When I was 16 years old, I found my hero in a brash, loud and unapologetic Korean-American comedian: Margaret Cho. In her stand-up special, she imitated her mother’s reaction to Cho’s sitcom All-American Girl getting picked up by a major television network on Mother’s Day. Cho scrunched her face, nearly closed her eyes and tilted her neck back and started speaking in a heavy Korean accent, “This is the beeeeesst Mother’s Day ever!” She paused then said, “Oh, there was another Mother’s Day that was a little bit better.”
Comedians doing impressions of their mothers is nothing new. As a teenager who was “fresh off the boat” from Japan, I was astounded by how truthfully, graciously, and hilariously Cho captured the struggles and celebrations for the children of Asian immigrants in America today. Many of us struggle with having Asian parents with a heavy accent and relentless chutzpah, but our parents’ accents are not signs of failure or incompetence. They are symbols of bravery. I found my stories of being a child of immigrant parents mirrored in Cho’s storytelling.
While I was born in Los Angeles to a Japanese mother and a biracial Japanese/African-American father, I spent the majority of my life in Japan as a striking anomaly in a largely homogenous Asian society. I never felt fully Japanese, nor fully American. I am one of 1.8 million Americans who identify as multiracial but also part of a larger demographic known as “third-culture kids,” living “in-between” two or more cultures.
When I was in high school, my parents divorced and my mother uprooted us to Hawaii. She wanted a better life and education for my sister and me; no plan, just a sheer will to “make it” in America. A product of decades of Asian immigrants coming to work as farm laborers in the Aloha state, nearly every one in four Hawaii residents identify as multi-racial. My mother hoped that in multi-racial Hawaii, her children could be accepted as Americans without having to sacrifice their Japanese identity.
This was not the case.
Within the first week there, my mother left a restaurant in an emotional storm after being overcharged by almost a hundred dollars. This wasn’t the first time this had happened. “We moved here and still they just see me as some stupid Japanese lady.” My sister would come home crying over being picked on for her strong Japanese accent. We were tired and homesick; crossing 4000 miles to make a new life as Americans only to be seen as nothing more than Japanese tourists. But my mother wouldn’t quit. “I didn’t fly all the way here to mope,” she would say. Uttering the Japanese word for resilience “Gaman” and resolving to “Never apologize. You just got to work harder.”
As shown by Margaret Cho, Bobby Lee, and even Constance Wu from ABC’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, there is a blinding truth of strength, tenacity, and fearlessness exhibited by Asian immigrant parents that come to America to make a better life. Even with exaggerated accents and a tone-deafness to American culture, this is not their detriment nor does it encompass their entire identity; it is part and parcel of what makes them fearless.
In a video celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander artists in media, actress Amy Hill confessed, “I was totally embarrassed by (my mother) as a child. I think many of us have immigrant parents who we might have been embarrassed by as children,” she recounted. “She was never embarrassed for having an accent…An accent is just one aspect of who they are. It is part of who they are.”
So let us unabashedly celebrate our parents who had the audacity to believe in a better life to move to a new land. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are now the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. Accent or not, cultural difference or not, the fabric of who we are as Asian Americans is the product of the parents who never gave up.
My sister is in a new school and has friends who think it’s “super cool” that she had come from Japan. My mother is remarried. I am in college working in Journalism and exploring a new passion for the Middle East. I called my mother the other day to share an exciting recent development in my life. She listened and said in a heavy accent, “Good for you. You worked hard and now you’re succeeding.”
The words of Cho stay with me still: “The fact that I can be successful means, (to my mother), that on a very fundamental level, America works and things are getting better in her lifetime. It’s such a beautiful thing to share.”
Anthony Berteaux is a Journalism junior at San Diego State University. On campus he is the assistant Opinion editor for his campus newspaper, and the Campus Editor At Large for the Huffington Post. In his spare time, he runs a radio show on KCR College Radio and is a co-founder and web editor of his publication, ProgressME. He also acts as the Vice President of Public Relations for Students Supporting Israel. He was a previous participant in the Israel Project’s Tower Tomorrow Fellowship. On campus, Anthony cares about progressive politics, East Asian politics, and Israel. He has had pieces published in the Huffington Post, Tower Magazine, the Daily Aztec, the Union Tribune San Diego, and the Times of Israel.
Bullying is targeted aggression or hurtful behavior towards someone that’s aimed at creating a sense of isolation. This blog post is part of ActToChange.org’s features of voices against bullying. “Act To Change” is a public awareness campaign to address bullying, including in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. For more information, visit www.ActToChange.org.