Ethnic Identity in the U.S.: One Asian-American Girl's Story

I See Me the Way I Believe You See Me by B. Joanna Chen

We’re walking home from school together, Colin and I. We’re both skipping—that’s how excited we are about having a half-day. Suddenly Colin stops and turns to me, a quizzical expression on his face.

I’m seven, self-conscious and contentious. “What?”

Colin hesitates, then blurts out, “Where were you born?”

I roll my eyes and cross my arms. Even as a second grader, I’ve already been asked this question countless times. I have the dialogue that will ensue down to a convenient routine of monosyllables and terse replies.

Colin grows impatient for an answer. “China?” he suggests.






Colin is at a loss.

I roll my eyes again. “I was born here, stupid. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Butterworth Hospital.”

“What about your parents?”

“What about them?”

“They weren’t born here.” Colin is stating the obvious. He’s met my parents, heard their accented English.

“My parents are from Taiwan. My grandparents are from China.”

“Oh.” Colin is silent for a moment. This is when our dialogue deviates from all the ones before. “Your eyes though,” he says. “They’re funny.”

Chen siblings: Chris, Francis, Joanna

Chen siblings: Chris, Francis, Joanna

I bite my lip, cross and re-cross my arms. “What do you mean?”

“They’re...they’re really little.” Colin lifts his fingers to his face and uses them to pull the corners of his blue eyes until they are slanted slits.

For some reason, I feel like crying. I feel like punching his slit-eyed face. I feel like saying something mean, something biting, something that will make the lump in my throat and the fullness in my chest and the uncomfortable squirming in my stomach go away. But instead I stick out my tongue, blow the most violent raspberry I can muster, and run the rest of the way home.

It was the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley who conceived the “looking-glass self” concept: I see me the way I believe you see me. That could have been the mantra of my middle school and early high school years. Mike would glance at my paper as the teacher handed it back to me. “You’re such an Asian,” he’d say upon seeing my score. “You mean Asian-fail,” Katherine corrected me when I expressed nervousness over a test. I began to feel awkward around the kids at school. My jacket was zipped too high, my glasses were painfully round, and the words I used were too big: “Can you repeat that in English, please?”

Because I believed that all my classmates saw when they were around me was the awkward Asian girl with the excessive vocabulary, I began to be hyper-aware of silences after I finished a rambling story. I stopped raising my hand so much in class. I became an expert at the furtive grade glance when papers were handed back.

Somewhere along the line, between elementary and middle school, I’d come to identify myself solely by race, rather than by ethnicity or by race and ethnicity. I was Chinese, sure. I spoke Mandarin Chinese—or Chinglish, as I referred to it—at home. But all the forms I filled out only had the applicable option of Asian American, and in addition to its pleasing alliteration, “Asian” sounded so much more general—noncommittal—non-confining.

My mother was puzzled at this change in self-categorization. She still referred to us as “Oriental.” One day, when she, my brother, and I were in the car together, I corrected her.

“You mean ‘Asian,’” I said.

“What’s wrong with ‘Oriental’?” she asked.

“‘Oriental’ is for rugs,” my brother said.

I eventually came to terms with the Asian stereotype, even embraced it. It was my goal, after all, to gain admittance into a prestigious school, to follow the heavy Harvard and Duke footsteps of my older brothers. I liked learning. I liked being advanced and excelled and reading “Joanna is a fine student” on my report cards. And what was wrong with fitting in with a prototype of intelligence? “I’m going to fail this test,” I’d say. Then amend, “Asian-fail, but still.”

Joanna Chen's youth soccer team, White Thunder

Joanna Chen's youth soccer team, White Thunder

It wasn’t as if I was always looking around at my homogeneously Dutch-heritage peers with a soundtrack in my mind playing, “They’re white, I’m not…they’re white, I’m not…” There were—and there are now—times when I forgot that I was racially deviant from the Caucasian majority. This especially occurred in history class when we’d discuss slavery. Even though my ancestors weren’t born here, I was accustomed to using “we” when referring to actions the United States had taken in the past; it was just easier that way on essays: “We decided we didn’t want to be a part of England anymore,” “Our country has a history of political dividedness,” “We wanted to free the slaves.” In addition, I leaned toward identification with the white side of history; after all, my ancestors hadn’t been slaves, and the textbooks we read in class didn’t even mention Chinese people—if at all—until it covered the late nineteenth and early twentieth century history of America.

I felt concerned and confused when I found myself talking from a white perspective. Did this mean that I thought that I was white? I was surrounded by white kids, but I wasn’t one. I was different. Was I different?

However, reading a passage from Lawrence D. Bobo’s essay, “Laissez-Faire Racism, Racial Inequality, and the Role of the Social Sciences,” made me reconsider my self-analysis. He writes, “…we are evolving as a nation toward a new major racial dichotomy: the black versus the non-black…whites and those effectively earning the title of honorary whites, such as successful middle-class Asians.”

My gut reaction was one of resentment. Honorary white? It is obvious from reading the other parts of Bobo’s essay that he doesn’t consider white a race worthy of special treatment or a race that should be strived towards by other races, but the phrase still offended me. I can check that box on forms that says Asian, but when it comes to defining race, you have your blacks, you have your whites, and you have your honorary whites. It made me rethink all those years sitting in school feeling guilty over “forgetting” my race, my heritage. 

It made me think that perhaps I reverted to saying “we” because that’s how our discussions on race in this country are most often framed: pick a side, black or white. Other races are forced to find somewhere fitting to fit in on the race spectrum. And naturally, many racial minorities looking to achieve the American dream instinctually identify with and gravitate toward the end of the spectrum with better social and socioeconomic positioning.

Scientists have established that race is not biologically real. Genetically, humans are the most similar among all species. As the experiment the high school students performed in the documentary “Race: the Power of an Illusion” illustrated, we are just as likely to share as many genes with someone from a different race as with someone from our own race. But it’s hard to ignore that Suzanna’s dark skin is shades different from Sarah’s pale pigmentation.

As sociologists W.I. Thomas & Dorothy Thomas pointed out, “If [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” When people believe that something is real, they act on that belief. So while race is imaginary biologically, it is still given a lot of reality in our actions; that is the reality of race in America today.



The reality is that walking home, filled with the excitement of freedom from school, a young white boy will still turn to a young Asian girl and will, in that frank young-boy way, point out their differences. The reality is that even after that young Asian girl has grown into a young Asian adult, she will remember that childhood incident and still feel a phantom lump in her throat, a phantom fullness in her chest, a phantom squirming in her stomach. And it will make her wonder, over eleven years after she stuck out her tongue and stamped away, where she fits in in the scheme of race in the country she calls her own.

B. Joanna Chen grew up in West Michigan, a historically non-diverse farming region known for heavy Dutch immigration. The last two generations have seen a decided uptick in immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, because of either refugee resettlement or migrant agricultural labor. Joanna is currently enrolled at Cornell University. She wrote this piece in the fall of 2010.

The author today

The author today

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.