I had my 14th and 15th birthdays during Covid, when anti-Asian violence was on the rise. Previously, I had experienced a few racist people pull their eyes back and make offensive remarks about eating dogs, but this was the first time I felt afraid and unwanted in my own country. I was horrified as my news feed overflowed with videos of Asian people being knocked down and even killed.
Before the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, I spent up to three hours on the subway every day. Once the violence started, I asked my parents or friends to accompany me on my commutes. Even with a companion, though, my heart beat faster than usual.
This fear and feeling of being an “Other” came on top of a subtler kind of racism that started when I matured into adolescence. That started a year or so before the pandemic, when I entered middle school and changed my look. Before, I fit the picture of a stereotypical nerd. I wore mismatched clothing and glasses; my head was always buried in a book. No one commented on my appearance.
But when I switched to contact lenses, lightened and styled my hair, and wore trendy clothing, I got more attention, both from my peers and from adults. Strangely, and for the first time, people started to question if I was really Chinese.
Weighing in on My Race
I accompany my mom to Manhattan’s Chinatown once every few months. She lived in Hong Kong for the first 18 years of her life, and nothing reminds her of home like the food. We browse the storefronts for Chinese vegetables, dumplings, meat, and noodles, and her eyes light up when she finds her favorite bok choy.
We crowd in the narrow streets next to elderly men and women with little wheeled carts, who push me to the side and scold me. Before, cashier ladies often asked my mom if I was her daughter, and told us that we looked alike.
But now that’s changed. On a recent visit to Chinatown, my mom and I went to our usual glasses store. The lady assisting us asked my mom if her husband, my father, was White. My mom replied no, and the lady scrunched her face in disapproval.
“But she’s so pretty!”
What Is “Acting Chinese”?
Another day, when I was in middle school, I was talking to a group of classmates while we completed our English worksheet. All of us were Asian, and we took turns sharing where we had descended from. Most were Chinese, and when it was my turn, I said I was Chinese too.
“But you’re so White! You don’t act Chinese!” one girl said. I wasn’t sure what “being White” meant, but I presumed it meant that I didn’t fit into the stereotypes of a Chinese girl. The parents of most of my Chinese peers are immigrants, and while my mom is also an immigrant, I am fifth generation in America on my father’s side. Most of my friends are White, and I know very little Cantonese.
Still, I grew up playing piano and spent hours scribbling in my Singapore math books. I’ve been an A student my whole life: I was the girl who cried over getting an 85. Does this constitute “acting Chinese?” I never tried to “act” a certain race; I was just being myself.
“Can you even speak Chinese?” another person chimed in.
“I did not think you were Chinese. Your eyes are so big!”
“Well, I guess I could maybe see that,” one boy finally said. “You kind of look like a K-pop star.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
Half-Asian and Half-White kids sometimes refer to themselves as “Wasian.” They regularly ask me, “You’re mixed, right?”
It happened more and more, as I grew older. When people called me pretty, they often followed up by asking if I was half White.
What Is an American?
As a small child, I thought I was just American, but when I was around 8, I learned the term Asian American or Chinese American. Since then, that was how I identified. But why don’t my White friends have to identify as European American? Why can they just answer “American” if asked about their ethnicity?
Most of my White friends are not familiar with the difference between ethnicity and nationality. When I ask them where their family is originally from, or what their ethnicity is, they have the privilege of saying America, when their family actually immigrated from Ireland or Germany. I have to know the difference between ethnicity and nationality, because the question that always follows “What country are you from?” is “But what country are you really from?”
Hearing that my whole life, I feel more like an outsider.
It Seeps Into Me
No matter how progressive this country may seem in some ways, White is still the standard, and beauty and status are tied to someone’s proximity to Whiteness. When I altered my appearance and became more conventionally attractive, people began to assume I must be part-White.
Worse, I internalized this. Writing this story, I began to realize that my least favorite parts of my appearance are my Chinese features: my round face and super straight hair. I didn’t like my eyes, until the fox eye trend became popular among White people.
I’ve never admitted this to myself, and it is mortifying to write it, but I was a little ashamed of being Chinese. What makes me feel worse is the admission that part of me aspires to Whiteness. I think all the subtle and overt comments, from the glasses store clerk to my Asian friends at school, led me to believe that being Asian was inferior. I slowly began to like when people thought I was mixed, because then maybe in people’s eyes I belonged.
When people thought I was White, I thought that I was doing something right, like their mistake was a compliment.
Living With the Contradictions
While we almost never practice Chinese traditions, it is important to my parents and grandparents for me to be proud of where we came from.
One recent night during dinner, I opened up to my parents about how I felt. “I’m not sure how to explain it,” my voice quivered. It was hard to get the words out.
I decided to let one of my favorite Asian American singer-songwriters explain it for me. “There’s a song by Mitski, a Japanese American, called ‘Strawberry Blond,’” I tried again. “And the lyrics go, ‘You tell me you love her; I give you a grin/ Oh all I ever wanted was a life in your shape/ So I follow the white lines/ Follow the white lines/ Keep my eyes on the road/ As I ache.’”
I concluded, “I feel like I am always trying to follow the white lines, because maybe that will make me desirable.”
Silence blanketed us, and I watched my dad stroke his chin. My mom looked up at the ceiling in thought.
“Why do you let these things affect you?” my dad finally said. “I grew up with racism all my life. In Los Angeles, I went to a White school. But I always just thought their racism was ignorance, and I’ve never let it bother me.”
“I guess I care about what people think of me. After a time, it gets to me. It’s not just racism; it’s being compared to Whiteness.”
I think my dad understands that being a teenager differs from being an adult, and that pressure to look a certain way weighs on women more than on men. He nodded, and I felt a weight lift off me after my confession, because even though my parents could not relate, at least they understood me.
Identifying this internalized racism was uncomfortable, Admitting and understanding all my feelings and how they are influenced by the racism all around us is just the beginning. As time passes, I hope I can be comfortable in my own skin while being proud of where I come from.
- Race & Ethnicity