When I was young, I never really had an identity crisis. I identified as an Asian who is ethnically Cambodian. I grew up in a Cambodian household, was taught Cambodian traditions, and learned the language (Khmer). I knew who I was and I was proud of it. However as time passed, things changed very drastically for me.
If you were to ask someone to describe to you what a person of Asian descent looked like, you would probably get a very stereotyped answer. Answers usually contain things like “short, small eyes, black hair, pale, thin” etc. My very first issue with these answers is how it just assumes that an entire continent of people would then have the same features. My second issue is that it cuts out every other country that is not Eastern Asia. May I also add, not every Eastern Asian individual even fits the criteria of what a “typical” Asian looks like. These social constructions of appearances and the resulting assumptions and can be very damaging for a person.
In my personal life, I have been told that I am not really Asian because I simply to do not fit the criteria of what a “typical” Asian looks like. When I was younger, someone told my mom that there was something wrong with me because I had light brown hair. They asked her if she was giving me the “wrong” shampoo. Whatever that means. But so what if I have large eyes? So what if I happen to be 5’6’’? (Being 5’ 6’’ isn’t really even that tall!) Guess what? Not all people of a certain group will fit into an exclusive category that has been created. In addition, it’s not your position to tell me that I can’t identify as something simply from my “unconventional” looks.
Another situation that I run into more often is that I don’t look Cambodian enough. Just like every other country in the world, Cambodia is full of diverse people. Cambodian people however, are always pigeon holed with one specific trait, being tan. Ever since I was born, I have always been on the lighter side and this has greatly affected how people (both Cambodian and non-Cambodian) interact with me. If I ever wore a traditional Cambodian dress, people will sometimes assume that I was the “American” friend of a Cambodian person (this actually happened to me 2 years ago at a Cambodian New Year’s festival). People also get very surprised when I speak Khmer. Situations like these confuse and irritate me, as I feel like I am not allowed to belong to my own community just because of how I look. However, I am still proud of who I am and I am always eager to learn more about where I come from.