3 Things Assimilation Taught Me
My family moved to Southern California when I was 10. We landed in Culver City, near titas and my lola – the closest to extended family we had been since moving to Guatemala from the Philippines at around 8 years old.
My parents had always put me and my younger brother in private schools. Due to moving in the middle of the school year, I went to a public elementary school for about four to five months as this little 5th grader. I didn’t understand it then, but I somehow skipped 4th grade. I thought I must have been brilliant; it turns out they just placed me based on age.
I managed to make three great girl friends and was speaking English exclusively, even at home. During those few months, I even went on my first ever solo movie trip with friends (we watched the OG Pokemon movie), which my mom was NOT happy about – not the movie part, but the fraternizing like an American part.
After 5th grade, my parents moved us to a nearby Catholic private school, which was surprisingly diverse in both student body and faculty. As a middle schooler, I was ripe with prepubescent energy, eager to belong in whatever capacity I can manage. And whew did I do whatever it took!
My 5th grade year and the years after were textbook examples of assimilation. My awakening teenage identity was very much tied to absorbing and internalizing as much of the white-centric American culture I was suddenly immersed in. The threat of being an outcast in school was a huge motivating factor in doing so.
And as a result, I have been relentlessly unlearning and uncoupling myself from these beliefs and perceptions of who I needed to be. Assimilation taught me a lot of things about myself and my place in the world, and here are my top three:
1) My voice doesn’t matter
My pronunciation was consistently and annoyingly corrected All. The. Freaking. Time. By my mom, my relatives, my friends, my teachers. And not just my pronunciation but my grammar as well.
I have this vivid memory around the word “comfortable.” I used to pronounce it with an emphasis on the second o, com-FORt-a-ble. I had a friend in high school who insisted I change it, that the second o needed to disappear.
I remember feeling stupid. And while that wasn’t the only instance of correction, every instance taught me to be quiet and to keep my voice to a minimum. I didn’t want anyone else to think I was stupid too.
I managed to maintain an externally outgoing personality as a means to hide the insecurities around speaking – my voice, among other things – that was festering deep down. I worked hard to maintain an identity that did not “other” me, and I knew my English and my accent were going to betray me.
I knew my loved ones meant well (ish), but their continued insistence of language correction was literally erasing my voice and instructing me that silence was the preferred language if I didn’t assimilate fast enough.
There is no belonging in erasing a person’s language, a person’s individuality, and a person’s story.
2) My worth was exclusively tied to academic achievement and grades
In my need to belong, I hung onto my teachers’ words and praise like the lost child that I was. Sure, the Asian immigrant/model minority perception of me was part of how some of my teachers’ engaged with me in the classroom. To them, I was the prize.
But to my young brain, it meant I was wanted and loved, and that I belonged in their space. I mean, who else got A+++ on their assignments???
It also meant that as classes and subjects became more complex, I couldn’t understand why I was struggling more and more. Math and science became harder for me, and it used to frustrate me that those particular classes didn’t come easy. After all, wasn’t I supposed to be naturally good at math? I shouldn’t be having a difficult time and I certainly shouldn’t ask for help -- that would just exhibit my failure as an Asian student.
In order to continue my quest for belonging, I developed an unhealthy relationship with school work and grades. The pressure I placed on myself stemmed from a need to prove to everyone else that I was one of them. Afterall, if I didn’t fit into this stereotype and perception of who I needed to be, I had no other value to offer them.
These are all lies, I know that now, but as a teen I didn’t know that my worth as a person isn’t quantifiable.
3) I needed to separate myself from where I came from to belong
One of the most terrible ways I pushed for belonging included bullying. In particular, middle school offered a means to do this with another Filipina immigrant student. So many people would tease her -- from her accent to her lunch food. They called her names and made sure she knew she wasn’t wanted.
I’m ashamed to admit that I joined in the teasing and bullying. She and I had a lot of similarities in life, but that only made me determined to distance myself from her as much as possible.
My peers had this caricature-ish idea of her as “the foreigner.” But what my peers saw as too foreign for them was in actuality a person who enjoyed delicious food, had remnants of her parents’ love on her clothes, was multilingual, and had a big bright smile.
And I knew I wanted nothing to do with that.
Assimilation and this false idea of belonging taught me that I had to leave behind a huge part of my identity in order to be accepted and welcomed into American culture. Any contradicting feelings or thoughts were shoved as far away as possible. In order to be seen by my classmates, teachers, peers, I severed ties from my authentic self.
Let me tell y’all, it’s been a process and a half. For so long I was conditioned to believe this false narrative about my place in the world. A part of it felt like a necessity to survive my adolescent years. I could write another list of things I wish happened instead, but in truth, what I really needed was connection and opportunity to thrive as a whole being.
As a child, I needed to build a connection between all the parts of me that were just trying to learn more about each other. Instead, the people surrounding me made them compete for what I perceived as one solitary ticket to belonging.
I want adults to stop expecting kids to be one-dimensional beings just to make it easier for the adults to keep them in line. I want people to stop using conditional acceptance in order to identify a person’s place in the world. I want people to stop parading the idea of assimilation as the answer to the long ago debunked “American dream.”
There is no belonging in erasing a person’s language, a person’s individuality, and a person’s story. If the adults, especially the teachers, around me understood that too, I wonder if I wouldn’t be fighting so hard to remember I am worthy just as I am.