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I Used to Believe I Was from Turkey

There is a funny story I must tell. I believe you will like my tale. It’s a little anecdote from my past I haven’t yet told anyone, and it’s been buried deep within my mind because I have become so ashamed of it. Embarrassed is a better word, but ashamed works too. You see, I was not like other children my age. No, I was not. Other children in first grade were having a crisis about whether or not there really was a tooth fairy. Some were beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. I was a special case. By that point in time, I was still learning how to improve my English that I had been trying to expand for the last year or so. However, this little anecdote is not about how badly I understood the American language. No. This story is about the time when my teacher asked the class where we were from, and I had to be the little idiot who said she was from Turkey. You can see where this is going, no?

Well, it had been the class’s homework assignment the past night, to ask our parents where our family had come from. It had not occurred to me that, even though I had come on an airplane to the States, my family had never always been in America. I had just assumed we were just like a tree, never changing where we stayed. It also had not occurred to me that asking my mom while she was busy with my three younger sisters would be a bad idea. The alarm should have gone off in my head when I pointed to the funniest country I could find in the textbook and show it to my mom, but it didn’t, and so I went to school the next day very misled. Oh, the pain of looking back…

“Zoe, where did your family come from?” the teacher whose name I cannot remember at this point had asked.

Being the little moron I was, I jumped up and yelled, “Turkey!”

Of course, all the other students being six or five had never heard of the country of Turkey. No one knew where it was. One had even asked if such a country existed. I began to quiet down when even the teacher doubted me and not for the reasons I thought. Apparently, I had not yet grasped the concept of black-haired look-alikes being from Asia. I never really blamed myself for that, though. In my whole school, besides my sisters and I, there were about only six other East Asians there.

And so, for the next few years or so, I did not go back to the question of where my family was from because I thought it was a very useless and pointless question. I never told anyone where my family came from either because, one, I was suspicious of the answer I had given in second grade and, two, I found out that America was in a war with the Middle East. In a sense, it was embarrassing to me that I was “from” a country that the country I was living in was having a war with. It was not a good time for me at all. I was worried people would hate me because of where I was from, and I was worried about my grandparents. When I asked my mother how my grandparents were doing--at that time, I thought they were living in Turkey--my mom looked at me funny and told me they were fine, and so I dropped the subject. I didn’t bring it up again, for fear of looking at the puzzled face my mother had worn.

It was in fifth grade, though, that I realized I was Chinese. It was when I asked my friend Helen where she was from because apparently, during that time, we were always being mixed up with each other and always mistaken for sisters. When she told me her answer, “How stupid,” was my first thought. I could not believe that I did not even see that until I was nine years old. But now I knew, “Oh, I’m Chinese. So I must be from China then.” And yet, it was not until the summer of seventh grade when we took our family vacation that I learned that my parents were from Malaysia. It was another surprise to me because now I thought, “Oh, I’m not Chinese. I’m Malaysian.” It was even worse when my father told me I had papers stating I could be a Malaysian citizen. I was outright confused at this point. Just how much suffering does a girl need to go through to learn about her family’s origins? And so, I threw out my pride and asked, “Mommy, Daddy, what nationality am I?”

I guess they were waiting for some other question because they visibly relaxed once I was done speaking. It still plagues me today why they seemed so tense when I had told them I wanted a very important question to be answered.

Finally, my quest for my nationality finally ended when they said, “You’re an ABC: American-born Chinese.”



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