Inspired by Michelle Zhu’s narrative for Vice.
People have a tendency to ask and tone police every time they hear me make a point, albeit often an emotional point, about being an APIA (Asian Pacific Islander American) in a world that too often values marginalization. Don’t get me wrong, we’re making tremendous progress. I remember watching The Walking Dead and celebrating Glenn’s momentous role as a protagonist lead with every bone in my body. (No spoilers, but my interest has since tapered off. Sorry not sorry.) Anyway, today I feel calm and whole enough to answer the question posed oh-so many times by oh-so-many ignorant voices. What exactly does the average APIA have to forgive living in “the middle” of the U.S.? Here are a few of mine, granted, take these all with a grain of salt: I was usually the new kid. So, I suppose it’s also merely a narrative of bullying. I’ll attempt to do these in chronological order for clarity’s sake.
- 5 years old: I remember my parents always took us shopping on holidays because America is known for fantastic store discounts on such days. My first strange feeling about race, which occurred several times over the course of many a Veteran’s Day, was seeing a Vietnam War or WWII veteran for the first time (It’s been so long, and I’m unfamiliar with military medallions). The elderly man, decked out in his pressed uniform and hands clasped over the arms of his wheelchair, nearly lifted himself out of his chair glaring at my family. His eyes tracked us for the insufferably long way down the corridor. I have never felt more scared or judged in my life. He didn’t have to say a word.
- 6 years old: Aunties and Uncles made fun of me for what they called 黑。 In Chinese, this means you are dark for a person of East Asian descent. I was too young to care, and I liked my sun-tanned skin.
- 7 years old: These three girls, D, M, and K, were interested in playing with a “Chinese doll.” Meaning…me. Y, a 2nd grader who came straight from mainland China, fit into their stereotype of what an exotic Chinese girl should look like. D, instead, made it her mission to tell me how I was “not at all like she expected. I imagined you would wear one of those Chinese dresses with butterfly clips down really long black hair.” I recently looked back at my pictures, and I was cute, just not in the way she wanted me to be. I remember feeling like I had disappointed her. I remember wanting to apologize.
- 8 years old: My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Sager, kept confusing me with Y. She actually gave me a gift later on, in 5th grade, that was meant to be for Y. I was too ashamed for her to say anything, just thanked her and moved on. I felt like I would have burdened her had I said anything, so I said nothing at all.
- 9 years old: I cut off all my hair, and I felt lighter. I devoured books from Lemony Snicket and J.K. Rowling. I remember feeling excited that Cho Chang was mentioned, someone that looked like me. So rare in a fantasy book. How funny that I, as Rachel Rostad mentions, ended up “just following the script” and falling into crushes with people who were very white. Thanks, J.K. Rowling.
- 10 years old: I remember feeling depressed for the first time around this age. I had kept a journal for several years, and I remember asking myself, “What am I even doing?” It didn’t help that kids were becoming incredibly cruel about who they deemed “cool” in Arkansas. Again, they were just following Hollywood’s script, I guess. Erasure and marginalization.
- 11 years old: I went back to China with my parents for the first time. I had not prepared for the culture shock, and I left mainly with questions rather than the answer I was looking for. I wasn’t American. I wasn’t Chinese. I couldn’t call anywhere my home, just a home in the hyphen. Chinese-American.
- 12 years old: Officially resplendent in existential crisis. Spent the year looking inward and becoming a fail artist. I didn’t want to be good at anything anymore because that was the stereotype of the Model Minority. Smart, skinny, sharp. I was tired. I repressed my voice, grew chubby, grew dejected.
- 13 years old: Slept for most of the day (everyday if I could) and officially done with the world. Middle school is a mine field. Correction, middle school is a mind field. People play games with your soul, gambling it against popularity and progress. I always believed that the way my family communicates is in circles rather than in the straight lines of Western “progress” plot diagrams. So, I circled in on my own ineptitude, hurt by a trusted adult who told me to simply “grin and bear it.”
- 14 years old: An anonymous student drew a swastika in shaving cream in the front of the junior high…while we were reading Elie Wisel’s Night. This was where we went, to a place of hate and tragedy. Another POC student asked what time breakfast started, and I made the mistake of telling him when the doors opened. “7 am.” To which he responded, “Nobody f***ing asked you, chink.” I felt my heart pounding in my throat.
- 14 years old, II: This kid who was obsessed with Naruto and being Asian (but who was absolutely not) followed me around and kept asking me to date him because he had a fetish. This was complicated by the fact that he had autism, so it was very difficult to deter him. While the current me is ashamed of this, I brushed him off repeatedly and rudely until he stopped bothering me. He was my first stalker. We rode the same bus, and I remember being scared that he was outside my window.
- 15 years old: My parents moved me again for the 3rd or 4th time. It was hard to keep track, which made the question, “Where are you from?” even more complicated than it was due to my identity as an APIA. I was from a bevvy of places. Anyway, as you can imagine, starting high school as a sophomore leaves you with no friends at ground zero, and my school had a delightful self-imposed policy of pennying freshman. I was not amused, especially not by the people near my locker who would tape up their eyes and nose to look…like a caricature. My supposed APIA friend called me at the end of my first day to ask, “Can you make your own friends?”
- 16 years old: Supposed APIA friend says I stole all her friends. I felt guilty for making friends with them, so I just spent all my time in my favorite teacher’s classrooms (usually English with one exception in math) or the library reading. I hated people because they wouldn’t let me be more than what they saw in front of them. More than eyes, people, what they see.
- 17 years old: I had one of the best English classes of my life from a teacher who was featured on NPR. He centered our narratives, and finally, for once, I felt at peace in high school. I remember after I shared these stories and then some, every single person in that class came up and hugged me. Told me they cared. Told me they were sorry. And then I went to Calc AB to put my walls back up.
- 18 years old: I remember, despite loving reading, refusing to read Billy Shakes. Knowing that he was probably a plagiarist. Knowing that he was a symbol of white privilege. Not until college did I finally get a Shakespeare professor who knew how to subvert Shakespeare and help us question the text into something relatable to POC. Other than that, I was living life beneath Caliban, not even mentioned in those plays and not allowed on the stage. Interesting, considering I was in stage crew.
- 19 years old: Freedom. Freedom in the sense that I could study, be, and be with anyone I wanted. I met these incredible campus fellowships, who focused on diversity and APIA inclusion respectively. However, as a psychology major, I quickly realized that my classes were full of white people wanting to treat others like experiments. I appreciated the social science but immediately tacked on an English Lit major. My people.
- 20 years old: Hong Kong. Awakening but also brutally draining to the soul. Made fun of for being, basically, a Mainlander. I was faced with an entire other set of stereotypes for being from mainland China: “Mainlanders are rude.” “Mainlanders cannot use a proper toilet.” “They have no manners.” I had an amazing TA for a class called “Imagining Hong Kong” which re-thought these concepts. However, the teacher still treated me differently than a white peer. Looks like you can be elitist and classist no matter where you are.
- 21 years old: I found myself beyond excited to go back State-side for swing dance lessons. However, it always felt a little bit strange that there was this global dance community with an African-American history, yet the people I danced with were an entirely different demographic. I also hated being called “exotic.” It wasn’t the healthiest relationship with dance to start.
- 22 years old: Budapest. I love this broken yet beautiful city. Dorá led the Hungarian Refugee Center, and the people there are EVERYTHING. Those teachers were centering others before I knew what that even meant. They taught me more than I will ever be able to teach, and I’m thankful. People asked me where I was from, but English was then used as a tool for equity instead of one for oppression.
- 23-24 years old: Graduation. Taiwan Fulbright. Love. Hate. I learned everything in that two year time span. This was a time where I felt beyond loved and cared for —-from my internship at the Asian American Cultural Center with all-APIA professional mentors and peers to the mostly-Asian church fellowship I went to…in a way, I was sheltering before a storm. Taiwan left me with scars about Mainland bias once more, but again…the kids became my kids and their stories stay with me.
- 25-26 years old: Vanderbilt. Oh, Vanderbilt. You are a complicated mess of academia. Wonderful yet insane yet…I learned here. If anything else, I learned what it meant to define and declare my narrative as a Chinese-American woman who wants change and activism. I re-learned and un-learned what it meant for others to be scared of me. I re-learned and un-learned what it meant to stand in my power.
I teach as a third culture teacher still. I have tried my best, as a person of faith, to forgive the people in these narratives. I try my best to be a little less wrong everyday. I travel because I think it teaches you to be humble, to connect, and to find friendship in unfamiliarity. I try to be my best self, or at least to be better each day. But please…don’t ask me why I’m “angry.” It’s a long story. And besides, I’d rather call it passionate.
*I originally planned to put in photographs of others, but in the interest of their privacy, you will have to bear with the rather one-noted photos of myself. Apologies.*