The independent news organization of Duke University

Subtle Asian Diaspora

During this Lunar New Year festival, I felt an incredible amount of pride for being Asian-American. I wish this feeling wasn’t something rare for me, but it is. Although I’ve always looked Asian to others, my ownership of being Asian-American has been sub-par to say the least. Only recently have I been able to wholeheartedly embrace my Asian-American identity. However, in my experiences, I’ve found that my racial identity hasn’t initially come from a connection to the Asian-American community, but rather from a rejection by the white community.

Last month, I requested my admissions records for viewing, and the first thing I noticed was “ASIAN” written on the header. I was pissed at first, since I had put down “mixed race” specifically and written an extensive sob story about the nuances of my race. My initial reaction was anger that I had been boxed into this terse label that gave no insight on my half Korean identity. During the application process, I attempted to separate myself from the “Asian” label, and the misconstrued stereotype of a studious, one-faceted candidate that comes with that. When looking at my application review just last month, my underlying feelings of detachment from my Asian identity resurfaced. I realized that I did not just have this sentiment in my application, but also in the rest of my life—I’ve been scared to be Asian.

I tried my best to be white. I have a white father and I never learned Korean. I grew up in various suburbs and did the standard white American activities—I played ice hockey and sailed every summer. I put on copious amounts of sunscreen before I went outside, pretending that I would burn. I bashed a giant hole into the wall of my house. My self-portraits in elementary school were both poorly drawn and extremely Anglo-Saxon. I even applied to Duke, the final step in my white childhood fantasy.

White people didn’t let me be white. They made comments, jokes, and off-hand remarks that drew attention to me being Asian when otherwise I wouldn’t have brought it up. And I am glad that they did that. If they hadn’t constantly reminded me that I look Asian, I probably would’ve forgotten. I tried to turn my back on the Asian-American community, in fear that I would be absorbed in a stereotype. For so long, I missed out on a culture that had been ever-present in my life since the very beginning. It’s been my time at Duke that has really allowed me to connect to the Asian-American community, and embrace that side of me that often lays dormant.

I am grateful for my appreciation of my own Korean identity, and I only wish I had developed it earlier. My cultural traditions were things I rarely spoke of or bothered trying to learn about. Now, when I investigate the pieces of Korean culture that are scattered in my memory, I realize their importance and how far-reaching in my life they truly were. Whether it is blowing my RA stipend on groceries from H-mart, or driving to Annandale, Virginia for Korean BBQ, I am constantly finding ways to revive my dormant identity. 

My Asian-American pride has greatly been influenced by the modern generation of displaced Asian youths around the world. The Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits” reminds me that my experiences and cultural tastes have been influenced by my Asian identity, even if in the subtlest forms. I have developed an addiction to boba, and I stan Blackpink. The bonds I’ve formed with my Asian-American friends at Duke have been stronger than I have ever experienced. As someone who wanted to be white for so long, it’s cathartic to feel a sense of community with my Asian-American peers.

At a Lunar New Year event last week, the faculty-in-residence of my dorm brought in a folk musician who played the guzheng. When she found out I was Korean, she played Arirang for me, and I teared up. It reminded me of my older brother playing the song, an iconic Korean folk tune, on the trumpet at a middle school performance. I remember watching my mom’s reaction and seeing a glimpse of what it meant to her. It’s a simple song, but it tells a story of pain and resilience through unbelievable hardship. It took me back to a land that I never experienced or lived in, but that I still feel within me, through the whispers of my family’s memories.

For many Asian-Americans in my generation, it is tempting for us to further assimilate into white American culture. Those of us at elite institutions are experiencing newfound opportunities that our families sacrificed immensely to give to us. And therefore, we have many choices about how we incorporate our Asian identities into our future lives. The Asian diaspora presents us with an opportunity to choose how much of our culture we carry on, and which parts we abandon. 

For assimilated or mixed Asian-Americans, we can use our place in society to advocate for people of Asian descent who don’t blend in as well as we do. We can also choose to disavow the anti-blackness and colorism in Asian-American spheres, and form racial coalitions. We can refuse to propagate the “model minority” myth, and acknowledge our growing privilege in many sectors of society. There is opportunity for change and activism as a result of the Asian diaspora, and for this generation I believe it can be exciting.

Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


Share and discuss “Subtle Asian Diaspora” on social media.