I was born in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood.  My family stayed mostly to itself.  I remember experiencing racism at an early age but not really understanding it.  Mostly vandalism and theft.  Both of my parents were wealthy in Vietnam, but the Communists took everything from them.  My mom lived in a 2br trailer home with six other people.  My dad worked hard, at one point he worked seven days a week, double shifts as an engineer for a year and a half.  The only time I would see him would be when my mom would take me up to the plant to have lunch with him.  My mom was in nursing school and often would have to take me to class with her.  I would usually just play by myself in the lobby.  I learned to amuse myself.

When I was five, my parents had officially entered the middle class.  We moved into a pretty nice home in a small redneck town.   Looking back on it, I remember being occasionally treated differently, but not understanding it.  I was a person, like you, like them, why did some kids say mean things to me?  It wasn’t egregious, but I did get punched in the face once.  It was broken up quick.  Not everyone was mean though, my saint of a third grade teacher told me she specifically picked me to be in her class and asked if I knew why?  I didn’t.  Was it because I was smart? My fourth grade teacher, however was the complete opposite.  She would mark things wrong that I knew were right.  I was always in time out.  I once got sent into the hallway for detention because I laughed during a pizza party.  Everyone else was laughing, it didn’t make any sense.  I used to have to bus to another school a few times a week for this gifted and talented program.  One day I was marked absent because I was late and went straight onto the second bus.  My mom called the school worried sick, thinking I was kidnapped.  That same miserable teacher told my mom she had no idea where I was.  I saw her.  I saw her see me.  We made eye contact and I waved.  She didn’t wave back, just grimaced.

Middle school.  Middle school was when I became acutely aware of my race.  I get it now.  I’m the one of three Asians in the entire school.  That’s when they learned to formulate their hatred into words, into slurs.  Not everyone mind you, but enough.  It wasn’t the only reason why I didn’t fit in.  My parents wanted me to respect the power of money, because they had seen what happens when it’s all taken away from you.  They purposefully didn’t let me have name brand clothes.  My clothes didn’t fit me right.  They were too short, too long, out of style, just… wrong.  My skin already made me stand out, why did they have to make it worse?  It was because they hated me, wasn’t it?  Why won’t you just let me fit in?

In high school I started to internalize their hate, their racism.  I started to believe the words they said to me.  I was a late bloomer, I was always close to the smallest and shortest kid in the class.  I definitely wasn’t athletic. I blamed it all on my race.  I wanted to be one of them.  I wanted to be tall, stronger, faster, but most importantly, I just wanted to belong.  When I finally hit puberty, I started to learn how to fight.  I’m 5’9 (and a half!) so maybe not tall, but no longer a runt.  I got into a little bit of trouble.  As I started to claim my independence, my parents fought to tighten the reigns.  Typical generational problems.  They moved me to Houston my senior year to a rich all white high school.  I got in six fights in the first three weeks.  I moved out of my home before the end of my senior year. 

Houston had a pretty large Asian population though.  I really started to connect with Asians in my late teens / early 20’s.  I had finally found my people and they accepted me.  The end.  I wish.  White people would often comment on my race, while Asians would constantly let me know I was too white.  I dressed different, I talked different, I dated different, I made plenty of friends, but I was always made aware that no matter what, I wasn’t the same.  It would frustrate me and I always found myself constantly shifting my personality.  I became adapt at code switching. 

There isn’t really a defining moment that helped me finally accept myself.  It was a culmination of a thousand minor interactions that slowly let me realize that I was just me.  I am proudly Asian.  I am the product of proud immigrant parents that could not understand me.  I am the son of two parents who toiled and gave their all and loved me through discipline and in the same language they were taught.  I never agreed, but as I grew older I came to understand.  I wish there was some fairy tale meaning to this story, but every one of us will build our own identity.  Mine became strongest when I stopped trying to mold myself into other people’s constructs of what my identity should be.  When I look back on my life, I was a distinctly different person during each stage of development.  It’s so hard to imagine who you will be when you’re trapped in the moment, but every experience, good or bad, has shaped me into the person I am today.  I am unapologetically me.  And I hope that one day you can be too.

Asian Mental Health Collective