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  • Kim Aquino

Growing up as an Asian-American in Texas

According to the 2010 census, Asian-Americans made up only 3.8% of Texas’ population (vs California and New York’s AsAm populations of 14.9% and 7.3%, respectively.) Additionally, the Asian-Americans in my hometown, San Antonio, make up only 0.6% of Texas’ Asian-American population.

It was during a 6th grade Gifted and Talented project when I first realized there were not many people like me where I lived. For said project, students were grouped by ethnicity and tasked to research and present on their country of ethnic origin. Most groups consisted of at least four students while my group consisted of two: myself and another round-faced Filipino-American kid with an awkward haircut comparable to that of my own. Not only were we the only students representing the Philippines, we were the only students representing any country within the continent of Asia. (By the way, this Filipino kid ended up doing most of the work for the project and is now one of my closest friends and one of my roommates in New York City!) Throughout the rest middle, high school, and even college, I encountered more situations that highlighted the relative uniqueness of my race in Texas. While some of these situations mirrored my 6th grade project, some manifested in the form of microaggressions, in which I was equipped with my arsenal of responses including:

“Yes, I speak english” “No, I’m not Chinese.” “No, I’m not Korean.” “No, I’m not Vietnamese.” “Please stop guessing.”

and probably my favorite:

“No, I don’t know that Filipino person you met while on vacation in California.”

Though I can say, in Texas I was fortunate to have had a Filipino community within my church in which I didn’t have to guard myself with these types of lines and had a sense of belonging. But outside of the metaphorical walls of this community, these conversations were a part of my reality.

Growing up, my friends were predominately white or Mexican-American. With this being said, I often found myself in situations in which I was dubbed the “token Asian." And I’m not going to lie, as a teen being the token was kind of cool. I often felt special and actually took some pride in it—after all I was unique. However, my experiences as a token transformed as I made the transition from high school into college. Whether it was in a professional, academic, or social setting, I began to experience the implications of being one of a few, or sometimes the only, Asian-American person within a certain crowd. One example that sticks out clearly in my mind involved my favorite class in college: Organic Chemistry. Science majors will call me a blasphemer reading this but it’s true. Let me tell you, I worked hard for an A in this class (#humblebrag) but that didn’t seem like a good enough reason for some peers who made comments like: “If I were Asian, I’d be making A's, too” or “It’s not fair because you’re naturally smart." For some, comments like this might be flattering but I did not hear compliments. What I heard was a complete dismissal of my hard work and sacrifice and a claim that race is the pure determining factor of academic success. On the flip side, whenever I performed poorly on an exam (or even an entire classes, sorry Mom!) it was viewed as a failure to meet the expectation of being a “good Asian."

Looking back, I think the peculiarity that came with growing up and existing as an Asian American in San Antonio was in part caused by what people expected of me. Expectations stem from the phenomena of stereotyping, and stereotyping can occur when a certain subject is represented in a way that makes some sort of impression. I love analogies, so here’s one: pretend you’re a kid meeting a dog for the first time. And let’s say this dog is particularly unfriendly and barks ferociously at you, thus terrifying you and making you cry. That single representative of the canine species made this specific impression on you, so from now on you expect any being that resembles that dog to do the same-- you’ve stereotyped all dogs to be mean and thus expect them all to act unfriendly towards you (obviously this is rhetorical and most dogs are angels sent from above). So something I asked myself upon realizing this is: who are the representatives for us?

Representation, Asian/Asian-American or otherwise, comes in various forms, primarily being people with some sort of power or influence. Growing up, I don’t remember idolizing any celebrities that looked like me later learning that representation of Asians in Hollywood is disappointing two-fold. Not only are Asians not represented enough (only about 1.4 of movies released in 2014 had an Asian lead) but we are often pigeon-holed into a particular “character." You know what I’m talking about. According to Hollywood we are the extremely studious, nerdy, piano-playing, soft-spoken sidekick… who--PLOT TWIST-- also does karate! These are the stereotypes that exist and thus the expectations people have for us. I could talk about Asian-American visibility in Hollywood all day, but why not just share a link to a great New York Times article that does the job? Growing up, my history textbooks didn’t highlight or memorialize any figures that looked like me nor did I have the opportunity to meet or be inspired by any politicians that looked like me. If you take into our current Congress, you will notice it is not only in Hollywood where Asian-American representation is lacking. Out of the current 500+ members of congress, only 18 are of Asian or Pacific Island descent-- our most “diverse” congress in history.

So thinking critically of the underlying causes of my experiences as an Asian-American in Texas, I connect these experiences with the problem of representation (or lack thereof) and how these influence racial dynamics. I’m going to let you in on a little confession: I thought moving moving away from Texas to more “diverse” cities would minimize some of the anxiety that comes with being a minority, and in a way it has. But I’ve since moved from San Antonio to Baltimore, Maryland to New York City I still sometimes find myself in situations where I’m the only (or one of a few) people of color in a group and still sometimes find myself having to confirm my ability to speak English. And it’s in these moments I realize Asian-Americans are still far from being adequately represented.

To be honest, sometimes I still struggle with having to navigate as a first generation Asian-American in a society where my experiences are not the norm and where the stories of Asians/Asian-Americans before me are still untold. I often feel frustrated with how I’m being portrayed by the media. And I have yet to feel the thrill of voting for someone who not only shares my politics but also my experiences moving to America as a child, growing up on Spam and rice, having to take ESL classes, and constantly being asked “Where are you really from?”

It might take some time before we will be “satisfied” with representation on various fronts, but I have found some ways to address my own anxieties about these issues on a more manageable scale: by supporting those whom I believe are better representations of Asian-Americans and more specifically Filipino-Americans. I do this through the books I read, the news I follow, the restaurants in which I eat, the organizations I support, or even those I follow on social media. On top of this, I make a conscious effort to life a life that well represents Filipino-Americans and even Asian-Americans in general and act as the role model I wish I had as an Asian kid growing up in Texas.

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