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Walking the Line
It was completely innocent; no harm or offense meant. But still, it hung in the air. Her face was red. I empathized, I knew the feeling—when you let something slip out, by the time you reach out to grasp it, to reel it back in, it’s too late. You can only watch as it detonates or dissolves, and pray that it is the latter.
We, my friends and I, had been huddling on the train platform to go home to suburbia after spending a day in the city. Our cheeks were pink and tingling from the alternating kisses and bites from the brisk January Boston air. Suddenly, we moved in closer to each other simultaneously. It was an automatic defensive response.
“Hey, is that guy coming towards us?” someone whispered.
He was. “That guy” was scruffy to say the least, with wild, tangled hair matted on top of his head and growing in impossible directions from his chin. He was the type that our mothers had labeled in our minds as “dangerous.” Before we could move away, he approached us, spouting loudly and incoherently his less-than-favorable views on President Obama and his ethnicity. Then, just as quickly as he came, he meandered off to share his opinion with someone else.
There was a moment of stunned silence, before we broke out into fits of incredulous giggles. At length, one of my friends chimed in, amused: “He probably felt he could talk to us because we’re a nice bunch of white kids.” She continued laughing, while I took a moment to process her words.
“Except for me,” I spoke up.
“I’m not white. I’m Chinese, remember?”
Her giggles trailed off nervously, as she grasped what I was saying, and her face flushed in embarrassment.
We brushed the awkward moment off quickly, but it still stands out in my memory. It was the only time it had ever been verbalized, but I knew that the sentiment behind it was not a one-time occurrence. The daughter of first-generation immigrants, I had assimilated—perhaps a little too well.
There is a fine line to be walked by many second-generation, ethnic children such as myself. I have observed it often in the minority groups in my predominantly Caucasian school. There seem to be two camps: those who assimilate into the mainstream, and those who clump together with others with similar backgrounds, to the exclusion of all others. The mainstream Asians that I know fight hard to play down anything that marks them as different; they are the first to mock themselves with Asian stereotypes, like the obese student who makes “fat jokes,” hurting themselves before others can do it for them. The other group seems perpetually ill-at-ease around the majority white students, switching to speaking Chinese—or Vietnamese, or whatever it is that they speak—whenever someone passes by.
I seek the elusive middle ground. Admittedly, I tend towards the former group; most of my friends are, as it was put, “a nice bunch of white kids.” However, I am as proud of my heritage as anyone in the latter group. I do not simply take the punches when someone pulls at their eyes to make the “Asian squint.” I will stand up for myself. But I also find it incredibly rude to speak in a different language just so a third party will not understand. “Celebrating differences” does not mean drawing a thick, dark line between “us” and “them,” never to be crossed.
I consider my culture and ethnicity to be an irreplaceable piece of my identity, no more or less so than the piece influenced by growing up in America. For seven years, between the ages of eight and fifteen, I attended American public school during the week, and learned to read and write in Chinese for three hours every weekend at Kwong Kow Chinese School. I am equally at home eating at an Applebee’s as at China Pearl Dim Sum. I try my best to bring the two worlds together. Given the choice of subject matter for school projects, I am always eager to explore my heritage and my family history; for one of my favorite assignments, I was able to have an enlightening conversation with my own mother about the role of Chinese women through generations from the 1800s through the present. When my friends come to my house, they will often find themselves eating homemade dumplings, trying foods with strange smells and names, and attempting to master the art of using chopsticks. Likewise, when I visit their houses for dinner, I am exposed to new things that they consider “normal”—for instance, I only recently ate meatloaf for the very first time in my life.
Of course, there will always be moments when I feel like I am neither here, nor there, or to the contrary, have drifted too far one way or another. That day at the train station was one such moment. I never want to forget my rich heritage—but I would never want to be held back from embracing what life here, in America, has to offer. And so, I continue to search for my own identity somewhere between those extremes. I continue to walk the line.