Mirrors photo by Elena Kloppenburg on Unsplash

Seeing One’s Own Self Reflected: Belonging, Identity, and Place

By Jade Nguyen

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I find myself pondering the role of representation and story as it relates to a sense of home and belonging.

I have many memories of my family and sitting around having long conversations about everything from food to politics, but often the discussion turned to fears about the young ones becoming too Westernized and losing touch with their roots. Growing up, my parents encouraged me to retain my cultural heritage as much as possible, but I knew that I was different because I was an American.  I was born in a country that was foreign to my parents and one that would view them and those who shared our features as the perpetual foreigner. As I later came to learn, despite being born and raised in the United States, I didn’t “look” American and I would meet others of Asian descent who shared my experiences, some of whom whose families had been in the country for generations and like me would be asked, “Where are you really from?” or told that they spoke English very well.

When I was old enough to attend school, I learned that the existence of Asian Americans in the fabric of American history was largely absent. Instead, they were footnotes who played supporting or subservient roles in American society or passive victims in racist fear-driven executive orders. Their stories were casualties of historical erasure like so many other stories that centered Black, Indigenous, people of color. And, what I didn’t learn from my history books I learned from media and actors in yellowface. As a child and teenager, I don’t remember seeing a major movie or TV character that I could identify with. Often the Asian female character played a minor role, functioned only as a background character or fell into one of two tropes: the submissive Lotus Blossom or the villainous Dragon Lady. Both of whom were such flat caricatures that no part of me felt realized in these depictions and I easily dismissed them as poorly written fiction, though I knew that some less worldly would wholly believe them to be accurate.

Growing up without these stories being told, without being affirmed in the complexities of my identity, without representation, led to moments where I didn’t feel as if I belonged in my country of birth and nearly caused me to accept that I would always be seen as foreign. But, the truth exists in our existence and in our experiences—a truth that will remain silent if our stories remain untold.

Recently, legislation passed in the United States House of Representatives that seeks to establish the first national Asian Pacific American Museum. This is one step towards the recognition of the achievements and accomplishments of Asian American and Pacific Islanders and repairing the gaps in the historical narrative. In recent years, the film and television industry has attempted to tell stories that better reflect the diversity of their audience. This progress just provides further evidence regarding the importance of representation and having these stories told.

As a Circle Keeper, one of my roles is to help hold space for participants to be able to listen to the experiences of others and to have their own stories be heard. Although the Circles themselves are finite and once closed the stories remain within that space, the acts of listening and being seen and heard are powerful.  When a group or identity is marginalized or ignored, history is incomplete. The more opportunities that we have to be seen, the more opportunities there are to heal the rifts that stand in the way of wholeness and belonging.  This is why stories and representation matter.

*Photo by Elena Kloppenburg on Unsplash