Fresh off the boat: Understanding that I’m more than my racial stereotype

February 2, 2017 — by Lina Kim

Sophomore shares her experiences being called a "fob".

During the summer before freshman year, while telling a story about how I didn’t correctly pronounce the word envelope as “ONvelope,” my friend suddenly laughed and said, “You’re such a Fob.”

“What?” I said, having no idea what it meant to be a “Fob.” Throughout the day, the word lingered in my mind. Later that night, while procrastinating on my homework, I browsed Urban Dictionary, curious to see what I had been so casually called. On the website, I discovered that “Fob” was a term used to describe immigrants and stood for “fresh off the boat.”

I didn’t know how to feel about the the term at the time: Was it a compliment or an insult? On the site, however, I could sense that it was a sort of insult, another exaggerated Asian stereotype. I began to take offense.

The definition wasn’t false; I am an immigrant. I was born in South Korea, lived in Vietnam for four years and later moved to the United States in the third grade. Still, all the associations that came with being described as a “Fob” embarrassed me.

I felt ashamed that I was an Asian immigrant. After all, the stereotypes that come with being Asian are already so definite, and I didn’t want to also deal with them: having a thick, unintelligible accent, flaunting my wealth profusely through everything designer and being a bad driver, among others.

During my freshman year, right after I first heard the term, my self-esteem dropped and I began to look back on my previous homes in Vietnam and Korea with hate and disgust. I tried my best to separate myself from the stereotypes that came with being an Asian immigrant. Immense anxiety built up inside me, and the saddest part was that the hate I felt I was getting for being an immigrant was all just in my head. I was my biggest tormenter.

The immense hatred and shame I felt for being a Fob ended last summer when I went to China with 100 other high school students for a internship program helping villagers in a  rural deserted village. There, among the 100 high school students, I befriended a group of California residents, some of whom were recent immigrants, and therefore, like me, technically “Fobs.”

Being with them for two straight weeks gave each of us the opportunity to discover and adore every aspect of each other’s personality. I fell in love with who they were as people and the places we visited.

We created memories with each other that still flourish in my mind. For those two weeks, they became my family and China became my home.

This was an eye-opening experience, and I didn’t even know it until a month later.

Upon my return, one of my friends said, “Oh, you’re hanging out with your Chinese ‘Fob’ friends again?” It was a statement with a harmless intent but one that drove me over the top. They weren’t just some “Chinese Fob” people to me. They were so much more. They were their own people and had their own unique qualities. When this realization dawned on me, I began to apply it to myself, too.

So what if my friend calls me a Fob or thinks of me as one? It doesn’t matter, because I know that I’m my own individual, with my own set of traits. Why was I so upset? Why and what was I trying to prove to everyone? A term does not define me.

I still struggle with racial stereotypes to this day. I still try to separate myself from the typical Asian stereotypes and try not be just another “Asian girl” that you won’t be able to tell apart from the others. But now, instead of resisting them and refusing to acknowledge that I am what I am an Asian immigrant, I have embraced them and am on my way to fully accepting them.