I am a Chinese-American, always have been, and always will be. However, there used to a time where the only thing I wanted in the world was to just be considered “American.” Born to two Chinese immigrants, I was called “sunshine” by my parents because I was always smiling. And this was probably right; I’m still able to recall joyful memories of devouring chunks of watermelon in the summer and running around in the local park. This was short-lived though. When I was three, my parents made a monumental decision that would permanently change my childhood. They announced that we were moving to a town in the Deep South. This wasn’t just any regular old town in the South though. This town was known for its incredible wealth, materialism, and racial makeup which was 98% white. My three-year-old self wasn’t able to understand the significance of this change.
Only a year after settling down, my identity began creating troubles for me. My parents signed me up for a preschool in an inner-city k-12 private school (a city right outside our town) close to where they worked. Here, a black boy named Brandon* and his friends mercilessly bullied me by chanting “Chinese” words, pulling their eyes to slits, and pushing me when they got the chance; we were only four. There was one teacher, an elderly white woman named Ms. Fitzgerald*, who I now notice had a strong bias against the few Asians at the school. One day, she made me pick up (albeit with a paper towel) and throw away feces from the floor of the restroom after one of the older kids thought defecating on the floor would make for a funny prank. Every day, it felt like Brandon taught me a new curse word. I would come home and use these learned words much to my parent’s surprise. Some days, when my dad dropped me off at school, he would get so mad at Brandon that he would ask me to fight back, something I couldn’t bring myself to do.
Once the year ended, my parents took me out and entered me in the town’s public school, hoping that it would be a better school than the last. At first, this held true. Although teachers would occasionally treat me differently (sometimes on purpose), I was able to make friends who were colorblind to my yellow skin. But come fourth grade, almost magically, their color blindness was cured and, yet again, identity defined me. This was the beginning of an era where I was always picked last for every pickup basketball or football game, not because I was bad at sports, but rather because stereotypes were permitted to define this preconceived notion. This was the beginning of an era where I was viewed as “dirty,” merely because I wore the same six shirts every week.
I could never get over the fact that I was the only non-white kid in the grade, and neither could my grade. In fifth grade, whenever someone passed gas, it was a joke for everyone in my class to stare at me and laugh. This sounds plenty funny until it actually happens to you. My teacher wanted in on the fun too. One day, someone from across the room passed gas, and my teacher took it upon herself to cross the room, pull out a bottle of Lysol, and spray it above my head for a solid seven seconds all the while waving her arm back and forth. That day, I felt so humiliated, so hurt. What did I do to deserve this? Was it because my parents didn’t want to raise me as a materialistic individual with the latest $120 Nikes? Was it because they didn’t understand my situation? Whatever the reason, I couldn’t adapt, so I couldn’t survive. The only thing that prevented suicidal thoughts from turning into suicide attempts was my family’s love, but there were times when the shame my yellow-tainted skin brought me overpowered any feeling of love.
Middle school was no different. If I thought materialism was widespread in elementary school, I was mistaken. In middle school, if you didn’t have the latest iPhone or rock the coolest brands, you dropped in the harsh social system that was inadvertently created. I, along with a few others, claimed the lowest class. Even with all the new people there, how was I supposed to associate with those who would come up to me and ask me “what type of Asian,” I was? The dumb ones would simply make comments like “your people are taking jobs away from us,” or “ching chong, ling long, ting tong” and walk off laughing. The clever ones would try to soften up to me and offer me a dollar if I sat next to them for the next test or sent them the answers to the homework. Yes, one dollar. I wasn’t about to sell my dignity along with my intelligence to them.
One year, I went to a summer camp, and to my surprise, there were a few Asians there. There they were, my fellow Asians, people who would accept me for who I was. I got to know them and we got along at first, but when they found out that I didn’t speak Chinese (my parents didn’t think it was a necessary language because we live in America, not China), one girl looked at me genuinely shocked and stated, “Wow. You aren’t even a real Chinese. You’re a fake Chinese!” And while they still somewhat accepted me, they started knowing me as the “fake Chinese.” It was at this point that I knew that my goal in life shouldn’t be to seek others’ approval. If I couldn’t even conform with the people who I thought I could conform with the most, why make the effort. The right people would come at the right time.
It is only now in high school that I can fully understand the phenomenon of ignorance. You know, people always like to point out how you shouldn’t care about what people say or think about you, but it really isn’t as simple as they make it seem. I learned this firsthand. The days of self-pity are over. I don’t blame Brandon, Ms. Fitzgerald, or my 98% white community. Nor do I blame any teacher or peer who wronged me in the past with their subtle, racist jokes or acts. Rather, I thank them because they made me stronger. And it is because I’m stronger that I’m able to smile again. You are who you are and no matter how hard you try, there will always people who will judge, shun, and/or hate you for small things. Nowadays, whenever someone at school makes a joke about my Chinese heritage, I give a smile and a laugh. I don’t do this because I think their stereotype or joke is funny but rather because I understand the concept of ignorance. Ignorance will exist forever and always. Yes, ignorance is more prevalent in some places than others, but as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” and that’s the bottom line.
*names changed for privacy purposes