Expat-Asian-American-identity-by-Frankie-Huang-min-Color

Asian American identity beyond Asian and American

Does Asian American identity remain intact when one ventures beyond Asia and America?

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Words by Vivian Ho

One of the corny little things I used to love about traveling internationally was that moment upon return when the US customs agent hands back your passport and says, “Welcome home.”

My white husband never understood my glee over those two words—after all, they likely marked the end of a vacation. He, like most white Americans, never really registered that greeting until I pointed it out. But honestly, it wasn’t until we moved to London this year—and I realized that “welcome home” would no longer apply to me—that I came to understand the significance of those words. 

The thing with being Asian American is that you’re American until they say you’re not. We are the perpetual foreigners, the spies in academia, the smelly lunchbox story when you’re a kid. We’re the “but where are you from, really?” questions at dinner parties, the “me love you long time” cat calls in the streets, and the mock slant-eyed “ching-chong” slur screamed in passing.

We often conflate whiteness with Americanness. I used to joke that I didn’t “come out” as fully Asian until I moved to the West Coast, as if the color of my skin was not something that encompassed my every being everywhere I would go. Like so many other Asian Americans who grew up in predominantly white settings, I did what I could to make my identity smaller, choking down dry turkey sandwiches to fit in when being different felt like social suicide.  

Yet what I find more and more is that wherever I travel, the sheen of America clings to my skin even more than my race, like an overly rich moisturizer refusing to saturate into the surface. Strangers my mother would introduce me to in Taiwan would sniff and say, “American?”—even before I opened my mouth. “You ABC?” the old aunties I used to interview in San Francisco’s Chinatown would ask me—American-born Chinese. If being American is my birthright as a child born on American soil, this is like the sticky afterbirth that won’t wash off.

When people ask me here, in my new home of London, where I’m from, it’s still jarring for me to know that they don’t mean Taiwan—a country I’ve visited only twice, but from where my parents immigrated to the United States 37 years ago. When they hear my American accent, they perceive whatever cocksure aura that Americans give off, and they give the American more weight than they give the Asian. My husband and I took a mini holiday to Lisbon, and when we told the waitress we were from London, she immediately responded, “No, you’re not.” To people in my new home, I am so obnoxiously American that it’s without question at a certain point—they’re just politely putting me in my place.      

The thing I’ve come to learn about the Asian American experience in my short time away from the US is that we are told we are not American for so long that we begin to believe it. 

When we first started discussing our move to London, my husband brought up the possibility of staying long enough for both of us to get residency status, so that any children we had could then be eligible for dual citizenship. 

That gave me pause more than anything when it came to uprooting my life and career of the past decade. “I just always thought our kids would be American,” I said. He looked at me strangely. “They still would be, because of us,” he said. “They’d just also be British.”

My sister had given birth to my niece just before we moved, and I watched my Taiwanese immigrant parents become wai-po and wai-gong to an American little girl with a Jewish last name. My sister and I were now no longer the only ones in our entire family to be born in the United States—my family was now officially into our third generation: the American Dream realized. 

“I just feel like my parents worked so hard to make sure we would be American,” I told my husband. “This feels like I’m spitting in the face of all their efforts.”

Later, I understood it was not my parents’ efforts that I thought about, but my own. I had worked so hard to make sure that I would be considered American—those damn turkey sandwiches. And now what am I? The truth is what really gave me pause when it came to the citizenship of my future children is that a piece of me doubts I would be enough to make any child born of me American. All it takes for a child born in a foreign country to get American citizenship is that one parent is an American citizen. My future children would have two. Yet how American can I be if people who look like me still get told to go back from where they came? Is my American passport, and paying American taxes for the rest of my life, really enough to make any child of mine American? 

Many Asian Americans debate the Asian American identity with the same ferocity that we fight over the bill at the restaurant. I realize now that we do so because far too often, we are seen only as one or the other: Asian or American. Foreigner or citizen. Rejection or acceptance.

So we combined Asian and American and shoved hundreds of different cultures and ethnicities under that umbrella so that we could claim belonging, even belonging with the asterisks of a modifier in front of the word American. In doing so, however, we added a third aspect to our already complicated being: We are Asian. We are American. We are Asian American.

Now in a new country, far from family and community, I feel like a rudderless ship out at sea. Here, I am not Asian. I am not Asian American. Here I’m classified as ethnically Chinese, but I’m ABC, raised on Wonder Bread and Chinglish and orange chicken. I don’t belong with them. I am an unclassified anomaly.  

A piece of me doesn’t feel American enough to traverse beyond the country of my birth and be able to retain my Americanness, despite the citizenship I claim. A piece of me still jolted when they would recognize my citizenship at immigration, and tell me, “Welcome home.” But here, in this new country, in this new place that I am working to make my home, I’ve learned that I do not know how to be Asian without being American.

One night in London’s Chinatown, my husband and I wandered from restaurant to restaurant, hunger gnawing at our bellies as we tried to pick the right one. There’s always this weird extra pressure for an Asian person to deliver on good Asian food. Nobody gets mad when the white guy chooses a third-rate Macaroni Grill, but you’re a bad Asian if you can’t find a good Asian restaurant, no matter if you’re Chinese, Japanese or Korean.

A woman handed us a menu outside one place that she said “had the best deals” in town. “You look Asian,” she ventured cautiously. I didn’t know what to say. “Taiwan,” I replied, and when she responded with enthusiastic noises, I hurried to add, “My parents are from Taiwan.” 

She reiterated what she said before, about the restaurant having the best deals in town—but this time she said it to me in Mandarin. I felt my eyes well up with tears. With my Chinglish, I couldn’t really respond, but I followed her into the warmth of the restaurant…

The food was shit. 

Later, as my husband picked at our gummy, thick-skinned xiao long baos and inedibly salty, soy-drenched crispy pork, he asked if I had chosen this restaurant only because the woman had spoken to me in Mandarin. “You wouldn’t understand,” I said. But he did, and I did. I had gotten suckered so easily. But after months of being seen as American first and Asian second, it felt like a light electric jolt to my chest to have someone recognize the rest of my identity—for someone to see the flip side of the coin, the Asian without the necessary modifier of the Asian American.

Privilege has followed me every step of the way along my immigration journey to the United Kingdom. My parents will always be referred to as immigrants, but here, they call me an expat. I look at the “expats” that came before me though, and I feel like I’m doing it all wrong. Expats like Gertrude Stein could blithely declare “America is my country, but Paris is my hometown” while I find myself contemplating my racial identity with a sense of betrayal each time I think of London as home.   

Perhaps this is just what it means to be part of the diaspora. I remember asking my father once whether he still dreamed in Taiwanese or Mandarin, or if he dreamed in English, and he was shocked to realize that it was English. It makes sense—he’s now lived in the United States longer than he’s lived in Taiwan. But I felt so sad when he told me that, for reasons I could not explain until later. 

I understand now that I felt sad because it was as if he belonged nowhere anymore—the ties to his homeland fading, the connection to his new country arbitrarily based on how xenophobic the tenor of the moment was. I hear echoes of that same sadness in my current identity struggles. Yet when I think of my loved ones, I recognize the undue pessimism of this line of thinking. My parents are both American citizens with American daughters and now an American granddaughter. Their citizenship and sense of belonging have nothing to do with the nearest bigot’s opinion.

When I confessed to my mother my identity issues, as she prepared dinner in my sister’s kitchen just before the holidays, she responded with her usual bright optimism. “When you have so many faces,” she said, “you can belong anywhere you want.”

My immediate response was anger. Did you not hear me, mama? We belong nowhere. But later, much later, I realized she was imparting to me the secret of belonging to the diaspora. It’s a choice. It’s always been a choice: somewhere or nowhere. It was a choice for my parents, decades ago, just as it will be my choice to find where I belong now, far from Asian America. 

 We create our own homeland wherever we go, regardless of country borders or citizenship. Home is where we carry it. 

Published on April 27, 2022

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Words by Vivian Ho

Vivian Ho is a freelance journalist based in London. She previously worked for the Guardian US and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of “Those Who Wander: America’s Lost Street Kids.” She will pet your dog if you let her. Find her on Twitter at @VivianHo

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Art by Frankie Huang

Frankie Huang is a culture writer, editor and illustrator. She proudly descends from a long line of stubborn, bossy women. Follow her on Twitter @ourobororoboruo