APAHM: A Reflection

APAHM: A Reflection
0 comments, 01/05/2013, by , in Editorial

I was unaware of Asian Heritage Month until I got to college. I had not even known that such a month existed because I had spent most of my life hiding from my Asian culture. It wasn’t until college that I came to terms with my heritage, and finally stood up for myself. I found my passion in advocating for social justice in the Asian American, specifically Vietnamese American, community.

I first arrived in Wisconsin ten years ago. I was originally born in Boston.  After my parent’s divorce, my mom took me – an only child – and we moved… a lot. I was confused and lost, and the constant moving only made it worse. Finally, when I was twelve years old, we moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where there were not many Asian Americans.

I was bullied throughout middle school – sometimes for being Asian, and sometimes for being smarter than my classmates. Not defending myself only made it worse. In high school, I went through an identity crisis. I went to a high school where my graduating class of 500-600 students consisted of 5 Asian kids, including myself. We were called “yellow”, “chinky”, and even “uncivil” by an ex-boyfriend because I used chopsticks. We don’t speak of him anymore. Groups of teenagers would yell out “ching chong” in the hallways when I walked by.

My response? I would just look down, ashamed of the label that I wore as an Asian American. I was always hesitant about inviting my white friends over because I was afraid they’d make fun of the way we eat, or the types of foods we eat. I was afraid of speaking to my mom in Vietnamese in public because of the stares we’d get.

I did make some good friends during my senior year in high school. Yet, regardless of how close we got, I still felt different, and an outsider at times. I was the “token” Asian in my group of friends, so Asian jokes and insidious racial slurs were usually made at my expense. Although it was hurtful, I never said anything. Why? Because I didn’t know that it wasn’t okay. Because they were my friends, I told myself. Because they were only joking, they said.

I was afraid of embracing my culture because I thought that assimilation was the way to go. I was dead wrong. I didn’t realize that until I got to college. To me, Asian Heritage Month is more than being proud of my Asian descent and my Vietnamese roots. It’s about recognizing the disparities we face in the Asian American community and being able to push back against those challenges. It’s about knowing that we can do more when we stand together as an Asian American community. Because even within our own ethnic groups, we experience similar injustice and racial slurs, and we can only be heard when our voices are a collective.

About Jessica Phan

Jessica is an ALIST founder and currently serves as our Executive Assistant. She's currently a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she's studying journalism and legal studies, along with a certificate in Asian American studies.