My first memory of really recognizing I was different was in 4th grade in a mostly white town. I was riding a different school bus with my friend to go to her house. A boy (whose name I will always remember) started chanting "Ching chong, wah wah..." over and over again throughout the bus ride. I ignored him. I had no power on this bus. I was stunned that a boy I didn't know would tease me like that. I went home and told my parents, and my dad joked about it, saying next time I should tell him he speaks "Gobble Gobble." We all laughed, and laughing was what I needed that night. I tucked it away in my memory, but I knew that the incident had bothered me. My mom found out another time that I was being teased, and she took action and initiated what became a cultural immersion day in my elementary school.
In middle school, a girl in my class made sure I understood I didn't belong at her table, motioning to all the other girls at the table and announcing that only those she named belonged there. She named everyone but me. Another girl told my best friend that she couldn't be friends with her if my friend stayed friends with me. My wonderful best friend chose me. I wondered for a long time what I had done wrong to make this girl dislike me so much. I saw those as annoying middle school trials back then, but looking back, I was already experiencing exclusion because I looked different. One could say I don't know that, but after experiencing a pattern, you just know.
In high school, we moved to a new town, and my first day in math class, a boy patted the empty desk next to him and said, "Sit here, you look smart." I smiled, but I felt uncomfortable with his assumption. And I got a B+, not an A (so there!!). I was a well-behaved, responsible girl who played the violin and piano, and got good grades--mostly. I joined the school chorus, and found a community of friends who embraced me and made me feel like I belonged.
After going to college, there were other Asians, and I was suddenly one of many. I had actually developed a disdain for Asian-ness somehow, and went through a journey of accepting my Taiwanese-American identity and making Asian friends. I didn't completely fit with my Taiwanese extended family (often being introduced as an "ABC (American-Born Chinese)", but I didn't completely fit with my white friends either. At college, I met other Asian-Americans who had similar backgrounds, and I felt like I could be comfortable in my own skin.*
Recently, I shared with some people about being the only one in an airplane exit row who was asked if I spoke English. Instead of listening to me and really hearing what I was saying, a non-Asian person in the conversation chose to question my experience about whether it was really a microaggression. They started talking about airplane protocols and basically minimizing and second-guessing my experience. They weren't listening. I was the only one who looked Asian in that row. There could have been European travelers in that row who didn't speak English. That moment passed as quickly as it occurred. But I was shocked by how angry it made me. That is the general experience of Asians in America--minimization and invisibility. We are taught to keep our heads down, don't make waves, and just work hard, so that we don't stick out. We justify microaggressions against us in our heads, so that we don't need to feel bad about them.
Did I say anything in any of these situations? No. I was usually taken aback and speechless, and wanted to keep the peace. But no more, especially as our most helpless, the elderly, are being targeted across America, with violent acts against Asians 150% higher in incidence than previous years. Asians of all ages in their daily lives are being harassed more than ever before, in broad daylight. It doesn't matter what type of Asian, or whether we were born in America. It is a pervasive problem that has touched every Asian in some way.
She is not weak. She is the bravest child I know. She has more joy in her pinky than most people have altogether. While she is learning, I will speak up for her.
*One great free resource for Bystander Intervention Training: https://www.ihollaback.org/bystanderintervention/
**Many of my closest friends have not been Asian, but they celebrate my heritage and everything else that makes me who I am. I am thankful for their friendship and hope Evie has such wonderful friends too!
***A great book about celebrating differences is "You Are Enough" by Margaret O'Hair, and inspired by Sofia Sanchez, a little girl with Down Syndrome.
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