a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
My parents immigrated to the United States back in the 2000s. They originally grew up in the large city of Guangzhou. Every other summer, I would go visit for a couple months. My mother’s side lived in the rural areas, with breakfast carts on sidewalks and college students rushing to the local university my grandparents used to teach at. My father’s side, however, lived in the city and resided in one of the tallest buildings in Guangzhou. I would always love switching back and forth because the differences were so marvelous to me.
My dad moved here to the U.S. to attend University of Cincinnati and then Stanford University, and my mom followed. I spent my first birthday at Stanford with all my dad’s graduate classmates, and I watched him get his masters’ degree there. My mother, a very outspoken and passionate woman, stayed committal. She took care of me the entire time my dad was working on getting his education, and we soon moved to a city in Arizona after he got his degree.
In elementary school, I got my first taste of racial gaslighting. This included my classmates taping the corners of their eyes upwards during art masterpiece and asking me whether this was what my family looked like. This included my friends telling me that my lunch looked disgusting just because it wasn’t the typical pack of Lunchables their moms packed them every single day.
Not only was my name hard to pronounce, classmates and teachers both thought it was okay to laugh at my name and mispronounce it intentionally even after I corrected them a hundred times a week. This not only lowered my self-confidence, but every time I heard my own name, I would feel the need to cower and hide under my desk.
At the time, I thought it was just typical embarrassment that everyone went through. But now that I think about it, there is something terribly wrong with a child feeling nauseous every time their name was called in class.
I thought that maybe things had changed since I left, but nope. Every single week, my brother would share stories of the other students spreading disgusting rumors about Asians at school. A weird feeling of envy passed through me when Kevin told me this. I envied the children who didn’t have to worry about what other people thought about them because of their skin color. I envied the children who didn’t have to rehearse in their head what they were going to say to defend their race and culture.
My middle school was filled with white kids who weren’t properly educated on race, which made it hard for all the minority students at my school. Despite the fact that we would read books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, no one thought there was a problem with treating someone badly because of the color of their skin. Every time I think about this, an infuriating anger rises to my chest. How can someone listen to the song “Strange Fruit” in social studies class and read about lynchings in 1865 and not know that there is something terribly wrong with the way they are thinking.
By the time I turned eleven, I had “changed” my name over 6 times. By “changing”, I mean using a completely different name at summer camps and certain classes just so I didn’t have to feel inferior. This was also my problem. If I never felt ashamed of my name and culture, there would’ve never been the need to change my name for certain situations. But at the same time, I would’ve never felt ashamed if my classmates and teachers didn’t make me feel that way.
There was this weird, uncomfortable division between races in middle school that no one wanted to acknowledge. Not only were my friends and I harassed maybe once every day for our race, it soon became normal. Going to school should never make you sacrifice something as important as your belief about your race and culture.
One day, a group of boys were following me to my class and yelling out racist slurs and remarks to me. Obviously upset about this, I told my teacher. The first words that came out of his mouth were not “Are you okay?” or “I’m very sorry this happened to you”. It was “Did you say something racist back? Because that would be a problem.” I gaped at him for a silent moment or two because I was so shocked. He coldly watched me and waited for my response.
“Of course not!” I sputtered. I could not believe this was his reaction. I angrily turned on my heel and marched to the principal’s office.
I wish I didn’t have to be put in such difficult situations like this at such a young age. By age 12, I practically rehearsed what I would say to someone who was being racially prejudiced to me in public or at school every single day so I wouldn’t be standing there blankly when the time came.
My friend’s mom started a group with all my Asian friends at church to “prepare us for the real world.” This included going over topics like gossip, cliques, and of course racism. Every single meeting, we would discuss what to do if encountering racist people while snacking over chips and bars. My mom’s friend talked about an experience that she had faced while traveling for work. She had to drive to one of the most racist states in the country (I forget where, and there are a lot to choose from). After checking in at a motel near the office, she tucked in for a good night of sleep.
She woke up and prepared for work: brushing her teeth, changing into her everyday work clothes, and grabbing her car keys. And as she rushed to her car to head to work, she noticed something. Spray painted in big letters on the side of her car was the word “Chink”.
So, yes, as an 11-year-old, I started taking mental notes on the opportunities I should and shouldn’t take because of my ethnicity.
So, here’s a lesson I have learned as a Chinese American teenage girl: It doesn’t get any easier. In fact, I don’t think it will get easier in a very long time. Of course, you can always change your mindset about, as some people say, “playing the victim”, and you can always just make friends with people who are non-prejudiced about your race.
But we cannot avoid the majority of the people out there who still think that my family and I do not belong here in the U.S. I don’t think I can ever just simply avoid the fact that there are people of power and authoritative figures in the government and big companies who think that I am less human just because of my ethnicity. For me, this is not a political problem but a moral one. Why should there be debates on racial equality? Why should there even be a question on whether a black, Latino, or Asian’s life is worth the same as a white person?
And as coronavirus cases kept growing and becoming more widespread, hate crimes and racist acts were targeted toward Asian Americans. Most mornings during quarantine, my heart would drop after hearing another Asian American being pushed off a bike or thrown into a lake due to prejudice. Donald Trump seemingly made things worse after repeatedly calling Covid-19 the “Chinese” virus. There was just this awkward, unspoken deal that it was our fault that millions of people were dying in the country.
There were also thousands of TikToks I have scrolled through about how one of us Asians ruined someone’s senior year by “eating a bat.” I couldn’t believe my eyes... and these were the same teenagers preaching Black Lives Matter. It just seemed to me that racism directed towards Asians was normalized and didn’t seem like a big deal to most people. It just sucks that the majority of people out there don’t know how much this could affect Asian Americans and their lives. Casually saying an anti-Asian slur and disguising it as a joke actually hurts and is extremely demeaning.
Over these past couple months, I was able to watch Black Lives Matter continue to grow and get the media’s attention. This movement has been around for years, and it only started to become popular.
First off, I stand with Black Lives Matter, and there is nothing more that I want than to have equal treatment between all races. It was incredibly touching to see so many people come together to protect and fight for Breanna Taylor, Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Eric Garner, and thousands of other people who have been hurt and killed under this system of oppression.
People were finally hearing, finally seeing these people who have been fighting for so long. There is something so beautiful in watching change occurring in this country.
I have learned so much about my neighbors and people who actually care about making change in our country. People of color have been treated so badly in this country. It is constantly the same people who pretend that there is nothing wrong happening just because this system is favoring them. Being a true American means sacrificing your own desires to help your neighbor. The true Americans are the ones fighting for equality and justice in this country.
Being a person of color is hard, especially in the United States. But our duty is to love our culture, our identity, our neighbors. Stand with them when they are going through problems because the only way we are going to get through this is coming together.
I have learned so much about myself and about the people around me during these past couple months. I have learned to never let someone degrade me because of my race because in the end, I would rather stay this way. I truly believe that change can happen in this country as long as all the citizens move toward the same goal.
* = Editors' Choice work
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