Model Minority | Jon Pejo | 1st Place

    Filipinos are the Mexicans of Asia—because they’re the brown, hardworking, Catholic branch of their respective continents. Both have their share of excellent dishes, raucous family gatherings, and a common history of being pushed around by white people, all while smiling and dancing through it all. Unfortunately, Filipinos also hold the label of “Asian,” and the unfortunate trend of 21st Century America is to throw all the short, small-eyed, off-white people into one big bag of “oriental.” That doesn’t sound necessarily bad especially when it’s compared to the plights of incarcerated black men, stereotyped Muslims, and oppressed migrant Mexicans. Realistically, the average American sees me, a Filipino or any other Asian, as the “model minority.” With the exception of being reduced to a stereotype, life is not too difficult to navigate. However, the plight of my people is not direct incarceration, discrimination, or oppression. Our plight is getting caught in the sinkhole of “almost white.”
    My last name is Pejo—it looks Spanish; it sounds Spanish, but I’m definitely Asian. I remember being able to “pass” as Mexican in grade school. Occasionally, some people even thought I was black. So, I gradually cleared up the whole racial hubbub by declaring my proud Filipino/Asian American heritage.
    “You don’t look it, though.”
    “What is the Philippines, anyway?”
    “Are there a lot of pine trees there?” 
These were the immediate questions, typical for white kids in a private school. Racial unawareness was practically guaranteed, but the ignorance still cut deep.
    “I am Asian, though.”
    “An island-chain in the Pacific.”
    “No, dumbass.”
    I had to apologize for the latter. But, when the “sorry’s” had been said, I suddenly became aware that most people are ignorant about Asia outside of China, Korea, and Japan. I also realized that, according to the prejudices of white people, I wasn’t Asian enough. Until then, I never thought about the size of my eyes or the pigmentation of my skin. What cut deepest, however, was when I was told I didn’t “sound Asian.” My parents never had strong accents, so I ended up talking like a white kid, while me classmates expected broken English with a lisp. An uneasiness came over me as if I suddenly lost my identity. From that day on, I strived to be the best at math and even convinced myself to learn piano.
    That ended about a month later when I scored the lowest in a math competition. The piano thing actually ended earlier due to sheer laziness and the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2. I grew disappointed with myself, believing I could never be Asian enough because I was already too white but not white enough. Literally, my perfectionist intelligence and relative eloquence garnered some respect from my classmates and their parents, but my chubby face, small stature, and moderate amount of melanin left me bereft of physical attractiveness. I learned how to make people laugh, but humor only goes so far in the dating arena.
    The feeling of “almost-whiteness” bloated in high school, considering I had all the education, qualifications, and interests of a white man without the social privilege. During this crisis, I uncovered my unspoken desire to change color, just to feel “more American.” That desire is the inner conflict of all non-white, first-generation Americans, overcome only through self-acceptance. The crisis of self is unique to the sons and daughters of minorities. In seeking success, in academics or romance, the millennial minority has the duty of striking a balance between his or her culture and American culture. I will never be white, but I can like what white people like, while still being true to my roots. 
    I grew up watching the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and I adored Carlton Banks, the preppy, nerdy, and incredibly lost cousin of Will Smith’s character. In one episode Will and Carlton try to join a black fraternity. While Will’s familiarity with the culture earns him easy respect and acceptance, Carlton must work twice as hard. His supposed brothers refuse to take him. Likewise does the child of the Asian immigrant and the larger minority in America struggle. Most may never return home, but more will never be fully assimilated into America. This crisis of identity cannot be solved. Although, its pay may be alleviated through the wisdom of Carlton Banks. When called a sellout, he says, “Being black isn't what I'm trying to be. It's what I am. I'm running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are, so why are you tripping me up? You said we need to stick together, but you don't even know what that means. If you ask me, you're the real sellout."