Growing up in the 626 area of the San Gabriel Valley is not for the weak – I’m speaking from personal experience. Named for its area code, the 626 is one of Southern California’s largest East Asian enclaves and is located about 45 minutes from UCLA. It is a vibrant region filled with diverse members of the AAPI community, but underneath its facade of harmony and ethnic unity lies toxic and reductive mindsets.
The culture of my hometown was largely established by first and second gen Asian American immigrant experiences. Many residents, like my parents, had immigrated to the 626 area in hopes of living out their American dream – and some did. The wealth of some of my second gen AAPI classmates was impressive; as the streets surrounding my high school were filled with Porsches, BMWs, and Teslas; my summer & winter break Instagram feeds were flooded with their lavish vacation posts. The success that their parents accumulated as first gen immigrants spoke to the resilience of our community. However, it also generated attitudes in both AAPI parents and children alike that were harmful, diminutive, and invalidating.
Most parents in the 626 (mine included) dreamt of their children becoming doctors or lawyers, finally securing the family wealth, resources, and capital that they themselves lacked when they arrived in America. This dream was often accompanied by authoritarian helicopter parenting styles, outward projections of their own generational trauma, and most importantly, a neoliberal mentality of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”
This neoliberal mindset of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and “if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything!” erases the role of cyclical poverty and systematic oppression in generating wealth. It is this very belief that is linked to anti-affirmative action and meritocracy arguments, asserting that everyone is born into an equal playing field and poverty is a result of laziness. The emphasis on independence and self-made success is prevalent in Asian American culture. And it is only further confirmed and strengthened by the handful of rare immigrant success stories lived by one’s parents or parents’ friends. Within the context of Asian friend groups, they often apply this view to academics and the college application process. I recall when I was in high school, my AAPI classmates were so vicious about getting into university that they blamed their rejection from an Ivy on a Black or Latino student who “used affirmative action to take someone else’s spot.” I remember a girl in my grade was mad that she was “only going to USC,” and texted a group chat I was in that if anyone from our school got into an Ivy League, it should be her because she “deserved it the most.”
Being raised in these households reinforced these toxic values in the children, and as a result, I often observed my fellow Asian American peers acting in ways that reminded me of my parents’ worst sides of themselves. My Asian American friends made passive aggressive remarks about academic competition, made fun of me for being whitewashed because I bought In-n-Out for lunch, and intentionally avoided being friends with anyone who wasn’t East Asian. It always made me slightly uncomfortable, but the way that all of them bolstered and agreed with each others’ behavior deterred me from speaking up because if no one else thought their actions were weird, then why should I?
Growing up in this environment made me think their toxicity was just an isolated, irreplicable experience. After all, my classmates all seemed fine with how everyone was acting, so I could never vocalize exactly what it was that made me uncomfortable. However, a couple months ago, I stumbled across a TikTok by user @purrslayden that I immediately resonated with. The video amassed 2.1M views because of its unexpected relatability, with text reading: “Idk what it is, but I genuinely do not like Asian friend groups.” Shortly after viewing that TikTok, a bunch of stitches and duets in response to Ayden’s video popped up on my FYP, all of them sharing their bad experiences with all-Asian friend groups. I related to every single one of them; in fact, never had I ever felt so heard. It felt like all the doubts and discomforts I had throughout my entire high school experience were confirmed.
Many videos mentioned the colorist and racist attitudes that all-Asian friend groups promoted. In fact, user @cherryreyan talked about what it was like to be the only Black person in an all-Asian friend group: “Two or three guys in the group would always say the N-word and I would always try to educate them, but they wouldn’t stop. The rest of the group would be so okay with it and try to give excuses, and I’d just be like ‘WTF is wrong with you.’” The usage of racial slurs was something I experienced firsthand in the 626 area, as well. I remember when an EA classmate posted a Snapchat that her EA friend had sent her on her private finsta. The Snap had read, “I got so tan yesterday that I’m basically an *n-word with a hard r* now.”
Some TikToks discussed all-Asian friend groups’ reactions to the BLM and Stop AAPI Hate uprisings of 2020-2021. Users reported that these friend groups openly compared the AAPI community’s struggles with those of the Black community – not in an educational or knowledgeable manner, but rather with the intention of belittling and infantilizing BLM. They also often weaponized the model minority myth as evidence that AAPI hate crimes mattered more than those committed against Black people. This connects back to the racist, us-vs.-them mindsets that all-Asian friend groups cultivated. Consequently, they were also hesitant to befriend people who weren’t Asian American because it would force them to confront their biases.
This TikTok trend harkens back to my own experiences with peers’ social media presence in high school. It shocked me that my classmates felt comfortable posting racist Snapchats on social media. I knew that their racist and colorist attitudes were a direct result of their parents, as it is common in Asia to value extremely fair skin and look down upon those who don’t. Still, I couldn’t overlook the way that these all-Asian friend groups refused to correct their bigoted behavior and instead enabled one another. They would bring out the worst in each other; and whenever they were called out on it, they used their racial and ethnic identity to play victim. There was essentially a constant game of oppression Olympics, where people would just compete to prove they were more discriminated against, or they had the least privileges.
Of course, I’m not trying to say that it’s horrible to want to be friends with people who are the same ethnicity as you. Instead, it can be very comforting to connect with people who were raised the same as you and can relate to your experiences. However, I still want to draw attention to the bad side of these connections. After all, the one thing that every reaction to OP’s TikTok had in common was that they were shocked that so many people had been thinking the same thing.
The popularity of Ayden’s TikTok and resulting reaction videos brought out an important part of the AAPI community that we sometimes forget – that we need to be critical of ourselves, too. It is common in East Asian cultures to nitpick others and just claim you’re just trying to help them: just think about the last time you saw your auntie and she told you to lose some weight or get a better haircut. But it’s time that we start approaching ourselves with the same accountability. Refusing to acknowledge the problematic flaws embedded within one’s customs enables a cycle of toxicity and bigotry.
We can enact these tenets of accountability in our own daily routines. After my own harrowing experiences with all-Asian friend groups throughout middle and high school, I arrived at UCLA in hopes of making more diverse friends and learning about different cultures & perspectives. I quickly realized that the sheer size of the student body did the job for me – I didn’t have to go out of my way to meet non-Asian people because I no longer lived in an area that was 80% East Asian. This diversity was refreshing; it not only helped me unlearn the toxic mindsets that I grew up around, but also taught me to stand up against them. So remember to hold yourself responsible for how you project your cultural values, and be aware of the people you surround yourself with.
Visual Credit: Van Tran