By: Enya Chi
During the summer of 2019, I went to a 3-weeks summer camp at Stanford University. It is there that I realized how fortunate I was to be living in America and getting an elite American education. The story unfolds like this: During camp, I met many people from Chinese public high schools where I was exposed to the backwardness and restrictions of the Chinese educational system. One of my friends is from Chengdu, Sichuan, China, a relatively poor province in mainland China. As she described the Chinese public schools in which students are brainwashed every day by Chinese communist/Marxist ideals, and how their curriculum forces a very narrow perspective about the world on them, I felt a mixed emotion of relief and sadness. On one hand, I was glad that I was able to escape the oppression by coming to America, but at the same time, I was sad that there are still people in this world today who possess such backward thinking. I still remember how my friend described the harsh reinforcement of Confucian values about the nuclear home and traditional stereotypes for women that is both self-degrading and offensive to female freedom at the same time. In the words of my friend, she described that “in middle school, I had long hair, and a female faculty came up to me and said, ‘why is your hair so long? To attract boys?”
Hearing the story of and learning of the society that many of my Chinese friends lived, a new sense of pride emerged in me because for once I felt content living in the world I lived in. I couldn’t imagine living in a homogenous environment where one’s freedom, one’s fundamental freedom of thought, is being manipulated. Besides, the backwardness of China doesn’t affect me much either. After all, I go to school in America, where I am exposed to the luxury of freedom of speech, press, and idea. America is a very progressive place to be, a haven for all. Everyone can find a place for themselves in America, right?
Or not. Before coming to America, I went to an American international school in China, where I got ‘first-hand’ experience of the American experience. Having been there since kindergarten, I made a lot of friends from all over the world, ranging from classmates from Bolivia, India, Germany, Korea, etc., Being able to meet people from all over the world opened my eyes to the world around me, and I often put myself above the social ladder in comparison to my Chinese public school friends, because I got to experience the “international-sphere” of the world that they don’t have. I thought that the global environment would consist of peaceful-interaction between different races, which would also be reflected in American society, After all, at school, everyone interacted very kindly with one another, and it was a great environment that skewed my perception of the world to be a little bit more optimistic than what is actually out there. Yet, I still felt like I have a place where I belong because at school everything is just so familiar: the classmates, the environment, the kind faculties, etc., S felt like a second home, and I was happy.
Looking back at it, I realized that I am missing one important factor that contributed to my happiness: I was in China, my home country, a place where I was part of the racial majority, not the minority. Thus, of course, I would feel comfortable. I am in my natural habitat, given to me since the day I was born. Everywhere I go, there is going to be someone with similar physical features, black hair, and yellow skin. Everywhere, the language spoken in my native language, Mandarin, the food eaten is traditional Chinese cuisine, and the celebrations are traditional Chinese holidays. Amidst a crowd of people, I don’t stand out for being Asian, and I don’t feel awkward being Asian, because everybody is Asian. Interestingly, in China, those non-Chinese/Asian races turn into the racial minority. The rules of racism are reversed into a phenomenon called reverse racism. In China, the supposedly superior white foreigners became the ‘alien’ creature that is being stared at by passengers on the street and cat-called as “western ghost” by the locals. In this situation, the foreigners have no voice to speak up, because they are already categorized not as ‘people’ but spectacles and a nuisance to society. But luckily as a Chinese person, I was exempt from that experience, because I am Chinese, at least in looks.
Fast forward to my high school years, I have moved to Los Angeles, California, one of the most diverse cities in America. Ever since childhood, I had always looked forward to high school because I thought I would have “so much fun,” which probably sprang from my perception of high school culture from all the High School Musical I watched. I just had the feeling in my gut that I would fit in so well at high school, and become a super popular girl that is on top of every single trend in America. I thought that with my ‘international background’ I would fit in everywhere—the Asian squad will acknowledge me because I am Asian, and the American squad will also acknowledge me as well because I am ‘well-accustomed’ with American culture having “studied in an American school for 13 years.”
But, haha, jokes on me. After a few days into school, I realized that I was wrong and that fitting in was just an illusion. I didn’t feel like I belong here in America. At school, there is a clear distinction between the American crowd and the Asian crowd. If I am not mistaken, in every grade level, no matter sex, all the Asians hang out with one another, and the Americans hang out with one another. Although there is still cross-cultural interaction, all of our close friends are those who are similar to us in race. It happens to be that people just naturally gravitate towards others who look like you, especially in an unfamiliar environment.
Furthermore, although my school culture promotes diversity and inclusion, it happens to be all for show. With most of the administration and faculty as White-Americans, many opportunities, awards, and honors are mostly also given white American students as well. I am not the only one who noticed that teachers like to favor white-Americans instead of Asians. It is not because we Asians are incapable of being leaders and winning awards. It’s just that people tend to bias the Americans, nothing new.
Naturally, the school has a stereotype for Asian kids as nerds who only care about their grades that ruins the reputation of the Asian race, such as people like me who truly enjoyed learning. Here is a personal experience to illustrate my point: once I went to one of my teacher’s office hours for help on a question that I couldn’t seem to understand the class material. But instead of answering my question, the teacher said, “you need to stop caring about your grades so much. Your grades don’t matter. Gosh, that’s such an Asian thing.” The feeling I felt afterward is indescribable. It is a mixture of anger, sadness, and annoyance all mixed into one. It is only a unique feeling that comes after being stereotyped.
And I hated it. I hated America, I hated the inherent white-superiority culture that is present in the American society, but I hated the fact that I was Asian and more that I was a ‘global citizen Asian’ (a reference to my experience in an international school). If I was not Asian, my life would be so much easier. I would have so many more opportunities to showcase who I am instead of being forced to comply with the societal perception of what my race is: smart people who don’t deserve the goodness in the world.
For a long time, I didn’t know who I was. I want to shrug off my Asian traits, want to dye my hair blond, want to get tan, but at the same time, I couldn’t bear to do it. As I was struggling, I couldn’t help but think that being Asian isn’t as empowering as being, black or Latino because those races are brave to fight for their voice to be heard. No wonder Asians are called the model minority because all we do is work and obey. But that’s not what I want Asians to be. Just like other races, I too want to make a difference, to have my voice heard across platforms. I too have hopes and dreams and aspirations for equality and freedom to be myself. And at that moment, I found myself—an Asian girl, with an international background, living in America, who isn’t afraid to speak up for her race. Afterward, I began to seek a lot of places where I can voice my pride in my heritage. It leads me to connect with a larger community of Asians in this world who too felt the need for empowerment. My enthusiasm for my new found identity lead me to join Overachiever magazine, listen to Asian hip hop music, witness Jeremy Lin become the first Asian-American basketball player to win the NBA, and celebrated the accomplishment of Asian people create history that had allowed me to meet many people that related with me. Those people related to me not only through skin color but also related to my experience of being an outcast as a result of our skin and a desire to change the world. Just like me, they wanted more recognition for our ‘yellow’ race and want to prove to the world that we are more than your model minority. We are people who have a voice and ready to fight for what is right. I realized through my tumulting experience that I have found my place in this world, found a community where I belong.
So what if I am Asian? There are millions of Asians in the world. Just because I am Asian doesn’t limit me to what I can and cannot do. If that is the case, then I don’t know what is the explanation for the success of all the Asians all there. I have learned to own my identity, own my heritage, and own myself for who I am and take pride in that. Once, I used to think that my only flaw is my yellow skin, but now I realized that the flaw never existed.
Enya Chi is an aspiring social activist who likes to travel and appreciate the beauty of the world. She hopes to bring change to the world through her passion for social justice and love for peace. During her free time, Enya likes to go on spontaneous food trips with her friends and she enjoys eating boba, hot pot, and poke. She currently resides in Los Angeles but is originally from Hong Kong.