Growing Up As An Asian In A Western Country

bf35c6a5d2aaf2c206c1ecfcd424fc4f.jpgI was born and raised in New Zealand all my life, before I moved to Australia just under two years ago. I grew up being taught Mandarin and went to a Chinese school every Saturday. Unfortunately I was pretty lazy during those classes, as English was always a language I felt a huge interest with and put more time and effort to learn. I loved reading English literature from Jane Austen to Shakespeare and writing short stories from my wild imagination. However, being a Taiwanese Kiwi I feel a deep respect for my cultural background. Perhaps some fellow Asian sisters (and brothers) can relate to some of these points, if they grew up or moved to a western country at a young age.

When I was younger, many children didn’t understand to respect different cultures. I was told how disgusting my lunch box food filled with red bean buns and asian food looked (might I add they tasted delicious). You will always (inescapably) be asked the question “Where are you from?” even when you respond with “I’m from Auckland.” Racism in our culture is very often seen as black and white. However, Asians are very often seen as the minority that is made to seem okay to be racist towards, teased, joked about or called names. It will never be okay. I cannot tell you the amount of times I was told “Konnichiwa” growing up, even though I am not Japanese, or the amount of times someone will say “你好” when they find out I speak Mandarin.

Growing up in an Asian house hold, yet being raised in a Western school and society, there are definitely certain experiences one will face. I grew up in a predominantly western school, with small groups of minorities (mainly international students). However, I never actually had any close friends who were Asian, simply because there were less Asian people in the country side during that time. It was only when I left home and moved to the city, I realised that the Asian community is far more larger and tight knit than I thought. To some extent I find the teachings in an Asian household is more firm in comparison to Western households. Although, I consider my parents more relaxed, there are aspects that tend to be a lot more strict.

I wrote in a previous post here about how I was placed into ESOL (English for Speakers Of Other Languages), even though I was fluent in English. I was 8 or 9, and I tried to explain to the teacher that I didn’t need it. Thinking back, I can understand it may of been because I was extremely shy and quiet, which can be a quick assumption that I didn’t know any English. Being pretty much one of the only Asians at school, I faced my first lessons looking at images of cats and dogs, and acing every single image. You can be sure I was no longer in ESOL after that first lesson. There were many hints of subtle (and not so subtle) hints of racism throughout my schooling years and even til today. As an Asian brought up in a Western country, I don’t feel fully Asian. It’s difficult to express that feeling.

Whenever I go back to Asia, there are always people who ask me “You’re a foreigner, aren’t you?” I feel it may simply be from my mannerisms and appearance. One thing I do notice is that Asians are less likely to speak loudly about how they feel about something in that moment. Whereas in Western countries, most people are very open on their thoughts, even if they may be negative. Though this may not be for all individuals, but it’s definitely one of the cultural differences I’ve noticed. When I was in high school, I had a teacher who used my “being an Asian”, as an excuse for my grammatical mistakes in English class. Bearing in mind English was one of my favourite classes, it seemed unfair that when my Kiwi friends had grammar mistakes, they were simply written in red pen with the teachers corrections.

When I visited guest’s homes, I was surprised as a young girl that some people wore shoes inside the house. It’s a custom in Taiwan (and many other Asian cultures) to provide slippers for guests. In many Asian cultures, we call our elders Auntie or Uncle as a sign of respect. It is extremely rare to call an elder by their first name. Respecting the elders is heavily taught from a young age. Another thing I learned was how high my tolerance for spicy food was. I grew up in a household where at least one or two dishes each night would have spices in them. I noticed that in Western countries, some people have a very low tolerance for spicy food, which is only natural because they aren’t brought up having spicy Asian food everyday.

Asians are hugely under represented or absent from the media. I do hope this can change, but at the present time it is still extremely slow. Having subtitles on was a huge habit from a young age. It was because my parents did it ever since they arrived in New Zealand, and that was one of the ways they learned English. I remember sleeping over at a friends house, and before bed time she would always say “I love you” to her Mum. At the time, it felt strange to me, because (as some people may be able to relate), in Asian culture many people are less likely to say I love you to their parents. After being long distance from my parents for years, I try to say it more often.

Since living in Australia, I realised how much people love to tan. I’ve always been the sort of person that doesn’t like to expose my skin to the sun. This means I tend to wear a lot more long sleeved clothing. That was always a personal decision, but I do feel in some ways that Asian fashion is more cute, whereas Western fashion shows more cleavage and low cut tops. This example is purely from looking at current online stores. I am someone that loves cute things, but this aspect is far more normal and accepted in Asia. Whereas in Western countries, some parts of it can seem childish. You don’t normally see a woman carrying a Hello Kitty bag in the city, but it’s completely normal in Asia.

Whenever I go back to Taiwan, I feel the reverse feeling of being surrounded by Asians and feeling surprised or noticing whenever I see a western person. Western children are raised to be independent as soon as they leave home, whereas I noticed some Asian children will have their tuition paid until they graduate and find a job. This isn’t everyone, because I know for myself that I left home at 16 and had to learn a huge level of independence. As touched on before, the ideal of beauty is definitely very different. I was raised to always wear sunscreen. My fellow classmates would be lying on the grass beside me as I sat in the shade, and they’d talk about getting their legs more tanned. I think in Asia there is an emphasis on good skincare and keeping the body healthy and young as possible.

If I got good grades in class, my parents would usually answer with one word, which was “Good.” That was enough for me to feel satisfied. However, I noticed some of my fellow Kiwi classmates were often paid money or treated by their parents if they could reach a certain grade. Taking a lot of photos is completely normal in Asia. Whereas in Western countries it may seem strange to whip out the phone to take a photo of everything. I am not used to it, because I rarely take photos. I noticed whenever I go back to Asia I start taking a lot more photos. It may also be because I really want to document those moments, since I don’t get to see my family very often. Of course all of these things I’ve mentioned are from my personal experience. Everyone will have a different experience!

What was your experience like growing up in a Western country as an Asian?

Art by Maggie Chiang (I chose this illustration because it reminded me of the days being surrounded by nature in the country side, beach, farms, forests, rolling hills and mountains in New Zealand).

13 thoughts on “Growing Up As An Asian In A Western Country

  1. I love this. (And strangely get it even though I’m not asian) In some ways, being mixed race is quite similar – especially the going back to native countries and being a foreigner. And as someone with two different cultures, there’s definitely a big difference between westerners and the rest of the world. Especially with things like discipline – and I still find it so weird that people get paid for having good grades, my parents would literally laugh 😂 great post x

    1. Thank you :) I’m glad you can relate, definitely when I return to Asia I always feel the cultural difference more strongly, because of the contrast with living in a Western country all my life. Haha yes!

  2. Wonderful post, and as an Asian living in Australia, I can relate to it so much. At school, the kids wondered why I brought fried rice to lunch. Fast forward to today, every now and then I get Westerners saying, “Ni hao” to my face. I’ve come to accept it as part of life since everyone is entitled to their own opinions and we can’t really fault them for putting Asians in a category.

    Agree that Asian fashion is much more conservative and cute compared to Western fashion. Even after living in Australia for quite a while, I still prefer shopping in Asian shops for clothes. Or outlet stores ;)

    1. Thank you Mabel :) I remember moments like that as well, especially because it’s more common for kids to bring a sandwich or wrap to school. That is true, although I often do wish that some stereotypes about Asian people will change some day. Hehe yes, I prefer shopping Asian clothing too!

  3. I so relate to what you’re saying, not because I’m living in a foreign land, but because I’m Asian and many of your Taiwanese customs are so, so similar to our Indian ones. My friends from other countries can’t quite wrap their heads around our differences. Inevitably you start to think – is my Asian-ness a good or bad thing? But it shouldn’t be that way because each culture is unique and we must all understand that what is ‘normal’ for us may not be so for others. This goes for both the natives and the foreigners.
    Good post!

  4. This is (weirdly) relatable – again. Your comment about people thinking your food funny makes me remember about those ‘little’ things that make me feel weird among my Latin American / Western friends, or saying “I love you” to our family all the time (though I do remember saying that when I was really young). At the time I didn’t know about culture and stuff, which was unnerving for little me, but it’s fun to look back and joke about it now.
    The only thing I’m not sure of is the last paragraph, about taking pictures. It’s been about 8 years since I’ve been back to Taiwan (or any Asian country), so I can’t really say, but I thought that Westerners were the ones that whip our their phones more often than Asians?

    1. Thank you for your comments, I really appreciate you taking the time to read my posts :) I suppose it’s because whenever I’m back, I find that everyone is using their phones on the streets and on the MRT. Although many people use their phones on the streets in Sydney too. I noticed in Asia, people love to take photos of their food, outfits, have selfie sticks and daily happenings more (maybe I’m biased though!).

      Mabel, from mabelkwong.com explains it very well: https://mabelkwong.com/2013/11/28/the-asian-obsession-with-taking-photos/
      P.S. She is one of my favourite bloggers – I’m sure you will relate to many of her posts too! X

      1. It may also be because I live in Peru, and that’s… quite different to Sydney. In regards of the locals and the Chinese people living here (ugh, so complex). Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll definitely check Mabel out :)

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