I hate the “P” word

As promised I will write about Asian American identity and the ways it has affected my life and how I’ve come to acknowledge my privilege.

The “P” word I am referring to is “privilege.” It started as this incredibly long post, but I decided to cut this up. I wanted to posit the question, what should one do when they’re told to “check their privilege?”

I have noticed throughout my 20s and 30s, I’ve been told to “check my privilege.” This feedback has been more frequent the older I got, even over the more “simple” things like me being comically frugal is considered a privilege. When people tell me to “check at my privilege,” I’m not quite sure what to do other than say “okay” and shrug it off. Should I also give you money and my degrees? Should I feel awful about myself every time I go into my office job that pays the bills? Should I feel bad about making healthier lifestyle choices (i.e. exercising, eating fruits and veggies, etc) because it’s an “expensive lifestyle?”

I am very well aware of my privilege and I want to use it to make the world a better place. I work in a large public hospital where we provide healthcare whether or not these patients carry insurance. We are also a hub where we do a bi-monthly food pantry feeding patients and community members experiencing food insecurity. At my work, I use it as an opportunity to teach aspiring healthcare workers the importance of patient advocacy. Care does not only happen within the four walls of a clinic, they should care about what happens to them outside too. Do these patients have access to hygiene products, affordable housing, healthy food, etc.?

I left my last job because I did not feel we did enough for the older adults living in affordable housing. We did a lot more for the older adults living in market rate housing and I found it incredibly frustrating because it conflicted with the organization’s mission.

Telling me to “check my privilege” is hardly, if at all, an action. I never understood it. Are they coming from a place where they want help or are they just being mean-spirited?

Born here, yet foreign

Note: this is going to be a very long, hard post. For the next few posts, I will write about Asian American identity and how it has affected my life and how I’ve come to acknowledge my privilege (more on that later). I’ve spent the last several days listening to podcasts learning more about American history from the Asian American POV and listening to other voices on their Asian American experiences.

My experiences of being an Asian American is living with this duality: I am born here, yet foreign. I am sure other POC can echo this sentiment.

If we were having coffee, we’d be talking about AAPI (Asian American Pacific Island) — in some places ESEA (East and South East Asian) — hate and violence. It has been an ongoing conversation all week at my office. One of the volunteers at my work who is a 20-year old Vietnamese American asked me if the news made me more in fear of my life as a Filipino American. I told him it did not, because I’ve been experiencing discrimination and racism almost my life. Let me count the ways:

  • A few years back at my previous job, my coworker and I did our daily lunch walks around the office. My coworker is from Taiwan but lived in the U.S. since he was five years old so he’s lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. Anyways, we passed this apartment and this man who was sitting on the balcony was yelling a bunch of racist stuff and telling us to “go back to your country.” Ugh…like they can even name a foreign country so they just say “your country.”
  • Many years ago, I was with a couple of my friends going to a mini-mart. One is Chinese and the other is Persian — both were international students. When I went to the cashier, he asked me pointing to my friends, “are you all from Japan?” I say, “no, just because I don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes does not mean I am not from here!”
  • I had a one year stint living in the Philippines with my grandparents when I was five years old. I even went to kindergarten there too. When moved back to the U.S. and started school there, I was placed in ESL for five years. American schools don’t know that most of the curriculum in the Philippines is taught in English. It was funny how was I was praised by teachers and administrators for speaking “great” English when it was never my “second language” in the first place. The friends I made in elementary school were perplexed because they’ve never heard me speak Tagalog.
  • Piles of microaggressions against me over the years from a certain group of clientele in my last job. It was enough for me to walk away.
  • And of course I got the question “where are you from…no where are you REALLY from…” It is not cute at all.

Of course there are many more moments. I realized the discrimination I experienced was after university. In elementary school, I blame the adults who decided I should take ESL before even meeting me.

I also I have to mentioned I’ve experienced my fair share of discrimination from other Asians. I felt it may have hurt more because I did not feel accepted for being “Asian enough” — whatever that means. It was something I experienced in my teens. University was great because I felt like everyone got along. It was a peaceful chunk in my life. After university and when I started working fulltime, discrimination and racism among Asians felt more pronounced.

I grew up in a predominantly white area so I had mostly white friends. I never really thought about what my friends are until one day one of my classmates from university and I were talking about being Asian enough. She was Chinese born in China and grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. She said to me, “I noticed at Neurology class you always sit next to these two white people. I even wondered if you see yourself as a white.” I told her those two white people in our Neurology class are friends I’ve known since high school. I would say her question was innocent, it came from a position of curiousity. I was not hurt, I thought “finally someone who elaborated their assumptions about me.” It was honestly something I never thought about.

You see, when I was in high school, there were cliques and there were Asian cliques. I saw these Asian cliques as a wall because they were not very welcoming to me. It was a big part of my life where it compelled me to write about it on my college admissions essay. A lot of them did not know which Asian I was or if I was even Asian enough genetically or phenotypically. Did that even matter? The feelings did re-emerge after I graduated from university and moved to San Diego. I never saw myself as white, I just happened to have white friends. But I never knew others around me assume I would identify as white. It was like I was wearing something invisible and unscented, yet noxious.

I’ve had a fair share of experiences reminding I am not white (see above). As I got older, I’ve met other people who were in a similar boat as me but they embraced their whiteness through their white friends or their white partner — they even identified with it. They abhorred the food of their cultural background and dismiss it as “disgusting,” hate their ancestral language, lightened their skin, dye their hair, side with certain policies even if it means hurting their own, change their name, etc. Even though they may see themselves as white, white people still do not. Do they believe they are above that and the rules don’t apply to them? I wonder what their experiences are when someone does remind them they are an “other?”

It’s a beautiful day for some iced coffee.