This article is part of the Asian American identity series.
For the fast-growing group of roughly 23 million Asian Americans, where a person grows up can have a particularly profound effect on their sense of cultural identity.
The Asian diaspora spreads across all 50 states. But the largest Asian populations tend to be in diverse coastal cities where immigrants have historically clustered. The largest Asian American community by population is in New York City, while the next four — Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, and San Diego — are in California, which sits on the coast closer to the Asian continent.
These locations have deep ties to the history of Asian migration, and Chinese neighborhoods in many of these cities date back to the 1800s when migrants started arriving in large numbers as laborers. Hawaii, too, has a long history of Filipino, Japanese, and other Asian arrivals who migrated to work as laborers and remained on the islands. Honolulu today is the American city with the highest percentage of Asian Americans, who make up almost 70 percent of the population.
Still, many Asian Americans don’t grow up in places like Honolulu, but in diverse cities or enclaves far from the coasts or mostly white rural towns or suburbs.
And many who responded to a recent Vox survey about Asian American identity told us that where they grew up (and where they eventually moved) had a significant impact on how they perceived themselves.
“It was infuriating when I first came to the US and moved to a small town in Alabama and experienced my first racial mocking and physical harassment at middle school.”
“I think I was relatively fortunate to not experience too much overt racism, coming from a lower-income, multicultural neighborhood.”
“I grew up in a very white, upper-middle-class area, and I just wanted to fit in. I hid my Asianness throughout my entire childhood.”
“As a third-generation ‘American’ having lived most of my life in Hawaii, I don’t even know if I can really say I’ve experienced any ‘real’ racism that was meant to be hateful.”
“The PEN15 episode where Maya has to be Scary Spice was ripped scene-for-scene from my childhood. I moved to the Bay Area to raise my kids so that they don’t have to experience the ‘othering’ in the way that I did.”
“I grew up in an Irish Italian Catholic suburb. The racism I encountered was annoying but ultimately benign.”
“Having lived mostly in California and Hawaii, I think we have it easy, as opposed to my cousins who grew up in Texas.”
“I grew up as one of few Asians and the only Cantonese person in my Southern US community. How I feel about being Asian is quite different as an adult living in Los Angeles, where being Asian is far more common.”
We also asked six Asian American writers to share how they were shaped by their environments, and whether there were places they eventually visited that challenged their notions of identity. Their responses revealed a patchwork of experiences in the many Asian Americas that exist across the country, from small, homogeneous towns to diverse, working-class city communities to wealthy white suburbs.
While racial identity is only one facet of a person’s life, for these writers, growing up in or eventually discovering a cultural community shaped their sense of safety and freedom to be themselves as Asian Americans. Here are their stories.
“It made me start to think: Maybe someday I won’t live in this super white place”
I grew up in southern Oregon, around five hours from Portland, which was the closest big city. I’m Korean American and my adoptive family is white — so not only did I grow up in a place that felt very insular and was very white, especially around the time that I was growing up there, I [also] did not actually get to know or become close with any fellow Korean Americans the entire time I lived there.
Like a lot of kids, I looked for representation without knowing to call it that. I didn’t have any mirrors in real life, and at the time representation was also hard to find in literature or movies or shows. Because I didn’t see anyone else like me as a little kid, sometimes I really did feel like the only Asian — even though, intellectually, I knew I wasn’t.
When I was 10, my parents took me back to Seattle, where I was born and adopted. It was the first time I had been around large groups of fellow Asians [or] had ever seen so many just walking around in public. We went to the Chinatown-International District, and I remember obsessively watching people there all day long. I looked at every Asian woman around my mother’s age and wondered, “Could she be my mother?” I felt deeply comforted by that trip and that day specifically; it made me start to think about what it would be like not to be the only Asian kid I knew. I thought, maybe someday I won’t live in this super white little town; maybe I’ll live somewhere that feels more comfortable to me. Until I actually saw it, I didn’t know it was possible.
Being the only Korean I knew growing up was formative in a lot of ways, but at the same time, those ways are hard to identify and pin down when you’re still living there. It took years of no longer living there to begin to unravel the ways that it shaped me.
When I went to college, I remember being conscious of wanting to live in a more diverse space and not be the only Asian or the only person of color in the room anymore. But the biggest change for me, honestly, was in how I talked about my adoption. Once I was no longer with my white family day in and day out, once that was no longer the context in which people knew or saw me, it was my choice to disclose whether or not I was adopted. I’d grown up answering people’s questions about my family and how I got to be in it, why I had white parents. To suddenly not have to do that all the time anymore was a huge change. —Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know
“I didn’t fit in. ... But within my immigrant community, there were kids like me.”
I was born and raised in a suburb of Miami, Florida, and never knew a time that I was not part of my close-knit Pakistani American community. One of the first things my father did when he immigrated to the United States in the ’60s was to grab a phone book and go down the names methodically, calling anyone with surnames from the motherland and hoping for someone to answer his call. The method proved fruitful. He found the location of the nearby mosque and the beginning of lifelong friendships.
My childhood memories are filled with potluck parties and savory saag, hand-tossed rotis, and an ever-present vat of chai simmering on the stove. These gatherings were a place of comfort for my parents. A safe space where they could speak in Urdu or Punjabi and feel completely understood.
It was a safe haven for me, too. Growing up, school was not a place to learn but instead a place to survive bullies and taunts. I didn’t fit in. The food packed in my lunchbox was unfamiliar and presumed disgusting. My mismatched clothes, my too-short haircut, were rife for taunts. But within my immigrant community, there were kids like me, straddling their hyphenated American identities, who understood my situation. When difficult school moments arose, it was these kids I turned to.
As an adult now, my personal community is far more expansive in diversity and scope than the one I grew up in, but I remain grateful for my childhood experiences with fellow ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi) kids. I am grateful I did not have to navigate my hyphenated identity alone. —Aisha Saeed, author of Amal Unbound and Written in the Stars
“I couldn’t help but feel ... that while indeed I was Asian, I wasn’t the ‘correct’ kind of Asian”
I grew up in a diverse, working-class community in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. I was aware of my Asian American identity as simply skin color and where my parents were from — a big continent called Asia. It wasn’t until I started going to high school in a more affluent area that I realized how different I was from even other Asian Americans.
My Asian American classmates had parents who were doctors and lawyers, who spoke English without an accent, and whose family tree in the US could be traced back several generations. Meanwhile, my parents were immigrants who did manual labor and were more comfortable speaking Vietnamese.
I couldn’t help but feel my Asian American identity differently then, feeling that while indeed I was Asian, I wasn’t the “correct” kind of Asian from a place people could easily identify (China, Japan, South Korea) with a lifestyle that I wasn’t familiar with (new cars for birthdays, summers without a food service job, connections to Ivy League schools). There was working-class teenage jealousy there, but at the same time, it made me feel more tied to the working-class people I grew up with. It wasn’t until Ali Wong joked about “Fancy Asians” and “Jungle Asians” that I understood how Asian American identity is entangled in ethnicity and class.
Today I make more than my parents have ever made, and I live near the area where those classmates once lived. But there’s still that consciousness of class, race, and ethnicity that took root in my younger years. —Eric Nguyen, author of Things We Lost to The Water
“It wasn’t until junior high, once I started reading more about current events, that I’d understood Asian people to be a minority in this country”
I was born in Seoul, and then I moved to LA with my family. In fifth grade, we moved to a small town called Cerritos, which is where I did the bulk of my growing up. The town itself is mostly Asian, and my high school was something like 80 percent Asian. Koreans made up a majority of that 80 percent, and I’m Korean. There were so many Koreans that the language was offered as an elective. Even people who weren’t Korean would take it, and they joked that it was because they wanted to know what the rest of us were saying when we were talking shit. It wasn’t until junior high, once I started reading more about current events, that I’d understood Asian people to be a minority in this country.
Then I went to college on the East Coast and lived in New York for a few years after that. College came as a shock, especially given the town I was from. In college, in addition to the high concentration of white people, the level of wealth was wild to me. There, and again in grad school, when I started attending literary parties and events in New York, it was so common that I would go somewhere and be the only person of color or Asian person in the entire room.
Then I moved to the Bay Area. I remember I went to meet some friends of a friend, and I texted them, “I’ll be the Asian girl wearing black.” And they both just laughed and were like “Dude, that’s not going to fly here. There are so many Asian women wearing black.” I thought, “What on earth? That always worked in New York!” It was so wonderful. I was so tired of being the only Asian person in the room.
I feel really lucky, in some ways, that I grew up around so many Asians. And as an adult, I don’t feel any shame whatsoever around my race. I have plenty of shame otherwise; shame is the water I’m swimming in, but I don’t feel that way about being Asian. I love being Asian, I love being Korean, and I always have. And that’s not something that all my Asian friends have necessarily been given by their own upbringings, which means I’ve been very lucky, and which means that I should — and very much want to — pass along that luck. —R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries
“America still holds that sense of exotica for me”
Before starting middle school in America, I had fantasized for months in India about a school with lockers, no uniforms, some teachers who audaciously went by their first names, brightly colored classrooms, and plastic lunch trays. School in New Delhi had not looked like that, but I watched The Wonder Years every evening as though it were a documentary about a fascinating faraway place. America was so exotic to me.
In the US, I showed up on day one in my J.C. Penney purple leggings and everyone in the class instantly connected my name to a dick, a penis, and laughed. They had no idea how to pronounce a soft D. They asked me if I rode a camel to school in India. I was too shocked by their limited imagination about India to be offended. But, “fair enough,” I thought, “they don’t know anything about India.” I myself was wrong about students in America only taking folders to class like Kevin Arnold. Everyone had backpacks.
Now, years later — as I divide my time between India and America, fortunate enough to be able to call both home — America still holds that sense of exotica for me. Living on two different sides of the world means that America is not my center. I grew up surrounded by Bollywood, and now my husband and I live and work on the peripheries of this industry in which I see myself constantly represented. It’s one reason why the very idea of representation, and wanting more of it in America, rarely occurs to me.
If home is where I don’t have to give the Starbucks barista a fake name, then India it is. But if home is where I graduated from high school, then the United States it is. And I choose both. That feels increasingly precarious in the US where others may label me an outsider based on my skin and vocal intonations. But I choose to be Indian and American, no hyphens, no division, no combination. —Diksha Basu, author of Destination Wedding and The Windfall
“In Hawaii, being Asian American and being mixed are the norms, and I experienced the privilege, power, and ease that come with that”
I grew up in one of the whitest towns in California, in Marin County. Perhaps predictably, living there, I didn’t want anything to do with my Japanese American identity. I hated my Japanese first name and strove to get as close to white as possible. I was quick to say that I knew nothing about Japan — and that I didn’t even like rice!
All that started to change in college. There, the student body was more diverse, and I started taking classes on race, identity, and history. Before long, I did a 180 and dove into my Japanese-ness, learning the language and studying abroad in Japan. As a fourth-generation, mixed-race Japanese American, however, I didn’t exactly feel accepted in the motherland, either.
I didn’t feel instantly at home anywhere until I moved to Honolulu in my late 20s. I initially went just for the summer, to dog-sit for a friend’s law professor, but once I was there, I didn’t want to leave. In Hawaii, being Asian American and being mixed are the norms, and I experienced the privilege, power, and ease that come with that. People could pronounce my name; everywhere, I saw my Japanese American culture reflected back at me; and an Asian-white face like mine was both common and held up as an ideal.
Living in Hawaii felt intoxicating, but over time I saw how that experience came at a price. My acceptance there came at the expense of Native Hawaiians who have been displaced. Being at the top of the racial hierarchy only feels good if you don’t think about the people below you.
After a couple of years, I moved back to California, seeking places with more diversity than where I grew up. I now live in Sacramento, a city with a large Asian American population, but also racial segregation, due to a history of redlining and racial exclusion covenants. These days, I think a lot about what neighborhood I want to raise my daughter in, knowing how much her location can shape her Asian American identity. —Akemi Johnson, author of Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa