My favorite outfit in the third grade was a white skirt and white lace top I would wear with brown boots my mom, or grandma, got me right before school started. It was my favorite outfit, and definitely questionable looking back now, but it was one that made me feel like myself and gave me the first chance to style myself in something that felt uniquely my own.
I grew up trying to fit in with whatever fashion was around me. The latest Aeropostle polo, Abercrombie top, or off-brand Ugg boots that was the epitome of middle school fashion every 2000s kid seemed to own that made me feel a tiny bit more like I actually belonged.
But on the weekends when my family would pile into our minivan and drive 30 minutes out of Chapel Hill and into Raleigh, spending our Saturday’s at a locally run Chinese School operated by Taiwanese families in the RTP area. I’d put on a silver “kung-fu” styled shirt and practice a fan dance that I did solely to make my mom and grandma proud.
It was embarrassing, and I hated being forced to go to school on Saturday’s for a language that is still confusing to this day, and I hated wearing something that felt forced, just like how I felt on the weekdays.
I didn’t know it at the time, but much of the confliction I felt as I donned what felt like two polar opposite identities was not uncommon among many other Asian-American children nationwide in this weird paradigm where we’re too white for our actual family, but too Asian for our friends.
The way I dressed was just one example of how I was shaping myself to fit the social circle I was associated with in that very moment, but never for myself. It’s a story and feeling many immigrant children know far too well.
I used to get made fun of for the “stinky” food I would bring in my weird lunchbox that was compact and filled with rice, steamed veggies, and meats my mom would make the night before. Only to see now, ten years later, new boba stores opening on the very college street that I was once walking down with my grandma when some students made “ching-chong” jokes at us when we were walking by. The same street where even now, at 20 years old, passing drunk college students, my own classmates, will crack jokes about loving fried rice when my friends and I try to celebrate a 21st birthday.
But the biggest difference now and who I was ten years ago when I forced myself to buy silly bands to fit in on the playground, or when I would beg my dad not to blast his Taiwanese rock music when he dropped me off at school, is that I know what I want.
Because it’s true, maybe I don’t know Taiwanese and can’t always communicate with my Grandma, but I do know enough Chinese to help her cook when she flies 24 hours across the world to visit – and yes, they are two different languages, and no, I’m not from Thailand.
You will never catch me wearing shoes inside my own house, and yes, I use chopsticks to get the chips at the bottom of the bag to keep my hands dirty, but I’ll be the first to admit I really did love the Breakfast Club and Nantucket Strawberry Shortcake, even if my parents will never try either.
Who I am is that little girl in third grade who wore an all white outfit at least once a week to school because that was my choice. That was the beginning of when I knew the importance of identity, self-expression, and being okay with doing something for yourself.
Since then I’ve made the small effort of visiting my grandparents more to practice my Chinese, learned how to properly use a wok, and really started to listen to my mom about her ten step skincare routine that’s kept people asking me if she’s my sister even to this day.
I still have my kung-fu dance outfit hidden in the depths of my closet at home, and I’m far more grateful that my parents forced me to learn Chinese as a kid because it’s landed me internships and a newfound confidence in myself whenever I’m in Asia. I’m lucky my parents were never anywhere near what a stereotypical tiger parent is like, and I can only hope that when I have my own children in future, I imprint a sense of pride in their identity as well.