Not Like Those Asians

Julie Mak and her son, Owen.

Julie Mak, J92 and her youngest son, Owen.

By: Julie Mak, J92

I am eight years old. Muzak is playing softly in the department store as I weave through racks of clothing with my mom. It is 1970s Connecticut and we are almost always the only Asians wherever we go. A saleswoman approaches and my mom asks her a question. My mom speaks with an accent and has trouble processing the saleswoman’s response. Even at this young age I can sense the saleswoman equating fluency in English with intelligence. I want the woman to know: I can speak English! We are smart! As I repeat the woman’s answer more slowly and clearly for my mom, the saleswoman turns, relieved to continue the conversation with me. I feel a combination of pride at being able to handle the situation, and embarrassment for my mom, who can’t communicate as well as I do. To feel upset or offended by the saleswoman never crosses my mind.

I am in high school. My dad applies and receives approval to bring his older siblings and their families over from Communist China. The political unrest and loss of civil liberties after the Cultural Revolution is too dangerous. Suddenly, cousins I barely knew existed are attending my school. They dress strangely, have funny haircuts and don’t speak English. It is the 1980s, and my friends and I are obsessed with “Sixteen Candles.” Like most girls of our generation, we conclude that Jake is the epitome of the perfect boyfriend. I try to ignore the Long Duk Dong character, even though his accent, awkwardness, and questionable clothing choices are a little too close to my cousins. When we discuss the movie, my friends tactfully avoid bringing him up. We all know I’m not like Long Duk Dong. I was born here, I wear oversize neon sweatshirts and Guess jeans, I listen to Prince, the Beastie Boys and Madonna. I’m not like those Asians.

I become used to distancing myself from the other Asians in my hometown who are either immigrants like my cousins, or perpetuate the Asian stereotype like my classmate David Kim, born in the U.S. but is soft-spoken and mainly known for being good at math. It’s not that they aren’t nice or that we wouldn’t get along, it’s that they do not conform with mainstream, popular American culture. The looks on the other kids’ faces when I am seen with them is enough for me to quickly realize that it is not good to be associated with them in public. My parents came over relatively early in the wave of Asian immigration to the U.S., so our family is further along on the assimilation scale. I am not aware of it then, but by this point I have already perfected the art of observation and modifying my choices and actions to better fit in. What foods to bring to lunch. Becoming a Girl Scout. Curling my hair. Showering in the morning instead of at night. Hanging out with those types of Asians would negatively impact my personal capital and, for lack of a better term, set me back.

Which is why it takes me by surprise when the first people I meet at Tufts, Hank and Steve, are two Korean Americans from Long Island who I relate to and connect with. We live in the same dorm and they immediately sense my homesickness and want to help. I have never met other Asians like them and feel an instinct to resist, wanting to find other people to hang out with. However, they are kind, fun, and draw me in. They introduce me to their friends who also happen to be Asian. I am intrigued yet very uneasy being around so many Asians, who all seem to be much more comfortable in their skin than I am and don’t appear to have the same hang-ups about being together. As the semester goes on, I find myself spending more time with them. I learn to navigate the social scene at Tufts and traverse back and forth as best I can across the divide separating the Asian and non-Asian crowd. It’s like playing that classic cafeteria movie scene over and over again—where do I sit?

Julie Mak and her roommate, Yuko.

Julie Mak, J92 (right) and her roommate, Yuko, at the beginning of their sophomore year.

In November of freshman year, I get a new roommate. Yuko is Japanese American from Louisiana and speaks with a distinctive New Orleans drawl. While I am apprehensive at having an Asian roommate and further pigeonholing myself, she is warm and engaging, and I can’t help connecting with her. I discover that she is like me, having never been friends with other Asians before, which makes us more at ease with one another. We end up becoming inseparable, almost in spite of being Asian. While we might not admit or even realize it at the time, it is apparent now that a big part of what makes us close is our similar background and experiences. Yet we still consider ourselves not like those Asians who only hang out with other Asians. The irony is that anyone who sees us together, or with Hank and Steve, wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between us and “those Asians.” But I don’t know if I care anymore.

I study abroad in China my junior year. I eventually attend grad school and spend summers in Taiwan and Thailand. I am a novelty to the locals, having an Asian face but speaking English and carrying myself with that signature American confidence and sense of entitlement. On more than one occasion I am told, “You look Chinese, but you don’t act Chinese.” I may not be one of them but I realize I don’t automatically fit in with the American expats either. While going to Asia may not have resulted in having all of my life questions answered or everything fitting magically into place as I had romanticized, there is so still much that is familiar that it provides me with a more nuanced way of understanding myself.

Flash forward to today. I am older, and the world is very different. Somewhere along the way ethnic has become cool. Seaweed paper and somewhat authentic dumplings are now sold in Costco. I am married to an Asian American, and we are raising two Asian American boys. Unlike our parents, we talk to our kids often about our identity, and what being Asian means to us. I am surprised, envious, and hopeful that our kids do not seem to be as conflicted about being Asian as I was at their age. But I am also more comfortable in my skin now.

Over the years, I go through many life events with my cousins. As I have learned to better appreciate all sides of myself, I also have a deeper understanding of my cousins as well. In some ways, they are a bridge between myself and my parents, filling in the gaps of our respective experiences. They play mahjong with my parents, but also watch K-dramas and are on social media with me. Thankfully I have moved beyond the superficiality of my teenage years and cherish the times we spend together. My mom still speaks with an accent but I don’t feel the need to step in to help her or prove anything anymore. She can handle herself just fine.

Exactly who are “those Asians?” Maybe the lines are blurring. Or maybe I am like those Asians after all.

Read other contributions of the personal stories of Tufts alumni informed and inspired by their heritageand shared in recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.