Wishful Whitewashing

Illustration by Philip Kuhns

I always dreamt of being white.

When I was seven years old, I used to sit on my bathroom counter and poke the ends of my almond-shaped eyes together, dissatisfied when I removed my fingers and realized I could never be like my classmates.

At 14, I started dying my hair blonde. I spouted to my mom that it was because I didn’t want to look like a “typical Asian.” I kept coloring my hair for four years, all radical and wholly un-Asian styles.

I was never, ever proud of my heritage. I refused to learn the native language of my parents’ home country as a child because any other language than English was “pointless.”

It didn’t strike me until this summer how utterly ignorant and ungrateful I’ve been.

Last semester, I applied for VOICES, a college program through the Asian American Journalists Association, and I got in. When I got that acceptance letter, I was so excited, but that night, I felt guilty.

I saw the resumes of the other students in the program with me, and they’re studying Asian cultures at Ivy Leagues or have covered those topics in their own news stories. They’ve got fluency in their home languages listed under their skill sets.

It hit me like a slap in the face, one that leaves stinging for ages and a red flush of embarrassment.

I label myself Asian when it’s convenient, and I abandon and even shame it to fit in with my white friends.

It’s true that for years I resented my family for the academic pressure Asian parents seem to be notorious for. My father is one of 12 children, and nine of them are doctors. (So is my mother.) No pressure.

But this pressure from my family isn’t necessarily an Asian thing. My lola (Tagalog for grandmother) was widowed while my dad and his siblings were still in school, some of them still incredibly young. My lola took it upon herself to run the family farm single-handedly, keeping all 12 children in school. She, on her own, paid for nine of them to go to medical school.

Basically, she’s a boss, but because I had such a hatred for the basics of who I am, I’ve neglected her and my entire family for years.

The Asian stereotype exists because of amazing people like my lola—parents who will strain themselves, move themselves across the world and put everything they do into making sure their children get an education. As with anything, it can get extreme, but it all boils down to love and sacrifice.

I choose whether or not I embrace being Asian, but I can’t change my family.

Before, I ached for a pill that would turn me blonde with blue eyes.

This year, I’ve had a change of heart.

I’m never going to pass for “Midwest, born and raised—just like you!” But I’m never going to pass for “Filipino, born and raised—just like you!”, either.

Hi, I’m Gabi. Where I’m from, you ask? I’m from a loving home full of hugs and comfort food. My parents met in medical school and happen to be immigrants from across the world. I may check “Asian” on standardized testing and medical forms, but there’s so much more to me, my family and my heritage than those five letters.

My culture is beautiful. I hope one day, everyone can feel the same way about theirs.