Unapologetically Asian

“Are you from China, do you speeaaak CHINESE???” - some random person on the street

It was between the age of 4-6 when I first learned that I was Asian. Sure, there had always been signs…

  • I excelled in mathematics, took piano and kung-fu lessons, and had rice every night as a stationary carbohydrate.

  • but I’d always just assume that Americans took off their shoes before entering the house and for families to speak two languages at home.

Born in the heart of the Bay Area in Hillsborough as a second generation Asian American, I never thought much about being Chinese — mostly because there weren’t that many Asians in my grade (at most 10). Although growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood where Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, or even the Obamas would casually drive by during school hours to go to a fundraising function in a nearby mansion in our district, being an Asian American never seemed to seclude me from any sort of activity in and out of school or that I noticed when growing up. I remember easily gravitating towards girls that looked like me - black hair, small brown eyes, small frame. Most of my best friends from K-5 were Asian… (again as the only few Asians in my grade), it somehow felt like a natural instinct to stick together. Over the years San Mateo County’s sea of white inhabitants met with an influx of new tongues, cultures, ethnicities, races, and religions. This sparked a lifelong curiosity for me and a cultural challenge for my family, which challenged to maintain Chinese traditions and viewpoints. Being an Asian American minority truly didn’t come to my attention until I started dancing pre-professionally.

As a very young child I always had an interest in dancing and drawing, experimenting with different media, and making things for my own entertainment. I have fond memories of my father picking me up from art class and forcing me to leave my teacher’s house where I was so fascinated with different drawing techniques such as shading, painting, and even about the master pieces of Van Gogh and Picasso. I would always go home filled with joy and wanting to continue learning how to draw with my dad. I am an artist of first generation Chinese descent and a first-born daughter. Though very unconventional in respect to my Asian cultural heritage, I have been able to pursue my passion in dance with the support from my parents. My parents knew of other avenues of pursuing successful career paths that are outside of the box of being a lawyer or a doctor and truly allowed me to pursue the “American dream”.

In my early training years at San Francisco Ballet, I was seen as the “token Asian girl” in my level as I was one of the 3 to 4 Asian Americans in my class each year. I never saw myself as being a minority in my class, but more-so as a blessing and honor to be selected to join such a prestigious, world-renowned ballet school. Each level only consisted of at most 15 girls (mainly of Caucasian descent) who were hand picked from around the world. I specifically remember a life-changing moment where my name was written in bold and size 36 font on the casting board on the second floor in San Francisco Ballet for the role of “Clara” in the Nutcracker production. With so much joy and happiness, I ran out of my last ballet class as soon as it finished to go tell my mom the amazing news I received earlier that day. As the only Asian and the youngest ever to be casted (of the time) as the main student role in “Nutcracker” was such a huge achievement for me at the young age of 12. My mom had told me that it was atypical for an Asian to be casted as “Clara” as traditionally it is seen as a Caucasian white female. She even mentioned to me that I would be setting up an example for upcoming Asian Americans to follow. From then on out, I had an instinct that I was “special” that I had something to prove in this dance world…that being an Asian was not a detriment but a blessing in disguise.

As the years flew by and my training became more serious and the time to push for a professional contract approached quickly, did I face more obstacles with my ethnicity. At SF Ballet it was almost slightly “easier” for me to get casted in a role (of course my technique and my dancing had to be beyond perfection) as there were principal dancers in the company who were Asian that I aspired to be and looked up to. There were role models and examples of my kind that became a familiarity to the outside world whereas abroad in Europe… it was even more of a rarity to see of my kind. I was only one of two Asian girls in my graduating class at English National Ballet School. During that year in London, I was auditioning all around Europe during that time for a professional contract. I had a good year of auditions…had offers, but they all fell through. My feedback post audition were these three repeaters…

  1. Sorry, you are too tall.

  2. American Visa?! It’s going to be too difficult.

  3. We aren’t looking for an Asian right now.

Coming to face these three repeaters numerous of times throughout the last few years were at first upsetting but then became a frustrating annoyance. These reasons were things I could not control and things that I could not fix. My view of the ballet world shifted and gave me no hope with the pursuit of being a ballerina. That is when I deterred from the ballet world and sought out more into contemporary dance. I found my happy medium and dove towards contemporary ballet post college where I knew it was just slightly more diverse with the physical look of dancers. Although it wasn’t easy, and the number 1 and number 3 repeater still popped up from time to time, I finally found my home with Complexions Contemporary Ballet four years after of being strictly a “bun head” (one who eats, breathes, sleeps ballerina). I am grateful to work for a company that is about diversity and highlights the beauty of all shapes, sizes, and race in dancers. It is practically almost 2020 and I am ready for the dance world, particularly the ballet world to make a shift on the outlook of Asian dancers. I want to make a change. I want to be an example for Asian Americans. I want to be the next Misty Copeland for our descent.

I am unapologetically Asian. I am unapologetically a minority. I am unapologetically myself.

{{“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” — Dr. Seuss}}

Unapologetically Asian (THE LAUNCH PARTY) - Aug 10th 6pm in New York City

What happens when two Asian American women from the Bay Area move to NYC and succeed in a world they rarely saw themselves in? With a fierce vision and bold presence, they join forces to cultivate the next legion of professional, Asian American dancers. Candy Tong of Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Yvonne Chow of The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory welcome you to “Unapologetically Asian”, where cultural identity and purpose are inextricable.

You’re invited to the “Unapologetically Asian” Party {Yvonne Chow’s Birthday Fundraiser} to continue this complex conversation on establishing a legacy that honors our past, is relevant to the present, and sustains into the future.

Learn their story. Honor their culture. Join their movement.

To RSVP : www.hdcny.org/houseofchow

photo by Justin Patterson

photo by Justin Patterson

photo by Justin Patterson

photo by Justin Patterson

Candy Tong