It was lunch time, my least favorite time of the day. I was holding the tray in my hands, awkwardly standing at the center of the cafeteria at my New Jersey high school not knowing where to sit: the white tables, the Black tables, or the Asian tables. I wasn’t comfortable sitting with any of them. Although I’m Asian, I am a FOB. FOBs are different from Asian Americans.
FOB—”fresh off the boat”—refers to Asian immigrants who just arrived in the United States, and have yet to assimilate into American culture. As a Taiwanese girl who was born and raised in Taiwan until she went to New Jersey for high school at age 16, the label “FOB” has followed me ever since.
“I think it’s kind of an offensive term,” said Anh Hyunh, a Vietnamese student in her senior year at the University of Washington. Hyunh immigrated to the United States when she was 15. “Why don’t we call people who first got here from the Mayflower? Why do we use it for Asian people? I don’t think it’s fair.”
Coming to Seattle for college makes the barriers between international students coming from Asia and Asian-American students even more apparent.
Walking into Odegaard library at the University of Washington, many groups of Asian students are scattered around all floors, studying and chitchatting, sometimes in English, but sometimes it’s Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, or Vietnamese. Many people can’t tell the differences between Asian nationalities and assume that all Asians share the same culture and stay in a huge Asian bubble together. However, international students, also known as the FOBs, and Asian Americans barely hang out: We often stay within our own separated Asian bubbles.
Asian Americans and international students don’t think of interacting with each other because their groups are self-contained and big enough, said Ted Chen, a Taiwanese American from Atlanta and an officer of the Taiwanese Student Association at UW.
Stereotypes also create distance between Asian Americans and Asian international students. In the video “Labels—The Asian, American Divide,” a Chinese international student, representing the FOB group labels Chinese Americans as boastful, materialistic, wasteful and selfish. The other character, a Chinese American, labels the FOB group as having bad English and bad style and being nerdy.
Hyunh experienced the cultural differences Asian Americans and FOBs when she first came to America during her freshmen year in high school.
“In Vietnam, I don’t wear makeup at all,” Hyunh said. “Coming here and going to high school, seeing these 16 year olds wearing a lot of makeup and dyeing their hair blonde, it was really a shock to me that they are Vietnamese American, they are like me, but I don’t think I’ll get along with them.”
Identities in the two groups are complicated.
Many FOBs want to be somehow Americanized. We as international students try hard to show that we care so much about the Seahawks, even though we didn’t grow up watching American football or going to Superbowl parties. We pretend that we know about the Washington State University and UW tension when we don’t even know how it started. But look at the numbers of Asian international students on Greek Row—hardly any. We will never be “Americans” of any kind, not even Asian Americans.
Asian Americans, however, are still underrepresented in the media and they are still hoping to be treated the same as other races. And for those who want to fit in with the mainstream American culture, the heritage we carry from Asia makes it difficult.
Many international students, like myself, attempted to be friends with Asian Americans, but some of them tended to stay away from us, consciously or unconsciously. It might be because of our accents, how we dress, or simply because we remind them of the unpleasant childhood experiences they had being the victims of racism.
There are definitely solutions to overcoming this barrier. When Asian Americans understand the hardships FOBs have to go through as international students in the United States, they will be able to appreciate the cultures they carry from their ancestors’ motherlands. But at the same time, the FOBs need to know that Asian Americans have their own difficulties dealing with racism while growing up as well, and that it’s an ongoing battle.
UW alumni and Youtubers David and Andrew Fung—The Fung Brothers—once made a video called “Don’t Hate FOBs,” reminding Asian Americans that “FOBs are your parents” and they should embrace Asian culture instead of shying away from it.
Asian Americans and Asian international students seldom hang out or interact so it seems like there is no problem. But there is a problem, and it needs to be resolved. Both groups should have better understandings and be friends with each other.
Era Schrepfer, the executive director of The Foundation for International Understanding Through Students (UW FIUTS), said that they have noticed the gap between international students and domestic students who are tied to the same country, and FIUTS encourages students to be open and honest, and to assume that everyone has good intentions.
“You don’t always have to agree to be friends,” Schrepfer said.
Asians are already minorities in American society, and we should not let our rich heritage tear us apart.