'I've walked between two worlds': What belonging means for Asian Americans

Asian American families across generations reflect on the ways they hold on to their cultures while finding a place in America.

DD Lee and daughter Isabelle

DD Lee, who moved to the U.S. from China at age 12, sits with her daughter, Isabelle, at their home in Woodstock, Georgia. DD teaches Isabelle, who is biracial, to be proud of both parts of her heritage. “I tell her: who you are is not where you came from. Sure, you’re half Chinese, half American, but that doesn’t make up who you are. Who you are is how you treat people, how you behave, are you kind.”

For most of my life, I hated my name. Before I was born, my parents, who had come to the United States from China a few years before, had chosen to call me Elaine, but my mom’s sole white friend at the time told her that it was an old-lady name. She suggested Alyssa instead.

My dad didn’t know how to spell that, so when the time came to register me, he sounded it out, figured “Alyssa” sounded like “eleven,” threw in a couple of S’s for good measure, and there I was, hours old and legally bound to this strange portmanteau, Elessa.

I still ended up going by Elaine, perhaps because my parents wanted me to use my Chinese name, Yilan. When I arrived in school, no one could say it and Yilan gradually became Elaine.

It didn’t matter much to my parents, who never use either of these English names for me. But it mattered to me. I hated Elessa, hated the question mark in the teacher’s voice on the first day of school, hated never finding it on a keychain or magnet, hated that it wasn’t “real.” I wasn’t even like the other kids who went by their Chinese or Korean names. My immigrant parents had done the most embarrassing thing possible as far as I was concerned: make something up. Elessa was proof of assimilation gone wrong, evidence that we didn’t belong.

I made everyone call me Elaine, I told this story like it was a big embarrassing joke, and when I turned 18, I changed my name legally. When I saw my name written on my college diploma, I hardly remembered there had ever been a different one. I was Elaine now, fully assimilated Chinese American, and no one could question where I’d come from. 

Elessa, and how that name made me feel, has come back to me recently with the sharp rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Asian Americans are now the country’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group, watching videos of elderly people being attacked in broad daylight—worrying that my parents could be next—reminds me that even if we change our names, even if we see ourselves as Americans, others may not see us that way.

In light of the March spa shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent, I sought to understand how people in a city where the most high-profile hate crime against Asians had occurred, felt about their place in America and what it means to them to belong.

What’s in a name?

On a recent spring afternoon, DD Lee, a 39-year-old woman who moved from China as a child, is laughing over Zoom, remembering her 12-year-old self. Living in Kentucky and in need of a new name, she picked “Annette” out of a book. She tried it on for a couple months, then went with Dina in high school before a friend suggested DD, the initials of her Chinese name, Dan Dan.

“There was literally an identity crisis when it came to the name part of things,” she says.

Lee was one of many Atlantans who shared a story about their name, and how it represented a fundamental question of who they were in this country. They remembered childhoods spent figuring out how to fit in, of striking the right balance between Asian and American, of holding onto their families’ cultures without feeling like an outsider.

Shawn Wen, 39, also didn’t have an English name as a kid. His father, who emigrated from Taiwan, didn’t give him one because he wanted his sons to find their names for themselves. He went by his Chinese name, I-Hsiang, at school, and was bullied for being “the smallest Asian kid” with a “horrible” name. At home he struggled with his parents’ expectations and joined the military out of high school to prove his father wrong.

“I’ve walked between two worlds: Having to balance the expectations of my cultural community while also confronting the realities of American society and its expectations of me as an Asian American,” he says. “Sometimes I haven’t felt like I’ve belonged to either.”

He chose the name Shawn in middle school but changed it again as an adult after making peace with his father. After many years of struggling with his identity, he says he’s found his name, and with it, where he belongs: “My Asian American name is Shawn I-Hsiang Wen.” 

Reminders of home

Many of the people I spoke with remember being the only Asian family in town, the only Asian kid in school. They sought refuge in food, in the ingredients of home. When they couldn’t find them in the one Asian store within driving distance, they grew their own.

Hannah Son and her family would drive an hour and a half from Macon, Georgia, to Atlanta every Sunday after church to load up on Korean groceries for the week. When they moved to Gwinnett County, a suburban part of Atlanta with a larger Asian American population, it was “a big culture shock for me,” she says. “I didn’t know there were other Asian people in Georgia.”

Ruth McMullin, whose Black GI father and Vietnamese mother fled Vietnam in 1975, remembers the pride her mother felt about her bitter melon crop. A world away from her homeland, she grew these spiky, green reminders of Vietnam in the small Alabama town where they settled. “Everybody who came over thought that was the strangest thing,” McMullin says. “But she was pleased as punch.”

As a biracial child growing up in the Deep South at a time when there were very few kids like her, McMullin was picked on and felt like she didn’t belong to any group. Even today, she carries a photo of her mother as “street cred at Asian markets” because people don’t believe she’s of Vietnamese descent.

“If I had a sense of belonging, I wouldn’t have to pick one culture or the other. A lot of times society expects you to pick,” she says. “Why would I? It’s all of me.”

Who gets to belong? 

For Mila Konomos, 45, being around the foods and norms of Korean culture made her feel even more confused about herself. She grew up on U.S. military bases as part of a white family that adopted her from Korea when she was six months old. Other kids in the predominantly white community, including her brothers, bullied her for her looks, and made her hate being Asian, she said.

When the family moved to California when she was a teenager, she met other Asian American kids and made friends, but they didn’t accept her either. They didn’t understand that she’d never had kimchi before or would make fun of her when she tried to speak Korean.

“I received a lot of shaming from Asian peers and the Asian community, you know, being called a twinkie or a banana—as if I had any choice in my situation,” she says. 

Listening to Konomos, I felt ashamed of myself. I wanted to apologize to her even though we’d never met. I grew up in Southern California in a tightly knit Chinese community where 99 Ranch Market replaced Ralph’s as the go-to supermarket and entire shopping complexes were filled with all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, boba shops, and tofu houses. My parents and their friends constantly compared us kids to each other, engaging in a complex psychological game of reverse one-upmanship. “No, your kid’s Chinese is so good.”

My friends and I judged other ABCs (American-born Chinese) who couldn’t switch between Mandarin and English seamlessly or who shamed their parents by using forks. They weren’t as good as us, couldn’t handle their bifurcated identity. We also looked down on kids who were, as we called them, “FOBs” (fresh off the boat), the ones who wore socks with sandals or whose haircuts looked like our grandparents. Somewhere between the twinkies and the FOBs was a place for us, the well-adjusted immigrants, the ones who really belonged.

Konomos would have been one of those kids we judged, and weeks later, something she said has stuck with me.

“For a long time, I felt like I had to become Korean,” she says. “What I realized is, no, I am Korean. Even if I don’t speak the language, even if I don’t celebrate all the traditions, even if I don’t always eat all the food, I’m still Korean, and Koreans need to expand their idea of who is allowed to be Korean.”

As a child, I came to understand that there are many ways to be American, just as there are many ways to be Asian. But as I listened to people share their stories at a time when our belonging is being challenged with violence, I realized I had had a very specific idea of how to be Asian American: It was to be Elaine—when, actually, Elessa is just fine.

Elaine Teng is a writer and editor at ESPN. ESPN and National Geographic are both owned by The Walt Disney Company. Follow her on Twitter at @elteng12.

Haruka Sakaguchi is a Japanese freelance photographer based in New York. See more of her work on her website or by following her on Instagram @hsakag.

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