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It’s All Relative

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.

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The Blemishes of Internalized Colorism

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.

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Decolonizing the Tea Trade: The Story of Uproot Teas

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.