The Twinkie Complex: Crisis of Identity Among Asian-Americans

I could name practically all the characters in “The Simpsons” by heart. I could tell you what time “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” aired on the UPN channel and whether or not the episode was in fact, a rerun–80% of the time, it was. I could sing several lines of the “Friends” theme song (and some choice selections from Phoebe–smelly cat, smelly cat) on demand. You see, for the better part of my childhood, I was raised by our family’s television set. My parents were constantly working to put food on the table and my grandparents didn’t have the energy to constantly entertain both my sister and I. Naturally, we would find ourselves parked in front of our television watching an episode of “WWE”, “Montel” or whatever trashy, derivative show was on at the time, as we didn’t have the selection and luxury of cable. It was during these hours and hours spent gaping at commercials, infomercials and what have you that I learned how to be an American–how to speak the language, practice the culture and equip myself with the tools to assimilate to the land I am grateful to call home.

Twinkie

Do they still sell these?

It was also at this time that I began to feel like a Twinkie. You know, moist, spongey and yellow on the outside, thick, creamy and white on the inside…..okay, maybe just the yellow and white parts. Being ingrained with all those images of quintessential Americanness, especially the portrayal of American women in the media, I became hyper-aware of how un-American I was, which dealt a huge blow to the self-esteem of my 6-year old self. I did not possess the blond hair, light eyes, aristocratic nose and pale blemish-free skin of my native compatriots and I despised my heritage for making it impossible to carry these traits. I rebelled against my culture in ways that shall not be spoken of and for which I bear great shame. I came to the stark realization that on the outside, I am inexplicably Asian and that was how society identified me, but to my very core, I am an American and that was how I saw myself. Everything about me is American–from the way I dress to the way I speak to my dietary preferences. So, why does society so often only see us by the color of our skin? Why are the Asian actors always the bad guys and token characters? Why do people always inquire about my country of origin? Why are they surprised that I can speak perfect, unaccented English? Over time, I learned to drown out all this noise and come to terms with my Twinkie-ness, reconciling my dual identities as both Asian and American.

The only picture I could find of myself (and my roommate) reading….a calculus textbook (not at all representative of the books I actually like to read).

What changed? First of all, I stopped watching as much (bad!) television. Secondly, I started reading any book I could get my hands on at the local library. I devoured books–the voices embedded in the letters and sentences permeated my imagination and informed my perspective about the world. The stories of Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Adeline Yen Mah and countless other Asian-American authors resonated with the innermost parts of my mind, body and soul. Thirdly, I would speak to my family in our native tongue and learn their stories. Finally, I thought. I thought A LOT (I am still a perpetual thinker). I asked questions–many times, questions with no answers. I thought even more and then, I would write and write and write in my journal, letting all my emotions and thoughts wash over me in cathartic unison. By reading literature about the experiences of others Asian-Americans and reflecting upon my own, I got over my self-loathing and hatred, stopped conforming to American ideals of beauty and perfection, and learned to accept my culture and Asian identity as a crucial part of what makes me an American.

My story is not uncommon in the AAPI community; it is merely one of millions. I implore those of you suffering through an identity crisis, and even those who are simply curious about identity, to find creative outlets to exercise those thoughts and feelings–art, music, writing, fashion, dancing, advocacy, interning and/or whatever strikes your fancy! Reading and writing were the pathways through which I merged my West meets East personas and is partly the reason that I wanted to be involved with a great AAPI organization like CAPAL this summer. In America, there is great pressure to assimilate, to blend in, to be like everyone else, but this country is also a great melting pot of backgrounds and opinions, so don’t be afraid to embrace your culture and heritage. Don’t be afraid to write or speak out on behalf of issues you care about. And lastly, don’t be afraid to be you. Twinkie and all, in my case.

If any of you are interested in reading a more succinct and well-written op-ed about the Twinkie complex, read this piece published by the Chicago Tribune.

Laura

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