My refrigerator at home always has a jar of kimchi and a big bottle of Asian hot sauce. The pungent aroma of fermented kimchi from our local Korean market has the ability to permeate its way through the entire refrigerator so much that I tend to hold my breath when I open the door. My mom even lights a vanilla and lavender scented candle to mask the smell of this spicy, garlicky, tangy, staple of Korean cuisine. And as some of you may know, attempts at disguising such a pronounced aroma are futile.
I grew up in an area of the United States with limited cultural and ethnic diversity. I always felt a twinge of embarrassment when I had friends over and the fridge door creaked open, knowing that there was no way that they could be oblivious to the smell. But, kind-hearted as they were, no comments were ever made. But regardless of the embarrassment I sometimes felt due to the overpowering aroma of kimchi I never once thought of throwing it out. Kimchi was one of the things that set me apart and defined me as Korean. In an area where there were very few who shared my cultural heritage, the smell of kimchi and my mother’s cooking kept me grounded.
Within the US, Asians have historically been represented in the media as a “model minority”. This claim has, however, created social misconceptions and false assumptions that encompass vastly different Asian ethnic groups. As Asian Americans, our lives gravitate around and coexist with character-defining stereotypes. Society assumes Asians excel in academia, strive to uphold highly traditional family standards, and that we must all be Chinese. And as someone who had spent hours internally struggling with my identity, externally there was still a necessity for me to continually defend my race and break down stereotypes. The stereotype that all Asians look the same and the tendency to group all Asians together into one single entity erodes the possibility for Asian Americans feel a sense of individuality. And oftentimes, Asian Americans are deemed as less American than their white counterparts. I’m sure that I’m not the only Asian who has grown tired of being asked, “What are you?” I’m sure I’m not the only one who has struggled with this identity that was so forcefully handed to me. Trying to break down stereotypes and educate your community about your identity can be exhausting, and so growing up I desperately wanted to break away from my Asian identity.
United States Media
Recently, diversity and representation have become an important conversation in the US. Huge strides have been made regarding Asian representation - whether it be television shows dedicated to the immigrant experience, movies featuring Asian American leads, or informational YouTube videos about what being Asian means. It is a powerful experience to see someone on screen who represents a greater portion of the world population. As an Asian American woman, this increased amount of mobility and growth within the United States regarding Asian American representation has been inspiring. However, we still have a long way to go. Moving beyond stereotypical roles and establishing relatable, groundbreaking characters on the big and small screen would help to educate the world about the diversity found among Asian Americans. Likewise, the fashion and beauty industry often shapes our idea of desirability, and there is a major underrepresentation (less than 1%) of Asian women on the covers of magazines and in beauty campaigns.
We are at the frontier of breaking down these barriers that attempt to define who we are as Asian Americans. And although there is still much to do here in the US, traveling is a key opportunity for us to share about our culture and educate the world about what it means to be Asian American. However, out of gap year students, only 12% that go abroad are Asian Americans, and only 8.4% of university students who study abroad are Asian American. This must change! The ability to travel and experience other cultures is definitely a privilege. There is no escaping the fact that traveling can be intimidating as well. But as an Asian American, I believe we can help to change the tide. We can break down stereotypes by traveling and allowing others to experience the differences and truths of our own cultures while we learn about theirs. Traveling bridges the gap between ignorance and tolerance. The fact that we are able to embrace different ethnicities and that the conversation has started is a powerful tool for change. We need to continue to break down barriers between our respective ethnicities with others as we travel abroad.
The simple truth is that not all Asians are the same. As an Asian American, you have the ability to show a different aspect of yourself than what the Asian stereotypes attempt to construct. We have separate stories, histories, languages, foods, and cultures that we need to share. It is gradually happening here in the US, but we need to do our part to accurately represent ourselves to other cultures. Traveling helps show a greater Asian diversity on an international scale.
From one Asian American to another, I urge you to book a flight, step into your car, or set sail to a place you have not been to before. There is beauty in the unknown and I promise you will see that beauty is everywhere, and you will help to break down stereotypes and educate others while taking in the beauties around you. We will take part in redefining what it means to be an Asian American and create our own future - and for me, it will be kimchi filled. ????
Bailie Salk interned with FSD in 2018. She is currently studying Public Policy/Political Science and Economics at Brown University. Shas always been passionate about human rights and affecting long-term sustainable change while not compromising the authenticity of each community.