Join The Drive As We Celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Voices In Car Culture This May

Representation matters.

byKristen Lee| UPDATED May 11, 2021 1:22 PM
Join The Drive As We Celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Voices In Car Culture This May

The very first time I joined a car club, I was 20 years old. I had just moved to Los Angeles to finish up my junior and senior years of college at a new school. Knowing absolutely no one in the city, joining the club made sense.

It was an exciting experience for a few reasons, the first being that I’d never been involved in any sort of car club before. I’d always known people who were into cars, but no one I knew had ever started a club, at least to my knowledge. Cars, despite eclipsing nearly all of my other interests, were forced to take a back seat in day-to-day conversations with friends, whose eyes would glaze over when I started talking about engine displacements or the like. This, I was led to believe, was the norm. Cars are a fringe interest. Got it. Cool.

Kristen Lee

But when the delightful shock of my first-ever car club meetup wore off during the initial but unofficial sit-down with the administrative members, I noticed something else. We were, the four of us, a group of Asian kids sitting at a table in the student center, talking about Mitsubishi Evos and different N54 tunes. For the first time in my life, I was hanging out with people who looked like me and talking about a mutual love of cars we all shared.

[May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Here at The Drive, we’re celebrating it by lifting up and highlighting AAPI voices in the automotive space. Our hope is that in driving visibility, we can help make the car community an even more welcoming space—to convince those who perhaps have not always felt like they belonged that they absolutely do belong here. Diversity in perspectives and backgrounds only strengthens the group as a whole. It is why representation matters.]

I am Chinese-American, but it was never something I grew up naturally thinking about. Rather, it was being picked out by my peers—the first-grade teacher assigning me as a buddy to the new Japanese exchange student (I don’t speak Japanese???), kids pulling up the corners of their eyes at me with their fingers, people mocking the Mandarin teacher’s accented English—that made me aware I was different. 

So for my formative and teenage years, I got good at hiding the duality that comes with being bicultural in the United States. I purchased cafeteria lunches instead of packing dinnertime leftovers to fend off awkward “ethnic food” questions. I lied about my Chinese middle name so as to avoid my peers clumsily trying to repeat it back to me. It was the only way I figured I could navigate American adolescence in a largely Irish and Italian suburban New Jersey town without heaping on additional scrutiny due to my “otherness.”

My efforts paid off. My friends praised me as the “whitest Asian” they knew. A high school boyfriend complimented me as being “Asian without the drawbacks,” meaning that I had the looks but wasn’t a “prude nerd.”

Kristen Lee

Looking back, I’m convinced cars provided me with a bit of an escape. Cars are easy. A car doesn’t care who you are or what you look like when you drive it. When you're standing around a Cars & Coffee parking lot, comparing all the different M3s and 911s that showed up that morning, people generally don’t think to ask you where you’re from on top of that.

But it wasn’t until college that I finally found a group of Asians who were also into cars. The club was called Imports@USC. Not merely “the car club” or the USC Auto Club, which came later. Imports. We of course made it clear that any and all cars were welcome, but the majority of the members’ cars were import cars—to the point where we joked that we should rename the club to BMWs, Evos, and Friends instead.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like I had to explain myself to anyone. Hanging out with them felt like changing out of stiff dress pants and into a favorite, familiar pair of jeans. My new friends chatted about the best hot pot spots in LA. We went out for Korean barbecue after the car meets held in the off-campus Wendy’s parking lot. 

Later on, I realized that we’d simply recreated a scene that had popped up in Southern California two decades earlier.

Kristen Lee

“Many Asian American youth may excel in academia, but they are often invisible in areas such as sports, drama clubs, and leadership roles,” Victoria Namkung wrote in Asian American Youth: Culture Identity, and Ethnicity. “Import racing has filled a void for Asian American youth by providing them with an avenue for extracurricular activities that is both productive and positive.”

Namkung was writing about import racing, but her point, I think, also applies to the prevalence of import car ownership among Asians. She argued, “Unlike other Asian-derived forms of popular culture such as Japanese anime, kung-fu films, or Hello Kitty paraphernalia, import car racing is made in America and is unquestionably Asian American. Excluded from the V8, Anglo-dominated muscle car culture of the 1970s and 1980s, Asian American youth decided to start their own races and shows with their own cars and on their own terms.”

These days, I’m still one of the very few Asian people in my industry, which is automotive media. But unlike before, I’m finished with hiding my heritage. I’m done with not talking about it. I’m proud of who I am and that I am different. I will never forget what it felt like to find a community of my own for the first time. I want others to know that they can, too.

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