“Blending in” has never been my strong suit. As a generally shy and rather bookish individual, I have always wished that I could more naturally fit seamlessly into my surroundings. However, my inability to blend into established categories–particularly in regards to race–unexpectedly led me to become the Asian American community activist that I am today.
As a hapa Japanese American growing up in the flat plains of suburban Chicago, I knew that I stood out from a very young age. I looked different from the rest of my family, and especially from my mom, who was my primary caretaker. A second-generation Swedish American, my mother embodies the Scandinavian archetype: tall, lean, blonde, and blue-eyed. I, on the other hand, was a racially ambiguous, chubby, Asian-ish child with a chocolate brown mushroom cut. Although my mother and I sometimes sported matching Hanna Andersson sweater sets (not that I had much say at age two, mind you), clothing was not enough to prevent the attention and astonishment that came from our largely mono-ethnic community. Once, on a family shopping trip to the neighborhood grocery store, a stranger oohed over my almond-shaped eyes, pointed to me and asked my mother, “Where did you get her from?” Due to my “look,” my mother’s womb was clearly not his first assumption. I was a foreigner two blocks away from my childhood home.
My inability to fit in and easily relate to others around me was an unshakeable shadow throughout my childhood (my reserved, somewhat antisocial attitude did not help, either). Despite more often being perceived as Asian than white, I felt a closer connection to Little House on the Prairie than any Japanese cultural tradition; at my schools’ World Cultures Fair, I sold lingonberry jam at the Swedish table to much general confusion. I attended a Christian elementary school but was the only student in my class who was neither baptized nor religious. During grade school recess, I eschewed the girls gossip club and played kickball with the boys instead, proclaiming that “I could be a tomboy if I wanted to.” I never wanted to be in the spotlight yet was quite flashy with my colorful clothing and Lisa Frank school supplies. In almost every situation, I could not master the art of fitting in.
Eager to escape the Midwest that never quite felt like home, I left for Southern California at age 18. At to attend Scripps College, about one hour outside of Los Angeles. To my relief, no one “fit in” at Scripps. For the first time, I found others whose patchwork of experiences and interests were just as colorful and contradictory as mine. Plus, at a women’s college of less than 1,000 students–in which your lit seminar might contain a grand total of five students–there is no hiding in the back of the class. Blending into an established norm was simply not a priority.
The overarching, robust irreverence towards conformity was also strongly reflected within student groups on campus and especially within the Asian American student community. After being assigned a mentor from Scripps’ Asian American Sponsor Program–who lured me to campus events after welcoming me on moving day with a handmade card and candy lei–I found myself hanging out with fiery and interesting Asian American women. Although united by a self-defined Asian American identity, the community was far from homogenous; it almost seemed that the term “Asian American community” itself was constantly trying to burst its own bounds. I met hapa Japanese Americans from Hawaii and Iowa, second-generation Chinese Americans signing up for Chinese language classes for the first time, Vietnamese Americans with war histories, and Indonesians with royal political lineage — all with their own quirky personalities and preferences.
The more that I became involved with progressive Asian American groups on campus, the more I felt part of a collective. Instead of having my race was questioned constantly, I relaxed knowing belonged in this community — even if I grew up eating rice with butter and salt. The Asian American community honored a range of shared experiences, yet did not expect conformity. We each carried oceans of histories, but Asian Americanness affected all of us in some way: how we arrived in the United States, how we were treated, what was (rightfully or wrongfully) expected of us. As I began attending more race-based workshops and added Ethnic Studies to my schedule, I began to understand my own Asian Americanness fundamentally as an identity that is political and fluid, multifaceted and contradictory, vast and shape-shifting.
My experience at Scripps fundamentally changed me, encouraging me to embrace my hapa heritage and understand the reactions to it. It catalyzed what I hope to be a lifelong involvement in Asian American and race-based activism. Currently, I am the volunteer co-chair for the Arts & Media Project at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon and co-manage a blog called Asians Doing Everything. I also served as Visual Art Curator for Asian American-run arts space Tuesday Night Cafe. I live and breathe most comfortably in progressive Asian American spaces. I have found where I “fit in,” and it’s through multiplicity, not homogeneity. One might think that my validity as an Asian American would be called into question–for how can someone who is half Asian possibly be “Asian enough”?–but my hapa background expands the possibilities for what Asian American heritage can look like. With my presence at the Asian American table, I upend historical narratives and popular assumptions reducing Asian Americans to the purveyors of dumplings and dragons; my existence provides counterexamples that spotlight the incredible range of experiences that those of Asian ancestry can have in America.
Today, I have passionately given up in my efforts to fit in. In fact, I am more comfortable standing out than ever before. I am an emerging nonprofit administrator, community-based blogger, arts advocate, writer, vegan foodie, lover of nature and words and possibilities. Questions about my race still come my way, and my face is still racially ambiguous, still chubby, and still Asian-ish. But my face is a face of Asian America–regardless of what others see when they look at me in the mirror.
Candace Kita was born and raised in Chicago, became an adult in Los Angeles, and is currently living in Portland, Oregon. By day, she works in development at the Portland Art Museum. By night, she is a co-manager of the nationally-recognized blog Asians Doing Everything, an active arts enthusiast, and an adventurous vegan foodie. Her writings have been featured on Americans for the Arts, Visual News, and Backwords Blog. Follow her on LinkedIn andInstagram.