The first time I wanted to deny that I was Chinese, I was 17 years old facing another 17 year-old. She was tall, blonde and huge from Chicago.
“Where are you from?” She taunted me as I was sitting quietly in the corner, watching with wide-eyed wonder every teenage girl dancing up a storm on a chair or on a table. It was our Friday night “break out and dance” party inside a private high school outside of Detroit.
“Hong Kong.” I muttered softly because she looked intimidating. She was three times my size, a full head taller, and scowled while staring me down. I had just arrived in America several weeks ago. I was the only Asian girl in the room, and this was my first encounter with a mean white girl.
“What? HANG? KANG? Where’s that? What are you? Japanese?”
Her rapid-fire, mid-western accented English coming out of her big mouth was bitingly cruel. I first stuttered a little, then gave it a go. “I am Chinese... from Hong Kong.”
“Chinese!? No, you’re not. You are Japanese!!!”
She started cracking up so loudly that I suddenly felt an urge to quickly agree with her, just to shut her up! Can you believe that? No, I didn’t say a word. She kept it up for another minute, calling me Japanese and pulling my hair. I felt shame, small and shrinking in fear.
What made me think of this insulting bullying scenario from my teenage years, were the numerous intimate stories I heard while moderating the “Why Not Me” open-mic storytelling forum at Harvard on Oct 14th. The event was designed for Asians to share experiences of bias and barriers that put them on the outside looking in.
Many students who previously kept secret their immigrant experiences of being ostracized, ridiculed or shut out have decided to come forth and share their painful experiences. Some have described a breakdown, others recounted their breakthrough. Throughout the evening, I saw many in the audience wiping their weepy eyes, including me.
What dawned on me is how the “ugly American” image is still alive and kicking today, decades later. Not only in high school or college, but in the larger culture. We see it play out in politics, on TV, and even in our own homes and neighborhood.
But I also believe that we can enable the better angels of our nature to emerge and embrace our diversity – in our schools, our workplace, our churches and our communities.
I invite you to listen to One in a Billion “Why Not Me? Part 2.”
We want to include you in this conversation.
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