The easiest way for me to describe my family’s love for me can be summed up in one word: seamless. Among my mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins, I am one of the crew. I am not loved any less or any differently. In their company, I have always felt as though I belonged. I have always felt relevant. Even as the only Asian person in the room, I never felt isolated or uncomfortable. It didn’t matter because we’re family. This is our normal, you know? Being the only Asian at every holiday and birthday party has been my normal. And I’ve largely been okay with that.
And then this past weekend happened. A few relatives on my dad’s side organized a mini reunion out in this little rural town at an American Legion. I agreed to go, assuming that it would probably be a bit awkward since these were more distant relatives that I rarely saw. I perpetually mix up how this person is related or who that person is married to. This get-together would be a good chance to clarify this tangled extended family tree of ours.
Once at the reunion, though, I couldn’t help but start thinking of the tree as theirs. I felt no sense of ownership. I am tenuously connected as it is with my dad gone. He was the main connecting thread and that thread was irreversibly broken decades ago. I felt awkward from the second I stepped into the American Legion. I was greeted (and I use that term loosely) by a handful of patrons sitting at the bar: a bunch of old white men nursing beers staring at me in a way that I can only describe as condescending. Not really the best way to start this get-together! By virtue of being a young Asian female, I suddenly felt like I had no business even being inside the establishment. Did the Civil Rights Movement not happen?
Fortunately, my relatives were a far cry from the old men. They were largely a laid-back bunch; friendly, casual and with a sense of humor. Some of them remembered me and were very warm. Others weren’t really all that open to engaging in conversation. As usual, I was the only Asian in the room and, for the first time at a family function, I felt uncomfortable about that. Those who weren’t used to having me around were just visibly not as comfortable identifying me as a family member. And it bothered me. I feel as though it’s my right to feel part of my family, including my extended family. This experience made me feel as though I really don’t have much claim to an extended family.
I realize that it’s negative to fixate on the less welcoming aspects of this reunion, but I just can’t help it. Maybe I was more self-conscious because we were in a public place and I was the only person of color in the entire building. Maybe my own biases came into play. I’ve heard enough old white veteran men make disparaging remarks about “Japs” and “Gooks” to make me feel uneasy. And on my part, that is an extremely unfair generalization to make. There were maybe 30 at the party altogether and aside from talking with a handful of friendly people, I just felt lonely. I found myself oddly wishing that I had an Asian significant other with me. I just wanted to look like I belonged with someone. In this particular environment, I felt exposed. It was the first distinct time that I desired a sense of protection from being with another person of color. It just disappoints me that this happened among family. It reminds me again of why I needed to break away from that little hometown.