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“If I spoke to you on the phone, I wouldn’t think your Asian”. I was at a dive bar in Midtown, conversing with a new acquaintance about interracial dating. She, a Caucasian female, had just broken up with her Chinese ex-boyfriend, and we were discussing the levels of attraction between White and Asians. She made the above remark, and I wasn’t sure to take it as a backhand compliment.

I’ve pretty much accepted that I don’t fit the typical “Asian mold” (whatever that may be), as my lack Asian-ness has been occasionally commented upon. “Rex, you’re pretty White-washed”. “Rex, you act pretty Black”. “Rex, you’re not that Asian at all”. Thanks. Interestingly enough, I get this more often from my Asian friends than anyone else, so I guess I really don’t fit in. I rarely dive into the topic of race because it’s a touchy subject, but I find it annoying to be boxed into certain behaviors, mannerisms, and interests due of my ethnic appearance.

Ironically, I’ve been around predominantly Asians for 90% of my life. I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically in the small city of Milpitas where 62% of the population was Asian. All my friends were Vietnamese, Chinese, and Filipino, in addition to being 1st generation Americans, balancing our ancestral roots and Western heritage. I then attended UC Davis for my undergrad where 40% of the student body belonged to the Asian demographic. Again, my closest cohorts were Asian and I even pledge an Asian American Fraternity.

So after all of this, how did I stray away from the “norm”? Well technically, I really didn’t. Growing up Milpitas, everyone listened to hip-hop, wore anoraks and fleeces from The GAP/ Old Navy, played basketball, skated, etc. The city, like most of the Bay Area was a melting pot and because of that we never fell into the extreme Asian stereotypes. However, head 10 minutes south to San Jose, and you got a heavy tRu ViEt Lyfe experience with the spiky hair, overly modified import cars, and dragon tattoos. The same notion carried forward to Davis, as we were doing regular things, but the only difference was that we didn’t really venture out of our ethnic circles. So technically, I was pretty “Asian”.

Because we grew up in predominately Asian environments, we got comfortable with being around those that share the same upbringings, cultures, and traditions. My disconnect eventually occurred when I wanted to leave that comfort. I get frustrated when people aren’t willing to branch out of their cliques and try new things, and sometimes Asian communities don’t stray from far from their comfort zones, which is totally understandable, but I felt like I wanted more.

A pivotal point in my life was when I moved to Los Angeles on my own. I established great relationships with people from all backgrounds: Asian, Black, White, Hispanic, scholars, entrepreneurs, entertainers, goons, you name it. Even though my core friends in LA were mostly Asians, we didn’t stay in one lane. My friend Chris and I would always go to Hollywood parties where we were the only Asian people there and we’ll always get mistaken for the Far East Movement. Eventually I refused to go functions where it wasn’t a diverse collective of people (don’t ask me to go to Asian only parties). New York has been the pinnacle of my broadened perspective because this city throws all sorts of people together, and in New York I’ve befriended some of the most eclectic and open-minded people I’ve ever met.

At the end of the day, I’m to be Asian (I actually take more pride in being Vietnamese, but that’s a totally different discussion), and I do feel that I connect best with my Asian friends. I respect my roots and I know my culture. However, I’ve grown to a point where I’m just a culmination of a variety of experiences, ideas, and relationships, so I don’t try to put myself in a box. If you haven’t read Eddie Huang’s book Fresh Off the Boat, I highly recommend it, as he touches on the point of not fitting in with any sort of perceived identity.

“To this day, I wake up at times, look in the mirror, and just stare, obsessed with the idea that the person I am in my head is something entirely different than what everyone else sees. That the way I look will prevent me from doing the things I want; that there really are sneetches with stars and I’m not one of them. I touch my face, I feel my skin, I check my color every day, and I swear it all feels right. But then someone says something and that sense of security and identity is gone before I know it.”
― Eddie Huang

So am I really “not Asian”? It’s up to the observer. I’m just going do what I like to do as long as I’m not hurting anyone, and I’m going to associate myself with those who share the same passions. Race and ethnicity are irrelevant

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Rex Pham

Originally from the Bay Area, who then moved to Los Angeles, then out to New York City. NYU Stern MBA c/o 2014. Inspired by the grind of NYC to create something that has value. Lover of all things digital, culture, and brand strategy.

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