Embracing My Asian American Identity (Part 2)

Embracing My True Colors & Becoming Whole

College gave me the perfect sandbox to experiment with and gain a deeper understanding of the roles social stereotypes played in my identity within the broader context. Not only had I transformed from a shy and timid girl into a confident young woman who went on to become the president of two student organizations, I also developed an eager ambition filled with hope and excitement to define my place in the real world. Upon graduation, I moved across the country to officially initiate my adulthood - to prove my capabilities in establishing my own financial and personal independence, building a thriving career, and growing a long-term relationship.

Unbeknownst to my wide-eyed, naive self, I had just crossed the threshold on my heroine’s journey into the world of the unknown.

I still remember my first day entering corporate America. Shepherded by the pack of professionals dressed in black and grey suits, I scanned my shiny new badge through the security gate and entered the 80s-styled concrete office building. For some reason, I had a flash of memory from the Matrix and felt as if I became plugged into the system.

As a petite and relatively naive female professional, I carried the overachieving mentality from my 17 years of studying and singularly focused on achieving those “A’s” at work. Unaware of and unequipped to tackle the social and political dynamics at play, I believed that if I just worked hard enough, then I would succeed at climbing the career ladder. It didn't dawn on me that I would often be one of the few, if not only, Asian American females presenting in boardroom meetings, in front of a myriad of male executives.

Right around the same time, as I adjusted to the new pace of the bustling work life, I had also engaged in my first interracial relationship. While I did not think twice about the nuance of this relationship dynamic, I started to receive subtle hints that this factor did, in fact, play a role. First, there were the stares from bystanders that lingered a second or two longer than usual. Then, I started to notice that restaurant waiters and waitresses acted unusually friendlier, often checking in on us multiple times during a meal to see we were satisfied with everything. I disregarded those incidents as anomalies but felt perplexed.

In some way, I was operating in a “matrix”, unaware and unconscious of the ingrained social paradigms deeply seeded in the fabric of my everyday life. Feeling the constant pressure to perform and succeed, I often felt competitive with other women at work who were vying for the scarce airtime to speak up. Dutifully assuming the good girl role, I often accepted others’ feedback as benchmarks for my self-worth, without ever questioning or examining the validity of their statements. Over time, I allowed the projections of my inner critic, that you’re not succinct enough, not assertive enough, not good enough, to drown out my own sense of self. My ears perked up for criticisms that called for improvements rather than praise or compliments that affirmed my strengths.

Before I knew it, I was simply perpetuating the role of a “model minority” that society had prescribed me - hard-working, obedient, uncomplaining, and self-reliant. Truth be told, at times, I did not feel safe to speak up, as the only woman of color in the room. I felt alone that I did not have an ally in the room to protect me from the political landmines. Speaking my truth became this delicate dance and I’d only seize the rare moments when I felt overpowered by my fervent passion to voice the needs of my customers. Over time, I developed a facade of projected strength, resilience and toughness by adopting a deeper voice in meetings and pushing through my overwhelming struggles. Those cover-ups only buried my truth deeper into the shadows.

On the relationship front, my personal power and identity had also been slowly etched away by what I later learned to be “internalized white oppression”. As the rose-tinted glow of our honeymoon phase wore off, I began to encounter frequent rifts that created ruptures not only in our relationship but also in my own identity. I started to internalize my experiences of white supremacy as my own, with a growing desire to gain these privileges by association. Slowly, as I adopted my partner’s beliefs, habits, and preferences, my own values and worth deteriorated into the abyss. What was more insidious was that my own internalized white oppression turned me against my own perceptions and attitudes towards my cultural values, individuality, and relevance. As my need for approval and belonging grew stronger, I slipped further and further away from the truth of who I am.

This all came crashing down when I took a social justice fellowship earlier this year. What started out as an education on anti-blackness turned into a trip down my own memory lane of close encounters with systemic racism. As if a veil had lifted, I was stunned at the realization that I had been both the perpetrator and victim of this insidious cycle of oppression and disempowerment. Anger, rage, and disappointment sank deep into my bones.

Since then, I vowed to vigilantly survey the unconscious roles I may be playing and whether I am perpetuating or dismantling stereotypical paradigms. What I realized is that at any point in time, I am made up of my past, present, and future. The best thing I can do is to own all of my experiences but not let those experiences define who I am. I have since reclaimed my own worth and know that I am worth so much more than any labels placed upon me because of my skin color or gender. At the same time, I am deeply humbled by the privileges that I do hold and committed myself to use the privileges I have to bring forth a more just and equitable society.

My heroine’s journey led me to recognize that I am a unique human being, with distinctive personalities, traits, passions, purpose, gifts, and talents to share with the world. I have learned to embrace my true colors and to have compassion for all parts of myself. More importantly, this journey fueled my deeper purpose, to combat the distortions of our reality that deviate us from our Truth. That is why I created Permission to Become, with a mission to defy social stereotypes through the power of storytelling so that we can step into the beauty and grace of our Truth.

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