Pebble Beach in Taitung, Taiwan. (Image courtesy of Devon Chang)
Beacon High School

Column: Not enough about me

A wave comes, a wave crashes.

You throw your trust in the hands of the water currents, pressuring your limbs to be free of tension, just to stay afloat. You must be willing in the hands of the currents, to permit your body to adapt to the motion of these forces, swaying you side to side, up and down, forward then sometimes back again. Circling between directions like you are in a waltz with the water, you dance through the song just to end up where you started. But you cannot predict the next wave that hurls up in front of you, swallowing your entirety.

You are compliant to affirm the power in this sea of vulnerability, but how does one ever navigate forward in these vast and unpredictable waters?

Remind yourself that the space between where your skin ends and breaks the water surface is nearly invisible, but the force that keeps you afloat is powerful and resilient, and so are you. 

The increase in recent violent attacks toward Asian Americans has created an additional purpose for me to find space within myself, to reflect on what it means to be a member of the AAPI community in our world today.

NBC reported a 150% increase in violent attacks towards Asians in NYC and LA alone. It has left me, a 15-year-old Taiwanese American living in NYC, distraught in my own thinking. Attempts to digest recent news has been difficult for me and undoubtedly for those around the country too.

Drawing attention toward AAPI Heritage Month, I continue exploring my journey with my own identity, and how to understand and define it for myself in order to move forward

I consider the first time the question of identity truly came up in my life as a stopping moment and a time of confusion that would eventually prompt me into hours of reflection. In a state of foggy uncertainties, my first reflection could be traced back to the beginning of middle school. 

I attended middle school situated on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, heavily populated by a white and Jewish demographic. Normalized lifestyle and social aspects that shaped the culture of my school became predictable. Naturally, I picked up these norms quickly, and within my one year at middle school, I was attending my friends Bat Mitzvahs on Saturday evenings, engaging in similar pastimes and using the same local colloquialisms.

Flowing with the movement of those around me, I always saw my fitting in just as much of an organic process and a universal experience to the person next to me. Never stemming from a place of hatred or desire to reject my heritage.

What I was yet to realize were the complexities that revolved around fitting in with my largely non-Asian community, because of who I already was in the minds of others. A sense of seamlessness, disrupting a desire to pursue pre-planted definitions that were slapped across my face like a nametag from the moment we met. 

It struck me the hardest when all of which I allowed to happen naturally, was verbalized in a manner that was so direct it forced me to stop.

I remember when she opened her mouth: “Dev, you know you’re like normal for an Asian person right.”

I stopped. Stopped in the movement of thought and stopped in my steady adaptation that had no previous waves.

I remember the utter confusion and struggle to locate words to label my immediate emotion. I didn’t know how to feel. How should I feel? 

I was not quick to deny it. 

I questioned why I so casually confirmed her words I had yet to even understand. My close friend, someone I knew well. I couldn’t help but allow my mind to trail and wonder, what is implied by normal? Am I abandoning my Asian heritage by being normal? How much of it am I letting slip away?

And that was just the start. The first of many. Something that eventually became so normalized I had let it slip by as easily as floating mindlessly on gentle waters.  

By the end of that year, I’d received several variations of the same type of micro-aggression that took place in the form of “you’re white for an Asian person or “well, you’re not like Asian Asian.” 

I had yet the ability to pinpoint the exact “wrongness,” but I knew that in my way of questioning, that something about it wasn’t right. By tolerating these reactions from my peers that were in a state of unfamiliarity, I wasn’t frozen, but rather trapped within a space created by them, and unable to move forward. I was coasting — in circles — just to stay afloat. A temporary fix. 

A trip to Taipei, Taiwan over the summer before eighth grade offered me another opportunity to reflect on my identity in a significant yet unanticipated way. I attended a two-week cultural camp with other kids from all over the US of Taiwanese heritage.

Of course, one of the first activities we had was to introduce ourselves, including our hobbies and interests. It was a small group of only about 15 teens, so though the camp was short, we got to know each other quickly. Separated by a sea that stretched 7781 miles from the place where I was “normal for an Asian,” I was told: “You’re such a banana.”

Before I could even laugh about it, I paused. Stunned by that remark, I finally obtained that sense of familiarity I had craved so much from being far from home, in the most unexpected of ways.

I found myself receiving the same comments, even by a group of people that were supposed to be considered “my own.” Being “normal” for an Asian also meant not being a “normal” Asian. 

Trapped between two worlds, somehow I ended up somewhere in between. Where do I belong? And to fit in. In within a space that was not made by my own.

I wanted out. I wanted my own.

A growing feeling of desire to be set free, how do I move forward? 

I decided to name this ocean, this journey, a journey of culture. One not limited to a single definition, especially if it is not your own. Something fluid, ever-changing, indefinite. 

I learned to never feel, or allow myself to be limited to single-story definitions of who I should be in the minds of others. Natural and impulsive reactions born purely out of a state of unfamiliarity with my state of being, in fact, a state that I was unfamiliar with myself.

Rather than forcing limitations created by external forces, I accept these unpredictable waves of uncertainty and confusion and shape them into growth and new understanding to push me forward. In doing so, I prioritized creating my own path, to break free of the space I learned to fit within.

With that, I expand my own culture, culture not defined solely by heritage, but culture defined by acceptance of experience. Every day I draw in a new wave of life experience, a new aspect of the culture around me, continuously shaping my unique identity, letting each wave propel me forward and reveal itself as another piece of me. 

This journey is everlasting, broad and filled with uncertainties. It changes every day.

I know there will be moments where it feels progressive, moments where everything feels stuck and of course moments where I feel like I’m on the brink of sinking. Every challenge, every new direction and even every stop will be fuel for me to move forward. 

One thing is for sure, I know my journey has only just begun.