Growing Up Asian American in a Small Southern Town


“What are you?” This is perhaps one of the most familiar questions I have been asked and sometimes still get asked today. Honestly, I don’t mind it because it opens up dialogue about culture and identity opposed to ignorance and close-mindedness.

I grew up in a small town here in South Carolina where there weren’t too many Asians, let alone Asian Americans. My mom is Korean and moved here when she was a young teen. In elementary school, I was fairly unique when it comes to differentiating from the other kids. I do remember in middle school there was another Asian kid but he moved away and we didn’t talk. We didn’t really have anything in common. Ironic, I know. 

Growing up Asian American in a small town was … different. I didn’t have a horrible experience but it was different and oftentimes uncomfortable. As a young kid I remember seeing other kids make slant eye jokes and remarks, which is interesting because my eyes aren’t really slanted compared to Asians. I was also an extremely quiet girl so in addition to looking somewhat different, my personality seemed to be a hinderance too, I thought. 

So here I am a half-Korean, half-white ultra-shy girl in a small town where everyone else was white or black. There were some Hispanics scattered. My parents also loved cooking stir fry dishes and we often visited the Asian grocery store over in Columbia. Honestly, I loved it but I remember sometime around fifth grade seeing white American rice in the school cafeteria and thinking, “that’s not rice.” See, I was used to the Asian rice, or sticky rice, as some call it. (My parents would buy a huge bag at the Asian grocery store.) And to top it off, Americans served this white rice with gravy? Well, that’s just weird.

Although, when people talked about what they ate at home, I was too shy and uncomfortable to tell them I ate stir fry or seaweed paper or even anchovies. Everyone else ate fried chicken, that rice and gravy mix or other typical Southern dishes. I don’t remember eating fried chicken as a kid. It was baked, barbecued or sometimes my mom made adobo chicken, which is a Filipino dish.

My response when kids asked about home dinners? Leftovers or chicken. Oh, let’s add the lactose intolerance factor to my life. No dairy and no chocolate for me. So while everyone else was guzzling milk thanks to those Got Milk? ads, I was avoiding milk and anything with milk. Plant based milks weren’t a thing yet, although powdered milk was, and let me tell you, that stuff was gross. Somehow I got the calcium I needed without milk. Interesting, huh?

I always felt different and odd. Nobody looked like me. As a kid, I looked to celebrities or TV actors or even people around me, and there wasn’t a lot of diversity. Even on television, Asian and Asian American actors were very few. There was the yellow Power Ranger, which she had to be yellow, right?

I remember loving the Babysitters Club series and felt a connection to the fictional character Claudia who was the Asian American girl in the club. Thank goodness for those authors and creators who stepped up to the plate by acknowledging Asian Americans.

If you ever hear kids being excited because there is another character or doll that resembles them, know that that excitement is real and truly meaningful. It does something for your esteem to know there are people who are like  you or resemble you. 

Now that I have kids, I want them to feel comfortable with their culture and background, which is a total mesh of Asian and all sorts of European. They don’t look Asian or, at least I don’t think they do, but if and when they ask, I want them to feel proud of their heritage. I want them to appreciate their ancestry and ask questions. And if they see other Asian Americans out and about I want them to ask about their culture.

There’s so much beauty in acknowledging the various cultural groups around us.

I know there is still ignorance and hate when it comes to Asians and Asian Americans, and sadly there are way too many hate crimes that still exist. I’m honestly not sure why Asian Americans have been targets and continue to be targets of hate. I have opinions and thoughts but that’s about it. Is it their demeanor or wanting to fade into the crowd? Is there a fear Americans (specifically white Americans) have of Asians? I’m not sure. It’s like they are afraid to speak up but the younger Asian Americans are speaking up more.

Next time you’re out and about, try striking up a conversation with someone of a different ethnicity. More than likely they will gladly talk about where they’re from or where their ancestors are from. Embracing other cultures is like intertwining stories with each other. It’s all a beautiful collision. 

How do you celebrate your cultural diversity?

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Natalie Szrajer
Natalie has lived in South Carolina most of her life after her family moved across the country from California. Growing up in a small, South Carolina town allowed her to appreciate the simple ways of country living. She now resides in Lexington which isn't too far from rural life. She holds a degree in Journalism from USC (Go Gamecocks!) and currently writes for a couple of Lexington publications. After giving birth to twins, she decided staying home was the best option for her family. In addition to identifying with other twin moms, she has also come to know the world of NICU survivors, early intervention and the world of special needs. Aside from being a twin mom, she also enjoys church and growing with God, writing, crafting, walking and a nice cup of tea. She also appreciates and loves learning about different cultures as she is of Asian American descent.


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