I used to wonder why strangers would stare at me, why they would mutter and look to the side when I walked into the room. It's not that they were rude, just that they were particularly bothered by me. Last summer, I was on vacation with my parents, and it really struck me how odd my family must look- how odd I must look- in an area that is predominantly white. We were biking down the boardwalk, and for miles I only saw people of European backgrounds. My dad and I entered a restaurant, and the first thing I noticed were the multiple pairs of eyes staring as we sat down. Both of us being Asian, we did look different from the rest of the diners at the restaurant. Minutes later, my Scandinavian mom entered. As she sat down with us, more eyes headed our way, and although nobody said anything, the stares and whispers were enough to create an uncomfortable atmosphere.
I realize this happens all the time. I get funny looks whenever I'm eating out with my family, or when I'm traveling, and even when I'm at school. There doesn't have to be blatant rudeness or direct remarks for others to perpetuate the ethnic barriers in society. I watch other young Asian students my age walking around at school or at the mall, and they get similar stares. Asian assimilation into the American population isn't new, but many Asian-American students still grow up under the distant but scrutinizing eyes of their peers.
At my school, students subconsciously create various ethnic divides. In the hallways, there are usually clusters of white students, and there are separate groups of Asian-American ones. At the mall, groups of white teens walk separately from Asian-American teens, and when they pass each other, they shift further apart. While we advocate for social unitedness, separation between ethnically diverse youths is pretty major whether or not it is acknowledged.
For the past few years, the number of Asians in America has slowly been increasing, but many locals seem uncomfortable because of the changes. In 2017, Asian Americans accounted for about 5.5% of the United States population, but by 2020, just over 7% of the American population was of Asian descent. Those numbers seem rather small overall, but they are much higher in individual communities. The minority enrollment at my high school is about 50% with the majority of those being either Asian or Hispanic. The percentage suggests that Asian students would be somewhat acculturated into the student body, yet the groups are still separate. Asian students are still considered different.
In numerous areas, Asian numbers are growing, but that doesn't change the common stigma around being Asian. Student filmmaker Mabelen Bonifacio recently created a film depicting her experience with stereotypes as an Asian student growing up in a predominantly white and Hispanic community. Like many other Asian students in a classroom, Bonifacio stood out kind of as "the one really smart kid who's always good at math". In a classroom, Asian-American students often stand out as the “really smart” students, or the “students with strict parents,” or the “students who talk funny.”
There's always something distinguishing Asian students from non-Asian ones, and there's always some stereotype that is associated with being Asian. Sometimes it is assumed we don't know English. Or we should be particularly smart at math. Or maybe we just look different. I know I look different. Especially when I'm with my half-white, half-Asian family. After seeing my mom, people will ask me if I'm actually related to my mom. They'll ask, am I really Asian or is my mom really white.
Sometimes a look or a glance from someone will say that they're not used to seeing people that look different. But I’m okay with being different. I’m proud that my family is different. An Asian-American student isn’t only smart because they’re Asian-American. To acknowledge that people are different is to acknowledge that they have different traits. It isn’t ethnicity that defines someone, but their own personal qualities.