We’re on the second episode!
Growing up as a 2nd generation immigrant child in the white suburbs of West Covina
Being friends with other westernized Asians
My traumatic experiences with my Asian heritage in school
Navigating life knowing more English than my mom in elementary school
Statistics of bilingual languages in America
Why being bilingual is pretty amazing
Examples of early integration of foreign languages in other countries
Same-sex partnerships in Asia
Getting caught looking at gay porn
Trying to commit suicide during high school
Distancing myself from my Asian heritage in college
Coming out in college
Dating rice queens
How to work through the feelings of not enough-ness
Steven Wakabayashi: Hello. Hi, how are you? My name is Steven Wakabayashi, and you’re listening to Yellow Glitter Mindfulness Through the Eyes and Soul of a Queer Asian. Every episode I’m going to share with you what’s on my mind or things that I’m struggling with and how I’m working through it to help you live a more mindful, fabulous life.
And so let’s get into it. We’re on the second episode, woo. This week I wanted to share a little bit about my life growing up. Uh, so growing up as a second generation Asian and gay has never been an easy thing for me, especially here in America. Second generation, for those of you not very familiar with that term, commonly refers to the US born children of foreign born parents.
So you could think about it as the first generation. As the first wave of people who became US citizens in the family. And so because my parents were naturalized and became US citizens, that makes me the second wave or the second generation Asian American. And so when it comes to self-esteem, the western culture, Or actually for most cultures, for that matter, doesn’t really celebrate being a minority.
There is this feeling of never fitting in, never feeling good enough, and perpetuating these thoughts of, I am not enough because of who I was born as. And so a little bit about my history. So I grew up in the conservative suburbs east of LA called West Covina. There is this TV show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that puts this city on the map, but it isn’t super glamorous and.
As diverse as it leads you to believe. Growing up Asian was a big minority, and gay was an even bigger minority. Most of the population in West Covina while I was growing up was white or white passing Hispanics, Latinos, and straight. The handful of Asian friends I had growing up were extremely westernized, or as you can say, whitewashed.
Even though they were second generation, just like me, we. Talk primarily English as often as we could. Our fashion music taste was heavily influenced by Western pop culture and the things we ate. Whenever we had an opportunity to choose was of course American cuisine. I remember vividly that my friends and I would hang out at malls all the time.
Back then malls were where you went because you had nowhere else to go. We didn’t have social media. We didn’t have. The places to go everywhere and anywhere. And so we would go to these extremely huge malls that had stores like American Eagle, Hollister, Abercrombie, Pakistan, all the Western clothing retailers under one roof.
And these were modeled off of white men and women. Maybe you’d get the occasional light-skinned black man or woman, but. Growing up, I never saw an Asian person on the ads of any of these stores ever. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to wear what everyone was wearing and look in all these models. I, I didn’t just want the clothes, but I wanted to be like them.
I wanted to have friends like them, and I idolized them so much. And when it came to food, it wasn’t like how it is now where you have Yelp Foursquare. Um, I just recently found this really neat one called Happy Cow that has a directory of all the vegan places all around the world, but. Uh, when it came to cuisine and figuring out what was popular, it was all based off of word of mouth.
And so when you’re in the suburbs east of la the word of mouth is the typical Western chains, Denny’s, t g i, Fridays, BJ’s. These were the Popin places these were, or you wanted to be seen to be eating. Growing up, you wanted to let everyone know you were there. And if my friends and I ever craved ethnic food, it was of course what was also popular with our western friends.
P f Chang’s, taco Bell. Remember the dollar? Huge one pound cheesy bean and rice burrito. So bad for you. But my mom, you know, she immigrated from Taiwan and she was an amazing, incredible cook. But I wasn’t craving authentic cuisine. I was craving something else. My appetite was to fit in. And when I was with my Asian friends, I never felt like I was hanging out with Asians because.
It felt like I was hanging out with the other white kids. We all spoke English. We wore these whitewashed brands and we ate dinner and food just like our other white friends. And as for gay people, I didn’t know anybody that was out until I was 17 years old. My friend that. Came out at the time, the only person I knew that came out at the time ended up becoming my best friend and later on my boyfriend.
But as I came to terms with my sexuality, uh, it took me a long time. I’ve known in the back of my mind since second grade that I was gay, but I lived under a straight facade for more than two decades. And. Going back to retail and restaurants, if those didn’t reinforce the Western lifestyle enough media did.
I didn’t see anybody Asian or gay on television or radio. Yes, radio was super popular in the nineties. The most popular celebrities at the time. The successful people. We’re all white, white passing, and of course straight. And at that time, Oprah had her talk show and it was pretty popular. But when I watched her, her mannerisms and speech were all so whitewashed.
She was trying to be what I wanted to be as well, and in my mind, in my heart, if I wanted to be big, successful, popular. I had to fit in, I would have to try even harder to mask my true identity because it was not gonna cut it. It wasn’t good enough, and that’s what I believed. I thought this feeling of never being good enough in my own skin, in my own sexuality was perhaps something just.
A, you know, a teenager is going through. But as I started to look even further back, there were a lot of experiences that led to this type of feeling. I felt my first cultural trauma when I was in second grade, I. I had an encounter where a teacher scolded me for speaking Chinese to another classmate of mine, and she scolded me in front of the entire class.
We, my Asian friend and I were talking in Mandarin Chinese. To each other about many things. And this girl sitting next to us, she was Spanish speaking, she got really upset and really annoyed by us and told the teacher, and instead of approaching us individually, my teacher decided to lecture me in front of the entire class about speaking only English because.
This is America and we don’t talk about people in other languages. And she used her knowledge of Spanish as an example and started speaking Spanish with another kid in the class. James, it’s so funny, I remember their names, but she started speaking to James in Spanish, and then she looked at me and she said, how does that make you feel?
The whole class laughed at me and I was so embarrassed at that moment. Being Asian did not feel safe. It did not feel good. And you know, as I look back, I know it was handled extremely poorly, but. In my childhood eyes, I felt that being Asian with my Chinese and Japanese heritage, it was handicap. This language I was using.
It was a weapon. It hurt people and it hurt me too. My language, my skin, my heritage was somehow not okay. And this experience set me on a trajectory to believe that my cultural roots were not beneficial to me at worse, uh, detriment to my success. I stopped speaking Mandarin and Japanese at home and shifted over to English as my primary language.
I. My mom at the time, she and I would have this relationship where she would speak Chinese, Japanese to me and I would reply to her back in English. And another cultural trauma that I felt and perhaps many other second generation kids go through in America was when I surpassed my family’s English comprehension.
For me, this happened in elementary school. My mom never had a formally education, let alone learn English in a structured setting, and I was helping her to translate documents, explain cultural customs. Basically help her navigate life, living in America as a kid. And because of this, I started questioning my cultural roots and its benefits as a child.
If it’s not helping my mom, what benefit is it going to be? For me, right? And so here I am helping my mom navigate life essentially through America with what little I knew. And this also helped to reinforce, I. My time, my energy and things that mattered. And in this case it was English. I later asked my mom many years ago, I think it was sometime in college, about why we moved to a predominantly white neighborhood growing up.
And she said that it was so that I could be well integrated within the Western culture. As best as she could, and so that I could be as successful as I could be. She too believed that our yellow skin and cultural roots were not beneficial in America. These experiences and the majority white neighborhood and the inadequate representations of Asians in media deeply planted seeds of.
There’s not enoughness inside of me and probably the Asians around me as well. I don’t recall ever really talking about this with my friends, any of these issues. And I saw the Asians around me and they were also too, going through this cultural shedding, this integration, and I thought this was so normal.
I felt like it was probably a coming of age of immigrant childhood. And so I thought to myself, well, I feel this way, but if everyone is doing it, why should I even question it? And yes, we can talk about cultural acceptance and more equal representation of Asians, um, gay people and media, but are these effects of a deeper problem?
What is chicken and what is the egg? And so let’s first address the lack of international cultural awareness, especially when we are young. And for me, as I was taking a look back at my childhood years, I was first formally introduced to. A language when I was in seventh grade, when I was 13 years old, and for many of my peers, this is entirely optional.
You could have graduated high school without even having taken another language class. Although I was exposed to Chinese and Japanese growing up, my only options were French and Spanish at a very limited capacity. And the focus. Going to middle school, going to high school was on English at all times. So what does this say about cultural awareness and acceptance, especially with our youth?
By reinforcing this idea that there is one main language throughout our childhood encourages close-minded thinking and at worse racism and racism. Is just simply defined as a preference of one race over another. That’s it. And for me, I internalized it. My skin and my cultural roots were not helping me at school.
It’s so funny because I tell my friends, my colleagues about this and I learned how they’re all raising their children, and I hear about how so many other countries integrate. A different language really early on, and in Singapore you compliment English, but you compliment this English curriculum with a mother language tongue as early as you start formal schooling.
They speak so many different languages in Singapore and at any given moment, at any given school. There are 4, 5, 6 different languages being spoken and with my German friends. The students in Germany are required to study English starting at the age of nine, which is so different from my experience when you’re already 13 years old, you are.
Pretty established in your ways and having other languages exposed as this optional curriculum, maybe you want to take it so that you could get into college. It’s seen as ticking a box rather than making us into more woke human beings. And so as we talk about the second language, it. I don’t think, in my opinion, it only teaches us its vocabulary, but it expands awareness outside of our cultural customs.
When I was learning French, I was learning about the type of food they were eating, what they did in school, their university system, way more than just the vocabulary, and perhaps if I had the opportunity to take my mother tongue growing up. I probably would’ve had seen my cultural roots in a different light, maybe even appreciate it more when I was helping my mom with the more adult stuff when I was young with the little English that I knew it.
Just set such a different precedence. Looking back, the lack of translated documents and readily available translation services for important things like the D M V. Definitely put my mother’s cultural roots at a disadvantage and allowing it to perpetuate generation after that. And so that raises a good question about how do you teach Americans?
The benefit of foreign languages and the diversity, if that’s all they know, especially middle America. I was digging a little bit more into statistics and it really surprised me in the US since the survey done in 2017. Only about 22% of Americans can speak more than one language that leaves 78% of Americans never having been exposed to another language, to a degree of being bilingual.
It is pretty shocking and for anyone interested. The first language on the list is Spanish, and that’s about 13% of America is bilingual and Spanish number two is Chinese, and this is only 1%, so we’ve dropped from 13% to 1%. The number third language is Tagalog, and this is. 0.6% and Vietnamese is right below that.
Number four at 0.5%. And if we jump down, Korean is number eight, only about 0.4%. And. Japanese is all the way down at number 21. Only 0.2% of the United States can speak Japanese bilingually. How crazy is that? By numbers alone, if you can speak another language, I think it’s pretty. Miraculous. Pretty amazing and it’s something to be a proud of.
If you can speak one of the Asian languages bilingually, you are just a fraction of a percent in the us. How amazing is that? I. And I definitely want to give a shout out to my mom who helped to keep my language skills intact, even though I hated as a child. I just want to be like all the other white kids.
And I spoke to her in English, what spoke to me in Chinese and Japanese, and I attribute a lot of my comprehension because that’s, That’s what she gave me, and so thank you. Thank you, mommy. I’ll link the census in the show notes so you can take a look at yourself as well. But compared to previous years, the number is.
Growing, but only by less of a fraction each year. And as a world becomes more international, many of the monolingual American citizens are going to be left behind. Cultural awareness starts when we are young and if instead of seeing our differences as a weapon and to see it as a treasure when fitting in matters less.
Then being an outlier, we keep the beauty and benefits of diversity intact. Although characteristics like gender, expression and sexuality can be CL closeted for many years, I. Our skin color is out there for the world to see. Our childhood intuition can pick up racial undertones in the interactions we have with adults and peers around us, but we don’t know how to verbalize it.
It ends up coming through as this, I’m not enough feeling rather than seeing the racist cloud that looms over people’s heads. I can’t say for sure if addressing racism early on would’ve changed the course of my life, but how could I be willing to embrace or battle the racism outside if it was from inside of myself?
To top it off. At the same time as I was figuring out my relationship with my Asian identity, I was still in the closet, but I was fully aware I was gay. Ever since the second grade, I had boys that I thought were cute on my mind all the time in second grade, and I couldn’t figure out why my. Family is extremely conservative and my mother would, as I was growing up.
Asked me questions like, oh, when are you gonna get a girlfriend? And asked me about every girl I was hanging out with, whether or not they were my girlfriend and on family vacations to Taiwan. I absolutely hated it when my relatives would ask me if I had a girlfriend or not and why? Still to this day, they ask whether or not.
I am married yet, and although I am out to my immediate family, I, it is something I have yet to, uh, figure out how to manage. And so that brings me to a really interesting topic. So as a part of being two minority groups, Asian, gay, When one minority part of me also demonizes, another part of me, I retreated into myself.
The self-hatred intensified, and in Asia, they are extremely behind in gay rights, way behind United States. When it comes to gays, lesbians, and God forbid, trans rights, they just fail to recognize it. Same sex partnerships in Asia. Were finally legalized in Taiwan just a few months ago on May 24th, 2019, but for the rest of Asia, It is still not recognized.
Some countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, same sex activities are still illegal and punishable with prison sentence and beatings. Religion, I. Like Christianity, Islam and old customs are probably to blame in Japan where majority are Buddhists and in Buddhism there’s nothing about gays, but why they still deny and so vehemently against the same sex partnership.
Or because of these old customs, they still cl onto to the younger generation is a lot more aware and a lot more accepting. But when it comes to laws legalization, you still have this tension with the older generation. I. And while I was in middle school, I had this experience. It was pretty traumatic to say the least, but while I was in middle school, I was caught browsing gay porn by my older cousin.
One weekend I wasn’t jerking off, but I was in the room alone on his computer, and I was just curiously browsing some photos I found online and. I had emailed them to myself, so I was just looking at it, clicking on it, just sitting there, and then he came rushing it, and he was closing all these windows on the computer, and I got so worried.
I was like, oh my God. But before I knew it, he clicked on my email, saw it, and he was like, oh my God. And that following night he confronted me about it and said that, It was wrong, and if it was straight porn, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But the gay porn was an issue. And so he told me, swear to me that this is just a phase and you’re gonna not do this again.
And so I said, you know, okay, yeah, I was kid. I didn’t know what was right, what was wrong. I didn’t have any gay friends, and so I thought it was. Wrong, right. Here’s this family member that I expected to have my best interests at heart was telling me this is wrong. This is just a phase. And I told myself that too.
He made me delete that email address on the spot in front of him. And I had used this to contact my friends and. And the blink of an eye was gone. I just told my friends, oh, I got too much spam and I had to delete it. This was pretty traumatic, and it furthered this feeling that I was not enough, that the way I had been put out into the world was somehow wrong and flawed.
This feeling perpetuated into. Self-hatred that deepened and deepened throughout middle school and in high school. I actually tried to commit suicide. I sat awake one night, wrote a will of what stuff I would give to, to what friends, and took all of my asthma medications all in one go thinking that it was gonna put me out.
I was ready and. I woke up the next day in a haze. My heart was beating, but the medications did not do anything to me aside from increase my heart rate tremendously, and one of my friends reported it to. My school counselor and they sat me down, talked me through it, and had these series of interventions.
And at the time I said, oh yeah, these interventions are working. But as a teenager, my. Will to not be embarrassed was stronger than this depression. And so I said, and I did everything to make it look like I was getting better throughout high school and into college. This depression still lingered and a voice inside of me told me that, you know, I just had to hang on a few more years and I can get out of this environment, this high school, this conservative house, uh, hometown.
So that I could somehow be freely me. And so I did. I went to college in San Diego at U C Ss D, about two hours south of my home and I. When it came to managing these two minority sides within myself, I ended up gravitating to the lowest common denominator, and in this case, my sexuality. Really interesting thought there because I had this other part of me, this Asian side that was not, Accepting my other part of myself, my gay side, and I took it upon myself to distance myself as much as I can from my Asian heritage.
At this point, being Asian was not a point of pride, and I believe that it was the root of all the pain and teenage suffering, especially because I was. Okay. And at my college it was very different In California, it had the largest population of Asian students than any other ethnicities. White being a close second, and I made a whole diverse array of friends.
But the Asians I gravitated towards were really similar to my Asian friends growing up, extremely Americanized with their mannerisms and primarily English speaking. Though my roots still beckon my presence, I took Japanese language classes in hopes of revitalizing some of my Japanese comprehension skills that had deteriorated since I left home, and I took the classes and I enjoyed it.
And I developed a friendship with my Japanese teacher, and something about the relationship felt really nice. I thought it was because she reminded me of my mother, but looking back, it was when I was truly embracing who I was without judgment, and all throughout college being surrounded by Asians.
Everywhere. I had this constant fear that my conservative past was going to somehow catch up with me. I had spent years developing the mannerisms, the likes, dislikes, to prove that I was an American just like any other white boy or white girl. And I was different somehow from my conservative Asian roots.
But when there was an opportunity to audition for a dance hip hop crew, I made the team. But after I made the team, I quit on the spot. When I saw that the organization was primarily Asian, my fear took control of my body and actions. But. I could not manifest it into words at the time. After a few years of college, I finally came out to my friends.
I ended up coming out only because I got broken up with from my ex. Funny enough, I kept the relationship a secret for years as I was struggling to come through. And come to terms with my sexuality. It’s funny how I could engage in gay activities, but still struggle to outwardly express that I was gay.
He was nicoson and looked like James Franco with his light skin. He could. Pass as a white or white mix if you didn’t know his ethnic background. And so this same guy that I was really good friends with and I ended up dating and we ended up breaking up. It was. Tumultuous to say the least. Went through another bout of depression.
I went to therapy and I finally was able to come out of it after many, many years and after college I started dating again, but. This time I noticed that it was only primarily white men. The thought of dating someone that reminded me of my ethnicity or someone that shared similar experiences, it was a huge turnoff.
And at the time I thought it was just a preference, but. Racism is also a reference I asked myself, was this how I would become fully integrated into American culture? Perhaps in my husband’s family, they would fully accept me for who I am. And was this really the ultimate goal to date and hopefully marry a white man?
Sometimes I would date Latino men, but. To be honest, they were all light skinned and white passing during that time, which was, hmm, like 10 years ago. Every single ad, whether it’s an ad for a TV show, a club dating website, it featured mostly white men too. Advertising has this way of sneaking into your unconscious and it deepened the racism within myself.
For many years, I had a strong disdain for my cultural roots, and here we were seeing gay advertisements, thinking I was finally going to be accepted in this circle. But the color of the skin of all the people in the ads made me feel. Otherwise, the color of my skin constantly reminded me that I was inferior everywhere I went, that I was never good enough to fit into the gay or Asian crowd.
I wasn’t good enough to be gay as an Asian, and I wasn’t good enough. To be Asian by being gay. And you know, still to this day, most of the gay dating apps use primarily buff White man. And if we can judge mainstream acceptance based off of the advertising alone, it’s still not popular to be gay and Asian.
And so, I dated, dated for many, many years and it was really interesting to say the least. Um, the white men I dated were. Very attractive, but they were obsessed with me like a fetish in the gay world, you call them rice queens, gay queens who love Asians, a k a rice. And I would go on countless dates with these men and they would start the date off by asking everything about my cultural origin.
Where are you from? No really? Where are you from? And they would ask about what languages I spoke and try to win my affection over with their trivia knowledge of Asian culture. At first, I didn’t mind because I was pretty desperate. They’re hot, whatever. But in a way, I also fetishize the American culture as much as these men fetishize me.
I. And the other Asian men they had dated. I have this really funny story. I once had this Brazilian guy. He spent the entire day talking about how much he wanted a half Asian baby. It was kind of funny to listen to at the time and all of its excruciating detail when I reminisce. It’s kind of funny, but it’s.
Extremely cringe inducing. Who does that? The men I date. I realized that it was just a reflection of me, a reflection of the internal monologue and the internal hit I had with myself. Whenever these men would remark that I was not like any other Asians they had dated and how. Westernized as I was. I loved it.
I was named a banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside, and asked myself, was this really how I was going to be accepted in the west to get this feeling that I always wanted to be compared to a piece of fruit. And after years of being out of college, Living on my own and having established my own lifestyle.
I was so far from being Asian in my day to day. For starters, I wore shoes in the house, which is a huge no-no in Asian culture. I told myself, No, it was because of I was lazy and it couldn’t be because of racial rebellion. I shopped at American grocery stores, worked in advertising, goodbye medical school, listened to Lady Gaga and rarely spoke.
Anything aside from English after college, I was usually the token Asian boy in my circle of friends. I continue to date the self-proclaimed rice queens, but I found nothing in common with these men who had integrated more Asian culture into their lifestyle than me. I started to find the fetishizing quite appalling, and I avoided these type of men altogether.
Although some would sneak past the net because of their charm. Ugh. Sneaky, sneaky. And so there I was living my most American life and I was still unhappy. I couldn’t put a finger on what it was until recently, after spending a lot of time coaching aspiring designers in San Francisco and mentoring them, teaching them how to be the best designer, I was telling them.
How to embrace their careers to step up by embracing who they were, their unique self, their likes, dislikes, aesthetics, past career, education, sexuality, and ethnicity. And in those moments, I saw I wasn’t taking my own advice to heart. I started reflecting inward. And I started seeing the pain, the loneliness.
After more than a decade of being called banana, there was this open wound from the unacceptance of how the world had made me and for all my life. I thought that distancing myself was the only way to heal.
So there I was, I was hollow living in this shell that I constructed out of all the best bits of who I, what I deemed was successful on media, on social media. But it. Didn’t make me happy. This whitewashed fantasy was not me. I dug deep in myself as a part of my healing and greeted the traumatic experiences with compassion.
I started to fill a void left from never feeling good enough with so much love, understanding, and forgiveness at first. This was the intention of being the best designer I could be, but somehow it evolved into being the best human I could be. Combined with my trip meditating around the world, I had a self-discovery and it manifests itself in so many ways, including having more self-worth and best of all, it deepened my relationship with my family that I long tos ties with.
This story doesn’t just end here, and perhaps it will continue with this podcast as I dig deeper into my story and the stories of other like-minded queer Asians living in the complexities of being gay and Asian in America. But I. Right now, as of this moment, there are 7.53 billion people in this world, and there are way too many people in this world to not embrace who we are, who I am, who you are, our genes, our cultural background, our caregivers, our education, our socioeconomic background, our sexual preferences, our gender identity, our hobbies, our likes, our dislike.
There will never, ever be another human being that has that same exact combination ever. And with that, how is it even possible to measure what is good enough? And the measuring sticks we use are so different. Too different. The quantification is extremely limited and biased. And it only has meaning to the people who are hurting the most, who need to define themselves.
And I can’t go back in time. I can’t change what happened, but I can choose how I respond to it moving forward. The first step of healing this feeling of not enoughness is to first recognize it by seeing this as a result of traumatic, personal and social experiences. I am even more compassionate myself, with myself than ever before.
Whenever I doubt or even hate myself, I’ve learned to greet it with compassion, and I understand that with more than 30 years of conditioning thinking this way, of course. This healing is not going to come easy, and for those days that I’m extremely down on myself, I focus on the present. Just right now, what I can do to focus on my mission today and my mission right now is to embrace myself as imperfect or as perfectly as I am.
And for many years I blamed all this on people. I pointed my finger at my second grade teacher. Asian culture, Western society. I thought that this was a way to heal and blame is not conducive. It is looking at our wound and refusing to let go of it. It is to identify with it more so then stepping past it to find the healing.
We are all trying our best. And the people around me that inadvertently hurt me, were also trying their best to survive, to live. And in this day and age, racism, sexism, gay hate happens everywhere. But I believe that as much I am working on my own healing, that they too cannot only. Do the self-work and heal from it, but also deserve it too.
Though there are complications to this when you have intolerance at leads to violence, but I. I am gonna save that for another story. And so yeah, that is my story in a nutshell, growing up Asian and gay here in America, and the feelings perpetuated of not feeling good enough, but also greeting it with compassion.
And opening it up for self-work. I hope this has helped you in some way, whether you feel connected, more aware of your own past experiences or just feeling more knowledgeable. And if you want to get in touch with me, you can email me at [email protected]. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and if you want to follow me, You can also check me out on my [email protected] slash.
Steven Waka Baji, and every week I publish a mindfulness [email protected]. And there you will get your share of weekly content from me, including bits of mindful glitter and links to things that I love and I discover online delivered to your inbox each week. And of course, if you enjoyed this, Don’t forget to leave a rating and review on iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcast to help others find yellow glitter as well.
I would really appreciate it and with that, so much love for you and I hope your day can be a little bit more mindful. Bye now.