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My mother had a dream when she was little, of a family composed of four people: two kids (one a boy named Fei Tian, one a girl named Xiao Hua), a mom, and a dad. I was born first, and three-fourths of Mom’s dream became reality.
I think I was about four years old.
That was the day Mama came home with her hair splayed about her face, her expression loose and jagged. All of a sudden our quiet apartment turned into a requiem. I saw Papa come in behind her and try to put his arms around her shoulders.
A few years later, as I matured into an awkward adolescent, Mama told me that when I was four years old, she was told that she could not have two children. It didn’t matter how much money she was willing to pay. Mom had pointed out the Zhu family, who had paid for their second child. The official behind the desk didn’t bat an eyelash. Why? The Zhu father was a government official.
I asked Mama what reason the official gave for not letting me have a brother.
Mama replied, “It’s the law.”
In middle school, I was an excellent pupil. Each morning I raised the flag right next to the principal, and observed the entire school watching the glorious yellow stars against the red background of the flag reinstate itself in the persisting drift. I was always classroom monitor, and supervised daily cleanup. I was proficient at most subjects, but I especially excelled in geography.
The teacher with the pole-rod back and sharp pointed black shoes called our class together for a geography lecture. I pulled out my worn red notebook and prepared to take down notes. But instead of releasing her sharp words directly at the class, Teacher pointed to me and directed me to come forward in front of the class.
I am no stranger to public discretion. In fact I was in front of the class every day, and almost reveled in the prestige. This instance was different. The teacher handed a slip of cracked paper to me, and nodded for me to read it aloud to the class. Fifty-five pairs of expectant eyes gazed up at me with the intensity of a herd of starving chickens searching for food.
I swallowed. The slip turned soft from my nervous hands, but I was too well conditioned not to follow the dictations of the teacher. Slowly I pronounced each character written on the sheet in the manner they had impressed upon us in speech class, stopping to emphasize certain words of greater importance.
The people in Tibet are wrong to defy the authority of China.
The monks must show respect, or else face the threat of the Chinese army.
Staged protests against the rule of the Government are illegal, and will be condemned.
Thus began our intensive lectures on Tibet, its people, and the wrongdoings of the protestors. I was never called up in front of the class again, because I was not needed. After my speech, the majority of the class had fully thrust their patriotism into helping China quell Tibetan protests. The dissenters of the class were so outnumbered that they were afraid to show their true opinions… myself included.
It was the summer before high school that Mama loaded two large suitcases with my father and me on a plane to America. It was spontaneous, yet I knew we would never return to the China I had known since birth. Since the rumors began circulating that I was going to America, a boy of medium height and crass attitude had assumed my daily roles as flag-bearer and classroom principle. By the time my parents came back (if ever), their current jobs working in the Hospital would be overtaken by a government-designated young graduate of the local (and prestigious) Beijing University.
With these weights in mind, I let myself be taken from my home, feet forever dangling somewhere amongst the clouds between the Eastern hemisphere and the West.
High school in America is the polar opposite of high school in China. I soon discovered that here, no one wore red triangular scarves tucked into a bow to school, and everyone spoke out abrasively in class.
I didn’t interact much with the other kids. In the winter they dressed in tight-fitting cotton sweaters and loose sweatpants, while I donned thick piles of homemade sweaters and woolen stockings. The sneered at my hairstyle, and the way I slurred my s’s. But it wasn’t until our world history class covered a unit on modern China that my classmates really began to taunt me.
The teacher proposed “interactive learning”, in which students interview first-hand witnesses about events that happened in history. As one of the only Chinese people most of the kids in the school were in contact with, I often found myself the target of many well-devised questions.
“What did they teach you in school?” (I bet it was all Communist.)
“Did they tell you about the Tibetan abuses?” (You’re probably brainwashed.)
“And the one-child policy must suck, huh.” (I bet your parents didn’t care at all.)
I revealed my past life in China to my classmates, but watched them turn inwardly against China and the life I had led there. They listened to my stories about how tearful my mother was after they told her there was no possibility for her to keep her second child. I related what the teacher had made me go through, by reading the pre-planned speech about Tibet out loud in class. I told them all of this, yet my classmates used my stories as kindle for their fire of alienation and loathing of the Chinese culture and government.
In the hallway, people pointed at me with their eyes and muttered “Communist” under their breath. No one came within one meter proximity of me, for the mortal fear of being thought of as a “Communist-sympathizer”.
The Americans say they are champions of human dignity, yet why do they oppress me so? I held my own inhibitions and doubts about the teachings of the Chinese government; I even witnessed them crush the dreams of my mother.
What made me different from the other kids at school?
The way I dressed? The way I talked?
Human dignity is not limited to the oppression of people in third-world countries, nor has it been obliterated from the “free soil” of the United States. I know I am not the only one. Many foreign children around the country feel the straining chains of social humility and the degradation of human dignity within schools. Why should we let social prejudice champion a generation of racist sentiments? Are we to sit back and observe as these roots plant firmly into the minds of children?
If I had been asked this on a play-structure in China four years ago, I would have replied with a dutiful “Yes”. But in America, I know that answer is not adequate.