Coming to terms with my Asian American identity at USF

Ethan Tan is a junior politics major.

 Tan (middle) with his paternal grandparents in Malaysia, June 2018. PHOTO COURTESY OF ETHAN TAN/FOGHORN

Growing up, I never really appreciated my Asian American identity. It was something I did not often think about until I had to denote “Asian” on forms that requested my race, like government paperwork or college applications. However, in honor of National Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and the ongoing crisis of anti-Asian violence, I reflected on what my heritage means to me and how I have explored my culture in USF classes.

I’m from the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California, one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country that also has one of the largest concentrations of Asian American communities in the U.S. Since my high school’s student body was 59% Asian, and a majority of my friends were Asian, I never really appreciated or understood my identity. It seemed like all of my friends partook in cultural traditions like Lunar New Year, so missing school for something like this was normal. Being Asian American here didn’t make me stand out as it does for many students in less diverse schools.

Like many Asian Americans, my background is complex, and my parents’ immigration stories make an excellent oral history. While my dad, who’s from Malaysia, came to the U.S. alone to get a college education, my mom’s family escaped a war-torn Vietnam by boat in 1979. Because of this, I have a set of grandparents who live 15 minutes away in California and a set who live nearly a 20-hour flight away at our family home in Malaysia. 

It was not until 2018, when my family went on our biennial trip to Malaysia, in addition to making an excursion to Vietnam, that I started to think about my identity as an Asian American. 

When my mom first took me to Vietnam, we visited both touristy hotspots and locations significant to her and her family. When she took me on this visit “home,” it suddenly hit me that this was a country she hadn’t stepped foot in since leaving 39 years prior. It was incredibly meaningful to visit her childhood hometown where she and her siblings grew up, to meet relatives I didn’t even know I had, and to explore the places my mom frequented as a kid. Being able to walk on the same streets that my mom did growing up while hearing her early childhood stories is something I will never forget. The trip to Vietnam allowed me to see the softer side of my mom that wanted to share her experiences with her son and allowed me to tangibly connect with a homeland that always felt so foreign and was never more than one part of the answer to “Where are you from?” 

But the journey didn’t end there. When we go to Malaysia, I am always amazed by how easy it is to reconnect with aunts, uncles, and cousins I haven’t spoken to since the last time I visited. However, one of the problems I face when I go back is the language barrier. For everyone in my dad’s generation and above, English is not their first language. While I can speak to my cousins in English, it’s often hard to translate feelings and engage in conversation with their parents and our grandparents, who mainly speak in Hokkien and Mandarin. There’s nothing more helpless than the feeling of having your grandma who hasn’t seen you in two years ask about your life, but all you can do is smile and mutter phrases in Mandarin that you’ve picked up in classes; leaving you feeling like you’ve let the family down. 

Every time I go back to Malaysia, I reconnect with my heritage and feel at home. There’s something incomparably special about being in the presence of grandparents who may not be there the next time I cross the Pacific. 

But, being in a different country can bring up a feeling of foreignness. While I am with people who share my last name and I am in a country of people who look like me, I sometimes feel like an outsider to them — as if I’m not Asian enough to fit in.

That feeling is something I thought was unique to me until the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” came out the summer just before my freshman year of college. In the film, Rachel, an Asian American character, struggles to be accepted by her partner’s family in Asia, who deem her a foreigner, despite being of Asian descent. Even though it may seem trivial, I really resonated with how the movie bridged two similar but distinct cultures (Asian and Asian American). Many Asian Americans, myself included, struggle with the feeling of not knowing where we belong and if we’re Asian enough. 

After watching that movie three days before freshman orientation, I came to the Hilltop wanting to know more about my culture and identity. I later had a meeting with professor Wei Yang Menkus in the Asian studies department, which sparked a conversation on what I wanted to explore during my time at USF. Through Menkus, I met with professor Genevieve Leung who runs the Asian Pacific American studies (APAS) minor, who encouraged me to take the Chinese studies minor to practice my language skills and learn more about Chinese culture. Professor Leung also pushed me to take the APAS minor to engage in classes that would teach me more about the Asian American diaspora and help me better understand my own complex identity.

Through these minors, I’ve been able to put a name to the issues I face, understand the complexity between the labels Asian and Asian American, and learn that Asian Americans are not a monolith. Even though many people typically think of “Asian” as Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, Asians come from far beyond East Asia to include the 45 other countries — from parts of the Middle East in West Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. I learned that my story is just one of many unique stories in the diaspora.

It wasn’t until I took professor James Zarsadiaz’s Asian American history course my freshman year that I discovered the connection between my newfound interest in Asian American issues and my politics major. By understanding how politics and government have affected Asian Americans from the 1800s until today, I have realized the power Asian Americans could have as a political group since we are the fastest-growing racial group in America.

Taking even more Asian American-focused courses, like professor Evelyn Ho’s Asian American communication and culture course, allowed me to dive into social issues. When I visited Angel Island for class and was assigned to interview a relative for their immigration story, it inspired me to have a conversation with my mother about how our family adopted America as its new home nearly 42 years ago. These courses and conversations, like ones I’ve had with Angie Vuong, an Asian American staff member at USF, have helped me understand more about my identity while helping me grasp the political issues affecting the Asian American community.

Being in San Francisco has allowed me to foster my development as a young Asian American interested in public service, a space that historically lacks Asian American representation. I’ve been able to visit the Chinese Historical Society in Chinatown for a class and attend Asian American lectures and events in the city, so I feel encouraged to explore the past, present, and future of Asian Americans.

I’ve learned a lot about myself and my identity in these past three years, and I have never been more proud to be Asian American, despite the harsh political realities we have been facing. Taking Asian American courses at USF has allowed me to understand a side of myself that I never thought I would explore and has brought me much closer with my family while helping me understand the larger Asian American experience. I encourage all Asian American students, and even non-Asian students interested in Asian American issues, to take at least one APAS-related class at USF to understand the complexity of our culture and history and have a more diverse view of the world.

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