growing up chinese
When you are four, you will walk into a restaurant where your family will be the only ones with black hair, pale skin, and almond eyes. All the waiters and patrons will stare at you, and the hostess will greet your family with such cold condescension that your mother will take you by the hand and walk out.
The restaurant doesn’t mind. It’s not like they wanted to serve that odd-looking Chinese family, anyway.
Over time, that memory will fade. Faces will grow blurry, but every day, you will walk past that place on your way to school and the feeling of unresolved pain will linger. As that memory blurs away, new ones will arrive to take its place.
At school, your teachers will mispronounce your last name and you will never understand why—it’s only two letters and a five-year old could probably sound it out. You will become best friends with a Korean girl in first grade. One day, when you start talking about how your middle name represents your Chinese name, you will write it out in its Romanized form, the round sounds of Mandarin crudely approximated in the Latin alphabet.
She will laugh at your paper and say “That looks funny,” as the pride you felt in the beautiful words your parents gave you is replaced with unwarranted shame. Face flushed red, you will erase them from the page.
Years later, in a new country, a boy at your school will pull back his big blue eyes into slits and squint at you, the quiet Chinese girl with monolids, as words like dogeater and ching chong drip from his poisonously cruel lips.
You will feel so, so, so helpless while fury rages inside you, and yet, you will be too scared to fight back.
After all, you had watched your family endure the same thing for years—as if every instance was another stabbing reminder that you were all here on fragile, borrowed time. A single misstep would be devastating. That was the fear your parents had taught you. You will only realize how much you’d internalized when your mother worried your college essays might reveal too much Chinese-ness and not enough unspoken assimilation in this country. You will hear the same fear in your father’s voice when her sister talks about her medical school applications.
Eventually, you will come to realize the pain your parents endured for the past twenty-five years to give you a chance at life and opportunity, even if it meant sacrificing their own goals and putting aside their own aspirations to do so. You will learn to see the hurt they keep repressed and only allow to bubble up when they think you are not looking. You will see their brand of stoicism with its impenetrable stone walls crack as you grow up and finally learn to recognize vulnerability.
When your father gets called a fucking chink in the streets of one of the safest cities in the United States and your mother does not tell you until multiples days and multiple instances later, you will be filled with the same helpless, burning fury you felt when the boy laughed at your eyes and asked if you ate dogs.
Or, when they tell you to be careful, to not be so Chinese in your daily life, to avoid Chinatowns, to do anything to minimize the target on your back, you will see their stone walls crumble, and every time, your own heart will shatter.
Because you and your family have learned through too much pain and too much hurt, that in this twisted land of lost hopes and unfulfilled dreams, conformity is always safer.