I was in 6th grade, and was walking home after I’d gotten off the school bus. Up the street, I spotted an old White man lying on the sidewalk in ragged clothes and soiled towels. He looked at me while I tried to look away.
What? Why am I the target? I looked behind me, hoping he was calling to someone else.
“You, in the red jacket. Come over here.”
He was definitely talking to me. I was scared that he was going to get up and attack me. I walked past him, looking straight ahead at the flower bush on the next block.
“It’s OK,” I muttered to myself, “Just keep looking at the flower.”
What? Excuse me? He said that phrase hatefully, like I was a piece of garbage. It was humiliating, but I couldn’t come up with a quick retort. I lowered my eyes and kept walking. I felt I’d betrayed my parents who taught me to stand up for myself.
“Go back to your country,” he said with a tone of disgust.
I could feel my face heating up, my heart beating faster. How dare he say that to me? In a mix of fear and anger, I speed-walked to the end of the block, turned the corner, and ran home like my life depended on it.
When I got home, my face was flushed and I was out of breath. My mother asked what was wrong and I just said, “Nothing” before making a run for my room. I still felt ashamed for not standing up for myself.
I Look Different
I had recently become more aware of the physical differences between Chinese and White students. While my hair was black and straight, their hair was often blonde and curly. To me, some of them were like real-life Barbie dolls. By contrast, I felt like an unusual creature with slanted eyes and a flat nose.
The homeless man’s racist remark had held a mirror up to my growing insecurities. It verified that I was different. He might have been homeless, but his skin color provided him with a superiority I didn’t feel. In his words, I felt his hatred toward me and my race.
Being Chinese in the United States felt like a bad kind of different, like a stain that didn’t belong there. Like a pimple on a face, a crack in a wall, or a hole in a shirt.
Being More ‘American’
After the incident with the man on the street, I began to speak more English at home. Over time, I started losing my Cantonese dialect. I thought speaking English would make me feel superior too. I was embarrassed to speak my language in public. I asked my parents to only talk to me in English whenever we were out.
I also changed my diet. For breakfast, instead of eating the usual congee and dim sum my mom bought for me from the Chinese bakery, I asked her to buy bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches from the café down the block. For lunch, I would request a hamburger rather than noodles with fish balls. The switch for dinner was from steamed fish and bok choy to fried chicken or pizza.
Perhaps I wouldn’t be a Ching Chong now. I did a lot of things now that my White friends did.
In middle school, I became hyper-aware that others noticed my differences, too. I noticed microaggressions directed at me, subtle comments that are made that stereotype and discriminate against a minority group.
“You’re pretty,” a cute boy with sparkling blue eyes told me once, resulting in my immediate smile. “For an Asian girl,” he continued.
Does that mean Asian girls are ugly? What kind of compliment is that?
I’d also hear a lot: “You’re Asian but your English is really good.”
“Thanks,” I’d say with a smile, but on the inside I was outraged by the comment. I grew up speaking English! Was I not as good, as smart, or as American as they were?
I tried to talk to my Chinese friends about it, but they were indifferent. Maybe they were as uncomfortable as I was and just didn’t want to admit that these microaggressions happened to them, too. I felt alone with no support system, so most of the time I kept my feelings to myself.
Some students called my hooded eyes “chinky” and “slanted.” So I looked up tricks on YouTube to make my eyes bigger and lashes longer: curling my lashes, putting on mascara, and using a white eyeliner on the rim of my lower eyelid.
It seemed that minorities are expected to assimilate and forget their cultures. Sometimes I felt that if I expressed my love for my culture, it would be interpreted as hating America.
I was frustrated by my tendency to respond politely to other people’s racism instead of calling them out. I felt I was reinforcing the stereotype of the submissive Asian girl.
I started to see that I allowed others to make me feel bad about being Chinese. I decided I would no longer be defined by others’ ignorance and stereotypes. That got easier when I started high school. The student body was majority Asian, so the microaggressions died down.
Mandarin Becomes Cool
In 9th grade, I decided to take Mandarin as my foreign language. In a classroom filled with primarily Chinese students, it was hard not to spot the non-Chinese students. It struck me that they saw Mandarin as something useful and important.
This was the first time I’d observed White students choosing to embrace something Chinese.
Even though Cantonese, not Mandarin, is my first language, I still felt proud. These teenagers were choosing to learn Mandarin because China is now one of the biggest economies in the world, and Mandarin is its national language.
My non-Chinese classmates saw that learning the language gave them a competitive edge. They wanted to master Mandarin so they could travel to China and do business with Chinese companies. That was powerful and affirming to me.
Reconnecting With My Culture
Taking Mandarin class also made me appreciate the traditions I’d grown up with more.
That winter, the class learned about Chinese New Year. Like most Chinese kids, one of my favorite parts of the celebration was opening the red envelopes filled with money. I was on top of the world when I got to wave around my sudden wealth.
“On New Year’s Eve, there is a reunion dinner,” my Mandarin teacher said. “The entire family gets together to celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year. It represents good luck and prosperity.”
She played videos showing the endless traffic jams and overcrowded trains families face in China trying to get to their reunion dinners. It is a day on which migrant workers, often laboring in far away provinces, come home after not seeing their family for months.
Though my parents told me these reunion dinners were an essential part of Lunar New Year, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was a fundamental aspect of Chinese culture. The videos made me miss relatives in China I hadn’t seen for several years. I began to video chat with them more.
Before I had shunned my culture, but now I went out of my way to reconnect with it. I returned to watching Cantonese TV shows, a passion that my grandparents and I shared together. I ate Cantonese cuisine openly again, realizing it was a thousand times better than fatty American fast food.
I also began to use my amateur Mandarin skills to bond with my parents. They spoke Mandarin as well as Cantonese, so now we could watch the Mandarin-language TV news, read the Mandarin-language newspaper, and discuss current events together.
The more informed I became about China’s politics, the less upset I felt about the racist remarks made toward me here. The Chinese communist government places restrictions on people’s human rights and free speech. There is a lot of government corruption and poverty. Compared to what my relatives in China endure, the adversity I face is less extreme.
And here, I had the opportunity to speak up about injustice and discrimination. I just had to figure out how.
During the fall semester of my junior year, I took an Asian-American literature class and really got into the themes of identity and assimilation explored by Asian-American novelists.
My teacher assigned each student to write a short play. I decided to write a satirical play poking fun at microaggressions toward Asian Americans. It was about a Korean girl who goes on a Tinder date with a White guy. From his profile, she thinks the guy is really cute—and not a jerk.
Instead, the guy peppers his conversation throughout the date with microaggressions. He keeps asking her where she’s from—“originally.” She responds several times that she’s from the United States, but he persists: “Where are you really from?”
She tells him she’s a third-generation American, but he continues to interrogate her. Finally, in exasperation, she answers, “Korea.”
Upon receiving the response he was looking for, he compliments her command of English, and she calls him out. He gets defensive, telling her, “Whoa, calm down. I didn’t mean it like that. I love Asians.”
To me, this conversation captured a typical interaction in which the aggressor acts insulted and blames the person he’s stereotyping.
Projecting My Voice
At the end of the play, I included an author’s note. I explained how this kind of racism is still prevalent—even in a diverse city like New York—and reflected my own experience being subtly interrogated about whether I was a “legitimate” American. “It is as if all people of color are fresh off the boat,” I concluded.
My play was chosen to be performed by a professional theater company, featuring Asian-Americans as well as White actors. The actors performed it at my school for an overflow crowd, who laughed knowingly at a situation that was all too familiar to them.
Even though it wasn’t a strictly autobiographical play, I found my voice within my character. It allowed me to finally respond to all those microaggressions I’d heard in middle school.
For a long time, those stereotypes affected my self-esteem, and I tried to change myself to meet others’ expectations. In the end, I’ve realized that what matters most is my own acceptance of my culture. No one can change the pride I feel about being Chinese.