My Asian Identity

Banana Bree Phase

Growing up, many children want to be astronauts, teachers, doctors. I wanted to be a “banana.” Yellow on the outside by default of genetics, white on the inside by choice.

My mother always told me, “You can’t change your skin, but you can decide how you act." Living in a very white town, I took that as encouragement to push away my Asianness away. Asians = nerdy? I pretended to be stupid. My Chinese food = smelled "weird"? I ate school lunches. Asians = "unathletic”? I made volleyball my life.

I called myself Bree Zang, the Americanized pronunciation of my last name “Zhāng” (pronounced: Jāhng). It never occurred to me to say it any differently. Why pronounce it correctly when people make a weird face then ask “why do you spell it Zhang when it’s not pronounced that way?”

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Funnily, the closest an American came to pronouncing my last name was when they asked “Did your parents drop pots and pans down the stairs and listen to the sounds to name you? Ding dong. Ching Chong. Bree Jong?”

 

I don’t name this experience to get pity for myself because this is a common Asian American experience. (“Oh, you got the slanted eye jokes?” “I got the jokes about eating dogs.” “Oh! You wanted to have blonde hair too?” “Blue eyes for me.”) I name this experience because I want to tell the story of how I tripped, fell, and found my way to my identity. It started with the 古筝 (guzheng).

 
Love, Hate, Gaslight
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Up until highschool, I was always ashamed to let others know I was playing the guzheng, but things changed in 2014 when I began teaching guzheng at my Chinese School. There, I realized that if I wanted my students to be proud of themselves, I first had to first at least accept my Chinese background myself. So I started playing the guzheng in front of white friends, bringing it out during volleyball sleepovers as they recorded me on their snapchat stories. 

But instead of fully accepting my Asianness, I weaponized my Asianness. I used “I’m so Asian!” and as a way to be funny—a knife against myself. I acted in ways to jokingly confirm Asian stereotypes because at least I was getting attention from people, and didn’t attention mean that I wouldn’t be alone?

Instead of fully accepting my Asianness, I commodified my Asianness. During college application season, I wrote my common app essay about teaching my guzheng students and spreading my Chinese culture. I painted myself as a girl who celebrated herself and the Chinese heritage sung by her students’ guzheng strings.

I wasn’t lying. Everything written in the essay was true. But it’s funny how I could simultaneously love my Asianness yet be ashamed of it.

I embraced my Chinese culture—calligraphy, music, history, language—but I was ashamed that my parents had accents or that I watched anime. I loved my guzheng, but still, I avoided performing solos in “Qipao” or traditional chinese wear because I thought Western gowns fit me better, made me look more beautiful. It was as if I selectively compartmentalized my Asianness into different drawers, rejecting, accepting, and hiding different slices of myself.

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"I'm Not Like Other Asians"

This simultaneous self-love and shame led me to adopt a “I’m not like other Asians” attitude in college, similar to the “I’m not like other girls” attitude. Yes, I was proud of my Asianness, but no—I wasn’t like those other Asians who just hung out with their own Asian friends. I thought was different, I was “special.” I played the guzheng, not the piano or violin. I was heavily invested in arts and humanities, so not the typical Asian STEM pre-med (reflecting back, this fixation is extra ridiculous because almost every Brown pre-med I know is so multifaceted and eloquent in science and humanities).

To assert my Asian-but-not-Asianness, I talked often about my guzheng, but I avoided large Asian gatherings and parties. I gravitated towards friends who were either white or other people of color. I even told myself “I can't have more than 1/5 of my close friends as Asians, but I can’t have 0 or else I’m too blatantly white,” as if my identity was a calculation, rather than an existence.

 

Perhaps this is why, as a first-year, I started to feel a bit alienated and distant from my fellow Asians.

 
"Wait, why am I lonely?"

It took little steps.

It took reflecting on myself through art and music composition. Why I was lonely. Why I felt compulsions to avoid or seek out certain people. Recognizing these compulsions. Acknowledging that I was still on a journey to find peace with my identity, that I wasn’t the proud girl I wrote about in my common app essay.

 

Daydreams, 2020

It took meeting friends who were genuinely interested in not Bree Zang but Bree Zhāng. who were willing to venture beyond the tasty flavors of my culture but also the deeper grittier, darker parts. Who found pride in parts of me that I wasn’t proud of.

It took meeting inspiring peers who were unapologetically wearing their own skin and identity. Listening to their struggles. Their realizations.

Claiming Soil That's Not Solid

One of my proudest moments in college was sophomore year when I made an artwork. selected for Brown University Science Center’s Annual Art Exhibit. At the exhibition’s opening talk, I decided—for the first time in my life—to say my last name “Zhang” the real way.

What does it mean to claim your name? To claim your space that—yes—you can belong here.

 
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But what does it mean to return home every semester break and watch my mom trying to decide what food she can’t bring to work because 香菇 and 猪耳朵 “smell weird” to her American co-workers?

 

What does it mean to still fight feelings of shame when my parents take too long pronouncing the words on a restaurant menu—and to remind myself that they’re not stupider because they have an accent. In fact, their accent makes them wiser and stronger. 

 

What does it mean being catcalled on the street and yelled at to “Go back to china?” and to be asked “do you eat bats?” while still feeling pressured to fit the model minority myth, which upholds a system that pits us against other people of color?

What's Next?
Stop Asian Hate

I still have a long journey ahead of me. While I fight for space, I must simultaneously recognize the space I take up. Being Asian, I have privileges that have been used to perpetuate racism and fabricate a racial hierarchy in America. Being East Asian, I have privileges that allow me to be represented and portrayed in the majority of the “Asian” experience, which tends to erase and marginalize other subgroups within the pan ethnic Asian narrative.

 

I must continue to grapple with a history of colorism that persists in my own culture. I must continue to grapple with the concept of being Asian American not as a singular story but in a web of gender, sexuality, class, neurodiversity, generational trauma, and more. It’s a long journey ahead, but for now, I just want to focus on how far I’ve come. I no longer think “I’m not like other Asians.”

 
I Want to Be Like Other Asians

I want to be like every other Asian because we’re all so cool, different, talented, inspiring, unique--and none of us are the same, and we can be hurtful, and we can be cruel, but we should be appreciated as human beings who encompass all these intersecting qualities.

I know many of us are at different stages with our identity. I still struggle. Oftentimes, I feel the creeping fear as I slowly lose my language, as I forget certain words on my tongue because I haven’t used them in a while, and because I’m no longer speaking Mandarin with my parents as often. I try to remind myself to hold onto my words, to play the 古筝 more often, to savor my parents' cooking.

Sometimes, I realize that my beliefs do not always align with some of the traditional Chinese values of our parents' generation. I realize I cannot deny their traumas and struggles that solidified their beliefs about conflict, social mobility, and equity. I realize I also cannot easily change their beliefs about mental health, gender, and sexuality. But I continue to have conversations to unpack, communicate, and translate. To understand them and have them understand me.

It's an honor to be Chinese American, but it takes effort and intentionality to exist within both the "Chinese" and "American" without losing one or the other.

That's the beautiful part of it as well.

 
Leveled Up! 😊
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