Coming of Age in This American Life

photo-1432837600650-e430234b632aI.

As a girl, I learned about racism from my white father. He taught me it was evil which was the exact opposite of his upbringing where racism was as natural as a Carolinian drawl and black eyed peas with salty cured ham hocks and collard greens. 

His blonde haired blue-eyed roots were soaked in white supremacy, fertilized by poverty and lack of education, deep south segregation, and his mother telling him not to come home if he ever got caught playing with a n*$#@!% kid again. His kin found comfort in the promise that no matter how poor and wrong sides of the tracks his bloodlines were, at least they weren’t like those blacks. 

He was a dirt poor South Carolina boy who filled his jaw with a hunger for more than his childhood could provide. For some reason hating never came easy to him. He choked on it more than he swallowed it whole. 

So just as he taught me to eat fried okra and salted grits with a yellow pat of butter melting in the center and sprinkled liberally with black pepper, he also taught me about the evils of a hating heart. 

I grew up hearing stories of his childhood with a mix of horror and fascination. I believed racism was black and white and mostly over. I believed in the courage and cost of the Civil Rights Movement. 

They had fought the good fight and won. 

I believed white supremacy was good ol’ boys in white hoods, ignorant individuals filled with hate and draped in confederate flags. It was slavery and Jim Crow, it was unjust laws no longer on the books. 

It was like that back then, but I believed we’d learned our lessons and moved on as a country.

As a girl, I learned about racism from my half Japanese-half Korean mother. She taught me about the Japanese Americans interned in their own country. Roots pulled from their homes and gardens and tossed aside wilting and strangled in Manzanar and Tule Lake by their own government.  To white Americans they were seen as suspicious foreigners whose allegiances could never be assured because of their strange looks and shifty eyes, traces of a mother tongue, or chopsticks tapping against the side of their rice bowls like some sort of treacherous morse code. 

I learned by the slant of our eyes or the curves of our faces we are plagued by otherness.

My mother taught me to eat kimchi and spam, bulgogi and kalbi and saimin with slices of pink and white kamaboko fish cake layered and sprinkled with the tips of green onion. Panko fried chicken sliced over a bed of cabbage and drizzled with Tonkatsu sauce. We celebrated with blue and white asian bowls filled with steaming mandu soup and bibim guksu on New Years Eve. But we also barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs on the fourth of July and ate hot buttered corn on the cob alongside plastic tubs of store bought potato salad waiting for the adults to help us light Black Cats and Roman Candles.

We lived in the suburbs, we were as American as they come. Just as American as those who had been interned. Just as American as those that had been enslaved and oppressed. 

I believed we had learned our lesson and moved on as a country. 

I lit my sparkler and watched it light up the blackest night.

II.

We’d call cute boys while nervously winding the loops of the cord around our fingers as we giggled and whispered to each other what to say. Going out with a boy meant passing a note in class with, “Will you go out with me?” in loopy cursive and a check box with yes, no, maybe. And if he checked yes, it meant next to nothing until someone dramatically broke up by having a friend say it’s not working out, at which point you’d cry about love and broken hearts. 

We’d convene an emergency sleepover and listen to Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love But It’s Over Now from the mixed tape we made by sitting next to our stereo until the song came on the radio and then frantically pushing play/record hoping we didn’t miss the beginning. 

We’d scoop Noxzema from the blue jar and slather it over our faces like we were icing a cake. We’d inspect our zits in the mirror and open up our Caboodles to trade Bonne Bell Lipsmackers in strawberry and cherry cola. 

We’d ransack cupboards eating Lays potato chips and pepperoni hot pockets. We listened to Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, while dreaming of which New Kid on the Block we’d marry. We watched MTV when our parent’s weren’t home. We imagined what it would be like to get our first kiss. 

We flipped though Seventeen magazine and admired the model’s hairstyles and makeup. Nikki and Krissi Taylor stared back with their signature all-American good looks. All blonde hair, sun kissed skin and dazzling white teeth. 

I never felt more white than when I was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. I was just another American kid growing up in the early 90’s. 

Except I wasn’t. 

My mother told me I was beautiful. I was lucky I had double eyelids she said as she bemoaned her own smooth creaseless skin and remembered her classmates folding their monolids under eyelid tape to create a coveted double lid. I never thought to ask why she despised her own beautiful face. And when people would say I looked just like her, I wondered if she had lied to me about my beauty because there was no one in Seventeen or on television that looked even remotely like me. I never wondered why monolids made someone’s reflection seem so terrible, I just assumed it must be true.

III.

Life was technicolor and coming of age in a colorblind society was what we did in those days. Nothing said coming of age like John Hughes’ movies. 

I wasn’t allowed to watch Dirty Dancing so I rooted for Molly Ringwald instead. We all wanted to be like her because she always got the guy and the pink dress and the kiss. 

Her angst and awkwardness spoke to our place in the world, our sense of belonging in the hierarchy of tweenage-dom. She was the poster girl for girls like me, who struggled to fit into any one group, who were moody and sensitive and so misunderstood. Who wanted to be popular but didn’t want to sell out for it because of some deep moral code. 

And when life felt complicated you could always count on the classifications to find and define yourself. Segregation existed only between the jocks, the nerds, the preppies, the rich kids, and the stoners. 

But Molly Ringwald could transcend them all and unite us.

As Andie in Pretty in Pink, she’s a poor girl who risks exposing her heart for the chance to be with one of the “richies.” Class is easily divided by the haves and have nots with the poor kids having a depth and sophistication the rich kids lacked. She made poor cool. But in the end, prom and a signature thrifted pink dress bridge the chasm. She snags the rich kid after all. 

In The Breakfast Club, she’s Claire, the rich and spoiled preppy princess who steals the heart of the wrong side of the tracks stoner boy while vulnerably confessing the pressures of being popular. She is every girl who felt she had to perform to make people like her. She made us want to pull out our diamond stud earrings (if we had those) and chuck them at the world’s ideals. 

In Sixteen Candles, she is Sam, the awkward lovestruck birthday girl who hopelessly crushes on the cool jock who then dumps the head cheerleader for her. The culmination of this is yet another pink dress and a birthday cake in the iconic last scene that left all the girls wishing Jake Ryan would notice us too. 

We could be ourselves and maybe just maybe, that would be enough. Maybe someone would celebrate us too? 

Except regardless of Ringwald’s performances as the quirky underdog or the stiffled socialite, these plots were only available to girls with skin as perfect and white as my Keds. 

The only Asian presence in those movies was Long Duk Dong, the Chinese foreign exchange student in Sixteen Candles, whose problematic performance left Asians cringing, stereotyped, and feeling like they had to distance themselves from FOB Asians or suffer the consequences of social suicide. Because while Molly Ringwald’s characters could navigate the minefield of high school social circles, Long Duk Dong could not. 

He is introduced as other from the first bang of the gong and waggle of his eyebrows, his stilted English forever changing the high school experience for many Asian American males growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Asian boys were nicknamed, “The Donger,” and taunted with, “Hey, sexy gurr-friend,” and “the dongah needs food-ah,” in the halls. 

And as I sat with my girlfriends watching the laugh track swell with every awkward stereotype, I laughed right along. Because I didn’t want to be other like that. I didn’t want to be seen as foreign and ridiculous. 

Because “other-ness” is something that Asian-Americans understand. We are always othered, even if we are born in America. We’re asked where we’re really from and what we are. We are congratulated on our English even if that’s our first and only language. We are mistaken for the other Asians because, people joke, we all look alike. Asian women are fetishized, while Asian men are emasculated. 

We don’t win Oscars or get roles, even roles playing Asian characters. And if there are Asian roles and they resist casting Scarlett Johansson or Emma Stone, they’re often stereotypical and play directly into tired and overused tropes. 

We don’t write books or get published. We don’t have voices that matter. I was 12 before I ever read a book with an Asian American character in it. 

We don’t have stories worth hearing, because when you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. 

After all, we are all the same, right?  

They expect us to keep quiet, study hard in school and get good grades in math and science so we can make our Tiger moms proud. 

But the normative experience, the default, the factory settings are white, white, white—if for no other reason than the sheer abundance of options. 

With whiteness we do not have the danger of a single story because white is seen as varied and nuanced and individual. White people get to be whole people. 

I am a multi-racial Asian American woman who has always felt like two halves of something that didn’t quiet add up to a whole. 

Coming of age in a world where there was no language for white supremacy in the suburbs, far from white hooded men and burning crosses, left so many of us feeling like we didn’t fit but without the words to explain why. Without the framework for how insidious white supremacy truly is and how it systematically presents a false narrative about what is normal, what is valuable, and what is true, we are left with a vague feeling that something is off but not quite sure how to fix it. 

It is internalized racism. The low hanging fruit of white supremacy. 

I grew up thinking it was just me who was called ching chong china girl in a sing-songy voice while kids pulled their eyes into slits. I thought it was just me who had to do a paper on Connie Chung for Who I Admired Most instead of my coveted Molly Ringwald. I thought it was just me who could never make eyeshadow work from the wide-eyed tutorials in the glossy magazines. I thought it was just me who heard the gong bang and knew I shouldn’t be laughing. 

We called it bullying and kids will be kids, we called it ‘just a joke’ and ‘don’t take yourself so seriously.’ We called it colorblindness and yet without being able to see colors we were like a screen before technicolor, with black or white our only options.

As an Asian American woman, I didn’t know white supremacy affected and infected me. 

I came of age in the golden era of white supremacy, when so many of us didn’t even know it still existed. Maybe some of us still don’t know. So I’m naming it and telling my story if for no other reason than to offer another voice, a language for our scars and for our healing, a path towards spitting out spoiled and rotten fruit and planting new seeds.

As a multi-racial Asian American girl coming of age in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I didn’t fit. Not just in the white cotton training bras but in American life. We hadn’t learned our lessons and moved on as a country.

I didn’t know I was growing up with roots dug down deep in this American life, a life where white supremacy is as common as apple pie and fireworks on the 4th of July.

Alia Joy

Alia Joy is a storyteller, speaker, and homeschooling mother of three making her home in Central Oregon. She shares her story in broken bits and pieces on her blog and finds community where other’s stories intersect. She's a cynical idealist who is always trying to find the beautiful bits in the midst of the messy and broken. She believes even the most broken stories have a redeemer and she'll always dance to the good songs. She is a regular contributor at (in)courage, SheLoves, The Mudroom, and Deeper Waters and can be found on twitter hashtagging all the things, drinking copious amounts of coffee, and making goo-goo eyes at her husband.

Latest posts by Alia Joy (see all)