I was walking through Easton Town Center a few years ago when I encountered a young white couple who appeared to be staring at me. After briefly making eye contact as I passed, I heard one of them comment, “He probably thinks wearing a baseball cap makes him American,” followed by a smug chuckle. My first thoughts were of anger and shame, though the experience made me wonder if their comment contained any truth.
Growing up in a culture where one’s physical appearance is different from those around you can be challenging; the traditional lines of “us vs. them” are blurred and the need to belong takes on a greater urgency. The label American encompasses a diverse population composed of many races, ethnicities, and cultures, though in the unconscious (or conscious) mind of some, being American means being white. Although my parents constantly reassured me I was indeed American, I was being told by kids at school that I wasn’t.
One of the easiest ways I believed I could assert myself as American was to dress like one—or at least what I perceived would define me as such. I couldn’t change my race, but I could change my outfits. I engaged in the game of dress-up well into my high school years, clad in the uniforms of church choir, tee-ball, baseball, soccer, Cub Scouts, and JROTC. I was pretty bad at most of the activities I chose (especially singing), but cloaking myself in a uniform gave me the illusion I belonged.
With age and maturity came the realization that covering myself in team colors or army camouflage didn’t mask my Asian features nor make me any more American than I already was. In fact, dressing up made me feel like a fraud—a pretender. I had been desperately seeking a nod of approval from those who would never see me as I wanted them to, and those who mattered most—my family and friends—had always accepted me for who I was. I was done wearing uniforms.
In the past, wearing a baseball cap might have been a superficial attempt to become the version of what the couple at Easton viewed as American. Now it’s simply because I like my hat. And I AM American.