” -age 13
“You can say my life can be full of drama sometimes and the truth is, is it really worth it to go through all this?” -age 15
“Writing isn’t just about dwelling into the creative forces of the mind or using words to cover a current happening for all to read. It’s also about expressing yourself… even if it is to yourself.” -age 19
“I guess what I’m trying to say is just once, just for one week if not forever, I just want there to be peace. No shootings, no attacks, no bombings, no injuries or premature deaths. Is that really so hard to ask? Can a flag not be at half-staff for a minute?” -age 24
“Seeing someone perform in the flesh for a film is different than watching someone perform in theatre. It feels like a different kind of spell is being cast.” -age 26
“I know it probably sounds really childish, but when you’re living through tumultuous times like this, you can’t help but long for innocent days when the world felt smaller and unbreakable.” -age 28
In retrospect, I feel very proud of myself for writing in journals for as long as I have. It’s come to be a reliable space where I not only get to reflect back on day-to-day life, but also a form of therapy for me. I’m well aware that this isn’t something for everyone, so I wouldn’t recommend it for every single person I encounter. What I can say is for me, I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I honestly don’t see myself stopping at all anytime soon.
The world – and life itself – is hard, but at least I have journals.
Lauren Lola is a lifelong “Star Wars” and Miyazaki geek. Also, mad love for “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” “So Weird,” and anything from Taika Waititi. Author/blogger/playwright/screenwriter. Other writing can be found at Mixed Asian Media, CAAMedia, YOMYOMF, and more.
I’ve always loved tea. From a young age, I started drinking tea way more than anyone else in my family.
Having grown up in a cozy, predominantly Asian-immigrant suburb of Los Angeles, I was lucky to never have to experience the “lunchbox” moment at school. While at an academically rigorous high school, I filled my time with a lot of extracurriculars. I figure skated, played four instruments, was the editor-in-chief of the Yearbook, participated in beauty pageant scholarships, had a Youtube channel, led volunteer trips to Peru in the summer, and ran a non-profit online clothing store.
It wasn’t until I went to college at Dartmouth did I become uncomfortably aware of my identity: a petite, Chinese-American woman from a middle-class immigrant family. I had never thought of myself in those explicit terms before arriving to rural New Hampshire.
I had many identity crises in college. I thought constantly about gender, race, class, culture, family background, etc. Realizing that Southern California is not representative of the larger US was a shock to me.
Over the years, I would find my own diverse and loving group of friends, but the adjustment to New England was more difficult than just surviving the never-ending winters.
After graduating, I worked in management consulting at Bain & Co in San Francisco. Just to get out of the house during the pandemic, I started volunteering on the weekend at my local farmers markets, packing veggie boxes for curbside pickup. Then I started selling kimchi on Sundays for a local vegan kimchi maker, Volcano Kimchi, and began doing freelance business consulting for them and for a few other small food companies in SF. I realized that I was good at that and it gave me a lot of energy. I wanted to help small business owners transform their big dreams into actionable plans. I loved getting to work with founders I adored and connected with. Coincidentally, they all happened to be Asian women – After years of working with predominately white men, this was a refreshing change.
Then, last summer, right before I was going to move across the country with my partner at the time, we broke up! I was devastated, so I impulsively decided to visit my sister in Boulder, Colorado instead. I fell in love with the energy! I met tons of cool, creative, entrepreneurial people there who encouraged me to also do what I wanted to do, and I decided that it was building Uproot Teas. With the mission of empowering farmers by paying them what they needed to grow sustainable, delicious crops and showing the US consumer what a delicious, multi-sensorial experience tea could be, I decided to then go to Hawai’i to work with a tea farm and learn more about the tea growing, harvesting, and production. It was a dream. It totally affirmed how passionate I feel about the farmer pay equity and agricultural sustainability piece of Uproot.
While tea originated in China, the narrative of tea in the west has been dominated and told by white men. The global tea trade has roots in colonialism and imperialism, which are still apparent today. The ancient crop was capitalized and exoticized, transformed for the western market without acknowledging the deep culture behind it. Tea became commoditized, resulting in widening power & capital disparities between the farmers and the western traders. I truly believe that everyone, regardless of racial or ethnic background, is 200% entitled to enjoy, appreciate and nerd out about anything. Especially in food and drink, culture should evolve and change with time and new circumstances. That’s the beauty of it! However, I don’t believe in misrepresentation – the taking without acknowledging nor attributing, capitalizing while appropriating, and excluding.
As a business owner, I’m in a lucky position to be able to make strategic decisions that align with my values: Uproot Teas is proudly a zero-waste company, as 100% of our packaging is compostable. That matters a lot to me because I care deeply about the environment and I think it’s the right thing to do, even though it is really, really expensive. As a Chinese American tea company founder, I’m excited to use my voice to bring more representation and cultural education. As a petite Asian woman with turquoise hair, I hope to break the expectation of what an entrepreneur “is” or “should be.”
It’s hard sometimes to feel like a “serious business person” because I know that I’m not what people picture in their heads when they think of one. I had this type of imposter syndrome in my previous jobs even when I did my best to conform to look and act as “professional” as possible. Now, I accept that I may struggle with imposter syndrome for a while, and I find other ways to pep myself up. So, I might as well keep my colorful hair and ditch the heels.
To be honest, I think my parents are still dubious about Uproot Teas, but they’re supportive. I think similar to a lot of other immigrant children, my parents just never really “got” what we were doing. They didn’t understand when I did consulting, but were impressed by my salary. They didn’t understand mental health, but accepted that I worked at a digital therapy company. They know tea and know I like it, but they don’t get why I’ve made it my career. I believe my mom’s words after my first month of sales were, “Wow, I didn’t know Americans would spend money on tea!”
I have grown so much in the last few months of working on Uproot Teas – I think my biggest takeaway is that I will probably be on a lifelong journey of learning the art of self-validation. I grew up (like many immigrant children) wanting to appease my parents and my community, so I leaned a lot on external validation to feel like I was doing a good job. With building a small business, there are SO many obstacles and haters that if I let them all get to me, I wouldn’t make it very far. At the same time, there are so many highlights and sparkly moments that the highs are higher than I’ve ever experienced at any job. But it’s the moments in between all the milestones, achievements, and low points that make up 95% of the journey, and during those times, I am learning to empower and validate myself!
My vision for the next few years:
Celebrate & cultivate the loose leaf tea experience in the US and create consumer demand for artisan teas & botanicals
Expand into specialized teaware with beautiful designed functional products to help elevate anyone’s at-home tea experience
Open brick & mortar Uproot Teas locations as community gathering hubs for tasty and inventive craft tea drinks & desserts (think: tea lattes, tea cocktails, tea cakes… the possibilities are endless!!) I want to host open mic nights, feature ceramics and artwork made by local artists, and provide a slower, softer space for people to connect.
I’m truly so grateful for this journey and I feel like Uproot has provided me with a canvas to paint the small part of the world that I want to spend most of my time in!
Cindy is a SoCal native, Bay Area lover, and Colorado resident who founded Uproot Teas to celebrate loose leaf tea culture and empower family farms. When not drinking or selling tea, you can find Cindy roller skating, climbing, dancing, or being the only dog-less human at the dog park.
Want to support Uproot Teas? Order now tea on uprootteas.com. You can go to your favorite local cafes and retailers and request they carry Cindy’s teas. Seriously, this latter one helps so much because everyone know customers are #1.