Asian enough


Maddie Khaw

Maddie Khaw’s family.

By Maddie Khaw, Assistant News Editor

I’ve felt like an imposter from a young age in both parts of my biracial identity—my whiteness and my Asianness. I’ve never felt “Asian enough,” though the reasons may seem stereotypical or superficial to some: I didn’t really like Asian food growing up, I don’t always look obviously Asian, I’m not into math and science, all despite my Chinese and Burmese heritage. 

Maybe it was because of these reasons that I grew up feeling strange talking about my Asianness around other people, so I never really did. This is especially because most, if not all, of the people around me were white. The people in my reference groups—elementary school, church, neighborhood, friend groups, sports teams—were almost always white. 

The exceptions were the two other Asian American girls in my grade school class, though the three of us never really talked about or acknowledged our shared Asianness. One of these girls was half-white, like me, in addition to her Filipino heritage. She, unlike me, talked about her Asianness in our little, white classroom in such a brazen way that it shocked me. I don’t remember ever joining in. 

My disconnection from my Asian identity, I’ve realized upon reflection, wasn’t just because I didn’t look particularly Asian and didn’t love Asian cuisine. It was because of something deeper and darker, which pains and shames me to admit: I actively tried to distance myself from my Asian identity. 

Positioned in the middle of whiteness and Asianness, my halved identity led me to feel like I had to be more of one thing than the other. Being surrounded by few examples of diversity in my life and in the media I consumed, I suppose the concept of my own biracial identity didn’t make sense to me. To me, it was like I had to choose between being white or being Asian—I couldn’t conceivably be equal parts both. And naturally, I chose white. 

I’m now inclined to feel shame around this childhood desire to be fully and only white, but contextually, it makes sense. Even at a young age, I understood the surrounding social frameworks constantly implying that “light was right,” to borrow from the wording of Cherrié Moraga in her essay “La Güera.” If presented with the choice between being white or being “other,” it’s understandable that a child in my position would choose white. 

As an elementary schooler, I was not aware of concepts like white supremacy and racism. But still, I truly, deeply felt their effects. I knew intuitively that it was better to be white. To have a last name like Smith or Johnson, not Khaw. To have “normal” snacks packed in your lunch box, not shrimp chips. To be picked up from elementary school by a white mom or dad like everyone else, not by the only Asian guy within a five-mile radius. To have blonde hair, fair skin, and big, blue eyes. 

I wanted those things so bad. I do have fair skin, which I considered myself lucky for—I took pride in it. I liked how it reddened and shriveled up in the sun, burning and transforming into freckles. Freckles like the ones that cover my mom’s face, and Pippi Longstocking’s. Not like my dad’s or my brother’s skin, which is tougher and browner and turns tanner, not redder, when they play out in the sun for hours. 

No, I was happy with the complexion I had, my ability to burn and develop freckles, which the old people at church called “angel’s kisses,” which made me feel beautiful. To be fair skinned and freckled was to be kissed by angels, blessed by the heavens above. To lack freckles, to have darker skin—attributes I knew could have been mine had my genetics fleshed out differently—was to miss out on those angel’s kisses, to lie outside the reach of heaven’s embrace. 

This was the message I internalized: Light, sun-spotted skin was equated with angels, with goodness and purity and beauty, which meant darker, tougher skin was decidedly not. Shamefully, thus, I took pride in my freckles.

I hoped that those freckles made up for my darker, almond-shaped eyes. I wanted big, blue ones. Did other people see my eyes as slanted and squinted, betraying my otherwise ambiguous appearance and revealing my Asianness? Or did they see my eyes as round, like my mom’s? I swore that my eyes were hazel, not brown, and felt insecure and borderline offended if someone called them brown or dark. I insisted that they’re light, like my mom’s! They have tints of green if you look closely, and under a certain light—I mean, have you seen them out in the sun, or when I’m near the ocean? Or if I’m wearing a light-colored shirt? Really, they’re hazel. Not brown. 

And my hair. I made sure that everyone knew it was light brown, not dark brown, and certainly not black. I remember a friend called my hair black one time and it utterly shocked me. Threw me for a loop, because the whole time I had thought my hair was light brown (with blonde highlights under a certain light during the summertime—no, really, look closer!). But at least it was frizzy and wavy, not like my dad’s coarse, straight, jet-black strands. When I was alone, I draped my “Blankie”—which was white—over my head and danced in front of the mirror, pretending, wishing, I had blonde hair.

I didn’t like engaging with my Asian heritage—with my dad’s side of the family, Chinese New Year traditions, and the Burmese dishes my dad cooked. I didn’t like it when my dad dragged me to the Asian supermarket, which was filled with “weird” smells and unfamiliar foods. I didn’t like when those “weird” smells then wafted through our house, embarrassed if any of my white friends came over and noticed the scent.

Feeling that I looked somewhat white or at the very least racially ambiguous, I tried to skim by as white, pushing away my Asianness, favoring the white part of me over the Asian. Now, I hate that I was so desperate to be perceived and to perceive myself as white, averse to my own Asianness. It was internalized racism; hatred and insecurity turned inward from a world of whiteness where, as my child-self understood, anything but white was undesirable. 

By the time I got to high school, I didn’t necessarily dislike my Asianness—I no longer tried to hide from it, nor did I feel shame around it. I suppose this change just came with a bit of age, as I realized with maturity that there really was no shame in my Asian identity. Still, I didn’t love my Asianness; I merely accepted it. 

At my school, there was an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) club, an affinity group for students of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. I’m not entirely sure what they did, because I never joined the club—I think they met and had potlucks sometimes, but I never even looked into it. After years of not feeling white enough, desperately separating myself from my Asian identity to try to achieve this imagined ideal of whiteness, now I didn’t feel Asian enough—not enough to join the AAPI club, anyway. 

At times, it crossed my mind that maybe I could join. The club was for Asian Americans, and after all, I am Asian American. But somehow, I convinced myself that it wasn’t for me. I imagined that the members would look at me weird if I showed up, because the club was for real Asians. Asians who looked Asian, with coarse, straight, jet-black hair and dark, almond eyes. Asians who liked Asian food, who shopped at the Asian supermarket, who knew things about their Asian heritage and respective cultures because they actually took the time to learn about it. Asians who, at the very least, acknowledged and embraced their Asianness all throughout their lives. Asians who weren’t ever ashamed when their Asian parents picked them up from school.

No, that club certainly wasn’t for me. 

I might technically be Asian, but I had removed myself too far from my Asianness to belong to a group like that—to share affinity with these people who were similar to me in this incomparable way, but different from me because of my own twisted, internalized, elementary-school racism. I had drawn that line long ago. I could either be Asian or white, and I had chosen white early on. No turning back, I guess.

I have since learned, however, that I was wrong. Since the beginning of high school, things have changed—I’ve changed. I began to learn about the world. I grew up more, grew to love and care for myself more—largely just with age, but also through my experiences. In high school, I became surrounded by a lot more Asian American people than I had been in grade school, and I saw how comfortable they were with their Asianness, talking about it casually with others and among themselves. 

What started as acceptance of my Asianness grew into increased fondness and curiosity about my heritage, culture, and experience. I began to think about it more, to talk with my dad about it more, to perk up and actually listen when my relatives began telling stories about our family’s history.

Then, in 2020, I witnessed a mass racial reckoning prompted by the murder of George Floyd. The Black Lives Matter movement surged forward and showed me the power of a group of people long oppressed in our country due to their race. It showed me people of all different backgrounds coming together to try to tackle systems and ideologies that loom larger than I had ever realized, and impact our lives in more ways than I can understand even now. 

I witnessed, too, the coronavirus pandemic. I witnessed increased violence, hatred, and xenophobia towards Asians and Asian Americans because of racism based on the geographical origins of the virus. I witnessed anti-Asian sentiment perpetuated by the former president of the United States, his continual blame on China for the pandemic, and his referral to COVID-19 as the “China virus.”

I witnessed the hateful massacre of Asian women in Atlanta in 2021. I witnessed a ruthlessly violent coup d’état by the tyrannical military in Myanmar, my dad’s birthplace, and I witnessed the United States and the rest of the world do almost nothing meaningful to address it, while the vast majority of Americans remained unaware of the horrors taking place in the country from which my family originates.

As I came to realize the richness and beauty of my Chinese and Burmese heritage, I also saw more clearly the profound racism, and specifically anti-Asian racism, coursing through the socio-political veins of our country. It explained my earlier aversion to my own Asianness. It demonstrated the potency of widespread and reverberant anti-Asian sentiments, how they can infiltrate the mind of a young girl, nest in her heart, spread within her a deep, dark history of revulsion and alienation of people like her in a country like this, and make her disown a part of herself before she even begins to conceptualize her own identity—before she even has a chance to try and make sense of herself and her Asianness in a country that detests anything but whiteness.

All of this drew open the curtain even more for me, revealing that it was never my Asianness that was the enemy, but rather the forces that led me to hate my Asianness—my own self—the way I did. I began to understand that by disavowing my Asian identity, I was socially reproducing structures of racism, nourishing and elongating branches of the same tree whose limbs killed the women in Atlanta, George Floyd, and so many others. To internalize my own oppression is to oppress.

I’m still coming to terms with all of this, figuring out how to reconcile with a personal history of pushing away my Asian identity. I’m taking steps towards an un-erasure of sorts, a rewriting of my relationship with my own identity. I owe my dad, my Asian American community, and myself reparations for the racial prejudice I reproduced when I pushed away my Asianness. By attempting to erase myself, I was complicit in the erasure and harm of many others. 

I resolve to work on closing the chasm I put between myself and my Asianness. I will attempt to not just accept, but also to celebrate and love, my Asian identity—and all identities. I will replace my cold shoulder to my Asianness with a warm embrace, because there is so much more to love and take pride in than there is to hate or avoid. I love the deeply-held traditions. I love the red envelopes stuffed with cash for Chinese New Year, and eating longevity noodles to signify hopes for a long life. I love my family, and I feel a sense of pride in the generations who came before me, despite how little I know about them. I love shrimp chips, and I’d be thrilled to have them in my lunchbox. Really, I love the food—and the way it’s not just food, but a center for culture and family. 

I will continue in this quest to learn and appreciate more about my Asian heritage. I know that this love will grow even more, and that’s a cause for celebration and pride. I know that there are no quotas or standards I need to meet in order to fully and comfortably inhabit my own identity. Finally, I know that there is no such thing as being “white enough” or “Asian enough.” I am learning to love myself and my racial identity on my own terms, and that itself is enough.