I recently attended the 20th anniversary celebration of Blacklava, an online store for “all things Asian American,” which was founded by Japanese American Ryan Suda. I had heard about this event at least a month prior, and even though it was taking place in Los Angeles, I was compelled to fly down from the San Francisco Bay area, where I live, in order to celebrate this occasion.
“But it’s just a T-shirt company,” you may say. “And it’s not even a Taiwanese American thing…”
I’m not even sure I can fully explain why I was so drawn to be there. Of course, it was going to be an awesome event judging from the effort put in by the organizers (shout out to comedian Jenny Yang!) and the VIPs and Movers & Shakers on the guest list. However, there was another underlying theme that resonated with me, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on until after the event. But now I realize what it is: Ryan Suda’s journey is the story of the “other,” the outsider, or even the underdog that few pay attention to, but who you’re rooting for on the inside… because you know it’s a good and necessary thing. The story of Blacklava appeals to me on so many levels because it parallels my own story and struggles as a Taiwanese American “other.”
Many people know me as the founder of the TaiwaneseAmerican.org website or see my work on projects and with organizations that serve the Taiwanese American community, and likely, they have some sense as to part of the motivation that drives me. However, there’s a little more story to tell.
Yes, I’m a proud Taiwanese American, and I’ve spent more than half of my life working with youth of Taiwanese heritage and supporting the many organizations that represent our varied community interests. But, before I understood the intricacies of Taiwanese history and the argument for our unique identity, I started my personal journey through identity as a non-ethnic-specific Asian American first. And, when I say Asian American, I mean it in the collective sense – the multi-generational multi-faceted historically-oppressed non-Model Minority Asian Pacific Islander American Yellow & Brown Power to the People sense. That somehow, no matter where you or your family’s country of origin is, together we have a stake in this ever-evolving American identity where historically we haven’t yet found a place or full acceptance.
I was a product of growing up a minority in the Midwest, and I experienced being the non-White “other,” and to put it plainly, it just sucked. That is, until we found greater pride by associating with the other young 2nd generation Asian Americans who naturally understood this “hyphenated” experience. It often felt like we were lumped together by the mainstream as this singular “Asian American” group, but I was proud to ally myself with the many “others” who felt just as on the fringe as I did.
Although I knew part of my coming-of-age experience had to do with personal insecurities, it was clear to me that the stuff outside of my control boiled down to negative societal influences as a result of stereotypical media images and institutionalized racism. In my heart, I knew there needed to be change, and people who understood the struggle needed to make it happen. As a result, I had no qualms about declaring myself an Asian American activist.