Slanted background image with a microphone and silhouette of a person.
Logo: More Change
Home | Episode #21
Born and American
March 21, 2019 | Student Producer:

Lily Yates
Episode logo
Born and American
Annabel Gong recounts growing up with, and into, her Asian-American identity. (6 minutes)
Annabel Gong

I suck at giving presents. I really overthink them and even after I find a present I'm semi-confident the person will like, I'm always worried that if I wrap a present really nicely, people will be disappointed when the wrapping paper doesn't match their expectations of the gift itself. That's why I wrap all my gifts in old homework assignments. It's sustainable and has no mixed messages, so yes, presents can be deceiving. The packaging tells nothing of what's inside. I guess the same goes for a person. What do you first notice when you meet someone? What is that wrapping paper on a person? I think one of the first things that people notice about me is my race. Being Asian never bothered me before I moved to San Diego. Silicon Valley, where I'm from, is the hub for diverse backgrounds and coming to USD, a majority white school, was kind of a reality check for me.

Like, wow, I really am a racial minority. My race is that wrapping paper that a lot of people see first. That packaging that seemingly tells all but actually tells nothing about me. Just like a present, I am more than the assumptions people make about me. Allow me to properly introduce myself again. My name is Annabel Yi Gong. You can best compare my cultural background to the new hit movie Crazy Rich Asians, a rom-com about a Chinese-American woman and a crazy rich Chinese-Singaporean man. Chinese-American and Southeast Asian roots are what make me. My mother is Chinese-Malaysian and immigrated here in the nineties and my father is Chinese-American, born in Watsonville, California. His mother, my grandmother, was born in California as well. This makes me third-generation Chinese-American. Needless to say, I didn't grow up like my other Asian friends. Most of them grew up with two immigrant parents.

I grew up with one and I barely even realized she was one because she was so assimilated with American culture, because she grew up speaking English and living a very westernized childhood. As for my dad, he's as American as it gets. He coached my sister and my soccer team and he watches the Superbowl every year. We're your average American family; we only speak English, we play catch in the backyard and we have barbecues for random American holidays like Memorial Day. I live your typical American life. In my childhood, Chinese culture was greatly celebrated in January. Lunar New Year rolled around, and I got money, and I ate yummy food, and maybe went to Chinatown for the parade. However, during other times of the year I ignored my Chinese culture. I knew nothing about it, so what was the point of acknowledging its existence? To me, Chinese culture was a novelty that involved a lot of food and a lot of money.

Even when I traveled to see my family in Malaysia, there was a disconnect. In Malaysia, culture was even more nuanced. It's a big mishmash of Islamic, Hindi, Malay, Chinese, even Western religions and cultures. I got to eat different foods and get different currencies of money, but my culture still remained a novelty, so I continued to brush off my Asian identity because it was too hard to even begin to comprehend. There were just too many aspects of my culture I was detached from. This purposeful ignorance led to outright rejecting my culture, erasing my Chinese identity was all I knew of living a real American life. When you think about someone who is Asian or who is Asian within American culture, it is generally perceived that they are foreigners, accents, different fashion, different ideals. I've gotten the whole, "You don't act Asian!" spiel from many of my peers.

In America's eyes, to be American is not to be Chinese, and to be Chinese is not to be American, but obviously that's not true because I was born as both and I will never be able to rip off the skin I was born in. Now that I've entered college, I've finally begun to celebrate my Asian-American identity. Finding ways to connect back with my Chinese-American roots isn't easy though. It's hard when the only place you can find yourself represented in mainstream media is as a foreigner or on foreign media. That's why when Crazy Rich Asians came out, I dragged my entire family to the movies. We laughed and cried through the whole movie, pointing out both Chinese-Malaysian and Chinese-American references. Watching Constance Wu's character struggle and overcome her challenges as an Asian-American traveling to Asia was like watching the bits of myself on screen. I think I finally understood what it meant to be my identity. To be my identity was to celebrate all its nuances, whether or not people or even I understood its complexity.

Watching my 12 year old sister laugh and cry along with me gave me hope that one day she would be able to easily embrace her intercultural Asian-American identity and not have to struggle to see a familiar face in the media. My sister and I decided to get the Crazy Rich Asians DVD for my dad for Christmas. I know that the box under the tree will tell him nothing about what's beneath the wrapping paper: a story of love, family, and finding identity. As I've learned, you can't fully appreciate or even know the contents of a present until you look inside. Thank you.