aware /əˈwer/, adj.

Growing up, I was accustomed to being the only person of my race in a classroom or other settings (if my parents weren’t around). This became so commonplace, I seldom noticed; this was just something that was, something I realized only in retrospect years later.

For me, joining a youth orchestra when I was in 8th grade and then beginning school at Berkeley were reverse culture shocks. Both places consisted of populations where Asians and Asian Americans were a significantly larger fraction — almost qualifying as the majority — of the people there.

My younger self found this experience strange. It was just unusual to be surrounded by so many people who were similar to me, oftentimes in subtle ways. Chinese phrases used when English translations were unknown or practices of keeping “inside” and “outside” clothes separate no longer required explanation. Taking off shoes inside a house was even more second nature than was breathing.

At youth orchestra, transitioning into a new friend group that consisted largely of Asian Americans like myself, happened almost immediately. I slipped into the familiarity of my new friends like grains of sand on a beach.

At Berkeley, the shift into a space where there were more Asians, Asian Americans, and other people of color was somehow more difficult. But it wasn’t because of these groups of people. When I was with them, the metaphorical beach expanded — there was a new outcropping of rocks, some seaweed strewn up from the tides. The landscape had changed, but it was still the beach. This was how I felt walking on campus, through the dining commons, and into the lounges in the dorms.

In my English classes, however, there were distinctly more white people than there were any persons of color.

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

One of my English professors commented once, Berkeley claims itself to be a diverse school, but I’ve taught classes here where there isn’t a single black student in the room. She’d moved to Berkeley from a much smaller liberal arts college a couple semesters prior. There, she’d had at least one black student and other students of color in each of her classes. (Is it a surprise that she also stacks many of her courses with syllabi about colonialism and imperialism?)

As an Asian American, I was always intimidated to be one of a small handful — or sometimes the only Asian-identifying person — in an English classroom. For four years, Asian/Asian American students outside the English department wondered why I was a humanities major and not a STEM major, or if my parents had questioned my choices. (They hadn’t.)

Inside the classroom, my white peers slung their backpacks on one shoulder, wore oversized jackets/flannel-like items of clothing, and carried their books haphazardly as their hair fell onto the wrong sides of their parts. (Men, too.) And each time they did this, walking across campus in 90°F weather or through pouring rain into the classroom, they managed to still fall into their chairs with an effortless graceful un-grace that I was never able to pull off. (The closest I got was using a fountain pen during my last two years in college.)

It was in these classrooms where I began counting heads. How many other Asians/Asian Americans were in the room with me?

The numbers never bothered me. I continued to do each page of my reading, attend every class, and visit my professor at office hours with diligence. But I was always aware if I was the one, or one of the four.

Throughout my four years at college and beyond graduation, my friend group — which had been predominantly white when I was child — has transformed into one that is predominantly Asian. I continue to be conscious of how many others are in the room — Asians, Asian Americans, people of color.

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

When I met my cousin for dinner the other day, he idly asked me about my dating preferences. For context: he’s from Taiwan, but has spent the past few years in the States.

Did I prefer dating someone who was white, or someone who was Taiwanese?

I’m usually pretty bald about my dating life, but my cousin’s question suddenly made me stumble over my words. To my recollection, I don’t think I’ve ever said, “I don’t date Asian guys,” but my dating history speaks volumes on its own. So as I stood there, faced with my cousin’s question, I felt like a hypocrite.

Disclaimer to avoid the “Not all men” complaint: I’m not trying to throw all white men under the bus right now because I know not all of you are “bad,” and also, Harry Styles.

Even if I hadn’t intended to perpetuate the “I don’t date Asian guys” mindset, I also hadn’t done anything to negate it. And as a standalone, my past behavior can still come off as being hypocritical — especially after an entire post about my own increasing awareness of my Asian American identity in different spaces.

In case it reads otherwise, this is not meant to be a self-congratulatory post for becoming more “woke.” The context of my dating history is just one small piece of a much larger issue that I needed to identify by looking in the mirror and realizing that I could be better before I was able to move on and address other, larger matters.

With so much at odds right now, the best place to begin doing work is with yourself. Whether it’s ceasing to perpetuate stereotypes levied by western culture or recognizing where you still have room to learn more about other people and their experiences, always begin with yourself.

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