From the day I was born, like many other little girls, I learned how to be good.
I said Thank you too much, too eagerly and apologized when outcomes were not my fault. I did not complain when I felt sad and I did not complain when I felt mad.
Frankly, there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of being good. To be good means you’re polite. Kids like you and grownups like you. You dress to impress. You’re invited to exclusive spaces where you pretend you’re part of that world. At the end of the night, you lie on your bed, your cheeks sore from smiling at any and all jokes, but happy that you’re liked. More importantly, you’re happy that you’re welcomed back.
When you’re a good girl, American society rewards you, but when you’re a good Asian girl, American society forgets you and Asian society doesn’t want anything to do with you.
I was lucky though.
Being third generation, my family was supposedly past all this “good girl, bad girl” bullshit. In my family, there were girls who went to school and graduated with the highest honors. They rebelled against bound feet and ran away from arranged marriages. They lived longer than their husbands. They fixed their own floors and car engines. Anyone who has met the girls in my family knows that they’re a force to be reckoned with because while most stand at an average of 5 feet, they demand to be seen and they demand to be heard. In fact, they are so above the “good girl” title that they want to be the “best girl.”
And when you have a family striving to fill the “best girl” role, even “good girl” becomes a low hanging fruit.
As a child, I participated in numerous sports, art classes, summer camps, and tutoring sessions. My mother drove me from practice to practice, our commute taking us all around the city. Every day started at 8AM and ended at 6PM. Excelling was a job within itself.
By twelve, my parents saw that I was no Einstein. Not even close. Unlike my 4.0 younger sister, my GPA hovered around a 2.9 and my grades depended on extra credit and good relationships to get me into high school. When our teacher called for students with honors, 95% of the class stood up while a handful of us sunk low into our seats.
In sports, I lined my participation trophies, medals, and ribbons by the window. Volleyball, basketball, tee-ball, swimming, gymnastics, and soccer. My mom called me the one hit wonder for all the one year commitments.
My feet are sore, calluses hardened at the touch. My arms limp at the side of my body. My breathing is ragged, hot and there’s tightening in my stomach. My legs, though, keep running and running. They are numb to the pain. They know no end.
In only the past two years have I begun to take breaks and drink water. I’ve made boundaries a priority and worked to keep a solid group of friends around me. There are days I feel lighter and other days where my shoulders sag from the weight.
Still, I must throw my teachings and values against the wall again and again until they’ve been glued and taped again and again. In the mirror, I watch tears stream down my face uncontrollably, allowing my sobs to evolve into hiccups. The pieces shatter onto my beautiful wooden floors like the start of a Picasso.
I’m left searching for pieces under couches and rugs. I crouch down on the floor and a large “Ugh” escapes my lips. Sometimes, they’re so small that they blend in. It may take at least a week to vacuum this mess.
As I glue the pieces together to form this new version of my own values, I see that good girl holds nothing. It’s practically useless.
Best girl, too, holds nothing.
Reluctantly, both are tossed in the trash.
My arm stretches behind the couch towards the corner of the room. Covered in dust and other questionable particles is a small, oddly shaped piece. It’s been ignored for years. The piece belongs in the middle. I squint and hold it up to the light.
And it holds the world.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Katie Quan (she/her) is a third generation Chinese American. She is an illustrator, comic artist, educator, and artivist. As a descendent of a paper, doctor, grocery store owner, and librarian, her life work centers around Asian American narratives, moments, and spaces. Her comic web series, GenerAsian, has been exhibited at SF Zinefest, Kearny Street Workshop, and Chinese Historical Society of America. She founded REALSOUL, a curriculum-based organization, aimed to make Asian American history accessible and intersectional.
I understand why I can’t go to protests, but I just wanted to express why I feel strong enough to risk my safety. I am not questioning your support of the movement, but I am questioning how you choose to show your support. Yes, my safety is important, but I believe that the effect my presence can have is worth the risk. I have been following news of other protesters and I understand how dangerous it can be especially now, but I would take all precautions because my presence and active voice is what’s more important to me. I understand that I won’t be able to go to this particular protest because of how dangerous it really is.
I always hear you talking about how ridiculous the racism that we, and other communities, face is. I want you to understand that the movement is part of the solution for the future and I want to be able to be a part of that. I have been supporting the movement from home for a while now through petitions and spreading awareness and resources and I will continue to do so.
I completely understand the concern of being exposed to large groups right now. However, when I talked to 哥哥 and 姐姐 about how I should start this conversation, they already knew that there was a low chance that you would let me go. We recognize that you take a more passive and safe stance on topics like this and that is where I see the problem. To support the movement, but not do anything to actually make a difference is not actually supporting it. Especially because this movement is a battle against centuries of systemic racism, any and every thing that we do as individuals is essential to the fight. We can’t just sit back and watch what happens to the people who are risking their lives for this movement and say, “Wow, that’s a shame” while getting back to our lives. Can’t you see that if we do everything that we can we will see a future where people’s livelihoods will no longer be threatened by the very system that is meant to protect them?
A starting point is reflecting on your own prejudices against the black community. Historically, Asian communities hold anti-black sentiment and I have seen this from you first hand. This will make you uncomfortable to read, but it is true. I know that you will avoid the predominantly black neighborhoods because you’re afraid of how dangerous it could be. I know that you will quicken your pace as you walk by a black man. I know that you hold these prejudices whether you realize it or not. And I know you won’t discriminate against a black person intentionally, but this behavior has shown me that you do so unintentionally. So, within yourself is where you can start to make change. Read books, listen to podcasts, go online and learn about the experiences of people who don’t look like us. Just because we are also people of color, it will never mean that we understand what any black person faces on a daily basis. But we can do our part
and educate ourselves on how the system fails black and brown communities at a disproportionate rate so that we can inform our everyday decisions.
I know that you support the movement, but I’m asking you right now to reevaluate how you show that support. Recognize that it takes being uncomfortable to actually grow and change. If at any point reading this you felt offended or attacked, sit in that and ask yourself why that is. I don’t want you to focus on the various risks that using your voice can hold. I want you to see how valuable one person’s voice can be because when more people actually show up for the black community, our voices will be heard and changes will be made.
With a hopeful heart,
Christy is a Chinese American San Francisco native who loves to read, bake, and draw.
In early 2020, I spent 6 weeks in Asia. This was my first time there for such a long duration and I had no idea how drastically the world would change in a few months. As I wandered blissfully through Ho Chi Minh City, Bohol, Taipei, I felt something in me relax that I hadn’t realized I was holding so tightly.
Although I had grown up in a predominantly Asian community, I experienced a nasty culture shock when I moved to Boston for college. Boston was the first place where I was made to feel like an outsider, where “friends” made fun of the smell of my cooking and strangers on the street yelled “Konichiwa”. After graduating, I fled back to California but my new perspective on race endured. As I became a therapist, I started working in primarily black and brown communities where I was simultaneously accepted as another person of color and still held at arm’s length.
In Asia, there was a distinct sense of relief knowing that I wouldn’t be singled out for my black hair or almond-shaped eyes. Even in countries where I didn’t speak the language, I felt a sense of ease that was rare for me in the United States. How grateful I felt to be able to lay down the question that hung over so many of my interactions: “Are they treating me like this because I’m Asian?”
One day at a mall in Singapore, I came across a beautiful dark green jumpsuit that had a collar and sleeves just like a traditional qipao. I reached for it and then felt an internal stutter that stopped me in my tracks. Was it “too Asian”? Did I want to invite this kind of attention? Would I really wear this back in America?
A sequence of memories flashed through my mind:
trying hard not to be perceived as “fobby”
a constant feeling that I was missing some script at college
a mixture of shame and relief when I ended up with mostly Asian-American friends on campus.
Hypothetical futures also popped up: fielding comments about my outfit from maybe well-meaning but ignorant others, being exoticized by men, feeling out of place at some restaurant.
How deeply do we internalize racism? So many Asian-American clients come to me in distress at feeling not enough. They talk about getting feedback at work around needing to be more assertive. Men talk about being unwanted when they try to date. Somewhere along the way we become convinced that we are the problem, that if only we looked a certain way or acted differently, we would be accepted.
We deny parts of ourselves and our heritage in an attempt to “get it right” but the self-blaming doesn’t work either. The mental and emotional fatigue that comes from trying to fit into the dominant culture can be further compounded by the pressure and guilt to live up to our family’s different expectations.
A lot of my personal healing has happened at the intersection of my identities of being a woman, being a person of color, and being Asian-American. I have had to put in a lot of work around recognizing racist beliefs within me and trying to replace the narratives with something more joyful. At that time in 2020, I had just begun to let go of my fear of being pigeonholed professionally in order to accept that I found it especially meaningful to work with Asian-American clients.
It’s a work in progress.
It is challenging to find ways to follow my heart and honor my heritage, a process that is modeled all too rarely.
It is also deeply vulnerable to do so in public, such as by wearing this jumpsuit out and about.
That day I didn’t even try it on, making some excuse to myself about my budget.
As I continue to learn and grow, I hope that I can better embrace all of the parts of my identity. While the jumpsuit didn’t come home with me, the memory of it lingers, encouraging me to appreciate the inherent beauty found in all cultures, especially my own.
Naomi (she/her) is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (CA – LMFT#110092) and Registered Art Therapist (ATR) based in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland, OR. She is a psychotherapist with Anise Health. She also has a private practice and leads groups/workshops in corporate, nonprofit, and community settings. In addition, Naomi serves on the Advisory Circle for New Seneca Village, a nonprofit network offering restorative retreats for cis, trans and non-binary Black, Indigenous and women of color leaders.
Anise Health is the first culturally-responsive digital mental health platform offering therapy, coaching, and digital self-service tools that are tailored for the unique needs of communities of color. Our interventions move away from diagnosis-driven, Eurocentric models and towards incorporating culture and intersectionality into evidence-based treatments, which research shows to be 5x more effective.
Interested? Anise is available in California and is currently accepting Asian-identifying adults (ages 18+) and partners/family members as new clients. Get started by filling out the short intake form; you will be matched to culturally-responsive clinicians within 2 business days. If you identify with another community of color or reside in another state, sign up for the distribution list to be the first to know about upcoming launches!
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.
My life, as everyone’s life, is like a puzzle, full of wonder, challenges, beauty, and a work in progress.
Growing up in a transracial family from the age of 3 months in a predominately white town, I became accustomed to not looking like my parents and people being naïve enough to think my sister, who was also adopted from China though two years prior, and I were biologically related, even though we don’t look alike at all. As the youngest, I always felt like I needed to try harder, do better to be as good, smart, beautiful, athletic as my older sister. Our different body builds (she’s tall and thin, and I am short and stocky) and her natural talent at school and sports, in addition to already feeling like an imposter, living in a predominantly white community, being one of just a handful of people of color led me to a perpetual feeling of being an outsider and “not enough” growing up.
At a young age, I did not want too much to do with my culture. Sure the food and the traditions around the Lunar New Year were great, but I did not want to learn what would have been my native tongue if I were not adopted, and I did not want to partake in Chinese traditional dance. My sister, on the other hand, loved Chinese School and Chinese dance. As a result, I always felt like the rebellious child, the child who did not partake in what her parents expected of her and wanted from her.
What now remains from my own and societal preconceived notions, is that as an adult and a Chinese adoptee, not only do I feel the societal pressures of being an Asian American woman, but I also feel that at times I must work harder to prove myself to myself, my family, both my adoptive and unknown biological families, and the world.
However, I can fully express and work through these notions, in part because of a big piece of my life story puzzle: Chinese Heritage Camp, one of now 9 camps from Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families.
I do not remember the first time I went to camp as I was only three. However, what I do remember is that from a young age once I could remember what camp was and what it meant to myself and my family is this: every year when it was time to register for camp, it was pre-internet days at first, my sister and I would make sure my mom was able to fax in our registration first thing so there was no chance of being put on the waitlist.
I also remember driving up to camp in the mountains each year after school on a Friday, as Chinese Heritage Camp is over Labor Day weekend, and that feeling of excitement, happiness, and eagerness creeping into my belly as we passed landmarks along the way: the mountain pass, that Starbucks in a mountain town, the A frame sign on the side of the road, and finally the sign that read “Snow Mountain Ranch”, with each one telling me we were getting closer to our friends, community, and annual home over Labor Day weekend.
I remember stepping out of the car into the smell of fresh mountain air feeling embraced by love standing in the cool, crisp air and feeling excited as a little kid feels on Christmas morning.
I remember stepping into the Kiva (the main meeting place for camp) each year for the first time smiling ear to ear and looking around for the directors, the other campers, and most importantly the counselors (who were teens and young adult racial mirrors) some of whom would be assigned to my group for the weekend.
As time went by, I remember seeing the faces of dear friends and a community, stepping into the Kiva felt like stepping into a warm hug, both literally and figuratively, as many warm hugs usually presented themselves over the years.
I remember sitting on a big wall that separated the gym space and roller rink space with my friends just chatting, giggling, and feeling at peace in a place where we all felt like we belonged, because our families all were built the same way.
It was here, at Chinese Heritage camp that I was met with racial mirrors and role models, many of whom have become family to me.
It was here that I found out more about my heritage, the complexities of adoption, the importance of post-adoption services/ resources, and how important it is to recognize, celebrate, and look introspectively at these intersecting areas and aspects of my life.
Camp was full of other kids and families that looked like me and my own family from all over. There were so many Asians, mostly Chinese and Tawainese faces there. Throughout the weekend, I loved walking with my peers and counselors to workshops full of arts and crafts, food to cook, talks of adoption, and presenters who looked like me and knew about my own culture full of happiness to share their own experiences with us campers so that we could know and learn more about our own heritage. One of my favorite workshops, even to this day as my role at camp has come full circle with me being the counselor/ role model, is titled HeART Talks. In this workshop we always did some form of art that was about self expression, emotions, and/ or adoption. We always read a story together about adoption, and we always discussed what adoption meant to us and any feelings we had about adoption. HeART Talks has always been one of my favorites, because I always felt seen and like I belonged here, and as someone who tends to be more on the emotional side, I loved being able to express myself and share my emotions and story with others. I truly, and strongly, believe to this day that this workshop really helped lay the foundation for me understanding my own adoption story more and being able to cope and adjust into this strange, sometimes lonely world that we live in, especially during transition periods in my life, like going to college.
As I grew older, camp not only continued to feel like home for me, continuing to grow with excitement as we approached camp, but it became a place I realized I could also have an impact and be there for other adoptees. From evolving from camper to counselor to presenter to coordinator, I have truly become a part of camp, and camp has become a part of me in so many ways. I’ve seen how my own experience and bringing what I loved doing as a camper and child growing up in camp can be brought back and enjoyed by the next generation. I learned how important it is to have racial mirrors and people you can relate to with similar upbringings.
Growing up with this special place and community each year has allowed me to be innovative at different stages of my life. For example, when beginning college, camp allowed me to realize how passionate I felt about connecting with other adoptees and bringing awareness about adoption to others, and with my knowledge and experience at camp, I was able to create a student organization on campus so that adoptees in my new community, and others who wanted to be allies for adoptees or had connection to adoption, could have a safe place to go.
Furthermore, in my young adult years as a new professional, I was able to tap into my passion again for adoptees and those who have been separated from biological family by working on a project on children in the Foster Care System (Out-of-Home care) and how as healthcare providers we can do better for this community. If it weren’t for camp and the acceptance and vulnerability it has allowed me to express and experience regarding my own adoption journey, I am not sure I would have been so open or innovative in my later years. If it weren’t for camp, I don’t think I would be as passionate about finding and connecting to other adoptees or sharing my own story, because who knows how my processing about my own story would have changed. Lastly, through my own knowledge and experiences with camp, I have been able to serve as a role model for younger adoptees and be there for them, not only as an adoptee, but also as a person of color who grew up in a predominantly white community, went to a predominantly white college, and now works in a predominately white profession. Camp has allowed me to be there as a resource for other adoptees and also adoptive parents who are looking for more answers and connections for their own children.
For over 20 years now, Chinese Heritage Camp has been a part of me. It has watched me grow up into a confident, inspired, empowered young woman; it has watched me transition from camper to counselor to presenter to coordinator. Camp has given me opportunities to lead, reflect, and share with others. Camp has given me a place, both in the tangible and intangible sense, where my adoption story is just one of many, where I cannot only learn from others but teach others, a place where I can build upon life bonds and make new connections, a place where I will always feel comfortable crying to “Happy Adoption Day” and feel nostalgic for all the memories I had there growing up. Chinese Heritage Camp knows so much about me, more than I likely even realize.
Chinese Heritage Camp has given me life, love, happiness, and a place to soul search and discover myself and where I can help the next generation do the same. Chinese Heritage Camp is, and always will be, a piece of my puzzle and heart, and without it in my life all these years, I would not feel complete.
Emily Quinn (she/her/hers) is a transracial, Chinese adoptee who was adopted at 3 months of age from Zhejiang Province and identifies as pansexual/queer. Emily grew up in Colorado, and she currently works as a pediatric physical therapist. Emily is passionate about connecting with other adoptees of all ages, and her own journey as a transracial adoptee has made her passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, including fighting for social justice for all people. She continues to volunteer with Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families, especially the Chinese Heritage Camp, and she enjoys rock climbing, being outdoors, spending time with family, and working on acts of self-care and self-kindness in her free time.
Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families serves as a post-adoption resource and advocate for children, adults, and families with diverse heritages. They focus on supporting international and domestic adoptive families, including adopted children, parents, non-adopted siblings, and extended family. Learn more about their work at https://www.heritagecamps.org/