Updated: Mar 13
Dear Asian Youth,
When I was young, all that I ever wanted to do was please others. I wanted to be the popular, sociable girl that everyone thought was their friend. I wanted to be the hot, white girl that all the boys wanted in the movies. In reality, I was the frail and awkward snaggle toothed girl that only could dream of being the main character of her own story. I yearned for the acceptance of my peers, wanting to consistently make sure that they liked me, and hoped that their validation would grant me the satisfaction and happiness that I had been craving for so long.
I started putting on a bit for some of my friends in my math class with an Asian accent, to which they got a laugh out of. I would emulate the accents and broken English that I would hear in my own home, mispronouncing words and changing sentence structure to make it seem that I could not speak English properly. This translated outside of my friends in math class, as I carried it with me as a tool to get other people to like me. I thought it had made me seem more approachable and funny. It was something that made me feel like for once I was likeable. It was a bit that they always laughed at, and continued to laugh at for years.
Largely in the media, the use of the Asian accent is represented in the light of a joke. This comes at the expense, however, of those Asian American people who have to deal with their struggles being portrayed as a joke. There are many instances of casual racism in American television and media. Besides the recent “fox-eye trend”, or the profiting off of traditional cultural items, the casual racism that Asian Americans are subjected to everyday has created an environment where other people feel that they are allowed to perpetuate the same racist acts seen in the media. In an article by Vox, the author says, “Continuing to push forward sure feels like the goal for me and millions of Asian Americans and other minorities who were born here but are consistently othered by comedy, whether offensive or lazy, and the first-generation immigrants who will continue to arrive here and be marked as foreign by how they look and talk” (Kumar). The idea of making fun of Asian Americans for their differences to everyone else is an idea largely normalized in society, to the point that we have also become used to the mockery. The Asian accent, and other subtly racist Asian remarks is something that many deal with trying to assimilate with other peers who are majority white. Everyone wants to fit in when they are younger, and we are taught that we should, or else we will be punished for it.
It wasn’t until freshman year that I contextualized what I had done to not only myself, but my parents, my family, and my heritage. I was giving them permission to laugh at something that they should not have. They had grown comfortable with laughing at Asians, because I had made it seem like it had been okay to laugh at it. I had created a space in which my white peers could freely express their prejudice against my community in the name of comedic exercise. They had not been laughing with me, but at me. They were laughing at my family, and the sounds that they would make trying to utter difficult words in a language that was foreign to them. They were laughing at my parents, who as hard as they tried to cultivate a peaceful life in a strange place, would encounter racism. They were laughing at me, and the ethnicity that I thought I had been proud of but was realistically trying to actively hide as part of my identity.
My parents have always been proud and set in their identity, and made sure that even though they lived in America, would keep Vietnamese traditions for our family, and make Vietnamese dishes. I grew up in a larger vietnamese population than others. Even though I know this, I still can not grasp the privilege of being surrounded by those who look like me in comparison to others who may not know even a single Asian kid in their school. I was raised to love and know my culture, and yet had attacked it without any other thought committing an act of casual racism against my own people and those that had loved me.
My parent’s broken language was a result of trying to learn english at a late stage of immigrating to the U.S., trying to find themselves jobs, cars, education, money, and a better future. They had tried their hardest to make a better future for my brother and I, and I had taken their hardship and utilized it to get a laugh from people that I have not talked to in years. They had immigrated later than many, and had to find ways to make ends meet quickly. My mother went to cosmetology school in order to get her certification fast to get enough money to provide for herself, her 5 other siblings, and her mom. The hardships that families go through during and after immigration, are ones that we as children born in America may never come to completely understand.
My mother had sat me down with my brother at one point, and explained how sad it had made her feel that we had mocked her accent, and how much she has struggled to learn English throughout her life. The countless amounts of racist encounters that she had at work, on the streets, and when meeting other people. I had grown up privileged enough to know other people that were the same ethnic background as me, and also know that I had ways to express my culture. Even with all of that support, there was a way in which I still had expressed my self loathe and my culture in order to make myself appear just like everyone else. Growing up Asian American, the feeling of wanting to be white, or being made to feel embarrassed of one’s culture is something that many can relate to. We want to both appease our peers and be everything that they are, but at the same time, reflect the ideals that our parents came to this country with, and our culture. We are forced to be the same as our white peers, in fear of being bullied for being different, even though we have a world of culture in our background.
In the midst of all of the jokes, I had realized my own internalized racism towards my own ethnicity had contributed to an environment where my parents could be laughed at, and bullied for something out of their control. The small amount of validation that I had been seeking every time I had mocked broken English didn’t seem worth it anymore, as they were at the expense of my loved ones. The validation that I had grown up wanting from other people was not that I wanted anymore, and I recognize now how much I love and value the culture that I was born into and how much my Asian heritage means to me. The use of an Asian accent, whether in the media, or just between yourself and others is unjustifiable. By setting the precedent that Asian Americans will no longer take the casual racism that we were made to receive, our peers will understand that they can’t and should not make those jokes anymore, as they reflect the bias and prejudices that they have against those that are different than themselves.
Kumar, Naveen. “Asian American Racism Is the Unfunny Joke the Comedy World Needs to Reckon With.” Vox, Vox, 15 Jan. 2020, www.vox.com/the-highlight/2020/1/15/21065939/comedy-racism-asian-american-rosie-odonnell-shane-gillis-awkwafina-ali-wong.
This piece is meant to give my opinion and experience with the mocking of Asian accents, as it is used many times in media, and how that may affect those that do have accents and broken English in America.
Hi! I'm Joshlyn Khuu, a 19 year old college student attending University of California, Riverside. I am currently majoring in Political Science and was drawn to this page based on its content and writings that were relatable to many different asian americans such as me.
Cover Photo Source: NPR