“Go back to China.” Those were the words highlighted in the New York Times article I read about the prevalent racism against Asian Americans that remains in America today. I grew up in a bubble fairly sheltered from the ugliness that article portrayed, but I have been told those words before. It’s a strange feeling to hear them. It’s a feeling that makes you feel unworthy, dirty, tolerated. It makes you feel subpar, second-class, and damaged in an irreparable way. It makes you feel guilty for your success. Most of all, it makes you feel tainted.
Growing up in predominantly-white suburban Iowa, I was that “special” kid in school, and up until third grade, I assumed “special” was a good thing. I remember when my family moved to Ankeny. I remember walking into a classroom full of strangers and seeing the mystified looks on the faces of my new classmates. I remember being laughed at for being “weird.” I remember two boys pulling back the corners of their eyes when I walked by during recess, chanting a rhyme I don’t remember. It began with “Chinese, Japanese…”
I never told anyone about that.
I remember the next year, in fourth grade, when the whole class stopped to ask me where in China I had been born. I remember their indignant attitudes when the phrase “born and raised in Iowa” came out of my mouth. I remember everyone’s surprise when I failed to pass the multiplication timed test on 8 (8 gave me particular trouble for some reason), and how nobody asked me where I was going for winter break because they all assumed I was going to China.
I vividly remember the line of strangers that formed at my desk on the first day of sixth grade and being asked by all of them to sign the “I speak a foreign language” box on their icebreaker Bingo sheet. I also remember how no one bothered the girl that spoke Bosnian.
Entering high school, I grew numb to the way people reacted when they learned I was in French class. “Why aren’t you taking Chinese?” they’d exclaim, “it’d be so easy!”
As if you’d waste your time taking preschool English every day for four years.
Most of these incidents did not come from places of malice. They came from ignorance, and many of the people involved are now friends, friends who have become more sensitive to their words.
But that cannot be said for many more. I remember my father, while conducting business for his granite company over the phone, being told by a cranky customer to learn to speak English before they hung up on him. I remember my speechlessness when my mother told me of her encounter with a man on a flight back from China, a man who spanked her for standing in the aisle while waiting for her neighbor to come back from the lavatory. She spends day and night trying to improve her English now, in hopes that the language will somehow make her more of a citizen in the eyes of Americans who hold the exact same proof of citizenship. Their American passports, my father’s doctorate, my mother’s two bachelor degrees, and their three American-born daughters still don’t add up to a white person’s level of citizenship. They will never achieve equal footing in a society they’ve dedicated their lives, pledged their loyalties, and tied their fortunes to. They beat incredible odds to emerge from cultural-revolution China and achieve the American Dream. Their stories deserve to be celebrated, and yet they labor on, fighting for that missing shred of dignity they will repeatedly earn, never obtain.
That I have inherited this fight from them scares me. It scares me because unless something fundamentally changes in America, this is the reality I face: that I will always have to work twice as hard for half the status; that I will amount to nothing in society unless I succeed; that a white homeless man will always be chosen over me at first glance, no matter what I do.
Funny, how I call myself American with so much pride. I feel no shame; why should I? I’m no different than my white peers. I’m just a teenage girl who wants to live a goofy, happy life, drink Starbucks every day, and nap excessively even when I can’t afford to. That’s all. I yell at my TV when the Broncos are losing, I cry when I see the bottom of an ice cream container, I laugh when my sisters make a funny joke. I’m a daughter, a sister, a friend, a Jesus-lover, a sinner, a student, a dreamer, and a believer. I’m an American. And to me, nothing compares to the feeling I get when the US customs officer hands me back my passport, smiles, and says to me two little words: “welcome home.”
Because this, right here, is my home. You can tell me to go to China, you can even tell me to never come back, but never tell me to go back to China. I didn’t come from there.
**While I protest against racial prejudice of Asian-Americans in America today, I also recognize my own privilege in many facets of day-to-day life as a Chinese-American. The experiences detailed above by no means reflect the perhaps even greater struggles faced by members of other racial minorities in the United States today**