July 27, 2020

Growing Up Asian in America 2020

An Interview with Two of this Year's Winners

Interview by Angela Zhao

Each year, AACI (founded as Asian Americans for Community Involvement) in San Jose hosts the Growing Up Asian in America student art contest in celebration of APA Heritage Month. This year’s theme was “Why I Count!” in celebration of the 2020 U.S. Census. It also marked the contest’s 25th anniversary. Students were invited to share their beliefs in the importance of advocating for and being counted in their communities, and why representation matters, in the form of artwork, essays, and videos. We had the chance to speak to two students, Annika Pyo and Arya Das, who won best in class for art and writing respectively. You can see their winning pieces of art as well as the other winners here.

AACI is an organization that advocates for and serves the marginalized and vulnerable ethnic communities in Santa Clara County. They provide support in the areas of health, behavioral health, and wellness for individuals, as well as advocacy and community organizing. The Growing Up Asian in America contest was founded by Lance Lew of NBC Bay Area in 1995, and provides a creative platform for young artists from 1st to 12th grade to explore and celebrate AAPI identity during APA Heritage Month. It is one of the largest youth celebrations of APA Heritage Month. Winning students receive cash prizes and features on NBC Bay Area. You can learn more at http://aaci.org/guaa.

AACI’s Better Together Virtual Live Gala will be on August 29th, 2020. Their annual gala celebrates the organization’s achievements in the past year, and will also feature a virtual live auction. Click on the link for tickets and more information.

Annika Pyo

 11th Grade Best In Class Art Winner

Bio: Annika Pyo is from San Francisco. She is a rising senior at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco and previously attended the Korean Immersion Program at Claire Lilienthal K-8. She participates in the SF Girls Chorus and plans to study art in college.

What inspired you to make your painting?

Doing the contest showed me that I can articulate myself well in a painting, and it’s important for me to tell a story or talk about my experiences in the form of art.

The prompt was about the census and how Asian Americans count. For me, I thought about it from a very personal point of view. I think something that come with being Asian American is feeling very torn between American and Asian culture.

Going to a predominantly white high school as opposed to my K-8 school, where there were a lot of Koreans and a lot of people who looked like me - it was a very sheltered place where I felt very comfortable being Korean. It was something that was praised and we were encouraged to delve into. In high school, I felt a pressure to fit into the culture there with my white peers: the things they would talk about, the ways they would dress. For my piece, I wanted to reflect my feeling of blending in and forgetting my heritage to feel more accepted by my white friends and white classmates.

I also wanted to reflect the phrase that some people use: “I don’t see color,” and how it erases identities of people of color and it erases those experiences because they are different. It’s important to remember those stories, talk about them, and amplify them rather than pretend that they don’t exist. I wanted to show both sides about feeling prideful about my Asian heritage, while also feeling ashamed about it especially as I got older.

What are those things that you felt pressure to do to fit into the culture of your high school?

In class I have to prove that I’m not just a stereotypical Asian, and I don’t just care about studying all the time and doing well in school. I have to prove I have a social life and interests other than school. It’s weird because it’s not like anyone says to me, “can I have your answers,” or “can you help me study?” It’s nothing like that, but it’s the way that I feel that people perceive me, or the way I feel like they might speak differently to me. It’s all very subtle and I don’t know how much of it is inside my head, but I feel like that’s another thing that I have to prove.

What was the reception to your painting like?

It was really nice to hear what people had to say about my painting. One of my teachers asked me if she could use it in her sophomore English class. They were reading the Joy Luck Club and reading about Chinese women and their experiences coming to America and their daughters, a lot of the things I was trying to portray in my piece. I thought that was really cool, that she wanted to use my piece as a tool in her classroom. With my friends, it sparked a lot of conversations about their experiences and ways they could relate. It opened up a lot of conversations with the people in my life that I wouldn’t necessarily have talked to about being Asian and what it means to them.

Who were those people that you didn’t think to have these conversations with?

Definitely with other Asian friends. It might not be a difficult conversation to have, but it’s not one that we think to have in our normal everyday life. It was nice to have a reason to talk about different experiences being Asian.

It did start conversations with some of my white friends. They are able to see how being Asian has affected me and how it’s part of my identity. [Talking with them] could give them another idea of how someone else’s life is different from theirs.

What does being Asian American mean to you today?

Being Asian American is a very personal experience, it is different for everyone. But it is very powerful to be a part of the people who came before me and their histories, and also how that has shaped the person I am today. [It also is how] I can take what my parents have told me, their experiences immigrating, how I have a completely different experience than them growing up in the Bay Area, going to the schools I went to, and just being a different person.

Arya Das

11th Grade Best in Class Essay Winner - Read Here

Bio: Arya Das is a rising senior at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino. She hopes to study environmental engineering in college, and currently writes for the Nurdle Patrol, a marine science research reserve that fights for the environmental protection of our coasts.

What inspired you to write this piece?

Recently I’ve been noticing a lot of casual racism towards Asian Americans on social media, and in movies. In every movie I saw, there’s always a nerd character, and it would be the only Asian I saw. Every time I saw a South Asian girl on Tik Tok… it’s like the only things people can see about Asian Americans are these memes and jokes about us. That’s what inspired me to write it.

I had different inspirations for the process. When I talked to my dad, I started learning more about his experiences with discrimination even in Silicon Valley. I wanted to show that even in a field that is stereotypically dominated by Asians, there are still aspects of discrimination. It’s not just something to brush aside.

That’s why I started my essay talking about flipping through the channels, because the only representation of Asians I saw were these stereotypes. I talk about how better representation can improve how we see ourselves and how other people see us as well.

Are there examples of positive representation that you’ve seen in the media?

Never Have I Ever is the typical teen love triangle, but it shows a South Asian Girl. It’s not my type of show, but it’s nice to see that it’s starring an Indian girl. Putting the Asian character on center stage and having us experience her life, her thoughts, her background on a daily basis, her struggles... moving it from the secondary character to the main character gives us insight into all of those different things. 

We don’t realize how much Asian Americans have just been supporting characters until they are main characters. While some of my friends don’t like how they depicted her home life and her parents being strict Asian parents, I think it’s supposed to be Mindy Kaling’s experience.

It doesn’t have to be the general experience, but it’s just nice to see something that is kind of more relatable to an Asian population. It’s not a typical nuclear family - her father isn’t present, she’s living with her cousin. [The show] shifts the narrative. If the Asian American was the side character, you wouldn’t know her family. But you can see how her family life has shaped her and how she’s different from what you might expect.

In your story, you write about your Dad’s experience with racial prejudice. Have you had similar experiences?

I’m privileged to live in an area and go to a school that is a majority Asian, so I’m never left out of the conversation or overtly discriminated against. But there are still aspects of casual racism, and you see discrimination online.

Sometimes people that are non-Indian or non-Asian mock Asian accents. I think it has to do with the fact that they have so many Asian friends that do it, and they think it’s okay for them to do.

At my school and a lot of schools in the area there isn’t as much racial sensitivity because the majority of us are people of color, but there is still discrimination towards Latinx people and Black people. And within the white population, they emulate how Asian Americans joke about each other. They use Hindi words or mock our accents. It’s uncomfortable to see someone who is non-Asian using those accents or making those jokes.

Was there a turning point for you that made you more racially aware?

Over the years I’ve remembered things I’ve said that were insensitive and realized how wrong they were. I’ve grown from my mindset and my character, realizing those things were wrong.

One moment that sticks out in particular was a couple years ago. I used to do the Indian accent a lot. I sometimes do it now but not mockingly… I do a lot of accents, I do British ones too! [laughs]. But I was doing it, mocking some grammar mistakes that my family was making.

My dad was having a bad day and he had an outburst. He said “I might not speak the best English, but this is not my first language, and you can’t speak Hindi.”

I think I made a snarky remark at that, but looking back I realized he took the time to learn a second language, and I’m mocking that he can’t do it perfectly? That’s not right. I can’t speak Hindi at all and he doesn’t mock me for that.

I’m still working on having true pride in my identity and I’m trying to learn Hindi. But I’m definitely trying to break down those aspects of self-loathing.

What does being Asian American or South Asian/Indian American mean to you today?

I’m glad I have that second perspective. A lot of times my relatives talk about “you do things the American way” or “you’re so American.” I’m glad I have a second culture that I can look to, to expand my mind and understand that sometimes the way I do things and the way I see people in America do things are not the norms of the world, or not what my family expects or what they consider to be respectful.

I identify with certain parts of Indian culture. I am not very spiritual, but in certain ways I identify more with Eastern spirituality than Western spirituality. The whole doctrine of peace and not always trying to create conflict is something that my relatives use to criticize me because I’m confrontational [laughs], but having that dual identity has added to my character and allowed me to build parts of myself that I probably would have otherwise spiraled in one direction if I didn’t have a second perspective on those things.

I’m really happy that I’m able to see Indian culture, Indian clothing, Indian music, and realize how beautiful it is. Previously I ignored it or didn’t pay attention to it, but now I genuinely love Indian music, and love Indian clothing. It’s so colorful and vibrant, and that’s something I included in my essay. Having a culture and a deep history in your culture, and living in America… having the science behind it, the art behind it that you can look to and be like “this is where I’m from.” That is really beautiful and I’m glad to have the ability to realize that.

Anything else you want to say that I haven’t asked you about?

I doubt anyone will want to hear my advice, but I guess for anyone that reads this: mocking your culture or mocking other races is a reflection of something in you that you are uncomfortable with, with your dual identity. You are uncomfortable with not being “fully American” or whatever that is supposed to mean.

I feel like people need to really embrace their dual identity and take everything they can from it, because it’s such a unique identity and it adds so much to your life. It’s not something you should brush aside, and be like, “I don’t want to learn this language.” It’s going to open so many doors for you and open your mind so much.

Thank you to Annika Pyo and Arya Das for allowing us to share their thoughts and pieces of art in our newsletter. We’d also like to thank Ham Pham at AACI, Development Coordinator and the organizer of the GUAA contest. Thank you for connecting us to our interviewers and for your support of our July newsletter feature.