Jillian: I'm ethnically Chinese. I was born in China. It gets kind of complicated after that. I was adopted to American parents from Kentucky and Colorado. I lived in Kentucky until I was nine, moved to Vietnam, and then moved back here for university.
In Vietnam, I looked like I was in the majority, so it didn't make sense to people. A conversation I would have everyday, multiple times a day, was "Where are you from?" And I'd be like, "America." And they'd be like, "But you look Vietnamese?" "Oh, I know, but I'm not." When I would show a picture of my family, they'd be confused. They would ask, "Why are they your parents?"
Eliza: Yeah, that's not something a lot of people can say that they've experienced. What role has it played in your journey of self identity?
Jillian: I think always having to explain myself and people never believing my nationality was difficult. It didn't make me have self-doubt because I knew. But it makes you question your identity, what it means, and what it means to other people. It's not culturally meant this way, but when you're asked so much, it’s like you don't fit in. It doesn't make sense. So there's a little bit of disconnection that comes with that.
Eliza: Disconnection between…?
Jillian: Between me and my family. Me and my parents. I am American, but I'm not White. And I'm Asian. I feel culturally Asian. But I'm Asian American. And my parents are White. But I identify culturally as Vietnamese. It's just a lot to figure out.
When I got older, I began to realize and see the advantages that come with being White. It was just subtle things. I could be making nothing of this, but it happened all the time...
When you go to a restaurant, there's a higher standard set for tourists who look European. They want to serve them first. I really began to notice that my parents and two White sisters would be served first. Then my Asian sisters and me. It's a respect thing. They're the foreigner... so we need to respect them. I don't want to say it's hierarchy. But you can't not tell that somebody is White in an Asian country. For me, I was lucky I spoke Vietnamese, and that's what threw people off even more.
Eliza: What about being Asian in America? What does that mean to you?
Jillian: That's a question I'm still trying to figure out. It hasn't been long since I've had to be in the context of being Asian in America. I think it hit me that I am in the minority when I went to culinary school in Virginia. At UVA, there was this big KKK incident.
The KKK was marching around the green at the university and Charlottesville. And at the time, I was taking a bus to tour the culinary school. By the time I got to my final destination, it was on TV. Until that incident, I hadn't come to terms with what it meant to be Asian American. But after being so close to that event and realizing that the KKK's motives favor White people and that I'm not White...
The incident made me realize that, and I've been slowly trying to figure it out.
Eliza: What precisely did that make you realize?
Jillian: When that incident was happening, my parents didn't check up on me though they knew I was in the area. It didn't occur to them to think about what it means to be an ethnic minority in America. It was never a conversation we had or something I feel they're completely aware of. They don't know what it's like for me to be in the minority because they can't relate to the connotations of what that brings or the way people view minorities.
I think Asians fit in a weird spot racially in America. And it's different to be an Asian adopted into a White family than it is for an Asian family to have moved here and still preserve some of their culture.
Microaggressions are just those little things that are unrecognized. They're not something that happens everyday. So you know how the coronavirus is causing all Asians to be grouped together? When the flu was going around, I didn't want to wear a mask because I was 95% sure somebody was going to come up and ask if I had the coronavirus. It's just the fact of the matter. It's hurtful that there's such unawareness, ignorance, and illogical thinking like that. I just didn’t want to catch the flu. I don't have coronavirus. You can't joke about that.
I think living in more of a White context brings the Asian out in me. I like seeing my flag hanging up in the Stuce (Student Center) even if it doesn't mean anything to other people. It’s recognizing that there's some kind of difference. We are in a very White Southern context. People here just don't know how to relate to or talk about the context I was raised in. They don't know how to ask questions or appreciate that side of me.
I don't think I’ve been scared to share my culture. I just don't know how. Like you kind of said, I blend in. I did grow up in an American household. I am familiar with how to interact with people, but I just miss home. And I feel like people are just like, "Oh, yeah, that's culture shock." But it's more than that. There's just a lot of differences between growing up and being raised in Nicholasville, Kentucky and growing up in Vietnam or even a different city in America.
It’s a balance. People don't have to relate or understand. They just have to listen.
Eliza: Yeah, that's hard. First, finding people who are willing to listen. And then, secondly, they may not understand or resonate with you.
Jillian: I'm still trying to figure out what it means to be Asian in America because I see the racial tensions between White Americans and African Americans. And it's very different to be Asian than it is Black. But I'm still in the minority.