What does an American look like?
Personally, I believe that being American has less to do with appearance than with a set of shared values and experiences derived from a way of living. At the core, my identity associated with my American-ness centers on my belief in freedom and liberty. I think most Americans can rally around that.
But people can't see my values and experiences by looking at my face. They can't see that I'm American because I look Asian.
As an adolescent, I remember being unhappy with the way I looked because none of my favorite superheroes looked Asian. Superman/Clark Kent and Batman/Bruce Wayne didn’t have eyes like mine and didn’t have Asian-sounding last names; and while almost everything else associated with superheroes are imaginary, the heroes themselves did resemble real people - except the people they looked like didn't look like me.
There are few memories I have where I enjoyed pretending to be a superhero. I remember that I preferred Batman over Superman because Batman had a mask; I could be Batman when the mask was on.
I hated when the substitute teacher would read out names from the attendance sheet because my legal name is Ji Shu, not Jerry. I was embarrassed because that wasn’t who I identified with.
In my head, I was Jerry, the American who looked American. But when I saw myself in pictures or in the mirror, I just saw an Asian kid that didn't look like any superhero I knew. I saw Ji Shu.
Unfortunately, our superheroes have not changed much since I was an adolescent.
Sadly, I have yet to become Batman. Most of us stop aspiring to become our literal childhood superheroes after a certain age, but we do become a version of them based on how they impacted our imaginations as young children.
Superman-level strength is a fiction, but Superman is very much real. Every fictional character in the books, movies and games our children encounter are real to them. These creations impact our children’s dreams and aspirations in ways only an adult reflecting back on his own childhood can understand.
For me, they impacted my sense of identity.
I've since come to accept myself, appearance and all. While I don't regret the soul searching that brought me to where I am now, I could've done without the years of hiding from my ethnic background and being ashamed of how I looked.
As a parent, I try my best to protect my daughters from physical dangers. I aspire to give them the experiences I never had, and I hope to shield them from re-living the painful experiences I went through.
But at the very least, I can write a book. Maybe even two or three or more. These books will have characters who look Asian, with Asian sounding names. I imagine Madison & Everly reading these books and pretending to be the characters.
Maybe I’ll even create a superhero. A superhero whom my daughters can really lose themselves pretending to be, no masks necessary.
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