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Common Threads

As a Taiwanese American woman who grew up in Los Angeles, I felt a little bit of a disconnect between my world and that of my parents, who worked hard to bridge the gap. I was fortunate to have experienced some things that made me “feel” Asian, such as shopping at 99 Ranch or watching Taiwanese TV channels. But the Asian American experience lies on a huge spectrum, and I sometimes felt that I wasn’t Taiwanese “all the way”, especially as our trips to Taiwan became less and less frequent. Last summer, I went to Taiwan to teach English in a rural part of Taiwan called Yunlin County. There, I learned so much and felt so much more deeply connected, as the local volunteers accepted me with open arms and shared their home and world with me. I am forever grateful for the incredible experiences and people I encountered. I came home feeling touched not just by connecting with my parents’ home and world, but also by the recognition of the many similarities shared across the human experience that transcend the cultural gaps. 

I was born and raised in SoCal in a neighborhood that was relatively diverse. Far away from my parents’ native soil of Taiwan, my parents served as my primary source of connection to my Asian American identity. We spoke Mandarin and wore slippers at home, celebrated Lunar New Year with all the traditional foods, called our relatives in Taiwan using a telephone card my dad bought from a small shop in the 626 area, watched Taiwanese soap operas, shopped at 99 Ranch on the weekends. But these are only the tip of the iceberg. 

My parents had come from a world and a life that was foreign to me, but as I child, I looked to them as people who had “gotten used to” life in the U.S. and who seemed to just “know” what they were doing, much as many children look to their parents. I had little understanding of the disconnect between how I saw my parents and their actual lived experience before dropping everything they knew and moving to the U.S. As I grew older, this disconnect deepened as I learned more and more about their childhood. This information would come in tidbits: “The schooling here is so different; you should be grateful!”, “When I went to school, we had to stay late and go to cram school”, “The teacher would shame us in front of the class if we did poorly”, “We had to walk/bike home from school ourselves”, etc. Often, they came in the form of mild scolds–something many first-generation children seemed to relate to—but the reality is that they were also a reflection on the changes they had to endure. It was hard to connect the dots and relate to and understand their experience when it felt like my own life couldn’t be any further from theirs. 

Last summer, I was offered the opportunity to go abroad for two months to teach English in a rural part of Taiwan. It gave me time to explore life in Taiwan as a little more than just a tourist, unlike the previous times I had traveled to my parents’ home country. As a teacher in a junior high school, I experienced school life and little bits of daily life that opened my eyes to a little more of my parents’ lives before they had left it all behind for a new life—I had the chance to experience some of the things I had only heard stories about or in brief comments made in passing. 

At first, there were many differences that took some getting used to. The blistering summer heat and humidity, for one: I became accustomed to the feeling of “always wanting to take another shower” my parents always reminisced less fondly on. The toilets: the toilets at the school were on the ground—many of the older toilets were these kinds of toilets you had to squat over—and the first couple days were a struggle to become comfortable with using them without the deep paranoia of accidentally getting something on your pants or losing your balance and falling in altogether. There was also the naptime in the middle of the day after lunch: naptime?! In my schooling in the U.S., naptime was more of an unintended byproduct of the post-lunch slump that occasionally cut into class time! The mini-society: students would come in early before I arrived to teach them, to carry out their delegated jobs of cleaning up around the classroom before class began. And the smells! The smells of street food and incense from the abundant beautiful temples and the hustle and bustle of the night markets that were absent on the streets where I grew up: I finally grasped some semblance of the “emptiness” my mother felt when she first moved. I also noticed some of the things that were baked into my parents’ lifestyles, even as they raised us in the U.S.—mild superstitions, such as not whistling at night (because that apparently calls the ghosts) and eating every last bite of food on your plate because wasting it was a sign of disrespect to those who provided it. 

But as time went by and I gained acceptance from the students and Taiwanese volunteers I worked with, they opened their world up to me. I began to recognize that amid all these differences, lay so many similarities. Student mischief, practical jokes, looking up at the clock to see when lunchtime is, having a (maybe not so) secret crush in class, playing games together with your friends during breaktime (“Truth or Dare” appears to have transcended cultural bounds), hanging out with your friends after school to grab something to eat together…it was comforting to see that I could connect to my parents’ childhood, which, on the surface, had seemed so different. 

I was touched to be accepted into a world that I always felt I had looked at through a crystal ball but was just out of reach. Touched by the warm welcome the students and volunteers extended to someone who they knew came from a different world but who also, deep down, shared so much in common. And touched by the realization of the many ways my parents tried to connect their own lives with the new life they found here to create something that would make sense to me as they raised me as an Asian American woman in the U.S. I was humbled to be able to walk, even if just for a little snippet, in my parents’ shoes in the world they knew before they left it behind. And to find that, at the end of the day, we have common ground to stand on and connect, and perhaps, this is something that I didn’t realize I was searching for – the common threads of being human that underlie the differences between my world and that of my parents. 

Writer’s Biography: Alyssa Chiang co-founded Lotus Magazine with her best friend from college as a platform for Asian American stories to be told and voices to be heard. Besides working hard on Lotus Magazine’s bimonthly releases and meeting other amazing folks in the AAPI empowerment space, she is working on her Ph.D. in bioengineering at UC San Diego and in her free time loves to dance, exercise, garden, and cook! 

Lotus Magazine Biography: Lotus Magazine serves as a platform for self-identifying Asian American womxn to share their stories/perspectives with each other and the world around us. We hope that it will lead us to be able to empower and inspire one another, and to create a sense of community within ourselves and as a part of a greater whole. Our goal is to be proactive in bringing forth stories that are often overlooked or forgotten, and to be as inclusive as possible in our readership. 



IG: @lotus_mag TikTok: @lotusmagazine

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On Culture and Defining It

One of our YIP interns, Abby works through the various definitions of what it means to be Korean American, Asian, and Asian American in the 21st century. She explores her own life experiences, challenges social expectations, and ultimately defines for herself what is means to be Asian American.

There was this moment, some time during the early 2010s, when I remember that being Korean suddenly became “cool”.

Children would come to me, the only east-Asian looking kid in class, and ask if I could translate Gangnam Style for them, to which I would agree and make the whole thing up on the spot, unwilling to admit that I knew absolutely nothing past the occasional saranghae.

This was because growing up, the term “Asian American” always had a specific definition. It meant being a child of immigrants stuck between two worlds. It meant eating hot pot one day and In-N-Out the next. It meant attending school by day and hakwon by night. It meant somehow feeling both too Asian and too American at the same time. Two worlds.

As a third-generation Korean American, I was constantly bombarded with this idea throughout my childhood. However, bridging the “two worlds” of identity never felt like an option. To me, there weren’t even two islands to begin with. I didn’t speak the language at home with my parents, we didn’t follow Korean traditions or celebrate their holidays, and I almost never ate rice. The few Asian American characters I saw on TV were usually bilingual, and if they weren’t, it was treated as a joke. As a result, I considered myself Korean in name alone, and I found it unacceptable.

If I wanted to be a true Asian American, at least, according to the two-worlds definition, I would have to actively seek out and immerse myself in the elusive “Asianness” in order to retroactively give myself a basis for cultural heritage. This, as a prerequisite, created a club of exclusivity, and it was clear that I did not have membership.

How can you be a part of Asian America without having anything to celebrate?

Recently, I was a part of organizing an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) cultural festival, and one of our major concerns was trying to represent as many ethnic groups as possible with booths and performances. Asians, after all, aren’t a monolith, and so we spent weeks scouring all throughout the Bay Area to find Hawaiian groups, Laotian groups, Indian groups, and more, just to make sure that we were absolutely checking all of the boxes.

Ultimately, the festival turned out to be a success, and I got to learn so much about the diverse parts of Asia, the continent. However, nothing about it seemed uniquely Asian American to me, in a way that I couldn’t quite put into words. 

I suppose that was to be expected; per the festival theme, there is meant to be “unity in diversity”, and so celebrating the different cultures of Asian ethnic groups is just the logical manifestation of that idea. Still, I found myself recalling my elementary school days once more: where in order to be a part of Asian America, one had to be perfectly in tune with their ethnic heritage and traditions. 

So what is Asian America, really?

For that, I want to shed some light on the beauty of the pan-Asian American label. There is, in our modern day, an active campaign focused on promoting and celebrating Asian American culture (as a direct challenge to the antiquated ideology that promoted total assimilation above all else). I’ve heard some even refer to it as a “golden age” of representation, and the festival I partook in is certainly one such example of the efforts. Because of this, I’ve seen some criticisms of the pan-Asian American label, how it’s too generalizing and erases the very diversity that we’re trying to promote. 

For me, I like to see it a bit differently.   

I never truly connected to its meaning until I began learning about the rich history of Asian America on my own, something I first discovered through academic journals I read for fun, and later, in an Asian American Studies community college course that I took. What I hadn’t realized was that there were so many pivotal historical events I’d never heard of before. 

These were moments like the murder of Vincent Chin, and how it sparked a wave of organized protest by Asian American groups. 

Moments like how the Asian American student rebellions at San Francisco State College emerged out of the civil rights movement. 

Moments like how the Japanese American community was one of the first to defend Arab Americans from the nationwide response that would follow 9/11. 

They were all built on two principles: solidarity and protest.

I realized that Asian America, and the celebration of it, doesn’t have to be limited to the recognition of ethnic diversity. It’s also acknowledged through its own independent culture, one that’s emerged from the cracks that years of discrimination have opened. There is unity in diversity, yes, but there is also unity in the history that brings us together––Asian American history––and in the political categorization we’ve assigned ourselves. 

Maybe that’s what allows me to relate to it so much. Learning more about Asian American history has let me detach myself from the two-worlds definition I was so married to, and determine instead what the term means for me.

Some people take pride in being Asian American by stressing the ethnic heritage they feel strongly attached to, and I personally still want to take time learning and appreciating my Korean background. However, the way I’m able to best participate in Asian America is by cherishing the heritage that I most connect with: the one woven between migrant farmers and student protestors and an ongoing fight for social and political equality. It’s not quite specifically Asian but it’s oh so distinctly Asian American. I think that’s something worth celebrating.

Abby is a Korean American high schooler who loves black-and-white musicals, essay writing, and ethnic studies.

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In honor of Juneteenth, we welcome collaborator and advisor to REALSOUL, Francis Wong to share the history of this monumental holiday. REALSOUL recognizes the centrality of Juneteenth to Black communities and struggles in this country. We want to express profound solidarity with the Black community. We also want to show appreciation for how it significantly impacted the freedom for Asian Americans and other marginalized communities.

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Ethnic Studies and Identity Crisis

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.