Two weeks ago, I joined the Asian American Journalists Association.
My friends were quite surprised when I told them of my decision--not because they assumed that I already was a member, but because I've always resisted joining ethnic groups. What possessed me, they asked. I don't know; I think I just wanted to try to fit in.
I am from Asia--I'm Chinese by heritage--but I'm not American. I'm generally taken for an Asian American, though. It's easy to see why. I have black hair, yellow skin, dark-brown eyes. To outsiders, my American education and familiarity with this culture make me 150 percent Asian American.
That's not the way I think of myself. When I first arrived at college four years ago, I shunned every ethnic organization. I criticized my Asian American friends for choosing to segregate themselves from the rest of campus. I avoided large Asian American groups. After my freshman year in college, I was living the high life of the white majority. And in many ways, I felt justified in doing so: Why should I be concerned with the issues that Asian Americans face?
I was born in Hong Kong and grew up there and in Taiwan. I spent most of my life living in a predominantly Chinese society. All that time I was never in any doubt about my identity. Until I started school here, I was never judged by anything but my abilities.
I came to America to receive the best education I could. But perhaps my most poignant learning experiences have taken place outside the classroom. I've had to learn that who I am in America has been determined in part by my race. Ever since then I've struggled to resist the assumptions that I soon discovered were attached to my yellow skin. I had been assigned a role--the role of a minority--something I wasn't ready to be.
The concept of becoming a minority is probably foreign to anyone who was born here: In most people's eyes, you're either white or you're colored; you're in the majority or in the minority. Everything in this society--words, labels and impressions--seems to be framed in those clear-cut racial terms.
But for the 26 million foreign-born residents of the United States and the generations of immigrants who came before them, the line isn't drawn so clearly. The process of becoming a minority is something of an adventure. And for some of us, this process isn't a choice; it's more of a requirement.
On my college application forms, schools asked me to check my ethnic background. I remember checking "other," and writing next to the underline: Chinese. My counselor in my American high school advised me against doing that, to take advantage instead of the "privileges" that would come with selecting the box marked "Asian American," which would label me as a minority.
I don't think she or many of my teachers understood the baggage attached to becoming a minority. It's not an easy task. The role comes with certain political expectations and social requirements, such as supporting affirmative action, or understanding what it's like growing up in an all-white neighborhood, for example--experiences I didn't know how to relate to simply because I had never had to face them. And I didn't know how to explain my hesitation and confusion to my friends. It all comes down to an uncomfortable divide: My white friends in particular saw becoming a minority purely as a benefit; and, hearing my hesitation, my minority friends questioned my loyalty to my race. I can't reconcile the two. I wish they'd all just think of me as a person.
One friend at my college newspaper told me that I'd probably steal jobs away from people like him because I'm a minority and a woman. (He's white). I was dumbfounded. I didn't like thinking that I've progressed in life because of my skin color--and I still don't. Sure, I benefit from affirmative action policie. And I'm not naive about it. I have no doubt that conversations about my ethnicity have come up in decision-making processes. But I do believe--or at least want to believe--that my experiences and education play a more significant role than the color of my skin.
When my friend went on to call me an "affirmative action baby," I felt humiliated. I wanted to reject affirmative action, to denounce it. And I wanted to rid myself of all the cultural stigmas and associations that came with being a minority.
But as I've spent more time in this country, I've tried to find my place in the greater scheme of society, and to learn why affirmative action is important to minorities, and why diversification of the workplace and campuses is happening across the nation. Now, I'm beginning to feel the burden of historical discrimination and neglect that my Asian American friends carry. In ways, I feel as if I've made that crossover to becoming a minority, as ironic as that may seem since I still struggle with this role, still don't like the stereotypical associations the white majority makes about Asian minorities and still can't reconcile myself with the fact that I'm being judged in part by the way I look.
Nor am I completely comfortable with the way affirmative action is practiced today. Perhaps I never shall be. On the one hand, I like the principles on which the policy was established--to give underprivileged groups an opportunity to do things they might otherwise not have the chance to do. But I'm not so sure I like the results. It's ironic to think that a program designed in part to protect people from being judged by their race has ended up focusing attention on skin color. What's more, I feel some minorities believe that affirmative action is a right they are entitled to. I remember telling a friend I felt confused about where I stood on affirmative action. And one of her friends came up to me and asked me: How could you say that? How could you betray your own race?
Being a minority almost mandates picking a side, and I resent that. Side with the majority--and you're a "Twinkie" and "banished" from the core Asian American community. Side with the minorities--and the white majority rolls its eyes and says, "Typical."
Finding a middle ground between the two extremes seems almost impossible. Sometimes I want to say that I reject this minority role I've been assigned to, simply because I long for the certainty and assurance that I'm being judged by my abilities. But by doing so, I've also crossed the chalk line that separates whites from minorities. And in turn I've been ostracized by the minorities.
Perhaps that shouldn't really bother me: After all, I didn't grow up in a society like this one, where I would have to be socially conscious of my skin color and the opinions that come with being a colored person. I've never been told to get back on that boat; I've never had kids in second grade gawk and point at me in disgust while I ate my sushi lunch in the school cafeteria. As a Chinese who grew up in a Chinese society, I shouldn't feel ashamed if my opinions don't align with those of most American minorities. But I do feel a little guilt.
And while I'm not at ease being clumped together with the rest of America's Asians in one big ethnic grouping, I've listened to my minority friends describe with passion their experiences growing up in all-white neighborhoods, trying to define themselves as Americans first, minorities second. I've rallied with them against racial discrimination in university faculty hiring; I've talked to Asian American activists about their struggle to carve a niche in a predominantly black civil rights movement.
I've learned to appreciate the plight of Asian Americans, but I still resent that to fit in, I have to buy into a certain role and accept the baggage that comes with it.
So why join the Asian journalists group, my friends ask? I don't really have a good answer. Perhaps I'm a little weary from holding out. Or perhaps, after six years here, it's about time I learn to fit in as a minority. Most often, it's just much easier to nod and play that role.
That's life, I suppose. But I can't help feeling as if I've lost something on the way--it's hard to pinpoint what that is exactly. My intuition tells me that I might have given up a little bit of my precious idealism for some peace of mind, a trade-off I'm not sure is all that glorious.
Shu Shin Luh, an intern for the Business section of The Washington Post, came to the United States from Taiwan six years ago to attend high school and college.