I was looking at pictures the other day and I realized how much my face has changed over the years. I don’t think I look like a completely different person, but when I was really young I think my features look somehow more Asian. Over time I think it has morphed a bit more into my father’s side features, I very much look like my father and grandfather with a more sturdy, somehow more Polish face now, but when I was young I somehow was a carbon copy of my mother. Weirdly enough, I also have two completely different feet, with my left having the traits of my father’s foot and my right foot is my mother’s duplicate. I somehow have higher arches on my right foot and my toes go in descending order, the opposite of my flatter left foot with a taller second toe than the big toe. While I have both Asian and Polish American traits within me, I literally have a foot on each side of my cultural DNA.
This has been a major factor in why it has been such a difficult journey figuring out who I am within my cultural identity. I’ve struggled with not feeling like I fit into either category that I belong to, and while I know there are other people out there just like me, every story is different and mine includes a large amount of moving. I finally came to the conclusion that I actually wanted to go to boarding school starting my sophomore year of high school, and making that decision on my own with the support of my parents was a crucial moment in my life.
I made a very tough decision right in the middle of my teenage years and was able to grow from that moment into a more clear personal identity. I think this is a significant reason why I like reading coming of age stories with an Asian American voice. I can relate to navigating multiple cultures that vary in social views on everything from what you wear to when you can start dating. It was the reflection in books I craved and it still feels personal.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott
I find this graphic novel incredible poignant today. With Asian American’s being racially targeted for the coronavirus, reading this book made me feel incredibly proud to be an Asian American. They Call Us Enemy was written about George Takei’s time in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. It showcases how these Americans banned together during a time that the American government thought they were enemies and how they survived after everything they worked for was seized. It resonates deeply with how people of different races are viewed in America and is a great reminder of what Asian Americans have had to struggle with and work against.
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani
This is a wonderful graphic novel that follows teen Priyanka as she tries to piece together her heritage and who her father is when her mother does not want to talk about it. She finds her mother’s pashmina stuffed in a suitcase and when she puts it around her shoulders, she is transported to a dreamlike India, where things are beautiful. When her mom finally agrees that she can go visit her aunt in India, she sees that while there is beauty, there also is poverty and it is also different than what she imagined. This was something that I grappled with a lot in my time in Singapore and traveling around Asia. Tourism gives off the idea that the continent is “exotic”, but the reality is a lot more complex.
Kampung Boy by Lat
I grew up with this and all of the other Lat graphic novels. They are cherished by my family because they go into detail about what it is like living with Peranakan relatives (Peranakan or Baba Nyonya refers to the mixed culture created by Hainanese immigrants to Malaysia). Kampungs are traditional villages that are often on stilts and my mother grew up in a more rural Singapore where kampungs were still around. This explores how kampung life is like and the unique eccentricities that Peranakans have with their mixture of cultures.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
I love this book so much because I can relate to it from moving so much. It tells the story of Shirin, a girl who has moved so much that she has guarded herself with emotional walls incredibly high. This takes place a year after 9/11 and she has become a target of bullies in her past high schools because she wears a hijab. Her older brother, on the other hand, is viewed as the cute foreign teenager that girls love, much like my older brother in high school. When a boy is actually interested in talking to her, she is terrified and finds it challenging to let her guard down.
Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi
I find this book incredibly dreamy and lovely. I am not a huge fan of romantic books but this book feels like a different kind of Notting Hill, which is probably one of my favorite movies of all time. Pablo Neruda Rind is a college dropout who is trying to figure out what he wants to with his life. He currently works at a bodega, which gives his Korean mom some frustrations. His Indian father is more forgiving, but then again he was the one who named him after Pablo Neruda. One day while working his shift at the bodega, Leanna Smart, a very famous pop singer and actress, enters and they strike up a conversation. He is both fascinated and confused about how their worlds have collided. I won’t spoil what happens next, but I will tell you that I got to meet Mary H.K. Choi at the 2019 Texas Teen Book Festival and made a complete fool of myself talking to her, much like Pab interacting with Leanna for the first time.
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier
I read this book when I was a teenager and I don’t think I have ever felt like I related to a character more than Dimple Lala. Dimple has spent her entire life resisting her parent’s traditions as she much prefers to assimilate into American society. When she turns seventeen, her parents try to introduce her to a suitable boy, an Indian American who is an NYU student. She rejects the idea wholeheartedly until she finds him at a club and realizes he is much more complex than she had imagined. While parents might find Dimple too rebellious in this book, she experiments with drinking and smoking pot and she lies to her parents at different points in the book, Dimple feels like a real person with flaws and all. I highly suggest this book to anyone who feels a little bit confused about their identity.