Smelly box lunches at school…The embarrassment of my mom’s broken English in public…Limited career choices out of being a doctor or engineer.

Growing up, I would go to grade school with a box lunch that my mom packed usually containing rice, steamed vegetables, and some form of meat. My friends would tease me about how smelly and odd-looking my lunch was compared with their PB&J sandwiches and juice boxes. In my teenage years, I would be embarrassed each time my mom conversed with my friends in her barely understandable broken English. As college rolled around, I faced the parental pressures of selecting the “right” major to launch the trajectory of my future career.

I am an Asian American. Many times I feel more Asian than American. Other times I feel like an American attempting to be Asian.

Like many Asian American millennials, our parents immigrated to the United States in search of a better life, whether it be to escape communism, gain better job opportunities, or live the “American dream.” Despite growing up in the promised land called California, life was not rainbows and sunshine for my family.

I was born and raised as an only-child to two immigrant parents in a suburb near Los Angeles. Mom worked part-time as a beautician making minimum wage. I rarely saw Dad because he was working 80+ hours to make ends meet for our family. To make matters worse, I had social anxiety and it was challenging for me to socialize and make friends in school. Loneliness and isolation became close friends whom I never wanted.

My identity as an Asian American became real during grade school. A few classmates teased me about my race and stereotyped me to be good at math. They would make fun of my box lunch that Mom packed (Mom’s cooking is still the best). During breaks, I sat by myself digging holes in the sandbox ironically longing to be in class or at home not having to deal with being alone. Along the way, I had my fair share of bullies, name-calling, and beatings.

During high school, I was fortunate to break the cycle of teasing and bullying, and eventually forming my own group of friends. This was when my Mom became more exposed to my social life. Whenever I invited friends over, my mom would go all-out with her hospitality by offering strange foods to the American tongue and speaking in broken English. It was almost embarrassing to watch my own mom attempt to make conversation with my friends. I would often be in the position of translating broken English to English.

In a flash of time, college hit. My parents had high expectations of their only son becoming a prominent doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I used my first two years at community college to test the waters and explore majors. I soon discovered that I did not enjoy the sciences. Eventually, I chose Business Economics as the best major that fit my interests and skills. When I made the announcement to my parents, I remember the disappointment in their eyes and the pivotal quarrel we had. Without the support of my own parents, I was both infuriated and dejected.

Five years later…
What I’ve Learned About Being Asian American

I’m now 25 years old. I can semi-cook my own food, help my mom with her English when I’m home, work in a sales role at LinkedIn, and became the first in my family to graduate from university with a Business degree.

It’s been a wild ride and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite all of the teasing, embarrassments, and quarrels, I have grown to appreciate my upbringing in a profound way. Here are 3 lessons I’ve learned growing up as an Asian American:

  1. Parents simply want their children to be okay. Love can manifest itself in seemingly strange ways. From the box lunches to choosing college majors, our parents really do want what’s best for us. They pack weird lunches because they don’t know how to cook “American” food and they want us to be well-fed. They desire for us to be doctors or engineers because their knowledge of career options are limited. Our parents simply want us to be self-sufficient enough to take care of ourselves.
  2. We are liberated in love. Knowing that our parents come from a place of care and love, we are liberated to walk our own paths. Whether you choose to become a professional photographer or tech entrepreneur, you have the profound liberty to stand out and blaze your own trail. If your passion is for medicine, engineering, or any other “Asian-approving” profession, pursue it with your heart and soul. Just make sure to enjoy and take care of yourself in the process.
  3. Love and appreciate your parents, whenever and wherever possible. As we become more independent and build our own lives, we tend to neglect our parents. We may not need them as much as we did when we were children, but they are still our parents. Regardless of our stage in life, they are still our parents who gave us life. This became real to me during college at UCLA – being away from home, stressing with challenging academics, and needing to learn how to cook. It’s in these moments when a mother’s hug and home-cooked meal means the world. Along the journey, say “I love you” often and give them plenty of hugs. You really don’t know how much longer you have together.
Alex Tran works at LinkedIn where he focuses on organizational and talent development of emerging and medium-sized businesses. Alex is passionate about helping lost people become found, spiritually and vocationally. His mission is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ by counseling individuals through life's circumstances. His life dream is to live overseas in the APAC region with his future family serving college students and 20-somethings.
  • Pat Bishop

    My wife is Asian and she is amazing. It is good that you realize before it is too late the value of your own parents. If it wasn’t because you are Asian or because your lunches were “funny,” kids would have found another reason to tease you and bully you. That is just the way kids are or the way they are being raised. It mostly says something about them, how inferior they feel and their need to knock someone else down to build themselves up. It is good to see that you have a passion for Jesus Christ. I assume that that is something that was instilled in you by your parents so that is the most important thing you have, no matter where that came from. I love the Asian culture. In most cases they are so much more family oriented than Americans. I really miss my Filipino in laws. We haven’t been back to see them in several years but I love them with all my heart. I couldn’t ask for better family. Look at the man you have become, due to your family and their love. I am sure, as an adult, you realize you should never be embarrassed by your parents. I enjoyed your post and God bless. Sincerely in the name of Jesus Christ.

  • Mario Cortes

    It’s a pity that you even have to be labelled as: “Asian American” Why is it that if you are black, you are African-American, if you are descendant from Central or South America you are “Latino,” yet, if you are white Anglo-Saxon or European, you are just “American.” Many of you are more concerned that I wrote “Black” rather than see that if you are an American, it doesn’t matter where your parents came from or what colour you are. I’m Australian originally from South America, people sometimes ask me: “Where are you from” I tell them: “I’m from Melbourne” end of conversation!

  • kwijino

    If it helps, you just described the experiences of Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Greek Americans, and many more groups of people everyone now just describes as this big, amorphous thing called “white people.” Used to be, and within the past hundred years, that it was bad to be anything other than basically a mix of Dutch, British, French and German.

    My wish is that people would stop being [insert name here]-Americans, and just be Americans. Assimilation isn’t a one-way street. In the same way garlic and pizza are foods everyone eats, it may be the same in 50 years for sushi and dumplings. In other words, the “dominant” culture is highly susceptible to having new things added over time. Finding common ground and acceptance isn’t a bad thing, but there are times I think that people from other groups think that it is. Just wish I knew how to fix that here.

    Since you are a believer, I know someday that we will all be together and having a great time. In Heaven, I doubt it will be Koreans over here and whites get that valley. We’ll all just mix and it will be fine. How can we start to think that way here?