When I hear someone say, “I’ve lived here my whole life,” I temporarily dissociate from reality because I cannot comprehend such phrase or concept.
I have lived in 4 different states and 5 different cities in the 19 years I have been alive. I’ve lived in 6 different houses, attended 4 different elementary schools, and 2 high schools that were all completely different from each other. I’ve called people best friends and then never saw them again. The amount of times I had to pack up a house, shoving clothes, furniture, and home decor into hundreds and hundreds of boxes. I’ve acclimated to several different climates. Each city I’ve inhabited had a different demographic from the previous. And my oh my, the culture shock.
When people ask where I’m from, it’s a little hard to answer. Because really… where am I from?
I have miniscule recollection of my own birthplace, Sacramento, California (just the hospital). From birth until age 5, I lived in Elk Grove, California and I barely hold any emotional attachment to that place. I lived in a community with a pool. I remember trees and parks, I flew kites with my parents. I went to a preschool called “Tiny Tot Preschool.” And that’s all I can recall. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still a special place to me.
Not as special as other places. Like how I deeply miss this small town called Pahoa, in the Big Island of Hawaii. I can remember the 4 years of my childhood spent there.
Unlike Oahu and urbanized city of Honolulu – what literally everyone envisions when they think of Hawaii – the Big Island is very rural and underdeveloped. I lived about 30 minutes from the nearest Walmart and the Prince Kuhio Plaza in Hilo. There was so much empty lots and land, they’re used for chicken farms. It rains. A LOT. Nearly every day for maybe an hour or two, at different times. Monday, it would rain in the morning. Tuesday, it would rain during lunch time. Wednesday, it’d rain at night. It was green. So green. All green, green, green. Driving, the trees on each side of the roads rose up and towered over our cars like gigantic waves. The scene looked as if Moses had parted a sea of vibrant green trees. There’s also no daylight saving time: for 12 months of the year, the sun rises at 7 am and sets by 5:30 pm. It’s horribly humid and there’s only one season throughout the whole year. Every first Monday of the month, they’d set off the Tsunami siren. Yes. Tsunami sirens. It would always scare me, and I’d cry my eyes out thinking we were all doomed. I ate lots of spam and I used to hate poke. I took maybe one hula class, and yes, I did go to the beach occasionally. My family and family-friends frequently drove to Kona, a city on the other side of the island, to camp and go to the beaches there. My dad worked for the macadamia nut company Mauna Loa and brought home lots of assorted macadamia snacks. I went to Keaau Elementary School, a public school. All I remember is that I actually did a little Hawaiian vocabulary, like how to say the colors (but that’s long forgotten).
The school would host a school-wide performance where we’d dress up in Hawaiian dresses and performance hula dances for the PTA. It was chill. People were nice. There was diversity.
But from warm weather all year and the “Aloha” lifestyle to icy winters and becoming the minority, I jumped from Hawaii to lovely Cordova, Tennessee. Cordova is a suburb right outside the City of Memphis. It sounds weird, but that is the city I have the biggest attachment to.
When in Tennessee, everyone rides horses and learns how to ride tractors. I lived on a ranch and owned a bunch of pigs and cows. Just kidding.
You learn how to thrive in cold weather. Winter comes with lots of snow days. Scratch that. More like ice days. Yes, it would snow, but only 1 or 2 inches, and sometimes, it wouldn’t stick. The real deal that closed down schools and workplaces was ICE. It would rain throughout the night, and the temperature would drop freeze over the roads.
Also, the education system was definitely more advanced than Hawaii’s system. I was behind in all subjects. 4th grade was the first time I received a B, and my young Asian-self bawled my eyes out over a 91. The grading system in Tennessee was 100-93 for an A, 92-85 for a B, 84-75 for a C, 74-70 for a D, and 69-below for an F. Throughout the years, I’ve grown to hate 92s, 91s, and 90s because it just wasn’t good enough. This, y’all, is what kickstarted my overachieving study habits and perfectionist student mindset that followed me all the way to high school and even now.
I became the minority in the classroom, and well, the minority in general. The demographics in schools were majority Caucasian and African Americans. In middle school, I was like one of the 3 Asians in my grade. But, people would ask what I was and I’d tell them I’m Filipino and they’d say: “Oh, I thought you were Asian.” And that was the start of my racial identity crisis. Even the Asians in my school said I “was not a real Asian” and called me Mexican-Asian. Whenever I brought Filipino food to school, the kids at the lunch table would plug their noses and scrunch their face in disgust. I lost touch of the Asian lifestyle. I guess I became, the term, “white-washed” for a period of time. Because, well, in Memphis, there were no flea markets or 99 Ranch Market chains, no Seafood City’s or bokchoy, durian, etc sold at the local Kroger store down the street. People did not know about boba or “bubble tea”; neither did they know about dimsum or pho. I tried to act and relate like my Caucasian friends or my African-American friends and I didn’t even like expressing myself for the sake of being judged any further or ethnically mis-identified. My racial identity was partially erased. I didn’t care about Asian things, I didn’t flaunt my views or customs, I didn’t express it. Because no one would even understand. But in the end, I don’t blame the people there. It’s just ignorance, lack of knowledge, and the lack of a prominent Asian population: people didn’t even know the difference between Taiwan and Thailand (dead serious, someone tried to debate with me that Thai and Taiwanese were the same language) and there was no use arguing about cultures that they didn’t know anything about. And it was like that for 6 years.
At 15 years old, I moved back to California to the city of Victorville. It was worse enough moving in the middle of high school: that’s the prime time for great teenage friendships and high social expectations. But to a place that I never felt comfortable to call home? It was definitely the most emotional taxing move and took me over 3 years to be happy with my life.
Victorville was an hour up a mountain, in a high-elevated DESERT. The demographic was nearly the same, but honestly a lot more Caucasians. It was the same thing: a lot of people were just ignorant and in their own bubble. To go somewhere cool, you had to drive an hour down a barren mountain. Locals referred to any city along the 1-15 south freeway “down the hill.” Actual tumbleweeds roll around on the streets and sidewalks. It gets super windy, dust and sand dirty your cars (if you park outside) and get into your eyes. Winters actually get fairly cold, most of the time because of the really strong winds. Seldomly, (but the fact that it even does) it hails. In school, we’d hear pellets hitting the windows. It’d also seldom snowed as well, but not as much as Tennessee. People actually do own farms and horses there; they raise horses and what not, horseback riding. No good boba shops or Seafood cities, barely any authentic ethnic places. Everybody was… just the same to me. I couldn’t relate to anyone, and for 3 years, I just never settled down or felt comfortable. It was like I never found a home there. In the entire city, it felt like everyone knew everyone except me. And I loathed it because I could never rid myself of that feeling. I went to a small charter school, called the Academy of Academic Excellence. But let’s not delve into the sad high school experience.
The one thing that makes up for all of that horrid experience: the Hi Desert has the best skies. The sunrises and sunsets are beautiful. The sky would be splattered with hues of pink, orange, purple. It’d be seeing a different painting every day. During the day, the sky would be the clearest blue, and barely any clouds. If there were any, it was just a thin, transparent film of fluffy white. But you could drown in the blue. The prettiest skies. And one of the only things that soothed me while I lived there. Oh and of course, the few friends that made me feel like I wasn’t an outsider.
Now, I live in Rowland Heights. It’s Asian infested but has wonderful food places. Reckless drivers. Boba places every block. I’m finally around 168 and 99 ranch markets. People know the difference between Thai and Taiwanese. They know what dimsum is, and now I’m the one that doesn’t know how to order. But people never question or single me out for my ethnicity because they at least know and acknowledge that I am Asian. I don’t have to hide my culture or my views. I still feel out of place at times, but very seldom. And most importantly, I’m slowly learning how to embrace myself.
So where am I from? I’m just… from a lot of places.
I wouldn’t say I’m privileged to live in such places or lucky to move a lot, because the reason why my family moved was primarily financial reasons. Sure, I lived in Hawaii, or I was born here in the Golden State, but it was genuinely a struggle to assimilate to every culture and lifestyle. I still remember all the things I left behind. With every move, I lost parts of myself. I felt lost and alone. There were times that I cried nearly every night wishing I was back to where I was.
Because change is hard. Moving on is hard. So incredibly hard. We want to stay and bask in places where we are most comfortably, most happy. A lot of us don’t want to be thrown into the unknown. We’re just left with a broken compass. We won’t know where to run, who we’ll meet, who will go, who will stay, what we’ll do, what will happen.
But, that builds character.
What I’m trying to get at is, if there’s no movement, there’s no growth. No sacrifice, no gain. If I stayed in one place, I can’t even begin to imagine how my life would be. I wouldn’t have learned how to deal with all the giant and little things: weather, fashion, culture, racism, oppression, loneliness, sacrifice, education. The list goes on and on. I wouldn’t have gotten to this point in life if my family hadn’t made those jumps. For my emotional state (excluding school), I can proudly I am the happiest I’ve ever been. I’ve learned a lot from these different places, different people. With every move, I gained new parts of myself. I finally found my passion and the best people. All the racial, ethnic, geographic, cultural, and worldly differences have shaped me to be who I am today.
Here I am at the beginning of another decade. I don’t cry anymore at the past because what I left behind doesn’t amount to the life I have now.
And may the new year and the new (roaring) 20s era bring you growth.