Shala Hoang. Photos by Tracy Thai.

Many areas of our lives are dictated by politics day in and day out. This is especially true for young Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) intellectuals who are constantly moving through different social spaces that require us to code-switch and adhere to white standards of professionalism and beauty. In the end, everyone wants to feel a sense of belonging (whether it’s in love, work, school or whatever it is that you are currently maneuvering through) while holding onto their own individualism with confidence.

One’s definition of confidence is tailored to their own cultural identity. The background we come from and our personal experiences work together to create a testament. It constructs our sense of self and style. For a lot of Asian Americans, our greatest hindrance in growing into our own identities is the notion of stereotypes. Whether they are negative or positive, we all feel constant pressure to choose either ends of the spectrum just so we can feel a sense of belonging. Not only is clothing a form of self-expression, it is also a site for empowerment and protest. And honestly, it’s a whole lot of fun.

For many biracial people with Asian roots, it’s difficult for them to find a middle ground between two identities and cultures where all sides of them are validated and accepted. It was important for us to include and acknowledge the complexities what cultural identity means and looks like for people who are overlooked and overpowered by members of their ethnic group.

Ron Anderson is a senior at the University of Washington (UW). He majored in International Studies with a focus in East Asia and Japanese language.

“For me, confidence means being comfortable in my own skin. I identify with being African American, because that’s what I’ve been perceived as my entire life, but my roots can be found in Polynesia and the Philippines,” Anderson said. “I’ve struggled a lot with colorism and acceptance within my ethnic communities, and different social spaces that I pass through.”

When asked what a feel-good outfit means to him, he emphasized on fluidity.

“I love the color black. It can transition into any space or event at any time of the day,” Anderson said. “Accessories is a starting point where I am able to personalize my outfit, so I chose this choker. It adds a memorable touch to the outfit with its subtlety.”

He continuously finds himself at a crossroad between his conflicting ethnic identities. Anderson wants to emphasize on the historical imprint of his Black roots without compromising his hobbies.

“I love retro and 80s inspired pieces. I’d like to consider myself an old soul. I grew up listening to Aerosmith, Steven Tyler and the Jackson siblings (Janet and Michael). I also love anime culture, so I think it’s important to incorporate bits and pieces that aren’t overpowering different sectors of my identity,” Anderson said. “An outfit is a non-verbal representation of oneself. I want my entire ensemble to be the bridge between the two generations.”

Cultural imprint is influential in so many different ways, but an overlooked aspect of fashion and self-esteem.

Rachaelle Sampayan, is a Filipino Chinese American student who currently studies Society, Ethics & Behaviors at UW in Bothell in hopes of pursuing a career in the medical field. When asked who is her biggest inspiration, Sampayan reflects on her relationship with her mom.

“She’s my biggest inspiration. We’ve always had a close relationship,” Sampayan said. “She has great style, so I always felt like it was a way for us to connect spiritually.”

She associates confidence with comfortability not only in what you wear, but who you are. She doesn’t let people’s opinions affect the way she chooses to present and express herself. She emphasizes, “You are the clothes you wear, and the things you deliberately purchase to include in your wardrobe speaks who you are.”

“Wherever I go, I want to leave my imprint. Especially if I bump into people I haven’t seen in a while. Your outfit is their first and last impression of you,” Sampayan said. “I just want my outfit to showcase my personality.”

In any outfit she puts together, necklaces are always an additional piece to a complete ensemble. It was something she witnessed her mom incorporate in her own style. With her mother being the greatest influence in her life, she wants her clothing and accessories to mirror the things she saw growing up.

“I want to be the best version of myself and a greater version of my mom. My mom has such a kind soul,” Sampayan said. “When people look at me, I want them to be able to identify me with her.”

For a lot of young intellectuals, especially people of color, we always find ourselves being associated with pre-conceptualize identities that has been created for us and that we are expected to oblige by. This is where fashion can be seen as a site for empowerment and protest.

Shala Hoang is an alumna from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln where she studied at their medical center to become a dental hygienist.

“Asians are stereotypically perceived as being quiet, and your outer-layer is everyone’s first impression of you.,” Hoang said. “Pre-conceptualized notions of who I am have encouraged me to dismantle these narrow beliefs through the clothes I wear.”

She chose to play around with ideas of Asian femininity, by incorporating a structured blazer against a cropped turtleneck sweater.

She emphasizes on the ways you can work with your wardrobe to go against the grain. “At the end of the day, being happy with what I wore and how it made me feel is all that matters. I just want to express myself and speak my truth,” said Hoang.

When asked what inspires a feel-good outfit, Hoang candidly credits herself. “My style is based off who I want to become, different sides of my personality.” Only last year, did she decide to move to Seattle. Even though times are changing for her, she never wants to lose the core of her identity.

Justin Ferrer is a living testament of what it means to root yourself in the soil that you yield from even if the world around you is evolving. Being born and raised in South Seattle, also known as the South End, has heavily impacted the way he chooses to express himself through clothing.

When we talk about the American experience of different ethnic groups within the Asian community, contrasts and distance exists between American-born and foreign-born Asian youths. Ferrer expresses his desire to bridge these two seemingly different experiences through fashion.

“I was the first to wear these [his earrings]. People thought it was feminine, but I didn’t care. These were inspired by South Korean streetwear,” Ferrer said. “I’ll never say I am the originator, but if no one else is wearing it, I will. If people critique me then I’ll accept it.”

He finds confidence in his originality, by challenging the way masculinity is understood in our community. Ferrer expressed that through clothes – as a form of self-expression – he hopes to spark connections with people who share the same interest and passion as him.

His inspiration exemplifies the ways that fashion is also a site for cultural unification and community. Although he pulls inspiration from the streets of the UK and South Korea. He gives credit to international students on the west coast. Their presence has made the wide spectrum of streetwear what it is today in America.

“Not everything has to be political and fashion is one of those things,” Ferrer said. “I wear what I like, but I still want to represent where I come from – the streets of South Seattle.”

Confidence is multifaceted and encompasses so many emotions and experiences day-in and day-out. It can be difficult to begin our exploration of self-discovery when we can’t see what we hope to manifest into. What makes it more emotionally and psychologically strenuous is when we are unable to see ourselves outside a close-minded box that the world has pre-determined for us. Fashion is one of the ways that everyone can confidently begin to find their sense of self. After all, we are just trying find our place in this world.

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