Do You Speak Asian?

My name is Celeste, I am 17 years-old, and I have never lived anywhere but Toronto, Canada. I am heavily involved in my school community, and people describe me as talkative and outgoing (and a little stubborn). I love my friends, art and Jimmy Fallon.

I am sure anyone who knows me would attest to the accuracy of this description of me. My identity, as I see it, is a sum of many aspects of my life: my age, my Canadian citizenship, my bilingualism in English and French, my personality, my passions for justice and comedy, my school involvement, my friends.

So, it has always been puzzling to me that this extensive list is not usually what informs people when they first meet me. Although it is uncommon to assume someone's love for Jimmy Fallon at first glance, the confusion, and frankly, the pain, I feel about the assumptions that are made about me is hard to explain. Even worse, are the shockingly recurring inquiries about whether or not I "speak Asian" and the condescending impression that every Asian language makes "ching chong" sounds. These kinds of remarks, usually passed off as humour, generally do provoke laughter in its audiences. As an avid comedy fan, and (self-proclaimed) generally hilarious person, I can certainly appreciate quips and witticism. Yet, I am strangely unable to find amusement in the exploitation of a person's race as a comedic platform, especially when it is at my expense.

Yes, my name is Celeste Sue-Yonge Yim, and I am also the granddaughter of South Korean immigrants.

Despite my tremendously westernized life with a single Canadian citizenship, there have been many instances where I have felt the sting of alienation and sometimes plain disregard simply because I am Asian. As a second generation Canadian immigrant, I can appreciate that the North American society has become much more tolerant and accepting since the '70s when my parents were kids. My brother and I have heard many stories from our parents about being teased and tormented verbally at school and on the streets, being called names like "chink" and "slant eyes." Sure, where there was rampant racism, prejudice and segregation only a few decades ago, the culture we are part of today is supposedly accepting and inclusive of all races and nationalities.

We now feel as though we are evolved people, who practice open-mindedness and even encourage a harmonious blending of cultures. Just look at all the signs: interracial couples, fusion food, viral Gangnam sensations. Certainly, racial discrimination is a historical misunderstanding, confined to the past. We are not like that anymore! Not this Internet savvy, worldly generation! It's about who you are and not what you look like or where you came from! Having grown up knowing nothing else but what my fellow Canadian-born friends know, I have bought into this way of thinking. It's about who I am and nothing else, right? What am I supposed to think, then, when I am thoughtlessly slapped with derisive Asian-targeted jokes?

The assumptions are always the same and the jokes are always tired (not to mention unimaginative). It is not rare for people to assume, for example, that my upbringing has been strict and cold, that my academic strengths must be in Math or Science, that my diet must consist mainly of Kimchi and rice, or even that my playlists are filled with "K-Pop" songs. In addition, comments about just how "Asian" I am are often made about me. "Sue-Yonge... Is that your Korean name? Cute, so Asian!" Or, "Look at you in this photo! So Asian, really Asian."

I have always had difficulty in expressing discomfort with such remarks. Truthfully, this topic scares me. Sometimes, I am scared that I will seem uptight or unable to "take a joke" if I make retorts. Other times, I am scared that others will think I am over-sensitive or weak. But, I have grown more scared, and really weary of how these unwelcome remarks make me feel. When I am assaulted with such "humor" I feel a diminishing sense of who I am. A confining sense of shame and estrangement immediately washes over me when people identify me by my race alone, as if I am some kind of a lesser category and not an individual to be valued for all or anything that I am. However, I am much more scared that an entire population of other Asian teenagers (and any minority) in America also feels overlooked. The fears that people are simply unaware that imprudent comments can be so insensitive or that the sting of such words are so lasting and unforgivable, however, must prevail. Teenagers, and anyone for that matter, should never face barricades by false assumptions in the path towards being who they are.

"If you can't beat em', join em?" It seems as though the tendency to laugh along is usually the easiest and most reflexive way to handle it. I know it's easy to shrug it off, to make sure people think you are above it so you can hold on to your pride. But, is embracing defamation and, even, character assassination the way to be prideful? It shouldn't be. I wholeheartedly encourage those who have felt as though their true character is being ignored behind cultural stereotypes or labels to be unafraid and become emboldened. Demand respect for who you are because in doing so, you demand respect for all of us, Asian or not.

Yes, my name is Celeste Sue-Yonge Yim. I am a 17-year-old student in my last year of high school trying to figure out who I am and what to do with my life. I speak English and French, minimal sign language, and I do not speak any Asian (though I'd like to learn Korean). I am (gratefully) not a cub to a "Tiger Mom." In fact, throughout my upbringing, my brother and I have been showered with support and affection. I am definitely not a mathlete. I have always thrived in arts-related subjects and, I don't know any K-pop songs (though I'd secretly like to). And finally, although I am proud of my Korean background and, while I firmly believe that Kimchi trumps all other condiments, I have a multitude of other qualities, which should not be overlooked because I look "Asian, so Asian, so really very Asian."