Growing up Taiwanese American in Indiana
Originally published on my website: rebeccaxliu.com
I’m Taiwanese American, and I was born and raised in Indiana. I never thought there was anything special about the intersection of these two identities until I moved to California. Since moving here last year, I’ve received a lot of raised eyebrows and questions whenever I tell people I’m from Indiana. “I’ve never met an Asian from Indiana!” people remark curiously. This surprised me initially, but I realized that many Asian Americans grow up in or around large cities like NYC, SF, LA, Dallas, Chicago, Houston, or Boston.
In my experience, a lot of Asian Americans in California have never lived in another state or experienced what it’s like to be in the minority. During a meeting at work last year, one of my (Asian) coworkers had to read off a few states in the Midwest. As she struggled to pronounce “Illinois”, “Michigan”, and “Indiana”, I struggled to stifle my laughter. After the meeting, she messaged me and joked that this is how people can tell she’s never left California.
Context: My parents immigrated to the Midwest from Taiwan in their late 20s. One set of my grandparents was born in China, while the other set was born in Taiwan. I was born and raised outside of a college town in Indiana and am a second generation Taiwanese American.
The town that I went to high school in has a population of 50,000 and is 2% Asian American. By comparison, San Francisco is 36% Asian American.
I’ve previously written about a smorgasbord of Asian American experiences I’ve had, but here I wanted to focus on my time in Indiana. Disclaimers: Of course, this is based on my personal experiences and is therefore not representative of others’ experiences (even if they also grew up Asian American in the Midwest!). This is also only a snippet of my experiences growing up and is not meant to be comprehensive.
Things that stand out to me about growing up Taiwanese American in Indiana:
1. Growing up around so few Asian Americans, I let my parents’ Asian identities eclipse their other personality traits. I always wondered if my parents were weird because we were Asian or just because they were weird (in their own endearing ways, of course). My parents were the most salient manifestation of Taiwanese culture for me, so everything they did I interpreted as byproducts of their Asian identities. My dad was strict about grades — he was furious for almost the entirety of my sophomore year of high school when I got a B+ in AP Biology and a 201 on the PSAT. Even though this was incredibly annoying, I thought this was just what a quintessential Asian parent was like. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that not all Asian parents are tiger parents (and not all tiger parents are Asian).
My parents had other quirks that I associated with being Asian. We didn’t have Costco in my town when I was growing up, but we had Sam’s Club. My dad was incredibly skeptical of Sam’s Club, saying that we didn’t need to buy such large quantities of things and questioning whether things were actually cheaper at Sam’s Club. I thought this aversion toward Sam’s Club (and similarly Costco) was a trait shared by all Asians. I was incredibly surprised years later when I realized the central role Costco actually plays in so many Asian Americans’ lives. Growing up with so few Asian Americans made me wrongly assume that my parents were representative of the entire Taiwanese or even Asian population.
2. I wasn’t very in touch with my Taiwanese or Chinese heritage. When I was younger, my family ate simple Chinese dishes like tomato and egg or fried rice, but there were also plenty of pizza rolls, lasagna, and Applebee’s in my diet. There were only a couple of Asian grocery stores (definitely no 99 Ranch or H Mart) and they weren’t particularly close by. Chinese is my first language, but by the time I went to kindergarten (or maybe even preschool), I would speak to my parents in English while they responded in Chinese. There weren’t a lot of people willing or able to teach Chinese school, so I only attended for a year or two. I went to Taiwan for a few years in my childhood; while I loved the Yakult, Pocari Sweat (there’s a lot of Japanese influence in Taiwan because of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan), and 711 cold noodles from these visits (I was not a fan of the taro they put in cakes though), I didn’t feel particular ties to the island.
This started to change in college when I took Chinese classes (to fulfill the language requirement), studied abroad in Beijing, and started hanging out with more Asian Americans.
I love that I’m more in touch with my Taiwanese and Chinese heritage now, but I don’t blame my parents for not preserving it more diligently throughout my childhood. There wasn’t a lot of support or existing infrastructure in Indiana, and they had enough on their plates raising children after immigrating to a foreign country.
3. Maybe because of this lack of cultural foundation, I didn’t feel terribly out of place for being Asian. Through interviewing other Asian Americans who didn’t grow up in California or NYC or Texas (or anywhere else surrounded by other Asians), I’ve realized a lot of people feel bad about being Asian or wished they weren’t Asian when they were younger. It’s understandably easy and natural to feel out of place when you’re the only Asian in a predominantly white town. I’m not disparaging or invalidating any of their experiences, but for the most part, I didn’t really feel that way (I was also lucky to not be the literal only Asian American in my school). I wasn’t popular growing up — not because I was Asian, but because I was pretty shy for a long time. There were some other Asian kids at my high school who were considered conventionally popular. I outgrew my shyness as I got older, and by senior year of high school, I felt pretty well-liked and well-known within my classes. Even on my basketball and cross country teams (where I was sometimes the only Asian person), I usually felt pretty included and just like a normal kid. I made a lot of really incredible (white and non-white) friends who never treated me differently and are / were really supportive.
4. In fact, I was pretty proud of being Asian American thanks to the model minority myth. Growing up, I heavily internalized the model minority myth.
(Brief aside on the model minority myth although you should really read the linked article above — model minority MYTH assumes that all Asian Americans are successful and that immigrants from non-Asian countries simply need to work hard to be successful like Asian Americans. It’s dangerous because 1) While Asian Americans have the highest income out of all races in the US, Asian Americans also have the highest income inequality. In 2015, the national poverty rate was 15.1%, but 28.3% for Hmong Americans. 2) It drives a wedge between Asian Americans and other minorities and pits us against one another. Other minorities face different stigma because of their different history in the US, so even when they “work hard like Asians,” they’re subject to other prejudices. 3) The majority of Asian immigrants who came to the US after 1965 are considered high-skilled. This is because the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended the Chinese Exclusion Act, created a preference system that prioritized which types of immigrants could come to the US. This Act gave priority to professionals with specialized skills and gave refugees last priority.)
I didn’t learn about how pernicious the model minority myth was until I left Indiana. Instead, I completely bought into it and growing up, it gave me a lot of pride about being Asian. I thought I was part of a special group of hardworking and naturally intelligent people.
This is pretty unhealthy and toxic on my part, but at the same time, I’m glad I had this sense of pride (although ideally I wouldn’t have to make a choice between wishing I wasn’t Asian versus thinking I was superior because I’m Asian). So while I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about Chinese or Taiwanese food or culture when I was growing up, I did have a perpetual, underlying sense of pride for being Asian.
5. I spent time with a lot of other children of immigrants. When I started high school, my class (not the entire school) was just shy of 1,000 students. Because my high school was so big, I didn’t know every single Asian person I went to high school with. There wasn’t an Asian clique at my school. Instead, I mainly hung out with people who were in my (AP) classes. In the beginning of high school, there would be maybe zero or one other East Asian student in my classes. Toward the end of high school, that number was closer to four or five. That’s not a lot for a class of 1,000, but it’s not bad when you’re in a classroom of 30 students. Partially because I grew up outside a college town, I also hung out with a lot of other children of immigrants or 1.5 gen immigrants; my friends’ parents were from countries like China, Taiwan, Korea, Russia, Poland, Greek, Italy, Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. We didn’t explicitly dwell on the fact that we were all children of immigrants, but it’s probably partially why we gravitated toward one another.
There were a few first generation Asian immigrants in my classes and while I didn’t exclude them from anything, I also never went out of my way to include them. I regret this, but at the time I felt more similar to my American classmates than to these Asian immigrants.
6. Within Asian communities, I did sometimes feel out of place. I feel a little ambivalent about the term “Asian American.” Overall I love having this shared identity and feeling united with people from other Asian countries. But it’s interesting to note that a lot of Asian countries (and as a result, a lot of Asians and even some Asian Americans) don’t like each other. Even (or especially) in East Asia, there’s a lot of complicated history and animosity between China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea (e.g., Japanese occupation of Korea, the previously mentioned Japanese occupation of Taiwan, Japan in World War II, potentially impending Chinese invasion of Taiwan).
As a child, these dynamics manifested in my day to day life, but I didn’t have the historical context to understand why. I sometimes felt ostracized from the Chinese American community. There’s a pretty small Chinese American community where I grew up (which you’ve probably or definitely gleaned by now) and an even smaller Taiwanese American community. Growing up, I didn’t take Chinese lessons with other Chinese kids, carpool with other Chinese kids (until I made a fuss about it to my parents), or attend family parties with other Chinese kids. There are good reasons for some of this: Mainland China uses simplified Chinese characters while Taiwan uses traditional characters, so we’re learning different things (i.e., characters) in our Chinese classes. In other instances, the parents probably felt like they had more in common with those from their own country and weren’t excluding us out of ill will. That’s totally fair and I understand that more now, but growing up I always wondered why my family wasn’t invited to certain parties. While there were some Taiwanese gatherings, I was always better friends with the Chinese American kids, so those were the events I longingly wished to attend.
7. In matters of the heart, I subconsciously gravitated toward other Asian Americans. I never really dated in Indiana, but when I was younger I had my fair share of unrequited crushes on gregarious white guys who were smart or class clowns. In high school, I was inexplicably drawn to one of the only (if not the only) Taiwanese American guys in my grade. He was objectively a catch — tall, smart, popular, athletic, and funny. But I (fortunately) knew a lot of other guys with these characteristics, and my crush and I barely talked throughout high school (so I wasn’t exactly into him because of any magical connection). Part of me felt like he was the most attainable choice because there weren’t that many other (Asian) choices, but another part of me implicitly recognized the benefits of dating someone who shared my culture.
8. There was a lot of racism, mostly in the form of microaggressions. I’ve been called the wrong name so many times — in elementary school, a teacher called me “Elizabeth,” because it was the name of a Korean American student she had had over five years ago. In middle school, a math teacher nicknamed me and my Chinese American friend “twins”. In high school, people would make jokes about me being good at math because I’m Asian. I recently talked with a Chinese American friend I grew up with, and he mentioned that people would make “Chinese sounds” (e.g., ching chong) to him in middle school and ask if he could do karate. I had a white friend who would tell me how “cute” my dad looked while singing in the church choir — problematic because immigrant adults are frequently infantilized (e.g., being talked down to and asked if they speak English) while children of immigrants are frequently treated as adults (e.g., translating for their parents). In college, one of my high school friends met an Asian girl at a party; he knew so few Asians growing up that seeing another Asian girl reminded him of me. The list goes on and on. As a kid, I didn’t recognize this as racism necessarily (which is also why I didn’t feel out of place for being Asian), but as an adult, I certainly do.
9. Despite the microaggressions, people are generally well-intentioned. But that’s not enough. I’m not saying this to absolve any of the people I grew up with. I’m saying this, because I think people (at least the ones I grew up with) generally want to better support minorities — they just don’t know how because they aren’t familiar with other cultures. People might actually think they’re being funny or building camaraderie when they’re exhibiting these microaggressions.
In June 2020, I watched an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” about policing and the history and rise of violence toward Black people in America. The tone of the episode was basically “if you don’t immediately support defunding the police, aren’t actively protesting, and aren’t an expert about the history of white supremacy in the US, then F you, you’re racist scum, and a lost cause.” After watching this 30-minute episode, my friend turned to me and unironically and enthusiastically asked, “that was pretty good, right?”. I was speechless.
This is probably the most controversial point I’m going to make. I think stuff like that video is harmful and divisive, because a lot of (white and non-white) people need time to educate themselves about the history of racism and white supremacy in the US. A lot of white people don’t intuitively grasp what it’s like being a minority in America, and a lot of minorities don’t critically think about their experiences as a minority (I certainly didn’t when I was growing up). Yes, I think it’d be great (obviously) if we all instinctively understood each other’s experiences, but it takes time to build that level of understanding. When we grow up thinking that the world is fair and just, it can be kind of a shock to learn about all the rampant inequity that exists. In school, we mainly learn about white people’s history, so people really have to go out of their way to learn about the experiences of other people. I try to read a lot, but I’ll admit that I’m not the expert on what it’s like to be Black, Latinx, or even a different Asian ethnicity (there are a lot of countries in Asia, after all!) in America.
I try not to patronize people and immediately expect them to grasp why something they’re saying or doing is racist. A lot of minorities say that the burden of educating white people shouldn’t be on us, because it’s bad enough that we already have to go through these experiences once — can’t white people Google and do the work themselves? While I understand and empathize with that mentality, I actually am very eager to help white (and non-Asian) people learn more about and understand my Asian American experiences. Storytelling is one of the best and most effective ways of building empathy and who better to tell my story than me? My story isn’t representative of all Asian Americans’ of course, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Yes, I get tired too, and I don’t want to talk about “Asian stuff” all the time. There are other topics I’m interested in exploring like universally gut-wrenching experiences like heartbreak, the importance of building community in higher education, and how to get more people working in socially impactful jobs. Yes, it would be great for people to read books like Crying in H Mart, Chemistry, and Minor Feelings of their own volition.
Overall, I’m really grateful that I grew up in Indiana, because it’s allowed me to better understand people who are different from me (e.g., white people). I know some Asian Americans who don’t know that many white people and frankly are a little wary of them. And I can’t really blame them — especially after 54% of white people voted for Trump in 2016. But having grown up in Indiana (and with a lot of white people), I also would love to be a bridge for people who don’t know that much about what it’s like being Asian American. Because if we disparage and isolate ourselves from one another, how are we going to learn from each other’s experiences? It’s important for people (everyone!) to learn about cultures other than our own, and that learning can be accelerated when we willingly and thoughtfully share our stories.
I’m also grateful that I left the Indiana, because I don’t know if I would be as proud of my culture otherwise. These days, being Asian permeates almost every facet of my life: I watch Chinese dramas to practice my Chinese; my refrigerator is stocked with longan, kimchi, and furikake; I wear slippers in my apartment; and I’m on the leadership committee for the Asian American affinity group at work.
I feel like I have the best of both worlds now, but I’m also not sure if I want my kids to grow up in the Midwest like I did. What I do know, however, is that we need to keep sharing stories and educating ourselves to create a more inclusive world.