• Project Angel Island

Featured Blog Post: My First Experience with Racism

Updated: Feb 13, 2021

Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and attending a Catholic school for the first seven years of my schooling had a significant impact on my identity. My earliest memories of dealing with racism were in first grade, where I got made fun of for something I couldn't control:

"Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees, Look at these," the kids chanted while pulling the corners of their eyes into slits.

I couldn't change the way I looked. I looked around at the kids chanting; I was outnumbered. There were far more kids who had the traditional blonde hair and blue eyes than those who looked like me, dark brown-haired with smaller almond-shaped brown eyes.

That day I went home and cried. For the first time, I was ashamed of my culture and embarrassed of my parents.

I was told to "open my eyes bigger" or endure the overused "ching-chong" jokes. I stood by as my classmates made jokes stereotyping and generalizing Asians into one category, even though I knew deep down that there were vast differences in our cultures. I slowly began to resent the dumplings or Bao-zi my mom would pack for me and often asked to bring Lunchables instead. I would learn to speak fluent English and spoke less and less in Chinese. I would begin accepting the notion that my culture was of less importance and something to be ashamed of. I believed that assimilation was the only way to gain acceptance from my peers and society.

But no matter how much I tried to change my appearance, I couldn't change the way I looked. My eyes would always be a boring brown and slightly smaller than my white counterparts. Realizing I couldn't change the way I looked and that I would still be considered different made me hate the way I looked. No matter how hard I tried, I felt like I was drowning, frantically paddling my feet underwater, constantly overcompensating to hide my devouring feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. I hated being Chinese; I hated being different, I hated not fitting in. Most of all, I hated not having the power to change anything.

It was not until a few years later I would even understand what racism was, and it was not until I entered high school that I realized how wrong I was. By encountering an increase in diversity in terms of ethnicity, I saw an increase in the spectrum of perspectives around me.

I had suffered with my identity for most of my life, and where I fit in, I wasn't Chinese, and I wasn't American. I inhabited this vague purgatorial status of being in between two cultures. I am American but constantly got told to "go back to my country." However, as I grew older and surrounded myself with Asian-Americans who were proud of their own culture, I realized that I didn't have to choose to be Chinese or American, that I could be a strange mix of both. Suddenly, I was no longer willing to feel defeated and instead began to feel confident in displaying my Chinese pride. My almond-shaped eyes became my favorite feature of mine. I realized that my parents were so proud of their culture and their language because it was a part of them. By immigrating to America, my parents wanted me to have a better life while also being proud of my culture. Unknowingly, I had tried to erase my culture and a part of me.

My experience with racism is a small story in a sea of million stories. This experience took place over ten years ago, and I still hear very similar stories to mine by those who are many years younger than me. Racism towards Asians is nothing new, and for many years I was raised and had accepted that I was part of the problem. With recent attacks on Asians in light of the pandemic, it is more important now than ever to share our experiences.

By Iris Fan


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