Coming of Age in This American Life


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.


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.


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
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46 thoughts on “Coming of Age in This American Life

  1. So good! nailed it! I would like to think a new day is dawning that rips back that curtain of xenophobic blindness that has so deeply and insidiously hidden and rooted in our hearts.

    • I believe for a better future for our children but it takes a lot of work, we’re certainly not there yet. But yes, rooting it from our own hearts is such a huge step.

      • I love the work I see Tasha Morrison doing in forging a bold path of bridge building and initiating the hard conversations. I want to be among those who do this! Such beauty and power of all the peoples, the kingdom come!

  2. Alia Joy, from researching my ethnic background(s) for a class I was taking, I went back five generations, or until I could find when they came to North America, and the reasons why they immigrated here. The reasons why my ancestors came to North America, (US and Canada) was because they were experiencing ethnic racism, class differences which lack the ability to earn a living, live in safe housing, stay warm without stealing from the landlord, feed their family, move to a new village without government interference, and have freedom of religion. They came here, and lived in situations I don’t know if I could withstand. But they still experienced ethnic racism. Going back four generations on my father’s side, this grandfather changed his last name to Americanize it so he could have more opportunities…..It was in Europe and continued here. I experienced it growing up and I am caucasian, I was the wrong background, and spoke English….not to the extent where we didn’t have opportunities, but were excluded by the community, and my parents farmed there for 20 years. What will stop this fear, hatred, prejudice, ignorance, violence, discrimination? As Nancy Roe said, the xenophobic blindness is deeply and insidiously, and sometimes blatantly hidden and rooted in our hearts. I pray it stops in this generation.

    • Yes, this is my prayer too. It’s a lot to dig into and I won’t claim to be an expert. I read and I listen and I try to learn. I tell my story as I feel called but there are no easy answers here. Whiteness as a construct has been fluid over the generations. There was a time Italians, and Irish and Jews were discriminated against heavily here. Over time, the definition and inclusion of whiteness spread and now encompasses those racial identities as well. So maybe we need to consider “whiteness” in it’s inclusive and exclusive forms a construct created by man for the purpose of oppression and othering and to see how society has used it to privilege some and oppress others. The power structure might change in varying degrees but it’s purpose and intent never have.

    • Thank you for being with me here, for engaging these topics and conversations, and for making room to shift things around. Would that we all be willing to skooch things over and make space to expand.

  3. Alia Joy, thank you so much for telling part of your story. When I was growing up I didn’t even know what white supremacy was, even though I was a white girl growing up in the south in the fifties and sixties. I think I was just naive and in my own little world. As I look back now, I see there was so much I missed. I do remember getting very angry when some men in our church were against the integration of black people in the church. The church eventually split. I also remember one of my best friends was Japanese. I just pray now that our country would wake up and especially those of us who call ourselves Christians. When will we realize that all human beings are created in the image of God no matter what their color, race, etc. Many blessings to you, Alia Joy, and much love! xo

    • Thank you Gayl. My father’s life was intense and filled with abuse and violence and neglect. He got away from there as soon as he could but looking back, I think he felt a pity and sadness for how lost his mother was. She didn’t know any better. She was poor and illiterate and the only pride she could hold onto in her mind was being better than black people. I think for all we’ve changed, we also haven’t much. It’s gone more underground but it erupts every now and again like we’ve seen with Trump and we realize it was there festering under the surface all along. I pray we’ll fall on our faces before an Almighty God and repent for all the ways we’ve devastated each other while claiming to love Jesus most. Maybe then we’d find our way back to the heart of God’s justice and love for his people.

  4. I had black and Hispanic friends as a child and I get along with everyone as much as possible. I encouraged the children at the day care to color different skin tones. I’m from the south, I get the grits. We don’t all have to like the same food or clothes or hairstyles, but shouldn’t we love each other, if we love the same God? We all have the same color blood and it takes Jesus to cover us.

    • Yes, and I don’t even know if it’s so much about being kind or loving each other, although we absolutely must as a minimum because we’re called to. It’s more, what does loving a person of color look like?

      And we do all have diverse tastes and hairstyles. But those are things we choose. Race is not. I think it’s more like your comment about skin tones. When flesh color is automatically peachy beige as packaged by Crayola. Only later did they introduce a pack of “flesh” colors that had different hues. Or nude in makeup or pantyhose automatically being beige by default. Flesh colored band-aids still only blend into white skin.

      There is a default we have in society and it bends towards whiteness. There are countless examples where whiteness is the default, the ideal, the status quo. For those of us outside of those divisions, it’s felt intrinsically as either being intentionally left out, being unseen, or being less than. That invisibility and lack of recognition or representation absolutely affects children and even adults. It also affects white people because they’ve not learned to see the areas in society they are naturally advantaged and it creates tension. They often can’t understand why Christian people of color are making a fuss and why we can’t all just have peace and get along under the blanket name of Jesus.

      But that’s like saying peace, peace, where there is no peace. We are tasked to be peacemakers, not peacekeepers. There’s a huge difference. Jesus was always pointing out uncomfortable things in favor of marginalized people being seen in their full personhood as bearers of God’s image. So we should be for establishing shalom and peace but that often takes pointing out inequalities and making a fuss. Because as it stands now, there are many unjust places that go beyond crayons, places among us where the mantle of white supremacy and all it’s fruit is literally taking lives.

      There are so many layers to this and while personal accountability is a huge first step to examine our own implicit biases with humility, we are also called to do justice as God’s people, and to love mercy which is less about all getting along and more about removing areas of society that disadvantages one color over another. Or privileges one color over another. It is about tearing down systemic problems where the roots are buried and planting new life together.

      Thanks for reading here, Rebecca, and for joining in this conversation. And yes to the good Southern grits any day. 😉

  5. As always, thank you for your courage, Alia. Thank you for sharing this part of your story. 🙂

    • Thanks for reading, Kristi. These are always the scariest stories for me to tell.

  6. I love you so and I am always blessed by the gift of your words! I know how much they can cost you, friend, and I am ever thankful that you take the risk and pay the price! As much as we are different… and we are -and I think that is often what is lost –at least on us who are white and oblivious, if we are truthful… we are similar, too! I pray we all learn to recognize and celebrate and learn from both our differences and our alikenesses! (I make up words. It’s fine!) And also there is this: we must plan a face to face somehow soonish!

    • Yes, give us the diverse church God created to be a light in the world and let us learn to truly see and value each other as both kindred and contrasting. How will the world know the value of all of God’s creation if we don’t treasure that in our hearts as well? I am a maker-upper of words too, as you know. #solidarity. My mom’s health and a bunch of other things have limited my travel plans so face to face would be amazing but I’m pretty grounded here in Central Oregon this summer. Long rambling voxer convo instead?

      • As if you need to ask! Long rambling voxer convo’s are my favorite! (Well, at least a runner up to face to face!) I’ve been meaning to check in and see how Mom is doing? I just need to string at least 3 or 4 days together and I can drive to Central Oregon easy peasy! 😉

    • Thank you for being here with me. Thank you for always listening.

  7. “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. ”

    This really stood out to me – that so many see racism in terms of rights (to jobs, to not be imprisoned, free movement, marriage etc). It’s harder to explain how racism affects people insidiously, to communicate that you are not truly a whole person unless you are white. This is the clearest explanation I’ve ever seen, and I found it really helpful. Thank you. And OH BOY – your writing. It is so good. I love your words.

    • Thank you Tanya. Yes, it was such an awakening for me as well. Because I thought of it in such black and white terms. I thought of it framed as only slavery, apartheid, or civil rights, so racism was something that could be quantifiably measured by the changes in laws etc. and racists were only those who opposed equality in some overt manner. But to realize that we all have intrinsic value judgments and implicit biases formed from years of being showed how white is normative and the default finally gave me language for all those feelings growing up and it helped me see how we can have a country soaked in racism and white supremacy all the while having good people who don’t think themselves affected. And it helped me see areas in my own life where this value then determined my own standards. I’m so thankful for the posts this month here at The Mudroom. I’ve loved listening and learning from so many varied (non-white) experiences. I didn’t even know how much I needed to hear those voices.

  8. This is powerful and necessary truth-telling here, Alia. Thank you.

  9. I tried to comment the other day from my phone, but always have trouble with Disqus comments there. Blah. It was important enough for me to come back though. Thank you for this post Alia. I recognized so much of my childhood and adolescence in your words and yet also so little. I appreciate your learning process being as much in the present as you’re looking back and learning what was harder for you to see then. (Can I call that ‘backwards learning’? (smile)) I know writing about these issues isn’t easy, but it is important. You’re helping so many of us see how we need some present and backwards learning, too… So that we can keep learning into the future. I’m so glad times have changed since we were kids and I have great hope that as we continue to have revelation surrounding this issues, our kids and their friends and the generations to follow will be better for it. Obviously we still have a long way to go, but there’s great hope, isn’t there? So grateful for that. Thanks for leading out. x

    • Thanks for making your way back over here to talk to me. I hate leaving comments on my phone too. If the typos don’t make me look like an idiot, then getting logged out or losing all the words after I’ve painstakingly typed them out will. I’m glad you saw yourself in some of these experiences. There are common experiences we all share and goodness if the 80’s and 90’s didn’t have some iconic memories. I wanted it to reflect how alike we all are in many ways and also how different it was for me and other Asian American girls like me. This post has resonated with both and I’m so glad because that was my greatest hope for it. That it would move the conversation forward in the areas where we are still lacking representation, understanding, and inclusion. And for the ways we’re noticing it now and naming it so future generations will be better off. Thank you for always being willing to sit in these questions with me. We’re all learning and finding our way.

    • Thank you Tina! It’s lovely to see you over here. I’ve loved being a part of these conversations because I want better for my daughter as you do for your son. For all the generations to follow and for all the sons and daughters, what would it look like to come of age in a world that truly saw our diverse beauty and authentic value not only in the color of our skin or our features but in our cultures, our foods, our experiences? It’s something I hope towards.

  10. So moved by this piece as I am raising my daughter, who is also Asian-American. Thank you! THANK YOU.

    • I’m glad it spoke to you as a mama raising an Asian-American girl. From one mama to another, I desperately want a better world for our kiddos. One where they’ll step into their full personhood and this world will recognize and embrace it.

  11. ALIA! You are so faithful in responding to comments! Also, your post has been lingering in my soul. I quoted a portion to someone this past Sunday because you just said it best- internalized racism. #itsucks

    • #itsucks. Hahaha. Yes, this is for real. I was thinking about you a ton as I finished up this post and I believe it was the Lord that I got to hang out with you the day before it was due because it gave me a greater confidence to just put all the words down. Greater confidence that these stories are needed and necessary even if they make things uncomfortable for white people. Because while #itsucks, there are voices rising up and speaking out and I’m honored to be one of them, but not the only one. It helps so much to read these posts this month and hear everyone’s experiences and know we are not alone it it and we have a lot of work to do so it won’t suck forever.

  12. Alia Joy, I have to recommend Raising Mixed Race by Sharon Chang, have you read it yet? So excellent. I would also like to encourage Asian Americans to continually also consider the Indigenous perspective. . .they are the original victims of genocide and loss of culture in North America. Indeed, no other group in North America has had to re-learn and re-create culture and also language. Also, as the Indigenous ended up mixing with whites, for many reasons, one being survival, they are a group that has lots to say about being managed a mixed identity–and in fact have been managing this identity for a long, long time in North America.

    • Amber, I haven’t read it but I’m adding it to my ever growing to-read list. I feel like you might be the second person who suggested it since this post went up. I agree about learning about First Nations history and culture. I have been learning so much from the Indigenous perspective over the past few years especially. I spent a lot of my childhood in New Mexico and saw a lot of this struggle firsthand but didn’t really understand all the history or ramifications. It’s hugely eye-opening to learn more.

  13. There’s so much I want to say but I can’t grasp the words. So I’ll tell you that this is a stunningly beautiful and honest post; I’m so grateful that you wrote it. As a white woman, I have surely taken for granted the privilege of my ability “to be whole” as you say. And that’s why these narratives are so important — they tell us what we can’t possibly know because it wasn’t our story.

    Also, I was just telling my own teenage daughter how we used to make mix tapes and she totally didn’t get it. We worked HARD for our playlists back then. : )

    • Right? When we were moving I had an old box of floppy disks which my 7-year-old tried to open. He was so confused. We sure did have to work for our playlists. Thanks so much for reading here, Marian, and for engaging with these narratives. It is something that is so necessary for all of us to be seen as God intended, with full personhood, created in his image. We have a ways to go but learning more and listening is such a vital step in being able to change things, in being able to love each other better.

  14. Beautiful writing, as always. I appreciate the honest, vulnerable telling of your story. It’s so important and brave. Thank you.

  15. I just want to thank you for writing this — to giving light to places we (white people) might not think about or know. Thank you, thank you, thank you. We can’t know where things are wrong unless people like you tell your stories.

    • Sorry for the late reply. I didn’t see a notification for a few of these comments until now. Thank you for reading and being willing to listen.

  16. Your writing is beautiful. I struggled a bit with this post at first not because of your experience or the factors that I know exist that contributed to it but because as a kid of the eighties growing up in both Detroit and Houston and was surrounded and involved daily by a dozen different racial, religious and cultural families . I had and still have friends of different languages and color constantly in my life. I realize now that much of my experiences as a child were due not only to the open and loving nature of my parents but also the intentional choices my parents made in thier lives and the lives of thier children. It was when I became older and went outside my home that I realized the extent of the divisions in the world. I knew people were prejudice and foolish I just didn’t realize how it consumed them or why it did , still don’t.
    Love was always present in my home and it gives me the strength as an adult to pour it into justice. I don’t view my whiteness as privilege ( although I believe any majority anywhere produces privilege) I do regard my experiences, upbringing and grace as undeserved blessings that were never for my sole benefit but to be loved forward in any way God chooses.

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