Monday, December 17, 2007

Deflating the Twinkie

By Michael Nip

Yellow on the outside, white and hollow on the inside

One day, I became Asian. I can’t remember the exact date, but it was inevitable that my identity would unravel one day. At the cost of becoming an American, my Asian heritage had taken a backseat for years. Perhaps it was fate that despite countless attempts at emulating media jingoism to become the ideal American, my Chinese self would still emerge.

I was born in Hong Kong and my parents immigrated to New York City when I was about a year old. Wishing success for their children, my parents expounded the importance of being an “American.” I was taught the importance of assimilation, to blend into the “melting pot” and to become a successful American. Nothing mattered more than “baseball, Chevrolet, and apple pie.”

My parents did their best for me, but from a cultural viewpoint, I became a displaced person. I became a Twinkie. Looking back at me in a mirror was my “yellow” skin neatly packaging my “white” American self. I was an Asian-American anomaly known for a complete embrace of American culture and deficit in knowledge of my own culture.

For years I held this badge with pride. I was proud to be a chest-thumping American in love with every homegrown icon to boot. I looked upon anyone who spoke with an Asian accent with disdain, and liberally tossed F.O.B. labels. I chased after white women throughout school under the impression that “white is beautiful.”

There wasn’t a particular epiphany that opened my eyes to my lost identity, but a growing emptiness that slowly pervaded my life that proved to be my cultural wake up call. I slowly realized that I was devoid of any heritage except for something I had gleamed from the American media. Furthermore, subtleties like the embarrassment of not being able to order food in a Chinese restaurant or helping a lost Chinese tourist gnawed at my Twinkie self. My growing attraction to Asian women made me wonder how I could have cast a blind eye to them for years.

Compounding this self-awareness was accepting the fact I would never be viewed as an American. You see, no matter how well I spoke English, how immaculately I dressed, or what degrees I held, I would always be viewed by others as Asian. The plethora of stereotypes would always have me pinned based on my appearance. Sadly, no matter how American I had become, I would still hear racial slurs.

Thus I embarked on my own long journey of self-discovery as I immersed myself into Asian pop culture, music, traditions, history, and food. A world that was lost to me opened in full glory. Asian friends and girlfriends opened cultural doors for me and I excitedly absorbed everything. I had a lot of catching up to do, after all. Learning about the depth of the history of my race was mind-boggling. I felt enlightened to understand the meaning of traditions performed by my parents and grandparents. Furthermore, I was amazed at how I was closed to such wonderful Asian niceties like Chow Yun Fat flicks, bi-bim-bop, pad thai, and dorama.

I’m still a cross-product of American and Asian cultures, but I believe this makes me a stronger person. My American Persona cherishes independence and equality, while my Asian Persona works hard to strive for the best. My Chinese has vastly improved, and though I’m not 100% proficient yet, I can get around Hong Kong without its denizens thinking I’m another uncivilized American tourist.

So what’s the moral boys and girls? It’s balance. This country’s a great place to live and it’s easy to get swallowed up by the media, but let’s not forget who we are and the rich culture that we’re a part of. It’s a pleasure to be able to alternate cultures at whim. While most Americans are tied to a single culture, my friends and I are cognizant of two cultures. We can discuss the rise of Estella Warren and the merits of Andy Lau’s best actor award in Hong Kong in the same discussion.

Asian-Americans are fortunate to have the worldly knowledge spanning two cultures. And believe me, being known as an Asian-American is a lot better than being named after a fatty yellow pastry.

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