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  • My name is Canwen, and I play both the piano and the violin.

  • I aspire to some day be a doctor, and my favorite subject is calculus.

  • My mom and dad are tiger parents,

  • who won't let me go to sleepovers,

  • but they make up for it by serving my favorite meal every single day.

  • Rice.

  • And I'm a really bad driver.

  • So my question for you now is,

  • "How long did it take you to figure out I was joking?"

  • (Laughter)

  • As you've probably guessed, today I am going to talk about race

  • and I'll start off by sharing with you my story

  • of growing up Asian-American.

  • I moved to the United States when I was two years old,

  • so almost my entire life has been a blend of two cultures.

  • I eat pasta with chopsticks.

  • I'm addicted to orange chicken, and my childhood hero was Yao Ming.

  • But having grown up in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Idaho,

  • all states with incredible little racial diversity,

  • it was difficult to reconcile my so-called exotic Chinese heritage

  • with my mainstream American self.

  • Used to being the only Asian in the room,

  • I was self-conscious at the first thing people noticed about me

  • was, that I wasn't white.

  • And as a child I quickly began to realize

  • that I had two options in front of me.

  • Conformed to the stereotype that was expected of me,

  • or conformed to the whiteness that surrounded me.

  • There was no in between.

  • For me, this meant that I always felt self-conscious about being good at maths,

  • because people would just say it was because I was Asian,

  • not because I actually worked hard.

  • It meant that whenever a boy asked me out,

  • it was because he had the yellow fever,

  • and not because he actually liked me.

  • It meant that for the longest time

  • my identity had formed around the fact that I was different.

  • And I thought that being Asian was the only special thing about me.

  • These effects were emphasized by the places where I lived.

  • Don't get me wrong.

  • Only a small percentage of people were actually racist,

  • or, even borderline racist,

  • but the vast majority were just a little bit clueless.

  • Now, I know you are probably thinking, "What's the difference?"

  • Well, here is an example.

  • Not racist can sound like, "I'm white and you're not."

  • Racist can sound like,

  • "I'm white, you're not, and that makes me better than you."

  • But clueless sounds like,

  • "I'm white, you're not, and I don't know how to deal with that."

  • Now, I don't doubt for a second

  • that these clueless people are still nice individuals

  • with great intentions.

  • But they do ask some questions that become pretty annoying after a while.

  • Here are a few examples.

  • "You're Chinese, oh my goodness, I have a Chinese friend, do you know him?"

  • (Laughter)

  • "No.

  • I don't know him.

  • Because contrary to your unrealistic expectations,

  • I do not know every single one of the 1.35 billion Chinese people

  • who live on Planet Earth."

  • People also tend to ask,

  • "Where does your name come from?",

  • and I really don't know how to answer that,

  • so I usually stick with the truth.

  • "My parents gave it to me.

  • Where does your name come from?"

  • (Laughter)

  • Don't even get me started

  • on how many times people have confused me with a different Asian person.

  • One time someone came up to me and said,

  • "Angie, I love your art work!"

  • And I was super confused,

  • so I just thanked them and walked away.

  • But, out of all the questions

  • my favorite one is still the classic, "Where are you from?",

  • because I've lived in quite a few places,

  • so this is how the conversation usually goes.

  • "Where are you from?"

  • "Oh, I am from Boise, Idaho."

  • "I see, but where are you really from?"

  • "I mean, I lived in South Dakota for a while."

  • "Okay, what about before that?"

  • "I mean, I lived in North Dakota."

  • "Okay, I'm just going to cut straight to the chase here,

  • I guess what I'm saying is,

  • have you ever lived anywhere far away from here,

  • where people talk a little differently?"

  • "Oh, I know where you talking about, yes I have, I used to live in Texas."

  • (Laughter)

  • By then, they usually have just given up and wonder to themselves

  • why I'm not one of the cool Asians like Jeremy Lin or Jackie Chan,

  • or they skip the needless banter and go straight for the,

  • "Where is your family from?"

  • So, just an FYI for all of you out there, that is the safest strategy.

  • But, as amusing as these interactions were,

  • oftentimes they made me want to reject my own culture,

  • because I thought it helped me conform.

  • I distanced myself from the Asian stereotype

  • as much as possible, by degrading my own race,

  • and pretending I hated math.

  • And the worse part was, it worked.

  • The more I rejected my Chinese identity, the more popular I became.

  • My peers liked me more, because I was more similar to them.

  • I became more confident, because I knew I was more similar to them.

  • But as I became more Americanized,

  • I also began to lose bits and pieces of myself,

  • parts of me that I can never get back,

  • and no matter how much I tried to pretend

  • that I was the same as my American classmates,

  • I wasn't.

  • Because for people who have lived in the places where I lived,

  • white is the norm, and for me, white became the norm too.

  • For my fourteenth birthday, I received the video game The Sims 3,

  • which lets you create your own characters and control their lives.

  • My fourteen-year-old self created the perfect little mainstream family,

  • complete with a huge mansion and an enormous swimming pool.

  • I binge-played the game for about three months,

  • then put it away and never really thought about it again,

  • until a few weeks ago,

  • when I came to a sudden realization.

  • The family, that I had custom-designed, was white.

  • The character that I had designed for myself, was white.

  • Everyone I had designed was white.

  • And the worst part was,

  • this was by no means a conscious decision that I had made.

  • Never once did I think to myself

  • that I could actually make the characters look like me.

  • Without even thinking, white had become my norm too.

  • The truth is,

  • Asian Americans play a strange role in the American melting pot.

  • We are the model minority.

  • Society uses our success to pit us against other people of color

  • as justification that racism doesn't exist.

  • But was does that mean for us, Asian Americans?

  • It means that we are not quite similar enough to be accepted,

  • but we aren't different enough to be loathed.

  • We are in a perpetually grey zone,

  • and society isn't quite sure what to do with us.

  • So they group us by the color of our skin.

  • They tell us that we must reject our own heritages,

  • so we can fit in with the crowd.

  • They tell us that our foreignness

  • is the only identifying characteristic of us.

  • They strip away our identities one by one,

  • until we are foreign, but not quite foreign,

  • American but not quite American,

  • individual,

  • but only when there are no other people from our native country around.

  • I wish that I had always had the courage to speak out about these issues.

  • But coming from one culture that avoids confrontation,

  • and another that is divided over race,

  • how do I overcome the pressure to keep the peace,

  • while also staying true to who I am?

  • And as much as I hate to admit it, often times I don't speak out,

  • because, if I do,

  • it's at the the risk of being told that I am too sensitive,

  • or that I get offended too easily,

  • or that it's just not worth it.

  • But I would point, are people willing to admit that?

  • Yes, race issues are controversial.

  • But that's precisely the reason why we need to talk about them.

  • I just turned eighteen,

  • and there are still so many things that I don't know about the world.

  • But what I do know is that it's hard to admit

  • that you might be part of the problem,

  • that, all of us might be part of the problem.

  • So, instead of giving you a step-by-step guide

  • on how to not be racist towards Asians,

  • I will let you decide what to take from this talk.

  • All I can do,

  • is share my story.