Not "Asian" Enough

Dear Asian Youth,


When I was growing up, I had always known I was Asian. It sounds silly, but being Asian seemed like an integral part of my life; I ate the foods, followed our traditions and customs, was involved with Filipino organizations, and had many Filipino friends. Being Asian was, and is, a very important part of my life.


Throughout the fourteen years I have lived, I’ve been involved in many career-based clubs, for my parents are always suggesting that I join organizations like FBLA, HOSA, and many others. Many Asians encourage getting involved in STEM and other “academic” clubs and activities, but I’ve never found a complete interest in that area. I’ve always known that being Asian was a significant aspect of my life, but because of this, I’ve never been sure if I’m worthy of calling it mine.


In elementary school, I thought of myself as an amazing student; I got astounding grades (even though they didn’t really matter), rarely got in trouble, and had a lot of friends. At the time, I was extremely proud because doing well felt like a part of my identity as a Filipino. Every now and then, I would get a comment like, “You’re only smart because you're Asian,” and I would think to myself, “Wow, I’m living up to my Filipino heritage!” At the time, being Filipino, and being Asian in general, meant absolutely nothing but good grades.


In elementary school, many things about yourself go unnoticed. I was entirely aware of the fact that I was Asian, yet I didn’t understand the weight behind it; I couldn’t have told you what it’s like to be an immigrant or what it’s like to come from poverty. I wasn’t able to comprehend what being Asian meant to my parents, or why we’re always so proud of our heritage.


Along came middle school.


In middle school, my self-esteem skyrocketed. I had moved to a new county, and it was an entirely new experience. I played the trumpet in band and genuinely believed that I was the most talented person in the room because I was able to get high grades and be amazing at playing an instrument at the same time. I believed I had the organizational skills and capabilities to manage both, and thought of myself as the most responsible person ever, the model student.


My parents always told me how proud of me they were: “Study hard,” they would always say, “get a job that makes a lot of money.” I had always told people that I wanted to be a doctor even though I had no idea what they did. I just wanted money and to make my parents happy.


But things changed when I discovered my love for theatre.


The summer before eighth grade, I auditioned for a musical at a nearby community theater. It wasn’t my first, but I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to get involved with other theatrical opportunities in my area.


Throughout the rehearsal process, I had thought to myself, “This is something that I know that I love and need.” Theatre is a tight-knit industry, and you’re constantly working with others to create a complex work of art, handcrafted to touch the hearts of those who experience it. Performing brought out the best in me: I was able to express myself as a writer and musician, and my social hunger was more-than-satisfied on the stage. I remember hearing all the different voice parts come together in each and every song, dripping sweat for the entire hour-and-a-half that the show ran. I remember scurrying around the stage, dancing with my new friends that understood me even though I had only known them for a couple weeks.


A couple days before opening night, one of my family members had said, “You know that this is a one-time thing, right? From now on, you’ll focus on school, okay?”


This was not a new thought. At the time, I had always believed that I would never do it as a career, but for the time being, I loved being onstage.


For my whole life, school had always been my top priority. I had wanted to get good grades and set an example for others. I had wanted to show my parents that I’d pay back their struggle of immigrating to America to do even more.


But when theatre came into my life, I couldn’t help but think there was more to being a student than spending your days reading and writing. I didn’t want to just crunch numbers and write essays; I wanted to live.


Theatre made me live.


It was at that moment at the table, I had realised a thought in the back of my mind that I had never faced.


I was a disappointment to my family.


My parents were immigrants who fought to get here; both of them were the most diligent people I’ve ever known, willing to sacrifice whatever to help others. They’re great at being Asian, I thought.


My older sister was three years older than me. She would take classes about healthcare, engineering, science, and generally “academic” topics. She dreamt of having a job in the medical field and worked so hard to achieve that goal. She’s great at being Asian, I thought.


And there I was.


A theatre kid with no purpose other than schoolwork.


I’m awful at being Asian.


Flash forward to a couple months later. I had just gotten a 96% on a quiz in Science, and though I didn’t consider it my strongest subject, I enjoyed the class. I got home and over dinner, my mom asked, “Do you think that you’ll get the Sterling Scholar award?”


The Sterling Scholar award went to the student with the highest grade-point-average at the end of the year. I had won it at the end of seventh grade, so winning it again would’ve been a great achievement (spoiler alert: I didn’t).


Right after she asked the question, I crumbled. The fear of being a disappointment overcame me. She wasn’t even upset, just concerned, but I began to sob. She’s mad about a 96%? I pondered. I couldn’t stop; school had become too much to handle for me.


A 96% isn’t good enough for an Asian.


After the pandemic struck and we were all forced into quarantine, my mom, sister, and I watched the school’s end-of-year awards ceremony on YouTube. When we found that I didn’t win the Sterling Scholar award, my mom said to me, “Let’s focus on school next year, okay?”


“Okay,” I responded.


Maybe if I hadn’t done that show in the winter, I’d be at the top. Maybe if I hadn’t auditioned for that show, I would be getting recognized for having the highest GPA.


I’ve always been an excellent student, but I didn’t want to return to devoting my days to school. I felt that an entire part of my life was being erased, but I also didn’t want to disobey my mother and be even more of a disappointment.


I had done great that year with my average above a 99%. I thought I had done amazing in my studies.


Yet I still didn’t feel like I was fulfilling my expectations..


From now on, I’m gonna be the “Asian” that I’m supposed to be.


I had planned on dedicating the rest of my life to being a brainiac and being praised for my devotion to my excellence in academics.


But over the course of the next few months as I spent my summer playing the guitar and missing my friends, I realized doing that was unfair to everybody. It was unfair to me. I am much more than a scholar, and trying to nullify the love I had for the arts was like erasing a part of myself.


Sacrificing my passions to be a “true Asian” was stupid because in reality, there is no such thing. Being a ”true Asian” isn’t about good grades or being the president of a STEM-related club like people’s expectations have you think.


Expectations and stereotypes do not define me, I thought.


They do not define being Asian.


To me, being Asian is about pride. I know that I’m Asian, and I want everybody to know that I’m Asian; it’s one of my greatest “accomplishments.” Even though I don’t know everything about my culture, it’s a part of who I am, and I share it whenever I can.


To me, being Asian is about being true. From my personal experiences, Filipinos are, at heart, hard workers who root everything in loving others. As someone who’s overly-social, I have always strived to be better in both my academic life and my personal life. And that’s part of what makes me love musical theatre, something which I can’t deny.


I’m still a devout student. I spend most of my time studying for quizzes and doing homework with my friends. I dream of going into healthcare or law, being a performer or just an advocate of the arts on the side whenever the opportunity arises.


And that’s because being Asian is simply a matter of being you.


As someone who has been extremely conflicted about my identity as an Asian, I’d like to tell you one thing:


It will be okay.


You can be extroverted and Asian. You can be artistic and Asian. You can be absolutely anything and Asian.


You may not know everything about your heritage. You may not like everything about it. You may not fit into the stereotypes, and you might even be ridiculed for it.


But all in all, it’s a part of you.


Being Asian is less about the “Asian.” It’s all about the “being.”


- Sebastian Paragas


Cover photo source: freepik.com