AAPI Month Interview Series: Katy Yan
This is an interview with Katy Yan conducted by the leaders of Chinese Culture Club (Vivian Chang, Angelina Peng, Nalini Salveker, and May Zhang).
May: Can you give us an introduction of yourself and how you identify with the AAPI community?
Katy: Sure! My name is Katy Yan. I teach biology and environmental science at College Prep—this is my fifth year. I identify as Chinese American within the AAPI community, but I think what is also important to my identity is that I identify as a queer Asian American.
Vivian: How would you say your heritage has shaped the person you are today?
Katy: I think my heritage has a huge influence on who I am. I came to the US when I was 4 with my parents, and as immigrants to a new country, I think there was a lot of closeness between my parents and myself. Bringing over a lot of our traditions from China was a core part of my identity growing up, and my parents shared a lot of those traditions with me.
They were also art teachers, like traditional Chinese painting teachers, and so the arts, the food, [and] the customs were really important to me growing up. I think that’s shaped a lot of how I identify culturally, [and] a lot of the values that they imparted on me, things like hard work, problem-solving, this sort of “put your head down and get the work done” attitude are all really important to me. Growing up surrounded by traditional Chinese brush painting and calligraphy, I also learned careful observation, patience, and an appreciation for the natural world, so practicing art also forms a core part of my identity.
But I also think because they were artists, I never felt that they demanded certain things of me, other than to be a good filial daughter, but in terms of my passions and my careers, I think, unlike certain Asian stereotypes, I was never expected to be a doctor or whatnot, but [was] given the freedom to explore my passions.
Vivian: So you mentioned you moved here when you were 4. Do you remember any of your time growing up in China at all, or were most of your experiences centered in the US?
Katy: Yeah, I do have some memories of my early years, but those are often very mixed with stories and memories and photos. We did very regularly go home, go back and visit my family in China every summer, pretty consistently, so I [had] a lot of very fun, just like family-centered memories with aunts and uncles and cousins, which I didn’t have here, being an only child.
They were usually pleasant, although occasionally, as I grew older, I could see more and more of the cultural tensions that I was experiencing and [felt] like I didn’t quite fit anymore to my sort of Mainland China family and also didn’t quite fit into the American culture either, this sort of Western white dominant culture. That was hard growing up, as I was getting older and being more cognizant of societal expectations on both sides.
May: Are there any specific moments that stood out to you where you felt that tension?
Katy: Oh yes, there have been many. A lot of it had to do with appearance and body image. I think there was an expectation growing up, as I was hitting that pre-teen to teenage years. [There were] a lot of comments from my family members in China about how dark my skin was, why I wasn’t using cosmetics and skin whitening products, and the more I got asked those questions, the more I would be stubborn and fight back with “it’s cool to be tan as an American.” But then, over here, I wouldn’t fit in with the stereotypically beautiful person either.
Angelina: Does your family have any traditions that are especially meaningful to you?
Katy: I think a lot of them center around the holidays. Lunar New Year is huge for my family, and it’s really important to me. My parents are incredible cooks, and they just would create these feasts, where they would be chopping for like two days beforehand, and sometimes we would invite friends, sometimes it would just be us with like 20 dishes and watching the New Year’s Eve special on TV from Beijing. That was always a popular time; I got to stay up late and watch that even though only half of it made sense to me.
Other traditions, I mean all the other holidays too, like Lantern Festival, like, a little less, but Tomb Sweeping Days and things like that would also be important, and I think just overall, these were important times to spend with family, and that was especially important for my parents, ‘cause they were so far away from their own families, to maintain those traditions.
May: Do you think there’s such a thing as the “typical” Asian American experience? Are there any stereotypes that you’ve seen? How do you feel about them, and how do you think that plays a role in the Model Minority Myth?
Katy: Right, I would say that what is often shared among maybe a lot of Asian Americans is the way they are treated by society, the dominant culture either implicitly or explicitly, so that’s sort of, sadly, a shared, maybe unpleasant experience. Even stereotypes that are “positive” are harmful because [of] that Model Minority Myth or with the stereotypes of… I was always expected to be the one who was good at math or hardworking, quiet, docile—like those harm people and ignore just the breadth and diversity of humanity.
There [are] so many different experiences that people have that I think sadly one commonality is the discrimination that often takes a very particular tone, that you’re always considered foreign, that you’re never fully “American,” that you’re just fresh off the boat, that you must have just come here, you must just be learning English, that you’re going to work hard, and that you’re not going to rock the boat once you’re here because you’re so grateful for everything that you have in this country.
May: How do you see yourself combating that? What can we do?
Katy: I think that is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time because, in some ways, those stereotypes have benefitted me in my education, in my experience here, allowing me to survive and thrive academically and socially and not receive a lot of the really ugly racism that maybe African Americans in predominantly white spaces will receive. I never got physically attacked, [and] I never really got slurs thrown at me because I stayed under the radar, but I think long-term, there has been a lot of low-level harm or even microaggressions that accumulate over time.
It’s sort of wonderful, at this school, [to see] Asian American authors and artists openly talked about and celebrated. I also went to a private, predominantly white high school in the Bay Area, and at the time, I think I just felt so lucky to be there and that I had to earn my way there. I’m sure my peers didn’t necessarily feel the same way. I think it was really only later, the last ten years or so, looking back [that] I realize how little I saw myself and my history and my culture represented in the curriculum. The faculty was fairly diverse, but still, there weren't many Asian American faculty members, some in staff, not so much in faculty, and that was harmful, and that kind of harm takes a while to get rid of—it affects your self worth and your sense of belonging.
I think one way to directly fight it is to keep pushing for more representation and more courses in Asian American history and lit and art and culture, actively celebrating and talking about different aspects of Asian American experiences, for people to feel more like they belong, that if you are here, you belong here.
Vivian: Mainstream media has often been criticized for its lack of, or very trivialized/stereotyped portrayal, Asians and Asian Americans. Do you see that shifting now? Are there any Asian American experiences you would like to see more of? Do you want to shout out any Asian American actors or movies?
Katy: One of the earliest entertainers that I loved was Margret Cho, and just how funny, irreverent, and smart she seemed was very inspiring.
I think it’s tricky navigating sort of the stereotyped roles with Asian American actors because I think while it’s important to share the immigrant experience in media for people to be more aware, I think it’s also important for artists and creatives to express other sides of their identities and themselves, to feel free doing so. I think it does kind of suck that they have to often cater to certain boxes that maybe production companies and movie studios are looking for. So again, the more representation that we have in positions of power, in director seats, in production companies, the more likely you will hear the diversity of stories.
I think it’s about broadening the experience, not sort of like “No, we can’t tell the immigrant Asian story,” like that’s super important, but just sort of broaden it, so in addition to these stories, there are queer Asian stories, there are all these other facets, and if you lump Asian Americans together in this one umbrella, there are so many different countries and cultures and religions there to explore. Books and arts really play a vital role in building empathy. If you are somewhere where there aren’t a lot of Asian Americans in your community, this is one small way you can start to understand the other facets of the American population [and] the different American experiences.
May: You’ve touched on the intersection of being Asian American and being queer. Can you talk more about that?
Katy: Coming out was a really difficult moment because there was always this tension within my small subset within the Chinese American community that my parents and I belonged to, that being queer was “not us.” I think one of the things I would hear a lot was, “We love all people, it doesn’t matter if they’re queer, or this color or that color,” but when it came down to when I came out, it was highly traumatic for them, and they fought it for years and years and for a long time I didn’t feel at home. So, I would avoid home; I would avoid my parents, [and] I would also avoid, I think as an offshoot of that, a lot of the Asian American or Chinese American student groups and events and communities in college because when I came out was freshman year of college.
And in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t. I was so angry and fearful of rejection from them, I had these assumptions that they [were] just going to respond the way my parents did, so I found my community in college among the queer community and, within that the subset, queer Asians who maybe felt the same way, but I wish I had given the broader community a chance and not just assume that they would reject me, or that I couldn’t find a connection, because I think for a long time I did reject the Asian side of me a little bit.
So, that intersection is a bit of a sad story but also empowering because, at the same time, it allowed me to explore my full self and find connections and realize I wasn’t the only one, and appreciate that sort of wide diversity of experiences within the Asian American community. I think what’s often scary for parents of immigrant children is they feel alone, too, like they don’t have anyone to talk to, and they feel a fear of rejection, like my parents didn’t want to tell my mom’s mom. They thought that they would make her so worried she would get sick, [but] when my grandmother found out, she was so happy that I had found a partner [and] that we cared for each other. So, I think it’s also always important not to assume that your elders won’t understand.
Angelina: How do you believe AAPI individuals contribute to the history and culture of the US? What does AAPI Heritage month mean to you?
Katy: I think Asian American individuals, communities, and all communities contribute a great deal to American culture because that’s what, to me, American culture is—that collection of experiences in individuals from multiple different parts of the world, multiple countries, including the Native Americans that were here in the first place. I think there’s no one way to be “American,” I think that’s what still gives me some hope in this sort of grand American experiment that people like to talk about, that we are working through this ability to be a truly multicultural space, and it’s hard, but I think it’s also beautiful that I’m reminded of that too. Every time I go back to China and just look around, everyone does look like me, which feels great [but] I miss seeing that wide diversity of world cultures and experiences and individuals and skin tones and body types and religions and things like that. So, I guess that’s the short answer.
And then what does the month mean to me? I think it’s a chance for us Asian Americans to really reflect and celebrate who we are, how far we’ve come, what we contribute, or just regardless of what we contribute, just being us. We don’t have to contribute something to America to belong. I feel like that again is like me in high school, [when] I [felt] like to belong I have to bring something to the table that is additional, but no, just let me be, belong, celebrate and live my life in this joyful way. So, to pause and celebrate, and then I think for others, it does give schools and other institutions a chance to pause too, elevate, and celebrate the AAPI members within their community and their experiences and their history and their culture.