By Carissa Chu
When I was a child, I laughed every time my mother told me the story of how she came to America. It happened a few years after the second world war. My mom, then seven years old, boarded a large cruise ship with her parents and four brothers, and spent a month hanging out with really tall people with yellow hair. They learned that mashed potatoes were not “warmed ice cream”; fried chicken was like the best food ever; and everyone listened to Elvis Presley.
Four years ago, my husband and I did something similar; we traveled 3,000 miles from our cozy apartment in San Francisco to Davidson, North Carolina. I knew it was going to be different, but I didn’t fully understand just how different things would be. I was a big city girl moving to a little town surrounded by lots of trees and forests and open space.
First of all, when we lived in San Francisco, we barely knew our neighbor. We even shared a front door and I don’t think there was a single instance where we exchanged more than a silent nod. We did attempt to meet him once. We were bright-eyed newlyweds and had just moved in to the building. I knocked on the door. He answered, we told him who we were, he said hi, we exchanged pleasantries and then it was all over before it even began.
Here in Davidson, I learned that everyone waves hello because everyone in the South is a friend. And everyone knows you, especially if you have a unique family such as ours. Just the other day, my daughter’s preschool teacher told me that her daughter saw Ellie at church. Her daughter never met Ellie before, yet she knew who she was. I don’t exactly know what went down, but I imagine the conversation went something like this:
“Mom, I saw the cutest little Asian girl at church today.”
“Oh, I have a cute little Asian girl in my class! Is it Ellie?”
To be honest, it’s fun being special. Sometimes, however, I’ll see a little Asian girl walking down the street. And at first, I will get excited. “Oh my, another Asian family has just moved in to town!” But then I quicken with worry: they better not be more popular than us! We’re the first Asian family ’round here, ya’ll. But it’s okay, because it turns out, that Asian girl was adopted. And her parents are not Asian.
Because we’re the only Asian family in town, I suppose people don’t really know much about our physical attributes, at least in person. For example, our daughter is petite. And people like to remind me that she’s short. They cannot believe she is “almost 3” because their son or daughter, who is 1, is the same size. If they only flew to California, they would see there are plenty of other little girls just like Ellie. Back in the day, it annoyed me so much, I spent months thinking of a good comeback: “She may be small but she’s super smart!”; “actually, she has a genetic disorder and won’t grow more than 5 inches. Thank you for the reminder”; or my personal favorite, “it must be all of the green tea we drink.” I never actually said anything because everyone is nice here in the South. Instead, I would simply smile and be on my way.
All kidding aside, Davidson is actually a pretty progressive town, and it surrounds a beautiful liberal arts college where there are students from every corner of the globe. Our neighbor is actually Cuban and he teaches at the school. One of my good friends is from Suriname. And my other neighbor literally just moved here from France. But I have worried that our kids will become teenagers and wish they could “fit in” and look like everyone else. Relating back to my mom’s experience in a different land, she said it was tough growing up away from her home in the Philippines. She said she actually sought out other Filipinos at her school.
For my children, in the absence of another Asian family, that’s not exactly possible. But it is my job as a parent to raise our children in a way that lets them know they’re special, and that having a Filipino AND Taiwanese heritage is super cool. It means finally learning how to cook something other than spaghetti; it means celebrating certain holidays so our friends can embrace our culture, too. The first few years here, I kept seeing the differences, but in hindsight, they were all so superficial. Who cares I’m almost a foot shorter than everyone else? Who cares we stand out? That’s not what defines me as an Asian. And for me to truly celebrate being the only Asian family in town, for me to truly represent, is for me to realize that. And to help others realize that, too.
About the Author: Carissa Chu is an Emmy-award winning television news producer with two young children and a loving husband. For information on how to submit a guest blog for AsAmNews, read here.