The Messy, Ultimately Empowering Journey of Growing Up as an Asian Latine

Aiko Hilkinger | Photo Illustration by Aly Lim
Aiko Hilkinger | Photo Illustration by Aly Lim

I've always felt like I was on the outside looking in. Both sides of my family immigrated to Latin America before I was born. The first half immigrated to Colombia from Japan more than 90 years ago, so by the time I was born, my mother's side of the family had already found their place in our Latine community. I grew up surrounded by a familial understanding of our culture, and it felt as though it made sense for us to be here. There was an established sense of belonging, of taking up space and not being afraid to do so.

The weight of microaggressions and overt racism that my family members had experienced followed me around like a shadow. It had been pushed under the rug — there were neighbors who didn't want us here, and in order to deal with that, we had to assimilate. That's not to say we disregarded our traditions, but it did sometimes lead to a heartbreaking disconnect between my friends and me growing up. For example, I used to bring sushi to school: my grandmother would make us maki sushi (not the raw fish kind) on occasion. The kids around me could not understand what I was eating and made fun of me for it (and only a few years later, they hopped on the trend when sushi became a bigger phenomenon worldwide).

The second side of my family immigrated from Germany in the 1980s, when my grandfather got an offer to teach at a local school. And while I don't have time to unpack all of that, this is all to say that I came into the world as two very distinct halves that had nothing to do with the whole.

Microaggressions are experienced by people of color every day in Latin America, and it specifically comes from white, middle-class Latine.

But perhaps that reflects the fact that, for Latin America, the context of immigration is painfully layered. My country, like many others, continues to live under the shadow of colonialism. This complex issue has plagued us since the conquistadores arrived and pillaged our lands all those years ago, imbuing already established cultures with theirs and later those brought in because of slavery. Racism, like all things, has evolved and become more casual (even if blatant racism is making a comeback in the United States at the moment). Microaggressions are experienced by people of color every day in Latin America, and it specifically comes from white, middle-class Latine.

In other words, the culture of our continent has a deep-rooted history of being mixed; many of us have never been just one thing. That's why it was hard for me to grow up somewhere that still sometimes made me feel like an outsider. For the majority of my formative years, I found myself desperately trying to mold myself and my personality into something that resembled what I thought Latinidad was. If I couldn't "look" it, I was certainly going to become it. From self-deprecating jokes to the way I carried myself, I craved to be just like everyone else. Normal became synonymous with accepted. And for a while, I couldn't understand why my plan wasn't working and why I was still not being regarded as such. I had gotten very good at keeping all of my cultures separate from me, at arms' length and as an extension rather than a part of me.

It's a very interesting dichotomy listening to my Latine and Asian friends who were born and/or raised in the United States, because they, too, sometimes feel fractured between their cultures. Hearing the stories of their journeys with acceptance inspired me to slowly but surely heal my own relationship to it. While their upbringings were completely different than mine, they were also the exact same. From feeling like they didn't belong at school because of the "weird" foods they ate at lunch and the different languages they spoke to even the music they listened to and the clothes they wore, I realized that what I was going through wasn't just my own but rather something collective.

Coming to terms with identity as a mixed kid and Asian Latine is oftentimes nerve-racking. You're too much of this or too little of that. It's only been through a lot of self-reflection and time that I've been able to fully embrace all the pieces that make me unique. A lot of what helped me come into my own was seeing all of my wonderful friends find success in their lives. Building connection by sharing stories of our upbringings showed me that it wasn't weird to feel like I didn't belong, that there was a world after where I could be just as confident, successful, and incredible as them if I allowed myself to be myself.

I began to nurture my differences as much as the similarities, putting myself out there to learn more about my family's history and staying connected with my roots through food and cultural activities. It became a priority to celebrate everything that makes me whole. And slowly but surely, I learned that it was never about having three distinct cultures that defined me but rather about finding myself through the combination of them.

Latinidad is not a monolith. There's not just one way of experiencing it, growing up in it, or growing into it. But now we have to reframe what Latine looks like. There are Asian Latine actors working in Hollywood who are finally giving me the representation I have craved for so long. There are influencers out there who are sharing their journeys as Asian Latines, chronicling how they stay connected to their cultures while also showing other mixed kids out there that their lives are "normal," too. As for myself, I use my art to connect with myself, honoring the many parts of me that make me unique.

I've finally learned that being different is OK. It's what makes us whole.