I grew up in a small, idyllic community called San Marino. Yes, the “Father of the Bride” town! I have many fond memories of growing up there. It was a safe neighborhood with police that patrolled after dark. Kids weren’t allowed to walk the streets past a certain time and cars and trash bins were never allowed on the curbs overnight. Playing in the yard and riding bikes with the neighborhood kids was a frequent activity.
Over the years, San Marino has gradually changed from its historically white origins to predominantly Asian. My family coincidentally embodies this change. My dad is a second generation white Ameri- can, born and raised in San Marino, while my mom is a first generation Chinese American from Northern California. My mom is one of three kids. Her oldest brother was born in China, and as the daughter of two immigrants, my mom had a very different childhood than I did.
Her dad first came to the U.S. in 1949. After completing his education and establishing himself as a translator and profes- sor, he sent for my mom and older brother in 1955. When she was four years old her dad left, and my grandma Jean became a single mom who didn’t speak English, forcing my mom to grow up fast. My grandma did her best to take care of the kids earning a living doing whatever she could — cleaning houses, babysitting, and sewing. By middle school, my mom was expected to help with the cleaning and childcare.
As I entered young adulthood I, too, was forced to get a job. I started work at 15, a year before the legal age. That set a precedent for the rest of my career. I worked down the street at Simply Fresh, a Korean woman-owned gift store. The owner, Michelle, hit it off with my mom immediately and today I consider her my aunt and mentor.
Growing up, I was always a little insecure about going to Chinese grocery stores and restaurants. Even though I embodied confidence, Chinese culture is very different from Western culture. The aesthetics of these establishments are fairly run down and lackluster. These days, many authentic Asian restaurants make it a point to have trendy décor as well as good food. My longtime friend Keegan Fong has executed this with Woon, a Chinese restaurant in LA, using his mother’s recipes. I fondly remember going to dim sum with my grandparents, aunts, and uncles on the weekends. The food was amazing, and I enjoyed being with my family.
My mom’s experience with peers as a child was blatantly vicious. She never felt comfortable speaking Chinese in public, because kids in school made fun and embarrassed her. Roll call was a nightmare. Her last name was Ching, which resulted in daily choruses of “Ching Chong Chinaman” and Chinese-like sounds of ridicule. While she didn’t have an accent, she looked different, and formed a bond with the only other Asian girl at her Catholic school.
As a result of this, my mom never wanted to embrace her Chinese heritage. Rather, she ran away from her ethnicity to fit in, trying to look, dress, and act “American.” She wouldn’t even wear the color red, because back then mainland China was known as “Red China” due to the communist takeover.
As my mother grew up, her peers matured, becoming kinder and more understanding, and the ridicule abated. In college, she found her future husband (my dad!), a nice white man from a very conservative family. Interracial couples in the early ‘80s weren’t common. Even though my mom looked Chinese, she never felt she identified with her race. Her friends would even tell her “we don’t see you as Chinese, we see you as one of us.” Was that a compliment? It was to her.
My mom entered college through the equal opportunity program and financial assistance, and she was so grateful for those opportunities. After college, she got a job in sales, a male-dominated field at the time, where she did double duty as the company’s token Asian woman. As my mom grew more confident in who she was as an individual, she found herself deflecting her ethnicity with humor. Like, “I’m Chinese and I don’t drink tea!” or “I’m ABC (American-Born Chinese), not FOB (Fresh-off-the-Boat Chinese).” But she often wondered, was she now being racist?
Another hurdle she had to overcome was the relationship with her mother-in-law, who made no effort to conceal her prejudice. It was a struggle until she gave birth to my brother and me. I’d even say she welcomed our heritage. My mom experienced many digs at her ethnicity, from her in-laws as well as total strangers. She had a racist-fueled encounter when a man yelled at her to “Go back to your country!” for simply making a bad driving maneuver. The worst one was when a drunken friend leaned over and told her that he’d “never been with an Asian woman.” No doubt there were more incidents, but having lived through so many from a young age, they’ve all blended together in her memory.
Still, for most of her adult life my mom didn’t really think about racism, and she personally doesn’t feel like she’s been discriminated against based on race. That leads me to an important question: Could it be that she simply ignored it because she so strongly identified with white America? That’s something she struggles to understand to this day. In her 63 years, she’s chosen to identify as an American, because that’s who she is. But as she sees more racially diverse faces in mainstream media, she’s beginning to recognize the changes taking place around her.
Today, I’m proud to showcase my Asian heritage. As an adult, understanding how and what my grandma went through to come to the states makes me proud to be biracial. And yet there’s so much history and culture that I still have to discover. I slowly learn more about my heritage through the cheongsam dresses my grandma made. I later found out that she once owned a store, so as a store owner myself I feel a connection with her. I wish she were alive today because I’d ask her so many questions. Luckily, I have her handmade silk dresses to remember her by!
Moving forward, I hope everyone realizes that we shouldn’t fear, disparage, or prejudice other cultures and races. In- stead, we should celebrate them and the opportunity they provide us to learn. If we have the courage to embrace these types of experiences, we can develop much needed capacities for empathy and com- passion. In these divided and challenging times, nothing could be more urgent or important. Every culture is different and just because it doesn’t look like another’s doesn’t mean it needs to be discounted or looked down on. One account on Instagram I’ve been following recently is @asianamericangirlclub. It’s a really positive page that brings awareness without shaming others, which is refreshing.
While I’ve never felt discrimination on the same level as my mom, I’ve at times felt unique in a way that didn’t always make me proud. Although anti-Asian hate crimes have been declining since the late ‘90s, the recent political climate and the spread of COVID-19 have caused them to rise again. My mother endured this hate, but never allowed it to define her, and I admire her tremendously. She’s taught me the only way you can live your life to the fullest is to be in charge of your own narrative. She instilled in me the importance of independence and not to rely on one person to give you your hopes and dreams. I’ve seen where she’s come from and the life she’s built for herself. We should all have the right to our own story, and that’s one of the most important lessons she has taught me.
You can support Taylor by shopping local and visiting her store, Espionage LA, in Los Angeles, where you’ll find one-of-a-kind vintage items, artisan jewelry, and much more.
This article was originally published in the summer 2021 issue of Molly My Mag under the title “My Asian American Experience.”