Breaking my cycle of compliance
What did they just say to me?
Every girl dreams about their first formal proposal. The perfect guy standing there with flowers, a punny poster, and free food. With each passing day of my fall Junior year, my excitement for the big day grew until I was finally told to be in the courtyard after class. I walked outside and was greeted with a sign that read “China go to formal? We have rice time”.
I was so excited to have a date to the dance that I ignored how problematic the sign was and walked over to the guy, grinning ear to ear. I was overwhelmed by the number of my peers that had taken time out of their day to watch us and show their support of our pairing.
It made sense, since we were the only Asian kids in the same friend group, so naturally we’d make the best pairing. And sure, the pun was funny, even though we are both Korean - right?
When I finally reached the guy, we were met with a wall of iPhones capturing this moment. All of his friends joined the photos and started pulling their eyes back making fun of the quintessential Asian eye shape, justifying their actions by claiming that “we are all friends.”
I was too scared to say anything. I just smiled.
I was so accustomed to this behavior I forgot to even acknowledge when it happened.
My first run in with microaggressions was when I was in eighth grade. It was the day of yearbook distribution and I was excited to finally parse through and reminisce on the events of the past year. I received my yearbook and instantly flipped to the page I was on, to examine how my yearbook photo had turned out, only to be met with my photo with the name “Kunhee Kim” under it. After a few moments of confusion, I realized that they had mixed up the four female Kims in my grade. Because, obviously, all Asian girls look the same.
I went home and told my parents, not thinking too much into it, who furiously contacted the school. The school was apologetic, but in their mind, the incident wasn’t big enough to make a statement or bring it up ever again. Their pathetic attempt to rectify the situation was to send the Kims stickers with our names in the correct order so we could distribute them to our friends. The solution made sense in their mind. No one dared to mention the internalized racism behind the person entering the Kims wrong. It was just a little mistake, no need to cause a fuss. Fix the names, no one’s feelings get hurt. But how come this mistreatment of something as important as a name didn’t happen to any of the white kids in my grade?
Since then, I’ve watched as the microaggressions build up, cutting into me and my fellow Asian peers. The sticker, and similar empty gestures, acted as bandaids on cuts that needed stitches.
My whole high school life was filled with microaggressions and nods to my race, slowly chipping away at my confidence and making me feel like an outsider. I put up with these offensive slights because I wanted to fit in with my predominantly white peers. I did everything to hide who I was.
I was embarrassed to admit that I ate Korean food and owned a traditional Korean dress used for New Years celebrations. I figured, if I can’t look white, I need to do everything in my power to act white.
So I did.
Growing up, I wasn’t aware that my predominantly white surroundings would have deep impacts on my perception of myself and my fellow Asian-Americans. It was only when I came to Duke that this was made apparent to me.
A few weeks into college, my parents began to inquire about my new college friends and were surprised to hear that they were predominantly white. At a school that prides itself on diversity, it was almost as if I had gone out of my way to make mainly white friends. I was immediately drawn to white students because it was what I was surrounded by my whole life. It was my way of trying to feel at home in a new environment, but I began to realize that these new friends did not understand the small racist acts that I encounter on a daily basis.
They couldn’t understand the feeling of thinking that the only guys who would ever be interested in me had to be Asian as well. They would never get how being surrounded by predominantly western beauty standards made me feel unattractive, unwanted, and lesser. They wouldn’t know what it feels like to stand in front of the mirror for hours, questioning my eyes shape, hair color, and skin tone thinking if I were just white things would be so much easier. It made me feel like there was no one who fully understood what I was going through.
It felt like I needed to break out of this cycle I was in.
So I came to Spain.
As soon as I arrived, my race shifted my experience. People yelled out towards me in the streets, calling out “Ni hao” and prodding into my family history, until one night it became impossible to ignore these comments.
One night on a weekend trip to Mallorca, my friends and I went out to a bar where we started talking to a table of guys. I set aside my feelings of unease, saying that I was abroad and needed to let loose, and hey one of my friends wanted to talk to one of them so I was just trying to be a supportive friend.
My initial discomfort was justified when these men started comments towards me saying, “It’s okay I like Asian girls” or “It’s okay I am half Asian too.” Like it was something that I should be ashamed of.
I quickly excused myself to go to the bathroom as a disguise to exit the situation. In the privacy away from the group, I started to cry in front of my friend of two weeks, Morgan, and explained to her what I had heard these guys saying. I was frustrated with myself for letting these complete strangers ruin my night. I had only just met them, so why did their comments cut so deep?
But that’s exactly how microaggressions work. You don’t even recognize people are being racist towards you until the moment has passed and you’ve had time to reflect upon what has actually been said to you.
Hearing these men have to justify their reasoning for liking “someone like me” made me once again feel like I was unworthy while simultaneously introducing me to the fetishization of Asian women. In their efforts to show how “progressive” they were, they showed me the truly racist beliefs they hold deep down.
I collected my thoughts, and we went back out to their table where Morgan immediately started yelling at these strangers, calling them out on their racist behavior. I stood there in awe, admiring her confidence and boldness and thought to myself - she’s right. They are racist. I had done nothing wrong, so why should I be scared of speaking out?
Although my emotions were high and I was still recovering from my crying fit in the bathroom, hearing her shout at these men gave me the confidence to join in. Just like that, I had finally broken the cycle of acceptance of the treatment I endured.
And it felt so good.
Growing up I was taught that Asians are model minorities. Always told to be quiet and not cause any problems. I always accepted this as fact and let it shape my personality. But now I am here to reclaim my identity.
It is easy to fall into what everyone is doing. You never want to be the weird kid who actually has morally justified opinions that differ from the norm, but as time goes on, I now understand the value of sticking up for myself and what I believe is right.
If I could go back to this infamous formal proposal, I wouldn’t have silently smiled as my classmates presented a racist sign to me, while pulling back their eyes. I wouldn’t have accepted the excuse of “we are all friends.” I would yell at them with the power I now know is inside of me.