We are in the second week of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States, and it feels appropriate for me to share the following story, a revelation in my identity as a Chinese-American woman. It was actually originally written on October 29, 2021 and has been sitting in my drafts folder since. I’ve held off because 1) it’s a story that I’m not necessarily proud of and 2) I wanted to get the ‘okay’ from a friend before publishing and I finally gathered the courage to share this piece with her last week. (A big thank you to her for allowing this to be shared!!)
Exploring identity is my jam and butter and all my other favorite toast toppings. It is through exploring who I am that I’ve discovered my truths as well as opened my eyes to the world and an understanding of other people. Being second generation Chinese-American was and is the ocean I swim in. When you are so deep in your ocean, it is not easy to differentiate your individual experiences as unique because we think everyone else is in the same position. I hope that this post gives you an opportunity to extract your own experiences and see them in a different way.
I have always loved books and the opportunities they have provided for me. Starting in third grade, I volunteered at my elementary school library and helped Mrs. Wolff (the librarian) with whatever she needed. I especially liked stamping the due date on the check out cards which were then slipped into the little slots in the back of the books. During my childhood summers, I walked to the public library with an empty backpack and borrow dozens of books every few days. As an adult, I have three reading apps on my phone as well as shelves packed with books around my house. Books were and are still very much my refuge and knowledge source.
As a 9 year-old Chinese-American girl, I clung to Claudia Kishi, a Japanese character in The Baby-Sitters Club’s series, as a lifeline. She made me think, “I can exist in stories like this!” Books were different back then – I don’t remember many stories featuring Asian characters while growing up.
It never occurred to me, until I was an adult, that my white friends never experienced that. They never had to search the shelves of the library to find a book cover featuring a character that looked like them. They didn’t have to grasp onto one character that sort of resembled them to feel like maybe their stories were worth telling and sharing. Their identity was never tokenized and reduced to one characteristic of their identity.
What I’ve come to realize in my unlearning of what is normal in this culture is that you lose your individuality when you are tokenized. Your personality does not matter so much because it plays second fiddle to your identity as the only (fill in the blank) person. For instance, I remember more details about the other three main characters of The Baby-Sitters Club than I do Claudia. Not having picked up a BSC book in 25 years, I can tell you Kristy was the sporty one, Stacey was the fashionista and Mary Anne was the quiet, studious one. And then, Claudia was the Japanese one…
Being Chinese has always been central to my identity, not only because it is something I cannot really hide but also because it is something I am really proud of. And I love connecting with other Asian people over this shared background. Being tokenized as the Chinese person highlights a part of me that I really love. So the times that I have been tokenized, I never even realized it because I thought others were embracing me for that part of me.
However, it was apparent that tokenization had been internalized during one instance in 2020.
My friends and I were starting a local social justice group. Invitations were extended to other people to join an initial planning group.
We gathered in a socially distanced circle as we greeted one another from afar. Then, a Chinese-American woman, who I am friendly with and who I completely respect, approached the circle. I could feel my tentacles raising up. It was a peculiar feeling, one that I couldn’t have fully articulated at the time, but one that I can now describe as feeling threatened. But why?
I felt threatened that I’d be unseated as the token Chinese person in the group. Threatened because (my survival brain thought) there wasn’t enough room for two Chinese people in this group! Yes – I realize it is absolutely absurd in this particular scenario as we were creating a group focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. But I also believe this is why this particular instance has stuck in my mind. The setting made it quite obvious that my thoughts were the issue – not her! I had internalized beliefs that there was only room for one of us in that circle. I also felt threatened that I would be evaluated on other aspects of who I was and feeling inferior to her personality, intelligence and poise – again thinking there was only spot for one of us.
When I think of stories of women turning on each other in boardrooms, I realize this is exactly why.
When you’ve been tokenized for a long time and your value is centered first on an external and unchangeable attribute and not your contribution or other merit, you internalize it and feel territorial. We are social beings. We want to belong. But if the social structure we are part of only has room for one of us, we will act out in fear instead of in collaboration. We will perpetuate the structure to ensure there is a place for one of us and only one place.
But I am tired of carrying this weight around. It is not right for someone to feel like who they are can be reduced down to one attribute. It is not right for someone to not be recognized fully. And it is not right for the next generation to experience the same. With my children growing up in a fairly homogenous town, it a concern that they will carry this burden with them. The work that I do in calling out these false beliefs within me and the shortcomings of our culture is in dedication to a future where there is more than enough space in the circle for all of us.
(Originally written October 29, 2021 and finally published May 12, 2023)
I write everyday because it allows me to voice what is at the surface. Once that is out of my head, I can dig in another layer deeper. My daily writing practice has been my greatest exploration of self and humanity. Sign up here to receive these thought nuggets in your inbox on the daily.
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