I was 13 and sitting next to a blonde-haired boy that I had previously only discussed academic topics with; he often asked me for advice. He played sports and was a good artist, capable of rather accurate drawings of Spongebob. He was slightly too technology-obsessed for my taste, but usually, we got along.
This was no usual time, however. It was November 9, 2016, the day after the election, and everyone was still reeling from shock.
It was the topic of conversation in every class, yet this one was different. Our teacher, who I knew to be a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton, had politely requested for us not to mention the election. We were finishing up our essays on a controversial abolitionist, and soon I was immersed in my work.
As I quietly wrote my concluding paragraph, the boy abruptly turned to me and asked – somewhat accusingly – “Are you afraid you are going to get sent back?”
Startled, I asked, “Excuse me?”
No one else had heard his words, as everyone was in deep conversation about off-topic subjects. In fact, the voices of my fellow students were so loud, that I thought I had misheard him at first.
“You heard me,” he said, dismissing my thoughts of denial.
“Are you afraid you are going to get sent back now that Trump won?”
I simply stared at him, in shock for a few moments. I knew he was a Trump supporter, as were most other conservatives in my class. But, I had never heard a direct comment toward me concerning Trump’s views.
Did he think this was some kind of sick joke? His amusement suggested so, but there was also a hint of confusion too – most likely at my own puzzlement.
I opened my mouth to respond, but our teacher had heard the end of his comment and scolded the two of us for “discussing a topic that was painful for many people” and added that lunch passes would be taken if we were to mention it again.
While I felt unjustly reprimanded for my alleged actions, it saved me from answering his question. He didn’t say a word to me again that period, choosing to blatantly ignore me.
I was in a daze for the rest of the day, mulling over my reaction to his words. How could I have responded to such an offensive comment like that? I questioned myself as I later sat in math class. When are you prepared to respond to an attack upon your character in that manner?
How dare he, I fumed at times. How dare he assume that about me!
His words were wrong in so many ways. One, I am just as “American” as he is. I was born and raised in this country. (I use quotations because I believe that being American has a looser definition than just being born here). Two, not all immigrants are undocumented. Three, he thought Trump had the power to automatically deport 11.3 million undocumented Americans – as if everything Trump said would come true.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am proud of my second- and third-generation immigrant status and my identity as a teenage girl of color. But, just because I am proud of my Filipina-American identity, does not in any way give him the right to question it.
At first, I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to angrily shout at him for saying such a thing – with perhaps a few insults included. Would that make me feel better? Yes. Would it solve anything? Not necessarily.
If I reacted angrily, he’ll know he got to me. He would know that what he said hurt, and he would have that satisfaction of getting a rise out of me. So, I sought to do better by not reacting to his harsh words.
But did he really mean them? I recalled the expression on his face. Initially, I was so annoyed by the words and the humor he found at my expense, that I had almost forgotten about the confusion in his face. Did he truly not know the effect of what he said?
I thought about this and slowly realized he did not question me out of spite, as I had previously believed. He said this out of ignorance. Ignorance of who I was and ignorance of the situation – he simply did not know.
I realized that he was not raised like me, by an immigration law professor like my mother. He did not understand the distinction between undocumented immigrants and immigrants – or perhaps he didn’t care enough to find out.
Furthermore, this boy didn’t grow up with people questioning his right in his own country. He didn’t grow up getting asked, “Where are you from?” And when he said New York, he was never getting asked again, “No – where you are actually from?” I realized that he was not educated on this subject, either from personal experience or learning about this in school. He was parroting what Trump had said, and most likely what his upbringing made him believe.
He simply didn’t understand what he was asking of me, because he didn’t know any better. So I choose to separate his actions from who he is – to separate this senseless comment coming from a person who is ignorant rather than spiteful.
I choose my battles wisely. Engaging in conflict over my American identity with a person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about is not worth it. I choose to forgive him. He does not know what it is like to be in an immigrant family living in America – especially during this time, when the discriminatory words of the President make all immigrants, regardless of their legal status, feel like they are not American.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.