Author’s Note: This article and its title are inspired by Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
My story isn’t unique at all. I grew up in a small predominantly White town. I could count the number of Asians in my grade with my left hand. Latinos take up both hands. Black with just my pointer finger. I’d need to resort to single strands of hair on my head to count the White students. I did not outright dislike this, but I was certainly always aware of these ratios and felt the effects of their consequences. I spent all of my K-12 education with these ratios. All of those thirteen years, I felt out of place and actively other-ized.
Admittedly, I was very introverted and I mostly found myself more interested in books and observing, rather than being involved. But reflecting on all of those years I realize maybe my personality, interests, and actions contributed to my peers seeing me as other. I wasn’t similar to them as a person and in so many little ways. My ways were foreign, so I was foreign. What I did and who I was, became “Asian” in their eyes. How I differed from them must have been explainable by my race. My lifestyle unfortunately reinforced the stereotypes they attributed to Asians. Thus, maybe then they thought it was okay, or continued to think it was okay to “treat me like an Asian”.
I accidentally said kumot, short pants, and ipit in class when I should’ve said blanket, shorts, and hair tie because “that’s the right way to say it”, rather than using the terms I was raised with by my bilingual parents. It was a social faux pas to admit not knowing who Jimi Hendrix or Derek Jeter were, because those weren’t household names in my household. And who brings pandesal (Filipino bread roll) with peanut butter and jelly to school for lunch and not a “normal” PB&J on Wonderbread like everyone else? Yeah, it is weird I can’t read that Chinese symbol on your bracelet, even though I’m Filipino and the language my family speaks uses the Roman alphabet. This was elementary and middle school ignorance.
My peers stepped up their game in high school, from ignorance to malice. Why shouldn’t I accept doing this kid’s math homework because “don’t you like doing math anyway?” I guess I should be flattered my first boyfriend asked me out because he had “a thing for Asian girls”. Maybe being silent at every opportunity will make me a good and “proper” housewife someday. I see what you’re getting at, but hiding my books from me won’t ruin my future by preventing me from getting into a good college. I suppose it isn’t fair I got an A in band for playing my scales well after spending hours perfecting three octaves of a C scale; it was all my Asian genes.
In college, I found the Pan Asian Room (PAR). I found my people, racially, ethnically, and emotionally. A Vietnamese friend from Japanese class introduced me to the room with the message: ”Sometimes, we don’t want to be around other people. Just people like us. So we come here.” And with the discovery of this room I became connected to people like me, in the smallest and biggest ways. Japanese Momoko is unapologetically silent unless she deems her input necessary. Filipino/Chinese Sheena offers pandesal with purple yam jam from her apartment. Filipino Arianne is our unofficial Tagalog-English translator. Korean Sung responds with “I don’t know that.” when someone mentions mainstream pop culture references. (He immigrated to the US just three years ago.) Chinese Ricky expresses his appreciation in having the opportunity to attend Chinese school for years.
It’s not that minority students feel “in danger” outside of cultural safe spaces (hopefully). Our safe spaces aren’t meant to be “safe” in that way. Sometimes, it’s not that we even feel out of place when surrounded by different-race peers. We simply feel more at home when surrounded by people who can share our experiences and interests. We discuss and learn each others’ languages. We compare generational differences, between those born and raised in the US, those foreign-born and foreign-raised, and those foreign-born and US-raised. We bond over cultural performances: Taiko (Japanese drumming), tinikling (traditional Philippine dance), Chinese yo-yo, and Kpop.
All the Asians (and Blacks and Latinos) are sitting together in the student center because we need this. So many of us have spent close to our entire lives with no connections to a racial or ethnic community, besides family. And it’s such a loss. I spent so long feeling like I didn’t belong in my own hometown. I found a home in the safe space of the PAR and its inhabitants, just as many other minority students find comfort in their homes in their own cultural safe spaces.