Making it out of the hood — an Asian American’s perspective
Late 20s Asian-American male born and raised around NYC. Currently living as an expat in Singapore. Went to an Ivy League university for undergrad and have been making 6 figures ever since. Have traveled to 10 different countries over the last 12 months. Surrounded by some of the most supportive and inspiring people that I have the privilege of calling my friends.
And by society’s traditional metrics of success, it’s hard to argue that I haven’t been doing well. But this article isn’t about where I am today. It’s about where I came from. And how my place in society today was far from guaranteed from the start.
The years I don’t remember
I spent the first five years of my life living in a tiny, rent-controlled one bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown. My memory is a bit foggy on those early years, but at any given time, there were at least 8 or so people living in that apartment. And when I cried in the middle of the night as a baby, I woke EVERYONE up. (side note: probably started life with a lot negative karma from this)
The formative years
Like many other Asian immigrants, my parents had found jobs working in a restaurant. But the restaurant was in New Haven, CT, so off I went.
The restaurant sometimes didn’t make enough to pay wages in money, so they paid in leftover food instead. (side note: by sometimes, I mean quite often)
So now, I have two problems.
First, there was always so much food around all the time so obviously I grew up as an enormous fat kid. I was 100 pounds by the time I was 10 years old. That literally puts me in the 99th percentile of 10-year old fatties.
Second, we were so damn poor. You know what you do as a poor parent who works in a restaurant? You have your entire family live in the basement to save on rent. You put yourself through hell laboring 20 hours a day to try and turn things around. You force your 8-year old, fat kid to work with you because that’s an additional source of labor and because that fat kid needs to burn off that fat before he gets a heart attack.
Getting expelled from public school
Going to school wasn’t easy.
Kids made fun of me because I was Asian. I grew up during the days where people thought Asians ate dogs, slapped wives, slapped children, studied all day, sucked at sports, were weak, were ugly, couldn’t speak English, couldn’t have been born in America, yet don’t face any racism/discrimination. (side note: oh wait.. people still think that these days…)
Kids made fun of me because I was fat and smelled awful. Every single hour I wasn’t in school, I was in that restaurant. You ever been to a Chinese restaurant? If so, you know that smell sticks after 5 minutes of being in there. Imagine what 16 hours a day can do.
Kids made fun of me because I was dumb. You know how you go from being a newborn baby to a marginally more intelligent child a few years later? You learn from your parents. You watch educational TV. You read books. Well, I didn’t have any of that. The only thing I knew had to do was bread chicken wings and peel shrimp.
Kids made fun of me for being poor. I never had the newest box of crayons or the one with the most colors. My clothes were all the wrong size and had the corniest designs straight from Chinatown.
So one day, I had enough of this one kid making fun of me. And I told him that if he ever made fun of me again, I would come in the next day and stab him. Well, that got me expelled. (side note: wonder what would have happened if the roles were reversed…)
No one ever truly leaves the hood
By now, things at the restaurant were starting to get a bit better. Better enough that we could actually afford rent and to live in a place where there were showers. Better enough so that I could spend at least a few hours a day doing school work and getting smarter.
So at least kids couldn’t really make fun of me for smelling bad or being dumb anymore. That whole being Asian and being poor thing? Still there.
But a few new things had come into play. The influence of drugs, crime, and gangs.
This seemed like a natural place for me to fit in. I was poor and there was at least some hope to make some decent money. I certainly felt like the world was against me and I had a lot to rebel against. Needless to say, I was further “going down the wrong path”.
I know the feds are watching so I’m going to keep this section short on details.
But what really struck me about this whole experience was how little hope everyone had to leave what was obviously a non-ideal situation. Going down that dark path wasn’t a short term detour to make some money. It wasn’t just some quick thing you did to let out some anger.
I always asked, “Don’t you ever thinking about getting the hell out of here? Don’t you think about starting something more real/legitimate?”
The answer was always the same every time: “No one ever truly leaves the hood. You can leave the hood, but the hood don’t leave you.”
Things you probably misunderstand about my childhood
When people hear these parts of my life story, they often ask: “what is it about you or what did you do that put you on a better path in life?”
A typical response from the media might might sound sound something like this:
- You’re Asian so you must have strong family values and relationships
- You’re Asian so you benefit from living in a society that expects you to do well, thereby boosting your own self confidence
- You’re Asian so you focused on education which opened up future opportunities
All false. Here’s the reality:
You’re Asian so you must have strong family values and relationships. I absolutely love my parents to death. But let’s not pretend like I grew up in an environment of “strong familial values and relationships”. How do you establish a strong relationship with a family who forces you to start laboring when you’re 6 years old? How do you establish a relationship with your family when they’re working all the time and you never see them?
You’re Asian so you benefit from living in a society that expects you to do well, thereby boosting your own self confidence. You try being a fat, poor, dumb Asian kid who grew up in underinvested communities his whole life with 0 societal role models that looked like you. Try to do that and come out with some self-confidence. Try to make an argument that anyone in society was rooting for me.
You’re Asian so you focused on education which opened up future opportunities. Yeah damn right I focused on education. But are you trying to say that it was easier for me? Or that education is a sure path to “success”? In spite of the gang banging? In spite of spending more hours working every day than in school? For every person you can show me that studied their asses off and did well, I’ll show you five that did the same but aren’t moving up in life and five that didn’t do well in school but still managed to find a way up.
Here’s what I think
Certainly, luck played a huge part. If I was put in those same circumstances again, there’s no guarantee that the same events would have unfolded to bring me to where I am today.
But for what luck doesn’t explain, motivation and discipline can make up a good portion of the remaining gap.
When you grow up in an environment where the odds are truly stacked against you, where you literally have no where to turn, where every day is a do or die situation, you figure out how to find a way. Because what’s the alternative? You have no other choice.
I wanted to get the fuck out of that hood. And wasn’t going to stop trying until it happened.