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As I stood at my booth in the Great Hall, I watched the students pass me by and head toward others booths: Debate Club, American Red Cross, Fashion Club, Key Club. The hall was crowded with kids chatting and laughing, all girls clad in the same blue uniform—a sea of plaid skirts and blue or grey sweaters. My booth poster board consisted of white paper with purple words: “Kpop Club.” I’d glued on the sides images of all the Kpop bands I could find. As I stood there with three other members I’d managed to recruit, I wished I’d been more creative with my poster. It looked wonky. With the glued-on images, it suddenly looked like a cluttered, childish mess. I should have made my poster board flashier. And then, with watery eyes, I worried that other students would think I was some weird Kpop fanatic. They wouldn’t realize that Kpop was a genre of music worthy of appreciation, just like country or rock. And then I would be known as that weird Kpop girl forever.
But I loved Kpop in the same way I loved tennis. When I listened to the music, I felt like jumping up from my chair and dancing. When I watched the singers perform, their synchronized choreography was like watching a live performance. I became part of the band and lip synced the words. I danced when they danced; I cried when they cried. I put Kpop posters all over my wall in my bedroom, I blared the music out my bedroom window and into the neighborhood, and I sometimes made my dog wear a Kpop scarf. Having a connection with this music made me feel unique, as if I was part of the bands myself. It wasn’t just music; it was the showmanship. It was the way the bands interact with their fans. The spread of Kpop throughout the world had been slow, however, and the rejection of Kpop felt like the rejection of a whole culture.
Just then a blonde girl strode by my booth. I recognized her from Mr. Bowen’s history class. My relief at having someone interested no doubt showed in my smile.
“Oh look, a Kpop club,” she said to her friend. She pointed at us and stopped. “So what do you guys .... like ... do?” She smirked.
I suddenly questioned myself. What do we do? What was I thinking in creating a Kpop club? Why didn’t I create a baking club?
“We.... um... watch variety shows that Kpop bands perform. And ... we ... learn some dances, too,” I replied. “We’ll also have food,” I added, hoping to entice her and her friends. After all, once they tried Kpop, they’d be hooked. I had planned to bake some brownies for the first club meeting, the only recipe I could make on my own.
“Oh, uh, okay.” She and her friend shared a look. “So, what do you guys eat in this club? Like ... rice?”
Just like the time I accidentally called my English teacher “Mom,” I felt awkward and turned to my friend, who was also Asian, and we stood there in awkwardness. As the blonde girl smiled and walked away with her friends to the next booth, I felt as if she’d impaled me.
How could she just assume that because I’m Asian that I eat rice? I mean, I do eat rice. I like rice, especially sticky rice with mangos, a dish I love to eat in Thailand. Or Spam musubi, a sushi-roll style spam wrapped in rice seaweed and cut into slices. I love green curry with rice, a dish I once made in a cooking class. Sure, I like rice, but what did rice have to do with the Kpop culture? Or Korean culture for that matter? Koreans were known for their kimchi, or the jajangmyeon—the Korean black bean sauce noodles. They eat rice too, but can someone stereotype a whole culture as eating one single food? Is that what she thought about my culture? That we did nothing but eat rice all day?
I wanted to chase her down, tap her on the shoulder and say, “What do you eat all day—McDonald's?” But then I realized I’d be guilty of the same stereotyping that she was. And wasn’t I part of a modern generation? Didn’t I live in the 21st century in California, in the diverse metropolis of the Bay Area? Not in the midwest or the south. I would think that any child living in this part of the country would know better than to make such a remark. She used such a small word—rice—and yet her insult was so far-reaching. She’d managed to insult Korean culture and everyone who appreciated it.
Instead of saying anything, I watched her traverse the booths with her friends, laughing and chatting, their voices sounding like little chipmunks chittering across the hall, as if she hadn’t just deeply offended me. Even though I wanted to be petty, I tried to view the world from her perspective. I imagined her life.
But my imagination filled with my own stereotypes. She likely grew up in Hillsborough, one of the richest cities in all the Bay Area. When she was seven, she probably had one of those pink Barbie cars that she drove around her massive circular driveway. She no doubt had a pet horse that she boarded at some fancy stable and rode only once a year. She likely had a vacation house up in Lake Tahoe, where she skied while wearing an all-pink jumpsuit. Perhaps, she always attended private schools full of other privileged white kids, and her parents likely drove the latest model Teslas and wore Lululemon and Armani. In the car on the way to school, maybe she listened to Gwen Stefani and sang “Bananas.” Her parents likely told her things like, “You’re one-hundredth Cherokee. Be proud of your heritage.” When really, they should have told her, “You’re of European descent living in a diverse country. Try to be sensitive and respectful.”
Maybe I needed to give her a break. Just let it go. Maybe she didn’t realize what she had said. Maybe words sometimes floated out of her mouth the way exhaust floats out of the back end of a car. Life is full of times when people accidentally make a comment they don’t mean—full of people who speak without thinking, no matter the consequences.
Or maybe, life is full of moments when people say what they actually mean.