Asian parties always felt like the betting booth of a horse race. And the children, the race horses that were being bet on, under a superficial sheen of nicety.
On the East Coast, where Asian-Americans aren’t as populous, we primarily congregated in evangelical church communities that extend into community gatherings. Church communities and “small group worship sessions” became vehicles for socializing and exchanging of gossip, recipes, news, and parenting tips. Saturday nights were usually reserved for what the kids referred to as “Asian parties,” potluck dinners that gathered the Chinese community at a different house each night, where everyone brought their master dishes and their children of all ages.
Everyone left their shoes at the door, and placed the steaming platters of cuisine, spicy salted dishes from southern China, watery broths from northern China, bamboo sprouts, chicken kidneys, and all those other delicacies that I would never eat at home. Children got to eat first, and we all used foam plates and plastic forks—American utensils for a hodge-podge of Chinese dishes—a microcosm of the food of China, if you will.
I never enjoyed them. I was always wary of how the parents spoke about their children, having mastered the “humble-brag.” I always hated how my mother would come back into the car in the dark with an empty platter, whispering, “Joy’s sister goes to Princeton. Her mom said that she moved to the district in 10th grade, and immediately the next year, a white boy asked her to prom. Her mom didn’t want her dating seriously because it would distract her from her studies, but she got into Princeton, so it was okay.”
That was my freshman year of high school, back when the Ivy-bound older siblings were still presented as role models and their paths of Ivy-hood as exact guidelines to follow. It was unstated, but the moment Joy’s mother laughed modestly and humble-bragged, “The boy really wanted to date her, but I had to warn her not to get distracted,” and all the other parents chuckled, each and every one of them was appraising the relative “success” of their own child in comparison.
My mother had said in the car immediately after, “I don’t expect you to be like that or anything. You can just go to Penn State.” She always tried her best to not be like “all the other Asian parents.”
But the pressure was on anyway. If not for my mom and her unspoken hopes, for myself. To show up every other Asian-American kid in our immediate circles. Every other competitor.
And that is what frightens me most both in myself, and in the Asian-American community at large—how we all see each other as competitors.
I’m no longer the timid freshman sighing in despair at ever becoming Joy’s sister. After my Harvard acceptance (the ultimate golden ticket to becoming the subject of conversation at Asian parties), I am now the one that parents hold up as an example.
It sickens me to see this in myself, but part of me feels vindicated—as if for all those years, the Asian community held over me all these icons to live up to—Joy’s sister, Allison’s brother—and all of a sudden, I had proven myself worthy. My parents were the ones who could humblebrag now, my mother modestly chuckling that she really didn’t use any special parenting techniques. Part of me was proud that I had entered the special subsection of children to be used as role models, whose paths were to be emulated.
But the other part of me fears success because it means that I will have people chasing at my heels, trying to follow exactly in my footsteps. After Jeremy Lin’s success story, so inspirational to the Chinese-American community, supposedly Lin’s mother was bombarded with the question: “What sport should I have my child play so he can also get into Harvard?”
I have no doubt that younger teens are being pulled into cars with similar urgent whispers to what I received.
The competition doesn’t end though, with the college acceptance. This is what sickens me most.
My mother stops me at the door, after we’ve kicked off our shoes into the giant pile at the front of an otherwise westernized and pristine doorstop, and murmurs under her breath, “Don’t tell the host’s daughter anything. She’s ambitious, and could easily copy you. Her mom is sly and also from the northeast region of the mainland. She invited us here today for a reason.”
The door opened immediately, and my mother immediately smiled broadly, the ends of her mouth pulled up as if by puppet strings. The host reciprocated, her mascara-laden eyes crinkling as she greets my mother like an old friend. They had only met once.
I can’t do this anymore.
I’m a social justice advocate. I stand up for the women and minorities against oppression. I’m going to college in two weeks. Harvard is almost a fifth Asian-American. I cannot go in seeing every Chinese-American, specifically every Chinese-American girl as a competitor. It goes against my principles. It goes against everything I stand for.
And yet, it’s an ingrained part of me and the culture that I’ve been raised in.
And yet I know that, given the information and given a chance, other parents will push their children into the fields that I am passionate about for the sake of getting them into college.
Perhaps it’s because somewhere subconsciously, we know that there is limited room for Asian-Americans at top schools and at the elite tier of society that is still closed to us by the so-called bamboo ceiling. There is only room for so many ambitious Chinese girls from Philadelphia at the table, and that is why I must view all the others as competitors, especially if they are too similar to me. Westerners and white people will see us all as interchangeable, only accepting us as “the token Asian,” and so, we must not only beat out all the other races, but first and foremost beat out each other.
Attend Asian parties because these are people who speak your language. Smile and socialize, because this is your community, the people who you can finally relax around. Stay on guard at all times, because these are also your fiercest competitors.
In order for Asian-Americans to succeed as a whole, we need to stop being crabs in a barrel—pulling each other down and trampling one another en route to the top. We need to instead work together to overcome all of the societal factors that are working against us. We need to stop stereotyping one another and fancying ourselves “the only exception.” We need to instead recognize the lie of the stereotype and the individuality of each Asian-American that we formerly viewed as just another clone competitor.
But it’s difficult. It’s a culture of rivalry that is intensely difficult to break free of while still maintaining connections with the community. It’s a race that I can never stop running.