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CCC Interviews Cliff

Interviewee: Cliff Kao

Interviewers: CCC (May Zhang, Angelina Peng, Lexi Zhu, Vivian Chang)

May: Could you give a brief introduction of yourself and how you identify within the AAPI community?

Cliff: Sure, sure! So, I am Cliff. As you know, I teach math here and I identify as Taiwanese-American. So my parents were immigrants from Taiwan when they were around 30-something, and then my brother and I were both born in California.

Angelina: Nice! How has your heritage shaped the person you are today?

Cliff: I feel like being Asian-American, you get the influence of both those cultures – like the Asian part and the American part. I think from the Asian part, it’s a lot about family values and respect for your elders and an emphasis on learning and education. I feel like that has really helped to kind of guide my life in terms of what I prioritize and what I deem as important to prioritize. But there’s also that American component, which is very like “chase your dreams!” and, you know, “you can do whatever you want!” I think that combination of knowing your core values, but having that flexibility to expand on that and really do whatever you want to do is really cool. I feel like that’s really shaped my life journey, where I have always, you know, prioritized my family, and I have been able to get a good education, but also I’ve been able to choose what I want to do with my life.

May: Can you speak to what it was like growing up as a Taiwanese American with immigrant parents? 

Cliff: Sure! So I was actually really lucky to grow up in Irvine, because it’s very diverse and there are a lot of Asian Americans there. So my high school was actually majority Asian, so I guess I don’t have the experience of growing up in an Asian minority setting, where it feels like there’s more people who don’t necessarily reflect what your family is. But I think growing up in that atmosphere was really nice because Asian American and Pacific Islander is such a broad category, and being able to see people from all across that spectrum and how their cultures both align and differ from yours is really cool.

Lexi: Does your family have any traditions that are especially important to you?

Cliff: I would say there’s holidays that we care about. There’s two major holidays in my family, Christmas and Chinese New Year. And we have kind of implicitly agreed that at Christmas time we will always be together as a family, so we don’t ever take trips by ourselves or with other people to other places, we always come back together for our Christmas and New Year. Chinese New Year's is a bit harder, because it’s harder with work holidays, it doesn’t really align, but we always do try to have a Skype. And that’s another thing that we try to do a lot. Whenever we have holidays where we can’t be together, we always have a Skype and we all kind of get food related to that holiday and eat it in front of each other. Or if a holiday is close to when we’re all going to meet up, then we just delay it and celebrate it all together.

Angelina: Are there any foods that are special to your family or that you associate with these holidays?

Cliff: So for Christmas, we do the whole American turkey thing, well we don’t like turkey so we do chicken. And like ham, mashed potatoes. We don’t like cranberry that much either but laughs or I guess that’s Thanksgiving, but anyways we try to have a big dinner. It's a more Western meal on Christmas. And then for Chinese New Year or for general eating, my mom is such a phenomenal cook. She makes so many Taiwanese dishes, Chinese dishes, Korean dishes, she makes sushi sometimes.

May: Other than traditions and being close with your family, how do you find yourself connecting back with your roots? Are there any ways you learn about family history or what it means to have a Taiwanese heritage?

Cliff: Definitely. I think especially being Taiwanese, where there’s that – sometimes it’s easy to get confused about Is this tradition Taiwanese or Chinese, or is it just Asian in general? I often find myself wondering about Wait, why do I do this this way or Why do I celebrate this way, and I google like “What are the differences between the Korean Lunar New Year vs. the Chinese Lunar New Year.” There are so many variations of just that one holiday, and it’s cool to see how we can all celebrate something in common and have our own little twist on it.

Angelina: Mainstream media has often been criticized for its lack or trivialized portrayal of Asians and Asian Americans. What do you think of this topic? Who are your favorite Asian or Asian American actors/actresses?

Cliff: First of all, I agree. I think there is not enough portrayal of AAPI in mainstream media. And I feel like the reason there hasn’t been as much pushback against that as, say, like Black folx or Latine folx in the media, is because Asians or Asian Americans have a lot of sources of Asian media that they can go to that aren’t from America. There’s like Bollywood, Korean soap operas, J-pop, K-pop, C-pop groups, anime – like there’s just so much media out there for AAPI or Asian Americans to consume that I feel like sometimes you can find representation in this other kind of media. I think the purpose of having diversity in media is really twofold. I think first is that people of those groups can see themselves represented, but also for people not in those groups to see what those cultures are like. And I think that’s the issue, where Asian Americans can find themselves in Asian media, but then non-Asians don’t see any of that. So I still think that it’s important that there is more inclusivity in mainstream, Western media.

Angelina: Do you have any recommendations for movies, shows, books or podcasts for AAPI Month?

Cliff: Yes! So, well, I think many people have seen this, but I love Crazy Rich Asians! And I feel like it really highlights the Asian American experience. I always cry at this one point in the movie, which I’m not going to give spoilers, but if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about – it’s the dominoes scene, where it’s like finally being accepted for being an Asian American. I just find that so powerful. A lot of us, I think, do struggle with this. We’re not really American, we’re not really Asian – like you go back to where your family is from in Asia, and they’re like “Oh yeah you’re so American,” and then it’s like “Okay, well, where do I belong then?” So that scene I think is really powerful. There’s also this show called Fresh Off the Boat. That show is so funny and so accurate to my experience, because that show is about Taiwanese Americans and literally almost everything they do in that show is stuff that my family does. They even have some of the same silverware and plates and bowls that we have. Or like there’s this one scene where they do the haircuts with the vacuum cleaner, like my mom does that laughs. It’s just a really cool way of seeing what it’s like to try to be an American when you have all this Asian heritage behind you. Oh, yes, Ms. Marvel! That one features a Pakistani-American and it actually focuses a lot on Pakistani American culture which I think is a really cool point. I think Disney and Marvel are really trying to incorporate more diversity, like the Shang-Chi movie was all an Asian cast.

Lexi: Is there such a thing as the “typical” Asian American experience?

Cliff: I think being Asian American means so many different things to so many different people and different groups. Even discounting individual differences, if you look across Asia – first of all Asia is a giant continent – you’ve got East Asia, West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and then the Pacific Islands. It’s just like, there’s not really that much that’s in common between all of them. Maybe some core values but other than that, they all have their own traditions, they all have their own way of doing things, they all have their own languages and everything. So I feel like it’s hard to say what a “typical” Asian American experience is.

Lexi: Are there any stereotypes that you’ve heard or had to face being Asian American?

Cliff: I think it goes along with the model minority myth, where a lot of Asian Americans are seen as very studious, well-behaved, and obedient. I think that last one’s really troubling, obedience, because it makes it seem like Asian-Americans will bend over to the will of anyone. I think it’s a misinterpretation of respect, because Asian-Americans are really focused on respect of family and the people older than you, but it’s not obedience. There’s a difference of being able to express yourself and your own values while still respecting other peoples’, versus just following along with what they say.

May: Were there ever any moments where your two conflicting identities bowed each other out? Like being respectful versus wanting to follow your own path? How did you balance that?

Cliff: Sure! I think many Asian-American children can relate to kind of the pressures of having specific kinds of jobs when you grow up, for example. And where certain kinds of jobs are seen as “less suitable,” especially those in the arts or service industries. I felt that same pressure when I was growing up, where it was constantly like doctor, lawyer, engineer. And I did end up going into engineering, but clearly I am not an engineer now laughs, so I think it did take me a while to find what I wanted to do. I think it was easy to get confused between what I thought I wanted to do versus what I actually wanted to do. Because when you grow up with that kind of messaging, it’s really easy to feel like, those are my options, let me just check each of them and choose the one that best suits me. It’s easy to forget about the vast number of options everywhere else. Yeah, and that’s kind of how I became a teacher!

Angelina: Do you think there was a moment that helped you decide you wanted to take a different path from the one you took before? How did you come to that decision?

Cliff: I think I realized that even though I could do what was expected of me, and like I was doing satisfactorily at my old job, I just didn’t have that same passion for it like I saw my coworkers have. So I was a software engineer and literally after work or during lunch I talked to my friends and they were like “Oh yeah there’s this new feature in C++,” and I’m like “Can we talk about something else now, I just did this for eight hours” laughs. So I think I just realized that while it’s something I could do for the rest of my life, it’s not something that I was really passionate about. It’s not something that I could talk endlessly about for the whole day. I could talk about teaching probably for the whole day, like “Oh my students did this and this and this” or “I tried to teach this thing and I want to try to make them understand it.” So, yeah, I think at some point you realize that you don’t really belong when your interests don’t seem to be as invested as everyone else's.

Angelina: Was there ever a moment where you felt extremely ashamed or proud to be Asian-American?

Cliff: I think because I grew up in a very Asian-American heavy city, I don’t think I’ve ever been not proud to be Asian-American. I feel like I can constantly see the benefit of having both of those halves inside of me, so I’m always proud to say “I am Asian-American! My parents are Taiwanese immigrants!”, and I tell everyone my story. I think in terms of being ashamed, I would say maybe not really ashamed but an overwhelming feeling of not belonging. I think this has happened in two types of cases. The first one is, I have visited some very predominantly white cities in America, where literally I’m traveling on the road and I do not see a single other Asian-American. I think in those cases, like you enter a store and people are looking at me, like side glances. It just feels very, like, I’m not ashamed, but I feel this pressure of everyone’s watching what I do, everyone’s trying to match me with whatever stereotype they had in their mind. I’m like, how much do I try to break that stereotype, how much do I not want to cause harm to myself. I think that can be very scary, so making sure that where you intend to live or where you intend to be in the country is a very important decision, because you want to make sure that you’re surrounded by people that are like you and people who understand your culture. And the other type is when I go back to Asia, when I go back to Taiwan, and everyone immediately knows that I’m not actually Taiwanese. They’re like “Oh, you’re American!” I speak Chinese, I can read and write it, but not at the level of a native, so people will be talking and I’ll be like “Oh, I don’t understand that vocabulary word,” or “I can’t read this menu,” and it just feels like I don’t really belong here, but my heritage is from here and it feels weird. I kind of feel like I should know these things, but then the other part of me is like No, because you’re Asian-American, you’re not just purely Asian.

May: Recently there’s been a lot of discourse around AAPI Month and if it accurately highlights the Asian-American experience. How do you feel about this conversation and what does AAPI Month mean to you?

Cliff: So I think that AAPI Month is a great way to highlight the Asian American Pacific Islander experience, but I think it’s really easy to make the mistake of trying to overgeneralize. Like “We want to tell you about the themes of AAPI,” and I feel like there aren’t really any, like I was saying, there’s so much of Asia, there’s not really – you can’t just say all Asians do this thing. I think it’s important that instead of emphasizing any sort of common things, it’s emphasizing that everyone should tell their story. Everyone should have a chance to express themselves and tell everyone about their own culture, because really, I think the power of the AAPI community does come from everyone coming together, but it’s coming together in their own way and telling their story. Not necessarily telling a collective story. 

Angelina: Anything else you want to add? Final thoughts?

Cliff: To all the AAPI members out there, find your people! That’s going to give you a lot of empowerment. You’re not alone!

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