Being Asian

By Yifei Wu ’19

Art by Bonny Cai '17

Art by Bonny Cai ’17

 “Did you make any white friends?”

My mom uttered this question last week during our weekly phone call at 9am on Saturday, a time slot decided by her so that she could casually take a break from TV shows and bombard me with the questions that all moms ask their 18-year-olds. And how glad I was that Facetime didn’t work in China, so she couldn’t see me rolling my eyes.


“Okay, good,” my mom sounded relieved somehow.

We chatted a bit more, about our respective lives now that she and I are on the opposite sides of the Earth, about how she tried to pick up new hobbies like gardening and painting, and about how she tried not to worry about me too much.

After 20 minutes, we hung up and promised that we would call each other next week.

Normally after the phone calls, I would go downstairs to my room to nap a little bit. But this time, her question – “Did you make any white friends?” – stuck with me. I couldn’t quite articulate what was wrong with the question, but it reminded me of this other time when she asked me the exact same question, when I was new to my high school in California. She uttered this same question, a bit concerned: “Did you make any white friends?”

I don’t remember how I responded, but I probably dismissed her question as another “mom” question, the kind of question that is filled with (unnecessary) concern vaguely veiled by a casual tone.

And then it hit me what the problem was — my mom seems to quantify how well I was doing socially by measuring how many “white friends” I had.

I was born and raised in Shenzhen, China, a southern city that used to be one of China’s frontiers. When I was 13 years old, my family moved to Cupertino, California because of my dad’s new job. Now that I am in college, both my parents have moved back to China on what they called “a break from parenting”.

Moving from China to California changed all three of us in significant and subtle ways. My parents were no longer the ones to be leaned on in the family, and instead, they would hide behind my back in grocery stores in fear of talking to the cashiers, they would gesture to me to pick up unfamiliar phone calls, and they would flash smiles shyly at the white strangers passing by.

Yes, they felt uncomfortable. In fact, they felt uncomfortable during most of their time in California because they could never cross the social or language barrier. I understand my parents completely because for a long period of time, I felt the same way too — the kids in my new middle school in California seemed to have known each other for most of their lives, and no matter how hard I tried, I always seemed like an outsider. I seemed like the outsider not only because I didn’t share the past ten years of life with them, but also because I spent those past ten years of life in a different culture. I tried hard, perhaps too hard, to be friendly to everyone, but it only seemed to push the other kids further away because “trying hard” was considered an Asian thing to do, and somehow, that was just not cool. So for a long period of time, I felt like there was something wrong with me for not being able to adjust as quickly as I expected.

Luckily for me, in high school, I gradually found my niche in math classes and on the journalism staff. By the end of high school, I could say that I had friends from different groups on campus.

On the other hand, my parents were never able to fully adjust, and they kept flashing shy smiles at the passing-by white strangers who occasionally nodded at them.

No, do not judge them for their phobia of Caucasian people. Their discomfort represents a hidden insecurity prevalent in China.

In my memory, whenever a “white” foreigner walked down the street in my hometown, he or she would always be trailed by intense staring, out of curiosity or awe, accompanied by whispers like “Look at that lao wai (foreigner in Chinese).” And it seemed like looking like a lao wai put one in a better position than everyone else. My cousin, who had pale skin and big eyes and light-colored hair, was always praised for how Caucasian she looked. On the other hand, I was always laughed at for my tan skin. Somehow, looking Caucasian was a determinant factor in deciding beauty.

When I moved to California, looking Caucasian was no longer the deciding factor of beauty. But somehow, being Asian still seemed simply… not cool. And by “being Asian,” I do not just mean being biologically Asian, but also living in an Asian style and having Asian beliefs. So many times have people said to me, “That is so Asian,” when I preferred rice to sandwiches, when I asked people to critique my papers harshly, and so on. So many times I have seen people cast similar judgment on other people, not always in a positive way. One time, an Asian girl in my grade even said to me that I would never “get” a white guy because I was too Asian.

Art by Bonny Cai '17

Art by Bonny Cai ’17

I did not know how to respond to that assertion at that time, and I still do not know how to respond to it now. I am Asian, in many ways, but why does it matter whether I can get a “white guy” or not? Since when did getting a white guy become equivalent to pinning a token of social superiority onto my Asian self?

I don’t know the answer, but I know that we, my parents, I, and so many people who grew up in a culture of harsh self-criticism and self-discipline and grew up with too many expectations and too much weight on our shoulders, are not comfortable in our own skin. We feel insecure. We feel small. We feel uncool.