Growing up Asian in a Non-Asian town

Most people think I’m white. But I don’t look white.

If you don’t believe me, check out this video where the interviewer calls me white at 2:29 in the video.

I’m Chinese-American. However, growing up I never quite felt fully Chinese or American. I was something else—something other.

It’s Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and I thought I would write a piece on my experience being of Asian Pacific heritage.

Korea (the southern half) is my birthplace, but I’m ethnically Chinese. St. Louis, Missouri is my hometown, and I was raised with a bunch of black, white, and Jewish kids.

I’ve always joked that I’m not Asian. I’m confused.

Some of my Asian brethren have called me a banana. White on the inside but yellow on the outside. But I never felt that that was true either.

The Asian kids I knew were perfect students. But my report card stated that I clearly wasn’t. Sometimes I was lucky if I passed a class. My mother made sure to tell me how well Aubrey Chu, Daniel Shi, and Cathy Wong (all made up names) from church were doing in school. And how their parents thought that they would be going to Harvard. “Why can’t you be more like them?” she would inevitably ask. I was tiger-mom’d before anyone even knew what a tiger mom was.

When white kids called me “Chink, gook, slant-eye, yellow-boy, ching-chong-ching…” I knew I wasn’t quite white either. Sometimes people would yell out of a car, “Go back to your own country!” That was very confusing for me because I was a citizen of this country. I had a fancy piece of paper to prove it, but they were usually driving by too fast for them to read it. Regardless, it’s hard to feel American when you hear those words.

In elementary school, I remember screaming at my mom for making me this way and asking her, “Why do I have to be Chinese?!”

Then one day it occurred to me that there was nothing to do about all of that. I was who I was. The only thing I could and should do was accept who I was. After that, what others said or thought about me didn’t matter so much. At that moment I decoupled how I thought about myself from what others thought about me. I was no longer a banana, chink, non-A+ student like Aubrey Chu. I wasn’t just something else; I was someone. I was John Pa. And I was enough. That was one of the most liberating moments of my life. And I was finally at ease in my own body.

Growing up, most of my friends weren’t Asian. They were white and Jewish. And oddly enough, as I noted above, many white people think I’m white, even though I’m more of a light brown hue.

But when I first moved to New York City in my mid-twenties, I was surrounded by Asians. Literally. That was the first time I was immersed in a group of people whom I looked like after a lifetime of living with people who didn’t. It was strange. It was new. It was Queens.

I was working at an English speaking Korean church, and I didn’t know another soul in NYC. So the congregants became my first group of friends. Most of the congregation were second generation Korean-Americans who grew up in Queens.

Their parents immigrated to New York City after the Korean War to make a better life for their kids. They were brave, self-sacrificing, entrepreneurial. They hustled so that their kids could go to top tier Ivy League schools and become a successful doctor, lawyer, architect, or, at worst, a pharmacist. My parents did the same thing and left the same place. But there was one gaping difference. They landed in NYC, but we in St. Louis. They rooted themselves in a place where a large population of Koreans lived, and they didn’t even need to learn English if they didn’t want to. But assimilation wasn’t an option for us. They didn’t want their kids to lose their Koreanness, and they could largely do that living in Queens. My mom didn’t want me to lose my Chinese-Koreanish-ness, but going to a school where I was only one of two Asians wasn’t exactly the ideal environment.

There were other differences between their kids and me. They spoke Korean. I didn’t. They lived by a very hierarchical culture and paid deep respect to their elders. I grew up with kids who would address their parents by their first names, and I was rebellious. They cared about age: It wasn’t uncommon for someone to ask you, “What year are you?” That was their way of asking for your age. I could care less about about other people’s age. I only cared mine. And only when I came to getting my drivers license, buying beer and getting into bars. Their report cards were riddled with A+’s, mine was lucky to have a B. They went to Harvard, I went to Truman State. They were far more respectful, decent human beings. I wasn’t.

But I looked Korean and was even born in Korea. And Korean food was always one of my favorite cuisines. I loved Kimchee like a chain-smoker loved cigarettes. In all appearances, I looked just like another Korean from Queens. But I was a banana from St. Louis who had a very different way of looking at the world.

It had been over a year since I arrived at that church, and I was deeply involved in that community. Most of my friends at the time were Korean. And a group of us had just finished grabbing dinner and we were looking for dessert (Koreans know how to eat and hang out). We walked through Union Square Park right by a bar that used to be on the northern end of the park. It was filled with a bunch of blond and brown-haired humans chattering and clinking glasses. I didn’t see a single Asian person in their midst. And something happened inside of me. My eyes were fixated on them, and I had this deep pang inside of me. I almost felt seasick. Later, I realized that that feeling was yearning. I yearned to be around white people again.

Almost a lifetime later, I married a white girl with a Jewish dad and a German mother. But most of the girls I dated growing up and into adulthood were white. They just were. I mean, there was only one Asian girl in my class until I went to junior high, and I dated her when I was in fifth grade. She was my first girlfriend, and she broke up with me. I didn’t date another Asian until I was out of college. I went all white. Eventually, I dated a string of Koreans but the relationships all soured like the one in the fifth grade did. I did date a Korean girl in NYC for a couple of years. She was an amazing person. But her parents were totally against us. So that broke, too. There was a phase where I thought I needed to go back to my Chinese roots and find a Chinese girl. I was convinced that that was the answer to my relational woes. I got a Chinese girlfriend, but that didn’t work either. So I gave up on my roots. I reached the only logical conclusion there was: The problem wasn’t the girls. I was. I was confused. I was a Chinese kid, born in Korea, and raised in St. Louis with a bunch of black, white, and Jewish kids. I was no good. Then God brought the perfect person into my life. I married a girl with a Jewish dad and German mom. She was confused, too. We were confused, together.

Whether I’m a banana or not, that can be debated. But I am of Asian Pacific Heritage. It’s in my DNA. I may be more than that but not less. I wasn’t the A+ student, who graced the halls of Harvard or the perfect kid growing up. I may not be the best at respecting people who are older than me, but I do respect this: Our parents’ grit, courage, optimism, hope, and sheer will to leave their home country to come to a foreign land to build a brighter future for their children–for me. I am forever indebted to my dad and mom.

Without them, I would be worse than confused.

I would be nothing.

5 thoughts on “Growing up Asian in a Non-Asian town

  1. John, you captured so much here! The layers are so deep from the yearning to the shame. In my current space, I’ve had to begin unpacking another box I thought I had already unpacked. Thanks for putting this out into the world. I know there are many of us connecting with you in this piece.

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