Lunch was probably my least favorite part of elementary school.
Now don’t get me wrong, I wanted a break from school as much as everyone else. When asked what my favorite class in school was, I would always cheekily respond with “Recess.” Yet, without fail, five minutes before the bell would signal the end of fourth period, a knot in my stomach would begin to form.
During school, I felt like all my other classmates. We all took the same classes, we all struggled over the same homework, and we all played the same games. But once lunch started, the comfort would disappear. My friends would happily munch away at their pizza and Lunchables. On the other hand, I would bring a Tupperware filled to the brim with Chinese food that my mother would wrap in two layers of towels (lest the product of her love would become cold by 12:35). It’s not that I didn’t like my mom’s cooking. In fact, I loved it, but it always drew attention. Some of my classmates would be interested in my food and others would move far away from me because “it smelled weird.” Many lunch periods found me wishing for a PB&J sandwich instead of char-siu. I tried so hard to convince my mom to pack me other things so I could better assimilate. When we went grocery shopping, I would run to the cold foods and grab the Lunchables stackers and plead my mom to let me buy them. She would always just laugh, shake her head and force me to put it back, telling me it wasn’t worth the price tag. Despite my valiant efforts, lunchtime made it abundantly clear that I didn’t fit in with my non-Asian friends. I was different.
Looking back, lots of things have changed. Authentic ethnic food is in. My middle-school-aged sister tells me that her friends clamor over and try to steal her lunch. Despite all the cultural progress, however, my feelings of being different haven’t faded much. Looking at mainstream culture, I rarely find a face with which I can identify. Yet, at the same time, I do not relate to my Asian heritage. The ancient practices and conservative beliefs have little relevance to me. My friends say I’m too Asian, but my family thinks I’m too American. Ming-na Wen, an actress on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., understood it best, saying, “Growing up as an Asian American in this society, there were a lot of times where you feel isolated or out of place as an Asian. And growing up in White America, that’s absolutely my experience. And I think that’s why I got into acting because I wanted to be anybody else but Asian.”
Recently, I visited the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) located in New York City’s Chinatown, mainly to tag along with a friend who was doing a project about Asian American identity. I didn’t know what to expect, but going there shocked me. I had never been to a place that actively focused on the culture and history of Asian America. Although I learned so much about American history in class, I was amazed that I knew so little about my ethnic identity and history as an Asian American. In fact, I had heard of very few of the people and events highlighted by the museum. Yet, as I moved through the exhibits and learned what my history textbooks conveniently ignored, I realized that my generation and I weren’t the first to feel excluded from society. I actually started seeing even more of myself and my struggles projected throughout Asian American communities of all generations.
I saw the optimism and hope that the first immigrants had when they arrived in the 19th century. I saw how yellow peril and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 declared these Asian Americans undesirable and excluded by society at large. I saw how immigrants adapted by owning laundromats and creating Chop Suey and other forms of americanized Chinese food to survive in a country that did not want them to succeed. I saw how attitudes changed when Americans tried to prove they were not racist during the Jim Crow era by promoting Asians as a “model minority” when, in truth, nothing had changed. I saw how Asian Americans have struggled to prove we aren’t just nerds or geeks, but ultimately a people with a long and storied history, as American as any who live in this country.
When I left the MOCA that day, I left feeling connected to a heritage I didn’t know existed before. There were Asian Americans who, like me, immigrated and struggled with their ethnic identity too, yet made a huge impact on America. I come from a long lineage of people, which include the hardworking people who built the transcontinental railroad, the artistic ones who made pioneering achievements in art and film, the Nobel laureates who have made incredible discoveries in physics and chemistry and the social justice activists who worked side by side with revolutionaries like Malcolm X. Asian Americans not only belong in this country, but, like every other race, religion and creed, the very existence of Asians in America makes America a better place.
In future pieces, I hope to more deeply explore the conflicts between being both Asian and American. To be able to examine the impact history, culture, religion and media have had on Asian Americans, the problems that are faced within the communities and finally their contribution to the world. I also want to be able to share my thoughts and feelings as a member of this community who is slowly becoming more in touch with his heritage. No longer the fifth-grade kid who would be ashamed of the beef noodle soup his mom patiently made for him. Rather, someone who understands that there are differences between him and his friends, and that those differences aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, these ultimately make up his identity, an identity that he should never be ashamed of. He sits upon a culture and history that has changed America and the world.
And besides, why would you ever want to give up a hot bowl of beef noodle soup?